It had been a few days since Salman thought about telling his parents. He had received a full scholarship from Columbia University to study journalism, a subject he was insanely passionate about and which had already given him a jump start in a career. He was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, wrote numerous editorials for the town paper, and had a published online magazine. Though he knew he could be extremely successful as a journalist, Salman’s parents were very set on sending their son off to medical school. The problem was that Salman had absolutely no interest in pursuing a career in medicine.
In that vein, he brought the Columbia acceptance letter to his parents and told them what he really wanted to do. Without flinching, his mother reminded him about how the community saw their family, what their relatives’ expectations were, and how, as his parents, they knew better than Salman what was good for his future. Even though his education would be free with Columbia, his parents wanted him to take out student loans to pursue a medical career – yet another huge reason Salman shied away from medicine. They added that he was free to pursue any career he wanted after becoming a radiologist. A short debate led to an argument, and Salman’s mother finally said that if he pursued the journalism path, she would never speak to him again. Standing at the crossroads of a major life decision, Salman went into his room bewildered and lost as to what would come next.
The above situation is a fictitious representation of very real events that many of us have experienced or know of others who have. We are all created with various pursuits, abilities, and talents. Failure to understand that leads to a failure of understanding our existence. In the verse above, Allah clearly highlights that every soul is unique in what it offers the ummah in its expertise and service. All humans cannot be medical doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Parents must understand this. This can also lead to a better understanding of what type of people could be suitable for each other in marriage (a topic for another time).
When speaking with young Muslims who are beginning their lives in college or the workforce, and have the opportunity to explore different careers, many have expressed how their dreams are crushed when their parents limit their career paths. The hypocrisy is that many of our elders came to this country for one common reason: opportunity. When that same spirit of choice is not extended to their offspring, an unfair double standard is created within the community.
At the same time, many youth experience a heavy load of insults and criticism for pursuing careers that don’t come with a high-salary or fall within their parents’ recommendations. I am sure we all know someone that can relate to Salman. The constant belittlement of one’s aspirations or choices by their parents leads to feelings of insecurity, worthlessness, lack of self-confidence, and at times even depression. When a child is emotionally invested in their parents, of course their disappointments will only further that child’s sadness. Now let us talk about the reality of parental relations, as Salman may end up throwing out his career while being “guilt-tripped.”
Relationships are a 2-Way Street
“Whoever does not show mercy to our young and revere our elders is not of us.”Tirmidhi, Book 27, Hadith 2046
Notice in the above hadith how the Prophet teaches the ummah that respect towards elders and mercy towards the young is a two-way street. It is a reciprocal equation to act upon. Any and all relationships in life require both parties to put forth an effort for them to succeed. The parent/child relationship is one of those as well. Though my goal is not to detail those rights one by one, it is an important point to remember while reading the rest of this post. Growing up within the Muslim community, many youth are told over and over again that parents are to be adhered to unconditionally, since all of their choices are meant to be good for the child. Although initially it is easy to dictate such rules to a child since they have not reached an age where they can reason, many parents find themselves in a bind as the child gets older. Emotional blackmail of religious texts starts to become a norm in some families, to the extent that the child’s life choices of marriage, career, college, what car to buy, etc. are all held at ransom. Just as our deen lays down certain rights to be shown to our parents, it does the same for children.
The Reality of 17:23 – Birr al-Waalidayn
“Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him and to exercise excellence with your parents. If one or both of them reach old age in your life, then do not say so much as “uff” to them nor repel them. Rather, speak to them with nobility.” (17:23)
Islam takes the concept of respecting one’s parents very seriously. The Qur’an discusses the worship of Allah and showing respect to one’s parents as dual concepts which directly intertwine in the religion.
Traditionally, when a parent wants to remind a child about the rights they have over them, Ayah 23 of Surah 17 is referenced. Every child has probably heard: “be good to your parents.” Though that is correct, it is important to look at what comes after: “when one or both of them reach a senile age.”
Think about this, it is not as common for an 18-year-old to have parents who have reached a senile age. The reality is that this ayah is not intended for a teenager or child in their early 20s necessarily. Parents usually reach old age when the child is more established in his or her life, with a job, family of their own, and a house. So the reality is that the same parents who are trying to advise their young, need to change the audience of this ayah to themselves, if their own parents are still alive. The audience is not unestablished youth; rather it is established men and women whose parents are reaching old age.