Youth: On Culture, Religion, and Generation Gap

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 27 Safar 1424, 17 April 2004

If the life of this world is an illusion, the period of greatest illusion occurs during youth. It is a period of high energy and great enthusiasm, coupled with an air of invincibility and perpetuity. Like the driver of a fast car, one may also develop a disdain for the slower cars on the highway of life. It is difficult to imagine that the car will run out of fuel and that one day the engine will wear out.

For the moment though the car is fast and it can go places!

For this reason there are special warnings for the youth and glad tidings for the person who uses this energy wisely. A famous hadith tells us that on the Day of Judgment no man will be able to move from his place until he answers five questions. "How did he spend his life? How did he utilize his youth? How did he earn his wealth? How did he spend it? And, how did he practice what he learnt?" [Sunan al-Tirmidhi]. While the first question asks generally about one's life pattern, the second especially focuses on the period of youth.

On the other hand, the person who devoted his youth to the worship of Allah will be among the selected seven kinds of people: "There are seven people for whom Allah will provide His shade on the day when there will be no shade except His shade: 1. A just ruler. 2. A youth who grew up in the worship of Allah. 3. A man whose heart is attached to the mosque. 4. Two men who love each other for Allah's sake; they meet for the sake of Allah and part company for His sake. 5. A man who is invited by a woman of beauty and position [to sin], but he refuses saying: 'I fear Allah.' 6. A man who gives in charity secretly such that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives. 7. A man whose eyes shed tears as he remembers Allah in private." [Bukhari, Muslim].

Hence the profound advice in another famous hadith to value five things: "Youth before old age, health before sickness, wealth before poverty, free time before preoccupation, and life before death."

A fast car is dangerous if it does not have strong controls. And that is where Shaitan targets the vulnerable --- by loosening the controls. It has been his time-tested trick to work through temptations and make desires look irresistible. The path of deviation looks good. It is cool. It is fun. It is endlessly entertaining. The only problem is, it leads to assured disaster. This is the path of MTV and pop culture; of music and hip-hop; of rebellion and generation gap.

'Generation gap' is a clever term that aims at giving scientific respectability to rudeness and rebellion. The idea is to create a wedge between generations and make it look acceptable for a young person to be indifferent to any wise counsel from one's close and well-wishing elders. Which reminds us of the special challenge faced by the youth today. While temptations have always been strong in young age, today the problem is magnified by mega efforts targeting the youth, especially the Muslim youth in the Western world, at all levels including intellectual and philosophical.

A favorite theme of these campaigns is to separate Islam from its culture. When in France, follow the French culture not the Muslim Algerian one, so the argument goes. This argument needs to be carefully deconstructed. Like all clever arguments this one also begins with a bit of truth. It is true that Islam is a universal religion and not restricted to a particular region. It is also true that many Muslim lands, during their period of decline, developed or adopted some cultural practices that were not based in Islam and need to be pruned. Certainly, not everything that has become accepted social practice in every Muslim country is Islamic. But it is a very long jump from there to conclude that everything being done in the Muslim world is un-Islamic and must be jettisoned. And it is even more bizarre to suggest that the replacement of all that with the pop-culture is just fine.

When Islam reached the lands that today form the Muslim world, it influenced the life style and cultural practices there without forcing a monoculture. For example the wedding practices vary as you move from region to region in the Muslim world. (The picture is complicated by the introduction of many non-Islamic practices there as well.) Yet they also retain common features traceable to Islamic teachings. These include: 1. Marriage is a sacred act and an important religious obligation and not just a means of fulfilling physical needs. 2. While the ultimate decision to marry each other remains with the bride and groom, parental help, guidance, and support in arranging it is a blessing for them.

The propaganda machine presents this common core of Islamic culture as a great burden, but one only needs to look at the unfortunate millions who are left on their own in the name of freedom, to ascertain the truth. Is it not true that if one were to draw a family-and-home-life-disaster map of the world, it will coincide with a map of the Western world? The distinctly safe area will be the Muslim world, with a gray area within it coinciding with the areas of Westernization. The safeguards and the disaster are built into the underlying cultural values and one cannot do a wholesale exchange of cultural practices without buying into the underlying values and facing the consequences.

Does it mean that all Muslims can aim at is to make mini Pakistans in England or mini Algerias in France? Not at all. Islam allows for growth and adaptation and early Muslims have left great examples of it. Theirs was an example of a natural adjustment that was fully informed by Islamic teachings; it did not damage the underlying values. And it tremendously enriched the new societies. The same healthy adaptation can happen today, with benefits for everyone.

The great task of Muslim youth will be to bring the life-giving message of Islam to wherever they live. With love, dedication, wisdom, and insight. But if you give up all you have, how can you give anything to anyone?