Maintaining Family Ties

When someone becomes a Muslim, it is often said they join a new family. They are welcomed and cherished. But, there can be a great unseen cost – one rarely considered by the wider Muslim community. It is the loss of one’s real family, if and when ties are cut. Cutting ties is highly discouraged in Islam, as family is regarded as a fundamental part of one’s life and this should only be done in the most extreme cases where there is a serious concern for a person’s welfare or safety. With better guidance and reassuring support, this loss can become largely unnecessary in a majority of cases.

But the absence of reassuring advice exhorting family relationships to be maintained has too often resulted in unnecessary heartache and resentment for converts, as well as their families. Why is this so common? This is usually a misunderstanding of the religion. There are examples from the lives of some of the prophets where links between parent and child were severed. There are other examples of conflicts in early Islam between those who converted and those who continued their pagan lifestyles. These teachings may have brought a dismissive attitude to the subject. There are also Islamic teachers who will say that that becoming a Muslim cancels that which preceded it so completely, that falsely advocate that links with family lose meaning and can become detached.

Other teachers however, are at pains to stress the Islamic principles of family and how important this is, particularly the bond with ones parents. It has been observed that teachers who deal closely with the practical challenges faced by converts, and who teach that Muslims should live as an integral part of civil society (and not isolated from society), will stress the importance of maintaining and honouring relationships with family, as much as one can.

Many painful experiences can be avoided by supporting individuals at this stage. Pain that often can easily leads to deep anguish and resentment, later on. Furthermore, when a person is isolated from family connections, they can be more vulnerable to influences that may want to manipulate their good intentions.

Some challenges stem from an incompatibility of Islamic “rules” against the culture of family homes. Alcohol being consumed at dinner tables, pet dogs, and questionable cooking ingredients have been commonly cited examples. Recent converts, keen to put faith teachings into practice, struggle to find ways to reconcile rules with the ways of their families and relatives. Here, emphasising the importance of real blood relationships over the technical application of rules becomes crucial – a need for reassuring support. A deeper understanding of Islamic teachings shows that there are priorities in the vision of Islam – that seek higher aims and goals, such as the importance of family, over the lower aspects of every day practice (see maqasid, or the objectives, of Islam for more on this).

Many converts object to the idea that conversion, in granting them a clean slate, means they have pressed a ‘reset’ button for their whole person. This reset is often the perception general Muslims have about conversion, and can be seen in community pressure for a new convert to change their name (chosen by the parents!) and adopt a new “Islamic” name. Many voices of support are now taking this pressure off (to change a name) converts, calling it both unnecessary and damaging to family relations. Many converts feel that becoming a Muslim is one part of their person, often a private part, and the majority of their other parts (which encompasses their family and friends) remains with them; they are still that person.