I had a proper wake-up call yesterday. Well, more like a full-on affirmation of something I had initially felt in my gut a few months ago.
We do a great disservice in how we frame the potential of the everyday young Muslim.
Let me explain what I mean.
You know how so many Islamic preachers/du'aat and scholars/'Ulema today will rail on about how Muslims have left the teachings of the religion and stopped caring to the point where they don't even care to learn the basics?
How we're so far gone and off the path of guidance, that it's no wonder our mosques are empty? That it's no surprise, due to our complacency, that the current and coming generations of young Muslims are having identity crises which in turn may or may not lead to them to leave Islam? Among other things.
Now, they're not entirely wrong of course. But they're not entirely fair in these sorts of passe assessments either.
Yesterday evening, I attended a program hosted by the SFU MSA. The topic itself was titled 'Islam and the Big Questions' by bro Bassam Abunnadi and covered a host of critical foundational questions relating to the existence of God, the critical role of rationality in arriving to truth and even covered the epistemic limits of the scientific method. The event itself was really an introduction to the subject of kalaam and the philosophy of science.
For a 90 minute talk to condense all of these themes in one sitting was no small undertaking. So Masha'Allah, overall, the event and content covered was rock solid and well explained. May Allah SWA bless the organizers and Ustadh Bassam for his time.
What truly surprised me was the turnout. The room was jampacked (left side snapshot below) I'd say it may have been in the ballpark of over 100 students. Primarily young people. The classroom could only accommodate 60-70 students.
For an SFU MSA event on its secondary campus, with minimal advertising? That's a massive turnout.
I want to share another short account with you before I get to the main thrust of my idea, so as to drive my point home:
Last December, myself and a few other local du'aat were invited to speak on what we felt were some of the key relevant issues ailing the Muslim community at a local masjid. The turnout that masjid got just for that 1 event was apparently some of the highest they've ever seen for a halaqa/youth gathering. 300-400 people between both men and women. (I'm sure part of the reason was the free food).
And the topics we covered? Dealing with doubts, why we believe, a conversion story to Islam and clearing basic misconceptions on some apparently violent verses of the Qur'an. In terms of actual content, it was honestly really basic material in a very short period of time.
After repeated instances and events of this nature, I came to the bittersweet realization that I had alluded to above:
1) the bitter: An overwhelming turnout for events of this nature, speaks to a deeper issue within our communities.
What I am about to say is nothing new and has been pointed out by an increasing number of our du'aat and scholars:
A large reason why so many adolescent and young Muslims feel disconnected from the masjid, from typical halaqas and religious gatherings/institutions is because rarely are they exposed to an in-depth critical, relevant overview of Islam that can ground their practice beyond blind faith.
Rarely are Muslims actually engaged at an early age and in adolescence, on how to navigate and deal with challenging counter-philosophies, religions, Western thought, and other competing truth claims and worldviews. How to ground our emaan (belief) in Allah, in sufficient reason from first principles (not to be conflated with popular Christian apologetics). There is little incentive placed on us at an early age to go out of our way to want to learn about our Deen. Its strictly protocol because parents said so (in the cases where they even care to teach the basics to begin with). All we are left with secularized, ritualized Islam that's only manifested in Ramadhan and in the confines of ones home.
Is it any surprise people become disengaged and apathetic?
Our masaajid and most of our Ulema and madrassa graduates frankly just don't possess the background let alone even a basic understanding on how to tackle serious existential crises, ideological challenges and social issues in a principled, substantive way. Whether it be naturalism, materialism, secular humanism, evolution, homosexuality, sex ed, Islamic ethics, Islam and politics, the miracles of the Qur'an, contending with popular arguments posed by agnostics/atheists, etc.
In a nutshell, a large reason for such a disconnect and apathy towards our religious institutions is the fact that most youth don't see the relevance of the masaajid or their Qur'an/maktab teachers beyond fulfilling a basic ritualistic conception of Islamic practice, relegated to recitation of the Qur'an, wudhu and Salaah. All done because our parents said so. Usul al-Jahiliyya, the ways of the ignorant. Maybe a learning of the 5 pillars of Islam and the articles of faith. But *nothing beyond that*.
It's all reduced to khutbahs on the importance of obeying ones parents, the greatness of Allah, stories of the Prophets, other minor polemical issues (I.e. is music halal? Should we follow a Madhab?! The virtues of fasting, etc). You know exactly what I mean. All of these themes are important no doubt. These are the faraa'idh. But that's all we're left with.
Which nicely transitions me to my second point:
2) the sweet: bearing the above considerations in mind, people really are yearning to connect with Islam, with the truth in a meaningful way. With real depth and profundity.
Events like the one we had yesterday are almost always extremely well attended and well received (if done well) because we are THIRSTY for forums like these in an environment where these kinds of programs are in such shortage. Our knowledge production in these sorts of fields has been largely abysmal, so we'll take any chance we can get to make it out to anything that seeks to dig deeper beyond the standard fare of grade school level Islamic pedagogy.. We are starving for these sorts of discourses in our circles.
Balance your programs, your halaqaat, your events between the ritualistic and the relevant (not a true dichotomy but you get what I mean). Give the generation a reason to connect in substance. In content.
People WILL come. Don't underestimate the collective zeal of our generations to want to learn and understand.
We don't need snazzy marketing. We don't need long, eloquent speeches. We don't need AAA celebrity preachers. We don't need bitesized motivational reminders. We don't need comedy da'wah and edutainment.
Some of my most cherished moments as I learned the Deen and those with the most profound impact on my growth were those teachers and intellectual heavyweights who are hidden from the public eye. Who go unnoticed but have done great things in service of the Deen.
Give the fellow laypeople a chance and they will yearn for the substance. The 'real stuff'. Why?
Because seldom are these themes ever tackled outside of the halls of a university setting or the odd YouTube debate featuring some prominent Islamic personality. I'm talking grassroots stuff.
If we want to keep telling our youth and kids that 'Islam is a complete way of life!' but never take an active effort to demonstrate or showcase WHY, don't be surprised when you get apathy in return. If you want to ram into youth and kids that the Qur'an is infallible, that Allah necessarily exists, that Muhammad (sws) was indeed a Prophet of Allah, that the story of Yusuf (as) was the best of all stories, don't just TELL them, show them why!
Show don't tell. Belief in the fundamentals of truth was not meant to be blind.
So that is why we should come to realize that the problem ahead of us is a longstanding one. Uneasy to overcome but possible nonetheless.
We need to *stop* writing off our current generation of Muslim youth.
That's not to say that apathy among the general public doesn't exist. Of course it does. But it's a two way street. WE should make a collective effort to work with one another to ensure that we can have such forums/gatherings and see an improvement in our institutions for the coming generation.
Like I said, with the right mindframe, the youth can be reached. It's entirely possible. All it requires is a reframing in our approach and our thinking and a geared cognizance of the pressing issues that afflict the every day Muslim on the ground.
PS excuse the length as always. Just some passing Saturday morning thoughts.