One of the most painful moments for a grown child is to realize that his parents are human.
Generally, young children look up adoringly at their parents in childhood, seeing them as superheroes and perfect role models. Most children mimic their parents and dream of growing up and being just like Baba or Mama.
And as Muslims, we know the immense value of parents and the immeasurable reward Allah has given to righteous Muslim parents. The ayat and ahadeeth are many and powerful. Birr al-waalidayn ( بِرّ الوالدين, goodness to parents ) is among the most important values in Islam.
But then something happens, either in your teens or twenties or thirties or forties. At some point, there comes a particular incident in almost every person’s life in which the humanity, the flaws, the weaknesses of the parents are clearly demonstrated. And the child is forced to confront the flaws in his own thinking as he stares at his parents’ flaws and sees them for what they are for the first time ever.
There is a shock there, a state of bafflement and incomprehension. This is followed by a process akin to mourning. You are mourning a kind of loss. The loss of a certain idea, an ideal, a theoretical concept: the infallibility of your parents.
Then, hopefully, understanding dawns.
Nobody is perfect, not even our perfect parents.
كل ابن آدم خطاء…
Each child of Adam is a maker of mistakes, as the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم tells us.
As adults, we must learn to take our parents gently off the pedestal we had put them on in childhood.
Learn to let go of our fantasy of perfection and give our parents back their full humanity. Their humanness. Their innate inevitable ability to make mistakes.
With this comes an inevitable new question: What do I owe my parents?
Different paradigms and cultures and times and places have had different answers. And of course, Islam has the actual answer.
The Arabs of ancient Quraysh had immense love for and loyalty to their parents, especially their fathers. The status of the father in the eyes of his son was immense. They thought of their own child as replaceable (you can have another child), the spouse as replaceable (you can remarry), but you only have one father who is irreplaceable. In battles, if the father of a Qurayshi was killed by the other side, they would typically seek revenge in a bigger way than if a different family member was killed. Nobody mattered more than the father. Total respect and obedience.
And often, this was the reason that the muskhrikeen did not accept Islam even if they knew it to be the Truth: I refuse to deviate from the way of my parents and their parents.
وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمُ ٱتَّبِعُوا۟ مَآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ قَالُوا۟ بَلْ نَتَّبِعُ مَآ أَلْفَيْنَا عَلَيْهِ ءَابَآءَنَآ ۗ أَوَلَوْ كَانَ ءَابَآؤُهُمْ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ شَيْـًٔا وَلَا يَهْتَدُونَ
“And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided? ” (Surat Al-Baqara, 170)
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the modern west. Parents are generally not respected or valued, often dismissed as irrelevant or oblivious. Little kids talk back to their parents or even hit their parents in public brazenly, and teenagers have the audacity to roll their eyes at their parents or slam the door of their room in their parents’ face. Total disrespect and disobedience.
In the Quran, Allah tells us to treat our parents with goodness and excellence, and specifically to be thankful them (to show shukr):
وَوَصَّيْنَا ٱلْإِنسَـٰنَ بِوَٰلِدَيْهِ حَمَلَتْهُ أُمُّهُۥ وَهْنًا عَلَىٰ وَهْنٍ وَفِصَـٰلُهُۥ فِى عَامَيْنِ أَنِ ٱشْكُرْ لِى وَلِوَٰلِدَيْكَ إِلَىَّ ٱلْمَصِيرُ
“And We have enjoined upon man [care] for his parents. His mother carried him, [increasing her] in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning is in two years. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination.” (Surat Luqman, 14)
But do goodness and gratitude equal obedience to parents in all cases?
No. The general rule is:
لا طاعةَ لِمَخلوقٍ في مَعصيةِ الخالق.
There is no obedience to creation in the disobedience of the Creator.
But for parents, there is another consideration:
وَإِن جَـٰهَدَاكَ عَلَىٰٓ أَن تُشْرِكَ بِى مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِۦ عِلْمٌ فَلَا تُطِعْهُمَا ۖ وَصَاحِبْهُمَا فِى ٱلدُّنْيَا مَعْرُوفًا ۖ وَٱتَّبِعْ سَبِيلَ مَنْ أَنَابَ إِلَىَّ ۚ ثُمَّ إِلَىَّ مَرْجِعُكُمْ فَأُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ تَعْمَلُونَ
“But if they endeavor to make you associate with Me that of which you have no knowledge, do not obey them but accompany them in [this] world with appropriate kindness and follow the way of those who turn back to Me [in repentance]. Then to Me will be your return, and I will inform you about what you used to do.” (Surat Luqman, 15)
If we are unable to obey our parents’ wishes, requests, or demands due to their deviation from what’s right, Allah specifically orders us to NOT obey them. You *must* disobey your parents in this issue. But, coupled with this disobedience, is kind treatment.
This distinction between obedience to parents and respect for parents is crucial. Disrespect for parents is never justified. Disobedience sometimes is justified.
Understanding this distinction helps adult children in their relationship with their parents.
Converts to Islam have to make their peace with the weaknesses and flaws in their non-Muslim parents. These convert Muslims cannot obey their parents in their kufr, but must still respect and be kind to them.
Born Muslim adult children who have a knee-jerk automatic obedience reflex instilled in them from childhood are freed from overzealous and misplaced feelings of guilt. Sometimes respect and obedience go together. But in some scenarios, respect must be paired with disobedience, and this is not an easy balance to strike.
May Allah ease relationships between all Muslim parents and children, ameen.