Indefinitely Quarantined: The case of the elderly

Aaminah Y.

Usama Ibn Munqidh slayed crusaders and grappled with lions. He was struck by spears and pelted with arrows, yet he did not die in battle. Entering his 90th year, he wrote: “Far easier is death at any army’s head than the taxations of a lingering life of pain and dread.” His years of service to the kings had come to an end as he resigned to his home: “What an old man can offer, it’s clear, will never be bought by an emir.” [1] 

There are over two million people aged 75 and over living alone in Great Britain, an increase of almost a quarter over the last 20 years. Two fifths of the elderly say television is their main form of company. [2] Loneliness has engulfed the older generation across the Western world, prompting the UN to observe the year 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons in an attempt to address the ageing crisis. One interesting principle they noted was

…Older persons should benefit from family and community care and protection in accordance with each society’s system of cultural values.  [3] 

In the developed world, the rise of individualism has fundamentally altered our relations with others, from our conception of responsibilities to our etiquette and conduct. Western law offers little in binding the older generation with their kin, and with the ever changing face of morality in a faithless society centred around the individual, ‘family and community care’ hold little weight.

Our efforts in research and technological advancement have allowed for the evolution of medicine, meaning we are now able to keep individuals alive for longer than previously possible. Yet ironically, we are hostile and reluctant to care for the very people we desire to keep alive. Beyond medicine, the weight of ‘quality of life’ falls upon society. 

It’s intriguing how elderly care is viewed from the lens of different cultures. Whilst British society generally promotes self-reliance and autonomy, in Denmark, ‘independence’ is less relevant. Pensioners have contributed heavily to society; it’s seen as a social responsibility to ‘help recipients to help themselves’, and so care services are sustained through high taxation. In both contexts, there is an omission of the role of the family. In contrast, familial responsibility is the central theme of South-Asian ageing policies, with a negative perception of nursing homes. [4]

Yet ultimately, a society that is shaped around capitalist interests only caters for those it deems useful, and this forced the older generation into isolation long before the arrival of Covid-19. Responsible for their own care, they often succumb to self-neglect. With television as their main form of company, they can go days and weeks without speaking to an actual living soul, unsurprisingly resulting in the emergence of psychiatric maladies. We hear the horror stories of the elderly dying alone, found days later by their neighbours concerned at the pile of mail outside their door. The unprecedented reality of recent funerals with few attendees has shaken the Muslim spirit, yet for many is has become the norm.

In Greek mythology, Eos asks Zeus to grant her lover Tithonus immortality, but overlooks the perils of old age. As he grew old and weak, she first left his bed, and then laid him in a room to babble endlessly.  Life has come to imitate art, with the Canadian military recently releasing a report exposing the troubling conditions in Ontario’s care homes. [5] Residents were left in soiled bed sheets and their calls for help ignored, instead subject to the use of excessive force by untrained staff, expired medication and unsterilised equipment. This pandemic has exposed care homes as hotbeds for transmission; underfunded and ignored, they are essentially slaughterhouses for the elderly. It’s alarming how frequently loved ones are tossed into these establishments without a second glance. What should be seen as additional support is often a means to offload total responsibility. The phenomenon of ‘granny dumping’ is especially common during the holiday season when families are preoccupied with their own celebrations.

Additionally, we see the stigma attached to those who veer from this path, and choose to live with their parents into adulthood. Accusations of laziness and freeloading persist, rather than viewing it a means of supporting one another. The glamorisation of ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ when one turns eighteen often comes with the steady removal of parents from the equation, and easily omits the more unfavourable aspects of our individualised lives such as loneliness, debt and the lack of a support system.

Treatment of the elderly is a proxy for gauging the moral condition of our societies. We repeatedly make the mistake of defining the older generation by their age and ailments, overlooking their humanity. When a discourse is predominantly framed in the context of the economy, the governments’ soft implementation of eugenics by systematically abandoning the elderly and less abled is no surprise.

Yet the greatest crime is not the immorality of the wicked but the passivity of the good. It shows that we cannot outsource the care of our elders exclusively to the state, nor should we desire to. We do an injustice to the sanctity of family by reducing our relations to legal responsibilities.

The Islamic ethos

Gerontology generally classifies old age into categories based on functional abilities. Islamic tradition has similar classifications. Ibn Al-Jawzi divides the stages of life into seasons, each correlating with level of capability, with the latter stages increasing in deterioration and dependency. [6] If old age brings with it dependency, upon those whom the elderly are dependent, it must bring responsibility.

“Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And, out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: “My Lord! bestow on them your Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood.” [17:23-24] 

Placing kindness to parents in conjunction with tawhid, the most central point in Islam, puts into perspective its monumental importance. Here it shows that, after Allah, the greatest right is of the parents. This is a means of safeguarding the family structure to maintain closeness and compassion. They cared for us unconditionally when we were dependent upon them, and we must view it a duty to reciprocate this in their old age.

Lowering the ‘wing of humility’ is a command so profound, it should prompt us to sincerely reflect on the smallest of interactions. In light of this ayah, some jurists have reviewed the tone and volume of one’s voice and the length of one’s glance. We must maintain their dignity and ensure we are humble even in our naseehah and objections, careful not to speak to them as if we are on a higher platform. [7]

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “He is not one of us who does not show tenderness to the young and who does not show respect to the elderly.” [8]

The growing disregard for hierarchy generates a neutrality in our conduct with others until they prove themselves worthy of respect. This indicates a deficiency in our adab, as it is rooted within our tradition to treat the older generation with importance purely due to their seniority. We run to offer them our seats and carry their bags. We cannot even utter ‘uff’ as it displays discourtesy. The Akhis of Anatolia would leave a room without facing their backs to their seniors. [9] We show reverence by greeting the elders first in respectful terms and titles. [10] They should be facilitated and given precedence. There’s an authentic narration where the Prophet rebukes Mu’adh Ibn Jabal for prolonging a prayer, as it may pose hardship for the old and weak who prayed behind him. [11]

The story of Uways Al-Qarni

Epitomising the importance of the elderly in the Islamic tradition is the story of Uways Al Qarni; he never met the Prophet, yet Rasulullah ﷺ spoke of him.

He suffered from leprosy in his childhood, but after making a sincere dua, Allah cured him. A patch of disfigured skin remained on his shoulder and stood as a reminder of the favour bestowed upon him. He was the sole caretaker of his blind mother. One night there were no lights in the house, but as his mother was accustomed to operating in the dark, she guided him so he could serve them both. 

The next day, he became acquainted with the Muslim ambassadors visiting Yemen and overheard the ayah: “…And him for whom God has not appointed light, there will be no light.” (Quran 24: 40) This touched his heart and he immediately accepted Islam. However, he remained in Yemen to care for his elderly mother and never met the Prophet ﷺ. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ still spoke of him; he described Uways to his companions, and finished by saying:  

“He has a mother, he treats her extremely well, and is obedient to her. If Uways al-Qarni takes an oath by Allah, then Allah will surely honor that oath. If you meet him, ask him to seek forgiveness for you.”

For ten years, ‘Umar Ibn Al-Khattab would ask the pilgrims arriving from Yemen, “Is Uways Al-Qarni’ among you?” and his tribesmen would question why the caliph of the Muslims is looking for the lowly Uways. Finally, the year arrived when Uways made his way to Makkah. Umar (RA) confronted Uways and asked about his background and the skin on his shoulder. He asked whether he had a mother whom he honoured, respected and took care of. Uways confirmed that it was all true. ‘Umar (RA) then informed him of the Prophet’s ﷺ words and asked Uways to seek forgiveness for him, to which he obliged. 

Uways was a man who held no social prominence, but attained such a high status purely because he was dutiful to his mother. His character is one worthy of emulation, for we know that “Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother.” [12]

Lives and legacies

“For there is assuredly nothing dearer to a man than wisdom, and though age takes away all else, it undoubtedly brings us that.” – Cicero 

So often we value people for what they can provide materially, but overlook the abundance of khayr that their mere existence brings: the feeling of peace when you’re in the presence of the elderly as you witness their sympathetic gaze and the soft touch of their fragile hands, as well as their wisdom, experience and the home remedies they share!

Reluctance in preserving the culture and teachings of our elders is a disservice to ourselves. There are children who cannot interact with their grandparents because learning their ancestral tongue may not have been deemed an important enough pursuit. This itself is telling of the value we assign to them.

Usama Ibn Munqidh found old age rendered him useless and hid away in his residence. It was Salah Al-Din Ayyubi who called upon him, sent him gifts, and asked for Usama to serve under him, but now as a poet. In a time where the elderly are made to feel useless, it is our responsibility to grant them importance.

It is Allah Who created you in a state of weakness; then after weakness. He gave you strength, then after strength He made you weak and old. He creates what He pleases. He is All-Knowing, All-Powerful.   [30:54] 

We easily conform to the negative perception of ageing and mentally shackle ourselves, a hindrance to our own growth as a community. A time to wrap things up instead of venturing into newer pursuits. It should be noted, some of the greatest achievements of our people were in their old age. The historian al-Tabari wrote until his death, and Imam al-Razi only began studying medicine after the age of forty. The Hanbali theologian Ibn ‘Aqil claimed it was not permissible for him to waste one hour of his life, even if his tongue were hampered from conversation and his sight from reading. [13]

In the same vein, scholars have discussed functional age and noted the decline in rationality and physical abilities. The Shari’ah accommodates these natural changes by promoting ease in worship, allowing exemption from fasting and offspring performing Hajj on behalf of their parents. Umar ibn Al Khattab witnessed an old Jewish man begging on the street. Ordering the state authorities to pay for his livelihood, he claimed “It is unjust if we collect the jizya tax from him in his youth and abandon him in his old age.” [14] The establishment of the Bayt-Al-Mal directly aided the elderly and vulnerable.

Though the Prophet ﷺ sought refuge from reaching such a dwindling stage of life, ultimately, it should be taken as just another stage in our worldly life. Some identify this period as a hidden blessing, for weakness and malady remind us of death and death prompts repentance, drawing us nearer to Allah ﷻ. 

Creating a community

Our elders travelled to lands that were not fertile enough to adopt our Islamic values; they struggled and made a home for us. They built our mosques and now fill up the rows for every prayer, giving the masaajid life. They support local businesses when we rush to order online. They grew up in a time where community was the basic unit of society, but now in their old age when they’d benefit from it most, atomisation has deferred that role to the individual. 

Engagement and inclusion are core prerequisites for ageing well. This requires us to scrutinise our understanding of community. Philosopher Charles Taylor notes that through atomism, our adherence to society is only on instrumental grounds. [15] He defends the Aristotelian view that man is a social animal and not self-sufficient alone. Our individual efforts in society should gear towards a holistic shared vision. The futuwwa, a canon of rules for virtuous life, is to put the needs of others before yourself, to see their problems as your own. [16] It tackles the rabid disease of individualism by building a community that progresses collectively and morally. There is ample evidence in our sunnah and tradition pushing us to aid our neighbours. 

“Whoever relieves the hardship of a believer in this world, Allah will relieve his hardship on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever helps ease one in difficulty, Allah will make it easy for him in this world and in the Hereafter.” [17]

During times of hardship, we often see people unite in their desire to help those who need it. From donations to volunteers, we have assembled in the masses to deliver groceries and pick up medication in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The community spirit is very much still alive, and we must ensure that we double down as we pass into our new norm. We must rush to the service of humanity with hopes of alleviating hardships and pleasing Allah ﷻ. We must be proactive in addressing the inequalities and build a prophetic community and alternative models that are able to rise to the challenge when current central authorities cannot.

Al-Nu’man ibn Bashir reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said,

“The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” [18]

For some, the pandemic has provided the gifts of time and solitude — a pause from the rush of life as we know it. This may be another self-serving endeavour if we do not correctly assess the situation. Both in meme and mysticality, the ‘we are the virus’ sentiment paints this as a cleanse without recognising that things have fundamentally changed. When we face this new reality heads on, it will look different despite efforts to continue where we left off. The front rows of the mosques will be missing familiar faces, and families the heads of their households. We will have to learn to mourn differently. The monumental impact on the economy will cripple a large subsect of society, financially and psychologically.

The true test right now is to rekindle ‘community’ at a time where it’s physically impossible, without the brick and mortar structure. Where other ideologies have reduced family and care to empty, abstract concepts, Islam thoroughly outlines our timeless rights and responsibilities to ensure justice. If we believe we can go forth living as we did, then we have failed to learn from reality and again lose to our egos.

The Shari’ah places a heavy responsibility on the Ummah — the older generation is honoured and we must not fall short. It’s worth remembering that we will be the elders of tomorrow, and if we do not aim to bridge the gap between generations, this may very well be our reality. This is a reality we do not desire, so how can we inflict it upon others?

Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) reported:

The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said, “If a young man honours an older person on account of his age, Allah appoints someone to show reverence to him in his old age.” [19] 

[1] Usama Ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplations

[2] Campaign to End Loneliness

[3] UN (1999), Resolution 47/5 – International Year of Older Persons 1999

[4] Plath, D. “International Policy Perspectives on Independence in Old Age”, Journal of Aging & Social Policy

[5] Abuse in pandemic hit Ontario care homes

[6] Ibn Al Jawzi, Tanbih al-Naim

[7] Ali Hammuda, “The wing of humility”

[8] Musnad Aḥmad 7033, graded Sahih according to Ahmed Shakir

[9] Ines Aščerić-Todd, Dervishes and Islam in Bosnia: Sufi Dimensions to the Bosnian Muslim society

[10] Sahih al-Bukhari 6234

[11] Sahih al-Bukhari 7159

[12] Uwais Al-Qarni

[13] Hasan Shuraydi, The Raven and the Falcon

[14] Aḥkām Ahl al-Dhimmah 1/137

[15] Charles Taylor, “Atomism”, in Philosophical Papers, Cambridge University Press

[16] Lloyd Ridgeon, “Jawanmardi: A Sufi code of honour”

[17] Sahih Muslim 2699

[18] Sahih al-Bukhārī 5665, Sahih Muslim 2586

[19] At-Tirmidhi Book 1, Hadith 359

Aaminah works in healthcare and has an interest in history and politics.

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