The Etiquette of Dealing with Parents and The Elderly

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In Sūrat’l-Kāhf in the famous story of Khidr (peace be upon him) and his encounter with Mūsa – a story that all of you have heard and read numerous times – Khidr meets three people, and each time he meets one of them, he does something very strange. One of the three people that he meets is a young man. What does Khidr do when he sees this young man walking along the beach, as the riwāyāt tell us? He kills him. Mūsa (peace be upon him) cannot believe what he is seeing. “Have you killed an innocent soul? How could you have done this? How could you have taken the life of another human being?”

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)

Khidr (peace be upon him) of course, as you know, is doing this as a commandment from Allāh ﷻ and a waḥy from Allāh ﷻ. He says to Mūsa (peace be upon him), “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 Allāh ﷻ 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 Allāh ﷻ wanted to take this one away and substitute with another one who will be merciful to them.”

This story tells us much, but one of the things it tells us is that one of the most painful experiences of human existence and one of the most emotionally traumatic situations that any person can find himself or herself in is to find a son or daughter who is displeasing to them and to raise a child with love and mercy and tenderness and to have this child grow up and flourish in front of their 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 son or daughter 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 whom they expected nothing but mercy and tenderness in response to – 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 more profound than anything else. That is why, as a mercy to righteous parents, Allāh ﷻ actually decided to take this ghulām 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 if he were allowed to remain and allowed to flourish and yet he would 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.

Brothers and sisters, I am sure that each one of you has heard many khuṭbahs, many durūs, many Islamic lectures about the rights that parents have and about the rights that children have to do when they treat their parents. How can you not have heard such lectures when the Qurʾān treats the rights of parents second only to Allāh ﷻ. I am sure that the verses and aḥadīth have been memorized by you. Wallāhi, they need to be memorized and they need to be understood. Yet, Allāh ﷻ still reminds us in the Qurʾān,

  “Remind them even if they have heard before. Mention it again because mentioning it again and reminding them benefits the believers.”

Allāh ﷻ emphasizes the rights of the parents using the strongest nouns, strongest verbs, and strongest adjectives. He always emphasizes the rights of the parents after He emphasizes His own rights, “Your Lord has decreed…” This is the decree of Allāh ﷻ 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 iḥsān.”

What does iḥsān mean? Iḥsān comes from ḥusn, and ḥusn means perfection. The state of iḥsān as defined by Al-Rāghib Al-Asbahani and 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 iḥsān 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). You are giving and it is a one-way street. There is nothing in return that you want back. Why? Because my parents have already given me far more than I can ever pay back. My parents have already done for me much more than I can possibly do for them. Now it is my time to try to not even repay the favour because that is never going to happen, but at least do my duty as a loyal son. In another famous verse, Allāh ﷻ 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, Allāh ﷻ 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 off of. 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 slightest expression of contempt. The Arabic scholars tell us the slightest expression of irritation and anger is uff. When you are irritated, the slightest thing you can say is uff. Allāh ﷻ is saying, “Don’t say uff to them.” Ibn ‘Abbās (RA) said, “Had there been a word lesser than uff, Allāh ﷻ would have used it in this verse.” Had there been a word lesser than uff to describe a state of exasperation or frustration, Allāh ﷻ would have used it here.

The meaning here is that when your parents reach that age when you have to now 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 as we all know. No matter how old you are – 40, 50, 60 – in their eyes, and they have every right to do this, you are always their little baby. They are going to command you and tell you this and that, and you being māshā’Allāh 30 or 40 or 50 or however old you are, think that khalās 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. Allāh ﷻ says,

  “Don’t say uff to them.”

The beauty of the Qurʾān here is that Allāh ﷻ does not command you with more than you can bear. Notice Allāh ﷻ doesn’t say don’t get angry and Allāh ﷻ doesn’t say don’t get frustrated and Allāh ﷻ doesn’t say don’t get emotional because that is inside the heart. What Allāh ﷻ 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. Allāh ﷻ didn’t tell you to not get frustrated. Allāh ﷻ 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.

Likewise, in the beautiful story of Luqmān (‘alayhi’l-salām) when he is giving advice to his son, “When Luqmān said to his son, ‘Don’t commit shirk with Allāh ﷻ. Verily shirk is the worst of all sins.” Then Allāh ﷻ said,

  “We are the ones who told mankind to treat his parents with kindness, iḥsān, and gentleness.”

The next verses, “Luqmān said…Luqmān said…Luqmān said…” What I am trying to emphasize here is that there is a passage one page long in Sūrah Luqmān. Every single verse begins with, “Luqmān said to his son, ‘Ya bunayy…’” There is only one verse in which Allāh ﷻ speaks directly,

  “We are the ones who told mankind to take care of their parents.”

It is not Luqmān telling his son, “O my son, take care of us.” In only one of these verses Allāh removed the voice of Luqmān and spoke in His own voice. Scholars say this is to emphasize that Luqmān when he is preaching to his son to be righteous is not doing it out of his own selfish motivation. He is not doing it based on “I am your father, treat me like this.” Rather, Allāh ﷻ took this obligation from him and Allāh ﷻ spoke on behalf of him, and Allāh said,

  “This is Our Commandment. We are the ones who commanded mankind to treat their parents with gentleness and mercy.”

The Prophet ﷺ in numerous aḥadīth elaborated on this concept of treating parents with mercy and tenderness. We can go on and on about this fact. Once it is narrated he ﷺ entered Jannah and he heard somebody reciting the Qurʾān in a beautiful voice. He asked Jibrīl, “Who is this person?” He was told, “This is al-Ḥaritha b. Nu‘man [a famous companion of the anṣār].”

The Prophet ﷺ said,

 “ This is what bird does to a man. al-Ḥaritha used to be good and righteous to his mother.

He hears Ḥaritha reading Qurʾān in Jannah, and automatically he links it to only one action: this is what righteous does; he used to be good to his mother.

You all know the story of Uways al-Qarni, and if not, we will summarize it briefly. Uways al-Qarni was not a companion; he was a tabi‘i. He never met the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ told ‘Umar b. Al-Khaṭṭāb, “There will come to you a man from Yemen…” And he described him in detail. He said, “His name is Uways from the tribe of Qarn. When he comes to you, then ask him to make du‘ā’ for you.”

He is asking ‘Umar to ask this man he has never seen to make du‘ā’ for him. Why? He was righteous to his mother. ‘Umar b. Al-Khaṭṭāb, being who he is, is told to go to this man because he was righteous to his mother. Some books of history mention a story – Allāh ﷻ knows how authentic it is, but it is mentioned in our classical sources – that Uways al-Qarni was the only son, and his father had passed away. He was taking care of his mother in a very dutiful manner. He asks and begs permission to go to Madīnah and meet the Prophet ﷺ. His mother grudgingly allows him to go but says, “You know that I need you; therefore, I only give you a day or two in Madīnah. As soon as you get there, meet the Prophet ﷺ and come back.”

It is said that Uways travelled from Yemen all the way to Madīnah, and when he got there, lo and behold, the Prophet ﷺ was away on an expedition and wasn’t in Madīnah.

Now he was stuck between two options. The first was to wait a week or two and wait for the Prophet ﷺ to return. He has travelled from Yemen, which is already a month’s journey. If he did, he would be raised in status eternally from a tabi‘i to a ṣaḥābah.

The second option was to listen to his mother. What did he choose to do? He chose to obey his mother and give up this voluntary status. Being a ṣaḥābi is a privilege but it is not wājib. Listening to your mother is wājib. According to this riwāyah, Uways al-Qarni stayed a day or two, as much as his mother had allowed him, and then he rode his mount all the way back to Yemen. He voluntarily and willingly gave up that status in order to please his mother.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Prophet ﷺ said what he said to ‘Umar b. Al-Khaṭṭāb that, “When Uways al-Qarni comes to you, ask him to make du‘ā’ to Allāh ﷻ because this is a man who used to treat his mother with righteousness and birr.” SubḥānAllāh, this shows us that if we really want our du‘ā’s to be accepted, then let us treat our parents with the dignity and respect that they deserve. If we want Allāh to bless us and if we want the Prophet ﷺ to know who we are – Uways al-Qarni and the Prophet ﷺ never met, but Allāh’s waḥy came down and Jibrīl told him who Uways al-Qarni was. How magnificent of a status did this man have that Jibrīl comes down to inform our Prophet ﷺ about this beautiful human being whose only good that we know of was he was somebody who treated his mother with birr. That is why the Prophet ﷺ never ceased to remind us to take care of our parents with the utmost gentleness and kindness.

In one ḥadīth, he said,

 “ The largest door to Jannah and the middle door to Jannah that any person has are that of his parents.

His parents are the easiest way that a person can enter Jannah. If you treat your parents with the love and respect that they deserve, the easiest way to enter Jannah will be through that door.

In yet another ḥadīth, the Prophet ﷺ said,

 “ The pleasure of Allāh ﷻ is in the pleasure of the parents, and the anger of Allāh ﷻ 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, inshā’Allāh ta‘āla this is a source of expiation and kaffārah for you. Once a man came to Ibn ‘Abbās (RH) and said, “O Ibn ‘Abbās (RH), 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 up for this?” Ibn ‘Abbās (RH) said, “Are your parents alive?” He said, “My mother is alive.” Ibn ‘Abbās (RH) said, “Go and serve her because wallāhi, I know of no good deed that cleanses a man of all of his sins than servicing his parents.”

Another motif of the Sunnah, which is in at least four or five aḥadīth, we learn that even struggling in the way of Allāh ﷻ and even participating in a legitimate jihād. The fact of the matter is, we need to overcome this trepidation and this hesitation, and we need to say very clearly that jihād is a concept of our religion and it is mentioned in the Qurʾān in hundreds of verses and in the ḥadīth dozens of times. It is mentioned in a noble manner, and there is nothing wrong with the concept of jihād. What is wrong is how certain Muslims have misunderstood it. The concept of jihād remains a noble striving for the sake of Allāh ﷻ. Jihād means you strive for the sake of Allāh ﷻ. It does not mean you go and kill innocent people. It doesn’t mean you go and bomb civilians. It doesn’t mean you misinterpret your religion of Islam and do that which damages your own people more than it damages others. The concept of jihād is a noble one. We should not be ashamed and we should not be shy from using this word.

We need to reclaim the word with dignity and honour as we explain to others and non-Muslims the reality of this word. What those people are doing is not jihād. There are aspects of jihād and a concept of jihād that is a part of our tradition.

I want to talk about this motif that is mentioned in more than one ḥadīth which is helping your parents is better than doing a legitimate jihād. This is really relevant, especially in our times when we are facing a little bit of a crisis of certain youngsters, undereducated and overzealous, who think that they will revive the glory of Islam by doing acts of ridiculousness, militancy and violence and they go overseas and participate in military expeditions in Somalia and Iraq and Afghanistan and bring about the days of Salahuddin Al-Ayubi. For these youngsters amongst us who have been deluded by certain clerics and are being brainwashed, I say in all sincerity to them: open up the Qurʾān and Sunnah and read some basic āyāt and aḥadīth.

A man comes to the Prophet ﷺ says, “Ya Rasūlullāh, I have come here to go and fight for the sake of Allāh and do jihād for the sake of Allāh ﷻ, so what do you advise me? Where should I go?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “Is your mother alive?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “Go and stick with her because Jannah is under her feet.” He wants to go for jihād, and this is a legitimate jihād – not the illegitimate type that we find in our times of killing innocent people and bombing airplanes and doing things of utter and sheer stupidity which is un-Islamic and downright evil and foolish. This man says, “I’ve come to do jihād.” What does the Prophet ﷺ say? “Is your mother alive? Go struggle in taking care of her and struggle in maintaining the ties of kinship and ties of loyalty that your mother deserves.”

In another tradition narrated in the Musnad of Imam Aḥmad, a man comes to the Prophet ﷺ and says, “O Messenger of Allāh ﷻ, 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 jihād 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 ﷺ. He is trying to boast to the Prophet ﷺ that he has done so much for the sake of jihād that he even left his mother and father crying. The Prophet ﷺ said, “Go back to them and make them laugh just like you made them cry.” You want to do jihād? What a joke! You have left your parents angry at you, what kind of Muslim are you? You want to go do jihād and your parents are crying? You want the pleasure of Allāh ﷻ by angering your parents? You want to please Allāh ﷻ by displeasing your parents? “Go back to them right now and make them laugh as you had made them cry.”

This is the real jihād, brothers and sisters. This is what we need to tell our young, overzealous, undereducated youth. Wallāhi it is easy to log onto a few chat forums and talk some grandiose, ultra-romanticized, utopic talks about how you are going to do this and that, but it is very difficult to listen to your mother and father. It is very difficult to be a good son and daughter. Allāh ﷻ tells us very clearly that is the real jihād.

What can we do with our parents? In other words, what does Allāh ﷻ require from us? To summarize very briefly, if one’s parents are alive a number of things can be done. First and foremost, financial rights and obligations. No doubt, parents have financial rights over us.

Secondly, physically helping and serving them. Taking care of their needs, giving them food and water, making food for them. Instead of your mother going to the kitchen to get a glass of water, wallāhi this is your duty. If you see your mother stand up to do something, you should stand up and do it for her. The Prophet ﷺ said to the ṣaḥābi, “Go and stick to her feet…” This is an Arabic expression and means to go and lower yourself to her and humble yourself to her. You are literally and metaphorically a servant. “Go and stick to her feet because Jannah is under her feet.”

Thirdly, respecting them, controlling your anger in front of them, and never showing your irritation. Next time you feel irritated against your parents, remind yourself of the verse of Allāh ﷻ, “Don’t say uff.” Ask Allāh ﷻ to help you in preventing to say that uff even if you feel it and even if you feel the anger and frustration, close it. Withdraw and withhold that sentiment from being expressed.

Lastly, showing your love to them. Going above and beyond the call of duty. This is what Allāh ﷻ says,

  “Lower unto them your wings of mercy.”

If your parents have passed away, one or both of them, then no doubt this is a great loss and a very traumatic experience. Once it is narrated that the father of the famous companion al-Ḥarith al-Aqli passed away, and he was uncontrollably crying. The ṣaḥābah around him consoled him and said, “Inshā’Allāh he is in Jannah and inshā’Allāh Allāh has forgiven him.” He said to them, “Do you think that I am crying because he has passed on? Wallāhi I am sad that he has passed on, but that is not why I am crying. I am crying because my main door to Jannah has now been taken away from me. This is how I wanted to get to Jannah.”

The father of another ṣaḥābi died and he said, “For one year after he died, every time I raised my hands I could not think of any du‘ā’ except for him. All I could think of was to make du‘ā’ for him.” After a parent dies and moves on to the next life, still a lot can be done. First and foremost, as the ṣaḥābi said, seek forgiveness for them and ask Allāh to forgive them and raise their ranks for them. Make du‘ā’ 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 ṣadaqah. Give money and say, “O Allāh ﷻ, reward my mother for this ten, twenty, thirty dollars.” Give regularly – every week, every month. Give something on their behalf and say, “O Allāh ﷻ, give this reward to my mother and father.” Sacrifice an animal, mentioning Allāh’s ﷻ Name and giving it to the poor and saying, “O Allāh ﷻ, reward my mother for feeding the poor.”

Also, make Ḥajj and ‘Umrah for them. Making Ḥajj and ‘Umrah is one of the greatest and most noble acts that you can do as a son or a daughter as long as you have done Ḥajj and ‘Umrah. When you put on ihram, “Labbayk on behalf of my mother” or “Labbayk on behalf of my father.” Then, each and every penny, minute and toil and circumstance that you face, Allāh ﷻ will reward your mother, and you will be rewarded as a righteous son for doing this for your mother.

Also, the Prophet ﷺ said one of the ways we can show respect to the parents and to fulfil 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 have met otherwise. In other words, our parents have their circle of friends, and because they were alive, we would also go to those friends and distant relatives. When they have moved on, we have no reason to communicate with them. We have nothing much in common. The only thing we have in common is our parents. The Prophet ﷺ said,

 “ A part of being a good son and a good daughter is that after your parents have moved on, go to those relatives and family members and acquaintances and friends for the sake of your parents.

Some scholars have derived the wisdom behind this, and they say one of the wisdoms is that when you go to these people, and of course they will be of a different age and generation than you, 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 ﷺ.

Let me conclude by quoting a very interesting and beautiful tradition that is reported from the famous companion Ibn ‘Abbās (RA). It is narrated that once a man was doing ṭawāf around the Ka‘bah and had his mother on his back. He saw Ibn ‘Abbās (RA) in the distance, so he came running over to him and said, “O Ibn ‘Abbās (RA), 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 (RA) smiled and he said, “You have done good, but you have not even done a fraction of what you should.” In other words, “Alḥamdulillāh, 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 (RA) said one thing, and wallāhi this shows their understanding of human psychology and human nature. The ṣaḥābah are at a different level than us completely. Ibn Abbās (RA) 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. How can you possibly compare?

Brothers and sisters, parents are the best blessing that Allāh ﷻ has given us after īmān. Parents are the largest door to Jannah and the easiest way to get to Jannah. In the famous ḥadīth of the Prophet ﷺ, and with this ḥadīth we will conclude, as he is climbing the steps of the minbar in front of hundreds of thousands of ṣaḥābah and each time he climbs, he says, “Amīn! Amīn! Amīn!” Then he turns around and says, “I will explain to you why I said, ‘Amīn.’ Jibrīl came to me and he told me three things. Every time he told me one thing, he said, ‘Say, “Amīn,”’ so I said, ‘Amīn.’ The last one that he said was, “O Muḥammad ﷺ any person of your ummah who manages to catch a parent [in other words: whose parents live to old age] and they still are not capable of having their sins forgiven and entering Jannah [in other words, if Allāh ﷻ blesses you with an elderly parent and you still cannot earn Allāh’s ﷻ Pleasure] then may that person perish.”

In other words, if you have elderly parents and you are not able to earn Allāh’s ﷻ Pleasure through them, you will not earn it through any other means. “Say ‘Amīn,’ ya Rasūlullāh.” So the Prophet ﷺ said, “Amīn.”

Brothers and sisters, simple point. Bottom line. If your parents are alive, the only way to be a pleasing servant to Allāh ﷻ 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 Allāh ﷻ. The parents have ultimate priority in this world.

May Allāh ﷻ allow us to be righteous servants. May Allāh ﷻ allow us to be dutiful and loving sons and daughters. May He give us the patience and the īmān and the tawfīq to take care of our parents the way that they deserve and the way that Allāh ﷻ has commanded from us. May He allow us to live as Muslims, to die as Muslims, and to be resurrected as Muslims.

(NOTE: If you want to build a strong and powerful relationship with Allah, check out Islamia TV, where you can watch Islamic speakers from across the globe deliver inspiring and motivational courses. Learn more at www.islamia.tv.)



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