Issue 101 / September - October 2014
Parents: The First Teachers in the School of Humanity
It is very interesting to note the importance that God places on children respecting and honoring parents. The fifth through the tenth commandments in the Ten Commandments deal with man's relationship to his fellow man. The first of these says, "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12). The word "honor" cannot only be defined as feeding parents, clothing them, and helping them come and go, because these are acts of charity usually reserved for homeless or poor people. "Honor" means to prize highly, show respect to, glorify, or exalt. It is a much broader term than "obey." "You shall fear your mother and your father" (Leviticus 19:3). Here "fear" is defined as not contradicting your parents and revering them.
The Hebrew Bible makes general demands that we should treat our parents with respect and reverence. "Honor" is a word used frequently in the Bible to describe how we are to show respect to God. Respect of parents is a primary and sacred obligation. If we fail to respect our parents, we have disobeyed God Almighty. In some deep and mysterious way, the family is bound up with faith in God: the two are interdependent.
From the very moment of conception, the child, as it grows and develops, is a care and responsibility for its parents. It is not possible to estimate the depth of attachment and compassion parents feel for their children and to calculate the troubles and hardships they go through as parents. For this reason, respecting them is a debt of human gratitude as well as a religious obligation.
Those who can judge the value of their parents rightly and regard them as a means to obtain the mercy of God are the most prosperous in both worlds. Those who, by contrast, regard their parents' existence as a burden to themselves or who become wearied of them are the unfortunate ones.
The more respectful you are to your parents, the greater the respect and awe you feel before your Creator. Yet, it is a curious thing today that not only those who are disrespectful to God but also those who claim that they love God do not defend themselves from disobedience to their parents. As Martin Luther said, "we must respect and love God, so that we will neither look down on our parents or superiors, nor irritate them, but will honor them, serve them, obey them, love them, and value them."1
Under the Old Testament law the son, who was rebellious against his parents was stoned for this rebellion (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). It is important to stress the fact that God is opposed to rebellion and disobedience toward one's parents. God also promises a long life to the individual who is obedient to his father and mother (Exodus 20:12). No doubt this is because the kind of life which is a life of obedience will involve self-discipline and restraint that would enable one to have a long life and good health. This not only refers to the chronological extension of time, but indicates the rich blessing which comes to a society that keeps God's ways.
The importance of this commandment, however, extends beyond social welfare to the very welfare of society itself, because the family is the basic unit of society. Just as a body's health is dependent on the health of its cells, so the vigor of a nation, the body politic, is directly related to the health of the families that make it up. Families form the foundation of a society. Where there is reciprocal respect of rights and obligations within a family, the society is healthy and strong. It is vain to look for compassion and respect in a society once these have been lost from the relationships within the family.2
The fifth commandment also shows that the way we treat our parents is how our children learn to treat us. Obviously, we too will become old. If we do not honor our parents, in accordance with the meaning of, "the punishment is similar to the act that required it," our children will not be dutiful towards us. If we love our life in the hereafter, this is an important treasury for us: let us be dutiful towards them and gain their pleasure. While if it is this world that we love, let us try to please them, so that through them our life will be easy and our sustenance plentiful. If we want the mercy of the Most Merciful One, we should be merciful towards those in our house whom He has entrusted to us.
Likewise in Christianity, in Islam, parents' rights are the most venerable rights after those of God. The Qur'an has many verses urging Muslims to treat their parents with utmost kindness, to be grateful for the care they have given them, to obey them, and to care for them when they grow old. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once said: "Paradise lies under the feet of the mother. The contentment of the father is the door to paradise." There are many days set aside in societies to honor and appreciate parents; Father's Day, Mother's Day... In Islam, however, respecting, honoring and appreciating parents is not just for a single day of the year, but rather for each and every day.
O Ishmael! Honor Your Father Abraham
There are different types of parents but regardless of how they treat their kids, they are still a parent. Parents make mistakes too, but that does not decrease their value as parents. When we are still under parental guidance, then we will have to follow what they want us to do, even if it is against our heart. When we are on our own feet, then we are free, but we still have the responsibility to respect them. We have to look at the situation, rather than concentrating on our own satisfaction. We have to be kind to them because most of the things they do are all for us.
A child should show respect for his parents by preferring their preferences. For instance, even though some sources say that when Ishmael reached the age of puberty, his tribe made him marry a woman from among them, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt. We do not know whether Ishmael liked her or not. He probably might have preferred to keep silent in order to please his mother. What we know is that he respected his mother's wishes.
We can give another example. Esau saw that the Canaanite women did not please his father, and his mother, Rebekah complained about these women. In order to please his parents, Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael.
As mentioned above, Hagar got a wife for Ishmael from the land of Egypt (Genesis 21:21). His wife's name is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but in the book of Jasher, a Hebrew midrash.3 Ishmael's first wife, Ribah, was rude to Abraham when he came to visit Ishmael. She did not even ask him who he was. But all the while, she was beating her children in the tent, and she was cursing them, and she also cursed her husband, Ishmael, and spoke evil of him, and Abraham heard the words she spoke to her children, and it was an evil thing in his eyes. Abraham left a message, "When your husband returns, convey my salutation to him and tell him to change the threshold of the gate (of his house)." 4 Ishmael understood his father's words, complied with his father's wish, and divorced his wife. Ishmael did not even come to Abraham and ask what happened because he thought that as a prophet, his father would know better than he, and all Abraham had done was for his son.
Proper respect for parents includes their being addressed and greeted properly. The modern idea of calling fathers and mothers by their first names certainly is promoting a familiarity that will not lead to respect, obedience, or honor. Abraham stayed away from Ishmael and his family for a period as long as God wished, and called on them afterwards. He saw Ishmael under a tree, sharpening his arrows. When he saw Abraham, he immediately rose up to welcome him and they greeted each other. Abraham said, "O Ishmael! God has given me an order." Ishmael said, "Do what your Lord has ordered you to do." Abraham asked, "Will you help me?" Ishmael said, "I will help you." Abraham said, "God has ordered me to build a house here," pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it. Then they raised the foundations of the Ka'ba.
Respect for parents should remain in force even in relation to parents who may have lost faith. If a faithful person has unfaithful parents, he should treat them respectfully in his dealings and advice, while remaining aloof from their polytheistic lives. He should neither be harsh nor vulgar. Islam instructs Muslims to pray to God for the forgiveness of their parent's sins, if any, and present their good deeds for the benefit of their parents' souls. In Islamic and Jewish tradition, Abraham's treatment of his father, Terah, is a certain testimony to this.
As the Book of Joshua reports, the father of Abraham, Terah, worshipped other gods (Josh. 24:2). Terah was a well-known idolater; he not only worshipped idols but sculpted and sold them as well. Abraham was engaged in debate with his father to convey the truth to him; "O my father! Why do you worship that which does not hear, see, nor can it profit you anything? Do not worship idols and therefore follow me. I will guide you to the straight path. Otherwise, I fear that a punishment from God may afflict you so that you will become a friend of Satan. Nevertheless, I will seek forgiveness for you from God."
The New Testament is very plain concerning obedience to parents. "Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord" (Colossians 3:20); "Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1). Obedience is the foundation for all character. Parents do not have to convince children of the logic behind their orders because parents are experts on their children, and possess a great deal of information that even teachers do not have, so a child must maintain the parent's dignity and respect at all times, even when disagreeing. Obedience to parents should always be immediate, instant, without question or argument. What the father says do, the son does. He does it well, he does it immediately, and he does it without argument.
Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac (or Ishmael). This indeed was a clear test. Therefore Abraham carefully prepared to carry out the order of God. In the Quran, Abraham has a dream, mentions the dream to his son, and asks Ishmael his opinion: "'O my son! I have seen in my dream that I should offer you in sacrifice so think about that and tell me your view.' He unhesitatingly said: 'O my dear father! Do as you are commanded, by the will of God, you will find me of the patient ones,' and Abraham laid him down on the side of his forehead." 5 As you have seen, Isaac (or Ishmael) does not resist his father, obeys his wishes, and lies down like a ram. In addition, in the Bible, the sole dialogue between the two (Abraham and his son) repeats the words father and my son (twice each), expressing their emotional bond.
The parents continue to have rights over their children after death. People are expected to visit their parents' graves, to maintain contact with their friends, and to conduct themselves well so as to show that their parents have provided them with a good education. One can honor his parents after their death through the following methods: Praying for them, giving charity on their behalf, instituting a perpetual charity on their behalf, such as a library, hospital, or orphanage.
Coming back to Ishmael and Isaac, destiny had separated the two brothers from each other. After years, Isaac and Ishmael were rejoined at their father's burial (Gen 25:9). They showed proper filial piety, despite earlier disagreements, in joining together to bury their father.6 The burial is supervised by both sons. While Isaac placed the headstone, Ishmael placed the footstone of the grave. Although Ishmael had long ago been dismissed, he was not utterly alienated from his father because he performed the office of a son in celebrating the obsequies of his deceased parent. Ishmael, rather than the other sons, did this, as being nearer.7 As a child, Ishmael had a last duty due to his father, and he carried out this duty, attending Abraham's funeral and burying him.
The obligation to honor one's parents is an obligation that one owes to God and fulfills this obligation through one's actions towards one's parents. In the Hebrew Bible, our relationship with God is continually compared with a parent-child relationship. God tells us in the Ten Commandments to obey and have respect for parents. This does not mean that we only obey our parents when we agree with them or fully understand why they are telling us to do something. We must obey them at all times. We must also honor and have respect for parents. God does not want us to put our parents above Him, but he does desire for us to treat them as He desires for us to treat Him.
1 Martin Luther, Martin Luther's Large and Small Catechism, Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan, (Sioux Falls, SD: Nuvision Publications, 2007), 67.
2 Niyi Taiwo, Respect: Gaining It and Sustaining It. (Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation, 2007), 25.
3 J. H. Parry, The Book of Jasher, (New York: Cosimo, Inc, 2005), 68.
4 Muhammad Muhsin Khan, The English Translation of Sahih Al Bukhari with the Arabic Text, (Al Saadawi Publications, 1996), Volume 4, Book 55, Number 583.
5 Ali Unal trans, The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English, (New Jersey: The Light, 2006), Saffat 37:102.
6 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50: Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 165.
7 John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries on Genesis. trans. John King, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1963), 2:38.
Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries on Genesis. trans. John King. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1963.
Khan, Muhammad Muhsin. The English Translation of Sahih Al Bukhari with the Arabic Text, Al Saadawi Publications, 1996.
Luther, Martin. Martin Luther's Large and Small Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Sioux Falls, SD: Nuvision Publications, 2007.
Parry, J. H. The Book of Jasher. New York: Cosimo, Inc, 2005.
Taiwo, Niyi. Respect: Gaining It and Sustaining It. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris Corporation, 2007.
Unal, Ali, trans. The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English. New Jersey: The Light, 2006.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50: Word Biblical Commentary. ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Dallas: Word Books, 1994.