When my friend was a child, her parents taught her how she was supposed to greet her grandparents when they visited. She was trained to “put her head inside her stomach” (to translate the Urdu phrase literally), which practically meant that she and the other family children would bow before their grandparents almost to the position of ruku in salah, with their hands covering their noses, saying “aadaab” (“respects”), instead of the Islamic greeting of “Assalamu alaikum”.
Even today, in some Muslim cultures, it is considered extremely disrespectful if younger people do not stand up immediately when elders arrive. It is also deemed disrespectful to watch physically healthy elders perform their tasks and errands themselves, such as cleaning or polishing their shoes or washing and ironing their clothes. The “head” position of the dining table is reserved strictly for the oldest person in the household. If they have to be driven somewhere in the car, they must occupy the front seat next to the driver – a seat reserved for the most authoritative person in the family who is not driving.
I grew up in a culture that unequivocally holds elders in high esteem and affords them enormous respect and reverence, which is, in principle and essence, directly in accordance with the tenets and injunctions of Islam:
Anas bin Malik narrated, “An older man came to talk to the Prophet, and the people were hesitant to make room for him. The Prophet said: ‘He is not one of us who does not have mercy on our young and does not respect our elders’.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
However, experience of life has taught me that we need to be very careful about letting our reverence of elders inch towards the greatest sin: shirk, or associating partners with Allah (SWT).
Obeying the Created in Disobedience of the Creator
Besides practicing or acquiescing to the culturally prevalent social etiquettes of respecting elders that border on shirk, like the example of children bowing before grandparents, we should also avoid those displays of respect that contradict the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), e.g. even though our Prophet (SAW) exhorted believers to make room for an elder when the latter arrived at a gathering, he disliked people standing up for him when he himself arrived.
The problem starts when Muslims equate the respect of elders with submissive silence in front of their transgressions. Many young people tend to stand by mutely out of fear of ‘disrespecting’ elders, as the latter commit open injustice. A very blatant example of this, which is very prevalent in the area from where I hail, is how daughters and sisters are customarily and knowingly deprived of their rightful shares of inheritance. Instead, they are given a dowry at the time of their marriage, which is considered ample ‘compensation’. When someone in the family dies, the females are coerced by older men in authority, such as grandfathers, fathers, husbands and older brothers, to ‘surrender’ their shares by signing on legal documents that they are not even allowed to read.
Another example is the often inhuman way domestic employees and maids are treated by elders who run the home. It is not uncommon for the matriarch of a house to shout and yell at a maid in front of household members for making a small mistake. Many affluent housewives quickly accuse their maids of stealing anything that goes missing from their palatial homes as the accused begs for mercy and denies it. Weeks or months after the said maid is ceremoniously fired for this, the missing item surfaces. Yet, no one in the household who watched the whole spectacle, dares to remind their elderly mother or grandmother of the major sin she has incurred upon herself by defaming her former maid’s honour and slandering her in public. Reason? It’ll be ‘disrespectful’ to remind the matriarch that her behaviour warrants repentance before Allah (SWT).
Yet another example is how an adult son submissively obeys his aging father in agreeing to undertake fraudulent financial transactions, including those dealing directly in riba (usury). Afraid of displeasing his elderly father, a son does exactly as he is told whilst running the family business, even if it means lying on paper or committing perjury.
Many religiously-inclined Muslims in the country where I live thus submissively obey their elders unconditionally, notably their parents and grandparents, knowingly becoming passive supporters of actions that are forbidden in Islam.
No one dares utter a peep out of fear of disrespecting their elders and making them angry. If someone reminds them of the prohibition of obeying any created human being in disobedience of the Creator, they promptly quote Qur’an and ahadith detailing the greatness of the parents’ rights and the obligation of honouring elders in Islam.
My Wakeup Call
I by and large adhered to the philosophy of “older people are always right” till the time I was in my twenties, despite this becoming increasingly frustrating for me as I grew older. There were times when all my worldly knowledge, human logic and common sense indicated that what an older person was emphatically saying was wrong, yet I grudgingly remained silent in front of them, out of respect. It was all about acquiescing before authority on the basis of fear of admonishment. As Allah (SWT) granted me more knowledge of the Qur’an and of the seerah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), many things began to become clearer to me.
Prophet Ibrahim and his Father
Now that you have an idea of the kind of effects the culture from which I hail had on my younger, naive psyche, you might understand how and why I was rather shocked to discover some of the things that Prophet Ibrahim (AS) said to his father, Azar. Allah (SWT) has narrated these ayat in the Quran as part of a dialogue:
“Behold, he said to his father: “O my father! Why worship that which hears not and sees not and cannot profit you?” [19:42]
Ibrahim (AS) openly challenged his father’s beliefs as a youth. Please keep in mind that his father was a non-Muslim polytheist who worshipped many gods. Nevertheless, the obligation of respecting his father didn’t stop the confident young Ibrahim (AS) from appealing to his human logic and common sense in order to entreat him to worship only one god, at one point clearly saying, “I see you and your people in open misguidance!” [6:74]
These verses of the Qur’an shocked the daylights out of me. I could never imagine saying such a thing to a parent, because it would be considered extremely disrespectful in the society in which I was brought up.
The Critical Balance
I am aware how many Muslims tend to view things from polarised ends: either they go to one extreme of respecting elders and bygone forefathers to the extent that they give the pleasure of their elders preference over the pleasure of Allah (SWT). At the other extreme, young people become so rude and disobedient towards their elders that they raise their voices and talk back at them and disregard their feelings and preferences totally.
I want to remind every reader that we have to maintain a critical balance. Allah’s (SWT) pleasure should always reign supreme for us all. Not even our elders – be they bygone forefathers or those who are alive – deserve the kind of awe and reverence that should be reserved only for Allah (SWT).
Elders are not above correction and sincere nasihah (reminding), especially when they err and/or consistently commit sins. If we see our elders doing something on a habitual basis that displeases Allah (SWT), it is obligatory upon us to remind them to abstain from it and to fear Allah (SWT). However, in doing so, we should use the most loving, kind and gentle tone. We must never rebuke them or speak to them rudely or disrespectfully.
Sadaf Farooqi secretly fears that if she lives to be very old, no one will correct her for fear of ‘disrespecting’ an elder.