The parent-child relationship in Islam
Islam’s general approach to children may be summarized in a few principles. First, it is a divine injunction that no child may become the cause of harm to the parents.
A. The child’s rights: The parent’s duties
Allah, The Exalted, Says (what means): “Mothers may breastfeed their children two complete years for whoever wishes to complete the nursing [period]. Upon the father is the mothers’ provision and their clothing according to what is acceptable. No person is charged with more than his capacity. No mother should be harmed through her child, and no father through his child. And upon the [father’s] heir is [a duty] like that [of the father]. And if they both desire weaning through mutual consent from both of them and consultation, there is no blame upon either of them. And if you wish to have your children nursed by a substitute, there is no blame upon you as long as you give payment according to what is acceptable. And fear Allah and know that Allah is Seeing of what you do.” [Quran 2: 233]
Secondly, by implication the parents should reciprocate and cause the child no harm either. The Qur’an recognizes very clearly that parents are not always immune from over protectiveness or negligence.
On the basis of this recognition, it (Quran) has, thirdly, established certain guidelines and pointed out certain facts with respect to children.
It points out that children are joys of life as well as sources of pride and fountains of distress and temptation. But it hastens to stress the greater joys of the spirit and cautions parents against overconfidence, false pride, or misdeeds that might be caused by children. The religious moral principle of this position is that every individual, parent or child, relates to Allah directly and is independently responsible for his deeds.
No child can absolve the parent on the Day of Judgment. Nor can a parent intercede on behalf of his child.
Finally, Islam is strongly sensitive to the crucial dependence of the child on the parents. Their decisive role in forming the child’s personality is clearly recognized in Islam. In a very suggestive statement, the Prophet (peace be upon him) declared that every child is born into the true malleable nature of ‘Fitrah’ (i.e., the pure natural in-born, monotheistic belief in God), its parents later on make him into a Jew, Christian or pagan.
According to these guidelines, and more specifically, one of the most inalienable rights of the child in Islam is the right to life and equal life chances. Preservation of the child’s life is the third commandment in Islam.
Allah, The Exalted, Says (what means): “Say, ‘Come, I will recite what your Lord has prohibited to you. [He commands] that you not associate anything with Him, and to parents, good treatment, and do not kill your children out of poverty; We will provide for you and them. And do not approach immoralities – what is apparent of them and what is concealed. And do not kill the soul which Allah has forbidden [to be killed] except by [legal] right. This has He instructed you that you may use reason.’" [Quran 6: 151]
Another equally inalienable right is the right of legitimacy, which holds that every child shall have a father, and one father only. A third set of rights comes under socialization, upbringing, and general care. To take good care of children is one of the most commendable deeds in Islam. The Prophet was fond of children and he expressed his conviction that his Muslim community would be noted among other communities for its kindness to children.
It is charity of a higher order to attend to their spiritual welfare, educational needs, and general well-being. Interest in and responsibility for the child’s welfare are questions of top priority.
According to the Prophet’s instructions by the seventh day the child should be given a good, pleasant name and its head should be shaved, along with all the other hygienic measures required for healthy growing. This should be made a festive occasion marked with joy and charity.
Responsibility for and compassion toward the child is a matter of religious importance as well as social concern. Whether the parents are alive or deceased, present or absent, known or unknown, the child is to be provided for with optimum care. Whenever there are executors or relatives close enough to be held responsible for the child’s welfare, they shall be directed to discharge this duty.
But if there is no next of kin, care for the child becomes a joint responsibility of the entire Muslim community, designated officials and commoners alike.
B. The child’s duties: The parent’s rights
The parent-child relationship is complementary. In Islam, parents and children are bound together by mutual obligations and reciprocal commitments. But the age differential is sometimes so wide as to cause parents to grow physically weak and mentally feeble. This is often accompanied by impatience, degeneration of energy, heightened sensitivity, and perhaps misjudgment.
It may also result in abuses of parental authority or intergenerational estrangement and uneasiness, something similar to what is now called the “generation gap”. It was probably in view of these considerations that Islam has taken cognizance of certain facts and made basic provisions to govern the individual’s relationship to his parents.
The fact that parents are advanced in age and are generally believed to be more experienced does not by itself validate their views or certify their standards. Similarly, youth per se is not the sole fountain of energy, idealism, or wisdom.
In various contexts, the Qur’an cites instances where the parents were proven wrong in their encounter with their children and also where children misjudged the positions of their parents.
Allah, The Exalted, Says (what means): And [mention O Muhammad], when Abraham said to his father Aazar, ‘Do you take idols as deities? Indeed, I see you and your people to be in manifest error.’” [Quran 6:74]
Allah also Says what means: “And it sailed with them through waves like mountains, and Noah called to his son who was apart [from them], ‘O my son, come aboard with us and be not with the disbelievers.’ [But] he said, ‘I will take refuge on a mountain to protect me from the water.’ [Noah] said, ‘There is no protector today from the decree of Allah, except for whom He gives mercy.’ And the waves came between them, and he was among the drowned. And it was said, ‘O earth, swallow your water, and O sky, withhold [your rain].’ And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Joodiyy. And it was said, ‘Away with the wrongdoing people.’ And Noah called to his Lord and said, ‘My Lord, indeed my son is of my family; and indeed, Your promise is true; and You are the most just of judges!’ He said, ‘O Noah, indeed he is not of your family; indeed, he is [one whose] work was other than righteous, so ask Me not for that about which you have no knowledge. Indeed, I advise you, lest you be among the ignorant.’” [Quran 11:42-46]
More significant, perhaps, is the fact that customs, folkways, traditions, or the parents’ value system and standards do not in themselves constitute truth and rightness. In several passages, the Quran strongly reproaches those who may stray from the truth just because it seems new to them, or contrary to what is considered to be normal, or incompatible with the parents’ values.
Furthermore, it focalizes the fact that if loyalty or obedience to the parents is likely to alienate the individual from Allah, then he must side with Allah, as it were. It is true; the parents merit consideration, love, compassion, and mercy. But if they step out of their proper line to intrude upon the rights of Allah, a demarcation line must be drawn and maintained.
The Quran sums up the whole question in the master concept of ‘Ihsan’ (i.e. a strong sense of God-consciousness which constantly inclines a believer toward piety) , which denotes what is right, good, and beautiful. The practical implications of the concept of ‘Ihsan’ to the parents entail active empathy and patience, gratitude and compassion, respect for them and prayers for their souls, honoring their legitimate commitments and providing them with sincere counsel.
One basic dimension of ‘Ihsan’ is deference. Parents have the right to expect obedience from their children if only in partial return for what the parents have done for them. But if parents demand the wrong or ask for the improper, disobedience becomes not only justifiable, but also imperative. Obey or disobey, the children’s attitude toward parents may not be categorical submissiveness or irresponsible defiance.
The last integral part of ‘Ihsan’ to be mentioned here is that children are responsible for the support and maintenance of parents when the parents become weak and are unable to support themselves. It is an absolute religious duty to provide for the parents in case of need and help them to make their lives as comfortable as possible.