A person once asked Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, "What is the right of the parent's over their children?" He answered: "They are your heaven and hell." [Ibn Majah]
This beautiful Hadith answers in just three words (in the original Arabic) not only what but also why. We are to honor them, serve them, and take care of them in such a way that pleases them. For we will find the pleasure of Allah in the pleasure of our parents. On the other hand, if a person is disrespectful, disobedient, or careless toward his parents, he has just opened his door to hell through this behavior.
It is a sign of the importance of this issue that in the Qur'an, the command about our duties to the parents always occurs next to the command reminding us of our duties to Allah. "Show gratitude to Me and to your parents. To me is your return." [Luqman 31:14]. "Join not anything with Him. Be good to your parents." [Al-An'am 6:151]. "Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: 'My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.'" [Al-Israa 17:23-24].
This bracketing of the two obligations calls for reflection. The fact is that the relationship of parents and children is unique among all human relationships. Parents sacrifice everything for their children and genuinely want them to be better off than themselves, without any calculations or expectation of returns. Parental love is indeed part of Divine love.
While parental love is mostly instinctive, the way we treat our parents has been left to us. We can choose to honor and obey them or we can choose to do otherwise. Hence the reference to heaven and hell. For it is through exercise of our free will that we choose the path of heaven or hell. There is another important reminder here: We should never think that we have done all we had to do.
This is a very different concept of the family then one finds in today's society. In English the common metaphor used to describe the family is that of the bird's nest. Little birds stay in the nest and are taken care of by the parents. A soon as they grow up they leave the nest to enjoy their own life. Of course, grown up birds do not know or care about parents (or grandparents or uncles or aunts or other relatives). For their low level animal existence this is okay because they don't have to build a civilization or develop human society. Unfortunately, this metaphor too closely reflects the real life in the West, which has descended to the level of birds and animals. In this society, father is the "old man," and the battle cry of the young man is, "this is my life, leave me alone." The legal structure also supports this view as do literature and media and experts of every persuasion.
The resulting devastation is now well known. Family has been disintegrated beyond recognition and human relations have been decimated. Old people live a sad existence in retirement homes. Sacrifice, commitment, and deference to parental authority, are as alien as the extended family, and increasingly, even the normal family. "In the west a person does not have a single individual in his or her life that he or she can trust," says an American convert to Islam. Compared to this despicable situation the family life in the Muslim countries is a great blessing - despite the general decline there.
Today this institution of the family is under attack from all directions. A central line of attack incites children in rebellion against parents and targets parental authority in the name of - what else - children's rights. Those who are living and growing up in this environment, and who have absorbed its cultural symbols, and its metaphors may find Islam's teachings as strange as does a sick person when tasting normal, healthy, and good-tasting food. Nevertheless, it is important that we remind ourselves and our children of Islam's teachings regarding parents. Here is a summary:
1. We must honor and respect out parents under all circumstances. It does not depend on their having "earned" this honor in our eyes. It is a right granted to them even if they are non-Muslim.
2. The most important thing in this regard is our conduct toward them. We are not to say a word of contempt or even one showing the slightest level of irritation, rather we must show great humility toward them.
3. We must obey them within the bounds of the Shariah. In Islam, there is no absolute obedience to any one. All obedience - of subordinates to the bosses, of the children to the parents, of the ruled to the rulers, of the wife to the husband - are constrained by an overriding principal described in Hadith: "There is no obedience to a creation in disobedience to the Creator."
4. Within the bounds of the Shariah a person should obey the parents even if they had been unjust to him in the past. In one Hadith the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, repeated the statement three times "even if the parents had been unjust to him."
5. While mandatory acts under the Shariah are not subject to parental approval, the voluntary acts are. As an example, scholars say that leaving home to invite people to Islam, though a very meritorious act, is a voluntary good deed and therefore subject to approval by the Muslim parents.
6. It is their right that we should also pray for them, both while they are alive and after their death. It is doubtful that anyone praying for his parents will then turn around and intentionally do things to hurt them.
7. The good conduct toward the parents should also be extended to their friends and relatives.
While we do all this with a deep sense of gratitude and with an eye toward the rewards in the Hereafter, it is also important to remember that good or bad behavior toward the parents also brings its rewards and punishments in this world. Those who bring sorrow to their parents will see sorrow themselves and those who bring joy to them will see joy themselves in this life.