Our journey in life is never alone. Each of us has a mother, and each is born into a family. In Islam, the journey through life is intrinsically woven into family life. It is within the family structure that the journey of life takes shape. And it is in the Quran and prophetic traditions that the Muslim finds guidance for family life. The Quran, which outlines moral and legal rights and responsibilities among family members, presents a methodology for safeguarding the family group and, within it, each family member.
The Muslim’s journey begins before he is born. As a fetus, he is protected from the dangers of intoxicants and harmful food substances (as prohibited for all Muslims in the Quran). In addition, his mother is entitled by her husband for full maintenance and financial support, which protects her from the exhaustion of working long hours outside of the home unnecessarily. Even the child’s right to exist is made clear in the Quran: “Do not kill your children because of poverty” (6:151) or “in dread of poverty” (17:31).
The new arrival is born pure and sinless, in a natural state that is “hardwired to believe.” Upon birth, his father or someone else attending his birth whispers his faith in his ear: “There is no god except One God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” His birth is festive occasion marked with charity from his family and a communal meal sponsored by his father. Prophet Muhammad advised against giving a child a name with a negative connotation, preferring pleasant names with good meanings. The Quran acknowledges the child’s right to know his father and lineage, even if he is in the care of foster parents: “Call them by their fathers’ names…” (33:5)
Care of the infant continues through the care of the mother, who is guaranteed full maintenance throughout her marriage, and especially in the period of breastfeeding, which extends up to two years. During this stage, parents should agree on major decisions regarding their children, such as weaning and day care options.
The first seven years of a Muslim’s life are characterized by affection and education through play. Muhammad (p) said that “He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our children…” (Tirmidi 1279). During the first seven years, his interaction with parents and elders also gives him training in social relations, which are characterized by respect. In the event of divorce, custody is usually given to the mother; however, the child remains the financial responsibility of the father. If the child is orphaned, the paternal relatives are responsible for his upbringing.
The second seven years of a Muslim’s life are characterized by formal education, which continues throughout his life. Prophet Muhammad said that seeking knowledge is an obligation of every Muslim (Tirmidi 74). Therefore, in addition to general education, the child’s spirit is trained through prayer, which he gradually learns and performs until it is a well-ingrained habit. His body is trained through a gradual implementation of the fast of Ramadan, which develops self-discipline, will-power over temptation, and physical fortitude. His mind is trained through memorizing the Quran, which not only gives him the foundations of faith and language, but also primes his mind for knowledge recall and retention. By the age of ten years, the child is prepared for adulthood – he is instructed to perform the five daily prayers regularly, he is separated from siblings to sleep and he is expected to respect the privacy of family members by asking permission before entering a closed room.
At puberty, the Muslim is considered an adult and bears moral responsibility for his deeds. At this time, he is responsible for maintaining the prayer, fasting in Ramadan, being modest in his or her clothing, and increasing personal hygiene. He is also a candidate for marriage. The Quran encourages marriage: “[They should] marry…God will enrich them of his bounty. Those who can’t find the means to marry should be abstinent until God enriches them…” (24:33) Marriage is neither a sacrament nor a simple civil contract, but with aspects of both. There are regulations that increase the likelihood of a successful relationship (such as parental approval for a previously unmarried bride, and a material gift from the groom which indicates his ability to support her financially). The husband is responsible to provide for and guide the family, and the wife is responsible to protect the husband’s property and his exclusive rights to her sexuality. Both are responsible for the upbringing of children and maintenance of the home. In the case of irreconcilable differences, divorce is permitted.
Parenthood brings both responsibility and rights. The Quran says, “Worship God and be good to your parents.” (17:23) Therefore, they are to be treated with respect and deference. Generally, they should be obeyed unless they ask for something illegal or immoral.
The Quran mentions the age of 40 as an age of maturity: “… when he attains full maturity and reaches forty years of age…” (46:15) By this time, he would have experienced many challenges of life, which help to develop his character. The Quran says, “You will surely be tested in your possessions and yourselves.” (3:186) The Muslim strives to follow the Quran’s guidance and Prophet Muhammad’s example, knowing that “Whoever does good work, whether male or female, while he is a believer, We will surely cause him to live a good life…” (16:97) “And whoever turns away from My remembrance – indeed, he will have a difficult life…” (20:124).
Although not family, neighbors are to be treated as good as family. Prophet Muhammad asked, “Do you know what the rights of a neighbor are? “Do you know what the rights of a neighbor are? If a neighbor seeks your help, extend it to him. If a neighbor asks you for a loan, lend him. If your neighbor becomes poor, then help him financially and attend to his poverty if you can. If your neighbor becomes ill, then visit him. If your neighbor is happy on certain gain, then congratulate him. If your neighbor is suffering a calamity, then offer him condolences. If your neighbor dies, then attend his funeral. Do not raise your building over his building, so that he would have no sun exposure or wind passage. Do not bother your neighbor with the smell of your cooking, unless you intend to offer him some.” (Tabrani 101).
When a person reaches old age, he has a special status in the community. The Prophet (peace nbe upon him) said, “He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our children and respect to our elderly” (Tirmidi 1279). The Quran is particular about the care of parents: “We have enjoined everyone to look after his parents…” (31:14) “We have instructed man to be kind to his parents…” (46:15) “… when they attain old age…never say to them ‘uff’ nor scold either of them. Speak to them gently. Serve them with tenderness and humility…” (17:23-25)
Old age is the harbinger of death. While on his deathbed, the Muslim’s family members help him to repeat his testimony of faith: “There is no god except One God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Burial is usually the same day after washing the body, wrapping it in cloth and saying the funeral prayer. After debts are settled, wealth is automatically divided among surviving family members according to Quranic law. Up to one third of one’s wealth can be bequeathed to those not automatically covered in the inheritance laws.
The Muslim continues to live on in his legacy. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that the believer’s deeds stop at death except in three cases: ongoing charity, a legacy of knowledge and a righteous child who prays for him.
Even though his earthly life has ended, a new life is just beginning. The Quran says that “On (Judgment) Day, all people shall come from their graves in diverse multitudes to be shown their deeds. So whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it” (99:6-8). His destiny, at this point, is in God’s hands.