by Prof. U. Muhammad Iqbal
A typical impression about old age, the
last and the seventh stage of the eventful biography of
man in general, according to Shakespeare's As You Like
It, is conjured up in these words: 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 the 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
(Quran 36:68) or of the obliteration of what was
intellectually acquired (Quran 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, and Moses' father-in-law, and Zachariah (may on
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' (Quran 19:4). 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 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.
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 may be inclined to look upon
him as an undesirable liability. The Quran advises the
children to suppress their annoyance and to reinforce
their kindness and devotion towards their old parents.
Prophet Muhammad wanted to avoid this phase of old age.
His prayer was: 'O Allah I seek refuge in You from
idleness and old age.'
Anecdotes from the Prophet's life
There are several anecdotes in the Prophet's life which
bring out the enlightened nature and perennial value of
his teachings. Asma (daughter of Abu Bakr)'s 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
In Musannaf Abdur Razzaq, it is reported that a person
complained to Prophet Muhammad that his father was
demanding money from him. The Prophet urged him to
oblige his father. The son complained again that his
father was making further 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
Another anecdote is more graphic. A son complained to
Prophet 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 was
moved to tears and he informed the son, 'You and your
money belong to your father.'
Abu Tufail narrates, 'I watched the Prophet distributing
food at J'araana. Meanwhile, a woman appeared and
approached him. The Prophet spread his shawl for her and
she sat upon it. On enquiry I learnt she was Halima who
had the privilege of suckling him.'
The Prophet 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 reward from God
for their intention to migrate and to take part in
A distinguished companion of the Prophet complained that
in one day's Fajr Prayer there was a lack of
concentration. In the discussion that followed it came
to light that he had overtaken an old Jew while
proceeding towards the mosque. This was considered an
inadvertent act of disrespect to old age.
The Prophet considered it an honor to tend to the needs
of the elderly. An old lady was struggling to carry a
heavy burden. The Prophet 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 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 will not enter Heaven. Failing to comprehend the
humor in his statement, she was emotionally perturbed
and started to retrace her steps. Then the Prophet told
her that old people would be transformed into young
people before they gained entry into Heaven. She must
have been relieved beyond measure after initial shock to
learn that she would not only be admitted to Heaven but
also regain her heavenly youth.
Even in parables, the Prophet 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 which desperately demanded Divine
intervention. So each traveler sought God's help by
invoking a good deed done exclusively to secure God's
One of the travelers prayed: O Allah! My parents were
too old and my children were too small. I earned my
livelihood by tending sheep. One day I returned home
late. My parents had gone to sleep. As it was my habit,
I secured milk from the sheep. Carrying it in a bowl, I
went to my parents' 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 said that
in reply to this prayer the rock was moved and the sky
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 horizon. The prospect of surging darkness
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.'