‘Uff’: The three letters that taught me how to respect my parents

A look at how embracing the spirit of Islam helped me genuinely honour my parents for the first time.
There is a brilliant and somewhat amusing line in the Holy Quran where God advises us concisely and clearly on how to treat our parents. Under no circumstances, even if we are entrusted with caring for our parents in old age, should we say to them “uff” – the Arabic equivalent to an expression of annoyance such as “argh” or “ugh”.

I admit that when I read that line for the first time last year, I was humoured to see this colloquialism used in the pages of the Quran, Arabic for “The Recitation” – a series of messages and admonitions from God for humankind recited through the Last Prophet ﷺ.

“And your Lord has decreed that you not worship except Him, and to parents, good treatment. Whether one or both of them reach old age [while] with you, say not to them [so much as] “uff,” and do not repel them but speak to them a noble word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small’.” (17: 23-24)

The simplicity of these phrases made me smile, but also served as a reality check. The three-letter-word shook me instantly. Besides worshiping and loving God, very little is more important than consistently acting toward ones parents with warmth and watching one’s tongue.

Family has always been central for me and I was someone who was widely viewed as a good daughter. Yet, many times I would regard financial and moral obligations to my parents as a burden rather than a pleasure. Due to a series of circumstances – including illness and financial strain – I had perhaps more responsibilities than the average child from a young age. I understood the moral duty to care for family and endeavoured my best to perform these duties.

But I cannot say that my actions were always inspired by compassion and understanding. I would at times disagree with my parents, quarrel with them and fail to deal with them in tenderness. I think many of us can be negligent of our parents as we pursue our careers, travel, and search for love and friendship. We can also be unforgiving of mistakes they have made.

Upon finishing university in Canada, I moved to Cairo to work as a journalist for two years and, following a brief return my hometown Vancouver, I have worked in the Gulf region for more than five years. Up until recently, this distance prevented me from seeing my family frequently.

Both of my parents were, in their own unique ways, supportive and appreciative of my success, sacrifice and commitment. They did not expect more. But when I discovered my Islam, my submission to God, I realised I was not doing nearly enough. I intrinsically understood that family was important, but there was something about reading the words of God Himself that impressed upon me that the obligation to care for parents was not simply a matter of performing actions. Rather, it was appreciating the honour of those actions.

Last July, I completed my first reading the Quran while on a short holiday in London and Paris. My mom, sisters and nephews were together in Dubai and my father was in Fayoum, Egypt, an oasis city south of Cairo where he was born. I found myself exploring beautiful European cities on my own but wishing instead that I was with them. Understanding that one of God’s biggest tests of us is our success at treating our parents compassionately changed me; I suddenly wanted them around as much as possible.

My mom noticed the difference in me immediately as she saw me pray deeply, fast frequently and treat her with more attentiveness than I had previously. Now when my mom tells stories of her often tumultuous childhood, upbringing and adult life, I strive to listen to them, to remember the details, her expressions and the tone of her voice. “Heaven lies at the feet of your mother,” Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is cited as having said.

As fate would have it, it was when I surrendered to my obligations to my parents and truly welcomed them that my father passed away, suddenly, just two weeks before we planned to visit him in Egypt in August during the month of Ramadan (الله يرحمه/God bless his soul).

Reaching that moment when you know in your heart that you cannot share another word or embrace with a parent is overwhelming. For me it was particularly so because I had wished to communicate my newfound understanding of my faith with him. Suddenly, all the time in the world became equivalent to an irretrievable millisecond as I realised I could not delay his soul’s return to its Creator. He died while I was in flight, rushing to see him.

Looking upon my father’s bright face and simple grin before his burial moved me. I realised I was not too late but right on time. God had opened my heart in the two months prior to prepare me for this considerable event, priming me to be patient, to pray for my father, support my mother and offer compassion to my sisters.

In the weeks that followed, I browsed through the emails my father and I had exchanged not as frequently as we should have. He always ended his concise messages with a reference to God, something I failed to notice in the hustle and bustle of life. “I pray to God every prayer to make your life very rewarding,” my dad wrote at the end of one message. “I pray every prayer to God to keep you safe and increase your wealth and make everything easy for you,” he conveyed in another. “God bring you safe to us forth and back.”

I have come to realise that being a good Muslim, that is, a person who exercises her obligations to God through prayers, fasting, regular charity and good deeds, is the greatest gift I can offer my parents. The last Prophet ﷺ said of the deceased: “When a man dies, his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity, beneficial knowledge and righteous offspring who will pray for him”.

It has been an immense comfort for me to know that when I pray and offer optional acts of worship for my father they will benefit his soul. Virtually every day since his death, I have recited on his behalf a chapter (surah) in the Quran known as Ya-Sin, which I had memorised in Arabic years before realising its importance. Ya Sin carries crucial messages about resurrection and life after death and was described by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as the heart of the Quran.

What I do for my father now far exceeds anything I did for him during his life. Recognising this has not only informed my faith, it has drawn me closer to both of my parents.
Daliah Merzaban is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist, editor and economic analyst with a decade of experience in the Gulf region, Egypt and Canada. Her current passions are learning Arabic, and discovering new layers of her faith in God and spirituality. She started a blog this year http://daliahm.blogspot.com/ and would be happy to share some of her articles with you.

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