By Muhammad Mus’ad Yaqut
In the lastyears,the world has witnessed a remarkable interest in the elderly. Many international conferences and symposiumswere heldto deal with the issues and problems they encounter. In 1982, the first initiative to care for the elderlywas declaredas the United Nations declared the ninth decade of the 20th century “the decade of the elderly.” In 1983, the World Health Organization adopted the slogan “Add Life to Years.” In addition, the UN conference held in Madrid in 2002 adopted a plan of action to solve the problems of the elderly in various countries around the world. The outcome of these conferences, however, was just sweet promises and plans without any actual application.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), on the other hand, was a pioneer in this field. He taught caring for the elderly irrespective of sex, color, or religion, and he himself set a great example in practicing the principles he taught. This article highlights Islamic teachings related to treating the elderly, and gives glimpses of how the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) put them in effect.
A Duty of the Young
AnasibnMalik(may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “If a young man honors an elderly on account of his age, Allah appoints someone to honor him in his old age.” (At-Tirmidhi; rankedhasan by Al-Albani)
The Prophet here advises the young of the Muslim society, who will be tomorrow’s elderly, to honor the elderly. Continuous application of this Prophetic advice helps bridge the gap between generations and spreads an atmosphere of love and understanding between the young and the old. Consider here also the generalization in the Prophet’s words:“If a young man honors an elderly;“the hadith requires honoring the elderly regardless of their color or religion.
In anotherhadithMuslims are told to be merciful to all people, Muslim and non-Muslim:
Anas ibnMalik(may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,“By Him inWhosehand my soul is, Allah does not bestow His mercy except on a merciful one.” They (the Companions) said, “All of us are merciful.” The Prophet replied,“Not onlythat each of you hasmercy upon the other, but to have mercy also upon all people.”(AbuYa`la; authenticated by Al-Albani)
A Sign of Reverence for Allah
Abu Musa Al-Ash`ari(may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,“It is out of reverence to Allah to respect the white-headed (aged) Muslim.” (AbuDawud; rankedhasanby Al-Albani)
In the hadith above, the Prophet considered respecting the elderly a way to show reverence for the Almighty. He linked reverence for the Creatorand Hiscreatures with veneration of the All-Powerful and the weak elderly. The hadith implies all kinds of respect and care for the elderly: Health care, psychological care, social care, economic care, ending illiteracy, providingeducation,and other forms of care that the international community calls for today.
In one hadith, the Prophet disavows those who do not venerate the elderly and considers them alien to the Muslim society:
He is not one of us who does not show mercy to our young ones and esteem to our elderly. (At-Tirmidhi and Ahmad; authenticated by Al-Albani)
Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,“The young should (initiate) salutation to the old, the passerby should (initiate) salutation to the sitting one, and the small group of persons should (initiate) salutation to the large group of persons.”(Al-Bukhari)
In the hadith above, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) gives practical examples of Islamic etiquette and starts with a token of respect to the old.Thusthe young should take the initiative toward the aged in greeting and also helping, showing kindness, visiting, advising, phoning, and so on.
Similarly, giving priority to the elderly in different situations is a token of respect and honor to them:
It was narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,“Jibreelorderedme to give priority to the elderly.” (Al-Fawa’id, AbuBakrAsh-Shafi`i; authenticated by Al-Albani)
The Prophet also ordered Muslims to“start with the elderly” when serving a drink or the like (AbuYa`la; authenticated by Al-Albani).
In addition, the Prophet ordered that prioritybe givento the old concerning leading prayers:
Malik ibnAl-Huwayrith(may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet said,“When the time for prayer is due, one of you should announceAdhanand the oldest among you should lead the prayer.” (Al-Bukhari)
This hadith does not contradict the other hadith that gives priority in leading the prayer to one who is distinguished in recitation and memorization of the Qur’an. The two criteria are tobe considered, as reported in the hadith ofMas`udAl-Ansari(may Allah be pleased with him):
The Prophet said,“The person who is best versed in the recitation of the Book of Allah should lead the prayer; but if all those present are equally versed in it, then the one who has most knowledge of the Sunnah; if they are equal in that respect, then the one who has immigrated (to Madinah) first; if they are equal in this respect, then the oldest of them.“ (Muslim)
Furthermore, according to Prophetic guidance, the elder are worthier to startcnversation.Once,HuwayyisahandMuhayyisah, the sons ofMas`udibnKa`b, and `Abdur-RahmanibnSahlcame to the Prophet to discuss a certain matter with him.`Abdur-Rahman, who was the youngest ofthemall, started talking. Thus, the Prophet said,“Let the eldest (among you) speak first” (Al-Bukhari).
Easy Rulings for the Elderly
Shari`ah always adopts leniency and ease with persons having excuses, such as the elderly. This can be noticed in expiations and obligations required from them.
The best evidence of easing expiations for the elderly is the story ofKhawlahbintTha`labah, which was mentioned at the beginning ofSuratAl-Mujadilah. Her aged husband,AwsibnAs-Samit, who was also her cousin, pronouncedzhihar (declaring her unlawful to him as a wife, while at the same time not divorcing her so she can remarry). Thereupon the general Islamic ruling concerningzhiharwas revealed:
(Those who put away their wives (by saying they are as their mothers) and afterward would go back on that which they have said, (the penalty) in that case (is) the freeing of a slave before they touch one another [that is, have intercourse]. Untothisyou are exhorted; and Allah is Informed of what you do.Andhe who finds not (the wherewithal), let him fast for two successive months before they touch one another [that is, have intercourse]; and for him who is unable to do so (the penance is) the feeding of sixty needy ones.)(Al-Mujadilah58:3–4)
After thisrevelationthe Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) spoke toKhawlah:
The Prophet said toKhawlah, “Let him free a slave.” She said, “O Messenger of Allah, he does not have the means to do that.” The Prophet said, “Then let him fast for two consecutive months.” She replied, “By Allah, he is an old man; he is not able to do that.”Sothe Prophet told her, “Then let him feed sixty poor people with awasaq(a measure equal to approximately 132.6 kilograms) of dates.” She said, “O Messenger of Allah, he does not have that much.” The Prophet then promised to help him by giving him an amount of dates; after all this he did not forget to advise thelady, “Take care of your cousin properly.” (TafsirofIbnKathir, vol. 8)
Concerning obligations, Islam exempts the elderly who cannot bear fasting the month of Ramadan from observing this obligation, but requires them to feed a poor person for each day that they miss.Also, the elderly who cannot pray standing up are allowed to pray sitting down; if they cannot pray sitting down, they are allowed to pray lying on a side.
In addition, it is authentically reported that the Prophet once rebukedMu`adhibnJabalwhen he led people in prayer and prolonged it:
The Prophet said to him, “OMu`adh! Are you putting the people to trial? [Thrice]It would have been better if you had recitedSabbihismaRabbika-l-a`la[Surah 87],Wash-shamsiwaduhaha[Surah 91], orWal-layliidhayaghsha[Surah 92], for the old, the weak, and the needy pray behind you.”(Al-Bukhari)
Also, Islam allowed the elderly who cannot perform Hajj to delegate another person to perform it on their behalf. Al-Fadlnarrated that a woman from the tribe ofKhath`amcame to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “O Allah’s Prophet! The obligation of Hajj has become due on my father while he is old and weak, and he cannot sit firm on the mount; may I perform Hajj on his behalf?” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied,“Yes, (you may)” (Muslim).
Examples of the Prophet’s Mercy
Having discussed the Islamic code of treating the elderly,itis now appropriate to give some practical examples from the Prophet’s life. We will see him listening politely and respectfully to an elderly polytheist, seeking to release an elderly man captured byQuraish, and honoring an elderly person and ordering him to improve his appearance.
Listening to an elderly polytheist respectfully. IbnKathir, in his biography of the Prophet, narrated that `UtbahibnRabi`ah, one of the chiefs ofMakkah’spolytheists, came to the Prophet trying to dissuade him from his call. He addressed the Prophet in a ridiculing manner, “Are you better than `Abdullah (the Prophet’s father)? Are you better than `Abdul-Muttalib(the Prophet’s grandfather)?“Butthe Prophet did not respond to those degrading remarks. `Utbahcontinued, “If you say that they are better than you, then they worshiped the gods you criticize; and if you claim that you are better than they, you can proclaim this loudly in order to be heard. You exposed us before the Arabs until itwas spreadamong them that theQuraishhas a magician or a monk. Do you want us to unsheathe the sword and engage in a bitterwaruntil annihilation?”
When `Utbahnoticed the politeness of the Prophet, he changed his offensive tone and continued, “Oh my nephew! If you desire money and wealth by preaching what you are preaching, we will collect enough for you from our own. We will make you the wealthiest of all of us.If it is chieftainship that you desire,we are ready to make you our paramount chief, so that we will never decide on a matter without you. If you desirerulership, we will make you our ruler.Andif this condition that you call revelation is a jinn whose grip you cannot escape from, we are ready to call the most distinguished physicians of time to examine you, and we will spend generously till you are completely cured. For sometimes a jinn seizes hold of a victim totally till the former is exorcised.”
When `Utbahfinished his impudent speech, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked him politely,“Is that all, Abu Al-Walid?” “Yes,” he replied.“Then listen to me,”the Prophet said to him. “I will,” agreed `Utbah. Then the Prophet recited the beginning ofSuratFussilat(41).
Seeking to release an elderly captive. In his biography of the Prophet,IbnHishamreported that when the Muslims captured `AmribnAbiSufyanibnHarbin the Battle ofBadr, it was said to AbuSufyan, “Pay for the ransom of your son `Amr.” However, AbuSufyananswered, “Must I lose twice! They have killedHandhalahand now I must pay for the ransom of `Amr! Let him stay with them, they can keep him as long as they wish.” Afterwards an old man calledSa`dibnAn-Nu`manof the tribe ofBanu`Amribn`Awfdeparted for Makkah to perform `Umrah. In spite of the critical political conditions, especially after the Battle ofBadr,Sa`dibnAn-Nu`manthought that he would not be captured in Makkah since theQuraishdid not harm pilgrims. However, AbuSufyanattacked him and held him hostage until the Muslims in Madinah released his son. Some people of the tribe ofBanu`Amribn`Awfwent to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and told him what had happened to their relative. They asked him to give them the son of AbuSufyanto freeSa`dibnAn-Nu`manfrom captivity. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) released the son of AbuSufyanwithout a ransom and then sent him to his father who, consequently, released the old man.
Treating the elderly gently. IbnKathirtells the following in his biography of the Prophet. When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) entered Makkah in Ramadan AH 8 (January 630) and entered the Sacred Mosque, AbuBakrbrought his father, AbuQuhafah, to the Prophet to embrace Islam. When the Prophet saw him, he said to AbuBakr,“Why didn’t you leave the old man at his house and I would’ve gone to him there?”AbuBakrsaid, “You are more deserving of him coming to you than he is of you going to him.” The Prophet seated AbuQuhafahin front of him and honored him. Then he passed his hand on AbuQuhafah’schest and asked him to embrace Islam and AbuQuhafahdid. The Prophet, noticing that AbuQuhafah’shair was white, directed that his hairbe dyed.
These are just few examples of the Prophet’s gentleness, mercy, and respect towards the elderly. These examples, and many others, translate the sublime Islamic code of ethics for treating the elderly and provide Muslims, generation after generation, with a practical model that they should follow. Such care for the elderly is in line with the Islamic principle of the dignity of the human being and with the spirit of solidarity andmercythat pervades the Muslim society.