Islam does not consider the elderly as burdens on society. In fact, it recognizes the favor they have given to society and tries to pay them back.
Oman – At this time of uncertainty, some politicians and influential people have advocated overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic with herd immunity, prioritizing young people who have better chances of surviving at the expense of the elderly’s lives. Does this view line up with Islam? How does Islam treat elderly people? Do they have rights in a Muslim society? If so, what are those rights?
First, I must note that God honors human beings as He states in the Qur’an surah 17 ayah 70. By no means then can we diminish mankind mentally, emotionally, physically, or in any other way like race, gender, color. Man should always wish for others what he wishes for himself. There should be no place for selfishness or egoism.
The Prophet Muhammad, in one of his narrations, states that the faith of the faithful is incomplete unless he desires for his brother what he desires for himself. Like many stories of what the prophet said or did, known as hadith, this narration was recorded by Al Bukhari.
Even though the elderly are less productive and often need care, making some societies put them away in nursing care homes, Islam gives them a status with a blessing. “Goodness is with your elderly,” according to Majma’ al Zawai’d’s hadith 12618.
There is also a hadith saying the best of you are the ones who live longer and carry out good deeds.
As one can see, Islam does not consider the elderly as burdens on society. In fact, it recognizes the favor they have given to society and tries to pay them back by recognizing them and giving them the special status they deserve.
In addition to the status elderly people have in Muslim society, Islam gives them a number of rights, showing appreciation for what they offer society. In at least five passages the elderly’s rights are detailed.
First, people are to honor them and show them respect. The Prophet Muhammad says, “One way of showing highness to Allah is to honor the elderly Muslim,” as found in Ibn Majah’s hadith 3712. In another narration, he says, “He is not from us whoever does not have mercy on our young and reverence for our elders,” quoted in Al Tirmidhi’s hadith 1920.
It is clear in these narrations the amount of respect society should give to the elderly regardless of their social status or financial situation. As a result, the elderly should receive respect and be taken care of.
Second, people should treat the elderly with respect by greeting them first instead of waiting for the elder to start. The Prophet Muhammad says, “The younger should greet the older first,” according to Al Bukhari’s hadith 6231.
Third, younger people should politely address their elders by calling them “uncle” or “aunt” as the companion of the Prophet, Abu Omamah Ibn Sahl, narrated. He said they visited the companion Anas and they found him praying; after Anas finished his prayer, he asked “oh uncle! Which prayer have you offered?” (Al Bukhari 549).
Fourth, people should allow the elderly to speak first, and not ignore or dismiss them. There was a group of people who came to the Prophet Muhammad to inform him about a situation, and one of the younger people in the group started speaking. Then, the Prophet said “kapir, kapir,” meaning “let your elderly speak first” (Al Bukhari 3173).
Finally, younger people should avoid insulting the elderly or humiliating them. In one narration, we read, “Whoever humiliates an elder, he shall not die until Allah makes somebody insult him and humiliate him when he gets older, as found in Al Omr wa Shib, Ibn Abi Donya 1343.
These are some of the rights of elderly people that Islam has enforced on Muslim society. It does not consider them a burden on society; instead, Islam requests society take care of them and show them the respect they deserve. At the end of the day, the elderly are human beings, and they should be treated as such, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic.