Muslim Youth in the 21st Century

Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina
University of Virginia


As the twentieth century comes to an end it is time to reflect on our achievements and failures in responding to the Qur'anic challenge of creating a good society on earth. The entire human history has been a history of the struggle to bring about this ideal society. The ideal that Islam is seeking is also a universal ideal for the entire humanity. It has been a mission of all the prophets and all the sages to see that humanity through its spiritual and moral perfection brings about the establishment of a just community. But it has not been an easy task. Many a people in the world have struggled and strived to make this earth a better place to live: a place that would reveal a balanced individual exhibiting a highly spiritual life informed by absolute moral values through the primary institutions of socialization like family, community, religious centers, and so on. In this regard the Qur'an has reminded us more than once that "A man receives but only that for which he strives; that his endeavors will be judged, and only then will he receive his recompense in full." (53:39-41) In other words, humanity has to continue to strive to earn its final reward in full. How to maintain that dynamic momentum in faith by striving to remain a Muslim, that is, a person who has "submitted" his/her total being to the Divine will?


"Where shall we begin?"

However, in this endeavor to reflect upon our condition the question is: "Where shall we begin" in our self evaluation? In 1971 Dr. `Ali Shari`ati, the activist Muslim thinker of Iran and, in more than one way, an authentic voice of the Muslim youth in the 1970s, raised this question in his lecture to the students of Technical University of Tehran. The question was posed specifically to the Muslim youths of Iran. The contents of the lecture communicate Shari`ati's intent, namely, to inspire the students to think about their mission in the conditions that prevailed in the Iran of the Shah. Its relevance, however, was much wider. It seemed to include the entirety of youth in the Muslim Umma. For it was the Muslim youth who was the main target of the modernization that was taking place at an uncontrollable pace in the Muslim world. It was the Muslim youth who encountered the most serious challenge to his/her faith under the impact of godless culture of modernity. The Muslim youth was being asked to give up certain family and social values that were part and parcel of his identity, and adopt in its place a sense of self-alienation, and become a self-estranged imitator of everything "modern" (whether he truly understood what "modernity" was all about or not).

In general, then, Muslim youth, belonging to Iran or elsewhere, was expected to respond to this critical self assessing question raised by Dr. Shari`ati. Moreover, Dr. Shari`ati's probing question was relevant in the framework of the particular situation of social transformations in the 1960s and 1970s that were taking place all over in the Third World societies. The two decades, that is, the 1960s and the 1970s, were marked by proclamation of independence of the new nation states in Asia and Africa that created new national identities in the post-colonial era. The period was ripe for considering the role of the past heritage, religious, moral and cultural, in the new age of rationalism and secularism.

The new age rationalism was characterized by its claim as the source of all human values that could be derived by each individual, without any reference to a sacred authority like God or the revealed message like the Qur'an and the Sunna. Secularism, on the other hand, confined the role of religion to the private domain of an individual, creating the dichotomy between "spiritual" and "mundane," between "private" and "public." It denied religion and its mediating institutions like the "church" any public function and influence in shaping matters of public policy. Under the domination of rationalism and secularism there were questions about the significance of religion in the modern man and woman's life. What was the place of traditional culture and system of values in determining the future direction of the educated men and women? Who was going to direct the new economic and social life of the people in view of the disestablishment of the traditional religious authority of the "church" (perhaps, in the context of Islam we should add the "mosque," keeping in mind that it was rather the madrasa -seminary- that was the religious establishment responsible to teach Islam)?

These and many more questions in the context of Dr. Shari`ati's concern, namely, "Where shall we begin?" are so universal that seeking ways to encounter the state of confusion and alienation from one's religious and moral roots has overwhelmed the entire human society. In the wake of phenomenal advancement in technology in the last three decades people have experienced quantitative speed in the social and cultural change. The change is so sudden that it has generated psychological and cultural dislocations among many people. Moreover, technology, more particularly the interactive communication through the electronic devices and its aim of building the "super highway of global communication", has influenced the way we think about life in general, and interpersonal human relations in particular. Certainly, religion enters at all stages in our life. It regulates our relationship to God and fellow human beings. When religion is made insignificant and is reduced to one among many other forms of cultural expressions, then meaningful existence and interpersonal relationships that are cultivated by its presence are threatened. In its place personal greed and intensified forms of individuation breed self-centered and "first me" individualism. While there is value in "know thyself" dictum, its negative implication, if not kept in check by concern for the well being of others, as taught by religion, could lead to a self-serving, ego-centered individual .

"What is to be done?"

Earlier in 20th century, `Allama Iqbal, the great Muslim philosopher, had raised somewhat similar question, emphasizing the sense of urgency in an essentially different social-political setting faced by the Umma in the 1930s. It was the period of foreign domination and blatant Western imperialism. The future destiny of the Muslim youth growing up in this turmoil faced a different kind of danger. It was the danger of being politically and morally indifferent and not doing enough and in time to resist the European political and cultural hegemony. It was the danger of submissiveness in the face of all powerful forces of the imperialist colonial powers. In Iqbal's view such a feeling of resignation fostered even a more dangerous attitude than the actual hegemonic designs of the colonizing government. In order to defend itself the Muslim community had to search for ways to overcome the weak culture in which it found itself. Muslims had to resolve to become both internally and externally capable of defending themselves. Internally they had to revive their spiritual heritage to regain the dynamism of early Muslims. Externally they had to acquire modern sciences and technological skills to subdue the feeling of powerlessness. Hence, Iqbal's cry, asking Muslim community: "What is to be done, o people of the East?" "What shall we do to remain muslim?"

As I begin to assess the social and religious needs of our youths in North America, I discern the fact that questions asked by Dr. Shari`ati and `Allama Iqbal are not only relevant today but have assumed critical urgency. But it is a different sense of urgency as we prepare to enter the 21st century, and, obviously, under different social- political circumstances. We have come a long way to this state of our own development. As we have journeyed from continent to continent in search of new, secure homes for ourselves, and from culture to culture in search of a new identity, we have experienced social and religious upheavals of immense proportion, both as individuals and as a community. Thanks to the opportunities that were provided under the aegis of the commemorative religious gatherings to remember the sacrifices and the heroic deeds of the Prophet and his Family, and their excellent companions (peace be upon them all). We have, in these gatherings, pondered about our goals and articulated them, although imperfectly, as a community. On certain issues, I believe, we have communicated well. These include critical assessment of some aspects of our religious rituals and manifestations of cultural life. On other matters, like the future of our religious orientation under the impact of the social challenges that face us individually and collectively, we have failed to create proper channels of communication with each other.

I still await to see a well-intended dialogue between groups and individuals representing different ways of approaching life in North America. I still long to see an intelligent, tolerant and civil approach to our pluralistic, both religious and cultural, reality in North American social universe. The plurality is so integral to our existence in North America that ignoring it could lead to neglect in creating proper strategy to deal with it effectively and to our advantage as American Muslims. At the end of the twentieth century, the fact remains that after some thirty years of our saga - from being uprooted from our native lands and trying to reroot in North America - we are still faced with many unresolved questions related to our approach to living and our identification in the new social environment. These unresolved questions include our perception about our integration in the North American social universe as one among many religious communities and its impact upon the religious future of the next generation. As we prepare to enter the 21st century we have no choice but, once again, to take up the question that was asked by Dr. Shari`ati, and perhaps rephrase it to underline the urgency of Dr. Iqbal's question: "Having found ourselves here and now what shall we do to remain muslim (in the literal rather than the cultural sense of the word meaning "one who submits to the will of God)?" Such a question should lead us to investigate realistically the sources at our disposal that can increase our capability in remaining "those who submit to the will of God.

Traditional Institutions of Socialization

Traditionally, we have depended upon the family, the school (secular and religious - the madrasa), and the mosque - in that order - as the principal channels and primary institutions for the transmission of the necessary information about the Islamic way of life. The family not only nurtured with love and commitment those values that brought out the noble in a person enabling him/her to establish healthy interpersonal relations; they also provided with means of standing firm to uphold these values of socialization in times of fear and anxieties. This caring role of the family was continued in the schools where the teachers, through their commitment to inculcate intellectual curiosity in a child, went a step ahead and demonstrated those values of nobility in materials and methods they chose to teach. Through interpersonal relations and exemplary conduct in its staff the school engendered confidence and a sense of security in dealing with unknown situations and circumstances in life. The mosque or now the "Islamic Center" in North American context, on the other hand, provided the link between this world and the next in a subtle way by creating a community of the believers brought together by a single purpose of serving the spiritual goals of Islam. By emphasizing the spiritual dimension of humanity, the mosque became the source of spiritual strength that is so critical in facing the harsh realities of human life full of contradictions. Furthermore, it reminded individuals to seek balance between their mundane pursuits that sought to distract them from their original goals, and the demands of spiritual and moral purposes of life.

Consequently, the leader, the Imam, in the mosque functioned (at least, in theory) as a spiritual- moral guide through his knowledge and upright conduct. Nurturing the good human society, in brief, was the role that was assigned to these three important social institutions. They -the family, the school, and the mosque - mediated between individual and collective interests of Muslims. Let me hasten to add that it was precisely these three institutions that were regarded as the most cohesive forces in raising the Muslim youth to become a constructive individual for the betterment of the society. The central role assigned by Islam to the family in bringing up the future generation of Muslims underscores the heavy burden that the family shoulders at all times in dealing with the question: "What is to be done?" I will come back to the family below.

The Adverse Impact of Mass Communications Through Television In North America as well as other places in the "global village" today a large role played by mass communications, especially television, as moral and spiritual broker for individuals, has replaced the traditional institutions like family, school and mosque as the sole channels through which values were transferred to the coming generation. These three institutions were expected to ensure continuity and stability in times of severe social transformation. Television in particular has gone beyond its mandate to assist the family and the school in providing visual aid and education to the young. It has taken upon itself to appeal to the destructive and disintegrative instincts, to provoke greed, unlimited self-gratification, and absence of moral restraint in its young audience. It is sufficient to recall the ongoing debate among the legislators and the providers of the television entertainment to gauge the seriousness of the negative impact these programming are having on the youth in the society in which family relations are in shambles. It has alarmed people in all walks of life who care for their children. The situation has reached a level of crisis created by extreme forms of consumerism and the indifference to all moral values. It is not an exaggeration to say that the North American society as a consequence of the mass communication through the television has become self-indulgent and hedonistic, without a moral imperative to conduct its affairs. The control of mass communications is so thorough going that it is hard to imagine other means of countering its negative impact and once again taking charge of the process of developing of moral consciousness in our community. There is no home that can escape the intruding impact of the television on the moral development of our youth. The situation has taken a worst turn in the absence of parental supervision that was at one time available to the young ones when at home.

The situation has given rise to the global crisis of value indifference. No one can escape the damaging impact of the mass communications that has resulted in widespread moral illiteracy. In his critical study about America's most pressing problem, namely, failure to pass on the moral heritage to the young, William Kilpatrick has shown "Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong" (actually the title of his study). He has convincingly made the case for character education in American school system through codes of conduct and responsibility, through its teachers and quality of their examples. Even when majority of Kilpatrick's recommendations are for the schools to adopt, it is obvious that the roots of this moral illiteracy could be traced to the absence of healthy family life for the young. We, Muslims, could and should participate in the educational programs by exerting our influence through the Parent- Teacher Association (PTA) and demand that the schools develop curriculum that would enhance character education.  

The Family and the Mosque in North America

At the community level in North America we are actually left with only two institutions that can provide the desirable moral imperatives and an operational criterion for defining what is right or wrong for our youth: the family and the mosque. Islam regards family as the most important institution in maintaining the healthy state of an individual's moral and spiritual life. The commonly heard motto that "the family that prays together stays together" reflects a reality founded upon human experience of many generations of families that have prayed together and stayed together. The parents can do more than just provide the means to sustain the family and educate their youth. They have been made responsible for character development of their children by setting good examples. Those examples include not only performing the religious rituals together. They also entail involving children in helping develop a moral sense by helping the poor and hungry, in respecting the rights of others, and so on. The culture of disbelief that dominates American social universe has trivialized religious devotion and relativized moral commitment. The youth today does not have the moral guidance to be able to pursue the right course when faced with a moral dilemma. The school, in view of its insistence in developing an autonomous individual who knows what is good and bad through his/her own intellectual development, has created a moral wilderness in which an inexperienced youth without adequate guidance in dealing with complex human situations is supposed to find his/her way to moral resolutions.

The parents, consequently, have to assume an active role in the moral development of their children. This can come about in two ways in the North American framework: first, by becoming fully involved at every stage in the child's mental growth until he/she attains maturity. This involvement includes learning to communicate with the younger generation through their books and reading materials, that is, the sources of their mental and moral education. Second, by providing constructive entertainment through personal involvement in the selection of the types of entertainment (whether at home or outside). Involvement in this aspect of moral education is very critical and almost inevitable because there is enormous pressure on the children from outside their home to participate in these apparently neutral activities. Moreover, it is precisely at this stage when the images created by the mass communications through television and video production will put their permanent imprint on the child's character to detract it from its moral development. It behooves the parents to understand fully the impact of the mass communication technology like the videos and television on our young ones. Parents who succeed to communicate with their youth in these two areas also enable the youth to make moral decisions based on their personal communication of the situations confronting them with their parents.

The key is to develop relationship with the youth who is under constant external pressure to conform to the demands that smack culture of disbelief and meaningless existence. In the age when both parents are in the work force, whether through economic necessities or personal choice, very little attention is paid to this aspect of family relationship which goes towards cultivating a personal history full of valuable experiences that go towards creating a source for tough moral decisions. The ability to recall this personal history gives meaning to our lives and actions. The most shocking aspect of the culture in which we live today is to discover how badly behaved American children are. This is attributed to the lack of communication between parents and children. According to the Wall Street Journal (April 6, 1990), on the average American parents spend less than fifteen minutes a week in serious discussion with their children. American fathers spend an average of seventeen seconds per day of intimate contact with their children. As a result, children and adolescents are increasingly ignorant about the ways of communicating with their parents, and appear to be disrespectful and disobedient to adults. The bad behavior of the children, in most cases, has caused the adults to shun the company of children. Mothers are anxious to get a job simply in order to get away from the children.

I mention these observations because I think they help us to understand our problems in rearing our children in the American environment. It also makes us realize the difficulty of our task in helping our children acquire character. It is for this reason that Islam created a reciprocal responsibility between parents and children: the parents will love their children as they bring them up with care and concern, and the children will obey and respect their parents to deserve that love and care. The parents have the right to instill their values in their children. They cannot be bystanders when others in the society (TV, video, etc.) insist on their values to children. Character formation is a serious matter and no parent can afford to be indifferent about it. A Muslim father has to put his family first and guide the child through difficult stages of moral growth. For a young son, a father and a mother in a stable family setting are the source of understanding what it means to be a moral person with the sense of honor, loyalty and fidelity. Likewise, for a young daughter, a father and a mother are the source of love and comfort that can help her avoid surrendering her virtue in a fruitless search for love outside her home.

Religious activities in the mosque provide the structural route for bringing meaning in lives and actions of the Muslims. Religious establishment (mosque and madrasa) shares the responsibility of generating strong familial relationships necessary for the healthy upbringing of the future generation. It is through marriage and parenthood that Islam seeks to impart moral education. As an institution of socialization among Muslims the mosque therefore assumes a central role in the development of Muslim character. Is the mosque delivering what it is supposed to do? As a person intimately aware of the ways in which the mosque has or has not performed its expected function in the North American context, I can say that ultimately it is the community that decides what it wants from the religious institution. If the membership becomes satisfied only with the rituals that have been traditionally performed in the mosque, then the mosque will stop at that. However, if the community expects the mosque to deliver more in terms of moral and spiritual growth of the youth then it has to plan the activities in accord with such expectations. It is here that I find the Muslim leadership, both religious and administrative in the community, has failed in recognizing the importance that should be given to attract and hold the youth to Islam. Despite the fact that it is the youth that faces the moral peril in his/her everyday contact with the world outside the security of home, the Muslim community has continued to neglect to develop programs that would specifically benefit the youth.

The young Muslim girls face even greater challenge in maintaining their moral fabric in tact when out in the society. There is very little understanding of the ways in which a Muslim girl's existence and human rights are regularly violated in the society that looks down upon her Islamic moral outlook as "old-fashioned" and "retrogressive." It is not an exaggeration to point out that, according to Islam, a threat to a woman's personal and moral security in any society is a threat to the family, community and even the nation's moral and social fabric. It is my hope that the present survey undertaken to assess the intellectual as well as social-religious needs of our youth in North America will make adequate recommendations to correct the prevailing negligence in this sensitive area. More importantly, it is my sincere hope that community leaders will take necessary steps to implement these recommendations to strengthen the Muslim youth by instituting creative programs in the Islamic centers that would solicit Muslim family participation at all levels of their planning and implementation. The key is to create an interactive atmosphere in the community and not wait for crisis to require reactive and less organized effort to correct the situation. May God guide us all to the Path of True Prosperity, "Submission to the Will of God," al-islam.


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