One of the great blessings of Islam is the presence of religious guides, or Ulema, in our communities. Religious scholars devote many years of their lives to studying Islamic history, philosophy, jurisprudence, and hadith in order to better understand the message and guide their communities.
Unfortunately, it is often seen that although these scholars are working hard and devoted to their communities, their focus of lectures and activities is centered at educating and enriching the adults at the Islamic center. This may be due to a traditional cultural mentality which mimics the structure of mosque programming “back home”. Often, this prevents youth from profiting from lectures due to language barriers or the simple fact that their personal needs for Islamic and practical guidance are overlooked. As a result, youth may feel estranged at their Islamic centers or may simply turn to each other for guidance rather than a credible and qualified scholar.
The significance of this problem cannot be overstated. As noted by Sayyid Mehboob Mehdi Abidi al-Najafi, resident scholar of Islamic Education Center Husaini in Chicago, the youth today cannot be treated like previous generations. He said he has observed that it is first necessary to allow youth to feel welcome and comfortable in the mosque setting.
“I have always worked to remove the fear of ulema from their hearts,” he said. “Because the youth see their parents treating scholars with great respect, they allow the respect to turn to fear and get distant from them. This prevents them from gaining from their knowledge on a regular basis. It is important to remove that fear from youth and help them feel that it is possible to have reverence for an aalim and also create friendship.”
To do so, he recommends taking a casual approach to forming relations with youth. In order to avoid intimidation, it is best to conduct conversations in a manner to which they can relate.
“When I talk to youth, I try to be like them as much I can,” he said. “Instead of starting with, ‘Did you pray today?’ I ask about their life, activities, studies, and other general questions. They often think that an aalim is only going to discuss religious questions, so they get easily bored. If I take an approach that they consider to be fun, then they will connect Islam and its representatives as being fun and engaging as well.” In this way, he works to foster an atmosphere that is conducive to inspiring youth interest and involvement both at the local center and in pursuit of their own religious development.
When taking the initiative in developing healthy relations, Shaikh Hamza Sodagar, a senior student at the Islamic seminary in Qom, said he feels that the scholar should take a proactive role. He also believes that since a scholar’s behavior may be too formal, youth return the excessive formalities when speaking to them. “You can speak to an aalim just as you do with anybody else,” he advises. Therefore, the lack of positive relationships may be because “the scholar’s formal behavior is part of the problem.”
This is why he recommends, “The change in communities should come from the leadership. If the leadership is not going to lead the community, then who is? We can’t expect those who are being lead to do it on their own, otherwise we wouldn’t need ulema. What needs to be done by the ulema is to take an active role in building a relationship with the youth.” In order for this process to be most effective, “each person has to find the best way to do this. Ulema shouldn’t be expecting youth to come to them; instead they need to go to the youth.”
Sayyid Abidi further explains that to maximize this effort, “You should raise youth according to the needs of their time while also considering their environment.” He stated that his guidance in this matter comes directly from the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) in a narration which illustrates three stages of education when dealing with young adults. He summarizes it saying that it is crucial to remember that “for the first seven years, the child is a master. He should be dealt with like a king. The next seven years, he is like a servant. He has to listen to you. For the next seven years, he is your wazir, or adviser.” Yet, the problem often seen is that many scholars unfortunately do not recognize their audience and try to implement the same concepts on everyone.
“Since the youth are changing, we should be changing.” This is why Sayyid Abidi said he takes a friendly and direct approach when relating to youth. He often engages in activities they find enjoyable such as playing games at recreational events like barbeques in order to interact with them on a social level as well.
Furthermore, he emphasized the significance of understanding their current struggles and the means they use to attain knowledge.
“First, I try to understand what youth are engaged in and their problems,” he said. “I recognize what is around them and what things are new which were not in my time, such as YouTube, Facebook, and texting.” Since all of these media have possibilities for positive and negative results, he works to understand the world in which the youth today are immersed in order to better cater to their needs.
Shaikh Hamza said he also feels this tailoring of education is critical, since “youth are the energy that makes a community move forward. Therefore, a good leader must take advantage of this energy. However, if this is not done correctly, we may end up killing the energy.” This may be done by overexertion from the ulema.
“Sometimes, we think leadership is defined by being involved with everything, and nothing should be done without our input and approval,” Shaikh Hamza said. “This frustrates the youth, and they quit. All they need is to be given proper direction, and they’ll do a better job than anyone else. Giving direction means that we show the youth what the goals are, not that we get involved on all the details of how to do it. The second part of correct leadership is that along the way we keep the movement on track and correct the mistakes.”
Such guidance is invaluable and exemplary when we are working towards a noble cause. Yet this guidance would be futile if the youth do not take the duty of cultivating and maintaining those strong bonds. It is seen that some youth who are active in independent organizations often disregard the necessity to have consistent advice from scholars. Instead, they often turn to each other for solutions in times of difficulty or look outside the bounds of Islam when they lack the knowledge to solve an issue on their own. Although the intentions and work of these youth may be noble, they lack the experienced wisdom and insight of an aalim. Therefore, it is up to the youth to understand the significance of a religious scholar’s role and internalize their teachings at every turn.
The Al Mahdi Youth Society (AMYS) in Ontario, Canada, is under the constant guidance of Sayyid Zaki Baqri and has flourished as an active youth organization due to his support. Vice President Ali Syed said he feels that the backing of a competent aalim not only gives the organization credibility, but also helps it foresee possible problems and attain helpful guidance. In spite of the fact that their group is run by accomplished and capable individuals, he said he values the fact that “there are always certain academic events during the year for which the Maulana gives us ideas.”
One innovative event suggested by Sayyid Baqri this year will be a night of all night Qur’an recitation by various local recitors, followed by special prayers for the end of the month of Ramadan. Although this event is organized by the youth, it would not have occurred if it were not for the aalim’s advice, Ali Syed said. According to him, “By receiving consistent advice and feedback, we are able to not only have unique programs, but also hold programs that cater to different age groups.” Also, throughout the year, “we are always in contact with him [Sayyid Baqri] and whenever there is a question or situation where we are unsure of what to do, we always refer to him. Needless to say, an aalim who supervises you will always be there for you, from the foreground activities such as delivering a speech on any occasion to the background advisory work.” It is an unfortunate case when “organizations do not realize the value of having a resident aalim present and are unable to utilize them effectively.”
The aid of aalim advisers does not end there, since they can also help to keep the organization in check. Their religious superiority allows youth to be creative and have independence in their preferences of activities while still remaining within Islamic guidelines. As AMYS is well-aware, “When you know that an aalim is overlooking every event, you are more conscious about how you carry out the event. Furthermore, the executives of the organization themselves are also conscious about how they carry themselves.” This permits freedom for youth to hold events whilst simultaneously maintaining Islamic and personal integrity.
That is why AMYS is proud of an all-night program during the month of Muharram to commemorate the tragedies of Karbala. This program has allowed very young children to recite eulogies, since they do not receive the opportunity otherwise. This event has been so well-organized and executed for the past few years that many other centers now invite recitors from AMYS to share their talents. The dedicated leadership and adherence to Sayyid Baqri’s recommendations have allowed such successes in the community.
It is clear that positive relations between youth and scholars in our communities are essential. Personalized education and events will greatly improve the benefits youth receive from their ulema and mosques, while the advantages of guidance for a youth organization are numerous. It is extremely helpful for ulema to approach youth in a friendly and proactive way. Yet it is the youth who must also work maintain productive connections with scholars, who are a fundamental asset in our struggles to increase our faith and improve our commitment to Islam. Finally, as Shaikh Hamza aptly calls to action, “We can’t keep talking about this and only verbally encourage the youth. If the youth see a successful example, they will follow it. If we want to encourage aalim-led activities, then let us get to work with these guidelines to produce successful events.”