Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have the lovely extended family with piousness coming in all shapes and sizes. We’ve got the grandparents who think their Baaligh grandchildren are “too thin” to fast, the aunt who never prays, the uncle who listens to music, the cousins who have pre-marital relationships, and the second cousins who drink alcohol and go to dance clubs.
Most of us would like to pretend that these non-religious relatives do not exist. But let us be realistic. Even the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) had Abu Lahab, one of the greatest enemies of Islam, as his own uncle. So instead of sweeping the problem under the rug, it is important for us to address the issue and come up with practicable solutions whereby we can balance both our obligations to our relatives and our obligations to our own faith.
On one extreme are those of us who think there is nothing wrong with our relatives, and even if we see them openly and obviously engaging in Haram, we think it will have no effect on our own or our children’s religious practice.
It is shocking how oblivious parents can be about the negative influence our non-religious relatives can have on our children. One sad manifestation of this we see is the fact that most parents these days are far more concerned about the type of friends their children make than how the not-so-practicing relatives are coming in between their child and Islam. “There is no doubt through my experience that an un-Islamic relative has a much greater influence on a child in comparison to an un-Islamic friend. However, parents focus most of their energy in finding the best friend, which is important, but ignore the kind of relative they should allow their kids spend time with and be influenced by, which is far more important,” a 24-year-old brother said.
There are also those of us who realize the negative spiritual consequences we will suffer from associating too much with our non-religious relatives, but we are too concerned about maintaining good relations with them or about “offending” our loved ones. So we attend their mixed-gender weddings, we send our children to the birthday parties with music and dancing, and we sit for hours and listen to them backbite about half the extended family – all the while deluding ourselves that Allah is “understanding” and will surely forgive us, right?
“I wish my parents would have just told my grandma that it was obligatory upon me to fast at age nine, rather than giving in to her illogical argument that I was ‘too weak to fast’, which as a result has left me with a month worth of unnecessary missed fasts to make up,” a teenage sister said.
On the other extreme are those of us who completely severe any and all ties with our non-religious relatives. While the intention of safeguarding our faith and our children’s faith is admirable, severing ties with one’s relatives is considered one of the biggest sins in Islam. Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi has listed Qat ar-Rahm (cutting off ties with relatives) as sin number seven in his book Greater Sins, ahead of drinking, stealing, and fornication!
He states, “The traditions of the Infallibles leave no doubt whatsoever that the fulfilling of the rights of one’s relatives is obligatory. Whether the relatives are Shia or Sunni, pious and religious or sinful and transgressors, or whether they are Muslims or disbelievers, it is compulsory to perform Silat ar-Rahm with them. Even if a Muslim relative apostatizes and becomes a disbeliever, his rights are not invalidated.”
Furthermore, Ayatollah Sistani states in his book A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, “It is prohibited to cut the ties with one’s relation, even if that person had severed his ties [with you]. It is prohibited to do so, even if he or she is negligent of prayer, a drunkard, and takes some religious injunctions lightly (for example, by not observing the hijab, etc.) to the extent that there is no use in advising, counseling, or warning him or her. This prohibition is only lifted when maintaining the ties encourages that relation to continue in his or her immoral ways.” (Ruling # 291)
We can choose friends, but family we have to stick with. So what can a person in this situation do? Do we act super friendly with our non-religious relatives and pretend nothing is wrong, or do we completely cut them off and risk violating the Islamic commands on Silat ar-Rahm?
We should do what the Holy Prophet of Islam did with his disbelieving uncle and one of the greatest enemies of Islam, Abu Lahab. Approach them with kindness and affection and explain the beauty of the religion of Islam. We should take it upon ourselves to engage in Amar Bil Maroof and Nahi Anil Munkar and not see the mission of improving our relatives as a burden upon us. It is very possible for an older religious cousin to influence an army of younger cousins towards praying on time, as it is even easier to encourage our elders to finally start paying Khums, and for a spouse to assist his/her partner to complete all the bare minimum requirements of the faith and avoiding haram.
If the chances of changing our non-religious relatives are looking rather dull, then the least we can do is ask them kindly and gently to avoid distracting us from fulfilling our obligations to our Lord. Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi quotes in his book that Imam Ali (peace be upon him) once wrote to one of his officials, “Order the relatives to visit each other, but ask them not to reside in the same neighborhood.” So instead of the two extremes, it is far more reasonable and Islamic for us to create appropriate distances as necessary.
For example, Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said, “Do Silat ar-Rahm towards your relatives and the near ones, even if it is just by offering a glass of water to them.” (Wasail ash-Shia) Similarly, Ayatollah Shirazi states, “The simplest kind of Silat ar-Rahm consists of salutations, a lesser kind is the conveying of Salam (through someone). The smallest kind of Silat ar-Rahm is to pray for relatives in their presence and to encourage them (to do good deeds).” On the other hand, he goes on to say that it might be necessary for us to break ties with a relative, if we strongly believe that doing so will cause him/her to reevaluate his/her situation and avoid prohibited behavior. In essence, each case is unique, and our individual policy will differ based on each specific situation. In the case of relatives who are negligent of prayer, it might be obligatory for us to visit them and remind them of their obligations, while in the case of relatives who commit major sins, have absolutely no respect for religion, and might actually negatively influence ourselves, it might be more prudent to limit contact with them through telephone or email. The only situation where it becomes obligatory to sever ties with a relative is one who openly exhibits enmity towards Allah, the Prophet, or the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them).
It goes without saying that children look up to their older relatives, seeing them as role models and taking their examples. There is a need for parents to perfect themselves and take pride in being practicing Muslims so that they may instil in their children a confident Muslim spirit facing no insecurities. When we live in a time where Islam has become so compact, flexible, and insignificant in our lives, the one thing that we should heed to at all times is God-consciousness, and no family member or relative should come between us and our Lord, unless they’re able to assist us in our cause.