Our family tree has been traced back seven generations. The details of the earliest ancestors were retained by my father's uncle (Helen's father) and passed on to my oldest uncle, who passed it on to my cousins, who passed it on to me. Most of the hard work had already been done (thanks to all contributors) prior to me receiving the information, so I corroborated the details with my parents and other family members and 'formalised' our family tree, which is provided below.
The family name, also called surname or last name, can be defined as a name that is passed from one generation to the next. Most surnames fall into four broad categories:
1. Surnames derived from given names, most often patronymic, referring to a male ancestor. E.g. Johnson, Williams, and Thompson. Arabic examples are Bin-Baaz and Ibn-Uthaymeen. 2. Occupational surnames refer to the occupation of the bearer. E.g. Smith, Clark, and Wright. Arabic example is Al-Qayyim. 3. Locational or topographic surnames are derived from the place that the bearer lived. E.g. Hill, Woods, and Ford. Arabic example is Al-Bukhārī. 4. Surnames derived from nicknames. E.g. White, Young, and Long. Arabic examples are Sayf-ul-lāh and Al-Siddeeq.
According to behindthename.com, in Europe surnames began to be used in the 12th century, but it took several centuries before the majority of Europeans had one. The primary purpose of the surname was to further distinguish people from one another. In the 13th century about a third of the male population had a given name of William, Richard or John. To uniquely identify them, people began referring to different Williams as William the son of Andrew (leading to Anderson), William the cook (leading to Cook), William from the brook (leading to Brooks), William the brown-haired (leading to Brown), and so on. Eventually these surnames became inherited, being passed from parents to children.
We see from the history books of the Muslims that maintaining the family name was an established practice by the Arabs, which precedes the seventh century. So the custom was established in the Arab lands before it reached Europe. When Islām blessed the Arab lands, its teachings encouraged preservation of lineage and having knowledge of one’s family line. Consequently a common naming system could be established across the Muslim community. Sadly, many Islāmic traditions and practices, including the Islāmic naming system, had not become widespread knowledge among the Muslims outside of Arabia (until quite recently). Therefore, naming differed in different areas and in different families. It has to be considered: at what point individuals within the family started to adopt the practice of formally appending the family name when giving names to their children. So at the point when this is initiated, if a man passes on his name as the formal “surname” to his offspring, then his brother’s children would have different surnames to his, although they share the same lineage. This ‘point of initiation’ varies widely for families outside of Europe and Arabia, to the extent that some families have only reached that point in this century. The other consideration to note is that if there is little movement in the residency of family members, then after six or seven generations, a significant population of an area would have the same surname. This could be confusing, and also people may not feel at all close (in relation) to someone who is only related to them by looing back seven generations. Consequently there may arise some aspiration for regrouping and a new ‘point of initiation’.
In contemplating family and other ties that we have in this life, I wondered about the types of ties that connect us and the factors that influence the strength and longevity of those ties. Below are some of my thoughts – all considerations are centred on adult life (and exclude the mechanics of relationships in childhood).
The different types of ties/associations can be broadly categorised as follows:
1. Blood ties– These are already formed for us as soon as we arrive into this world. It is a ready-made network. It is only through birth and death that this network is expanded and reduced, respectively. However, we do have some control over how we maintain this network. Blood ties can be further decomposed, as follows:
a. Immediate family – parent, child, sibling, grandparent, grandchild
b. Close family – uncle/aunt, nephew/niece, cousin, great-grand(parent/child)
c. Other family/relatives
2. Ties due to marriage by one’s (blood) kin –
a. Spouse of immediate family members
b. Spouse of close family members
c. Spouse of other family/relatives
3. Ties between spouses – This is perhaps the most significant tie in adult life as it has the greatest influence over a person’s life, consequently our happiness and wellbeing has greater dependency on it.
4. Ties with spouse’s family –
a. Spouse’s immediate family (–see examples under no. 1 above) and their spouses
b. Spouse’s close family (–see examples under no. 1 above) and their spouses
c. Spouse’s other family/relatives
5. Friendship ties – This has no caveats by its own very nature and offers the individual the greatest freedom of choice. It is (generally) unrestrictive and inclusive, for example, it is possible to have a friendship with someone to whom you already have a blood tie. Friendship ties can be further decomposed, as follows:
a. Close friends
b. Fairly good friends, though not close
c. Other friends
6. Ties based merely on vicinity and interaction – Associations that persist solely because we are in close contact with those individuals, e.g. colleagues, neighbours, club members. If an association is initially formed due to vicinity but develops into a friendship, then it is no longer classified as a vicinity tie (i.e. since the tie should endure even when the vicinity factor is taken away). The vicinity tie is, by its nature, a weak one in terms of its independent foundation, but a very important one in daily life. This tie is often a stepping stone and any strength gained in the association should result in a promotion to friendship.
7. Ties of necessity and obligation – This is the association that is formed between someone who supports another in need and the one being supported. For example, when we regularly spend to support a poor/needy person.
In the list above, I have not listed in detail all the different types of family members for the categories that concern family ties, instead the “other” sub-category serves as a catch all. Similarly, I have kept the levels of the friendship tie simple and only fragmented to three broad levels. Moreover, the list above is not necessarily in the order of the strength of the tie. For example, we could have a stronger bond with a second cousin than with our brother, or a stronger bond with a friend than with many family members.
The hierarchical nature of the family tie (and its foundation being commonality of gene) poses an interesting question, which is:
At what point do we draw the boundary defining the scope of our family?
My hypothesis is that a reasonable boundary could be drawn at the point where our gene share is at least 1% (see Figure 1 below); we may refer to those members with whom our gene share is less than 1% as distant relatives. To define this boundary another way: it is where there are more than seven connections in the family tree in between the link lines that binds us. Beyond that point, the blood tie has little strength of its own accord, and if an active relationship exists, then it is because the blood tie is supplemented by additional ties, for example friendship or vicinity.
Why would we need to define the scope of our family?
Well, it's not something required formally (and we don't all need to have a common definition), but many of us who have thought about it would have some kind of scope in mind. This is because at a certain point, it becomes difficult for individuals to maintain/nourish all their ties and the blood tie is one that is very expansive. If we could all trace our lineages back to our fortieth great-grandparents, for example, then we would find that we have thousands of relatives who are alive today and living in various locations around the globe. It would be impossible to remember all of them let alone remain in contact with all of them. One example where people define the scope/boundary of their family (either consciously or unwittingly) is when issuing wedding invitations.
Figure 1 Family tree showing a person’s blood ties, inc. gene share % (source: isogg.org)
Key factors affecting strength and longevity of ties
Once any tie is formed, its strength and longevity is affected by certain factors, these include the following:
Frequency and duration of contact
Quality of interaction and communication
Balance of reciprocation, including gift exchange
Similarity of mind set – including purpose in life. worldview. ideals and values
Similarity of interest and palate
Similarity of experience and behaviour
3. External Intervention
Being influenced by others, who advise how we manage our relationships
Being influenced by events/outcomes that affect both persons in the relationship – such as business deals between them
Interaction and similarity between persons are crucial factors is maintaining ties and strengthening them. Both factors can influence one another, for example, our frequent interaction with someone could lead to some of their ideas and interests being adopted by us and vice versa. Likewise, if we have similar ideas and interests with someone, we are more likely to want to interact with them frequently. Maintaining any ties requires effort and commitment. Hence, once the tie is formed, the interaction factor is critical in sustaining it. This is also the factor, over which we have the most control. Therefore, if our tie deteriorates due to lack of interaction, then we are blameworthy. However, if our tie is weak because we have little in common with the other person (despite putting in some effort), then that is just human nature – not everyone will enjoy the company of every other person. If we do not enjoy the company of another person, then it does not necessarily mean that person is flawed; it is entirely likely that someone else will find them appealing. It is feasible that there are numerous people who do not find me interesting (though I’m fortunate to be in a social circle where people have been polite enough not to tell me explicitly). At the same time, there are also a few people who do find me mildly interesting – if you have read down to this point, then perhaps you are one of those wonderful people? :-)
 This exception to this rule is ancestry/lineage. For example, we may typically affirm a firmer blood tie with our seventh great-grandfather than our third cousin (even though the gene share % is the same). Also, from an existential perspective, every one our great-grandparents (no matter how far up the family tree) are all essential for us to have emerged into life.