Q: In India, it is a social tradition for sons to touch parentsí feet when greeting them. The summary of an answer I have seen on this subject is that from the Islamic point of view, such actions are unacceptable. Could you please offer your viewpoint on this?
A: First of all, within the Qur'an, it states that God had clearly detailed what is forbidden and what is not. This generally applies to the category of actions, although in some cases, we may adjudge the permissibility or impermissibility of certain actions based on social convention. On top of that, it must be understood that all actions ought to be judged by their intention. Now the sons' touching of a parent's feet does not in any way denote worship of the parent, but on the other hand, extreme reverence. I do agree that in a society where such an action could insinuate worship, then the action must not be done, and this is why we don't see Saudi Arabians, for example, performing this ritual. In India, on the other hand, the societal value of this ritual is one that is understood by all to show filial respect and nothing else. We cannot subject regional customs to imported understandings of Islam. As a matter of fact, the Qur'an gives us the prime example of this in sura Yusuf, wherein it speaks of Yusuf's parents making prostration before him, and in sura al-Baqara, where the angels are ordered to prostrate before Adam. No rational person would suggest that these acts were akin to worship, nor would the same logic suggest that the kissing of the Black Stone by some who perform the hajj is an unacceptable ritual because it resembles worship.
Much of this idea of worship is based on a hadith wherein the Prophet Muhammad allegedly stated that if he could order anyone to prostrate before another, he would have ordered a wife to prostrate before her husband. We will not discuss here the reliability of this Pauline type hadith, but will simply note that in context, the connotation and terminology used were specifically related to the aspect of worship, insinuating that to a wife, the husband ought to be almost like a god. Whatever one's view of the hadith, we must not forget that the hadith scenario is placed in a situation different to that of an established, non-worship associated custom of India. Islam did not come to destroy that which is honorable and shows respect for parents, and as such, I would say that there is nothing wrong with this practice of the Indian Muslims. May Allah grant us the strength to honor our parents as they ought to be honored for bringing us into this world, and for enduring many sufferings to raise us as respectful and respectable human beings.
Posted September 23, 2005