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Being Good to Parents

By: Ayatullah al-Uzma Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlullah
In the words of God, "And if they strive to force you to associate in worship with Me that concerning which you have no knowledge, obey them not, but be a companion to them with kindness and justice" (Luqman, 31:15). How is it possible for a believing son to build the bonds of companionship through good conduct and justice with a father or parents who are not believers?
When we study the Islamic approach to the relationship with parents, we do not find that God (Exalted) has charged anyone with obeying his parents. This is because the bond that connects parent to child is a good [ihsan] that flows from the parent to the child; it is not a state which requires a conduct towards the parent which extinguishes the child's entire being, in deference to the parent's desire.
Thus, the reaction towards this good on the part of the parents is that the child should be good towards his parents; not that he must always obey them. We observe in the Noble Quran, that God addresses this topic in Surat al-Isra, with the words, "And God has decreed that you should not worship any but He, and that you be good to your parents" (Isra, 17:23). In doing so, He referred to the relation of worship between the worshipper and his Lord, between the created and the Creator, the slave to his Master, a being to the One who caused him to be. These bonds require worship and submission, since your presence stems from the fact that he wants it so. Therefore, it is necessary that your actions and your very presence be in accordance with His wants.

The Noteworthy Duties of Parents
On the other hand, the matter is different for the parents, for they are the means by which you are here. And God (Exalted) is the one who put the secret of life in the sperm. He is the one who brought into being all the factors for the development of this sperm which become a clinging mass, then blood, then bones; then clothes these bones with flesh; then makes them into a different form of creation.
And when the child is born, it is God who puts the milk in the mother's breasts. The role of the parents is then that of an intermediary; it is not their desire which caused your being. On this premise then, their status is that of anyone who is good towards you, and from here we go to the verse that states: "Is the reward of good anything but good?" (al-Rahman, 55:60). From this, we see that that your relationship towards your parents is one of goodness, an example of which God (Exalted) has said: "Whether one, or both of them, attain old age in this life, say not a word of contempt to them, nor repel them. Address them rather in words of honour." (Isra, 17:23).
Here God establishes the manner by which a person can endure every character flaw that the parents may experience when they become old, when they become testy, when the parents become a burden on the child. This is why God has revealed to the son that his position towards his parents should be one of humility, but not of degrading his humanness or self-worth. It is exactly how a person gives in to his little child.
In the context of God's discourse on the struggles which the mother endures, we find that He tells us this in His words: "His mother bore him in agony upon agony" (Luqman, 31:14), and: "His mother bore him in pain, and gave birth to him in pain" (al Ahqaf, 46:15). Thus the child struggles on their behalf and they struggle on his behalf.

Responsibilities towards the Parents
We understand therefore that the relationship is one of doing good-i.e., that they did what was best and that now the son must conduct himself in kind. In this context, when the two parents are non-believers, or sinners, the child must maintain the view that: "And if they strive to force you to associate in worship with Me that concerning which you have no knowledge, obey them not" (Luqman, 31:15; Ankabut, 29:8). This is because it is not permissible to follow a person in non-belief, even when such a person happens to be one's own mother or father.
But their non-belief, polytheism, and sin must not remove you from the human relations which God has enjoined on you. One facet of this companionship is revealed by: "Say not a word of contempt to them, nor repel them" (Isra, 17:23). It may be that in some situations to spend on them, to yield to them, to smile and kiss them, to look after them, to care for them medically, etc. in the caring of a human being in the course of life and with feelings of compassion.

Transforming Love to Guidance
In the shadow of this, it is possible for the believer to plan the transformation of this condition to a method of guidance for his parents, as we see in the story related from Imam al-Sadiq, where a Christian came to him and converted to Islam. The man then said to the Imam, "I have a mother who is Christian; how should I behave towards her when I have become a Muslim and she still remains in non-belief?' Imam al-Sadiq replied, "See how you used to treat her when you were still Christian, and then go and improve on that."
The man went and did as the Imam had counseled him, caring ever more for her in all her ordinary needs. She was astonished at this conduct from him. She said to him, "What is all this? You used to be good to me, but you have added in your goodness towards me; what has changed you?" The son said to her, "I have converted to Islam, and the leader of this religion has taught me to do thus." She said, "Is he a prophet?" He said, "No, the offspring of a prophet." She said, "These are the morals of prophets, O my son! Explain your religion to me!" And so he explained Islam to her, and she entered the religion.
From this narration, we may infer that the Muslim child, in offering all his compassion and love, his solicitude towards his non-believing or sinful parents, can clearly put light into his conduct and feelings that transform to bring about openness to the path of righteousness.

Pleasing the Parents ... Is There a Limit
In the light of the foregoing, how do we explain the hadith "Pleasing God is pleasing the parents?"
We sometimes hear this adage, and I do not know whether it is a hadith or not. But it is another way of saying that God wants the person to please his parents. The purpose of pleasing the parents, however, must be obedience to God (Exalted) wherever the parents bring on no predicament-for example, ordering their child to do something against his best interests, detrimental, or leading him away from situations where he can show obedience to God (as in commendable deeds). For God does not wish that anyone should be in such a position of control over another, causing him problems in his religion-by leaving that which is commendable or committing the abominable, etc.
From here, we understand that pleasing God is pleasing the parents-i.e., pleasing them in the sphere of parental relations where God has decreed the rights of parents over the child. And so, it is essential that the child conduct himself there at the divine level; for God (Exalted) will not be pleased until the parents are pleased. This is because if the child were to stray from the divine path, and to rebuke his parents, thereby failing to act towards them in a goodly manner, then he has deviated from the path of God (Exalted).

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