I would like to highlight some lessons from the story of the Ashab-e-Kahf (People of the Cave) which I feel are significantly missing in Muslim discourse especially those related to our youth.
Withdrawal from Mainstream Culture
The first thing I want to talk about is the cultural onslaught. The People of the Cave drew themselves away from the dominant culture when they observed that it was overwhelmingly evil. Actually, a verdict was passed against them according to which they were to be executed as a result of their faith; so they pulled themselves out.
One of the most important lessons to draw from this is that until our lives are in danger, we have to engage with the society. As Muslims, we cannot have the attitude that we are not going to mingle in the society because everything outside is a Fitnah from which we have to protect and shelter ourselves, and the only way we are going to preserve our faith is by totally shutting ourselves out from the outside world. This means that we’ve already accepted defeat. It says that everybody else is attacking us, and we’ve got to save ourselves by pulling back and staying strong within our fort.
However, the entire idea of Islam and the imagery that Allah (swt) presents of Islam is that of truth being hurled against falsehood. Allah (swt) gives the image of truth being like a weapon and falsehood being the victim and running away. Thus, the truth is attacking falsehood, and falsehood is on the run. So who’s on the offense and who’s on the defence? Who’s actually questioning the wrong happening in our society and engaging with it and saying: “We are here to change things?” That’s the truth. And who’s actually supposed to go into hiding? That’s supposed to be falsehood.
The mentality of Muslims generally and Muslim youth in particular is not supposed to be: “I have to save myself” but instead: “I have to engage and help the world become a better place.”
Youth are the Pillars of Strength, not Weakness
The second thing I want to talk about is that Allah (swt) usually does not highlight the age of the people when He (swt) talks about them, indicating that this not an important factor. However, regarding the People of the Cave, Allah (swt) says: “Innahum Fityatun”, even though the sentence is complete without the word Fityah. Allah (swt) mentions that, without doubt, these were young people (Fityah); they were Amanu Bi Rabbihim, who believed in their Master. Allah (swt) wants us to know that they were young because when you’re young, you are more susceptible to follow the culture around you, accept the pressures of society, and want to be like everyone else. Why wouldn’t you? When you go to high school, you start feeling the pressure of being different from other people and of wanting to dress and talk like everybody else. This is the age when we start assimilating ourselves more and more.
These young men are highlighted as people who understood the values of their faith. When their religion and culture clashed against each other, they decided to hold onto their faith no matter what. When holding onto Islam meant losing their life, they chose not to live in that society; they left and chose a cave instead. Subhan’Allah.
The idea I am trying to present here is that the youth are actually pillars of strength, not weakness. Many conferences are being held about the problems of the youth and the Fitnah of the youth with loud slogans of: “We have to save our youth!” No, the youth have to save us. It’s the other way around.
Be the People of Vision
I am personally offended by Muslim youth who, in their senior year of college, don’t know what they want to do with their lives. They don’t have any sense of direction, not for their Deen, not for their Dunya. This is unacceptable! Muslim youth have to have a very clear sense of direction and a very clear sense of purpose. And if you don’t have it, you better start working on finding it now – what you are good at, and how are you going to use it in the service of Allah (swt). Aim really, really high. Aim extremely high. Use your Dunya to do more for your Deen; become the people of vision.
Everyone who goes to school or college thinks about getting a job, saving money, getting married, and buying their first apartment and car. Those are everyone’s thoughts because that is the highest thing they can think of. They cannot think past that. They don’t think that there is anything beyond that. But the Muslim youth – the one that has vision, the one that has purpose – says: “Yes, I am going to graduate; I will get a job; I will get a house; I will get a car; I will get married – all of that. But you know what? I have a bigger purpose. I am going to use my career to do something huge. I have this idea that I think will really benefit the Ummah, further the message of Islam, and benefit society and people in general. And I am going to run with that idea. I’m going to use my education and my inspiration from the Deen, combine these two, and here is what I am going to accomplish. Here is my five-year plan. Here is what I see myself doing in 10 years. Here is what I see myself doing in 15 years.”
You have to set goals and targets for yourself! You can’t just wing it. It doesn’t work and you won’t accomplish anything. One of the first things I teach to my students every year is a line from a famous Arabic poem: “Whoever fears climbing the mountain stays forever in the ditch.” Aim high.
Groundwork Principles for Aiming High
I would like to talk to you practically about a couple of groundwork principles that will help you aim high, Insha’Allah. As far as our religious maturity is concerned, every one of us should see ourselves next year. From this Ramadan to next Ramadan, from this December to next December, from this winter to next winter – how am I going to be a better Muslim?
I would like to highlight three areas in which you should be able to observe tangible progress.
Has my Fajr improved? Am I making at least Fajr and Isha perfectly on time? The guys: am I waking up for Fajr and making it to the Masjid? Make it a goal. I’m will go to sleep earlier. You cannot accomplish anything in life if you don’t go to sleep early! Wake up early. Get your Fajr right and recite the Quran in the morning.
How can we talk about changing the world if we cannot even change our day? When you can change your day, you change your year, and that means you can change your life. Start with your daily goal: my mornings have to become more productive in terms of worship. Memorize as much Quran as you can; a little at a time, or more if you can take on more. But every day do little bit of memorization and a little bit of recitation at Fajr. I can guarantee that if you do it (even if once a week), you will notice the difference for the rest of the day; the day will have more Barakah, you will be accomplishing more, doors around you will open, opportunities will come, your mind will be clear, and creative ideas will come to you.
The second area that you really have to work on is knowledge. Ask yourself: how am I going to grow in my knowledge this year? Note that knowledge and worship are separate. Some people focus so much on knowledge that their worship is terrible. They don’t worship and think their knowledge is compensating them. They are studying a lot of Tafseer and know a lot of Tajweed, but they don’t even pay attention in Salah. I am not talking about becoming an Alim (scholar) and getting a degree in Shariah. I am talking to everybody; you have to be educated Muslims who have some minimum level of education in Islam.
(a) Seerah. I recommend that you study Seerah (the life of the Prophet (sa)) once every year. The life of the Prophet (sa) is our vision and inspiration so you have to keep going back to it. It will give you perspective, and it will open doors for reflection and contemplation.
(b) Quran. At the same time, you have to make substantial gains in your Quran. For example, set a goal for this year to memorize Surah Al-Kahf. It means that you are going to memorize it, study its Tafseer, read its translation, and try to understand every word in its vocabulary. If there’s a lecture series on Surah Al-Kahf, watch it; if there’s an article or paper on it study it! This year will be the year of Surah Al-Kahf for you. Next year, it might be Surah Al-Rahman. Every year you should make a substantial gain in your Quran. Something tangible. Don’t just aim to study the Quran. Don’t just take a couple of random passages. Take a Surah and focus on it. My biggest criticism of Muslim youth today is that they don’t have focus. Focus on one thing, and get it right. At least you’ll be able to look back and say: “Alhumdulillah, this year I’ve completed one more Surah, two more Surahs or three more Surahs!”
(c) Duas. Add on at least three or four Duas, Study them, memorize them, and make them a part of your day; combine knowledge with practice. I haven’t mentioned other areas of knowledge so far (Fiqh, Aqeedah, and Tafseer) because these three areas (Seerah, Quran, and Duas) will immediately have a practical impact on you and make you a better Muslim. Your Salah starts improving because you’re reciting the Quran that you’ve understood. Your love of the Prophet (sa) is increasing because you’re learning about his life every year. Your knowledge of Duas is bringing you closer to Allah (swt) because now you know what you’re asking from Him. Now this is knowledge.
The first thing was worship and the second was knowledge. I hope you see how I try to fuse together both of these. Even though I kept them separate, one is helping the other.
The third area is service. For this, you need to dedicate your time – once a week, on the weekends, or once a month – but you have to do some kind of service. Help people but not necessarily under an Islamic banner. Good causes are good causes, whether they are done by Christians, Jews, or the Gates Foundation. I would actually personally recommend Muslims to be a part of a good cause by non-Muslims so that those people can see that Muslims also care; plus, it gives them an opportunity to talk about Islam as well. Be a part of something you feel passionately about; just do it for yourself; don’t publicize it. It will make you a better human being.
Parents of teenage children should encourage service and even participate in it with them. Engaging in activities that involve helping other people builds maturity because in the teenage years our youth are the most self-absorbed. Their world is just about themselves: how they look, their friends, their Facebook status, and so on. All of this becomes very important to them, and they really become very petty. Pull them out of this mindset and make them care for things that are beyond themselves: helping other people, seeing what suffering looks like, and helping with it. This will definitely help bring them closer to Allah (swt) like nothing else.
Worship, knowledge, and service are the foundational goals for doing great things in life. These are not your goals. You do these things so you can actually achieve your goal. Now, let’s talk about your goals.
When I talk to Muslim youth, I say: “If you are going to medical school, you’re going to be a doctor. Don’t aim to be a doctor. Aim to own a hospital. Don’t be just a doctor; run Doctors without Borders. You’re going to transform the medical industry. You’re not just going into the pharmaceutical industry, you’re going to clean up that industry. Get your MBA but don’t go for a job; become an entrepreneur and start your own socially responsible company that provides a great service to humanity. Thing big; don’t think small. And part of thinking big is thinking entrepreneurially and thinking creatively.”
Nowadays, young people are full of really cool ideas. But you know what happens to your ideas? “Yeah, I got this idea for a website. It’s gonna be awesome,” you say to your friend, while playing a video game. “This website is gonna transform the world.” And your friend next to you is like: “Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.” But you won’t do anything with it.
If you have an idea, work towards it, and run with it. It’s not once you graduate from college, or once you finish this or that and then you can venture into those things; do them when you’re a teen. If you have an idea, run it by people who are successful in business and entrepreneurship. See how you can get started. And don’t always think you need to have big investment capital to start with. All you need is a good idea and the right work ethic, and you could be huge! That’s what the Ummah needs: creative entrepreneurs. The few entrepreneurs that we have are driving and actually shaping the direction of the community, Alhumdulillah.
We understand that the new language of power in the world is economics. We are some of the most well-off Muslims on the planet right now but we are struggling to even pay for our Masajid in America. That’s because we haven’t thought big enough. We have to learn to start thinking big. And we have to develop a work ethic for it. However, the Barakah, the blessings in that work, will come when the foundation I talked about is already there. If your Salah is good, your worship is solid, your knowledge is increasing, and you’re serving humanity, your mind will be in the right place. And Allah (swt) will put Barakah in your business and will not let you become a greedy capitalist. He’ll make you a socially responsible entrepreneur that will make this world, Insha’Allah, a better place. We’re not just serving the Ummah. We’re here to fix the world. You have to think that big. You have to aim that high. Don’t underestimate yourself.
Even though, at the end of the day, we are just slaves of Allah (swt), and we are the lowest before Him, the closest we are to Allah (swt) is when we put ourselves lowest to the ground in humility to Him (swt). But when Allah (swt) gives you a gift, intelligence, an educational opportunity, a creative idea or a talent, and you say: “I’m way too humble to exercise my talent” then that is not humility, it is ingratitude. You have to exercise your talents and make the most of yourself.
Every one of you has a predisposition, a talent for something. Find out what that is and how you’re going to use it to its maximum potential so you can become a contributor to the world and not a consumer.
I will end with an inspirational story. Two weeks ago, I met a brother in New Jersey at the American Muslim Consumer Conference. He’s the mayor of Bergen County, New Jersey. He is a young Muslim man who actually prays Fajr every morning at the Masjid, Alhumdulillah. I asked him: “How did you win the election when you’re clearly brown-skinned and you’re openly super Muslim?” He doesn’t hide that he’s religious, he’s Muslim, conservative, etc. And almost 90% of Bergen County is Jewish population; there are more synagogues there than in the rest of NJ. He responded: “I didn’t win. I went twice. First time 56% of the vote, second time 85% of the vote.” I asked: “How did you do that?” He answered: “I went into public service with the belief that I’m here to serve the public, my public. I have political views about Gaza and the drone strikes and I openly state them. But I also openly state that none of my political views matter when I’m serving in public office because I’m here to serve you people. So I go to the synagogues, and I go to the businesses, and I go to the stores and I go to the offices without the reporters, without a press release. I just walk in and say: “Hey, how’s it going? I’m the mayor of this town; how can I make your life better? I’m just here to serve because I want to see this city improve. And people see that for what it is and I get the vote.” I said, “Man, this is awesome! That’s what a Muslim is supposed to be like.”
Ihsan, you know. Thinking that I’m going to do something and I’m going to do it better than anybody else has done it. It is high time for Muslims to stop crying that we’re being stereotyped and discriminated against. People assume things about us, make fun of us, say offensive things about us, and make films about us. It’s high time now that our work speaks for itself, our contribution to society speaks for itself. This will shut everybody else up better than anything else. Let the actions speak, and the words will be silenced by themselves.
I pray that you are the generation that makes us look back and say: “Masha’Allah, we did something right. We created and raised the generation that Allah (swt) put Barakah in. And they were the entrepreneurs, the pioneers of the Ummah to come.” Think big of yourselves and don’t live petty lives. When you get a vision and a sense of direction in your teenage years, your youth will be spent exhausting these energies in the right direction. Otherwise, you’ll be the people of PlayStation 3s and Xbox 360s and Facebook and Twitter – that’s all your life will amount to. You won’t be much after that. You’ll just be a consumer. The biggest upgrade that you’re looking forward to is the next upgrade to the iPhone. Get over it. There are bigger things in life. You are here to do more important things.
Transcribed for hiba by Asma Imran