The Muslim community has a clear-cut social hierarchy that places elders at the top. Although an elder can be literally anyone who is older, the term is most often used to describe those who have advanced into old age. Elderly individuals are highly valued not only because they are a source of wisdom and experience but also because of their special status in the eyes of Allah. Therefore, they are highly respected, their opinions are heeded and their wishes are accommodated whenever possible.
Islamic Teachings on Elders
The Quran and the Hadith are very clear on the proper attitude and behavior toward one's elders. One hadith tells the story of how a crowd of listeners around the Prophet Muhammad failed to make room for an elderly man to get closer. The Prophet observed this failure and said, "Whoever fails to ... honor our elders is not one of us." Another hadith says that serving the elderly is akin to serving Allah. The Quran says 11 times to be kind to elderly parents in particular; in fact, mistreating or showing disrespect to elders can result in being denied admission to paradise. Twice the Quran states, "We have enjoined on humankind kindness to parents."
Interacting with Elders
It is important for Muslims to show deference at all times when interacting with elders, especially if they have a familiar relationship (such as grandfather and grandson). For example, when walking together the younger should walk slightly behind and to the right to communicate that the elder comes first. The elder should both enter and exit any place before the younger. In conversation, the elder should always be allowed to speak first and should be genuinely heeded. When speaking to an elder, a younger Muslim should use a calm, gentle tone; even in debate, the younger must remain deferential. Becoming angry or argumentative is considered disrespectful.
Elders in the Family
The family is sacred within the Muslim community. Families are led by the eldest male (and to a lesser extent, the eldest female), who has the final say on major family decisions and exercises a great deal of influence. When the elders are no longer physically or mentally able to play a leadership role, they are lovingly cared for and prayed over by their families. It is considered extremely shameful to put an elderly family member in a nursing home or to become irritated when he or she becomes difficult. Muslims in general consider the opportunity to care for their elderly family members a great honor.
Even if they are not interacting directly with an elder, Muslims have subtle ways of displaying respect. For example, younger Muslims rise when an older person enters the room. They also refrain from touching or making eye contact with the older person as an act of deference. When meeting a group of people, the eldest is always greeted first and given the most attention. When speaking to or even about an elder Muslim, younger Muslims always use proper titles and names rather than nicknames.