Q. In Surah Bani Israil, there is a verse that exhorts children to be kind to their parents and not to say harsh things to them even in their old age. Is there any verse in the Qur'an that speaks to parents about their treatment and attitude towards their children?

A. It would seem that the direct nature of the question deserves a short answer. Yet I cannot but seize the opportunity to give some information on the Qur'anic approach to things, and clear up a problematic issue for many Muslims. Now let me ask a question: Let us assume that the Qur'an does not say anything about the issue at all, is it that the Islamic weltanschauung does not have within it this facet? No scholar has ever dared to provide an affirmative answer to this question. This is because, to use the cliche, religion never comes in a vacuum, and the Qur'an makes certain presuppositions when it addresses the people.

One of those presuppositions is that they already know certain things, and these things need not be addressed. For example, we know that Judaic and Christian ethics were well known and respected by the people of the Arab society, especially in Madinah where the majority of legislative verses were revealed. There was no need to speak of something which did not present a problem, or which was not perceived as a problem. Therefore, if the Qur'an does not speak of it, the governing realization is that the issue was not to that society a problem.

The next thing is that in the tribal society of the desert, children were for the most part honored by their parents, because a healthy child meant a healthy warrior or a healthy mother. The Qur'an addresses the issue of infanticide, that of the girls in particular, which shows that such a problem existed. Now if we look at certain verses of the Qur'an, we see that the Arabs/Muslims honored their children to begin with, and in a patriarchal society, this meant boys were the joy of their parents' eyes. For this reason, the Qur'an says in 34:37 that sons will not bring one closer to God. Sura 63:9 tells us not to let our children keep us away from remembering Allah. 18:46 tells us that our children are the good of this life... All of these verses show that the children were honored; and the verses about not killing the children for fear of poverty again address a specific problem.

Why, you may ask, is the treatment of parents then so addressed, did the Christian and Jewish ethics as well as the pre-Islamic desert ethics not deal with this? The answer is that to a certain extent, the tribal ideas came into play here. An old warrior and an old woman are no longer useful to the tribe, their productivity was at an end and it is probable that they were being ill-treated, and so the Qur'an addressed this problem. Now as far as laws and exhortations are concerned, the children are part of a whole, they come under the generality of certain rules. For example, the Qur'an says: "Invite to the way of Allah with hikmah..." (16:125) Those who are to be invited also include children. "Jaadilhum bilati hiya ahsan" (16:125) -- debate with them in that which is better, also can include children. "If you were harsh, they would flee from you" (3:159) also encompasses children.

If the Prophet of Allah is being told to be calm and gentle with adults, it would seem more fitting that he should be so with children, those younger and of less maturity. Also 17:37 is to be seen as general. The Qur'anic imperative to call to that which is known to be good (urf) is also seen as proof. Every social science, every ethic on the issue, tells parents to be kind and gentle to their children. The Qur'anic psychology in general, rather than a decalogic approach of "do not do this and do not do that." It tells us that Allah has created everything for us, that Allah is Gentle, Beneficent, Compassionate, and so we take our example from this. Our parents, or we as parents must follow the Qur'anic approach, namely that severity is a thing of the past, now totally out of value, and in fact, against the very grain of Islam.

The children are as a fitna, it says in 8:28 that wives and children are a great tribulation. Note that the Qur'an is referring to those likely to be oppressed, the weak ones in the house. Therefore, the verse is not to be understood as the wives and children qua persons are the fitna, but the treatment that is meted out to them. Allah hates oppression, any form of maltreatment or tyranny, and so if they are treated wrongly, then they become a tribulation, for on the Day of Judgment, Allah will exact redress. If my answer seems verbose, it is because the seemingly short question carried many latent sub-questions, and I have sought to answer them all to the best of my ability. May Allah help us all to be better Muslims.

Posted May 6, 1999