Supporting a large extended family

Q632 :I am the only child of my mother. A few years ago, my father married another woman by whom he had five daughters. My stepmother died in a car accident. My father is unable to work and he has little money of his own. I realize that I have to support him whether I am rich or poor. What I am asking about is my obligation toward his five daughters whom I have never seen. I have my wife and my own children to look after. I have asked my father whether some of my stepmother's relatives could look after one or two of his daughters, but he says that is not possible, because the girls' grandparents are already dead although they have uncles and aunts alive.

A632 : I certainly appreciate your problem, which can be seen to be very acute if your income is not sufficient to provide for such a large extended family. You seem to be the only breadwinner for both your own family and your father's new family. That can really be a real burden on anyone. In a truly Islamic state, help would be forthcoming either through the zakah system or the social security system of which zakah is the major component. Your conflict is really between looking after your own children and looking after your half-sisters who are probably of the same age as your children. Some scholars hold it that your wife, father and your children have the first claim on you. Others do not put sisters in any secondary degree, they put them in the same grade with your wife, father and children. I am more inclined to this view which Imam Ibn Hazm summarizes in the following paragraph: "It is obligatory on everyone, man or woman, grownup or young, that he begins with his own essentials which are absolutely necessary, such as food and clothing, according to his needs. After that, everyone may be compelled to support those who do not have money of their own and have no income to support themselves, be they their parents, grandparents or even higher, sons and daughters and their children and their grandchildren and brothers, sisters and wives. All these are considered equal in as far as he is obliged to support them. None of them can take precedence over another, even though this may mean that what he will leave behind [after] his death will be very little. They, however, need to help each other in reducing his burden. If he is left with nothing after securing his own basic needs, he is not obliged to support anyone of these whom we have mentioned. But if he supports them all, providing them with food and clothing, and he is left with something extra, he is compelled to support those of his close relatives and heirs who have nothing of their own and have no jobs to support themselves. These are paternal uncles and aunts, maternal uncles and aunts, even though they may be of a higher degree than his immediate ones as well as his nephews and nieces as far as they may go. "What is meant by heirs are those of his relatives who have claim to a share of his inheritance which cannot be superseded by anyone else. If they are superseded by other heirs, and their shares are thus taken over by others, then he has no obligation to support them. "If any of the above falls ill, he is also obliged to look after them and provide for their nursing. If any of these is able to earn a living, through whatever type of work, even though it may be menial, they forfeit their claim to be supported, with the exception of parents, grandparents and wives. A man is required to do what he can to spare these relatives the need to do any menial job." This is what Imam ibn Hazm says and it is well supported by firm evidence. Many scholars agree with most of what he has said, although some of them assign particular grading for these relatives. Tariq ibn Abdullah Al-Muharibi reports: "We came into Madinah to find Allah's messenger (peace be upon him) standing on the pulpit addressing his companions and saying: The one who gives has the upper hand. Start with those whom you have to support; your mother and father, sister and brothers, then the nearest, then the nearer (of your relatives)." In another Hadith, related by Abu Dawood, the Prophet is quoted to have given this guidance with regard to whom one is obliged to support: "Your mother and father and sister and brother, then your relative who is near of kin; (this is) a binding duty and a relationship that is preserved." Hind bint Utbah, Abu Suffian's wife, complained to the Prophet that her husband was stingy. She asked him whether she could take of his money without his knowledge. The Prophet said: "Take what is reasonably sufficient for yourself and your children." This Hadith indicates that one's wife and children are treated at the same level. In the Qur'an, we read this verse which may be rendered in translation as follows: "Mothers may suckle their children for two whole years; (that is) for those who wish to complete the suckling. The father of the child is responsible to provide in a fair manner for their sustenance and clothing. No human being shall be burdened beyond what he can reasonably bear. Neither shall a mother be allowed to cause her child to suffer nor shall a father cause his child to suffer. The same is also the obligation of the heir." (2;233) You realize from this Qur'anic verse that the obligation of the heir is imposed by Allah. This obligation follows a general Islamic principle which attaches obligations to benefits. If someone stands to benefit by what may happen to another, then he is obliged to help him when he is in need of help. The principle states: "Benefit is related to obligation." Applying this principle, I will give you this hypothetical example. Say, if 15 years hence, one of your half-sisters gets married to a rich man. Now suppose that after two or three months of her marriage, she is traveling with her husband in a car when they are involved in an accident. Her husband is killed instantly and she receives serious injuries, and is taken to a hospital. Suppose, that two or three weeks later she dies. In this situation, she would inherit one quarter of her husband's wealth if he has no children by another marriage. The same amount in addition to whatever she owns will then be inherited by her father, if he is still alive, her four sisters and yourself. Your entitlement to a share of her inheritance is not affected by the degree of intimacy between you. You may be reared in the same house and see each other every day and every night, or you may be living in two different countries and you see each other once every few years. I hope you realize that this principle which attaches obligations to benefit is most fair. Since Islam has regulated the system of inheritance to its finest detail, it also has made obligations to look after poor relatives well defined. You are certainly in an unfortunate position in the sense that there is a big gap between yourself and your sisters and that you are the only son of your mother. This makes you the only supporter of two families. But if your income is sufficient to help you to look after both families, then you have to fulfill your obligation. Let me tell you that when you do this, Allah is certain to help you and your children. Even if you have to spend all that you earn in order to provide the minimum respectable living to all your dependents, you should not despair. May I remind you that none of us is sure how long we may live. Everyone of us with children always wonder what may happen to them if we meet an early death. Let me tell you that the best one to whom we may trust our young ones is Allah, their Lord who created them. In your case, if you look well after your father and young sisters, you should not worry that you are not making any savings. If something should happen to you, you should trust Allah to look after your children. He will certainly send them someone to look after them as he has caused you to look after your helpless young half-sisters. One last point; if your earnings are not enough to meet all your obligations and the maternal uncles of your half-sisters are reasonably well off, then they have an Islamic obligation to help. It is not necessary that any of them take one or more of your sisters to rear in his home, but to provide funds to your father to look after them. What is obligatory in this case is to provide them with reasonable food and clothing and medical care when needed. There is one proviso, however. You have not mentioned whether your father has any brothers. If he has, then your paternal uncles come first in this duty to help your father bring up his young daughters. In other words, what you cannot fulfill of this duty, falls to your paternal uncles. If you have none or if they are poor, then your stepsisters' maternal uncles should help. If they in turn are poor, then the community as a whole should look after your family.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )