After the birth of my first child, there was a thought that kept crossing my mind regarding the status of mothers in Islam. Growing up I had heard of hadith (Prophetic sayings) such as, “Your paradise lies under the feet of your mother,” and not given much thought to them. Once I became a mother myself, I started to wonder what this meant. I was no one special, why would paradise lie under my feet?
Then I thought back to the sickness, discomfort and exhaustion I suffered during my pregnancy. I considered my lack of sleep and the initial discomfort of breastfeeding and I wondered about my own mother and whether my paradise lay at her feet.
The Quran states, “We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents; in pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth” (46:15). The verse acknowledges the debt each of us owes to our parents and particularly our mothers. It is said that every deed or virtue in this world has its reward and these are often described in the Quran and hadith. But the pain of childbirth is so far beyond anything we can imagine that the reward promised to us is also far beyond what we can imagine. There is a famous story about one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar saw a Yemeni man performing Tawaf (circumambulating the Ka’bah in Mecca) while carrying his mother on his back. This man said to Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar, “I am like a tame camel for her! I have carried her more than she carried me. Do you think I have paid her back, oh Ibn ‘Umar?” Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar replied, “No, not even one contraction!!” (Source: Al-Adab al-Mufrad Bukhari, 1/62)
The idea about paradise being under the feet of a mother is teaching us how to fulfil our Creator’s command and earn our place in paradise in the process. Our faith encourages us to serve our parents, to have reverence for them, to take care of them and show them mercy in their old age as a means for us to attain bliss in another life. Curiously, the word for mercy in Arabic (rahma) comes from the same root as the word for womb (rahm). Mercy is also considered to be one of the attributes of God, represented through one of His beautiful names (ismul husna): Ar-Rahman, the merciful, and Ar-Raheem, the One who bestows mercy.
Islam also emphasises the status of a mother over a father (which may seem unfair, but how many contractions did the guys have to go through?). There is a very well-known and oft-quoted hadith that says:
A man came to the Prophet and said, “O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship?” The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, “Then who?” The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, “Then who?” The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, “Then who?” The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim).
Most Muslim countries have a structure which is unarguably patriarchal. The men have the majority of the control in the house, in the office, in public spaces and under the law. Yet as a mother, invariably, you are given an elevated status and power over the household and often in the community, which you would not otherwise have as a wife, sister or daughter. The thought of an elderly mother left to fend for herself horrifies people. The idea of care homes for the elderly is virtually unheard of.
Furthermore, under Sharia, or Islamic law, all the schools of law give first preference to a mother’s claim to physical custody of her young child. After divorce and during the period of the mother’s custody, she is generally entitled to receive custody wages from the father to help her maintain the child.
This all sounds good to me, but I am forced to go back to my question about why paradise lies under the mother’s feet. It’s not just the pregnancy and birth, the breastfeeding and the long sleepless nights but also the responsibility that comes with being a mother. Another well-known saying amongst Muslims is that “mothers are the child’s first madrassah” or school. Our words and actions are our child’s first instruction, our love his or her surest anchor in a confusing and unpredictable world.
Aside from this great responsibility is the anxiety with which mothers live. Who hasn’t watched their newborn sleeping with moments of panic about whether the child is breathing or not? Then there is the anxious wait for every milestone, the constant worry about whether we are doing a good enough job as a mother, the apprehension in preparing them against everything the world throws at them and the anguish as we witness their setbacks. As Elizabeth Stone says:
“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
All of these things have me thinking about why mothers deserve to have paradise under their feet. It has also led me to reflect on everything my mum did for me. The hardships and sacrifices I took for granted that she undertook without complaint makes me understand why my paradise should be under her feet, and why she deserves my love and care in her later life. In my early twenties, I used to be my grandmother’s caretaker toward the end of her life. I was praised by the rest of my family for the role I undertook. However, during a visit, one of gran’s friends commented on how lucky I was “to be holding your grandmother’s hand and walking with her to paradise.” It brought home to me that the care of our parents is a blessing and an opportunity that even as Muslims we don’t always recognize.