Mothers in the Quran
The Quran has a number of things to say about a Muslim's obligations to parents.
(And We have enjoined on the human being in (regard to) his two parents - his mother bore him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning was two years - Give thanks to Me and to your parents. To Me is the goal. But if they strive with you to associate with Me (gods) you do not know about, then do not obey them. But keep company with them both in the world in an honorable manner, and follow the path of who repents to Me. Then I will tell you what you have worked.) - Surah Luqman ayat 14-15
It is an established principle in Islam that there is no obedience to any created thing (such as another person) that entails disobedience to Allah SWT. Thus a Muslim must not obey if his or her parent calls him to polytheism. Yet even in this case, Muslims are commanded to "keep company with them both ... in an honorable manner." Also notice that Allah SWT has particularly mentioned the sacrifices a mother makes for her child as she goes through pregnancy and labor and as she nurses and weans him. Allah SWT has also mentioned thankfulness to parents in the same sentence as thankfulness to Him.
(And We have enjoined on the human being in (regard to) his two parents the most beautiful conduct. But if they strive with you to associate with Me (gods) you do not know about, then do not obey them. You all will return to Me and I will tell you what you have worked). - Surah al-Ankabut ayah 8
Here the same point is made again that obedience to Allah SWT takes precedence over obedience to the parents. We can also see that Allah SWT has specifically commanded "beautiful conduct" (in Arabic, ihsan) to parents. The previous passage (31:14-15) mentioned gratitude or thankfulness to parents as an example of beautiful conduct, along with keeping company with them in a honorable manner, even if they are polytheists.
And We have enjoined on the human being in (regard to) his two parents the most beautiful conduct. His mother bore him under duress and brought him forth under duress. And his bearing and his weaning was thirty months. At length, when he reaches the age of forty, he says, (My Lord and Sustainer, grant to me that I am thankful for the graciousness that You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I may work righteousness pleasing to You, and make my offspring righteous. Surely I turn to You and surely I am of those who submit (to You).) - Surah al-Ahqaf ayah 15
In this ayah, Allah SWT again mentions the beautiful conduct that parents are due. He has also again made mention of the difficulties that a mother has no choice but to endure during her pregnancy and labor, and during the period that she nurses and weans her child. We can also see that beautiful conduct to parents includes praying on their behalf.
Your Lord and Sustainer has decided for you that you do not worship any but Him, and (He has determined) beautiful conduct to the two parents. If one or both of the two of them reaches the greatness of age, so do not say a harsh word to them, but speak to them generously. And lower the wing of humility, out of gentleness, and say, (My Lord and Sustainer, be gentle to them just as they cherished me when I was small.) - Surah al-Isra ayat 23-24
Here, Allah SWT introduces another part of the beautiful conduct which parents are due, which is to take care of them when they are elderly and never to be impatient with them or speak arrogantly to them. Praying for them has been mentioned again. Also notice that Allah SWT has mentioned beautiful conduct to parents immediately after serving Him alone.
(O Prophet) say, "Come, I will read out to you the sacred rules your Lord and Sustainer has given you: That you do not associate anything as a partner with Him. That you give beautiful conduct to the two parents. That you do not kill your children fearing flat poverty - We will provide for you and for them. That you do not even go near lewdness, neither the obvious nor the hidden. That you do not kill the life that Allah has made sacred, except in the truth (of what has been commanded). That is what He has enjoined upon you in order that you become intelligent. - Surah al-An'am ayah 151
In this ayah, Allah SWT has listed a variety of commandments. The scholars are agreed that these commandments have been mentioned in order of their importance. Obviously, worshiping Allah SWT alone is the most important of all commands. Immediately following this in importance is beautiful conduct to parents. The commentators on the Quran have linked this to the role of the parents in cherishing and bringing children up (mentioned in 17:23-24 above), which is a reflection of Allah SWT's cherishing and sustaining of all creation. Because parents reflect qualities of Allah SWT, we must treat them in the most beautiful manner even as we treat Him in the most beautiful manner. This can also be noticed in the link of thankfulness to Allah SWT and thankfulness to parents (see 31:14-15 above).
(O humankind! Be in awe of your Lord and Sustainer, He who created you all from a single soul, and created from it its mate, and from the two of them brought forth many men and women. Be in awe of Allah and of the wombs (that bore you). Surely Allah is watching over you.) - Surah an-Nisa ayah 1
Here, Allah SWT draws a link between Himself and mothers, commanding a deep awe and reverence not only for Himself but also for mothers. This is because mothers, through bringing forth life (as indicated by the mention of wombs), reflect Allah SWT's nature as the creator of all. Just as parents' reflection of Allah SWT's quality of tarbiya (cherishing) means that they deserve the most beautiful conduct from us, so mothers' special reflection of Allah SWT's quality of creating life means that mothers are due our deepest reverence and awe.
Mothers in the Hadiths
The Prophet (peace be upon him and his household) has also discussed how Muslims are to treat their parents, and a number of sayings have been reported from him on this matter.
The following is narrated by Abdullah ibn Masud by way of Abu Amr ash-Shaybani:
I asked the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, which action Allah loves best. He replied, "Prayer at its proper time." I asked, "Then what?" He said, "Then beautiful conduct to parents." I asked, "Then what?" He replied, "Then jihad in the Way of Allah." He told me about these things. If I had asked him to tell me more, he would have told me more.
This report is similar to what has been mentioned in 6:151 above: beautiful conduct to parents is second only to worship of Allah SWT as an obligation on Muslims. Notice also that beautiful conduct to parents takes precedence even over jihad!
The following is narrated by Imran ibn Husain, Abdullah ibn Amr, and Abu Bakra:
The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, "Shall I tell you which is the worst of the major wrong actions?" They replied, "Yes, Messenger of Allah." He said, "Associating something else with Allah and disobeying parents." He had been reclining, but then he said up and said, "And false witness."
This is the obvious corollary of the previous hadith; if beautiful conduct to parents is second only to worshiping Allah SWT alone as an obligation, then disobedience to parents should clearly be second only to polytheism as a sin.
The following stories have been narrated by Anas ibn Malik, Abdullah ibn Amr and Jahmah:
Anas ibn Malik: A man came to the Messenger of Allah and said: "I longed to go on jihad but I was not able to". He said: "Is either one of your parents still alive?" The man said: "My mother". He said: "Allah has instructed us in devotion to her, so if you do thus, you are as one who has made the hajj, the umrah and participated in jihad."
Abdullah ibn Amr: A man came to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, wanting to do jihad. The Prophet asked, "Are your parents alive?" He replied, "Yes." The Prophet said, "Then exert yourself on their behalf."
Jahmah: I said to the Holy Prophet, "O Messenger of Allah, I desire to go on a (military) expedition and I have come to consult you." He asked me if I had a mother, and when I replied that I had, he said, "Stay with her because Paradise lies beneath her feet."
It was already noted above that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his household) said that service to parents takes precedence over jihad, and here we see that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his household) definitely put this into practice, more than once! Note that the phrase "exert yourself on their behalf" in the second hadith is a translation of the Arabic jahada, from which we also get the word jihad (meaning struggle or striving). In other words, the Prophet (peace be upon him and his household) was making a little play on words to say that jihad (striving or exerting oneself in the path of Allah SWT) may take more forms than just military action.
The following is narrated by Abdullah ibn Amr:
A man came to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and made a pledge to him that he would do hijra (emigration). He left his parents who were in tears. The Prophet said, "Go back to them and make them laugh as you made them weep."
Hijra is to emigrate from a non-Muslim land to a Muslim land, and is considered an extremely meritorious act. Yet service to parents takes precedence even over this!
The preceding hadiths all apply generally to both parents and explain what is meant by the Quran's command for "beautiful treatment" of parents. The hadiths also follow the Quran in showing a certain preference for the mother.
One hadith already cited above says, "Stay with [your mother], because Paradise is at her feet."
Another report is the following, which is narrated by Aisha Umm al-Muminin:
I asked the Prophet who has the greatest right over a man, and he said, "His mother."
And the following is narrated by the grandfather of Bahz ibn Hakim; the same incident has also been reported by Abu Huraira:
I asked, "Messenger of Allah, to whom should I be dutiful?" He replied, "Your mother." I asked, "Then whom?" He replied, "Your mother." I asked, "Then whom?" He replied, "Your mother." I asked, "Then whom?" He replied, "Your mother." I asked, "Then to whom should I be dutiful?" He replied, "Your father, and then the next closest relative and then the next."
From this, we can see the special position that mothers have, which has been indicated by the Quran (see above). The word translated as dutifulness is in Arabic birr, a word that is also translated as "piety", that is, dutifulness to Allah SWT. Here again, parents (and in particular mothers) are due the same kind of honor in our feelings that we give to Allah SWT, because of what they reflect of His qualities.
Summary of Islamic Teachings on Mothers
Parents are one of the means by which Allah SWT exercises His tarbiya (cherishing). They are due thankfulness, obedience, and gentleness towards their faults. If they command something contrary to Islam, they must not be obeyed yet even in that circumstance a Muslim must keep up good ties with them and consort with them honorably. He or she should never speak a harsh word to them or otherwise abuse them but instead should forgive them and ask Allah SWT to forgive them. Other actions that have been particularly mentioned are including parents in prayers and taking care of them when they are elderly. This is what is meant by the "beautiful conduct" that Allah SWT has commanded regarding parents. Remember that doing good by parents takes precedence even over hijra and jihad!
Mothers are one of the means by which Allah SWT exercises His creation. Beyond what she is due as a parent, a mother is additionally due special feelings of reverence and dutifulness. This is because of the travails that she suffered during pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing. The Prophet (peace be upon him and his household) has particularly instructed that mothers are due the best conduct four times before fathers are.
After worshiping Allah SWT alone, beautiful conduct to parents is the next most important duty for a Muslim. Considering that mothers are due this conduct even before fathers, it is no wonder that the Prophet (peace be upon him and his household) also said that Paradise is at the feet of mothers!