Sunday, April 24, 2016

Reviving the Youth in Turbulent Times

Reviving the Youth in Turbulent Times

By Yahiya Emerick


      Be sure that We’re going to test you in some things like fear, hunger and loss of wealth and self, and also in the fruits (of your labor), but give good news to those who patiently persevere, who say, when stricken with adversity: “’To Allah we belong, and to Him we return.’”   The prayers and mercy of their Lord are upon them, and they’re the ones who are truly guided.

        [Qur’an 2:155-157]


We live in an age of great upheaval both at home and abroad.  Momentous challenges face us and our families and sometimes it can seem overwhelming and even bewildering at times. Adults who are busy with their homes and jobs often fail to consider the world from the eyes of our youth.  What are they thinking about?  How do they see the world?  Just because they often seem silent and go about their business, it doesn’t mean they aren’t affected by life in ways vastly different than us.

Many of us grew up in societies far away and especially during different times.  The idea of “smart” phones, tablet computers, social media and an online ‘presence’ never entered our wildest imaginations.  Anyone over the age of thirty is literally riding the wave of technological advancement with no idea where it will end.  What’s next – space travel?  For our young people, all this rapid change and advancement is just ‘normal’ life growing along with them.  We older folks cannot see it so organically because our frame of reference is still rooted in someplace else in the recesses of a more traditional world.

It has even been proposed that in a few decades there will be a computer interface implanted in our brains that will allow us to absorb information instantaneously.  Other predictions include virtual reality that is so real that people will prefer fantasy worlds to the real one.  The future is certainly going to be far different from what we have now.  This is the future world of our children and grandchildren – when we ourselves will be less than a memory to them.

Other great changes going on in the world today involve politics and international relations that seem esoteric for most of us, yet have a tremendous impact on the feelings, self-perceptions and everyday interactions our young people have to navigate every day.  The rise of a new organization claiming the mantle of the caliphate in the Middle East has literally caught the Muslim Ummah off guard.  In our Islamic studies classes we often talk approvingly of the old caliphs and of our desire to ‘make Islam dominant again.’  Yet when our youth hear the tragic and sometimes bizarre news from that part of the world, it often seems to have little relation to the Islam taught in our weekend classes.

Muslim youth have to interact with non-Muslims in their schools and in the streets, and they may feel defensive, apprehensive, attacked, ashamed or confused.  They cannot turn on a television or radio program without hearing the word, ‘terrorist’ used in the context of all Muslims.  Even though the anti-Muslim rhetoric is amplified by sinister groups trying to make us out to be the big boogeyman, just realizing that fact is not enough to be insulated from its harm, especially to the self-perceptions of the young. 

For the adults, we already have a toughened exterior and perhaps we’ve wrestled internally and decided that evil actions sometimes done in the name of Islam are sins or mistakes that we have no part of.  However, for the youth there is a swirling pot of emotions coupled with incomplete knowledge and the worries and foibles of youthful self-doubt.  Who can help them navigate these turbulent waters but us?

I have often seen that the way the Muslim community deals with confusing things, embarrassing events and contradictory moments is by ignoring them altogether.  It is almost as if all we need to do is go about our business and the stressful topic will pass.  Of course time does heal all wounds, as they say, yet the scars of confusion can leave deep pain or cause faith to unravel or prevent it from even taking root.

One of the strengths of our community is in our emphasis on building strong ties of family, friends, associates and brothers and sisters in faith.  Our Masjid is a focal point in this regard, but there are many who have little contact with our religious institutions or community events.  I would suggest to our parents, to take the seemingly strong web of relationships we always boast about and put them aside for a moment. 

Move a step lower on the ladder and try to understand how difficult it is for our young people in the many realms of life they must navigate.  It is no longer enough to assume your children and the children of the community will just listen like robots and believe everything we say without having to process it all through a variety of often contradictory filters.  Many of our young people live largely in an unsupportive, non-Muslim world.  Most have to traverse demands of parents, culture, religion and the secular sphere.  Most of us older folks had it far easier, as our parents, culture and religion were part of our lifestyle all around us.

So what must we do to help our youth in this strange and confusing world?  I believe that we must be willing to have real conversations with our family members and youth about the issues important to them.  These can be topics as far ranging as technology and politics to the difficulty of living Islam in a sometimes hostile environment.  We must be wise enough to hear the voices of others and not try to shut people down with our pronouncements, strong opinions, orders and edicts.  Only when we listen and restrain ourselves from making angry judgments do we allow the other person room to grow.

We may not like what we hear sometimes from the budding young minds that fill the world around us, but if we remember the manners of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who often let the Sahabah say whatever they liked and listened patiently, we can learn from them even as we teach them through good advice and considering different perspectives.  The Prophet (p) was known for gentle teaching and he was patient with people and was not known for making people feel like they couldn’t express themselves and their opinions. 

In fact, one of the marvels I noticed as a new convert two decades ago was that in the hadith books there were often long conversations recorded in which the Sahabah and the Prophet (p)were having great back-and-forth exchanges with the Sahabah confident enough to say their opinions without fear of being belittled or shut down.  We need to revive that tradition in our dealings with our youth.  Be more patient.  Don’t get angry at what you hear.  Use gentle persuasion if you want to make a point, and allow yourself to consider new ideas and to grow in understanding from the flashes of wisdom that even young people can offer.

Our lives are short – the blink of an eye and suddenly ten years are gone!  The truly wise man or woman realizes that we truly do belong to Allah, and we will return to our Lord.  Our struggles are great, of that there is no doubt.  Allah promised we will be tested in a great many ways.  Those who remain strong in faith and who help others on the path of wisdom can look forward to all the wonderful delights promised by our Great and Merciful Lord.  May Allah increase our wisdom and teach us to listen more than we speak.  Ameen!