BY SABIA ALI IN RELATIONSHIPS ON 19TH JANUARY, 2023
If asked who we would turn to for wholesome advice and trustworthy opinions, a few examples of people might come to mind: mother, father, grandparents, teachers, counsellors, religious figures and perhaps older people generally. Most of them having lived longer than us, they possess a greater breadth and depth of life experiences. Arguably, for that reason, they command respect.
Age is often synonymous with wisdom.
For the most part, the above statement is true. However, there are usually anomalies to a general rule. It is not unheard of to find examples of older people who are irrational and erratic despite the number of years they have spent on this earth. Turning to such people for advice would be very questionable. At the same time, and at the other end of the scale, young people can sometimes unexpectedly surprise us with their maturity. Some are able to offer advice with a rationale that surpasses expectations for their years. Wise counsel might therefore be found in the places we least expect.
I cite my own experience with my sons. The divorce of their father and I was a harbinger of immense change and catapulted them into adulthood much faster than they would have wanted. Overnight, the stability which they once knew was disrupted. The dynamics of our family were irreversibly changed. Not only did my sons and I have to relocate home but we also had to relocate countries. Our lives had to be rebuilt all over again at a time of great emotional trauma. Alhamdulillah, as young boys, they pulled through it all with a quiet dignity and determination despite the turmoil and setbacks. It is these kinds of atypical experiences that fast-track young people through the maturing process unlike many of their peers and allow them a nuanced perspective on life.
In the years since I inherited the onerous task of managing a home and family on my own, I have had many conversations with my sons where I seek their opinion or advice especially on issues to do with the family. In those conversations, sometimes our opinions corroborated and, at other times, we agreed to disagree. No doubt, to some extent, sharing my burdens caused them to grow up faster. Some might argue that this approach to parenthood is a bit risky or even irresponsible.
Why would a mother need to seek opinions or advice from her own children? Is she incapable of making independent decisions? These are valid questions. Yet, it has not stemmed from a lack of leadership on my part. On the contrary, my rationale has always been embedded in a worthy example to follow – the sunnah, or practices, of the Prophet ﷺ himself. I understand that the life of a Muslim is governed by Quranic teachings and the sunnah and so, within that, giving and receiving advice must also be done within an Islamic framework.
In reading the seerah (the life of the Prophet ﷺ), we find many examples of beautiful behaviour with regards to how he consulted his close confidantes. On one occasion, on the brink of the Battle of Uhud, the Prophet ﷺ expressed to his sahaba (companions) his desire to confront the enemies of Quraish in Medina rather than to go out to Uhud to fight. However, the younger sahaba insisted they all go out to meet the Quraish in Uhud even though those older amongst them had agreed with the Prophet’s ﷺ plan. Finally, when the Prophet ﷺ realised their fervour and that the majority opinion had now shifted to this strategy, he agreed and retreated to wear his armour for battle.
Meanwhile, the younger sahaba were scolded by the older ones for causing this shift. As a result, they felt deep regret. However, the Prophet ﷺ re-emerged explaining it was not befitting for a prophet to take his armour off once he had worn it and until he had carried out his mission. The battle would therefore take place at Uhud. The two salient points to note here are that:
1) the Prophet’s ﷺ discussion with his sahaba in the first place was with the intention of making them feel involved and important, and
2) he did not chastise the younger sahaba for their persistence and went ahead with their opinion despite his authority.
As a Prophet with divine inspiration, we know he did not need the approval of anyone. Yet, it was an intelligent and tactical move to foster inclusion and mutual respect. He achieved far more than was apparent to the eye. It is this kind of prophetic wisdom which inspires my own style of parenting.
Again, in Islamic history, we see plenty of examples of youth who were never dismissed as insignificant on the basis of their age alone. Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA), is one such glowing example. Not only was he a paternal cousin of the Prophet ﷺ, more importantly, he lived in his close company from childhood. Ibn Abbas became an accomplished scholar of ahadith at a young age. Such was his vast knowledge and wisdom, that when Umar ibn Khattab (RA) was the Khalifa of the Muslim Empire, he consulted with ibn Abbas on matters to do with governance and referred to him as the “young man of maturity”.
This is proof that age was not an automatic barrier to wisdom. Umar ibn Khattab, the second Khalifa and an undisputed giant in Islamic history, displayed total humility in seeking wise counsel from a scholarly person much younger than himself. In pondering over anecdotal evidence from the seerah, I am confident that giving teenagers or young people the liberty to express their views is not the same as allowing them to override parental authority. In fact, the examples mentioned above prove to us that this practice is neither new nor decadent. Arguably, it is even encouraged.
In my own role as mother, I have come to understand that I cannot behave like a bull in a china shop and always force my understanding of the world onto others. I realise my sons are the product of the 21st century and, as such, have to accept that their views and encounters in the wider world are going to be shaped by their unique and individual experiences. That is not to say that being of different generations we are necessarily at loggerheads. However, my perspective on things might well be ill-judged or biased.
So, whether it has been deciding on how to deal with mental wellbeing or what career moves to consider, I have sat with my sons to hear their views as much as give my own. Where I have not been able to be objective, they have been the voice of reason. I have accepted their advice on many occasions knowing they would not beguile me. Instead, if we all can act and react to situations with an Islamic reference, I cannot ask for more. To submit to their advice does not make me flawed as a mother. It makes me human.
If our thinking is upheld by Islamic standards, it goes without saying that to consider only the secular perspective on important matters will never be enough. Nor should the focus shift to the age of the person making the point. Rather, it has everything to do with whether that person can validate their position through an Islamic lens – and that is a competency not uniquely limited to adults or parents.
It is important to inculcate Islamic values in children early on so that they have the confidence that their views have credence – they are not simply talking from a baseless and whimsical standpoint. Having invested in that upbringing for my children early on, today I feel my sons are old heads on young shoulders.
So it would seem that I have motherhood worked out perfectly. Far from it. It is very much a work in progress. As the boys have evolved from children to young men, so too have their personalities been formed and reformed. I have tried to stay prepared but the reality is that it is impossible to pre-empt every situation. Over time though, we have all fallen into a healthy codependency, Alhamdulillah. It has been years of stressful work and many challenging episodes of teenage tantrums and mother’s sombre moods. To say we have all found our own niches effortlessly would be disingenuous. Yet, I can claim that my sons – these young men – have supported me immensely at my lowest points. They have offered advice or comfort at times when I needed to be placated or could not think clearly.
Even though I have tried to spare them from witnessing my worries, they have been perceptive enough to know when mother is not her normal self. So, despite the upheaval we experienced in the aftermath of divorce, a solid silver lining has beautified our cloud, Alhamdulillah. Today, I see a maturity in them which has occurred through facing challenges together as a family and consciously working hard to keep within Islamic boundaries.
When I started this new phase of life as a single mother, I recall a close friend advised me to stay strong. I was not even sure what ‘being strong’ was supposed to look like. However, I never forgot her words and years later, they still resonate in my mind. I now understand that being a strong mother is not about being a heroine and carrying the burdens of the family on my shoulders alone.
Of course, the boys have needed to see a mother who is bold and determined – a trait which they could also emulate. InshaAllah, their observations have fed into their own perceptions of what women can do. However, it also takes strength to acknowledge one’s weaknesses. Now, when I call upon my sons for advice or practical help, I am not plagued by guilt or a feeling of incompetency. They understand this is my acknowledgement of their maturity and a demonstration of the trust I have in them. They feel secure that they have the right to be heard and counted on.
Turning to one’s children for advice can only happen if the parents have instilled the correct values in them in the first place. Additionally, there must be a conscious effort to nurture mutual trust and respect amongst all those involved. Most importantly, everyone must promise to listen and not simply hear. We must aim to build one another up and not drag one another down. Wise counsel can only be of any benefit if one is focussed on the virtues contained in its message and less so the messenger. With that mindset, my sons and I strive to continue working as a team, inshaAllah. Ultimately, we know the goals we each score belong to us all.