What are the limits of a child's obedience to their parents in Islam? Is a…
I. Details about the situation
Maryam is a university student who has decided to pursue a career in journalism because she is interested in various social sciences and feels like she can make a meaningful contribution to the field. She has returned home during the holidays, and upon hearing about her career plans, her parents instead insist that she either study medicine or engineering, without compromise. Her parents cite that while her interest in journalism sounds wonderful and it can undoubtedly be a passion of hers, it is important for her to pursue a career in something more stable, high-earning and “prestigious” (ie: medicine or engineering). Maryam is growing increasingly frustrated trying to navigate this conflict with her parents and is struggling to find the best approach moving forward. Recognizing the complexity and nuance of the issue at hand, Maryam also feels that she has a right to choose her own future goals and aspirations. What is the proper approach in reconciling the different opinions? What should Maryam do?
Undoubtedly, Islam emphasizes our role and responsibility in treating our parents with kindness by stressing the importance offilial piety to the greatest extent. In the oft-quoted verse, God commands us by stating, “Your Lord has decreed that you shall not worship anyone except Him, and [He has enjoined] kindness to parents. Should they reach old age at your side —one of them or both— do not say to them, ‘Fie!’ And do not chide them, but speak to them [with] noble words.”Of course, there are many other verses which invoke the significant theme of obedience to one’s parents. At the same time, the role of the parent is to offer guidance to their child, and not force them to perform an act against the child’s respective will. While a baligh person has the right to choose for themselves, the best course of action is to always obey one’s parents in matters that are feasible and fair, while simultaneously not foregoing their own aspirations. This must be achieved by striking a balance in the pursuit of their dreams and remaining sensitive to the parents’ wishes. On both sides, there is a need to recognize one’s rights over the other, the parents and the children respectively, and find a reasonable compromise with which both parties are comfortable.
When a child disagrees with their parents on a particular issue, they are ‘… allowed to discuss with the parents in matters that they think are not right; but the child must observe politeness and respect in the discussion; they should not angrily look at them, nor raise their voice over theirs, let alone use harsh words and expressions.’ Muslims scholars have long discussed the difference between being obedient to one’s parents [ta’at al-waladayn] in contrast with honoring one’s parents [al-ihsaan bil walidayn]. It’s important for us to keep in mind this sensitivity in engaging with our parents, particularly in matters where we disagree.
In the case of Maryam, she has the right to choose for herself and is not bound to pursue a career in medicine or engineering if she does not want to. However, if she wants to study journalism then she cannot do so without the consent of her parents if they are the benefactors of her education. If she is independent and paying the cost of her education, then she is free to choose her course of study and future career. However, she must realize that God disapproves of someone displeasing their parents and that the future consequences must be thoughtfully considered before proceeding.
Unfortunately, as common as situations like these are, it is important for Maryam to discuss the issue with her parents in a calm and collected manner, and at the same time, for her parents to remain objective about the issue and not demand or coerce their daughter into making a career choice that ultimately would make her feel uncomfortable.
If Maryam cannot convince the parents about taking a particular course of action or life decision, then she must give preference to honoring [ihsaan] them in the event the decision is trivial, remembering that the pleasure of God lies in such an act. On the other hand, if the decision is important and potentially life-altering, then she can take multiple different directions including potentially:
Respectful Conversation: state that she is not disregarding her parents’ opinion but rather hopes to prove to them that the pursuit is worthwhile.
Compromise: she can ask them if they can collectively come to some form of a compromise such that they are reassured of her choice and/or they agree to a trial period during which the feasibility of her choice becomes clear (if possible).
Involving others: Maryam can bring experts to talk to her parents to show them the importance of her choice or potentially involve a third party mediator.