A typical impression about old age, the last and the seventh stage of the eventful biography of man in general, according to Jaques of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, has been conjured up in these words: Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
The final phase of human existence is marked by a return to the infantile weaknesses, a loss of the undercurrent that preserves a sense of identity against a background of turbulent and radical changes, and a tragic depletion of non-renewable resources that energize connectivity with nature. This phenomenon of the reversal of creation (Quran 36:68) or of the obliteration of what was intellectually acquired (Quran 16:70) that is collateral to old age has figured in the Prophet’s teachings.
Old Age: Phase I
Old age has two phases. The phase in which the physical and mental powers have not suffered much decline is a highly respected phase. Prophet Abraham, his wife, Sarah, and Moses’ father-in-law, and Zachariah (may on all of them be peace) reached this stage. Zachariah describes the characteristics of this phase, ‘My bones have grown feeble and the hair of my head glistens with grey’ (Quran 19:4). Reaching this phase after years of dedication to God is a Divine blessing. Such a person is blessed with insight, experience, and wisdom and he is looked up to with reverence for guidance and counseling. This age becomes an asset, and a qualification for leading congregational prayers. It entitles the person to a certain advantage over men of youth, as he would have earned more merit through a higher volume of service and dedication to God. The social culture of Muslims is characterized by esteem for the aged and affection for the youngsters.
The esteem, reserved for old age, will be seriously compromised if it is tainted with errant behavior. Any major sin in this age sounds the death-knell of such esteem. Having lived up to this age, one must spare time and thought to examine if life had been lived properly. One must make an earnest effort first to seek Divine guidance and then to live by it.
Sometimes esteem for old age tends to get exaggerated. People begin to conform blindly to the traditions of yore on the ground that the wisdom of the elders is behind them and this unexamined conformity obliges one to turn a deaf ear to the plea of the revealed scripture to prefer Divine wisdom to the elders’ wisdom.
Old Age: Phase II
Old age has another phase in which amnesia and other weaknesses emerge with a devastating force. An old man then becomes a poem of pity and an embodiment of utter helplessness. His children may be inclined to look upon him as an undesirable liability. The Quran advises the children to suppress their annoyance and to reinforce their kindness and devotion towards their old parents.
Prophet Muhammad wanted to avoid this phase of old age. His prayer was: ‘O Allah I seek refuge in You from idleness and old age.’
Caliph Umar said, ‘The Prophet sought refuge from five things: cowardice, miserliness, old age, narrow-mindedness, and punishment in the grave.’
Anecdotes from the Prophet’s life
There are several anecdotes in the Prophet’s life which bring out the enlightened nature and perennial value of his teachings. One of the daughters of his closest friend, Abu Bakr was Asma. Her mother visited Madina to see her. Asma sought the Prophet’s advice with regard to the type of welcome that she must extend to her non-Muslim mother. The Prophet’s advice was, ‘Treat your mother with all the courtesy due to her.’
In Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, it is reported that a person complained to Prophet Muhammad that his father was demanding money from him. The Prophet urged him to oblige his father. The son complained again that his father was making further demands over everything that he had. The Prophet’s advice to him was not to disobey his old parents even if they demanded a whole lot from him.
Another anecdote is more graphic. A son complained to Prophet that his father was taking away his money as and when he pleased. The father was sent for. He came leaning on his walking stick. He was very old and weak. He explained to the Prophet, ‘O Messenger of Allah! There was a time when my son was weak and dependent. At that time I was strong and rich. My son was penniless; I never denied him anything that he wanted. Today I am penniless and he is affluent. But he is keeping his money beyond my reach.’ On hearing this, the Prophet was moved to tears and he informed the son, ‘You and your money belong to your father.’
Abu Tufail narrates, ‘I watched the Prophet distributing food at J’araana. Meanwhile, a woman appeared and approached him. The Prophet spread his shawl for her and she sat upon it. On enquiry I learnt she was Halima who had the privilege of suckling him.’
The Prophet sent back many of his followers who came to pledge themselves for migration and for Jihad and asked them to serve their old parents and to keep them cheerful and said that they would get reward from God for their intention to migrate and to take part in Jihad.
A distinguished companion of the Prophet complained that in one day’s Fajr Prayer there was a lack of concentration. In the discussion that followed it came to light that he had overtaken an old Jew while proceeding towards the mosque. This was considered an inadvertent act of disrespect to old age.
The Prophet considered it an honor to tend to the needs of the elderly. An old lady was struggling to carry a heavy burden. The Prophet volunteered to carry the burden for her and to accompany her. On the way the old lady told him she was leaving the place to escape from the influence of a man, called Muhammad, who was preaching a new religion in which idolatry and polytheism were not permitted. The lady was very impressed by the Prophet’s courtesy and helping attitude. She advised him to shun the new preacher. The Prophet disclosed to her that he was the person from whom she was trying to escape. The old lady realized her folly and declared her allegiance to Islam.
Once an old lady sought an audience with the Prophet and on securing it she requested him to pray to Allah to admit her to Paradise. He remarked humorously that old ladies will not enter Heaven. Failing to comprehend the humor in his statement, she was emotionally perturbed and started to retrace her steps. Then the Prophet told her that old people would be transformed into young people before they gained entry into Heaven. She must have been relieved beyond measure after initial shock to learn that she would not only be admitted to Heaven but also regain her heavenly youth.
Even in parables, the Prophet addressed the concerns of old age. In a parable of three travelers that he narrated, the first one was a dutiful son. Along with two other travelers he took shelter in a cave to escape from inclement weather but all of a sudden a rock rolled down and sealed the mouth of the cave. It was a situation which desperately demanded Divine intervention. So each traveler sought God’s help by invoking a good deed done exclusively to secure God’s pleasure.
The first traveler’s story is as follows: O Allah! My parents were too old and my children were too small. I earned my livelihood by tending sheep. One day I returned home late. My parents had gone to sleep. As it was my habit, I secured milk from the sheep. Carrying it in a bowl, I went to my parents’ bed. It was not proper on my part to wake them up; it was also not proper on my part to give milk to my children without serving it to my parents. Clinging to my legs, my children cried for milk. I steeled my heart and turned a deaf ear to their cries. Tired of crying my children went to sleep. I stood there with the bowl of milk in my hands until the rose-fingered dawn peeped through the window. O Allah! I waited on my old parents in order to secure your pleasure only. Through the blessing of this act of mine I request that the rock be moved a little so that the sky could be seen through the gap. The Prophet said that in reply to this prayer the rock was moved and the sky was seen.
The sunset of life
Old age is the sunset of life when the orb of flame loses its heat and illuminating power and slowly sinks into the horizon. The prospect of surging darkness requires the reassurance of Divine help. The following invocation meets that requirement: ‘O Lord! Make your provisions large and abundant for me, when my age is advanced and when my end draws near.’
The attitude that the Prophet so painstakingly inculcated among his followers towards old age is reflected in the conduct of his revered companions.
His Caliphs issued instructions to the effect that during the state of war, old men should be spared along with priests, women, and children. Caliph Umar introduced old age pension for both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic State. Abu Hurairah advised a young man as follows:
‘Do not address your father by his name; do not walk ahead of him; and do not take your seat before he is seated.’
In fact the mercy that the Prophet symbolized encompassed the concerns of the old people with exemplary and loving care.
Adapted from How Islam tackles old age concerns by Prof. U. Muhammad Iqbal published at Radiance Viewsweekly