In any case, the real subject of these four verses is to instruct man to behave beautifully with one's parents, and in that context there are other instructions also. Although some narrations of hadith indicate that these verses were revealed about Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ ، it is obvious that even if any verse of the Qur'an is revealed about any particular person or about any particular incident, the rule laid down thereby remains generally applicable to all. Therefore, even if the verse was revealed about Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ ، its application is general, regardless of some specifications of age etc., that may appear particular to him.
وَوَصَّيْنَا الْإِنسَانَ بِوَالِدَيْهِ إِحْسَانًا (And We have enjoined upon man to do good to his parents.- 46:15) The word wasiyyah used in the text means 'emphatic order' and ihsan means 'doing good' or 'behaving beautifully' which includes service, obedience, respect and reverence.
حَمَلَتْهُ أُمُّهُ كُرْهًا وَوَضَعَتْهُ كُرْهًا (His mother carried him with toil and delivered him with toil.- 46:15) The word كُرْهً kurh means the toil that one has to endure for some reason, while کَرہ karh means the toil one has to undertake under compulsion from someone else. This sentence puts emphasis on the instruction given in the previous sentence for doing good to the parents, and spells out one of the reasons for it. The verse addresses everyone and draws his attention to the fact that parents have gone through hardships and have endured toil for his sake, right from his birth up to his youth. The toil and labor of the mother, specially, is much more prominent. That is why only toil of mother has been stated here by reminding that she carries the baby inside her womb during pregnancy of nine long months, during which she had to bear all kinds of hardship and suffering, and then she endures extreme pain during delivery.
Mother has more rights than father
Although the first part of this verse is a command to do good to both the parents, the second sentence refers only to the hardships suffered by the mother, because they are unavoidable, and no child can be born without them. Every mother has to go through the problems of pregnancy and severe pains of delivery. As against this, it is not necessary for a father that he suffers any hardship in bringing up and educating the child, if he can afford to pay somebody else for these services. That is why the Holy Prophet ﷺ has given more rights to the mother than anybody else. According to ahadith, He has said,
صِل اُمَّکَ ثُمَّ اُمَّکَ ثُمَّ اُمَّکَ ثُمَّ اَبَاکَ ثُمَّ اَدنَاکَ فَاَدنَاکَ
"Do good to and serve your mother, then your mother, then your
mother, then your father, then the near relatives and then those who come after them." (Mazhari)
وَحَمْلُهُ وَفِصَالُهُ ثَلَاثُونَ شَهْرًا (And his carrying and his weaning is in thirty months - 46:15). This sentence too describes the hardships suffered by mother for her baby. It points out that even after suffering hardships during the pregnancy and the severe labor pains, the mother does not get respite from toils, because the natural food of the infant is in her breasts, and she has to suckle the infant.
This verse states that the total period of pregnancy and then of weaning is thirty months, Sayyidna Ali ؓ has deduced from this verse that the minimum period of pregnancy is six months, because the Holy Qur'an has determined the maximum weaning period as two complete years in another verse which says,
وَالْوَالِدَاتُ يُرْضِعْنَ أَوْلَادَهُنَّ حَوْلَيْنِ كَامِلَيْنِ
And mothers suckle their children for full two years; it is for one who wants to complete (the period of) suckling. (2: 233)
The total period of pregnancy and suckling has been mentioned in the verse under discussion (46:15) as thirty months. If the maximum period of suckling, that is twenty four months according to the verse 2:233 cited above, is deducted from thirty months, the balance is no more than six months which has been taken as the minimum period of pregnancy.
It is narrated that during the period of Sayyidna ` Uthman ؓ ، a woman gave birth to a child in six months, as against the normal period of nine months, or at least seven months. Sayyidna ` Uthman ` decided this to be the case of an illegitimate birth and gave orders for punishment. When Sayyidna ` Ali ؓ came to know the incident, he advised Sayyidna ` Uthman ؓ against the decision, and argued that the minimum period of pregnancy is six months as deduced from the verses mentioned above. Sayyidna ` Uthman ؓ accepted his argument and cancelled his order. (Qurtubi)
That is why all the jurists of the Ummah are unanimous on the point that the minimum period of pregnancy can be six months, while they differ about the maximum period of pregnancy, because the Holy Qur'an has not given any ruling about it.
This verse has defined the minimum period of pregnancy to be six months; a perfect and sound baby cannot be born in a lesser period; the maximum period has not been defined, as it may vary with individuals. Similarly, the maximum period for suckling has been defined to be two years; the minimum period has not been defined, because some women do not produce any milk at all; some have their milk dried up within few months, and some babies are not very fond of mother's milk, or it is harmful for them, and they are fed from other sources.
Different views of Jurists about maximum period of pregnancy and maximum period of suckling
The great Imam Abu Hanifah (رح) holds the maximum period of pregnancy to be two years. There are different narrations from Imam Malik (رح) about the maximum period of pregnancy to be four, five or seven years, whereas Imam Shafi'i (رح) holds it to be four years, which is also the view of Imam Ahmad, according to more recognized reports from him. (Mazhari). The maximum suckling period, which governs the rules of fosterage, is two years according to the majority of the jurists. Imam Malik, Shafi'i, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal رحمۃ اللہ علیہم and Abu Yusuf and Muhammad from the Hanafi school, are all unanimous on it, and this is also the dictum of Sayyidna ` Umar and Ibn ` Abbas ؓ from the Noble Companions ؓ . (Ad-Darqutani) Sayyidna ‘Ali and Sayyidna ` Abdullah Ibn Masud ؓ also have the same standpoint. (Ibn Abi Shaibah). Only the great Imam Abu Hanifah (رح) has been quoted as saying that a baby can be suckled up to two years and a half. But the correct meaning of this view according to the majority of the Hanafi school is that if the baby is weak and does not take any food except mother's milk even after attaining the age of two years, then it is permissible to suckle him/her for another six months, because it is agreed by all that feeding the baby with mother's milk after the suckling period is unlawful. However, the prevalent fatwa (religious verdict) of the Hanafi jurists is in accordance with the majority of Imams holding that if a child is suckled after the period of two years, it would not result in creating the relationship of fosterage. Maulana Thanawi (رح) has opined in Bayan-ul-Qur'an that although the fatwa is in accordance with the view of the majority, yet it is better to be careful in arranging marriage of someone who has been suckled within six months after two years, which means that fosterage relationship should be presumed, as a matter of precaution, even if a child is suckled within six months after reaching the age of two years.
Some exegetes have tried to interpret the verse وَحَمْلُهُ وَفِصَالُهُ ثَلَاثُونَ شَهْرًا (And his carrying and his weaning is [ in ] thirty months - 46:15) in a manner that it may support the view of Imam Abu Hanifah (رح) that the suckling period is two years and a half. But it is not correct, because, as stated in Tafsir Mazhari, the noble companions Sayyidna ` Ali and Sayyidna ` Uthman ؓ have determined the meaning of this verse that the period of thirty months comprises the minimum period of six months for pregnancy, and twenty-four months for suckling.
Sayyidna Ibn ` Abbas ؓ has said that Qur'an has determined the combined period for pregnancy and suckling to be thirty months without defining each period separately, because if a baby is born in the normal period of nine months, the suckling period of twenty-one months is adequate, and if the baby is born in seven months, then a suckling period of twenty-three months is required, and if a baby is born in six months only, then a suckling period of full two years is required. (Mazhari)
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا بَلَغَ أَشُدَّهُ وَبَلَغَ أَرْبَعِينَ سَنَةً (until when he attains his maturity and reaches forty years - 46:15). The lexical meaning of the word أَشُدَّ 'ashudd (translated above as 'maturity' ) is 'strength'. The same word used in Surah al-An'am (6:152) has been explained to mean 'the age of puberty'. Sayyidna Ibn ` Abbas ؓ has explained it to mean reaching the age of eighteen years.
In the present verse too, some exegetes have taken the word 'ashudd' to mean "the age of puberty", and then they have taken the following words, وَبَلَغَ أَرْبَعِينَ سَنَةً "and reaches forty years" as a separate stage in one's life, and not an explanation of 'maturity'. This is the view of Sha` bi and Ibn Zayd رحمۃ اللہ علیہما . But Hasan Basri (رح) has held both the sentences to have the same meaning and 'reaching the age of forty years' to be the explanation of 'attaining maturity'. (Qurtubi) Thus the sequence of the events mentioned in the verse is such that pregnancy has been mentioned first, then the delivery of the child, followed by the suckling period. The reference to the maturity after that means that the child lived, became mature in his physical and mental strength and reached the age of forty years. It was at that point that he was able to turn towards his Creator, and began to pray to Him:
رَبِّ أَوْزِعْنِي أَنْ أَشْكُرَ نِعْمَتَكَ الَّتِي أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيَّ وَعَلَىٰ وَالِدَيَّ وَأَنْ أَعْمَلَ صَالِحًا تَرْضَاهُ وَأَصْلِحْ لِي فِي ذُرِّيَّتِي ۖ إِنِّي تُبْتُ إِلَيْكَ وَإِنِّي مِنَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ
"My Lord, grant me that I offer gratitude for the favor You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I do righteous deeds that You like. And grant for my benefit goodness in my progeny. Of course, I repent to you, and truly I am one of those who submit to You." (46:15)
All this description is given by the Holy Qur'an in past tenses and in a style indicating that this description relates to a particular person and a particular event that had already happened before the verse was revealed. That is why Tafsir Mazhari has opined that all these circumstances relate to Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ ، which have been mentioned in a general form to induce other Muslims also to act in a similar manner. This view is supported by the narration of Sayyidna Ibn ` Abbas ؓ reproduced by Qurtubi. The gist of this narration is that when the Holy Prophet ﷺ traveled to Syria for trading financed by Sayyidah Khadijah ؓ ، he was twenty years old. Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ was with him, and he was eighteen years old, and had 'reached his maturity' in the words of the Holy Qur'an. He witnessed such qualities of the Holy Prophet ﷺ in that journey that he became his ardent admirer, and started accompanying him everywhere even after returning from that journey. When the Holy Prophet ﷺ reached the age of forty years, and Allah Ta’ ala blessed him with prophethood, Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ was thirty-eight years old, and he became the first adult male to embrace Islam. When he became forty years old, he prayed to Allah as stated in this verse above; hence the words of the Holy Qur'an: 'and reached forty years'. Allah Ta’ ala accepted his supplication and gave him 'taufiq' (ability and willingness) to purchase and then set free nine slaves who had embraced Islam and were being tortured mercilessly by their masters
Similarly his prayer "Grant for my benefit goodness in my progeny" was also accepted in that all his children embraced Islam. Of all the noble companions, only Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ has the distinction that he himself, his parents and his offspring, all embraced Islam and had the honor of being noble companions of the Holy Prophet ﷺ .
The question that arises here is that Abu Quhafah ؓ ، the father of Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ ، embraced Islam after the conquest of Makkah, while the whole of this Surah is Makki, so how was it appropriate for Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ ، to mention Allah's blessings upon his parents at that stage when his father had not embraced Islam? One answer is that some exegetes have held these verse to be Madani. Given this view, there is no room for any such question. But if the verse is taken to have been revealed in Makkah, the inclusion of his parents in this supplication of Abu Bakr ؓ was by way of praying that they should be blessed by Allah with Islam. (Ruh-ul-Ma’ ani) (1)
[ 1] In order to understand this, one should recapitulate the words of the prayer under discussion. These are: "My Lord, grant me that I offer gratitude for the favor You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents." According to this explanation, the 'favor bestowed' on the parents of Abu Bakr ؓ would mean the mundane benefits they were enjoying. Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ prayed that they should be granted taufq to offer gratitude to Allah on these favors by embracing Islam. (Muhammad Taqi Usmani)
Although, according to this explanation, all these descriptions relate to Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ ، yet the instruction is general for all Muslims that when they reach the age of forty years, their care for the Hereafter should take precedence over all their activities; one ought to repent afresh for the past sins, and take all precautions to save oneself from sins in future, because the experience shows that the ethical manners and habits that one is accustomed to at the age of forty years become permanent in his character, and are not easily changed.
It is reported by Sayyidna ` Uthman ؓ that the Holy Prophet has said that when a Mu'min reaches the age of forty years, Allah Ta` la becomes lenient in taking account of his deeds; at the age of sixty years Allah gives him taufiq of inabah (frequently turning) towards Himself; at the age of seventy years all heavenly beings start loving him; at the age of eighty years, Allah Ta’ ala lets his virtues stand, and sins erased; and at the age of ninety years, Allah Ta’ ala forgives all his sins - past and future, and authorizes him to plead for the forgiveness of his family members, and in the heavens it is written alongside his name that he is detained by Allah on earth. (Ibn Kathir, Musnad of Ahmad, etc.) It is obvious that all this is about a Mu'min who has lived his life avoiding sins and in accordance with the injunctions of 'Shari` ah'.
Since Ibn Kathir (رح) has adopted the first explanation, that the verse does not refer to any particular person, like Sayyidna Abu Bakr ؓ but it is meant for a common people, the specific words, like 'until when he reached his maturity and attained the age of forty years" are all by way of example, wherein the instruction is being imparted that when one reaches the age of forty years, one should have due care for correcting himself and his family members, and his endeavor for the betterment of the Hereafter should take precedence over all his thoughts. (Allah knows best)