by Fudia Muhammad
Honorifics like Ma’am and Sir used to convey honor, respect, politeness and showed evidence of having good manners, but they are now being received with the offense of a four-letter word. The most offended on the spectrum appears to be “middle-aged” women, who misinterpret being called Ma’am as an indication that the person believes them to be of a more mature age than actual. And of course there is no greater sin than aging a woman before her time – smile. In general, men who are not regularly called Sir, seem to be indifferent when extended the courtesy. Age is not and should not be the deciding factor when choosing to refer to someone as Ma’am or Sir – there is great wisdom behind restoring these expressions of status and nobility.
Not surprisingly, when we research the origin of Ma’am and Sir, we find that these abbreviations come from titles once reserved for British royalty. [Before going any further, please remember that the true kings and queens of the planet Earth are Black men and women; our blood is regal and our essence is divine – but I digress.]Sir is short for ‘sire’ and Ma’am is short for ma dame (my lady) or madam. Today in the U.S., we commonly use madam and sir to indicate status in political, military and judicial institutions (i.e. Madam Secretary). So while some of us ‘regular folks’ are feeling peeved by symbols of gallantry, those who have worked for years to reach a high status in their profession believe they are not only deserving, but have an expectation of the honor and respect that Ma’am and Sir yield.
Brothers and Sisters in the Nation of Islam can be found extending the respect and courtesy of Ma’am and Sir to a five-year-old just as quickly as they would to a ninety-year-old. Age is irrelevant. As direct descendants of Allah (God), we were born into the world with a divine status and therefore addressing one another in this dignified manner is our birthright to receive and our privilege to extend.
Good manners protect good morals. Manners and morality should not be regional, they are universal; so respectful speech is not exclusive to the South. All parents should teach their children to use Ma’am and Sir at the earliest age. No need for a formal lesson on the topic – if the use of Ma’am and Sir is a natural and regular occurrence in the home, our children will follow suit. This is especially the case if parents also respond to their children using Ma’am and Sir. After all, what’s the alternative? Children replying to their parents with: what, huh, uh-huh, uh-uh, etc. As opposed to: ma’am, sir, no ma’am, no sir, yes ma’am, yes sir.
Both the Bible and Holy Qur’an leave no ambiguity about how children should treat their parents. The Bible reads, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12, KJV). This is truly quite a remarkable commandment – it draws a direct link between the length of our days and our relationship with our parents. The Holy Qur’an reads, “And thy Lord has decreed that you serve none but Him, and do good to parents. If either or both of them reach old age with thee, say not ‘Fie’ to them, nor chide them, and speak to them a generous word. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy, and say: My Lord, have mercy on them as they brought me up (when I was) little” (17:23-24). “Fie” is an expression of disgust and outrage, which should never be extended to those who sacrificed so much; to not only give us physical life, but to care for us until we could care for ourselves.
Humility is a characteristic of the righteous. Children are required to be humble around their parents even when they surpass them in knowledge, wisdom and understanding. We must demonstrate this example so our children will come behind us and maintain the standard. The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said, “Children today are growing up in homes where there is no discipline because there are no rules. Children today do what they please and their parents, mothers in particular, allow this license not realizing that their unwillingness to train the children up in the way they should go will bring great pain to the parents in the future.”
On the surface it appears to be such a small expression of deference – but in a world where respect is fleeting and disrespect, rudeness and incivility flourishes, small gestures make big impacts. So, let’s get away from being so offended when we are called Ma’am or Sir and receive it with the noble intentions of the giver.
(Sister Fudia Muhammad is a member of Muhammad Mosque No. 64 in Austin, Texas. She is married to Student Minister Robert L. Muhammad and they have been blessed with four children. Sister Fudia holds a Master’s degree in Education – she is a writer, an educator and an advocate for God-centered child-rearing.)