Q. It is reported that the Rasool said that heaven lies at the feet of thy mother. What precisely does this statement mean, how did it originate, and any idea why the word feet was used?
A. The hadith that you mention has several similar versions. Certainly, it is part of the Islamic outlook, and indeed part of any moral tradition, since we must acknowledge the wombs that bore us. That the mother is focused upon is logical since the 270 days we spend in her womb is certainly not to be likened to the minutes of pleasure that our father may have in our creation process. That hadith then certainly does express the Muslim weltanschauung. Yet the versions differ to the point where they raise questions. The version in Tirmidhi shows that it was in response to a question on Jihad. The one in Tabrani shows the same question, but now the father is involved: "From Muawiya b Jahima: I came to the Prophet asking him about Jihad. He said to me: Do you have parents? I said Yes. He (the Prophet) said: Look after them (both), fi innal jannat taht aqdaamihima -- for paradise lies under their feet." Here the focus is on both parents.
As shown above, the text of the hadith is not as you have rendered it. A better rendition would be "Paradise lies under the feet of mothers." Note that here, instead of the connotation being a personal one, it becomes general, the focus now being on the qualities of mothers. As far as the genuineness of the hadith goes, there is nothing to suggest that there is a problem with it, but know that this philosophy was well entrenched among the Jews and Christians, and in fact all the great religions that predated Islam as well. That statement refers to the presumed gentleness of mothers and the respect that ought to be paid to them, for in a patriarchal, warlike society, the focus was mainly on the man in his years of strength. As long as someone had lost his usefulness, the treatment got less generous. In the case of men, time brought experience, and so a shaykh (the name itself points to one of great age) was generally respected.
In the case of a woman, her usefulness presumably evaporated with her menopause. The hadith therefore wants to emphasize, as shown too by the du`a of Abraham, that the parents bore the child in pain, and in fact this is more so true of the woman whose nine months of pregnancy are certainly not easy. Feet is used since that is presumably the lowest part of the person, and in terms of spatial conceptions, with the head being the position of honor (going over someone's head being to not recognize him/her at all as worthy), and kissing his/her feet being to humble ourselves to his/her lowest appendage. Under shows that our humility and treatment must be as if we are her most abject slave. Now the hadith -- if it be true -- is not unconditional. For the Qur'an also tells us not to obey our parents if they ask us to commit shirk, and that can also be extended to mean anything that is immoral or wrong in any way.
A mother can only be recognized as such and be given the respect when she fulfills the qualities of the desirable mother. By this I mean that she nurtures and cares her child, does not harm the child by attempting to brain wash the child to that which is wrong, does not attempt to abuse the child either physically or mentally, and does not make the child lose his/her self-esteem. In such a case, she simply is a biological mother, and the hadith is referring to the mother of action, one whose qualities are truly meritorious. If a mother is not "good," then we are asked to at least show her the respect of having borne us, and not to be rude to her. Beyond that, and beyond supporting her financially if there be need, we do not have to deny our own intellect and clear perception of what is right and what is wrong simply to blindly follow a general hadith.
Posted May 14, 1999