A Destructive Education

In the past few years, the Muslim community has been celebrating and rightly so, the tremendous achievements young Muslims have had in securing their qualifications nationwide. The London borough of Newham, known for its socio-economically challenged demographic, has received much fanfare due to the success chiefly of two schools: Brampton Manor Academy and Newham Collegiate Sixth Form, a number of whose graduates have been able to secure places at the coveted Oxbridge. I feel obliged to mention at this point, on behalf of those institutions that bravely admit students regardless of their backgrounds, that both these Newham schools are highly selective. This notwithstanding, the students – a good number of which are from the Muslim community – have worked hard and rightly earned their places to study in two of the best universities in the world.

While the grounds and halls of universities around the UK will see an increase in Muslim representation, there are other institutions in which the current cohort of 18-22 year olds are noticeably absent. Masjids, certainly in my particular locality of South-West London, have never witnessed such a dearth of young Muslims before. I work actively in trying to encourage young Muslims to engage with their local masjids for a number of reasons, but chiefly because the way in which any community thrives is by one generation passing the torch to the next. While I cannot speak for the whole of London, and certainly not for communities in other cities, my interactions with young people locally have shown me that exams, internships, friends, and making money leave no spare time for anyone but themselves.

I realise that this will make for unpalatable and contentious reading for my generation, but we will continue to evade our culpability in the way that we have brought up our young to the detriment of the Muslim community. The fact is that we cannot blame young people, in general, for the way that they think about life, the world, religion, or community. Their ideas, ideals, and values were nurtured in an environment that we as parents exposed them to; they are essentially a product of that upbringing. Where did we go so wrong? This topic is vast and complex and, in truth, my attempt to expound on it here will only be able to touch on some of the issues at a superficial level. However, it is of such importance to the Muslim community that I feel we simply need to begin this conversation. I do not pretend to be novel in my discussion of this topic, but I do feel that because the issue is mostly dealt with more academically and abstractly, it often fails to filter down into discussions we should be having as communities.

If I were to simplify the topic and try to get to the heart of the matter, I would say that, despite being better endowed with ‘Islamic’ knowledge than our parents’ generation, we have succeeded quite remarkably in creating and practising a secular Islām. I helped out with a youth programme for twelve to fifteen-year olds at my local masjid and designed a questionnaire for the children to try and better understand how Muslim families were engaging with their faith. The penultimate question asked, “What do you think would make your parents really proud of you?” Out of the twenty-five respondents, one child wrote that it would be to memorise the Qur’ān, while another said the same and added that their parents would like to see them take an active role in helping the Muslim community. The rest of the children mentioned academic and career success. Of course, there is nothing wrong with academic success nor with a good career. In fact, as Muslims, we should reject mediocrity and work hard in striving for excellence in whatever we do, which includes doing well in our studies and becoming the very best in our professions. The only question, however, is whether the desire to achieve this is simply a means, or the end itself.

We live in a world of hyper-consumption. For those who have seen nothing but good in the advent of the Internet and social media, the diet of marketing and advertising assaulting our senses almost every waking moment of the day has inevitably shaped our perceptions of the winners and losers of society. We are compelled (against our better judgement) to consider our fellow man not on the basis of how well-mannered, virtuous, and selfless he is, but on his career, where he lives, the size of his property, the car he drives, the people he hangs around with, his cultural capital, and other qualities which make him stand out as a person ‘succeeding’ in the world. Whether we are ready to accept it or not, the decisions we make for our children’s upbringing is rooted primarily in the desire to see them become people who are ‘successful’ in this life. If twenty-three of the twenty-five respondents in my questionnaire echoed the same mantra, can there be little doubt that the focus for our children is unwittingly directed towards the material rather than towards something more virtuous?

The concern is this. If we nurture and bring up our children with the fear that they will not succeed in a life which will end in a matter of years, we will grow within them an urgency to acquire whatever they can and to disregard anything that stands in the way. This is why Allāh the Most High says in the Qur’ān, “The devil frightens you with poverty and encourages you to commit indecency.”

Source: Islam21c website.

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