The Quran, which Muslims believe to be the revealed word of God, contains the essence of nine of the Ten Commandments. (The only one we do not share is the Sabbath.) The fifth commandment to “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land, the Lord your God is giving you” contains lessons for today that both Muslims and non-Muslims should heed.
The fifth commandment is more than a directive. Unlike other commandments, it contains a promise from God. The spirit of the fifth commandment can be found throughout Islamic tradition. Muslims are commanded to honor our parents and are reminded that we will be judged for whatever “good or evil” we have done in following Quranic directives.
"Thy Lord hath decreed that ye worship none but Him, and that ye be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor" (Quran 17:23-4). Muslims are reminded to respect their parents in the same breath in which God reminds us to “worship none but Him.” But does this promise cut both ways between generations? Our sacred books of faith tell stories of prophets and families with struggles, parents who have failed and children who have chosen a path not taken by their forefathers. Many find ruin and misfortune while others, like Abraham, found God.
Balancing righteousness, guilt, uncertainty and belief is never clear nor easy. God tells Muslims in the Quran: “O you who believe, stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God even against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin and whether it be against rich or poor, for God can best protect both” (Quran 4:135). The only way to reconcile the burden of faith’s familial priority is the higher honor given to God and truth, first and foremost.
Just as God is merciful to us, "honor" is earned reciprocally and equally in the family context. Parents should mercifully and selflessly seek for their children their divinely mandated independence. We are not perfect. Islamic teachings have an emphasis on niyyah (intention). Family members earn real honor and respect when we see that their intention is unselfish consistent with the mercy and compassion of God.
Not every son wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. Just as simple as the thought to “honor our father and mother” is the reality that parents must earn and want the respect of the children and live by example.
In some Muslim communities, tests as simple as choosing a mate, dating or clothing can be life or death where dishonor can legitimize horrific abuse and even murder — most often of women. While most Muslims do not subscribe to such toxic definitions of honor, until our Muslim communities address the pre-eminent, God-given rights of bodily autonomy, safety and freedom of conscience, neither the fifth nor any of the other commandments will be truly honored. If honor were a 12-step program, our communities are still in the first step of denial.
A father or mother can let down a child by being absent, breaking the law or being abusive. Love may be unconditional since God hard-wired us that way, but honor is not. The fifth commandment’s promise should be reciprocal and predicated on truth from child to parent and parent to child. To be honored by your children is earned, not given, but is indeed an honor. In return, we offer the inheritance of a lifetime of blessings, love and autonomy.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is the author of "A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Patriot’s Fight to Save His Faith" and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix. He is also a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander and a physician in the private practice of internal medicine.