Da’wah to Elderly Parents: a Challenging, Tedious Task

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ لأَبِيهِ آزَرَ أَتَتَّخِذُ أَصْنَامًا آلِهَةً إِنِّي أَرَاكَ وَقَوْمَكَ فِي ضَلاَلٍ مُّبِينٍ

Lo! Ibraham said to his father Azar: “You take idols for gods? For I see you and your people in manifest error.” [Quran, 6:74]

وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ لِأَبِيهِ وَقَوْمِهِ إِنَّنِي بَرَاء مِّمَّا تَعْبُدُونَ

Behold! Ibraham said to his father and his people: “I do indeed clear myself of what you worship.” [Quran, 43:26]

Prophet Ibrahim [عليه السلام] has been mentioned as a role model for us in numerous places in the Quran. Further, each and every word in the Quran is meaningful and non-redundant, meaning that whatever Allah says in His Holy Book is worth pondering on and mulling over.

Many texts and articles analyze the qualities of Prophet Ibrahim, but few point out his sincerity in trying to save his own father from eternal loss, by warning him about the destructive sin of shirk (polytheism) that he was indulging in.

Actually, it is the words he uses when talking to his father that surprise me: he tells him that he sees him in open misguidance! Subhan Allah! He also openly tells him that he has cleared himself from the idols he is worshipping.

Can any one of us even dare to say such a thing to either of our parents if, for example, we see them openly visit a grave, make du’aa to one besides Allah, or give a meal as nadhar/niyaz for a pious dead saint?

The trouble with giving da’wah to parents is that, since they are in a position of absolute authority, especially over their sons (since technically, married daughters’ “official guardians”, who supersede even their parents’ rights over them, are their husbands), it is extremely tricky to warn them about errors, sins, or grievous misdeeds that they do.

Secondly, the fact that parents have raised us and cared for us, taught us everything and undergone extreme difficulties in doing so, are rarely if ever prepared to take admonition or warning from their offspring. The common attitude, especially among parents who are not very welcoming of any kind of corrective criticism, no matter how sincerely and gently it is spoken, is that of, “Who are you to correct us? We raised you and we know more than you. We are older and have more life experience!”

The Quran, however, commands us,

وَأَنذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ

And warn your nearest family members..” [Quran, 26:214]

The above example of Prophet Ibrahim addressing his father with obvious concern shows that anyone who is sincere and sensitive about the adherence of Allah’s laws and limits among his immediate family, will not be able to sit silent or be complacent when he sees his or her parents commit major sins (kaba’ir) in front of his eyes. Nay, he will be extremely diligent of even minor sins.

This post is about warning parents, because conveying the message of Islam, particularly one containing warning and admonishment, is a tricky, sensitive issue when it comes to them. Every man knows how to command his wife to do something or abstain from something for the sake of Allah. Similarly, every mother knows how to scold her children to make them offer prayers or speak the truth.

What many people are too ignorant, unequipped, unconfident and unprepared to do, though, is warn their parents when the latter do something, even if it is something that is explicitly forbidden in Islam.

There could be many examples of such deeds or sins, e.g. an elderly mother backbiting her relatives for hours on the phone, a father dealing in riba despite knowing about its prohibition, both parents opting for mixed parties in the home where non-mahrums freely mix, parents watching violence or other لغو on television, a mother openly gossiping about neighbors or telling lies as a means of extricating herself from sticky situations, and so on.

What is prescribed is to be extremely respectful and gentle when warning parents about activities that could very well lead them towards the wrath of Allah. Over the long term, however, the da’wah based solely on gentle reminders and politeness does not work, especially in the cases of parents who do not like being warned by their offspring and who use a two-point strategy whenever the latter tries to warn them:

  1. Denial: They outright deny that what they are doing is wrong e.g. a father might deny the prohibition of commercial interest or riba in order to continue receiving his monthly installments from the bank, or might deny the obligation of zakah on a certain property that he intends to sell, so that he can evade having to pay the hefty sum on an annual basis. He might also oppose even partial segregation of genders at parties in the home because it will deprive him of the company of women, and so on.
  2. Defensiveness: Even if a parent does accede before their offspring that what they are doing is not right (which is very, very rare), they might still defend  their continuing to do that action using excuses or other reasons that they conveniently consider valid. E.g., a mother might think it is alright to thread her eyebrows pencil-thin because she has been doing it for years, and she cannot bear the thought of beholding her face in the mirror with bushy brows. Or she might refuse to wear an abaya over her fancy clothes to weddings and parties even if she wears it to the market, because this will grossly clamp down on her excitement and enjoyment of making and showing off new, stylish clothes.

This brings us to the next important question:

What is an adult offspring to do when their polite reminders and gentle warnings fall on deaf ears, or solicit denials and defensiveness each time?

I have an analogy that will clearly provide the answer to this question.

When an elderly parent is diagnosed with a disease or condition that could cause severe health problems or even their death, what are the immediate family members of such a person commanded by the doctors to do?

They are given specific instructions comprising of do’s and don’ts, which have to be taken into strict adherence at all times inside the home, e.g. medicine that has to be taken regularly, and food or activities that have to be scrupulously avoided, if the parent is to be prevented from sudden harm to their health.

An example could be smoking for those with lung disease, or eating sweets for diabetics. Now, my question is, how will a conscientious, sincere adult person react when he or she sees his elderly parent who is sick, unabashedly eat food that the doctor has told them to strictly avoid, with even a little bite being impermissible? Do you think this offspring of such a parent will sit quietly, watching the latter devour plate after plate of dessert, and just casually warn them, “Oh mother dear, do not eat that, it will cause a heart attack/stroke/seizure,” and then go on with their business as usual, unperturbed?

Do you really buy that? How will you consider such an offspring? We all will readily say that he or she is not sincere towards his parent, or rather, doesn’t really care enough about their parents’ well-being, and that is why he or she is so complacent.

Prophet Muhammad [صلى الله عليه وسلم] said, “He amongst you who sees something abominable should modify it with the help of his hand (activism, organization, movement ); and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue (by speaking out against it), and if he does not have strength enough to do it, (even) then he should (abhor it) in his heart (by always disliking what is evil or harmful) – and that is the least of faith.”
[Muslim: Book 1 : Hadith 79 & 81]

It is very easy to go out on expeditions to other localities, communities and cities to partake in da’wah activities and speak before absolute strangers to warn them about misdeeds that could take them towards eternal loss in the Akhirah, whereas behind us we leave our children, spouses and parents indulging in activities that are not just disliked by Allah, but that are so destructive in nature that they cause harm to others, either physically (such oppression of servants by making them do tedious work more than they can bear, on a paltry salary) or emotionally (such as backbiting and lying, sins that destroy mutual relationships).

In severe cases, when parents do not even admit that what they are doing is wrong, rather, they actually try to convince their offspring who are adhering to the limits and laws of Allah to instead follow their ways, gentle reminders and politeness no longer work, nor are they the prescribed remedy to solve the problem.

For weak da’ees who whine about not being able to stand up to their parents’ antagonism and oppression in the name of “ihsaan towards parents” or “absolute respect for parents’ every whim”, and consequently allow impermissible activities to go on in their homes in the long term, year after year or decade after decade, the following ayah should be enough as admonition:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا قُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ وَأَهْلِيكُمْ نَارًا وَقُودُهَا النَّاسُ وَالْحِجَارَةُ عَلَيْهَا مَلَائِكَةٌ غِلَاظٌ شِدَادٌ لَا يَعْصُونَ اللَّهَ مَا أَمَرَهُمْ وَيَفْعَلُونَ مَا يُؤْمَرُونَ

O you who believe! Save yourselves and your families from a Fire whose fuel is men and stones, over which are (appointed) angels stern (and) severe, who flinch not (from executing) the commands they receive from Allah, but do (precisely) what they are commanded.” [Quran, 66:6]

The reason why Allah has described the severity of the angels in this verse of the Quran is so that He can shake those of us out of complacence, who are heedless about their domestic roles and responsibilities towards their nearest kin.

Primarily, those sons on whom elderly parents depend the most emotionally and financially, are in the foremost position to correct those deeds that go on their homes, even if they leave for the whole day to earn their bread. They will be questioned about everything that went on behind their backs inside their homes – what their child was allowed to watch on television by the elders, how the maids were treated, what source of income was used to buy and prepare food, what lies were told to cover up faults and mistakes, and whether there was free intermingling of the sexes in the name of family dinners and Eid gatherings.

It is our responsibilities as Muslims to warn our nearest kin first, and then move on to other neighborhoods and domains. We must maintain politeness and respect for our parents in our da’wah towards them, however, when the disease advances to such a stage that even a bite of dessert can be fatal, sometimes more drastic measures of prevention are necessary to get the message of Allah across in such a manner that it “hits home”.

If Ammi’s body cannot tolerate any more sweet due to risk of aggravating her diabetes, she should also be made to realize that any more backbiting or lying can, Allah forbid, seal her fate in the Akhriah.

So will you firmly take away that plate of dessert that you see her eating, or will you sit back and watch her eat it up?

4 thoughts on “Da’wah to Elderly Parents: a Challenging, Tedious Task

  1. I like.

    Haaaard to do. I agree. Just this morning while driving to work I was wondering on the same lines. Parents often show so mcuh stubbornness on nonsense, and most of the children often can’t do anything decisive because, ‘parents respect and obedience is commanded right after the obedience of Allah in so many places in Quran’..

    Sigh. It’s so easy to get carried away with privileges one is endowed with.

  2. Alhamudulilah, another amazing effort! BarekAllah feek, Sister. It is really hard to make them understand Deen, as you mentioned. But, I believe that constant dua and constant dawah softens their hearts.
    Is it possible to speak to you when i’m in Karachi in Summer, InshaAllah?

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