There are very few age groups mentioned in the Qur'an. In fact, in the 114 chapters of the final Word of God, He speaks about some people in the infancy stage, such as the great prophets Moses, Jesus, and John (peace be upon them all); and he speaks about "seniors" on a handful of occasions, such as when it relates to them being granted children at a very old age like, Zacharias and Abraham (peace be upon them). Another reference to the 'elderly' is to one's mother and father reaching old age and the encouragement – or rather, obligation – upon their children to continue to love, honor, and cherish them, and to pray that God bestows His mercy upon them in their old age, just like they took care of their children when they were young. However, if we look for references to the 'youth' in the Qur'an, we find numerous practical examples.
When Prophet Abraham destroyed the idols of worship and then called upon the villagers to engage in self-introspection regarding the illogical and senseless act of idolatry, Allah describes this powerful event in the following passage: "[The idol-worshippers] said, 'Who has done this to our gods? He surely must be one of the unjust people.' [Some of them] said, 'We have heard a youth speaking [ill] of them, and he is known as Abraham.' [When Abraham was brought to the king,] he said, 'Rather, it was this leader that has done it – ask the [smashed idols] if they can speak.'" (21:62-63)
Another poignant reference to the power of the youth to effect change in themselves and society is encapsulated in the story of the 'Companions of the Cave' (Ashabul Kahf), related in the 18th chapter of the Qur'an.
A group of young men who had become dejected due to the state of affairs of their society tried their best to make a change. However, it became a very difficult task to enact, just as it is today when a young man or woman wants to 'swim against the current' and form his/her own identity, rather than rely on the "pop culture" that (s)he live in.
Allah begins their story by stating: "When the youths took refuge in the Cave, they said, 'Our Lord! Grant us a mercy from Yourself, and help us to rectitude in our affair.'" (18:10)
He refers to them specifically in regards to their age bracket – YOUTH!
In Islam, a youth is defined other than what we see in the popular culture, which practices population profiling by breaking up the human experience into: infancy, childhood, pre-pubescent, young adult, adult, senior, etc. But Islam looks at a person's global outlook and uses that (at one level) how to define a youth from an 'old person', just as the late martyr, Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari put it:
"I should state this point here that when we use the phrase the 'generation of the youth', our aim is not to specify the level or age of the youth. Rather, our aim is to speak to that level or group of people who, due to the effects of their own studies and acquaintance with the new civilizations, have developed a specific way of thought and intellect – whether these people happen to be old or young. However, most of these people are from the younger generation, and it is because of this that we refer to it as the 'generation of the youth', whereas we see that there are also a great number of 'older people' who possess this new way of thinking, and there are also many 'youth' whose thought pattern and beliefs resemble the older, past generations."
Allah then continues His story of the youth and states: "We relate to you their account in truth. They were indeed youths who had faith in their Lord, and We enhanced them in guidance." (18:14)
We are informed about young men who displayed an unwavering commitment to the faith, and through this, Allah enhanced and increased their guidance and propensity towards the truth.
Another interesting point which Allah "takes the time" to mention is when they woke up from their deep slumber and needed to get something to eat that they said to one another: "Now send one of you with this silver (coin) of yours to the city, then let him see which of them has purest food, so let him bring you provision from it, and let him behave with gentleness, and by no means make your case known to anyone." (18:19)
These youth were not merely concerned about stuffing their mouths and filling their stomachs with anything that they could find – rather, they were looking to eat pure food.
Sadly today, many of us think that if the restaurant has a neon sign flashing the holy word of "Halal", that we're good to go! Unfortunately, we take the "Halal" word for granted to such an extent that today, Muslims, non-Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Christians, etc. can open up a restaurant and advertise "Halal", and we don't think twice about asking them details of what they are serving, how they prepare it, etc. Just because the meat is Halal, it does not mean that one can eat it – have we ever thought about asking if their Halal meat gets cross-contaminated with non-halal meat, or worse – pork? Do we ask what else is put into the food or who is preparing the food?
Some may criticize us for "going too deep" into the religion, but the fact is that in an era in which the global forces of arrogance are working against us only because of our religion and its principles, we must go deep and be people who show concern for every aspect of our existence.
Sadly, many do not realize that Islamic law has two aspects – the jurisprudential and the spiritual – something may be "permissible" to eat, but it will affect us spiritually as well. Although it is not counted as a sin if we don't know something is impermissible (haram) and eat it, it will still be detrimental to our spiritual well-being and progress in getting closer to Allah.
The youth of the cave also 'behaved with gentleness' – something else which we need to keep in mind, that our manners must exemplify the leaders whom we love and cherish so dearly: the Prophet and his Immaculate Family (peace be upon them all). It is not enough to only 'celebrate' them, but we must also 'emulate' them.
Coming back to Sura Kahf, when we read this chapter and this story and seriously reflect upon these youth (or watch the mini-series produced in Iran, available online entitled The Men of Anjalus) and super-impose their life example on what the youth in the "West" and "East" go through, we see many similarities.
The challenges that they faced in their era could have led them to leave their religion, turn their back on faith, and become like the rest of society - living a licentious lifestyle; engaging in a hedonistic philosophy of life; drinking and smoking illicit drugs; and engaging in all sorts of debauchery that we see in society today, and they could have perhaps presented an argument to Allah on the Day of Judgment that they were pushed to do what others were doing and had no choice but to submit to temptation. However, they did something revolutionary – they revolted against the system they were in, and rather than submitting to the prevalent culture around them, they forged their own identity!
At this point, we must keep in mind that although they entered the cave as 'youth', but after 350 years of being alive, one can hardly be called a young man or woman! Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said the following to Sulayman ibne Jafar al-Hadhali: "O' Sulayman, what is meant by a young person (al-Fataa)?" He said, "May I be sacrificed for your sake. In our opinion, a young person (al-Fataa) is a youth (al-Shaabb)." The Imam said, "However, you should know that surely the Companions of the Cave (Ashabul Kahf) were all old people, but Allah refers to them as 'youth who have true faith'! O' Sulayman, one who believes in Allah and has consciousness of Him is a young person." (Tafseer of al-Ayyashi)
The "moral" of this story is not that the youth of today break away from society, rush to the mountainous regions of their country, or flee to some other nation – even an 'Islamic country' – to purify themselves and lead a 'holy' life; but rather, we must reflect on what we can do to stem the tide of secularism and the domination of 'global arrogance' to make our own identity as Muslims growing up in irreligious societies and to affect change around us.
Today, we see numerous Muslim youth in "the West" who are functional members of the society – they go to public schools; they get a higher education in the university system, and go on to find professional careers or launch extremely successful business ventures; they earn copious amount of money; they purchase large homes and drive fancy cars, and in summary, are fully enjoying their lives in this world, while at the same time, are cognizant of their responsibilities to their families, religious community, and to Allah, the Prophet, and his Progeny and their noble and trust-worthy companions. They volunteer at their local religious centers, donate their time to assisting at the food-bank or soup kitchen, devote time to the local non-profit charities, arrange camps, seminars, and other programs for their age group and the upcoming generation. They donate their hard-earned money to further the cause of Islam in the region in which they live by funding the publishing of books and magazines, or the construction of religious centers, and much, much more.
In essence, their 'seclusion' is not in a cave, but rather, they live in the world but seclude themselves from the immorality, irreligiousness, and other forces which seek to pressure them to leave the faith and all of its goodness.
We conclude with one of the most potent words of wisdom from the Second Imam and the grandson of the Prophet, Imam Hasan ibne Ali al-Mujtaba (peace be upon him), and this is something through which, if all of us practiced it, we would see a huge paradigm shift in our community:
"Surely, today you are the youth of the nation, and tomorrow, you will be the leaders of the community; thus, it is incumbent upon you to seek knowledge. If you are not able to memorize all that you learn, then you must write it down and preserve it (for safe keeping), so that you can refer to it later on (when you need it)." (Bihar al-Anwar)
Let us pray to Allah that He enables all of us to learn and implement the words of wisdom of the Fourteen Infallibles.