The scene is typical. It’s four o’ clock in the afternoon. Grandma  is sitting in a room by herself, reading the Qur’an. The parents both work so they are not at home and will not return until well after the children come home from school. The school bus drops off the grandchildren and they run through the front door and run right past Grandma with a barely audible “Assalamu alaykum.” They throw their book bags into their rooms and in a flash are back in the room where Grandma is seated. “How was your day she asks?” Her frail voice is drowned out by the loud music accompanying the cartoons on television. “Turn down the television.” “Did you pray the ‘Asr prayer?” “Sit back or you will hurt your eyes.” “Who has homework tonight?” None of the grandchildren respond. They turn to look at Grandma but only long enough to make her feel as though her presence had been noted. Responses to her questions were unnecessary. The parents return hours later. Grandma reminds them to talk to the grandchildren. She asks the parents, “Why don’t they respect me?” “Why am I invisible to them?” “I can’t seem to get through to them.” “I just don’t understand children these days.”

The scene is typical. It’s late in the evening. The parents received a telephone call earlier in the day from the school teacher. “We need to talk to you,” they call out to their son. “The teacher called and said you have something you might want to discuss with us. Can you please come out of your room so we can talk to you?” The son talks back to the teacher in class, disrupts the lessons and tells the teacher she is “out of touch” with the students. The parents are outraged by their son’s behaviour. “Why do you insist on misbehaving?” “Who’s misbehaving?” the son asks. “You are. It is rude to tell the teacher she is out of touch with the students.” “Well, she is because we can never understand what she is trying to say.” Her examples are situated in a context that is drastically different than the one in which the students are growing up. The parents are at their wits end. “Why can’t you just respect the teacher?” “What’s wrong with children these days, I just don’t understand you.”

The world population is booming but it is also aging substantially as more people live healthier, longer lives.[1] In any given household, the child, his parents, and the grandparents constitute three generations living under one roof. These three generations are linked genetically but are as far apart in their worldviews as any three generations have been in the history of time. The so-called generation gap of yesterday is not only present today but the gap itself has widened disproportionately. Some have asked whether it is worth the effort to bridge the gap and others have wondered how to bridge the gap. Not only is it worth it for us to bridge the generation gap but it is absolutely essential for Muslims if we are to uphold Islamic values such as respect, kindness, and appreciation for both the young and the old members of our community.

In the life of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we discover the strong emphasis he placed on recognizing that a gap between generations will exist and that it must be bridged. Our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) entered prophet-hood at the age of forty and therefore, it is well-known that a sizable majority of his companions were much younger than him. Throughout the Prophet’s life, he maintained a most perfect balance between appreciating and respecting the wisdom and the lived experience of the elder companions such as Abu Bakr as-Siddiq and Umar ibn al Khattab (may Allah be pleased with them) and appreciating and respecting the dynamism and the sharp insights of the younger companions such as ‘Aishah bint Abu Bakr, Ali ibn Talib, Abdullah ibn Abbas, Abdullah ibn Masoud, and Abdullah ibn Umar (may Allah be pleased with them). Among the companions were elders who had entered Islam very late in their lives and in contrast there were younger companions who had been born into Muslim households and knew only Islam as their way of life.

There are so many instances that demonstrate the Prophet’s efforts to bridge the generation gap but only a few examples will suffice. [2] The beloved Prophet led by example when he kissed his grandchildren at a time in Arabia when such intimacy was not common. We learn from Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him) that, “Allah’s Apostle kissed Al-Hasan bin Ali while Al-Aqra’ bin Habis At-Tamim was sitting beside him. Al-Aqra said, “I have ten children and I have never kissed anyone of them.” Allah’s Apostle cast a look at him and said, “Whoever is not merciful to others will not be treated mercifully.””[3] In another instance, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave authority to Khalid ibn Walid to command a unit sent to fight against the tribe of Bani Jadhima.[4] Khalid (may Allah be pleased with him) was much younger and had accepted Islam much later than most of the other companions but Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) deferred to Khalid because of his superior military skills. Finally, Sahl bin Sa’d (may Allah be pleased with him) narrates that, “Allah’s Apostle went to Fatima’s house but did not find ‘Ali there. So he asked, “Where is your cousin?” She replied, “There was something between us and he got angry with me and went out. He did not sleep (mid-day nap) in the house.” Allah’s Apostle asked a person to look for him. That person came and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! He (Ali) is sleeping in the mosque.” Allah’s Apostle went there and ‘Ali was lying down. His upper body cover had fallen down to one side of his body and he was covered with dust. Allah’s Apostle started cleaning the dust from him saying: “Get up! O Aba Turab. Get up! O Aba Turab (literally means: O father of dust). “” [5]

Among the lessons we can extract from these three examples mentioned above are bridging the generation gap is not only critical but it is a worthwhile endeavour. In the first instance, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)  taught us to bridge the gap through physical acts of intimacy and love. The young often feel intimidated by the old, authoritative members of their family or community. Perpetuating fear and feelings of intimidation only widens the generation gap because the youth will never get close enough to the elders to be comfortable, to be at ease, and to learn. And at the same time the elders will not have direct contact with the youth to grasp their generation’s culture. Merely drawing in the youth through handshakes, embraces, and kisses reduces the physical distance and helps to minimize any feelings of fear or intimidation.

In the second instance, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) teaches us that just because one is older does not necessarily mean that one has the skills or the specific experience that will allow him or her to serve well in a particular position or situation. Quite often, youth are relegated to menial tasks and their input is never sought on matters of importance. Young people are agile, motivated, dynamic, and have sharp analytical skills which when tempered by the wisdom and the lived experience of the elders can yield powerful results in helping resolve whatever issues before us. Khalid ibn Walid, who before becoming a Muslim was an avowed enemy of Islam and a brilliant military strategist, will forever be in the history books because elder companions who had entered Islam long before him actually accepted him as their unit commander in the fight against the Bani Jadhima.

In the last instance we learn from our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) that the interactions between the youth and the elders need not be dry, almost lifeless, filled with a false sense of awe that the youth are expected to show towards the elders. ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib was not only the Prophet’s cousin (peace be upon him) but in fact the Prophet also gave his daughter Fatima in marriage to ‘Ali. In the situation described above, at work are so many societal expectations of how cousins of different generations should interact, of how a son-in-law should interact with his father-in-law and above all, how a companion should interact with the Prophet (peace be upon him). The wisdom of  Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is such that he diffuses a volatile situation involving essentially two youths, with humour. He does not sit in one place and demand that ‘Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) be brought to him. He does not become upset with Fatima or ‘Ali for one upsetting the other as it was a mutual argument between spouses. Instead, the Prophet of Allah, the father of Fatima, the cousin of ‘Ali, the father-in-law of ‘Ali actually asks around for help in locating ‘Ali and then finds him sleeping in the mosque. In a joking manner, the Prophet refers to ‘Ali as “Abu Turab,” or “Father of the dust,” and lessens the tension of the moment drastically.

Finally, in reference to the scenarios described at the start of this article, all generations have a lot of work to do but the elders should take full responsibility to ensure that bridging the generation gap becomes a priority. The youth stand to lose so much as with each day another elder returns to Allah. So much lived experience, so much knowledge, so much wisdom is being lost because it is not being transmitted by the elders to the youth. The first scenarios is perhaps more reflective of life in western countries whereby the grandparents might not speak the language of the land and therefore the youth do not refer to them for advice. The parents should make concerted effort in serving as translators, as the bridge between the grandparents and the grandchildren. Just because an elder is not familiar or fluent in a particular language should not diminish or minimize the vast level of knowledge and wisdom that that elder can impart to the future generations. The parents themselves should resist marginalizing the elders by involving them, by seeking out their advice, and by respecting them since modelling such behaviour is a direct lesson from the life of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him). In the second scenario, which could take place anywhere in the world, it is clear that more care must be taken to train and retrain our teachers, scholars, imams, and other elders who interact regularly with the younger generations. We all stand to lose by perpetuating the notion that different generations will never understand one another. No one can deny that children are in general much more assertive, outspoken, and products of the information age. The elders should not mistake these qualities for disrespect and arrogance. The elders must be exposed to the culture of the younger generations so that they become familiar and appreciate that culture as opposed to looking at the culture with disdain and longing only for the days past. And similarly, the younger generations should be exposed to the days past not with the purpose of reliving those days but rather so that they develop a sense of appreciation for the worldview of the elders. Let us make du’a to Allah to help us bridge the generation gap because it is an endeavour that is not only critical but worth it!

*By Altaf Husain

[1] World Population Ageing:  1950-2050. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division of the United Nations. Available at: /publications/worldageing19502050/

[2] For further reading, see also “Shining Star’s Among the Prophet’s Companions,” by Abdul Basit Ahmad.

[3] Sahih Bukhari, Book #73, Hadith #26.

[4] Sahih Bukhari, Book #89, Hadith #299.

[5] Sahih Bukhari, Book #8, Hadith #432.