So What About the Family?

By Yahiya Emerick


"Your Lord has ordered that you serve no one except Him, and that you be good to your parents. If one or both of your parents become old, never say disrespectful things to them. Instead talk to them with noble words. And out of kindness lower your wing to them humbly and say, 'My Lord, give them Mercy even like they cared for me when I was a child.'"

-Qur’an - 17:23-24

In this verse from the Holy Qur’an, our Lord gives us directions on how to treat our parents, especially if they become old and come to depend on us.  Allah (swt) tells us that we must speak kindly to them and ask for Mercy for them. He even shows us an important lesson in the words He gives us for prayer. The prayer says, "My Lord, give them Mercy even like they cared for me when I was a child."

We often forget our obligation towards our elderly parents because life has a way of keeping us busy and focused on one task after another.  Teenagers are constantly looking to enter the world of adulthood and all of its freedoms.  Twenty-somethings just want to establish themselves.  Thirty and forty-somethings want to solidify and maintain their gains. 

When we enter the fifties perhaps we want to relax a little and enjoy the fruits of our labors.  Elderly people are often left out of all our concerns.  This is a tragic state of affairs because a community is like an organic being.  Each part needs to play its role for the whole to function and continue onwards indefinitely.  

The way Islam sees the ideal family structure is simple.  It consists of a mother and father living together (one may be a step-parent or they may be adoptive parents), and they will work together to take care of their children.  And when the children grow up and the parents are old, then the adult children should help take care of their old and weak parents. And when the children who grew up have kids of their own, the grandparents must help take care of the new little ones.  

And so it goes on and on and on. New babies come in, the older respected grandparents and even great grandparents, start to leave this life and go on into the next – but not before passing on their lifetime of accumulated wisdom, culture and knowledge to the young.  A successful community is made up of many families just like this, who collectively make a strong, extended network of well-adjusted and cared for members.

I'm sure a lot of people know what I'm talking about when I mention the endless cycle of life, and it seems to be still working okay in many traditional places around the world for the most part. But what happens when you take a Muslim family and put them in a place where people look at the role of parents a little differently?  

What happens when you raise Muslim kids in a country where parents are not so valuable? And what happens if you live here and you don't practice Islam strongly or you don't work hard enough to teach it to your children?  This can cause families to fail, and by extension communities will remain weak, as well.

Let me tell you what I mean, in the United States today, the divorce rate among married people is around 50 percent. What that says is that for every 100 couples who get married, 50 will get a divorce within a few years, and what's worse, many of these divorces involve children. And then you have the whole other problem of all the kids born to a mother and father who were never married in the first place or who separate early on.  Many of these kids will never know their fathers or at best, they'll see one parent one week and another parent the other week.

Why should these kids who grow up in this unstable environment feel like their parents are special or deserve respect? After all so many parents aren't even around for their kids, so do you think the kids will ever want to be around for them?  Popular culture is filled with movies, television shows, stories and more in which the parents play next to no role at all in the lives of children or young adults.  Your children exist in this world right now, a world in which half the kids in the neighborhood or school come from broken or unstable homes of one sort or another.

What about kids who do have two parents in the home?  Do they automatically receive a sense of obligation to their parents?  Look at what happens all too often in modern times.  Today you have so many working mothers and fathers that many times the poor young kids are put into day-care centers to be raised by minimum wage strangers!

So many children are going to grow up knowing that when their parents were too busy for them, they put them in a place to be watched over by minimum wage strangers.  So is it any surprise that later on in life, when their parents are old and retired, and they’re too busy to take care of them, that they are going to put them in an old folk’s home to be watched over by who? – minimum wage strangers!  And they won't see anything wrong with it because it was done to them.

This pattern is the normal way in many modern societies because the attitude has evolved that parents are just people you need for a few years to pay for stuff and then you don't need them anymore nor do you have to care for them because there’s retirement homes where they can sit unseen.  And because modern cultures say that money and things are the best goals to have, the kids buy into this idea lock, stock and barrel.

They see their parents giving them lots of stuff, so they come to expect and demand lots of goodies. So when the parents are old and weak and can't give things anymore, who needs them?  Muslim must resist these types of values if they want to build a community that will continue on into the future.

A strong Muslim community can be built anywhere in the world, even in a predominately non-Muslim place.  There are many examples of expatriate Muslim communities in former times that grew and prospered such as in East Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia and many other places.  Two key ingredients allowed these communities to survive and prosper for generations at a time: respect for the old among the family and then allowing the old to help shape the minds and values of the young.  The parents in between were like brokers – providing a safe space for the young children and the elder family members to interact and pass on things that would otherwise be lost.

How should we raise our children to be productive members of our growing community?  Here is a story from our past to ponder over. 

Once a king said to one of his wise ministers, "Show me the people who think they have sweet parents and those who think they have mean parents."

The Minister took the king to a market and pointed to a person who was pushing a hand cart. He told the king that this person thought he had very sweet parents. But because his parents always fulfilled his demands, he did not learn to provide well for himself.

After the death of the parents he could not live the same kind of life. Now he was forced to do a tough job in order to meet his needs. The Minister pointed to another well-dressed person who was riding on a carriage which was followed by many horse riders.

The Minister told the king that this person was successful because his parents had strict rules for him and that he used to think that they were very mean parents because of the rules he hated. But the rules he hated made him a successful person.

Then how should we view the place of our elderly parents in our lives?  Here is another story to illustrate this second point.

The classical writer, Sa’di Shirazi (d. 1291), once wrote: “In the folly of youth, I one day shouted at my mother, who then sat down with a grieved heart in a corner and said, while weeping, ‘Have you so forgotten your infancy that you’ve now become so harsh towards me?'  How sweetly said the old woman to her son, whom she saw could overpower a tiger and had become as strong as an elephant:  'If you had remembered the time of your infancy - how helpless you were in my arms - you wouldn’t this day have been so harsh, for you’re now a man who is as strong as a lion, but only because I’m an old woman now.’

In closing, I believe that we can build a strong community in this area.  We have strong foundations and our community leaders have worked tirelessly to build a beautiful masjid and make it relevant in our lives.  The only other ingredient we need is for us to structure our families into strong units that can support this community now and into the future. 

We must teach our children that material wealth is not the purpose of life, even as we must bring our elderly parents and community members into our lives as respected stores of knowledge and wisdom.  May our Lord give us the foresight and strength to build a community based on many generations all working together for a common cause – the pleasure of our Lord and ultimate Judge.  Ameen to that!


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