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The Wing of Humility

Words are undoubtedly one of the most powerful forces available to humanity. At times, one comes across expressions that are instantly forgotten, having little or no influence on the listener, passing by one’s ears as if a traveller who has no intention of residing. At other times however, words can be so powerful that they are etched into memory for good, having found their way into one’s heart and settled there without even seeking permission. Undoubtedly, the Qur’an has this effect on those who recite it with humbleness and sincerity.
There is however a specific set of Qur’anic words that stand out in this regard, demanding attention and provoking deep thought, captivating the heart of both the Muslim and non-Muslim reader. This is where Allah says, instructing man how to treat his parents:And lower to them your wing of humility…”
What is meant by this linguistic comparison? What are the secrets behind its pull? What does Allah want man to do after reading this?It is important to note that the above wasn’t the first time that the subject of birds and the flapping of wings is mentioned in the Qu’ran, for it truly is – for those who reflect – a mighty scene.
What is the link between the wing of a bird and the concept of humility that Allah wants man to show towards his parents? At face value, the link may not seem very obvious, as the term janah (wing) is in reference to the physical limb of birds that are used for flight, whilst dhull (humility) is in reference to an inward state of the heart. So, what is the connection?
The scholars of Islam have thought long and hard on this question and have derived several answers; let us shed light on four of them:
Al-Qaffal al-Shashi gives the links between wings and humility.He says,“The answer to this is from two perspectives. The first: When the bird wishes to bring its little ones closer to itself to nurture them, it lowers its wing, thus the concept of lowering one’s wing has become a metaphor for good nurturing. Therefore it is as if the ayah is guiding man to care for his parents by bringing them close just as they did when you were young.
“The second perspective: When a bird wishes to fly and ascend, it will spread out its wings, and when wanting to land, it will lower them. Thus the lowering of the wing became a metaphor for humility.”
Ibn al-Athir, gives a third link between wings and humility: Likening a wing to humility is very relevant, because when a bird is fatigued or becomes weak, it spreads out its wings, lowers them and places itself onto the ground.”
Al-Shihab al-Khaffaji,gives a fourth link between wings and humility: Also, when a bird sees a predator whom it fears, it draws close to the ground, having lowered its wings to it, whilst being in a state of terror and humility.”
In short, these four explanations revolve around the meanings of utmost care, utmost humility and utmost awe. However, at this point, one almost feels compelled to make a comparison between these remarkable explanations and what many parents are complaining of today. When one sees a young man or woman arguing with their parents as if they are peers, corning his parents with his complex vocabulary, loud voice and intimidating approach, one cannot help but be haunted by the four explanations above as one wonders:
– Is this the lowering of the wing of humility which Allah described?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which cares for its young ones?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which is landing from flight?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which is fatigued and hurt?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which surrenders before its predator?
But there is more.
The Qur’anic word for “humility” is “dhull” (with a damma). However there is another authentic recitation for this word, which is “dhill” (with a kasra); what is the difference between them? The linguists have said that the former – “dhull” – is used in reference to the humility of a human being whilst the latter – “dhill” – is used in reference to the humility of an animal.[10]
Ponder, therefore, over the Qur’an’s enormous emphasis of how man must conduct himself towards his parents, likening his humility to that of an animal towards its shepherd. Thus when these two meanings of “humility” are added to the four meanings of “lowering of the wing” mentioned above, yet another vast set of meanings relating to humility, obedience and gentleness towards parents open up.
This instruction – “lower to them your wing of humility” – is so profound that it has caused some of the Islamic jurists to think deeply about how advice is to be offered to one’s parents in light of this ayah. How does one go about doing it? This is because the advised usually feels that the adviser is addressing him from a higher platform.
As for the remaining three categories, he argued that none of them are appropriate towards one’s parents. Other scholars have mentioned other methods. Consider the words of ImamMalik, whose heart had clearly been captured by the ayah, when he argued that parents are to be enjoined to do good and forbidden from evil, and added:
Yes, advice can be given to one’s parents where and when needed, but notice how ImamMalik’s ruling kept in mind Allah’s guidance. Our predecessors’ fascination of this ayah was not limited to the field of research and verdicts however, but it governed their everyday interactions with their parents, having raised the bar of good treatment to unimaginably high levels.
As for the scholar ‘Abdullah b. ‘Awn his application of this ayah was so great that he included it within his very tone of voice when speaking to his parents. It was mentioned in his biography that his mother once called him to which he responded in a voice that was louder than hers, thus in repentance to Allah, he freed two slaves.
It must not be forgotten that the freeing of slaves is, in the Qur’an, an expiation for the major sins, including marital relations during one’s fast in Ramadan, accidental killing, and others. ‘Abdullah however considered that his tone of voice that became louder than his mother’s fell into such a category, despite him not intending to be rude or argumentative. What then can one make of a person who screams from his room at his mother because his dinner is late or not what he expected? Or those perhaps who bang at their car doors or sound their car horns to hurry his mother who is taking “too long” to get ready, as the poor lady scrambles around in her house, frantically trying to get her matters together, fearing the rage and displeasure of her son?
How huge, therefore, is the gap between these people who held themselves accountable over the tones of their voices and length of their glances in comparison to some of us who scream when they open their drawers and find that their clothes haven’t all been washed and ironed in time.
Amr b. Maymun b. Mahran was travelling with his father in the city of Basra when they came across a puddle that they needed to cross but his father was too weak to walk through it. At once, ‘Amr lowered himself into the water, allowing his father to walk on his back, using it as a bridge to cross over.[15]
How lucky was the father of ‘Amr who did not live to witness a day where children find it burdensome to push the wheelchairs of their mothers or those who get frustrated due to “yet another hospital appointment” which their parent requires, and when he gets there, he spends his time on his phone, wishing that he could be with his friends.
As for Imam Abu Hanifa, he would frequently make dua for his parents and dedicated a sum of 20 dinars for charity each month on behalf of them. His mother would at times ask him Islamic questions but would not be convinced by his response, demanding the opinion of Zur’a al-Wa’ith. In a beautiful display of humility towards her, he would take her to him and would ask Zur’a, to which Zur’a responded, “You have far more knowledge than I do! Please give her the answer.” AbuHanifa said, “My answer was such and such,” to which Zur’a said, “Therefore it is my opinion as well.” AbuHanafi’s mother was satisfied and returned.
As for Muhammad b. al-Munkadir, he had a brother called ?Umar b. al-Munkadir. The former was known for his knowledge whilst the latter was known for his worship. On one particular evening, ?Umar got up to pray at night whilst Muhammad spent it massaging the feet of his mother. Muhammad said, “My brother spent that night worshipping Allah and I spent it massaging my mother’s feet, and I would never exchange my night for his.”
This was their understanding of “lowering the wing of humility” to one’s parents, examples that are nothing but a direct product of their deep knowledge of Islam and in-depth understanding of how Allah loves to be glorified and worshiped. Their practice of Islam was not artificial, limiting it to the obvious outward acts of worship, but their religiosity was real, having realised that any act of worship, pursuit of knowledge, teaching of others or giving of da?wah that overlooks humility towards one’s parents is deficient, largely useless and ultimately fake.
You will encounter many moments in your life where serious decisions are needed to be made, whether at the academic, employment, investment, marital levels, or others, and it could be that either or both of your parents are in opposition to the move, to which the son/daughter feels that their opinion is irrelevant due to their lack of knowledge, experience or exposure to the matter at hand. As such, s/he chooses to proceed regardless of their opinion without even thinking of first trying to please them. In reality, the majority of such decisions end up being completely devoid of barakah (blessing).
The wise one is he who does all what he can to ensure the comfort of his parents before proceeding in such decisions, and if they insist on their stance, then “whoever fears Allah, Allah will provide for him a way out of every difficulty, and will provide for him from where he least expects.”
Taking the opinion of one’s parents, humbly seeking their consent and benefiting from their status over you is a real garden of paradise on earth, the joy and satisfaction of which is only felt by those who live by “lower to them your wing of humility.”