Abdullah ibn Umar, a leading scholar among the Prophet Muhammad sallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam companions once saw a man from Yemen carrying his mother on his back and going around the Kaaba in his tawaaf. Rather than show any sign of complaint, the man was happy, repeating a line of poetry in which he likened himself to a camel his mother was mounting.
The only difference is that a camel may be scared by something and go out of control. He would never go out of her control. He looked at Abdullah ibn Umar and asked him whether by so doing he discharged his debt to his mother. Ibn Umar said: “No. You have not even paid back one twinge of her labor pain when she gave birth to you, but you have done good, and Allah will reward you.”
That was not an exaggeration by Ibn Umar.
The parents are entitled by right to kind and dutiful treatment from their children. Since this is an important duty which Allah has taken care to emphasize so strongly, it is essential for every human being to know what constitutes kind treatment of parents. It is no exaggeration to say that for a believer, to be a dutiful son or daughter is to take the way which surely leads to heaven.
We note first that Islam uses the Arabic word birr in connection with children’s attitude towards their parents. The term connotes kindness, compassion, benevolence and almost every aspect of good and generous treatment of others. One of Allah’s own attributes is derived from this root. Allah is the “Barr,” which means that His kindness, compassion, grace and generosity never fail. Scholars say that this term includes everything which is good.
Muslim scholars divide ‘birr’ into two main branches; financial and non-financial.
In respect of son/parent relationship, if either or both parents are poor, a son must support them according to his means. This is not a matter of choice. Islam makes it a duty on the son to look after his parents, providing them with the same standard of living as he provides for his own children. If he is well off, to go beyond the mere provision of what is necessary for a decent living so as to allow his parents to share in the comforts and luxuries which he can afford is to make an investment for the hereafter. Nothing goes amiss with Allah. He is so pleased with any son and daughter who please their parents.
Looking for Allah’s reward, some people make their parents feel that whatever they own is theirs as well. They can use it in the way they please. Although some people are careless how they spend their money, most parents are more careful when it comes to spending their children’s money than spending their own. So, to make one’s parents feel that they do not live on their son’s charity is to give them that little extra which makes the difference between feeling oneself to be a burden and feeling perfectly at home.
The more a parent feels happy and contented with his child, the more Allah is pleased with that child. Moreover, a parent pays his child back immediately. This takes the form of praying Allah for him. Such a prayer by parents for their children, which for Muslims, normally takes the form of “May Allah be pleased with you,” is certain to be answered.
When Allah is pleased with someone, He helps him or her overcome their difficulties, eases their hardships and guides them to success in life.
The duty required of children with respect to financial support of their parents is to provide them with what is reasonable according to their means. A son of moderate means cannot be expected to provide his parents with the same standard of living as a much wealthier son. Although we speak of this as kind treatment by children, it is indeed a repayment of a debt. Parents look after their children when they are young and helpless.
They provide them with all they need according to their means: Moreover, they do it willingly. A child takes what he or she is given unaware of how much effort his father puts in order to earn his money. When the child grows up and his parents are in need of his support, that support must come naturally, without letting the parents feel themselves to be a burden on their children.
Apart from financial support, a child must respect and honour his parents and extend to them the sort of treatment which befits their position as parents. In any social occasion, and even when they go out together on the street, a son must not precede his father or take a higher or more favourable position than his. He should always allow him to take precedence. In Muslim society, that sort of treatment always earns the child more respect. Muslim society looks down on anyone who does not extend to his parents the standard of honourable treatment expected from children.
Moreover, a child is expected to do as his parents tell him. From the Islamic point of view, this does not apply only when a child is young. As long as a son or a daughter is able to grant the wishes of their parents, and by doing so they neither incur any sin, nor jeopardize any greater interest, then they should do so as if these wishes of their parents were commands. There is nothing excessive in this.
It does not impose a great, heavy burden. Normally, a parent is easy to please. Even when parents ask for something which is difficult to obtain, a child can manoeuvre his way to please his parents without undertaking any great difficulty. Some parents may be unreasonable in their demands, especially when they live with their son in his home. Relations between his wife and his mother may be occasionally strained. A mother may feel that her daughter-in-law takes her son away from her. That may lead to friction between the two. A wise son tries his best to reconcile his mother’s rights with those of his wife. He must not be unfair to either. Should his mother ask him to divorce his wife, he must not do so if his wife fulfils her duties toward him and his mother. All that a daughter-in-law is required to do towards her mother-in-law is to look after her in a reasonable manner.
Even in such kind treatment, a child is only paying back a debt to his parents. No matter how great a burden he bears, he does not pay them back adequately. It is very rare that a parent is so ill and handicapped that he or she need to be looked after in the same way as a baby is looked after by his parents.
The Prophet (Pbuh) defines the only way through which a child repays his parents fully. He says, as related by Al-Bukahri in his book Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and by Muslim and others on the authority of Abu Hurairah: “No child repays his parent fully unless he finds him a slave, then he buys him and sets him free.”