The Dynamics of Arab Muslims Kinships and Marriage Practices

Kinship is an integral part of most societies across the world. Kinships form the basis of the family units and relatedness among people in a particular society. In the Arab Muslim communities, kinship is a vital domain that is perceived viscerally (Guindi, 2012, p.545). The Arab Muslim society value kin relations and have perfect knowledge of their genealogical connection from past to present generations. Although kinship may be conceptualised on simple bases such as blood and genetic links like it is the case for most modern western societies, kinship is a complex concept in the Arab Muslim world (Guindi, 2012, p.546).

Besides differences in culture and traditions with other communities worldwide, the Arab Muslim kinship systems have some unique characteristics. For instance, the Arab Muslims consider ‘milk kinships’ where children who have suckled the same mother belong to the same kin (Guindi, 2018, p. 178). People not related by birth have typical family relationship titles such as mother, sister, or brother because of feeding on the same breast. Although sharing breast milk was a common practice in the classical era among other communities, this did not lead to kinship relations like the ones evident among the Arab Muslims.

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Since kinship is at the core of the Arab Muslim society, it affects the marriage system and makes it utterly diverse from other mainstream societies. For example, “marriage between patrilateral parallel cousins is a desired and preferred union among the Arab Muslims” (Guindi,  2018, p. 191). Such marriage practices are considered taboo in other societies, such as the Christian communities in the West. The Arab Muslim kinship systems and marriage practices continue to be alienated from other societies’ practices. As a result, the Arab Muslim cultural practices remain stable and immune from external influences compared to other societies.

Nevertheless, the religion and teachings of the Quran remain an integral influence of the Arab Muslim kinships and marriage practices. This essay aims to uncover more reasons why Arab Muslim practices remain unchanged and unique from other societies. The paper will focus on the Muslim Arabs in the Middle East region using Qatar and the Turkish state.

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Ethnographic, historical studies on the kin systems point to differences in the Pre-Islam Arabs and the Post-Islam Arabs, such as the shift from matrilineal clans to the patrilineal clans (Varisco, 1995, p. 142). The lineage in the pre-Islam period was based on the maternal lineage, but the lineage is based on the father line after introducing Islam. The patrilineal descendants from five generations that control important day-to-day social behaviours. After the fifth generation, descendants lose significance because of the practical challenges of tracking their names. Muslim Arabs value nuclear families because terms such as ahl, a’ila, ‘iyyal, from the Quran insist on the togetherness of a kin (Varisco, 1995, p. 144). The Muslim Arabs to valued their extended families to the extent of living together in the same city. For example, in the Old City of Mardin, Turkey, members of a similar Arab lineage lived in the same neighbourhood (Costa, 2016, p. 83). Although the New City does not accommodate such possibilities as nuclear families live independent houses and streets from other extended families, the Arab communities in this city still share a strong bond with extended family members. Members of the same kin refer to each other as ‘akraba,’ and non-kin are called ‘yabanci.’ Arabs have values kinship relations even in modernisation where extended family members often alienate from their kin members. Social media has played a central role in maintaining connections with relatives for modernised Arab Muslims across the globe (Costa, 2016, p.84).

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Maintenance of the kin relationships helps to sustain consanguineous marriages among the Arab Muslims. As members of the same kin maintain relationships, it is possible to trace marriage partners within the kin.  As a result, endogamy thrives among the Arab Muslims and this set apart this society from other world societies where exogamy is the norm. Most communities have favoured exogamy because of the genetic benefits related to crossbreeding hence the popularisation of intermarriages. Consanguinity among Arab Muslims is correlated with two factors. Firstly, the Quran is not forbidden in the Al-Maharim laws that set sexual prohibitions that controlled and still control marriage institutions (Scheunchen, 2019, p.113).

Al-maharim constitutes a set of kin (birth, marital, and suckling) subject to marital prohibitions. By contrast, marriage between patrilateral parallel cousins, prohibited in some societies, is considered a desirable and preferred union and thus not subject to taboo (Guindi, 2018, p.191).   

Secondly, the exceptional marriage practices among Arab Muslims can be attributed to Arabian Bedouins’ historical, socio-economic practices. Reilly (2013, p. 375) argues that the Muslim Arabs consanguineous marriage strategy was an adaption tactic with particular attention to the Father’s brother’s daughter (FBD) and close cousins marriages to increase auto inheritance of the Lactase Persistence (LP) allele.  The LP allele is key to help in lactose tolerance, a genetic quality that was key to the nomadic Arabian Bedouins’ survival. Milk was the primary source of food. People with lactose intolerance would hardly survive in the deserts since the Arabian Bedouins were respected cultural groups in the Middle East region. Their practices were emulated by other Arab Muslims across the region, thus making consanguineous marriages more prevalent among the Arab Muslims.

Nevertheless, exogamy and other marriage types are also evident among the Arab Muslim communities. Tapper & Tapper (1992, p. 8) counter the correlation of FBD marriages with the Arab Muslims. They argue that “FBD marriage, then, is neither an ‘Islam’ nor an ‘Arab’ institution” (Tapper & Tapper, (1992, p. 8). Nonetheless, my argument is that Arab Muslims have a higher preference for FBD marriages and exogamy than other communities, particularly outside the Middle East region. The next section will discuss the honour and responsibilities within the Arab Muslim marriage institution.

Marriage union forms the backbone of kinship in most societies. Marriage engenders a family, resulting in roles and responsibilities for the two main parties (Husband and Wife). The Arab Muslim marriages have some typical characteristics with other universal beliefs, such as the father is the head of the family. Nevertheless, some differences set aside Arab Muslim marriages with other marriages in other dominant societies, especially regarding honour and divorce matters. Unlike in the Western world communities where divorce is so prevalent, Arab Muslims are reluctant to divorce. In Arab Muslims, which are close-kin marriages, divorce is highly correlated with shame, particularly for the husband (Tapper & Tapper,1992, p. 13). Husbands will be reluctant to divorce their women because of the shame associated with not managing a wife. In a typical Arab Muslim marriage, the wife is the husbands’ property, and losing her is shameful and a loss of honour among the agnates.  To avoid shame, men prefer to marry women from close kin because they can judge their intended wives’ behavior based on family history and past performance. As a result, men can avoid divorce, and thus divorce cases are minimal among Arab Muslims.

Nevertheless, in some cases, divorce occurs; for instance, a woman cannot bear children or commits adultery in cases. In the latter case, some men would prefer to murder their women instead of divorce to maintain honour and respect in society (Jafri, 2008, p. 12). Although the same social classes’ marriage is prevalent in marriage practice among Arab Muslims, hypogamy (marrying someone of a lower class) is common for men. Men typically practice this to exert their authority over their wives.  This marriage practice is common among other societies across the world and is embedded with the male patriarchal (Collier, 1993, p. 23).

In regard to responsibilities, the husband is responsible for the behaviour of his wife. However, in some cases, the wife remains the responsibility of her male agnates at least until her sons are mature enough (Tapper & Tapper, 1992, p. 11). The wife is responsible for general home chores such as cooking, laundry, entertaining guests and etcetera. On the other hand, the husband is responsible for fending for the family. The manly roles have changed with globalisation due to the shift from nomadic life among the Arab Muslims.

The essay has demonstrated the outstanding characteristics of Arab Muslim Kinships and marriage practices. Kinship is an integral part of the Arab Muslim society that has a significant impact on the marriage institution. The Arab Muslims value extended family bonds and often reach out to each other. The Arab Muslims have a unique kinship that results from suckling, making kinship based on milk sharing, birth, and marriage.  Milk kinship results from sharing of the same breast milk. Consanguinity is a common marriage practice that distinguishes the Arab Muslim society from other societies. Religion and historical, social-cultural practices have contributed to the prevalence of consanguineous marriages. Surprisingly, divorce cases among the Arab Muslim communities are less compared with other societies. Divorce is perceived as a loss of honour, and men are ready to go the extra mile to avoid divorce. Men are responsible for women’s behaviour, and a badly behaved wife brings shame to the husband. In conclusion, the Arab Muslim kinship system is highly dynamic and impacts the Arab Muslim community’s social organization.

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