By: Saulat Pervez
The Many Faces of Muslim Families in America
Mr. and Mrs. Siddiq migrated to the United States in the late 1980s from Pakistan. Sponsored by Mrs. Siddiq’s brother, they had a clear and simple goal: to avail better educational opportunities for their four children in the New World.
Muhammad Uthman came to the United States as a masters student in the mid-1990s. He studied computer engineering at a prestigious university, intending to return to his native Egypt. As it turned out, he met his future wife, a Syrian American, and decided to stay.
Mary Kief was one of two siblings born to an Arab father and an American mother. With very little contact with her paternal family, Mary thought little about her identity except as a born-and-bred American. However, things began to change once she started attending college, embarking herself on a journey of self-discovery.
The above three examples aptly characterize the diversity of Muslim families inhabiting the United States. While many have converged here from different parts of the world, others have no sense of “back home.” Still others find Islam in their search for the truth and thence begin their legacy as Muslim families.
Family in Islam
The family unit is an important component of Islam, and all elements of a family are given due significance – from parents to children to spouses to kith and kin.
The Holy Quran repeatedly reminds its readers of the duties children have toward parents, particularly in their old age. God says in the Quran:
And your Lord has commanded that you shall not serve (any) but Him, and goodness to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say not to them (so much as) “Ugh” nor chide them, and speak to them a generous word. And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: “My Lord! bestow on them Thy Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.” (Quran, 17:23-24)
Of the two, the mother is given greater importance in Islam. The Quran bears witness to the mother’s travails by stating, “with trouble did his mother bear him and with trouble did she bring him forth; and the bearing of him and the weaning of him was thirty months…” (46:15)
One of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) strongly supports this as well. A companion once asked the Prophet, “Who deserves my good treatment most?” “Your mother,” said the Prophet. “Who next?” “Your mother,” he replied again. “Who next?” “Your mother,” he answered yet again. “Who after that?” “Your father.” (Read more: The Importance of Parents)
Obeying one’s parents and treating them with respect and affection are greatly esteemed virtues, even if they are non-Muslim. A female companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) once asked him how she should treat her mother who was not a Muslim and followed pagan tribal customs and beliefs. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told her to be kind and considerate and to behave towards her as was a mother’s due from a daughter.
Yet, one’s obedience to parents does not overlay one’s obedience to God. He says, “…and if they contend with you that you should associate (others) with Me, of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them, to Me is your return, so I will inform you of what you did.” (29:8)
Islam further advises parents to treat their children with mercy, love, and equality. In addition, parents must provide proper education to their children along with raising them to be morally upright and responsible individuals of society. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said the best gift a father can give his child is good education. The Prophet (peace be upon him) also laid great emphasis on proper treatment of daughters and promised the reward of paradise for parents who raise their daughter(s) well. At the same time, God calls for moderation in the Quran: “O you who believe! Let not your wealth, or your children, divert you from the remembrance of Allah; and whoever does that, these are the losers.” (63:9)
Importance of Marriage
Marriage is a sacred social contract between a man and a woman. Like all great religions, Islam also emphasizes the institution of marriage. God says in the Holy Quran: “And among His Signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are Signs for those who reflect.” (30:21)
In addition, the Quran beautifully describes the depth of a marital relationship by invoking the metaphor of “garments” for the husband and wife: “They are your garments and you are their garments.” (2:187) Moreover, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has specifically mentioned marriage to be of his traditions and even equated it to completing half of one’s faith.
References to marriage within the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are unmistakably heterosexual. In fact, homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Islam. The story of Lot is repeatedly mentioned in the Quran and the behavior of his people is termed indecent, excessively sinful, lewd, evil, and shameful. While Muslims do not discriminate against gays and lesbians as human beings, they detest their homosexuality as something which transgresses the bounds set by God from the beginning of time. In this vein, orthodox Christianity and Judaism continue to strongly condemn homosexuality as well. ( Learn more about the Islamic perspective on sexual deviation.)
The Process of Marriage
While the concept of dating does not exist in Islam and intercourse prior to marriage is prohibited, the Islamic notion of marriage recognizes the need to determine compatibility between future spouses. For instance, when marrying their eldest daughter, Sarah, the Siddiqs made sure she and her suitor were given an opportunity to speak with one another with moderated supervision before either side made a commitment. Once they were engaged, the two continued a dialogue via phone and email.
Spouses are selected in different ways. Some marriages, like Sarah’s, are “arranged.” Other individuals find their own partners through interaction with each other, as in the case of Muhammad Uthman and his wife, Eman, who met on campus and took a liking for one another. Through it all, the focus is on the immediate goal of marriage. In this way, Islam strives to keep the spirit of matrimony alive: a union not only of two distinct persons, but their diverse viewpoints, their unique backgrounds and their extended families as well; a pledge to interweave their hitherto autonomous lives, hopefully successfully, and to continue the legacy onward.
Contrary to popular beliefs, Islam does not avow forced marriages irrespective of the gender; in fact, a marriage is incomplete without express approval by both the bride and groom. In practice, arranged marriages in Islam refer to the process where a third party introduces two families with children of marriageable age.
Weddings are festive occasions involving family and friends and may last for several days, depending on one’s culture. Yet, the essence of marriage lies in the nuptial contract signed by both the bride and groom after verbal affirmation to marry one another, which is overseen by two witnesses. This ceremony is called the “nikah” and it binds the two as husband and wife. An after-marriage feast called a “walima” is hosted by the husband, as was the custom of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Marriage: Related Topics
Interestingly, the convention to change one’s name to their husband’s continues to exist in many Muslim countries, but practicing American Muslim women are increasingly choosing to keep their maiden names, understanding that no matter who they marry, they will foremost be their father’s daughters. They take their cue from the following words of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “You will be called on the Day of Resurrection by your names and the names of your fathers…” The women at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), including his own wives, were all known by the names of their fathers, not their husbands. Following this tradition, Mary Kief decided to keep her last name after marriage without any objections from her husband.
Moreover, Islamically, the wife is free to keep her income since the husband is expected to provide for the upkeep of the home and family. In actuality, though, many couples maintain joint bank accounts and share the burdens of the home together. Divorce, while discouraged, is a social reality which is accepted and legalized. The wife or the husband may initiate the annulment process, which involves months-long negotiations with arbiters from both sides in the hopes of mending the relationship before a final decision is reached.
Although polygamy is practiced by a minority among Muslims, it is by no means the norm. Islam permits men to marry up to four wives at a time and this custom is more prevalent in some cultures than others. If a man chooses to have more than one wife, he must deal with all of them with justice. The Quran states: “…marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one…” (4:3) Limitless polygamy has been practiced in a variety of cultures; however, Islam humanizes this practice with a limited allowance, recognizing a variety of factors, such as a higher ratio of women in certain countries, the toll of war and excessive male deaths in a society, and offering a legitimate and protective solution against the social evil of adultery.
Carrying the Legacy Forward
Having children is often the natural next step for many Muslim couples although some choose to wait a few years before conceiving whereas others are unable to do so – as is pretty much the case with people all over the world. Naming the child can become a family affair with the involvement of grandparents at times, whereas some couples opt to name their own children. On the seventh day after the child is born, a religious sacrifice of slaughtering is performed and the baby’s head is shaved, giving the monetary equivalence of the weight of his/her hair in charity. This ceremony, called an “aqeeqah,” may instead be conducted on the 14th, 21st, 28th (etc.) day of the baby’s birth.
The Qur’an repeatedly stresses the significance of safeguarding the ties of the womb. Two examples:
“And give to the kindred his due.” (Al-Isra’: 26)
“Worship Allah and join none with Him in worship, and do good to parents, kins-folk…” (An-Nisa’: 36)
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has similarly instructed, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should maintain good relation with his kindred.”
Even as Muslim couples embark on their lives together, maintaining strong ties with their extended families is an important aspect of their lifestyles. Some couples live in a joint family system; others prefer to live as nuclear families and may reside in close proximity to either set of parents or a great distance away depending on job locations, chosen community, or preference of state. Nonetheless, frequent family reunions, particularly during summer holidays or weddings, are common. Many visit their countries of origin for this purpose.
Conversely, families abroad also regularly visit their American counterparts.
The Challenges and Rewards of Maintaining Strong Ties with Extended Family
The Siddiqs have been living in the States for more than two decades now and no matter how nostalgic Mr. and Mrs. Siddiq may get when they talk about Pakistan, their children cannot imagine a home other than America. They have lived up to their parents’ expectations and are not only productive citizens, but also committed to giving back to their community. Sarah, the eldest, is a teacher; Zafar is a software programmer; Haider is an architect, and Hala is just completing her dental college. They have all married and are managing their own families, jobs and community responsibilities, carrying their parents’ legacy forward. As a family, the Siddiqs are planning to visit Pakistan next year for a big reunion with their Pakistani relatives after many years.
Muhammad Uthman and Eman have come a long way too. Uthman, a successful software analyst, routinely participates in community events hosted by his local mosque. Eman, a writer, chooses to stay home and works on a freelance basis. She also keeps herself busy in the philanthropic activities of the mosque, from organizing Quran study circles to participating in soup kitchens; she is an active member of their local public library as well where she volunteers her time on a weekly basis. In addition, she teaches at the weekend Islamic school which their two children regularly attend. Uthman’s parents visit them every other year for a few months; while they initially enjoy the peace and quiet of American suburbia, they eventually long for the hubbub of their urban lifestyle and are happy to return to their home.
The Diversity of American Muslim Heritage
Mary Kief is now an accomplished doctor with a family of her own. She has undergone quite a journey ever since her first year in college when she roomed with an amiable Muslim girl. When her roommate invited her to attend a lecture being hosted by the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Mary reluctantly went. The lecture was titled, “Islamic History: A Glorious Past.” Mary was so fascinated that she called her father and told him all about it. She began doing her own research and started to understand her Arab ancestry. That summer, she even forced her parents to take her to Jordan, her father’s home country. She was happy there but, somehow, not satisfied. She returned to her campus and began attending more and more MSA meetings, feeling truly at home with her Muslim friends. During med school and afterwards, she has stayed connected to the local mosque. Today, she is aware of her mixed heritage and proud of the fact that her own family is a melting pot of sorts, with one common strand: no matter where they come from, they are American Muslims!
The families profiled in this article are fictionalized; however, their life accounts, in spirit, can easily be applicable to a wide variety of American Muslim families.