Ever been to the mosque or a talk, and listened to the speaker saying that hope for a better future lies with the youth? Orators and khateebs who wow the crowds tell gripping stories of `Abdullah ibn `Umar, Mu`adh ibn Jabal, Fatima bint Muhammad, and A’ishah bint Abi Bakr. These great youth were able to take the words and legacy of Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and the message of the Qur’an and transform the world.
Over time, I have listened to uncles (and occasionally aunties who dared to say something) saying that the youth have to change things and need to help Islam grow and flourish here in North America. It seems to me that we are expected to make these magical leaps to success without being prepared in the same way that the youth of the Prophet’s era were prepared.
One must consider the fact that the youth of the Sahabah did not have a “youth group” per se, which worked on planning a conference or a camp once in a while. Nor was the idea of their involvement simply relegated to stacking of chairs and cleaning up the mosque after a community event.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) demonstrated his belief in their leadership potential by including them in his Shura, by treating them as adults after the age of puberty. Hence, we had the growth and flourishing of a civilization of individuals unparalleled in the history of humankind. Theirs was not a civilization of buildings and structures, but one of humanity and society, which based itself on the higher virtues of human beings. These young people were well prepared to be leaders. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) guided them, showed them respect, and took their opinions into consideration when he did his work.
Today, however, many of our elders and our young people have bought into current societal definitions of youth. The term teenager is a fairly recent phenomenon, created in the last hundred years or so and used primarily as a tool for marketing. As Muslims, we understand that we are children first, and after puberty we become adults. There is no in-between, no period where we are partially a child and partially an adult. Now, more than ever, there is a need to recapture our traditional understanding of youth and do away with societal norms, which we have mistakenly adopted into our mosques and institutions.
The potential of our youth should not be capped or limited to the “youth group.” And by no means am I against youth groups—they have their place in the grand scheme of things. What I am talking about is what is known today as “succession planning” and which was best exemplified by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). So often, the adults control any and all work that is done, and thus the expression of work (from the youth perspective) has been limited to camps and conferences. To a large extent, therefore, we have been preaching to the converted.
Many of the young people who are involved become disenchanted and become tired of trying to convince elders of their points of view or of ideas that pull away from the norm; they are tired of being patronized and told they don’t know anything. Our focus on community growth and development has largely been the design of boards of directors that do not include youth. There is no sense of training our younger members to take ownership of these goals and eventually work to see them accomplished. This has served only to further alienate our community from the larger society around us.
In the current climate of fear and paranoia, it is important for mosques and other community organizations to consider their viability. Success is not measured in the work we see happening when we are in control, but rather the continuation of the work in our absence. Our uncles who run institutions must begin training and attracting young people, both brothers and sisters, to become involved at the board level. They must be willing to give up control and hand over some of the reins of power while continuing to act as sources of guidance, wisdom, and experience. More importantly, we must understand that we are here to worship Allah by doing His work. This way, the work centres on what needs to be done for Allah’s sake and not on who is doing it.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) ensured that the mandate of Islam was enacted after his death by developing, empowering, and helping the youth to understand his goals and mission. Muhammad was working not for himself but for Allah. Until our leaders do this as well, we will continue to lose the best and brightest of our community as they are grabbed by larger societal organizations who do recognize their value and worth. Worse yet, if we don’t think about this, we are condemning our community organizations to eventual failure, because when all the uncles realize that their time is running out and they need help, no one will be there to offer assistance. That then, will be an issue of accountability to Allah.
Including youth voices within community leadership is as integral as having the voices of experience and wisdom to guide us. Exclusion of youth, as well as the other extreme, youth who think they “know it all,” are both counter-productive to the needs of the Muslim community worldwide.
*By Jeewan Chanicka