Q. What should a Muslim's relations be with his parents if they are unbelievers?
A. The words of Allah are: "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 conduct and justice." (Luqman:15) How is it possible for a believing son or daughter to build the bonds of companionship with conduct and justice to parents who are not believers?
First of all, exactly what is meant by unbelievers? Are we referring to Muslim parents who are not acting in what their child's view of Islam is? I merely put this as part of my answer because of the misguided neo-Salafism (no, it is not an oxymoron) that we see among some of our youth. There is an eagerness on the part of some of our umma who wish to tell their parents, who may -- and are -- for the most part, pragmatic believers, that they need to practice a stronger form of Islam, otherwise they are unbelievers.
Or are we speaking of non-Muslims? The Qur'an is very clear on the issue: we accord to them all the respect that is due to them as parents, and we observe the last part of the ayat quoted earlier, but we do not obey them as far as associating partners with God. When we study the Islamic methodology in the relationship of people to their parents, we do not find that Allah, Glorified and Exalted be He, charge anyone with obeying his/her parents. This is because the bond that connects parents to the child is the good (ihsan) of the parents to that child. It is not a state which necessitates on that child any conduct towards them in such a manner that his own being is totally eradicated in deference to their desires.
Thus, the reaction towards this good (ihsan) on the part of the parents is that the child should be good towards the parents; not that he should obey them. As such, we observe in the Noble Qur’an that when Allah addresses this topic in Sura 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:23), He spoke of the relation of worship between the worshipper and his Lord, between the created and the Creator, the slave to his Master, the being to the One who caused him to be. As such, these bonds oblige worship and submission, since your presence stems from His so wanting, and so it is necessary that your actions and your very presence be in accordance with His wants.
However, by not being ordered to obey them does not mean that they have to be disobeyed. For every logic, every law, every ethic, every feeling tells us that it is good to obey our parents in that which is good. Sometimes we may not believe that what they are saying is necessarily correct, but we obey nonetheless, when such requests are not connected with lawful or unlawful, etc. We need to be gentle with them, and give them all the honor they deserve, however vehemently they may oppose us, for our own subtle dawa lies in our conduct. Let them ask themselves: what religion is this that my child follows that s/he refuses to follow my creed, and yet is such a good human to me? That is the best conduct you can show to them, for then you will be obeying Allah's commands regarding them as parents, as well as Allah's advice regarding dawa: "Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom."
Posted May 6, 1999