Separate Family System: Its Advantages and Disadvantages

The Separate Family System does not suffer from the disadvantages mentioned above of Joint Family System, nor does it have its advantages.

To remain aloof from one's own relatives is likely to kill the finest of human instincts. This system may breed selfishness and meanness. Those who look upon mankind as if raised on a high pedestal feel that the whole of mankind is akin to the limbs of one body - humanity; but the Separate Family System turns brothers into strangers, who may meet several times a day but do not care for one another.


Now, let us look at the wise system of Islam. Here we find that Islam has laid down a straightforward highway with such skill that a man walk ing on it may enjoy the sweet smell of both these systems, and still not be beset by the thorny problems of either. How?

Islam removed the basic cause of lethargy by decreeing that everyone is responsible for the expenses of his own dependants: he has no right to put the burden of his children, for example, on the shoulders of other relatives. Thus, the evil effects of the Joint Family System were avoided; at the same time, everyone was emphatically enjoined to "keep the bond of relationship intact." This prevented the tendency to selfishness and aloofness from one's own flesh and blood.


In principle, the dependants (whose responsibility MUST be borne in any case) was limited:

al-Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (a.s.)* said: The ways to spend (one's) wealth are twentyfour in all . . . Thus, the five ways in which spending money is obligatory (wajib) are the expenses of the maintenance of his dependants, of his children, his father and mother, his wife and his slave. These are obligatory upon him whether he be hard-up or affluent.

But if he is affluent and well-to-do, then he has been emphatically enjoined to spend on other relatives also. The same hadith (tradition) goes on to say

(a.s.) is the abbreviation of -Arabic phrase `alayhi (or ha /himu)'s-saldm (may peace be upon him/her/them). And the five strongly recommended expenses are: Dedication of perpetual gift, doing good to one's relatives, doing good to other believers, recommended charity and emancipation of slaves.

This hadith is narrated in Wasa'il ash-Shi `ah. There are numerous ahadith (traditions) extolling the virtues of doing good to one's relatives, which will be mentioned in appropriate chapters.

An interesting point to ponder over is that the Hindus, in spite of their Joint Family System (or should it be said, `because of it?') never felt such intense love towards their relatives as was seen in the Arabs in spite of their Separate Family System, and that Islam upheld that love to a reasonable extent.

One cannot help but admire how Islam has interwoven the "family sympathy" of the Joint Family System with the "legal orderliness" of the Separate Family System. There is no escape from admitting that such a beautiful as well as perfect family system was never adopted before Islam. After all, what is the use of a joint family in which two Hindus (even if they are father and son) are not allowed by their religious customs to eat together? And what is the harm of a separate family if the people are encouraged to eat in one another's house and thus strengthen the bonds of love and relationship?


Islamic civilization, which is based upon the principle that women should not mingle with men, emphasizes separate domestic arrangements. With the influence of Hindu culture, Indian Muslims gradually adopted the Joint Family System. As a result, that very important Islamic principle has been sacrificed and it has, in its wake, disturbed many other important aspects of Islamic society. The following ayah (verse) needs careful study:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their eyes and guard their modesty;

that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons or their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women or those whom their right hands possess, or those male servants who are free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the hidden things of sex;

and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O' ye believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain bliss. (Qur'an, 24: 31)

This list does not include the husband's brothers nor his nephews. A Muslim woman must, therefore, keep aloof from them as well as from other strangers.

But the Joint Family System does not allow adherence to this important rule. And once a Muslim woman shows her beauty to the brother or nephew of her husband, she has broken out of the secure boundary of the Islamic commandment, and once the limit is crossed, there is no saying where this "showing off" will end, or whether it will end at all.

Another ayah in the same surah clearly shows that one should not put the burden of his domestic arrangement even on one's parents forever, one must be self-reliant and self-supporting. The ayah is as follows There is no blame upon . . . yourselves that ye eat ( without asking permission) in your own houses or the houses of your fathers, or houses of your mothers, or the houses of your brothers, or the houses of your sisters,

or the houses of your fathers' brothers, or the houses of your fathers' sisters, or the houses of your mothers' brothers or the houses of your mothers' sisters, or in houses of which the keys are in your possession, or in the house of a friend of yours . . . (Qur'an, 24: 61)

The ayah clearly mentions separate `houses' for fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts, etc. It shows that there is a difference, in the eyes of Islam, between `your house' and the `houses of your fathers' and `houses of your brothers', for example The harmony and unity which must be created by following this law is self-evident. Eating in one another's houses is the surest way of creating love and friendship.

Question: There was a Separate Family System in Arabia. Was it not because of this that the Qur'an mentioned separate `houses' for each relative ?

Answer: Islam had not come to follow the Arabs or anybody else. It had come to lead the whole mankind including the Arabs. There were hundreds of customs - good and bad - in Arabia at the advent of Islam. Islam eradicated all evil and defective customs and rites, and allowed only those systems to continue which were desirable from its own point of view.

If Islam had not liked the family system of the Arabs, it could easily have changed it. But instead, the Qur'an mentions that system without any hint of objection, thus endorsing it. We find many examples in the lives of the Holy Prophet and hisAhlu'l-bayt (family members) which prove that they had adopted Separate Family System in their lives.

There was famine in Mecca in 35 Amu'l fil (the year of the Elephant). Abu Talib had many children and his means of livelihood were limited. The Holy Prophet felt that Abu Talib was facing difficulties. He suggested to `Abbas (another of his uncles), who was wealthy, to share the burden of Abu Talib. `Abbas went with the Holy Prophet to Abu Talib and it was decided that `Ali should live with the Holy Prophet, Ja'far with `Abbas and `Aqil was to remain with Abu Talib.

This fact proves that the domestic arrangement of the Holy Prophet was separate from that of Abu Talib. There is no need to remind the readers that the relationship between Abu Talib and the Holy Prophet was more tender and loving than is between a father and his son.

This event, while confirming the Separate Family System, clearly shows the other aspect of Islamic family code: "Keeping the bonds of relationship strong."

During the last Ramadan of his life, Amir al-mu'minin, `Ali ibn Abi Talib (a.s.) used to break his fast one day at the house of al-Imam al-Hasan (a.s.), next day at the house of al-Imam al-Husayn (a. s.), the third day at the house of `Abdullah ibn Ja'far, his son-in-law.

This fact, again, shows both aspects of the Islamic code: Separate Family arrangements and "keeping the Bonds of Relationship strong." These two examples are sufficient to guide Muslims in their daily life. If any Muslim ventures to deviate from this straight path, he will no longer remain on the path of Islam.

In short, Islam has brought for mankind a Family System which combines the good features of both family systems mentioned earlier and has weeded out the evil aspects of both. It has the legal straight-forwardness of the Separate Family System as well as the harmony and sympathy of the Joint Family System.

And it is only by following this Islamic code that mankind can obtain peace of mind in this life and everlasting happiness in the life hereafter.