There are a number of topics amongst Muslims that provoke one-dimensional responses, especially when those topics surface in the Muslim public realm. Very rarely do we find in the shari’ah an either/or approach, and where such a decisive issue exists that is either/or, there isn’t really any scope for discussion since the matter has already been laid bare. However, with a religious community driven by its laity, most issues are propped up as either/or topics, seldom is there room for a meaningful discussion or a nuanced approach.
One such topic is the role of elderly members of Muslim communities in religious institutions. Behind closed doors many people show an ability to discuss the issue in a nuanced and mature fashion but in public they adopt a pretentious approach. Any point that effectively attempts to temper the role or influence of the elderly is quickly greeted with a self-righteous performance, “but Allah said we must respect the elderly!” as if suggesting an intelligent way in which to deal uprightly with the needs and whims of the older generation simply implies disrespect or downright contempt.
Much of this is probably down to ethno-cultural norms. The esteem afforded to the elderly by the shari’ah is either misunderstood or misapplied as some form of near-deification. In addition, a lack of explicit guidance in how the shari’ah would have us deal with the elderly in a communal setting has meant that successive generations are impeded in religious and social progress.
The shari’ah offers a tempered tradition; on one hand respect and dignity are to be afforded the old, but on the other hand, their actions must be understood and treated for what they often are.
On the first point, there are many hadith that speak of the treatment of the elderly, the Prophet said:
“A means of exalting God is to honour the greying Muslim…” (Abu Dawud).
As part of maintaining community cohesion, as well as comprehensively considering the needs of all in the community, the Prophet said:
“The one who fails to show mercy to the young or recognise the rights of the aged is not from us.” (Abu Dawud).
Old age can be extremely lonely, causing the onset of depression and misery, and thus we find that the Prophet would empower the elderly with a sense of worth, a reassurance that the elderly, and their wishes, would not be neglected. In many a situation we find that the Prophet would establish a culture that gave older citizens priority engendering self-worth and a show of appreciation: Malik b. Huwayrith related from the Prophet,
“If salah comes, let one of you perform the call to prayer, and let the eldest lead you.” (Bukhari)
But as highlighted by al-Nawawi, the encouragement for the eldest to lead is only where the collective are equal in all other characteristics, i.e. it is the last distinguishing factor taken into consideration. Otherwise leadership in prayer is taken on the basis of meritocracy as commanded by the Prophet:
“A group should be led (in prayer) by those most well-read in the Book of God, and if they should be equal in their reading, then those most knowledgeable of the sunnah…” (Muslim).
Besides these clear directives, it is assumed that the eldest might have most knowledge, wisdom and experience, but there is also a difference between being the eldest in a gathering, and the notion of being elderly. Besides that distinction being made, old age is often portrayed in the shari’ah as a weakness, the Prophet said:
“If you lead people in prayer then keep it light, for there are among them the weak, the elderly, and those with needs” (Ahmad).
Moreover, the Quran informs:
“It is God who creates you weak, then gives you strength, then weakness after strength, together with your grey hair: He creates as He wills…” (Quran 30:54)
The celebrated exegete Ibn Kathir commenting on the latter part of the verse wrote,
“…then the decline begins and he ages, entering upon old age and then frailty; that is weakness after strength. It is where his ambitions, drive and boldness are weakened, his hair greys, and both his internal and outward characteristics change.”
Given the distinction found in the shari’ah – good treatment of the elderly along with recognition of their physical and mental limitations, the way in which religious communities deal with older members must become far more balanced and sensible. Understanding social processes (which are beyond the scope of this discussion), the old should typically want to retire from direct action, and successive generations should be able to determine the appropriate elderly individuals who might provide counsel and advice. It is these people who are to be considered elders. Thus legitimately designating some of the elderly as elders is not only based on age but also the advantageous characteristics that come along with it. Yet this is where the confusion often lies, whilst as an adverb, the word elderly is synonymous with the old aged, many Muslims mistaken it to always be synonymous with ‘elders’. Age is certainly a variable in both words, but being one does not automatically qualify for the other.
An elder tends to be someone in some position of authority, a notion derived from the idea that some of the eldest members of the community are learned and the wisest (stemming from relevant experience) and thus the most qualified for decision making, providing counsel, or serving the community in some other influential capacity. Of course, this is based on the type of wisdom that is relevant to the needs of people and one that is formed on the combined summation of learning, intelligence, and related experience. Merely living into old age does not necessitate all of this. In fact, given the realities of migrant communities (of which Muslims make up a significant population), the vast majority of the elderly have experiences greatly unrelated to growing up in the west – much of where our cultural capital stems from, with religious and secular education levels far lower on average than second or third generations, and cultural norms rather unlike wider society.
Positively, many mosques have attempted to address this issue by appointing ‘educated’ individuals for decision making, yet the indicator for being educated tends to manifest simply as a chosen career path – those either in white-collar jobs or successful businessmen. Whilst they certainly bring a set of positive skills to the table, those skills are not completely relevant to the needs of efficiently running religious institutions or instituting cogent and meaningful religious practice.
Looking at the current state of mosques today, they are to a great degree hindered by the elderly, those who justifiably seek to protect the efforts they have put in to erect religious buildings, but mistakenly assume they meet the requirements to speak on matters of the religion or make faith-affecting decisions. In old age they tend to maintain the ethno-status quo simply as something they recognise, and like many of the elderly, are averse to change, even in the form of positive progression. To be perfectly fair, in the situation such behavior is quite logical.
The problem lies with their offspring and younger relatives, often those deemed ‘educated’ who takeover but act as proxies. It’s not always the case that they simply inherit the ignorance of former generations or rally behind the sectarianism of former mosque leaders but in many cases due ethno-cultural habits, they abjectly confuse respect and understanding for the elderly with treating the old as elders.
There is a sensible line to be traversed: we must demonstrate understanding with those in need (the elderly being a category) but take as elders those who actually have the relevant characteristics. Just because an aged individual has an opinion doesn’t make it worthy of consideration, in fact, often it’ll be the case to respond affably whilst offering it no functional value. We must not confuse submission to wisdom and consequential experience with a scenario where simple graciousness should be exhibited.
As people in the community age, their religious and social interests should be served by the next generation whilst they affably retreat to the realm of divine remembrance and soft service, where little intellectual or physical exertion is required. It is related by Abdullah b. Busr that a bedouin asked the Prophet:
“who is the best of the people?” He said, “the one who lives long with increasingly good acts” (Tirmidhi).
Including the elderly in important and testing matters often tries both their patience and energies of which they have depleted amounts, conditions that provoke belligerence, ignorance and shows of frustration that often manifests as offensive outbursts, irrationality or simply acting like a juvenile. Better practice might exhibit as a situation where their wellbeing is promoted by facilitating increased worship and piety as time becomes even more of an increasingly valuable commodity. al-Hasan al-Basri said:
“I witnessed groups of people who were more vigilant with their time than you all are with your gold and silver.”
It is by time that God declares man is in loss except where he manifests belief and righteous actions, urging truth and patient perseverance (Surah al-Asr).
Furthermore, we must offer the elderly calm and secure surroundings where as peers to one another they may come together and continue to establish ‘good acts’, rather than placing them in demanding or stressful situations where they might diminish all of the good that they have achieved in the past. It is up to us to remind them (as well as ourselves) of the ultimate meeting and to instigate a preoccupation with it, for Allah tells us:
“Lost are those who deny their meeting with God until, when the hour unexpectedly arrives they say: How great our regret that we disregarded this! And they shall bare their burdens on their back. How terrible those burdens! The life of this world is nothing but a game and a distraction; the abode of the hereafter is best for those who are aware of God. Will you not understand?” (Quran 6:31-32)