A typical impression about old age, the last and the seventh stage of the eventful biography of man in general, according to Jaques of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, has been conjured up in these words:
The last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion. Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
The final phase of human existence is marked by a return to infantile weaknesses, a loss of the undercurrent that preserves a sense of identity against a background of turbulent and radical changes, and a tragic depletion of non-renewable resources that energize connectivity with nature. This phenomenon of the reversal of creation (Qur’an, 36:68) or of the obliteration of what was intellectually acquired (16:70) that is collateral to old age has figured in the Prophet’s teachings.
Old Age: Phase I
Old age has two phases. The phase in which the physical and mental powers have not suffered much decline is a highly respected phase. Prophet Abraham, his wife, Sarah, Moses’ father-in-law, and Zachariah (may all of them be peace) reached this stage. Zachariah describes the characteristics of this phase, ‘My bones have grown feeble and the hair of my head glistens with grey.’ (19:3). Reaching this phase after years of dedication to God is a Divine blessing. Such a person is blessed with insight, experience, and wisdom and he is looked up to with reverence for guidance and counseling. This age becomes an asset and a qualification for leading congregational prayers. It entitles the person to a certain advantage over men of youth, as he would have earned more merit through a higher volume of service and dedication to God. The social culture of Muslims is characterized by esteem for the aged and affection for the youngsters.
The esteem, reserved for old age, will be seriously compromised if it is tainted with errant behavior. Any major sin in this age sounds like the death knell of such esteem. Having lived up to this age, one must spare time and thought to examine if life had been lived properly. One must make an earnest effort first to seek Divine guidance and then to live by it. If the long life given by God is not utilized to secure God’s pleasure, one exposes one’s self to God’s anger.
Sometimes esteem for old age tends to get exaggerated. People begin to conform blindly to the traditions of yore on the ground that the wisdom of the elders is behind them and this unexamined conformity obliges one to turn a deaf ear to the plea of the revealed scripture to prefer Divine wisdom to the elders’ wisdom.
Old Age: Phase II
Old age has another phase in which amnesia and other weaknesses emerge with a devastating force. An old man then becomes a poem of pity and an embodiment of utter helplessness. His children are inclined to look upon him as an undesirable liability. The Qur’an advises them (children) to suppress their annoyance and to reinforce their kindness and devotion towards their old parents.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) wanted to avoid this phase of old age. His prayer was: ‘O Allah I seek refuge in You from idleness and old age.’
Caliph Umar said, ‘The Prophet sought refuge from five things: cowardice, miserliness, old age, narrow-mindedness, and punishment in the grave.’
Anecdotes from the Prophet’s life
There are several anecdotes in the Prophet’s life that bring out the enlightened nature and perennial value of his teachings. One of the daughters of his closest friend, Abu Bakr was Asma. Her mother visited Madina to see her.
Asma sought the Prophet’s advice with regard to the type of welcome that she must extend to her non-Muslim mother. The Prophet’s advice was, ‘Treat your mother with all the courtesy due to her.’
In Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, it is reported that a person complained to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that his father was demanding money from him. The Prophet urged him to oblige his father. The son represented again that his father made demands over everything that he had. The Prophet’s advice to him was not to disobey his old parents even if they demanded a whole lot from him.
Another anecdote is more graphic. A son complained to Prophet (peace be upon him) that his father was taking away his money as and when he pleased The father was sent for. He came leaning on his walking stick. He was very old and weak. He explained to the Prophet, ‘O Messenger of Allah! There was a time when my son was weak and dependent. At that time I was strong and rich. My son was penniless; I never denied him anything that he wanted. Today I am penniless and he is affluent. But he is keeping his money beyond my reach.’ On hearing this, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was moved to tears and he informed the son, ‘You and your money belong to your father.’
The Prophet practiced what he preached. Abu Talib, his non-Muslim paternal uncle, stood by him through thick and thin, and thus he had a very deep attachment to him. On account of this attachment, he devoutly wished that Abu Talib should die as a Muslim. But it was not to be.
Abu Tufail narrates, ‘I watched the Prophet (peace be upon him) distributing flesh at J’araana. Meanwhile, a woman appeared and approached him. The Prophet spread his shawl for her and she sat upon it. On inquiry, I learned she was Halima who had the privilege of suckling him.’
The Prophet (peace be upon him) sent back many of his followers who came to pledge themselves for migration and for Jihad and asked them to serve their old parents and to keep them cheerful and said that they would get the reward from God for their intention to migrate and to take part in Jihad.
A distinguished companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him) complained that in one day’s Fajr Prayer, there was a lack of concentration. In the discussion that followed it came to the light mat he had overtaken an old Jew while proceeding toward the mosque. This was considered an inadvertent act of disrespect to old age.
The Prophet did not consider it infra dig to minister to the needs of the aged. An old lady was struggling to carry a heavy burden. The Prophet (peace be upon him) volunteered to carry the burden for her and to accompany her. On the way, the old lady told him she was leaving the place to escape from the influence of a man, called Muhammad, who was preaching a new religion in which idolatry and polytheism were not permitted.
The lady was very impressed by the Prophet’s courtesy and helping attitude. She advised him to shun the new preacher. The Prophet (peace be upon him) disclosed to her that he was the person from whom she was trying to escape. The old lady realized her folly and declared her allegiance to Islam.
Once an old lady sought an audience with the Prophet and on securing it she requested him to pray to Allah to admit her to Paradise. He remarked humorously that old ladies were barred from Heaven.
Failing to comprehend the humor in his statement, she was emotionally perturbed and started to retrace her steps. Then it was brought home to her that old person would be transformed into young people before they gained entry into Heaven. She must have been relieved beyond measure after the initial shock to learn that she would not only be admitted to Heaven but also regain her heavenly youth.
Even in parables, the Prophet (peace be upon him) addressed the concerns of old age. In a parable of three travelers that he narrated, the first one was a dutiful son. Along with two other travelers he took shelter in a cave to escape from inclement weather but all of a sudden a rock rolled down and sealed the mouth of the cave. It was a situation that desperately demanded Divine intervention. So each traveler sought God’s help by invoking a good deed done exclusively to secure God’s pleasure.
The first traveler’s story is as follows: O Allah! My parents were too old and my children were too small. I eked my livelihood by tending sheep. One day I returned home late. My parents had gone to sleep. As it was my wont, I secured milk from the sheep.
Carrying it in a bowl, I went to my parent’s bed. It was not proper on my part to wake them up; it was also not proper on my part to give milk to my children without serving it to my parents. Clinging to my legs, my children cried for milk. I steeled my heart and turned a deaf ear to their cries. Tired of crying my children went to sleep. I stood there with the bowl of milk in my hands until the rose-fingered dawn peeped through the window. O, Allah! I waited on my old parents in order to secure your pleasure only. Through the blessing of this act of mine, I request that the rock be moved a little so that the sky could be seen through the gap. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that in reply to this prayer, God moved the rock a little and the sky was seen.
The sunset of life
Old age is the sunset of life when the orb of flame loses its heat and illuminating power and slowly sinks into the liquid bosom of oblivion and conceals its shame of privation. The frightening prospect of surging darkness urgently requires the reassurance of Divine help. The following invocation meets that requirement: ‘O Lord! Make your provisions large and abundant for me, when my age is advanced and when my end draws near.’
The attitude that the Prophet (peace be upon him) so painstakingly inculcated among his followers towards old age is reflected in the conduct of his revered companions.
His Caliphs issued instructions to the effect that during the state of war, old men should be spared along with priests, women, and children. Caliph Umar introduced an old age pension for both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens of the Islamic State. Abu Hurairah advised a young man as follows:
‘Do not address your father by his name; do not walk ahead of him; and do not take your seat before he is seated.’
In fact, the mercy that the Prophet (peace be upon him) symbolized encompassed the concerns of the old people with exemplary and loving care.