Words are undoubtedly one of the most powerful forces available to humanity. At times, one comes across expressions that are instantly forgotten, having little or no influence on the listener, passing by one’s ears as if a traveler who has no intention of residing. At other times however, words can be so powerful that they are etched into memory for good, having found their way into one’s heart and settled there without even seeking permission. Undoubtedly, the Qur’ān has this effect on those who recite it with humbleness and sincerity.
There is however a specific set of Qur’ānic words that stand out in this regard, demanding attention and provoking deep thought, captivating the heart of both the Muslim and non-Muslim reader. This is where Allāh says, instructing man how to treat his parents:
وَاخْفِضْ لَهُمَا جَنَاحَ الذُّلِّ
“And lower to them your wing of humility…” 
What is meant by this linguistic comparison? What are the secrets behind its pull? What does Allāh want man to do after reading this?
It is important to note that the above wasn’t the first time that the subject of birds and the flapping of wings is mentioned in the Qu’rān, for it truly is – for those who reflect – a mighty scene.
أَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الطَّيْرِ مُسَخَّرَاتٍ فِي جَوِّ السَّمَاءِ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلَّا اللَّهُ
“Do they not see the birds held flying in the midst of the sky? None holds them but Allāh…” 
And Allāh said:
أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يُسَبِّحُ لَهُ مَنْ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَالطَّيْرُ صَافَّاتٍ
“Do you not see that Allāh is glorified by whomever is within the heavens and the earth and by the birds with wings spread out in flight?” 
This is well known to us, however the question which demands an answer is:
What is the link between the wing of a bird and the concept of humility that Allāh wants man to show towards his parents? At face value, the link may not seem very obvious, as the term janāh (wing) is in reference to the physical limb of birds that are used for flight, whilst dhull (humility) is in reference to an inward state of the heart. So, what is the connection?
The scholars of Islām have thought long and hard on this question and have derived several answers; let us shed light on four of them:
(1 & 2) Al-Qaffāl al-Shāshi, gives the links between wings and humility.
في تقريره وجهان: الأول: أن الطائر إذا أراد ضم فرخه إليه للتربية خفض له جناحه، ولهذا السبب صار خفض الجناح كناية عن حسن التربية، فكأنه قال للولد اكفل والديك بأن تضمهما إلى نفسك كما فعلا ذلك بك حال صغرك.
والثاني: أن الطائر إذا أراد الطيران والارتفاع نشر جناحه، وإذا أراد ترك الطيران وترك الارتفاع خفض جناحه؛ فصار خفض الجناح كناية عن فعل التواضع من هذا الوجه
“The answer to this is from two perspectives. The first: When the bird wishes to bring its little ones closer to itself to nurture them, it lowers its wing, thus the concept of lowering one’s wing has become a metaphor for good nurturing. Therefore it is as if the āyah is guiding man to care for his parents by bringing them close just as they did when you were young.
“The second perspective: When a bird wishes to fly and ascend, it will spread out its wings, and when wanting to land, it will lower them. Thus the lowering of the wing became a metaphor for humility.” 
(3) Ibn al-Athīr, gives a third link between wings and humility:
فإن الجناح للذل مناسب، وذاك أن الطائر إذا وهن أو تعب بسط جناحه، وخفضه وألقى نفسه على الأرض
“Likening a wing to humility is very relevant, because when a bird is fatigued or becomes weak, it spreads out its wings, lowers them and places itself onto the ground.” 
(4) Al-Shihāb al-Khaffāji, gives a fourth link between wings and humility: 
وأيضاً: هو إذا رأى جارحاً يخافه لصق بالأرض، وألصق جناحيه، وهي غاية خوفه وتذلله
“Also, when a bird sees a predator whom it fears, it draws close to the ground, having lowered its wings to it, whilst being in a state of terror and humility.”
In short, these four explanations revolve around the meanings of utmost care, utmost humility and utmost awe. However, at this point, one almost feels compelled to make a comparison between these remarkable explanations and what many parents are complaining of today. When one sees a young man or woman arguing with their parents as if they are peers, corning his parents with his complex vocabulary, loud voice and intimidating approach, one cannot help but be haunted by the four explanations above as one wonders:
– Is this the lowering of the wing of humility which Allāh described?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which cares for its young ones?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which is landing from flight?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which is fatigued and hurt?
– Is this the lowering of the wing like that bird which surrenders before its predator?
But there is more.
The Qur’ānic word for “humility” is “dhull” (with a damma). However there is another authentic recitation for this word, which is “dhill” (with a kasra); what is the difference between them? The linguists have said that the former – “dhull” – is used in reference to the humility of a human being whilst the latter – “dhill” – is used in reference to the humility of an animal.
Ponder, therefore, over the Qur’ān’s enormous emphasis of how man must conduct himself towards his parents, likening his humility to that of an animal towards its shepherd. Thus when these two meanings of “humility” are added to the four meanings of “lowering of the wing” mentioned above, yet another vast set of meanings relating to humility, obedience and gentleness towards parents open up.
This instruction – “lower to them your wing of humility” – is so profound that it has caused some of the Islamic jurists to think deeply about how advice is to be offered to one’s parents in light of this āyah. How does one go about doing it? This is because the advised usually feels that the adviser is addressing him from a higher platform.
As for Imām Ahmad, he said:
ليس الأب كالأجنبي
“When it comes to advice, one’s father is not like anyone else.” 
As for al-Ghazāli, he divided advice into five categories, and argued that only two of them were suitable towards one’s parents:
مرتبة التعريف / the category of introducing matters, and
ومرتبة الوعظ اللطيف/ the category of giving gentle advice.
As for the remaining three categories, he argued that none of them are appropriate towards one’s parents. Other scholars have mentioned other methods. Consider the words of Imām Mālik, whose heart had clearly been captured by the āyah, when he argued that parents are to be enjoined to do good and forbidden from evil, and added:
ويخفض لهما في ذلك جناح الذل من الرحمة
“ .. but one must lower his wing of humility from mercy when doing so.” 
Yes, advice can be given to one’s parents where and when needed, but notice how Imām Mālik’s ruling kept in mind Allāh’s guidance. Our predecessors’ fascination of this āyah was not limited to the field of research and verdicts however, but it governed their everyday interactions with their parents, having raised the bar of good treatment to unimaginably high levels.
As for the scholar ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Awn his application of this āyah was so great that he included it within his very tone of voice when speaking to his parents. It was mentioned in his biography that his mother once called him to which he responded in a voice that was louder than hers, thus in repentance to Allāh, he freed two slaves.
It must not be forgotten that the freeing of slaves is, in the Qur’ān, an expiation for the major sins, including marital relations during one’s fast in Ramadān, accidental killing, and others. ‘Abdullāh however considered that his tone of voice that became louder than his mother’s fell into such a category, despite him not intending to be rude or argumentative. What then can one make of a person who screams from his room at his mother because his dinner is late or not what he expected? Or those perhaps who bang at their car doors or sound their car horns to hurry his mother who is taking “too long” to get ready, as the poor lady scrambles around in her house, frantically trying to get her matters together, fearing the rage and displeasure of her son?
Never mind the tones of voices however, Imām al-Munāwi said,
العقوق كما يكون بالقول والفعل؛ يكون بمجرد اللّحظ المُشعِر بالغضب
“Disobedience to one’s parents is not only through words and actions, but also through glances which indicate anger.” 
How huge, therefore, is the gap between these people who held themselves accountable over the tones of their voices and length of their glances in comparison to some of us who scream when they open their drawers and find that their clothes haven’t all been washed and ironed in time.
‘Amr b. Maymūn b. Mahrān was travelling with his father in the city of Basrā when they came across a puddle that they needed to cross but his father was too weak to walk through it. At once, ‘Amr lowered himself into the water, allowing his father to walk on his back, using it as a bridge to cross over.
How lucky was the father of ‘Amr who did not live to witness a day where children find it burdensome to push the wheelchairs of their mothers or those who get frustrated due to “yet another hospital appointment” which their parent requires, and when he gets there, he spends his time on his phone, wishing that he could be with his friends.
As for Abū ‘Umar, he was asked about how his son, Dharr, behaved with him. He responded,
“ما مشى معي قط في ليل إلا كان أمامي، ولا مشى معي في نهار إلا كان ورائي، ولا ارتقى سقفا كنتُ تحته”
“Whenever we would walk together at night, he would walk in front of me, and whenever we would walk by day, he would walk behind me, and never did he enter a room that was above the room I was in.”
As for Imām Abu Hanīfa, he would frequently make du’ā for his parents and dedicated a sum of 20 dinars for charity each month on behalf of them. His mother would at times ask him Islamic questions but would not be convinced by his response, demanding the opinion of Zur’a al-Wā’ith. In a beautiful display of humility towards her, he would take her to him and would ask Zur’a, to which Zur’a responded, “You have far more knowledge than I do! Please give her the answer.” Abū Hanīfa said, “My answer was such and such,” to which Zur’a said, “Therefore it is my opinion as well.” Abū Hanīfa’s mother was satisfied and returned.
As for Haywa b. Shuraih, his mother would interrupt him during his teaching and would say,
يا حيوة قم، قم أعط الدجاج الحب
“O Haywa, get up and feed the chickens!”
He did not feel shy of this or reserved in the least, but would get up and do so at once.
As for Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn – the son of Hussayn, the son of ʿAli (radiy Allāhu ʿanhum) – he was asked, ‘You are one of the most dutiful of people towards your mother, so why do we not see you eating with her from the same plate?’ He responded,
أخاف أن تسبق يدي إلى ما سبقت إليه عينها؛ فأكون قد عققتها
“I fear that my hand should reach out to part of the food that she had intended on eating and thus becoming, in Allāh’s Eyes, disobedient to her.”
As for Muhammad b. Sīrīn, a man once saw him sat in the company of his mother and asked, ‘What is wrong with Muhammad? Is he ill?’ They responded,
لا، ولكن هكذا يكون إذا كان عند أمه
“No, but this is how he behaves when he is sat with his mother.” 
As for Hujr b. ‘Adi, he would toss and turn on his mother’s bed before getting up and leaving it for her. When he was asked why he did this, he would respond,
أخشى أن يكون حجر تحت فراشها
“Just in case there are any stones beneath the covers.”
As for Muhammad b. al-Munkadir, he had a brother called ʿUmar b. al-Munkadir. The former was known for his knowledge whilst the latter was known for his worship. On one particular evening, ʿUmar got up to pray at night whilst Muhammad spent it massaging the feet of his mother. Muhammad said,
بات عمر يصلي، وبت أغْمِزُ رجلي أمي، وما أحب أن ليلتي بليلته
“My brother spent that night worshipping Allāh and I spent it massaging my mother’s feet, and I would never exchange my night for his.” 
This was their understanding of “lowering the wing of humility” to one’s parents, examples that are nothing but a direct product of their deep knowledge of Islām and in-depth understanding of how Allāh loves to be glorified and worshiped. Their practice of Islām was not artificial, limiting it to the obvious outward acts of worship, but their religiosity was real, having realised that any act of worship, pursuit of knowledge, teaching of others or giving of daʿwah that overlooks humility towards one’s parents is deficient, largely useless and ultimately fake.
You will encounter many moments in your life where serious decisions are needed to be made, whether at the academic, employment, investment, marital levels, or others, and it could be that either or both of your parents are in opposition to the move, to which the son/daughter feels that their opinion is irrelevant due to their lack of knowledge, experience or exposure to the matter at hand. As such, s/he chooses to proceed regardless of their opinion without even thinking of first trying to please them. In reality, the majority of such decisions end up being completely devoid of barakah (blessing).
The wise one is he who does all what he can to ensure the comfort of his parents before proceeding in such decisions, and if they insist on their stance, then “whoever fears Allāh, Allāh will provide for him a way out of every difficulty, and will provide for him from where he least expects.”
ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Warrāq had a son called al-Hasan who was incredibly dutiful to his father. Al-Hasan intended on travelling to the city of Sāmurrā during a time of political turmoil. His father asked him, “O Hasan, what’s this that I’ve heard about you wanting to travel there?” He responded, “Father, I only intend it as a business trip.” His father said, “If you go, then I will never speak to you again.” Al-Hasan said,
فلم أخرج وأطعتُه، فجلست، فرزقني الله بعد ذلك، فأكثرَ وله الحمد
“Thus I chose to not go in obedience to him, and so Allāh provided for me after this incident and gave me so much. All praise belongs to Him.” 
Notice how, when al-Hasan lowered his wing of humility to his father, Allāh did not leave him empty handed, having placed goodness in his wealth and future, both of which could potentially have been devastated if he had stubbornly insisted on his view.
Taking the opinion of one’s parents, humbly seeking their consent and benefiting from their status over you is a real garden of paradise on earth, the joy and satisfaction of which is only felt by those who live by “lower to them your wing of humility.”
Only Allāh knows of the pain that is felt by fathers when their sons endeavor to belittle their judgement and to convince them that he has no understanding of the new generation, using at times contemporary expressions which his father does not understand in order to prove to him just how far behind he actually is.
Only Allāh knows of the ache that is felt by mothers when, after their daughters hit their teenage years, make a habit of ridiculing their mother’s taste for clothing and that such and such relative is far more aware of what is trending than she is. To you, it is a passing statement but to her, it could be a wound that you have inflicted on her, because, whilst you may have forgotten, she never forgets those years that she spent moving from shop to shop whilst she carried you, desperately trying to find the best set of clothes for you so that you were never looked down upon by your peers.
Will you start lowering your wing of humility to them?
If all of the above is yet to convince you to reform your relationship with them once and for all, then I make one final effort. Each one of us has sins that s/he fears the prospect of meeting Allāh with on the day of Reckoning. Erase them by lowering your wing of humility to your parents.
ʿAtā b. al-Yasār said that once a man came to ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbbās and said, “I proposed to a woman for marriage but she refused. Another man then proposed to her to which she accepted his proposal. I became jealous over her and so I killed her. Can I be forgiven?” Ibn ʿAbbās’s response took the listeners by surprise, asking, “Is your mother alive?” He said, “No,” so Ibn ʿAbbās said, “Repent to Allāh and do as many good deeds as you can.”
ʿAtā said that he asked Ibn ʿAbbās why he asked the man about his mother, and he responded:
إِنِّي لَا أَعْلَمُ عَمَلًا أَقْرَبَ إِلَى اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ مِنْ بِرِّ الْوَالِدَةِ
“I do not know of any deed that is dearer to Allāh that being dutiful to one’s mother.”
Imām Ahmad and Makhūl would both say,
بر الوالدين كَفَّارة للكبائر
“Dutifulness to parents is an expiation for major sins.”
Foolish is he who thinks that dutifulness to parents is merely about the quantity of material services that one provides them. This is delusion at its worst, for it seems that the materialistic era of ours only gives birth to materialistic perceptions. No, dutifulness to parents is not limited to such material provisions, but is far deeper than that.
It is about lowering to them your wing of humility.
 Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah 17, āyah 24
 Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah 16, āyah 79
 Al-Qur’ān, Sūrah 24, āyah 41
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 Al-Qur’ān, Surah 65, Aayaah 2-3
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