We gratefully acknowledge and thank the author, Akbar S. Ahmed for permission to reproduce these excerpts. This article is consists of four subheadings from his book 'Living Islam.'

(i)   The Muslim Family
(ii)  Arranged Marriages
(iii) Muslim dress and the Hijab
(iv) Polygamy in Islam

For more articles by the same distinguished author on this web site:

Sufism: The Muslim Universal Way
The Problems of Muslim Minorities 
Islam in the Age of the Western Media
Muslims in the West

The Muslim family

The central institution of Muslim society is the family. In the West, the Muslim family structure is often seen as oppressive and backward, an obstacle to modernity. For their part, many Muslims are concerned about the frequent breakdown of marriages in the West, and worry that their own societies may be heading along a similar route. Muslim families today have to cope with the problems of rapid urbanization, and the pressures of living in cities and in cramped accommodation. Although there has been an alarming increase in the divorce rate among Muslims, none the less Muslim marriages tend to be far more stable than Western ones, because they are based on an entirely different set of assumptions. 

These assumptions are founded in the Muslim notion of the cosmos. As there is order and balance in the universe, there is a similar natural pattern in society which is reflected in the Muslim household. In a conceptual sense, one mirrors the other. Thus each individual member plays an equally significant role in his or her own capacity which is related to the other members of the family. Each person is special and yet different. It is the difference that ensures the balance and harmony. 

The proper behaviour of all the members of the family is constantly emphasized in the Qur'an and Hadith. Ideal behaviour encourages dignity and modesty in the family. The father, the mother, the children and the elders all have a positive and defined role to play. In each case the model of ideal behaviour comes from early Islam. The Prophet was both the ideal son and later the ideal husband and father. The women of his household - like Khadijah and Fatimah - provide the ideal for Muslim women.

For Muslims, then, the family is the central institution; it is at the centre both of theology and sociology: 'The family is a divinely-inspired institution that came into existence with the creation of man. The human race is a product of this institution and not the other way round' (Ahmad 1974: 13). Not surprisingly, the most intricate rules and regulations guide family life. About a third of the legal injunctions in the Qur'an deal with family matters. These aim to produce the attitudes and behaviour patterns that Islam wants to foster in society. And they cover different generations: a Muslim family is an extended family, normally with three or four generations within its circle.

Islam is the religion of equality. This principle is never more explicit than in the Quranic instructions to men and women on how to become good Muslims, 'If any do deeds of righteousness - be they male or female - and V have faith, they will enter Heaven' (Surah 4: verse 124). In Surah 33, verse 35, the equality of men and women, the need for both to believe, to speak the truth, to be humble, to give alms, to fast and to be modest, is emphasized by constant repetition of the words 'men . . . and women . . .' 

Even in the controversial area of divorce it is necessary to point out that both men and women have the right to divorce. The first divorce initiated by a woman was granted by the Prophet himself on grounds of incompatibility. This gives women tremendous leverage in society.

At the same time, men have duties towards the women of the family. A wife must be maintained by her husband, even if she has means other own. This practice is used to explain the inequality of inheritance - a man receives a larger share of a family legacy than does a woman. 

Muslims are known to be extremely affectionate towards their offspring. Little girls and boys are constantly spoilt, sometimes to the point where it is harmful to them. In particular grandparents dote on grandchildren. As the young are loved, the aged are revered. With age people gain in status and influence. It is the duty of every child to care for parents: 'Show kindness to parents . . . Lower to them the wing of humility out of tenderness' (Surah 17: verses 23-4). 

Mothers in particular evoke a very strong emotional response of affection among Muslims. Heaven, the Prophet had said, lies beneath the feet of the mother. The following lines were dedicated by me as a young man to my mother: 

When I walk at night alone, 
in the deep wadis of her sobs 
or when I know that each time I drive fast 
or delay reply to her letter 
when I know that at midnight 
she sits up praying to her God 
to keep me warm and whole, 
when I know that she will still bless me 
though I give her eyes cause to tears 
when I know that all my warts and ways 
will turn to gold at her simple touch 
then I see through her the God she sits rotating her beads to 
and then I know that her God 
will always be there for me to reach out and touch.

Arranged marriages

As most young Western couples select their own marriage partners, the arranged marriage appears odd and outdated to them. Although most Muslim marriages are arranged even today this does not mean that marriages are forced upon young people. What it does mean is that parents and senior relatives often discuss various possibilities, yet all the while consulting the person involved. This allows them, over a period of time, to assess the weaknesses and strengths of the future partner. In Islam both partners must clearly and before witnesses agree to be married; no one can be coerced into marriage. Usually marriages take place within the extended family or even the same ethnic or tribal group. It is difficult in such marriages for husbands to be mean or cruel to their wives because husband and wife are related and such behaviour would cause adverse comment in the family. After all the uncles and aunts of the wife would also be the uncles and aunts of the husband. Arranged marriages are perhaps one of the reasons why Muslim marriages are so stable. There are few comparative statistics but many young Muslims even in the West enthusiastically support the notion of arranged marriages, particularly in the light of the high statistics of divorce in the West. 

Are arranged marriages still viable among Muslims living in Western societies or highly Westernized families in Muslim cities? We already hear of more divorce cases in this generation than in the previous one. Is this a trend? If so, will the trend spread to the more traditional rural areas also? Does it indicate a breakdown of the arranged marriage system? These are questions that need to be addressed by all Muslims today. 

Muslim dress and the hijab

Islamic clothing affects Islamic thinking and vice versa. As the Qur'an teaches modesty for both men and women (Surah 24: verses 30-1) clothes are meant to emphasize modesty and dignity both in men and in women. Thus clothes that either suggest the contours of the body or expose it are avoided except, perhaps, among some members of the fashionable, the young or those who live in cities. 

Modesty is also behaviour, speech and conduct. It is in this context that respectable men and women wear clothes that appear formal and dignified. They need to cover all parts of their body. Flowing robes are probably the best method to do so. To see a sheikh or an ayatollah in his robes is to see a person of dignity, learning, authority and grace in his own society. Loose clothes are worn because they allow people to say prayers which include prostration, bending and sitting. It is not easy to do these things in tight-fitting clothes. Loose clothes are also worn because of dietary patterns. Most Muslims, because they are often up early at dawn for prayers, tend to rest in the afternoon; for most the afternoon meal is usually heavy, and the midday sun makes work difficult. There is also the forces of tradition. People often tend to wear what the previous generation wore before them. It does not mean that there is no change. Even in the rural areas of Pakistan, men and women once wore pyjamas or shalwars which ran literally into yards and yards of cloth. Now the shalwar is much tighter and neater, although to outsiders it looks very baggy. 

Muslim women appear to be divided on the subject of the veil. The covering of the face by a veil has never been universal in the Muslim world. Country women go to the fields without a veil, women in some parts of the Muslim world have not adopted it, others during the last decades have discarded it, yet others rediscovered it. But the Quranic injunction to modesty, however it is applied, cannot be set aside. Its interpretation has varied, and does vary, but its importance is basic. One interpretation of what constitutes modesty is the long skirt and headscarf worn by many young women - a stricter interpretation than that of some of their mothers. The hijab or veil presents us with some useful sociological insights into Muslim society. Its source as an Islamic dress is debated. 'The true veil is in the eyes of the men' is a saying of the Prophet. Tribal society, as Arabia was in the seventh century when Islam came to it, would have two or three distinct features regarding women which we can reflect on with a degree of accuracy. Women would have been far more free than we can imagine. This is a tribal characteristic. People are related on the genealogical charter and everyone knows everyone else. Molesting a woman or raping her would mean committing virtual incest. 

Although the notions of female honour and sexual conduct are highly developed in the Muslim tribal areas, there is no concept of the veil, which begins to appear once you come nearer the towns. Indeed a woman in the tribal areas will come up and shake hands and say, 'How are you, brother, would you like a cup of tea?' She has the kind of confidence which would be difficult to find in her better-educated sister in the city. Although the hijab, chador or even the pardah are not in early Islam according to some scholars, in time they became associated with Islam. These customs were assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies and were considered to reflect the Quranic spirit. It may well be that seclusion and veiling reflected the upper-class, urban women who would protect themselves from the gaze of those in the bazaars and in the fields. Over the centuries, however, this spread to other parts of society. In certain groups it had unfortunate consequences. Women in towns and cities were often confined to small houses with limited social contacts and therefore barred from community life. 

Professor Nur Veergin, Professor of Sociology in Istanbul, although intensely supportive of Islam, is scathing about the long black chador or veil, even blaming it on Christianity. She explained her argument to me: 

"I must say that these categories have been influenced by Christianity. For instance the veil. It's claimed that horrible black chador that one sees now more and more in Istanbul streets is something to do with Islam, that has nothing to do with Turkish Islam anyway. It comes from Byzant [Christianity], it comes from Iran, but it certainly doesn't derive, doesn't stem from the Turkish national culture or the Islamic culture of Turkey." 

The hijab in the 1980s and 1990s has become a fashionable and recognizable symbol of Muslim identity among young girls. It must be emphasized that it is not worn out of fear or pressure from the home. Many girls wear this in spite of opposition at home. It is a neat way of saying: 'this is where I stand and I am proud of it.'

Let us end this chapter by emphasizing a crucial point that must be borne in mind when considering Muslim responses to modernity. Western commentators commonly make the assumption that once Muslims are set on the path to democracy (and modernity) they will become more like 'us' and, as in most of the West, eventually separate the religious from the secular in their lives. Yet Muslims are either Muslims or they are not; there is no halfway house. They cannot just take bits and pieces of Islam and still remain Muslims. If they do, they become something completely different. Evidence of this is most explicit where Muslims live as a minority in non-Muslim states, and we shall discuss this in the next chapter. 

Polygamy in Islam

There is another idea about family life that is difficult to lay to rest in the West. It is of Islam as a man's paradise with every man possessing at least four wives. This is, of course, a stereotype and not a real image. In my anthropological fieldwork in Pakistan which cast a wide net over an entire section of a major tribal group (the Frontier Pukhtuns) I discovered that only 0.02 per cent of men were polygamous (Ahmed 1980). Personally, too, apart from one or two people in the older generation, I know of no friend or acquaintance who has more than one wife. The vast majority of men are monogamous. 

In Islam it is always important to look for the spirit behind the word or' law - whether it is in criminal punishment or polygamy. The fact that a man is allowed in extraordinary circumstances to marry up to four wives must be seen in this context. It is quite clear that the ideal is one wife, and the Qur'an emphasizes and indeed advocates it. However, there are situations in times of war or famine or social upheaval when it is better that a woman is safely' and honourably married than has to fend for herself as a destitute or even prostitute her body. It is therefore the spirit that must be understood, not the letter of the law. 

The Qur'an has clearly given permission for men to marry more than once, and in certain circumstances this is a social necessity: "If you are afraid that you will not treat orphans justly, then marry such women that may seem good to you, two, three or four" (Surah 4: verse 3). But in the next line the Qur'an lays down a clause: "If you think you will not act justly, then one." This is a stringent condition making it difficult for a person to marry more than once. Indeed the Qur'an itself says tha polygamy is not possible:" "You will never manage to deal equitably with women no matter how hard you try" (Surah 4: verse 129). The true spirit of the Qur'an thus appears to be of monogamy, because marriage to more than one wife is contingent on absolute equality and impartiality between wives. 

Nonetheless, Muslims are not apologetic or defensive about polygamy. A liberated, female Indian Muslim writer makes the following point while supporting polygamy in Islam: 

Islam accommodates human weaknesses and needs. It aims to create a society based on natural instincts. It sanctions re-marriage and divorce but discourages flagrant immorality and sex outside marriage. Polygamy is aprovision and not a compulsion. The Western pattern and definition of women's liberation is not the only one. If a woman is content with being a second wife why should anyone tell her she should feel otherwise? Polygamy provides a hedge for increased female population due to disasters like wars. The clause legitimizing multiple wives is in the interest of 'the other woman' as it gives her moral, social and legal rights. One man one woman relationship is merely an Anglo-Saxon concept of purity. 

The oppression of Muslim women in the sub-continent is a result of feudal-social attitudes and has nothing to do with Islam. Some of the laws in these countries are detrimental to women and need to be reviewed in the Muslim framework. Islamic jurisprudence provides the liberal and progressive basis for a moral and ajust society in recorded history. (Dehivi 1992) 

Marriage in Islam is not a temporary union and is meant to last for life. Dissolution of marriage is, however, permitted if it has irretrievably broken down. However, before actual divorce, Muslim law demands an attempt at reconciliation. The natural prevalence of monogamy as normal is more and more the practice in Muslim countries. Nevertheless, a limited polygamy is seen as a realistic need in certain circumstances, and indeed as preferable to the concealed polygamy without responsibility, in some ways tolerated in Western society. Islam is a practical religion and is meant for the guidance of human beings made of flesh and bones' (Ahmad 1974: 21-2).

Living Islam, From Samarkand to Stornoway, by Akbar S. Ahmed, Published by BBC Books Limited, Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London, U.K. W12 0TT©1993. This book accompanied the BBC television series "Living Islam" which was first broadcast in 1993.