One of my merriest roles in life is being a khala, a maternal aunt. I’ve been known for over two decades as ‘Adi’ (my first nephew’s toddler-improvisation for ‘Khadeeja’) – and still when I’m with any of my nieces or nephews I often forget that, technically, I am one of the adults. We do joint gardening experiments (giant okra, anyone?), kitchen adventures (cinnamon swirl pancakes, yum!) – all beautiful manifestations of Allah’s Mercy of family connections. And so I wondered about our pious predecessors and their extended family relations.
The side branches
We know the mother of the believers, ‘Aishah bint Abi Bakr (RA), didn’t have children. She did, though, have her nephew, Abdullah ibn az-Zubayr – the son of her sister, Asma bint Abi Bakr (RA). And so she adopted her nephew’s name as though he were her son; her kunya was Umm Abdullah.
Fatima bint Asad (RA) was like a mother to the Prophet (SAW). A vital member of the most blessed of family trees, she was the wife of the Prophet’s paternal uncle, Abu Talib. She was also a mother of six, including Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) and Ja’far ibn Abi Talib (RA). Among the early embracers of Islam, she was thus part of the deepest roots of this blessed family tree. After her husband passed away, she took even greater care of the Prophet (SAW) and so, upon Fatima bint Asad’s death, about five years after the hijrah, the Prophet (SAW) was deeply grieved. Anas ibn Malik (RA) narrated that the Prophet (SAW) stood by her and said,
‘My dear mother, may Allah bestow His reward upon you. After my mother you loved me as a mother loves her child. Many times you went hungry, yet took care to feed me instead. You were in need of clothing, but you would clothe me. You fed me delicacies that you denied yourself. Allah will surely be happy with these actions of yours. And your intentions were surely meant to win the goodwill and pleasure of Allah and success in the Hereafter.’
The Prophet (SAW) gave his own qamis (shirt) to be used as part of her shroud. He participated in the digging of her grave. When it was dug, he himself laid down in the grave and supplicated to Allah: ‘O Allah! Forgive my mother Fatima and make her house of the Hereafter vast.’
Subhan Allah, Allah (SWT) shows us such beautiful relationships in our lives too. I remember how one of my aunts, related to me only through marriage (married to my mother’s brother), had been there for me in the most meaningful of ways. When I was sick in the hospital, she’d come and stay with me. She would soothe me through sleepless nights when all the world was asleep.
Modern, nuclear and uprooted?
I was blessed to grow up with bursts of living under the shade of different branches of my own extended family, including my grandparents. I look back and wonder how my grandmother managed to patiently counsel some etiquette into what I imagine was my oft-appalling self. When I was little, I couldn’t fathom why our grandmother found our walking out of the house still munching on a snack so distasteful.
Yet, many modern societies have to resort to innovative programmes partnering schools with retirement homes to reap the benefits of this age interaction – something Allah (SWT) granted us so naturally via the blessed connection of grandparents and children. Remember how Hassan ibn Ali (RA) used to play on the blessed back of his grandfather – and how his grandfather, the Prophet (SAW) himself, would just stay in prostration until his beloved grandson had finished playing?
The nuclear family may offer more privacy, but those years living in my grandparents’ home helped me foster a less individualistic, self-centred life view. Summers spent with cousins often inculcated improved negotiation skills, along with practical values, beginning simply with sharing. And I am now, insha Allah, making a positive impact on my nephews’ and nieces’ lives.
The seerah examples affirm that the reach and depth of Islam’s ties of kinship extend well beyond the immediate nuclear family. It is for each of us to step up to our places within this beautiful tree of kinship and bi-idhnillah reap fruit in the Hereafter.
K. Balkhi is currently studying Islam in depth at Pakistan’s leading Islamic jamia, university, for women. She has also been a business journalist and writer with over 150 published articles, chapters and strategic reports as part of her former consultancy.