Balancing responsibilities and being excellent – A tall order
It has been noted that for the last 50 years, campaigns and debates have been centred on rights – but not on responsibilities. Yet one of the reasons we have rights, perhaps the very reason our rights exist, is for us to fulfil our responsibilities.
When we look at the Quran, it sets out everyone’s rights, in particular in Surah an-Nisa, which is a catalogue of rights and responsibilities. It tells us how to create a just society and balance the needs of various groups within it.
Allah clearly sets out rights and lays down a set of responsibilities, as the purpose of our existence is not to seek happiness, but to have a meaningful life and that meaning comes from fulfilling our obligations. If everyone’s rights are fulfilled we have a happy, harmonious and well functioning society.
In Surah Nisa, Allah shows us that:
- Foremost we are here as a creation by God
- And we are here as part of a social network.
In this incredible ayah, Allah says:
Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbour, the neighbour further away, the companion at your side, the traveller, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful. (4:36)
Like an ant in its colony, we live in an intricate and complex society – we have parents, husbands, children, siblings, neighbours, relatives, friends let alone the people we randomly pass by every day, walking their dog, or in the queue at the post office.
In this single verse, Allah is saying that he is expecting us to worship and be good to all of the people we come into contact with. Whether it is your nearest and dearest, family members you have fallen out with, a passing traveller whom you may not give a second thought, an orphan or a neighbour. Each one of those is due goodness from us.
That’s a huge responsibility. Particularly if you happen to be having a bad day!
If we pause here and look carefully at the word Allah chose to describe how we should behave towards them, we see that the word He used is ihsan, not good which most translators have put. Yet, ihsan is not just ‘good’ it is excellent. Good is nowhere near excellent. This is quite a momentous ayah … meaning that Allah is asking us to be excellent! To everyone on the planet!
Let’s look at the ayah again. When Allah told us to fast, He said it knowing we are capable of fasting. If we weren’t millions of us would not be able to fast all over the world as we have been doing for 14 centuries. Therefore, when Allah said ‘do excellence’ it means that excellence should be the goal, and that we are able to achieve it.
Potential and aspirations
If Allah instructed us to be excellent He thinks we are capable of excellence.
It is very inspiring that He thinks this. His expectation of us lifts in my own eyes, because we may think at times yes, I am a good person, but most of us do not think ‘I am excellent person’.
This requires us to raise our own expectations of our selves in order to meet what Allah thinks we can achieve. Instead of cruising at a B grade, or being happy with B+ the Teacher is saying, ‘I know you can get an A*’. This is a massive boost to our self-esteem; it raises the bar and our goals.
If Allah commanded us to be excellent, it also means that Allah has equipped us for this. He wouldn’t be asking us to do something if He hadn’t already given us what we needed to achieve it. Just as you wouldn’t say to a child draw me a picture if you had not given them paper and pens first.
The goodness we have has come from Him. It is His attribute that He has gifted us as qualities of kindness, generosity, love so that we can be parents, guardians, hosts, benefactors and philanthropists. These are drops of mercy from Him.
Responsibilities and obligations may not sound so attractive, but what is beautiful is that this fulfilling of obligations is not dry and matter of fact, but rooted in kindness, compassion and love. It is like the realisation that salah is not a chore, it’s a gift. It’s your private moment with God.
We demonstrate our Love and worship of our Creator through spreading love and carrying out good acts towards all those around us.
Allah is saying now spread this amongst yourselves. And make sure that you do not leave out anyone. In this verse, He is creating what is known by scholars as a dustur or a constitution – which is essentially the code for human life.
Human society is built on supporting each other. Caring for each other and being there in good times and bad.
The care is there for each other regardless of race, nationality or colour. Regardless whether we are Muslims, non-Muslims, practicing or not practicing.
Top of the list are parents.
As the Quran was revealed over 23 years, and rules came down a bit at a time, yet the command to be good to our parents was sent out before any of the five pillars. After the worshipping One God, the second most important ruling was:
‘And be dutiful to your parents.’ (46:15)
In Surah Isra, Allah says:
‘And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honour.’
And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say ‘My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.’ (17:23-4)
Within the complex structure of society and interdependence, Allah created the greatest period of dependency on our parents.
Being good to your parents
Being kind to your parents wa bil walidayni ihsana has been repeated many times in the Quran. Allah Almighty mentioned being good to parents next to the command of worshiping Allah Himself- the two commands are said within the same breath:
- We made a covenant with the Children of Israel: ‘Worship none but God; and be good to parents (2:83)
- Worship God, and ascribe no partners to Him, and be good to the parents, (4:36)
- Your Lord has commanded that you worship none but Him, and that you be good to your parents. If either of them or both of them reach old age with you, do not say to them a word of disrespect, nor scold them, but say to them kind words. (17:23)
The gap between theory and practice
We are all very familiar with these commands, our practice generally falls short.
With the pressures of time and distance, combined with personality clashes and generational gaps the relationship between fathers and children can become weak, strained or full of friction.
In the pursuit of earning a livelihood, the pressures of life and work and ironically in the energy and effort it takes to set up their own families and bring up their own children, the very bond which was the foundation for the son to grow up and become a man, can crumble when the son has embarked on his own independent life.
Do not upset your father
Though Islam keeps reminding us that parents are important and though we are aware of the high status of the mother, we tend not to be aware about the narrations concerning fathers.
For instance, not many people know that our relationship with our fathers is extremely significant – so significant that it is twinned with our relationship with Allah Almighty Himself.
The pleasure of Allah is in the pleasure of your father and the anger of Allah is in the anger of your father. (Tirmidhi, ibn Majah)
The father is a gateway to Jannah, the middle gate and the shortcut to Jannah.
Abu Darda’ reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
The father is the middle of the gates of Paradise, so keep to this gate or lose it. (Tirmidhi)
What is the significance of being the middle gate? Commentators have mentioned that Jannah has 8 gates. Linguistically the middle gate means the best gate of Jannah.
I had heard Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) saying, ‘A parent is the best of the gates of Jannah’; so if you wish, keep to the gate, or lose it.’ (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
If the father is the best gate to Jannah, the shortcut to Jannah is being obedient to your father. And the happiness of the father.
Reflecting the silent sacrifices a father makes throughout his life to ensure the best for his children, (often unnoticed in comparison to the mother’s sacrifices which are more obvious) Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said:
A son cannot ever repay his father what he owes him, unless he finds him in slavery, then buys him and emancipates him. (Muslim)
Serving parents is equated with jihad
Abdullah bin ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated ‘A man came to the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) asking his permission to go out for Jihad. The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) asked him, ‘Are your parents alive?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ The Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) then said to him, ‘Then your Jihad would be with them (i.e. in looking after them and being at their service.)’
The cycle of goodness
This act of kindness comes back to you. The kind person to their parents is treated by kindness from his own children. If you are vicious to your parents your children will be vicious towards you. To be unkind to our parents is not acceptable, it’s one of the major sins (kabira).
Instead be generous and gentle to your parents. Abu Hurayrah reported that a person came to Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him) and said:
Who among the people is most deserving of a fine treatment from my hand? He said: Your mother. He again said: Then who (is the next one)? He said: Again it is your mother (who deserves the best treatment from you). He said: Then who (is the next one)? He (the Holy Prophet) said: Again, it is your mother. He (again) said: Then who? Thereupon he said: Then it is your father. In the hadith transmitted on the authority of Qutalba, there is no mention of the word’ the people’. (Muslim)
Our obligations are towards Allah Almighty and towards the people with whom we inhabit the world. Our relationships with people begin with our immediate families.
After parents, our obligations are to our spouses and our children and our immediate families.
Strengthen our relationships at home
Goodness begins with your kin. There is no point being nice outside the home, if you are not nice at home. Kindness and caring should be the default with your family. Otherwise it is hypocrisy to put on a smiley face outside and an angry face inside the home.
The Prophet (peace be on him) said:
The best among you is the best to his family. (Tirmidhi)
The family is where goodness begins. This is why we have the proverb ‘charity begins at home’. If you want to be good, show your goodness to your family. There are people who are great philanthropists towards others but stingy with their own blood relatives. This is completely wrong.
Allah Almighty wants us to have strong families. The family is strong when the relationships within it are based on love, trust and respect.
Maintaining blood ties is not a choice. It’s an obligation.
It is not just a recommendation to connect blood ties, it is obligatory. How can you tell it is an obligation? Because if you neglect this command, you are sinful and punishable for doing so. Cutting blood ties is haram – it is prohibited.
Aisha reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) said that Allah Almighty says:
The bond of family is suspended from the Throne and it says: Whoever upholds me, Allah will uphold him. Whoever severs me, Allah will sever him. (Bukhari and Muslim)
The word ‘Ar Rahm’ (womb) derives its name from ‘Ar Rahman’ (i.e. Allah). So whosoever keeps good relations with it (womb i.e. Kith and kin), Allah will keep good relations with him, and whosoever will sever it (i.e. severs his bonds of Kith and kin) Allah too will sever His relations with him. (Bukhari)
What is in it for you?
When you make an effort to be good to your family and build relationships, the rewards are not just in Jannah, but tangible in dunya – they are a clear means of increasing your rizq:
Whomsoever wants his rizq to be blessed and his lifespan extended, let him connect his bloodties.
It is not just the extra hours you put in your job, that earn more for you, but the extra effort you put in in fixing your relationships with your family. When you do this, Allah Almighty makes your home mubarak (blessed). He puts barakah in your rizq and life.
Often women have piles of responsibility the first person who gets neglected is the spouse – when children come along their needs are unending and wives often think their husbands can manage. However, men’s emotional needs are not always apparent. They need for time from their spouse, but this is easily overlooked.
It was narrated from ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Awf (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said:
“If a woman does her five (daily prayers), fasts her month (Ramadan), guards her chastity and obeys her husband, it will be said to her: Enter whichever of the gates of Paradise you want.”
They do not generally off load their stresses and anxieties so women need to make time for them. Women usually have friends and other family members to share their emotions with, while men tend not have the same outlets. It could be that the woman is so consumed with her own worries that she cannot see beyond herself and fails to realise what her husband is going through. He needs support too. She should be careful that she does not forget the suffering of her husband when she is feeling down.
Similarly husbands should be there for their wives. Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:
“The most perfect of the believers in faith is the one who is best in attitude, and the best of you is the one who is best in attitude towards his womenfolk.” (Tirmidhi)
Ensuring that we fulfil our obligations towards those around us, most particularly those who are the closest to us – our parents, and spouses is certainly not easy but the recipe for success for us as individuals and as a society lies in serving others with excellence, without neglecting the needs of own’s self.
May Allah make us of those who fulfil our duties with excellence. Ameen
Shaykh Haytham Tamim
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