The extended family (ahl) is a closed order. Arabs especially are proud of their heritage and well able to cite the ins and outs of ancestors’ squabbles, migrations, economic achievements and so on.
Within the ahl, the blood bond is very strong. If their first child is a son (in some situations, if a daughter), the new parents are no longer called by their names but are known as Abu (father) and Umm (mother) of their oldest child.
The life of the ahl is marked by mutual interdependence. A mediator must be identifiable from within the ahl in cases of dispute.
Middle Eastern villages are traditionally divided along kinship lines, and migrants to towns or cities will normally move to where family members have already established themselves.
Intermarriage contributes to family and ‘group’ solidarity. A long, developing relationship of increasing intimacy between the actual couple before marriage is often an irrelevancy.
Arabic kinship terminology differentiates an individual’s relationship to his paternal relatives from that with his maternal relatives. The bride price is often merely nominal, for the family links are guarantee enough that everyone will work towards making the marriage a success.
A girl would, in most cases, prefer marriage to her mother’s sister’s son. Marriages along such lines tend naturally to cement the mutual interdependence of components of the extended family. Obedience towards parents is considered a sacred duty.
The awe felt towards older members of the family, especially the father, is demonstrated in many ways. A fifty-year-old man will put out his cigarette, rise to his feet and yield to his father on the latter’s appearance in a room.
The natural ties of extended families are enhanced through intermarriage. In the Arab family, a person’s identity in the ahl is most important. Is a man going to be despised as the father of a murderer or a thief? Or is he going to be honoured as the father of a pillar of the community?
Relatives in Turkey are alluded to differently if they are older, but not if they are younger. When a Westerner speaks about his ‘uncle’, the term is nowhere near invested with the intensity of meaning that a Turk would understand.
Blood relationship defines quite clearly who are ‘insiders’ and who are ‘outsiders’ in most Middle Eastern societies. Non-blood may be given terms of endearment and treated as insiders, but should a dispute ever arise, the boundaries will quickly be drawn along family lines.
The scenario most to be feared is that of kinlessness – for whatever reason. A Muslim who has been baptised a Christian face the potential trauma of discovering themselves stripped of kin. The original cry of desolation, issuing from Cain’s lips, expresses for all Middle Easterners the anguish of any such unprotected person —
“My punishment is too great for me to bear!” – Genesis 4:13
The fact that the extended family is the basic building block of Arab societies lends both strength and weakness to such societies. The original splitting of Shia from Sunni Muslims can probably best be understood in terms of family loyalties. Prophet Muhammad himself left only a daughter, Fatima, as family heir. The Sunni, the majority, preferred the leadership to continue via the Companions and chose Abu Bakr as caliph after Muhammad’s death. To this day, many Sunni and Shia Muslims have strong reservations about one another.
Life in general is community-oriented and as a result an individual’s main aim becomes one of seeking to avoid disapproval of his group. Conformity is the norm and the family ‘group’ does for the Arab individual what ‘peer pressure’ could never achieve among Westerners. Some relationships in society are guided by legal sanction.
Mutual support, within strong family structures, is the supposed norm of most Muslim societies. The proper functioning of the family far outweighs the niceties of personal choice or desire for personal independence.