Friday, 22 April 2011

The three-letter word that taught me how to respect my parents

There is a brilliant and somewhat amusing line in the Holy Quran where God advises us concisely and clearly on how to treat our parents. Under no circumstances, even if we are entrusted with caring for our parents in old age or illness, should we say to them “uff” – the Arabic equivalent to an expression of annoyance such as “argh” or “ugh”.

I admit that when I read that line for the first time last year, I was humoured to see this colloquialism used in the pages of the Quran, Arabic for “The Recitation” – a series of messages and admonitions from God for humankind recited through the Last Prophet .

“And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as] "uff," and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small’." (17: 23-24)

Mandy Merzaban, "Family Album" 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 300 x 150 cm
The simplicity of these phrases made me smile, but also served as a reality check. The three-letter-word shook me instantly, changing my outlook on how to treat my parents and familial obligations. Besides worshiping and loving God, very little is more important than consistently acting toward ones parents with warmth and watching one's tongue.

Family has always been central for me and I was someone who was widely viewed as a good daughter. Yet, many times I would regard financial and moral obligations to my parents as a burden rather than a pleasure. Due to a series of circumstances – including illness and financial strain – I had perhaps more responsibilities than the average child from a young age. I understood the moral duty to care for family and endeavoured my best to perform these duties.

But I cannot say that my actions were always inspired by compassion and understanding. I would at times disagree with my parents, quarrel with them and fail to deal with them in tenderness. I think many of us can be negligent of our parents as we pursue our careers, travel, and search for love and friendship. We can also be unforgiving of mistakes they have made.

Upon finishing university in Canada, I moved to Cairo to work as a journalist for two years and, following a brief return my hometown Vancouver, I have worked in the Gulf region for more than five years. Up until recently, this distance prevented me from seeing my family frequently.

Both of my parents were, in their own unique ways, supportive and appreciative of my success, sacrifice and commitment. They did not expect more. But when I discovered my Islam, my submission to God, I realised I was not doing nearly enough. I intrinsically understood that family was important, but there was something about reading the words of God Himself that impressed upon me that the obligation to care for parents was not simply a matter of performing actions. Rather, it was appreciating the honour of those actions.

Mandy Merzaban, "Family Album" 2008, Acrylic on Canvas, 300 x 150 cm
Last July, I completed my first reading the Quran while on a short holiday in London and Paris. My mom, sisters and nephews were together in Dubai and my father was in Fayoum, Egypt, an oasis city south of Cairo where he was born. I found myself exploring beautiful European cities on my own but wishing instead that I was with them. Understanding that one of God’s biggest tests of us is our success at treating our parents compassionately changed me; I suddenly wanted them around as much as possible.
And We have enjoined on man (to be good) to his parents: in travail up on travail did his mother bear him, and in two years was his weaning. Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the [final] destination. (31:14)

My mom noticed the difference in me immediately as she saw me pray deeply, fast frequently and treat her with more attentiveness than I had previously. Now when I listen to my mom’s stories of her often tumultuous childhood, upbringing and adult life, I strive to listen to them, to remember the details, her expressions and the tone of her voice. “Heaven lies at the feet of your mother,” Prophet Muhammad is cited as having said.

As fate would have it, it was when I surrendered to my obligations to my parents and truly welcomed them that my father passed away, suddenly, just two weeks before we planned to visit him in Egypt in August during the month of Ramadan (الله يرحمه/God bless his soul). He died on the second day of the Islamic month of fasting, exactly one year after the last time I saw him.

Reaching that moment when you know in your heart that you cannot share another word or embrace with a parent is overwhelming. For me it was particularly so because I had wished to communicate my newfound understanding of my faith with him. Suddenly, all the time in the world became equivalent to an irretrievable millisecond. He died while I was in flight, rushing to see him. I am pretty sure I know the exact moment it happened and I realised I could not delay his soul’s return to its Creator.

Looking upon my father’s bright face and simple grin before his burial moved me. I realised I was not too late but right on time. God had opened my heart in the two months prior to prepare me for this considerable event, priming me to be patient, to pray for my father, support my mother and offer compassion to my sisters.

In the weeks that followed, I browsed through the emails my father and I had exchanged not as frequently as we should have. He always ended his concise messages with a reference to God, something I failed to notice in the hustle and bustle of life. "I pray to God every prayer to make your life very rewarding,” my dad wrote at the end of one message. “I pray every prayer to God to keep you safe and increase your wealth and make every thing easy for you,” he conveyed in another. "God bring you safe to us forth and back.”

This past week, I thought about my father many times as I was surrounded by all of the dearest people to me – my mom is in town, my older sister was visiting with her husband and two boys. Along with my younger sister, my one-bedroom apartment was bustling, full of activity and yet somehow able to accommodate a comfortable order. I treasure these hectic-yet-wonderful times so much more than I did prior to truly embracing Islam.

I have come to realise that being a good Muslim, that is, a person who exercises her obligations to God through prayers, fasting, regular charity and good deeds, is the greatest gift I can offer my parents. The last Prophet said of the deceased: "When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge and righteous offspring who will pray for him".

It has been an immense comfort for me to know that when I pray and offer optional acts of worship for my father they will benefit his soul. Virtually every day since his death, I have recited on his behalf a chapter (surah) in the Quran known as Ya-Sin, which I had memorised in Arabic years before realising its importance. Ya-Sin carries crucial messages about resurrection and life after death and was described by Prophet Muhammad as the heart of the Quran.

What I do for my father now far exceeds anything I did for him during his life. Recognising this has not only informed my faith, it has drawn me closer to both of my parents. 

Look forward to your comments!


  1. My father died when I was young. I find you can continue in relationship with your parent even after they have passed. The relationship can even change as you grow! I have gone through the same awakening with my mother as you have, wanting to make sure she understands how important she has been to me.

    Great post! I loved learning about "ugh" in the Koran. Says it all, doesn't it?

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  3. what a soothing article Daliah,i was always a careless person & never took interest in house holds but when my mother got ill i felt her pain and for the first time in my life i learned cooking for her because cooks often r careless & i wanted her to take a complete healthy food to be recovered soon!!! my father went to China on a buisness trip and i was in Aitikaaf(Ramadan) in my room, i had no link with my parents & anyone.. one night i was extremely restelss, so much that i cried to God to give me some peace of mind, after i came out of Aitikaaf i came to know that on exact day & exact time my father had some injury & was addmitted in hospital in china, so see we were far away from each other, i had no link to know about him or anyone but there was a link of rays between us..nodoubt there's no substitue to parents, we can replace any new relation but we can never replace our parents :)

  4. 'Ugh' certainly does say it all, Karen! It only took the three letters to shake me to the core and wake me up to my responsibilities:)

    I know what you mean about continuing a relationship with a late parent. I've been discovering this in the past year and, subhan'Allah, it has changed even over this short period of time. If you continue to read my blog, you'll come across another piece I wrote on my father's birthday in June, which goes into greater detail about this relationship.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog, I can't tell you how much I appreciate it:)

  5. Thank you for sharing your heart-felt experience, Shah. It is wonderful to know that we can have these unspoken connections with our loved ones, even when they are far away. My mom always speaks of this intuition. She often feels the same pain or joy that her daughters feel even before we have expressed them to her.

    I wish both of your parents health, may Allah keep them for you.