Just the other day, I was discussing with my undergraduate class how the first verse of Surat al-Fatihah is often translated: “All praise (and gratitude) is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds”. Here the Arabic word Rabb is translated as Lord. You know what the trouble with translation is? Sometimes some of the richness of meaning contained in the original words is compromised or not fully conveyed. So, translation may, at times, take away some of the power, beauty and depth of the Glorious Qur’an. We can re-discover the magic of the verse by exploring a bit, by reading commentaries, by doing some research, so to say. The word Rabb here when it is translated as Lord probably does not convey a lot to the uninitiated mind. What Rabb means, among other things, is Cherisher, Sustainer and Provider. On a deeper level, Rabb is someone on whom you are entirely dependent for your existence every single second and the One Who consistently sustaining you. This single word Rabb is a beautiful, amazingly concise and comprehensive, one-word rebuttal to the doctrine held by some early mechanists that states that God did create the universe but after setting the universe into motion like a gigantic automatic machine, He receded into the background leaving the machine to run by itself according to predetermined laws. Rabb is an antithesis to that doctrine and that states that not only did God create everything; He is still controlling, protecting, nurturing and holding it; enabling the universe and all life forms in it to grow and develop their full potential. Oh what depths of power, love and purposefulness does this one little word contain! Alas, how blind we are to the meaning and majesty of the marvelous Qur’an. All gratitude is indeed due to Him, the Bestower of bounties whose Hands are widely outstretched (Al-Qur’an 5:64); the Generous who attends to our countless needs including physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual ones. Alhamdulillah!
He demands gratitude from us and rightfully so. We owe Him all that we are and all that we have. We owe Him our very being. At the same time, He demands that we be grateful to our parents. “Be grateful to Me and to both your parents” (Al-Qur’an 31:14). The order of the words tells us that after Allah, we should be most grateful to our parents. They protect and nurture and guide. They do all that is within their power to fulfill and attend to our needs. Allah has put in their hearts immense tenderness and mercy to give us a sense of realization of how merciful and compassionate is Allah. It is narrated from Abu Hurayrah that Rasul Allah (SAW) said: “Allah has one hundred parts of mercy, of which He sent down one between the jinn, mankind, the animals and the insects, by means of which they are compassionate and merciful to one another, and by means of which wild animals are kind to their offspring. And Allah has kept back ninety-nine parts of mercy with which to be merciful to His slaves on the Day of Resurrection.” (Muslim, al-Tawbah, 6908).
The responsibilities of parents are immense. From tending to the needs for nourishment, safety and comfort of the totally helpless human baby to teaching him skills necessary for effective living, parents are there every step of the way through the child’s journey of development. But most importantly they are entrusted with the duty of nourishing his spiritual self, preserving and enhancing his natural goodness and bond with Allah, helping him see the difference between ‘the two paths’ (Al-Qur’an 90:10) and striving and praying constantly that he chooses the right one.
Parenting is hard work. Developmental psychologists attach the greatest significance to the role of the early childhood years and the nature of parent-child interaction in the healthy or pathological development of the person. Theorists like Erik Erikson, Karen Horney and Sigmund Freud make parenting sound like an extremely difficult balancing act akin to tightrope walking. Parents have to attend to the child’s needs but they must not over gratify his needs either (Freud); They must give the child a sense of trust but he has to be taught to mistrust also when appropriate (Erikson); The child must not be neglected e.g. in the form of other siblings being given preference over him (Horney); The parents must strike the right balance between autonomy and discipline (Erikson). This makes parenting sound like a superhuman endeavor. Or we can say that it takes the best of what it means to be human to be a good parent. Little wonder then that Allah Ta’ala gives them this special status and mentions them right after He mentions Himself. I am inclined to say that of all the rights of parents, this constitutes perhaps the most basic right: the right of having gratitude paid to them by their children. For it is from sincere, heartfelt gratitude that all the other required behaviors will naturally spring forth: respect, obedience, kindness and compassion. Let us not deny them this right. It is a fardh (obligation) to be grateful to one’s parents in the light of the clear Qur’anic injunction.
It is only fair to say that the rights of parents increase manifold when they reach old age, the time that brings failing health, diminished physical and cognitive capabilities and other vulnerabilities. We find support for this in the Qur’an as well when Allah Ta’ala states: “If either or both of them reach old age with you, say not to them (so much as) “ugh” nor chide them and speak to them a generous word” (Al-Quran 17: 23). This is the time when they need to be cared for most of all. They understood our semi-coherent words when we were learning to speak. We must reciprocate and understand them even when it is difficult to. They were there to support us with their strength and loving care when we were fragile and dependent. We have to do the same and shoulder their burdens. They spent on us without restraint. Let us not be stingy when they are no longer earning. We must return kindness for kindness!
The phenomenon of the “old home” is perhaps the supreme form of ingratitude to parents. This marginalization of the elderly in institutional settings following abandonment by their families is a brazen violation of the Islamic injunctions and of all that Islam stands for. It is the very opposite of what Islam demands from us: loving and protective care of elderly parents within families. By what standards of ethics and morality is it justified to any conceivable degree that your own parents who literally were your home, who gave you a home for all the years that you didn’t have one of your own be thrown out and deprived of home and hearth? We need to develop a special sensitivity for the rights of our parents and especially elderly ones. Let’s not build old homes. Let’s Build a Home in our Heart for our Parents!