The Etiquette of Dealing with Parents and the Elderly
In childhood they carried our burden and in their old age they become dependent upon us. May Allah allow us all to achieve Jannah by serving our parents.
The Etiquette of Dealing with
Parents and the Elderly
In Sūrat’l-Kāhf (a chapter of the Quran) is the famous story of Khidr (p.b.u.h) and his encounter with Moses (pbuh). Khidr meets three people, and each time he meets one of them, he does something strange. One of the three people that he meets is a young man. What does Khidr do when he sees this young man? He kills him. Moses (pbuh) is shocked. “Have you killed an innocent soul?” Khidr is doing this as a commandment from God. He says to Moses (pbuh), “I told you [that] you can’t be patient with me.” At the end of the story, what do we find out? “As for this person that I killed, their parents were good people, and God knew that if we caused this young man to grow older and mature, he would have caused much grief and hardship to his parents, so God wanted to replace him with one who will be merciful to them.”
One of the things this story tells us is that one of the most painful experiences of human existence and one of the most emotionally traumatic situations is to find a son or daughter who is displeasing. To raise a child with love and mercy and tenderness and to have this child grow up and flourish in front of one’s eyes, and to spend one’s entire livelihood, one’s savings, one’s life and time and efforts on this young son or daughter and then to find this son or daughter turns around and goes against them. This child treats them in a harsh or rude manner. This human being, because of whom they felt motivated to live – a child motivates a parent to live – and this human being because of whom they changed their whole life plans and worked hard and struggled; someone from whom they expected nothing but mercy and tenderness in return – instead, when this child turns against the parent and treats them with contempt and arrogance, ridicule, sarcasm, the emotional trauma and distress that a parent feels is the most profound. That is why, as a mercy to righteous parents, God actually decided to take this servant away because if he were allowed to live, he would have caused distress and grief.
This is something one needs to think about. Parents would be less distressed at the death of their child and at the nonexistence of this boy that they raised than they would be if he were allowed to remain and allowed to flourish and cause them grief and harm. This really shows us how much a parent loves a child and how important it is that the children treat their parents with that love and respect that is due to them.
God emphasizes the rights of the parents using the strongest nouns, strongest verbs, and strongest adjectives. He always emphasizes the rights of the parents straight after He emphasizes His own rights. “Your Lord has decreed…” This is the decree of God and this is the eternal decree upon which there is no other decree that will supersede it. “…that you shall worship none except Him and that you should treat your parents with ihsān.”
What does ihsān mean? Ihsān comes from husn, and husn means perfection. The state of ihsān as defined many of the famous commentators of the Arabic language means that you give everything you possibly can to the other party without expecting anything back from them. This is what the state of ihsān is. You give everything you can – your heart and your soul, your body and your efforts – and what do you want in return? Absolutely nothing. That is the state of iḥsān (perfection). My parents have already done for me much more than I can possibly do for them.
In another famous verse, God says, “We took a covenant with the children of Israel that they worship none except God and they treat their parents with iḥsān.” In yet another verse, God tells us that when your parents reach an elderly age, don’t even say uff to them. Scholars of the Arabic language tell us uff is an expression or phrase that actually doesn’t have a verbal meaning. There is no noun that it is based of uff. It is simply a sound that is uttered like when you are hurt and say “ouch.” It is not a noun, and it is not a verb; it is simply a sound. Uff is the least expression of contempt. The Arabic scholars tell us the least expression of irritation and anger is uff. God is saying, “Don’t even say uff to them.” Ibn ‘Abbās said, “Had there been a word lesser than uff, God would have used it in this verse.”
The meaning here is that when your parents reach that age when you have to take care of them, they will do things that will irritate you. They will treat you in ways that you will find troublesome. Why? Because you are not a child anymore; you are an adult, but for your parents, you are always going to be a child. No matter how old you are – 40, 50, 60 – in their eyes, you are always their little baby. They are going to command you and tell you this and that, and you being 30 or 40 or 50, will think that you are in charge. It is very easy to lose track of the fact that when your parents are there, you are always going to be their little baby. God says, “Don’t even say uff to them.”
The beauty of the Qurʾān here is that God does not command you with more than you can bear. Notice God doesn’t say don’t get angry and God doesn’t say don’t get frustrated and Allāh doesn’t say don’t get emotional because that is inside the heart. What God does say is don’t express that emotion externally; control it, trap it, and make sure it is not manifest to your parents. This is the beauty of our religion. Anybody who is dealing with elderly parents knows this first hand. It is very difficult to take care of elderly parents. It is very frustrating. God didn’t tell you to not get frustrated. God said, “Don’t express that frustration. Don’t let it manifest. Don’t let anything come that will show your parents you are frustrated. Trap it; keep it within you.” Outwardly, show them the respect that they deserved, even if it has to be forced.
In another saying of the Prophet, the Prophet (pbuh) said, “The pleasure of God is in the pleasure of the parents, and the anger of God is in the anger of the parents.” If your parents are happy with you, then even if you have other sins and other major problems, if God permits this is a source of expiation and kaffārah for you. Once a man came to Ibn ‘Abbās (a companion of the Prophet) and said, “O Ibn ‘Abbās, I have done this and I have done that. I have fornicated and I have drunk wine” He basically did every sin in the book. “What can I do to make amends?” Ibn ‘Abbās said, “Are your parents alive?” He said, “My mother is alive.” Ibn ‘Abbās said, “Go and serve her because I know of no good deed that cleanses a man of all of his sins than servicing his parents.”
In another tradition narrated in the Musnad of Imam Aḥmad, a man comes to the Prophet (pbuh) and says, “O Messenger of God, I have come from a far away land [in some versions he says Yemen], and I have immigrated to Madīnah in order to be with you and do jihad (striving in the way of God) behind you, and I have even left my parents crying in order to be with you.” This is the first time he is seeing the Prophet (pbuh). He is trying to boast to the Prophet (pbuh) that he has done so much for the sake of jihād that he even left his mother and father crying. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “Go back to them and make them laugh just like you made them cry.”
After a parent dies and moves on to the next life, still a lot can be done. First and foremost, as the companion of the Prophet (pbuh) said, seek forgiveness for them and ask God to forgive them and raise their ranks. Pray for them. Secondly, make sure that their wishes, requests, and wills were fulfilled. Make sure that anything they wanted done is executed on their behalf. Thirdly, give Sadaqah (charity). Give money and say, “O God, reward my mother for this ten, twenty, thirty dollars.”
Also, make Ḥajj and ‘Umrah (pilgrimage to Makkah) for them. Making Ḥajj and ‘Umrah is one of the greatest and most noble acts that you can do as a child as long as you have done your own Ḥajj and ‘Umrah.
Also, the Prophet (pbuh) said one of the ways we can show respect to the parents and to fulfill their rights after they have moved on is – and this is something hardly anybody does – meet the friends and relatives of our parents who we would not meet otherwise.Some scholars have derived the wisdom behind this. They say that when you go to these people, you don’t have much in common except one thing: your mother, your father. What will the topic of discussion be? Your mother or your father. What do you think will happen when this person reminds you of how they interacted and what your mother did? How will you feel after that? You will feel so much love and tenderness and want to go home and give ṣadaqah on her behalf and make du‘ā’ for her. That love will be rejuvenated and revived. Therefore, by visiting the friends and relatives of our deceased parents, the love of our parents is once again rekindled within us. This is one of the wisdoms some of the scholars derived from this particular legacy of the Prophet (pbuh).
Let me conclude by quoting a very interesting and beautiful tradition that is reported from the famous companion Ibn ‘Abbās (pbuh). It is narrated that once a man was doing ṭawāfaround the Ka‘bah and had his mother on his back. He saw Ibn ‘Abbās in the distance, so he came running over to him and said, “O Ibn ‘Abbās, this elderly lady on my back is my mother. She has been asking to come for Ḥajj for as long as I can remember. She has always wanted to go for Ḥajj, and I could not afford to buy an animal to bring her, so this year I decided to carry her on my back and do Ḥajj with her on my back. Have I now fulfilled the rights of a son to his mother?” Ibn ‘Abbās smiled and he said, “You have done good, but you have not even done a fraction of what you should.” In other words: “Alḥamdulillāh (all praise be due to God), you are a good son, but don’t come and tell me ‘Have I fulfilled the rights of my mother?’”
The man said, “O Ibn ‘Abbās, I have come from the city of so-and-so [me mentioned a far-away city] carrying my mother on my back, and you are telling me I haven’t done even a fraction?” Ibn Abbās said, “You haven’t done a fraction of what your mother did to you because when your mother took care of you and did everything that she did for you, her goal was to give you life. She did it out of love and to see you flourish. She did it genuinely for your own nourishment and flourishing. Now when you are paying her back, you are doing it as a duty and burden. You are doing it out of a sense of guilt and duty, and you are waiting for the day that she dies. You are not wanting to see her flourish and live. You are simply doing it as a dutiful son. You don’t have the same genuine, selfless love that your parents had for you when they did what they did.”
Simply one psychological statement: your parents did for you everything to see you live and flourish. When you become old and they are now the ones being taken care of, you are not doing it in the same philosophy. You are doing it as a burden and to pay back. How can you compare the two? One is selfless love and the other a sense of gratitude and duty.
If your parents are alive, the only way to be a pleasing servant to Allāh and the only way to be a good Muslim is to have your parents love you. If your parents are angry with you or if your parents are not happy with you and you are not trying to change that situation, it doesn’t matter what you do in the eyes of God. The parents have ultimate priority in this world.
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