The Fall of the Family
By: Abdal Hakim Murad
Abdal Wadod Shalabi has remarked
that a society only becomes truly decadent when "decadence"
as a principle is never referred to in public debate. Prior generations
of Muslims and Christians were forever fretting about their own
unworthiness when measured against past golden ages of goodness
and sanctity. But in our self-satisfied era, to invoke the idea
of decadence is to invite accusations of a retrograde romanticism:
it is itself perceived, perversely enough, as decadence.
Muslims looking at the West with
a critical but compassionate eye are often disturbed by this absence
of old-fashioned self-scrutiny. We note that no longer does the
dominant culture avert complacency through reference to past moral
and cultural excellence; rather, the paradigm to which conformity
is now required is that of the ever-shifting liberal consensus.
In this ambitiously inverted world, it is the future that is to
serve as the model, never anything in the past. In fact, no truly
outrageous ("blasphemous") discourse remains possible
in modern societies, except that which violates the totalising liberalism
supposedly generated by autonomous popular consent, but which is
often in reality manufactured by the small, often personally immoral
but nonetheless ideologised elites who dominate the media and sculpt
public opinion into increasingly bizarre and unprecedented shapes.
The debate over the status of the
family lies at the heart of the present ideological collision between
the bloated but "decadent" North and the progressively
impoverished South, a collision in the midst of which our community
is attempting to define itself and to survive. This culture clash
is so vital to the self-perception of each side that it is now all
but inescapable. It seems that each time we switch on our televisions
and sit back, we must observe northern prejudice and insecurity
being massaged by an endless, earnest-humane diet of documentaries
about the ills of the rigidly family-centred Third World, and the
wicked reluctance of its peoples to conform to the social doctrines
of the liberal democracies.
To the average Westerner this one-way
polemic seems satisfying and unarguable, confirming as it does assumptions
of superiority which allay his nervousness about problems in his
own society. It shapes the public opinion that goes on to acquiesce
in the liquidation of Palestinians, Bosnians or Chechens with only
the mildest (but self-righteously proclaimed) twinges of guilt.
In fact, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the social doctrines
of the modern West have been forged into the imperial ideologies
of the closing years of the century, as polemicists use orthodox
feminism and homosexualism as the perfect sticks with which to beat
the Third World. A hundred years ago, white Christians interfered
with everyone else for the sake of theological dogma and commerce;
now they do so for reasons of social dogma and commerce. But the
underlying attitude of contempt has remained essentially unchanged.
Muslims living in the West are perched
in an interesting vantage point on this question. While many Islamic
theologians have written on the "westernisation process"
in the Muslim world and its nefarious effects on family life, the
reality, as some of them have noted, is that this process is being
championed by obsolete secular elites whose cultural formation was
the achievement of the old imperial powers. The family lifestyle
of the average secular Syrian or Turk is not that of a modern European,
despite his outraged claims to the contrary. His clothes, furnishings,
marriage rituals, and most details of life are more redolent of
the 1940s and 1950s than of the present realities of Western existence.
And so the mainstream Muslim debate on changes in the family, led
by such thinkers as Anwar al-Jindi and Rasim Ozdenoren, tends to
be of only slight relevance to our situation here in the heartlands
of the "liberated" West.
As we attempt to theorise about our
own condition, we are at once confronted by the irony that the country
to which many of us migrated no longer exists. Back in the 1950s
and early 1960s, British family values were still recognisably derived
from a great religious tradition rooted in the family-nurturing
Abrahamic soil. While the doctrinal debates between Islam and Christianity
remained sharp, the moral and social assumptions of the "guest-workers"
and their "hosts" were in most respects reassuringly and
That overlap has now almost gone.
Even the Churches no longer claim to be the coherent and convincing
voices of absolute moral truths, as an increasingly spongelike rock
of ages finds itself scoured and reshaped by the libertarian sandstorm.
Cardinal Hume, the usually clear-headed spokesman of Britain's Catholics,
has recently made conciliatory remarks about homophilia; while an
Anglican bishop, resplendent in tight jeans and leather jacket,
has openly announced his relationship with another man.
So far from representing family
values to their flock, 200 out of 900 London priests are said to
subscribe to homosexual tendencies. The number of Christian and
Jewish organisations and individuals eloquently singing the virtues
of Sodom seems set to rise and rise, cheered on by the secularists,
until the remaining voices of tradition are finally shouted down.
All this means that the Muslim community,
already marginalised in terms of class, race, and economics, now
has to confront a further and potentially far more drastic form
of alienation. As newcomers who are the sole defenders of values,
which would be recognised as legitimate by earlier generations of
Britons, we are in a disorienting position.
The temptation to panic, to retreat
into factions and cults, which excoriate the wider world as impure
and evil, will claim many of us. Already such movements are making
headway on the campuses. But such a sterile and facile temptation
should be resisted, and, if our faith is really as strong as we
and our detractors like to believe, it can be resisted easily and
in favour of a far more mature and fruitful grasp of our relationship
with the "host community".
But a strategy for the articulation
of such a stance must be grounded in the knowledge that Muslim traditionalism
does not appeal to the sort of comforting essentialist "metanarrative"
whose claims to objective truth are less important than its status
as a definer of cultural identity. Such has been the emergent error
of the twentieth-century's rival essentialisms, particularly nationalism
and fascism; and it is all too often the error of Muslim activists
whose alertness to spiritual realities is subordinated to, or even
replaced by, the quest for the pseudo-spiritual solace of authenticity.
The narrative of Muslim civilisation,
inspirational for the Muslim Brotherhood and neo-Ottoman revivalists
until the 1970s, has suddenly given way to the utopian narrative
of "the Salaf", on the problematic claim that the Salaf
followed a consistent school of thought; but among the adherents
of neither position do we find an immediate and responsive type
of faith that yields, as true faith must, an ethic rooted in compassion
and concern rather than a chronic obsession with purity.
What this means is that unless Muslims
in Britain can counteract the impoverishing and exclusivist "ideologising"
of Islam that has taken place in some Muslim countries, and return
to an image of the faith as rooted in immediate and sincere concern
for human welfare under a compassionate God, we will continue to
fail to contribute to the national debate on this or any other question
of real moment. It is not enough for the exclusivists to shrug,
"But who cares what the unbelievers think". For Muslims
are directed by the Quran to be an example to others. We cannot
be an example, or successfully convey the message that God has revealed,
if we hide in cultural ghettoes and act abrasively and arrogantly
towards those we take such exquisite pleasure in considering beyond
the pale. Instead, we must take the more difficult path of understanding
the real dilemmas of this society, and then the even more difficult
one of gently suggesting a remedy that may be of real assistance.
The time for such an advocacy is
now. In recent weeks, several religious figures in Britain have
offered their thoughts, often anguished, generally cogent, on the
tragedy of the progressive decay of the family. The Bishop of Liverpool
and the Chief Rabbi have both summarised the process with the usual
statistics: 34% of British children are now born outside wedlock;
a similar proportion of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce;
within twenty years fewer than half of the nation's children will
be brought up by their own two parents; and so on.
Few doubt the practical catastrophes
which ensue: in the United States, it is said that over half of
prison inmates are from broken homes, while men and women are known
to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in
middle life or old age. Sheppard and Sacks lament together that
in a rapidly-changing world where the family haven has never been
more needed by children and adults alike, it should have been wrecked
by that most basic of all sins: selfishness. Nobody likes making
a sacrifice: bowing at the idol of personal freedom we all shout
for our rights and chafe under our duties. The lesson is irritating
but clear: the Thatcherite egocentrism which posed as the apotheosis
of Adam Smith's advocacy of competitive self-interest as the key
to collective social advancement is claiming so many casualties
as to endanger the whole undertaking. Greed creates rich men and
happy Chancellors, but it now appears to come at a long-term price.
Gigantic social and economic bills are now rolling in for extra
policing, prisons, social workers and a growing blizzard of DHSS
cheques. The socialist revolution has already failed; it seems that
capitalism too may ultimately choke on its own contradictions.
So far, so good. It is unarguable,
and not just to religious people, that greed has been a culprit.
And yet the pleas for a return to selflessness have been heard so
often in past ages, and with so little manifest effect, that they
cannot be seen as holding out a believably sufficient solution.
If religions are truly to have the capacity to overcome the worst
consequences of human sinfulness then they must acknowledge that
simple appeals to "be good" rarely have much impact, and
must be accompanied by a practicable paradigm for reform. Neither
the bishop nor the rabbi seem to have much to offer that is practical
and concrete; which is perhaps why they have been tolerated and
even platformed by politicians and the liberal media. But as Muslims,
possessed of a religious dispensation granted through an intermediary
whose status as "a mercy to the nations" was manifested
in a concrete social as well as moral programme, we know that the
present plight of society will never be reformed through homiletics.
Structural changes are called for as well: and, given the gravity
of the problem, we should not be surprised to learn that they can
Hardly less obvious than the causes
of family decline are the reasons why establishment ideologues refuse
to recognise them. The politicians are the most flagrant instance:
last week's sorry resignation by Social Charter minister Robert
Hughes in order to "repair his marriage" after an illicit
fling is simply the latest in a string of by now frankly boring
incidents which show the political establishment (and not even the
moralising Mr Ashdown, the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party,
has been immune) as largely incapable of leading a moral life. And
yet tucked away in the office of every MP are all the clues we need.
There before his desk, adding spice to his every tedious letterwriting
moment, is that anarchic presence which unless he is very buttoned
up indeed may prove his undoing. The number of MPs who have secretaries
as second wives is second only to the number with surreptitious
concubines. Only aberrant idiocy - or complaisance - can ignore
the fact that if a politician, charged with that eroticism which
power seems to generate, works late hours with a member of the opposite
sex, a conflagration is probable rather than possible. Under such
conditions the system offers no protection whatsoever for suffering
children and spouses, who will be traumatised even to the point
of suicide. Again, the disastrous notion that individual rights
take precedence over the rights of the family has resulted in degradation
But politics is merely the most notorious
example of an environment in which, as the Iranians say, "fire
dwelleth with cotton". As the current anguished debate over
sexual harrassment reveals, there remains hardly a public space
into which private desires do not obtrude. Never before has there
been a society in which men and women mingle so casually, and where
the radically increased opportunity for temptation and unfaithfulness
is so patent that even the most anti-moralising journalist, politician
or social strategist must see it.
In Tom Wolfe's popular novel Bonfire
of the Vanities, a young financier commits adultery, destroying
his wife and daughter, simply because New York is a city "drowning
in concupiscence" and he is its child. It is not simply the
routine mixing of the sexes that brings about his downfall. Everywhere
his eyes wander he sees advertising, pornography, news stories and
squeezy fashions that grasp at him and shout aloud the charm of
duty-free sex. Wolfe's adulterer is an ordinary, not a fundamentally
evil man: he is simply living in a world in which most human beings
cannot behave responsibly.
New York is not yet London - but
the Atlantic grows narrower all the time, and the eroticising of
the public space has become part of our culture. Middle-aged men
with middle-aged wives once had little to tempt them, short of an
unhealthy adventure with a Piccadilly tart. Now, with a superabundance
of flesh reminding them painfully at every turn of what they are
missing, they are unlikely to remain loyal unless they are either
stupid, or belong to that category of powerfully moral human beings
which always has been and always will be a minority.
A radical diagnosis, although obvious
enough: but is there a cure? Islam recognises as a major misdemeanour
a crime unimaginable in the West: khalwa, or "illegitimate
seclusion". Moral disasters always have preludes; Islam seeks
to reduce the social matrix in which such preludes can occur. Thus
our commitment to single-sex education. Not for us the absurd desperation
of the Clackmannan headmaster who last month introduced the rule
that boy and girl pupils may not be closer than six inches from
each other, because 'spring is in the air." But schools are
the merest starting-point. The workplace, too, while not obstructing
female advancement, should ensure that the rights of spouses are
protected by denying all possibility of illegitimate seclusion in
the office. Politicians and business people who insist on employing
a personal assistant of the opposite sex should explain their reasons.
Pornography and sub-pornographic advertising should be carefully
censored as intolerably demeaning and as an incitement to marital
infidelity, the task of censorship being entrusted to those feminists
who so rightly object to such portrayals of their sex.
The tragedy for Britain is, of course,
that this remedy, while as self-evidently worth implementing as
the sex drive itself, will be brushed aside with amazement and scorn
by passing journalists and politicians. Convinced that Islam implies
discrimination by its policy of gender separation, and privately
depressed by the prospect of diminished sexual interest at work,
the same liberal establishment which bewails the fragility of modern
relationships will continue to encourage and live in the public
environment which is at the root of the problem. But Islam by its
very nature takes the long view, and we should not be disheartened.
The process of family collapse is proving so radical in its economic
and human consequences that the time must ultimately come when the
decadence will be recognised for what it is and radical solutions
will be considered. Then, quite possibly, the principled Muslim
conservatism that is so derided today will come into its own.
The secular mind may be too witless
to notice, but to religious people the New Social Doctrines are
fast acquiring the look of a new religion. The twentieth century's
great liberationisms often feel like powerful sublimations of the
religious drive, as the innate yearning for freedom from worldly
ties and the straitjacket of the self becomes strangely transmuted
into a great convulsion against restrictions on personal freedom.
In this sense, the politically-correct
West is an intensely religious society. It has its dogmas and theologians,
its saints, martyrs and missionaries, and, with the arrival of speech-codes
on American campuses, a well-developed theory of the suppression
Some have mused that all this is
necessary, and that human beings need certainties and causes, and
that without an orthodoxy to hold itself together the West would
rapidly unravel and turn to lawlessness. But the trouble is that
the new doctrines, which are now enshrined in legislation, school
curricula and broadcasting guidelines, do not make up either an
authentic new religion, or even a sustainable substitute for one.
For religious morality, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Eskimo,
holds society together with the idea that personal fulfilment is
attained through the honourable discharge of duties. The West's
new religion, in absolute contrast, teaches that it comes about
through the enjoyment of rights.
Given the extremism of this inversion,
it is not surprising that the societies which it affects should
be running into difficulties. To paraphrase Conor Cruise O"Brien,
the trouble with secular social medicines is that the more they
are applied, the sicker the patient seems to become. It is certainly
a blasphemy today to suggest that the new orthodoxies have worsened
our social ills rather than bringing us into a shining and liberated
utopia - but this is what has happened. And yet the pseudo-religion
is still powerful enough to ensure that the notions which have presided
over such destruction may not be subject to criticism in polite
society. Muslims are perhaps the only people left who do not care
for such politeness.
One of the most characteristic liberationisms
of this century has been feminism. Divided into a myriad tendencies,
some cautious and reasoned, others wandering into unimaginable territories
of witchcraft and lesbianism, this is a movement about which few
generalisations can be made. But perhaps a good place to start is
the observation that women were the major though unintended victims
of both Victorian pre-feminist and late twentieth-century feminist
values. The disabilities suffered by wives in traditional Christian
cultures, which denied that they even existed as financial or legal
entities distinct from their husbands, may have been accepted without
demur by most of them; but real injustice and suffering was caused
to those for whom the social supports were cut away, and who found
themselves in need of an independent existence. The feminism of
the suffragettes was thus a real quest for justice. It moved Western
society away from Christian tradition, and towards the Islamic norm
in which a woman is always a separate legal entity even after marriage,
retaining her property, surname, inheritance rights, and the right
to initiate legal proceedings.
What Muslims are less happy about
is the new feminism of the past three decades, the militantly ideologised
world-view of Friedan, Greer and Daly. These thinkers initiated
a new phase by attacking not only structural unfairnesses in society,
but the most fundamental assumptions about male and female identity.
"Until the myth of the maternal instinct is abolished, women
will continue to be subjugated", wrote Simone de Beauvoir;
and similar noises could be heard from the new feminists everywhere.
In this view, the traditional association of femaleness with femineity
and maleness with manhood was biologically and morally meaningless,
and was to be attacked as the underpinning of the whole traditional
edifice of "patriarchy".
At this point, people of Muslim faith
have to jump ship. The Qur'an and our entire theological tradition
are rooted in the awareness that the two sexes are part of the inherent
polarity of the cosmos. Everything in creation has been set up in
pairs, we believe; and it is this magnetic relationship between
alternate principles, which brings movement and value into the world.
Like the ancient Chinese, with their division of the 1,001 Things
into Yin and Yang, the Muslims, naming phenomena with the gender-specific
Arabic of revelation, know that gender is not convention but principle,
not simple biology - but metaphysics.
Allah has ninety-nine names. Some
are Names of Majesty: such as the Compeller, the Overwhelming, and
the Avenger. Others are Names of Beauty: the Gentle, the Forgiving,
the Loving-Kind. The former category are broadly associated with
male virtues, and the latter with female ones. But as all are God's
perfect Names, and equally manifest the divine perfection, neither
set is superior. And the Divine Essence to which they all resolve
transcends gender. Islam has no truck with the hazardous Christian
notion that God is male (the "Father"), an assumption
that has been invoked to justify traditional Western notions of
the objective superiority of the male principle.
Islam's position is thus a balanced
one. Metaphysically, the male and female principles are equal. It
is through their interaction that phenomena appear: all creation
is thus in a sense procreation. But justice is not necessarily served
by attempting to establish a simple parity between the principles
in society "here-below". The divine names have distinct
vocations; and human gender differentiation was created for more
than simple genetic convenience. Both man and woman are God's khalifas
on earth; but in manifesting complementary aspects of the divine
perfection their "ministries" differ in key respects.
Islam's awareness that when human
nature (fitrah) is cultivated rather than suppressed, men and women
will incline to different spheres of activity is of course one which
provokes howls of protest from liberals: for them it is a classic
case of blasphemy. But even in the primitive biological and utilitarian
terms which are the liberals" reference, the case for absolute
identity of vocation is highly problematic. However heavily society
may brainwash women into seeking absolute parity, it cannot ignore
the reality that they have babies, and have a tendency to enjoy
looking after them. Those courageous enough to leave their careers
while their children are small increasingly have to put up with
accusations of blasphemy and heresy from society; but they persist
in their belief, outrageous to the secular mind, that mothers bring
up children better than childminders, that breast milk is better
than formula milk, and even - this as the ultimate heresy - that
bringing up a child can be more satisfying than trading bonds or
There are already signs that women
are rebelling against the feminist orthodoxy that demands an absolute
parity of function with men, and that "dropping out" to
look after a child is less outrageous in the minds of many educated
women than the media might suggest. But much real damage has been
done. The campaign to turn fathers into nurturers and house-husbands
shows little sign of success; and many houses have become more like
dormitories than homes. Mealtimes are desultory, tin-opening affairs;
both parents are too exhausted to spend "quality time"
with active children; and the sense of belonging to the house and
to each other is sadly attenuated. By the time children leave home,
they feel they are not leaving very much.
In such a dismal context, dissolution
is almost logical. The stress of the two-career family is greater
than many normal people can manage. Increased income and (for some)
pleasure at work are poor compensations for the increased scope
for fatigue and dispute. Deprived of the woman's gift for warming
a house, both husband and children are made less secure. The overlap
in functions provides endless room for argument. And when the dissolution
comes, it is almost always the woman who suffers most. As an ageing
lone parent, she finds that society has little interest in her.
She has joined the new class of "wives of the state".
The state, luckily, can afford to
be a polygamist. The social unravelment of modern Britain has coincided
with a massive augmentation of tax revenue. As long as the rate
of social collapse does not outstrip the annual growth in GDP there
is little for politicians to worry about. And yet the fate of literally
millions of single families is a harsh one. The case for traditional
single-income families, in which women are permitted to celebrate
rather than suppress their nurturing genius, is increasingly looking
more moral than the liberals have guessed.
But the feminists are not the only
moths to have been gnawing the social fabric. There are others,
some of them even more radical. The most strident are the homosexualists,
the curious but always repulsive ideologues who are forcing on the
population a dogma whose consequences for the family are already
As with feminism, the theological
case against homosexuality is related to our understanding of the
"dyadic" nature of creation. Human sexuality is an incarnation
of the divinely-willed polarity of the cosmos. Male and female are
complementary principles, and sexuality is their sacramental and
fecund reconciliation. Sexual activity between members of the same
sex is therefore the most extreme of all possible violations of
the natural order. Its biological sterility is the sign of its metaphysical
failure to honour the basic duality which God has used as the warp
and woof of the world.
It is true, nonetheless, that the
homosexual drive remains poorly understood. It appears as the definitive
argument against Darwinism's hypothesis of the systematic elimination
over time of anti-reproductive traits. In some cultures it is extremely
rare: Wilfred Thesiger records that in the course of his long wanderings
with the Arabian Bedouins he never encountered the slightest indication
of the practice. In other societies, particularly modern urban cultures,
it is very widespread. Theories abound as to why this should be
so: some researchers speculate that in overpopulated communities
the tendency represents Nature's own technique of population control.
Laboratory rats, we are told, will remain resolutely heterosexual
until disturbed by bright lights, loud noises, and extreme overcrowding.
Other scientists have speculated about the effects of "hormone
pollution" from the thousands of tonnes of estrogen released
into the water supply by users of contraceptive pills. Again, this
remains without proof.
But what is increasingly suggested
by recent research is that homosexual tendencies are not always
acquired, and that some individuals are born with them as an identifiable
irregularity in the chromosomes. The implications of this for moral
theology are clear: given the Qur'an's insistence that human beings
are responsible only for actions they have voluntarily acquired,
homosexuality as an innate disposition cannot be a sin.
It does not follow from this, of
course, that acting in accordance with such a tendency is justifiable.
Similar research has indicated that many human tendencies, including
forms of criminal behaviour, are also on occasion traceable to genetic
disorders; and yet nobody would conclude that the behaviour was
therefore legitimate. Instead, we are learning that just as God
has given people differing physical and intellectual gifts, He tests
some of us by implanting moral tendencies which we must struggle
to overcome as part of our self-reform and discipline. A mental
patient with an obsessive desire to set fire to houses has been
given a particular hurdle to overcome. A man or woman with strong
homosexual urges faces the same challenge.
To the religious believer, it is
unarguable that homosexual acts are a metaphysical as well as a
moral crime. Heterosexuality, with its association with conception,
is the astonishing union which leads to new life, to children, grandchildren,
and an endless progeny: it is a door to infinity. Sodomy, by absolute
contrast, leads nowhere. As always, the most extreme vice comes
about when a virtue is inverted.
None of this is of interest to the
secular mind, of course, which detects no meaning in existence and
hence cannot imagine why maximum pleasure and gratification should
not be the goal of human life. The notion that we are here on earth
in order to purify our souls and experience the incomparable bliss
of the divine presence is utterly alien to most of our compatriots.
And yet there is a purely secular argument against homophilia which
we can attempt to deploy.
Homosexualism represents a radical
challenge to the institution of marriage. Its propagandists will
not concede the fact, but it attacks the most vital norm of our
species, which is the union of male and female for which we are
manifestly designed and which is the natural context for the raising
of children. In times such as ours, when nature is no longer regarded
as authoritative, and lifestyles are in all other respects an abnormal
departure from the way in which human beings have lived for countless
millennia, society cannot afford to believe that male-female unions
are of only relative worth. The more the alternatives proliferate,
the less the norm will be seen as sacred. Every victory for the
homosexualist lobby is thus a blow struck against that normality
without which society cannot survive.
It is in the context of the struggle
to protect the family that the campaign against homosexualism becomes
most universally accessible. The screaming fanatics who "out"
bishops and demand a lowering of the "gay" age of consent
are among the most bitter enemies of the fitrah, that primordial
norm which, for all the diversity of the human race, has consistently
expressed itself in marriage as the natural context for the nurturing
of the new generation. That which is against the fitrah is by definition
destructive: it is against humanity and against God. This awareness
needs to be reflected in legislation, which for too long has sought
to relativise the family as merely one of a range of lifestyle options.
Muslims sometimes hold that the collapse
of family values in the West will serve the interests of wider humanity.
Decadence, they say, is what it has chosen and deserves; and the
inevitable implosion of its society will leave the field open for
morally strong Islam to regain its place as the world's dominant
civilisation. The trouble with this theory is that the implosion
shows no sign of leading to total collapse. Technology and wealth
allow the creation of surveillance and social security systems,
which can deal with the growing number of casualties. There is certainly
an irony in a New World Order policed by a state, which cannot keep
order in Central Park after nightfall. But unless we are foolishly
optimistic, or hope for absolute totalitarianism, we cannot but
be anxious about social trends in the West. The survival of the
Western family is a question of immediate Muslim concern, and we
must offer our views until the time comes when our friends and neighbours,
their doctrines broken on the anvil of reality, are humbled enough