Good character is not only taught but can also be caught. Being a person of good character can best be achieved by learning what is good and bad, observing the limits set by God in the Scripture, witnessing good conduct in daily life, and emulating personal examples. To this end, modeling good character, especially in the family, is essential in raising children with character.
Morality, manners, and social life are learned in the family first. A healthy, ordered family life is necessary, as love and respect can be witnessed best in such a family. Good character characteristics can be gained and developed in the family. A child who learns respect for the grandmother and grandfather, obedience to the father and mother, and decent behavior toward those of their own generation within the family will have these positive traits when they enter society at large.
With that introduction, let us take a look at good conduct in the family.
TREATING CHILDREN WITH COMPASSION
As is well known, daily prayers and fasting are among the most essential pillars of our faith. But in both these practices, we can clearly see compassion for children, both in the religious guidelines and in the example of the Prophet’s life. While performing daily prayers has the highest priority in worship for the Prophet, he never refrained from being kind to children, even while praying or leading the congregational prayers. For example, the Prophet’s granddaughter Umama would come to the mosque to play and climb on the Prophet’s shoulders and back as he led the prayers. When he went to prostrate he put the child down, and when he straightened up he took her up on his shoulders again.22 Sometimes he wished to lengthen the congregational prayers, but if he heard a child crying at the back of the mosque, he would change his plans and shorten the prayers out of compassion for the child and the feelings of the mother.23
There is another important narration which demonstrates clearly the extent of Prophet Muhammad’s consideration for children. This was conveyed by ‘Abdullah ibn Shaddad from his father: “God’s Messenger came to us for the evening prayers one day. He carried one of his grandchildren, Hasan or Husayn. He put the child on the floor and went to the front (to lead us). Then he recited the opening takbir and began the prayers. During the prayer, he stayed prostrated for a long time. (Since it was so long) I picked up my head and looked. What did I see! A child had climbed on the Prophet’s back while he was prostrating, and was sitting there. Immediately I prostrated again. When the prayers had finished, the people asked him, ‘O Messenger of God! The prostration was so long, we thought something had happened to
you, or perhaps you were receiving revelation?’ He answered, ‘No! Neither of these things happened. My child had climbed on my back. I thought it inappropriate to hurry him to get off before he was ready to (I waited until he got down before continuing).’”24
This compassion for children in Islam is not limited to prayer times. When we look at fasting (in the month of Ramadan, when all believers are required to fast), there are important exceptions for mothers and children. For example, as a mercy from God to women and their children, pregnant or nursing mothers are given legal allowance not to fast.25
Again, another important principle is that children under the age of puberty are not obligated to observe the fast. They are also exempted from the obligation of the other acts of worship until they reach the age of puberty and discretion.26 Normally this age is considered to be fifteen years old.27
One of the most serious wrongs that can be done to a child is for the parents to curse the child—even if it only happens “by mistake” due to impatience on a rare occasion. The danger of this type of curse is that even when the bad words slip out of a person’s mouth, they are a form of prayer. Jabir relates, “The Messenger said, ‘Do not pray against your own souls, do not pray against your children, do not pray against your servants. Do not even pray against your possessions. For if you pray at the time when prayers are accepted, God may accept your prayer.”28
Once in a war zone, some children were caught between the enemy lines and were killed. When the Prophet heard about this, he was grief stricken. The solders, seeing this, asked him, “O Messenger of God, why are you so disconsolate? Were not these children of the enemies of God?” He answered, “Even if they were children of the enemy, they were human beings. Weren’t the most pious among you the children of the enemy at one point? You must take the utmost care never to kill children. By God every life is created with a nature that is open to faith and Islam.”29
One day when he was being affectionate to his grandchildren, a Bedouin came into the Prophet’s presence. When this man, who was devoid of compassion for his children, saw the scene, he could not hide his surprise and said, “I have ten children, and I have never kissed any of them.” The Prophet answered, “If God Almighty has extracted all the mercy from your heart, what can I do? Those who have no mercy will be shown none.”30
Anas ibn Malik recounted, “The Prophet used to join us children and, smiling, banter with us.”31 Anas also recalled, “I served God’s Messenger for ten years. I swear before God, he never once lost his patience with me. He never asked me, ‘Why did you do that? You should have done it another way.’”32
The dictionary definition of “respect” includes “the feeling that arises from holding someone in high esteem which inspires conduct
that shows the person they are valued”; “valuing someone and desiring not to disappoint them”; “a type of love which causes one to act with care and propriety around someone, and treat them with altruism.” Thus, the meaning of respect is connected with love, which explains why the most common word occurring alongside “respect” is “love.” The bonds of brotherhood between members of a community are strengthened by love and respect. The secret of success also lies in loving and respecting others.
It is a sign of respect to the Creator when we respect and love other people simply because they are human. To love only those who think as we do is not sincere love for humankind; it is selfserving, and can even be a form of idolatry of the self. Likewise, it is not true respect to show deference to people only according to their rank or position. One who does not love everyone does not deserve to be loved; if one is constantly reviling the poor and unfortunate, they will lose the right to expect love and respect from others. According to a narration from Abu Musa, the Prophet said, “To show respect to an old Muslim with
white hair, to a hafiz (a person who has memorized the Qur’an)
as long as they recite and live by the Qur’an, or to a righteous ruler all manifest true respect for God.”33
It is part of adab to let older people speak before young people in daily conversations or situations. The following hadith exemplifies this tradition. Abu Yahya of the Ansar related, “Abdur Rahman ibn Sahl went with Muhayyisa ibn Mas’ud to Haybar. They separated from one another to take care of their individual business. Then they came to Medina. Abdur Rahman and Muhayyisa, the sons of Mas’ud, went into the Prophet’s presence. When Abdur Rahman wanted to talk, God’s Messenger told him, ‘Let older people speak.’ For Abdur Rahman was the youngest of the brothers.”34 Therefore it is important to give elders the chance to speak first, out of respect for their experience and wisdom. Younger people should speak when spoken to or when asked a question, instead of monopolizing the conversation.
Lastly, Samura ibn Jundab, a Companion who was a child during the Prophet’s life, recalls the following: “I was a child during the time of the Prophet and I memorized whatever I heard when he was teaching. The only thing that kept me from speaking in the gatherings was that there were older people there.”
Treating the Elderly with Respect
In Islam, the general rule is that those who are older than us should be respected, and those who are younger than us should be loved. In addition, it is commendable to care for those who have fallen on hard times. In fact, God’s help reaches us through those people who need our help; our subsistence and sustenance may be increased for the sake of the adults and children whom we support.35
The basic rule of respect for elders is even more important between family members. An example is the extra respect due to mothers and fathers. It is not proper to call our parents by their first names. Below are some of the hadith of the Prophet on this topic:
“If any young person shows respect to an older person because of the age difference, God will appoint someone to show him similar respect when he himself grows old.”36 This hadith informs us that young people will be rewarded for respecting elders and will be shown respect as they themselves grow old. Young people who perceive the elderly as a burden should think about this.
“Those who do not show mercy to younger people or show respect to older people are not of us.”37 This hadith summarizes the relationship between younger and older people in a clear and succinct manner. The Prophet said, “To have respect for an older Muslim with graying hair shows one has respect for God.”38
In order to develop feelings of respect towards elders the following issues should be focused on:
- In all the family business of a household, the father and mother should be considered the authorities. This behavior encourages the internalization of respect for elders. A hadith says, “Blessings are to be found next to your elders.”39
- The respect and reverence shown by parents to their own mother and father (i.e., the children’s grandparents) serve as a great lesson to the children. If a child’s mother and father are always loving and compassionate, the child will be more aware of the duty and obligation to respect their parents and other elders. People develop this awareness over a long time and through habit. A child needs to see how to obey and respect elders over and over again to absorb this lesson. Otherwise it would be difficult—sometimes even impossible—to expect the desired result to come by simply teaching rules that are not practiced. God’s Messenger expressed the critical need in a society for young people to maintain respectful attitudes and behavior toward those who are older than themselves: “If there were not whitehaired elders, suckling babies, and grazing animals among you, calamities would have rained
down on you like a flood.”40
Kissing the Hands of the Elderly and Esteemed People
We show our respect for older persons and scholars by kissing their hands. We know from narrations that the Companions kissed the hand of the Prophet.41 God’s Messenger said, “Our elders are a blessing. Those who do not respect elders and show compassion for youths are not of us.”42 Children usually kiss the hands of all their elders; after puberty, young people should kiss the hands of their mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and older siblings.
It is accepted that kissing the hands of Islamic scholars is mubah, or “acceptable,” if it is done out of respect or piety, but it is unacceptable to kiss someone’s hand for worldly reasons. Just as it is forbidden for members of the opposite sex to hold hands in
Islam, it is also objectionable to engage in flattery or sycophancy, or to bow before others. There is some disagreement regarding whether a son-in-law should kiss the hand of his mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law the hand of her father-in-law. There is no harm in kissing the hands of elderly women as a sign of respect. What is important here is that kissing a person’s hand is performed as a sign of respect.
While heeding the warning of God’s Messenger, “Do not stand up as the Persians stand up for each other,” the elder should not desire to have his or her hand kissed, but the youth should try to kiss the hand of the elder person; an older person should not expect a show of respect, but the younger should not neglect to do so. It is also to be noted here that members of various communities would come and ask the Prophet questions and he would answer all their questions. Tirmidhi relates that two people of the Jewish community in Medina came to ask the Messenger a question and they kissed his hand.43
To show respect for scholars and holy people, and so on, one may kiss their hands or perform musafaha44 with them. There is no objection either way, for we should respect real knowledge and God-consciousness. However, it would be wrong for a person to consider themselves to be holy and thus expect their hand to be kissed. It is also permissible for the hands of other older people to be kissed out of respect for their piety. But prostrating in front of scholars or other people is not permissible. To do so, or allowing this to be done, is a sin as it borders on a kind of idol worship. For this reason Muslims should not perform such actions.
Gulcu, Dr. Musa Kazim. “Good Character” Tughra Books Press. February 2009.
- November 13, 2013
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