What does a "parent" mean? One might answer that parents are the genetic couple who give birth to an infant. In fact, this is the exact Arabic meaning of parents or "al-waledyn." However, it takes more than just giving birth to be engaged in the process of parenting. Searching in the Quran for answers always leads to the realization that this book is full of infinite wisdom, and we have to sincerely implore God as commanded in 20:114 and say, "My Lord, increase my knowledge" to find our answers. In 17:23-24, God almighty describes for us what it takes to be a parent:
[17:23] Your Lord has decreed that you shall not worship except Him, and your parents shall be honored. As long as one or both of them live, you shall never say to them, "Uff" (the slightest gesture of annoyance), nor shall you shout at them; you shall treat them amicably.
[17:24] And lower for them the wings of humility, and kindness, and say, "My Lord, have mercy on them, for they have raised me from infancy."
The parents referenced in 17:23-24 are the genetic ones who give birth (al waledayn) and continue to fulfill their obligation of parenting. In both verses God is portraying the ideal situation of two dedicated parents willing to actively raise their kids. This involves loving, nourishing, and teaching their kids from infancy all the way through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood until they are strong and independent ("My Lord, have mercy on them, for they have raised me from infancy.") .
Being loved, honored, dignified, and nourished starting from the intensive care of an infant by our parents, irrespective of their belief, is what develops some very important values necessary to feel and appreciate the essence of goodness, and to differentiate between false and true. It is what brings beauty, awareness, confidence, and freedom into our little hearts. It is what develops our young souls and shapes us into healthy adults who are equipped emotionally and mentally to judge and choose. Giving birth by itself, without dedication to the hard work necessary for raising children, doesn't fulfill the ideals of parenting in 17:23-24.
Sometimes the needs of kids who lose their parents, or are not blessed with loving and supportive ones, are fulfilled by God's mercy through other people in their lives. A grandparent or relative, a teacher, a neighbor, or a family friend might touch their hearts and leave an everlasting impact on their souls that would eventually enable them to appreciate God's blessings. Some of these people might not have kids on their own, but enjoy extending their parenting skills to others. These figures are also active participants of the parenting world.
It's interesting to know that the Hadith and Sunna books (sayings and practices falsely attributed to prophet Mohammad) are full of invented instructions on how to raise our kids, i.e.; when to teach them certain skills, what kind of sports they should master, even when we should beat them if they don't pray! Quran doesn't have any of these oppressive details. The One who created us knows that healthy-minded parents are by nature seeking the best for their kids. The best in the sight of God is righteousness (49:13). Therefore, believing parents should feel obligated to raise their kids according to the standards of righteousness which are fully detailed for us in the Quran.
The Parents' Responsibility [20:132] You shall enjoin your family to observe the contact prayers (Salat), and steadfastly persevere in doing so. We do not ask you for any provisions; we are the ones who provide for you. The ultimate triumph belongs to the righteous.
We cannot ask for any better than this:
[52:21] For those who believed, and their children also followed them in belief, we will have their children join them. We never fail to reward them for any work. Every person is paid for what he did.
The command to honor and regard our parents is second only to the command to worship God alone and be appreciative of Him. It is obvious that the unwavering and tremendous, intensive, and continued love, care, and generosity experienced through our parents is an earthly representation of God's infinite grace and mercy towards us. Therefore, being appreciative of our parents is an image of our appreciation to our Creator:
The Second Commandment [31:14] We enjoined the human being to honor his parents. His mother bore him, and the load got heavier and heavier. It takes two years (of intensive care) until weaning. You shall be appreciative of Me, and of your parents. To Me is the ultimate destiny.
[4:1] O people, observe your Lord; the One who created you from one being, and created from it its mate, then spread from the two many men and women. You shall regard GOD, by whom you swear, and regard the parents. GOD is watching over you.*
[17:23] Your Lord has decreed that you shall not worship except Him, and your parents shall be honored.....
This second-most important command was demonstrated by both Jesus and John:
[19:31] "He made me blessed wherever I go, and enjoined me to observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and the obligatory charity (Zakat) for as long as I live.
[19:32] "I am to honor my mother; He did not make me a disobedient rebel.
[19:12] "O John, you shall uphold the scripture, strongly." We endowed him with wisdom, even in his youth.
[19:13] And (we endowed him with) kindness from us and purity, for he was righteous.
[19:14] He honored his parents, and was never a disobedient tyrant.
Even if our parents were idol worshipers, we are commanded to continue an amicable relationship with them, without following their idolatrous path.
[31:15] If they try to force you to set up any idols beside Me, do not obey them. But continue to treat them amicably in this world. You shall follow only the path of those who have submitted to Me. Ultimately, you all return to Me, then I will inform you of everything you have done.
Our spiritual growth while approaching the age of forty is linked to our sense of appreciation for our parents. When we walk in their shoes, and hit the straight path with more steady steps, we begin to realize that sincere parents try their best with their kids according to their own abilities. Some parents are not healthy enough to undertake the parenting process. They give what they have, and sometimes what they have is not enough or doesn't meet the basic standards of parenting. When we reach the age of forty, we tend to reflect and realize that we should appreciate them anyway, for all they labored to do for us despite their limitations. It's a sign of maturity when we try to understand their human failings, and consider the underlying reasons for any percieved unsatisfactory attendance to our needs. We do love them more, forgive them more, and appreciate them more when we are older, and the prayer in 46:15 comes straight from our hearts:
40: The Age of Decision [46:15] We enjoined the human being to honor his parents. His mother bore him arduously, gave birth to him arduously, and took intimate care of him for thirty months. When he reaches maturity, and reaches the age of forty, he should say, "My Lord, direct me to appreciate the blessings You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to do the righteous works that please You. Let my children be righteous as well. I have repented to You; I am a submitter."
[25:74]....."Our Lord, let our spouses and children be a source of joy for us, and keep us in the forefront of the righteous."
[14:40] "My Lord, make me one who consistently observes the Contact Prayers (Salat), and also my children. Our Lord, please answer my prayers.
Peaceful Friday, salaam, and God bless.