Rights of Seniors

One’s etiquette in social situations is the key foundation to having strong relationships with others. This article is the twenty-seventh in a series taken from the On Demand Course: Discussion on Sulami’s Adab of Keeping Company.

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) reportedly said in a hadith related by Imam Ahmad and many others, “Whoever doesn’t respect our elders, have mercy on our young, command the good and forbid the wrong is not of us.” Meaning is not following the prophetic example.  

Who is considered an elder or a senior? Seniority is established by not only age, the most important of seniority is in knowledge and righteousness. Having respect for the people of knowledge and people of established righteousness is an important quality. 

The capacity, in general, to respect others is very important. As well as behaving correctly with them, truly respect them also.

An Eye of Respect

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told a tribe that came to Madina, “Let the oldest of you lead you.” Of course, seniority is first and foremost in knowledge, but also in age.

In other tribes, we are told about who should be appointed leader, and this is (if all other qualities are equal) the one who became Muslim first. Similarly, students of knowledge may be of similar age or someone may be older. However, the more senior student, who studied more or who accomplished more, should be given more respect. With that said, it is not something demanded. 

Each person has some distinguishing quality that you respect them for. The believer looks with an eye of respect. How would we look at a garbage collector with the eye of respect? They are helping the society.

Imagine how society would be if garbage weren’t collected for a month. To remove some harm from people’s path is a branch of faith.

Terms of Respect and Endearment

Respect is expressed. Respect for those senior, but also anyone. Some scholars with young students would frequently refer to them as shaykh. Not because they are a shaykh, but just out of respect.

Use titles of respect for people as well as terms of endearment. Do not mock others for their use of such terms. When people are given respect, consciously or unconsciously, they feel honored. 

How do you think about others? Very often, we look at people with a critical eye, but our first look at people is with the look of honoring. Each person has a set of distinctive qualities that make them worthy of honor.  

If one is out of contact with someone, one can start by reaching out to those senior. 

Once someone was going to serve. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was with his companions, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) instructed, “Begin with those who are most senior.” The seniority is by knowledge and righteousness, and then by age.

Give Precendence to Seniors

In gatherings, give precedence to those who are senior, in age, in knowledge, in righteousness, and also in leadership in society. If someone’s in a position of leadership, the Sunna is that you give people the respect that their position entails. The Prophet’s Companions were shocked by this (Allah bless him and give him peace). Some of the leaders of some of the tribes came and they were known to be rude, harsh, and corrupt people before Islam. Coarse manners and haughty. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) dealt with them with the respect and honoring that their position entailed. 

The Companions were a bit surprised because they knew about these people, but the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) reportedly said, “We have been commanded to give people the rights that their rank entails.”

That happens in the family as well, but of course with balance. Honoring another person does not entail that you put yourself down or that you grovel. If there is a family gathering, serve them first, or go and serve them directly,  

Another way of not ignoring the rights of the senior is to consult them. Consulting is a neglected Sunna in general. Look at people with an eye of respect. Everybody has some distinguishing qualities.  Many people have seniority to you. 

Yet another way is in serving. This would even include non-Muslims. For example, opening a door for a senior person or letting a senior ahead of you in line. The scholars state clearly that when it comes to social rights and responsibilities and social virtues, these apply to Muslims and non-Muslims, except those things that are very particular to Muslims.

Show Respect

If a Muslim sneezes and they say: Alhamdulillah, you say, Yarhamukallah. If someone sneezes, you pray for them, whether they are Muslim or non-Muslim. But it would be kind of strange if a non-Muslim sneezes and you say, Yarhamukallah. They may question “What did you just say?” It would not be appropriate. 

Be expressive of respect to everybody. Those tribal leaders who started coming in Madina, were not Muslim, but they were honored. There was no one for them to stay with because as people were entering Islam, Madina had a housing shortage, and there were no places to host these people. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) had delegations of non-Muslims stay in the mosque.

The scholars say this is very instructive because they could have stayed in tents. When they were traveling in the desert, they were not sleeping under their camels. They would put up their tents. So when they came to Madina, they could have stayed in their tents. But no, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) had them stay in the mosque, out of expressing respect.  

This also applies to communities. Communities are very often very demanding of their scholars, but they ignore the rights of the scholars. Respect is assisting another in the good that they seek or the good that they need.

Pay Attention

People have needs, and there are things that they are trying to pursue for the good. True respect is to facilitate that for them. That is something that communities neglect. It is ultimately investing in the future of such communities. 

Paying attention to elders. Directly communicate with them and give them more importance in the family gathering. Some of the elderly might have some mental trouble following conversations, so talk to them at a level that they can understand and enjoy.