“Leadership and Learning are indispensable to each other.”
It’s a quote I’ve had recourse to think much on over the last few weeks as I have watched the leadership debate play out, again, within the Islamic community.
All western theories of adult learning are built on a process of self-awareness and reflection – the Islamic principle of ‘Mahasaba’ – and are based on the 70/20/10 rule. The principle says that 70% of learning actually happens through experience, 20% through exposure and only 10% through traditional classroom style learning interventions.
For those who are familiar with the traditional method of Islamic scholarship this will resonate clearly and loudly. To receive knowledge, observe the practical implementation of that knowledge and then apply it yourself under the guidance of a recognised scholar is at the heart of Islamic scholarship and demonstrates the 70/20/10 principle above to perfection. It is the fundamental reason why we say that religious scholarship does not come from a book. If you only ever access books then all you will get is information and sore eyes.
But what does this have to do with the leadership debate within the community? The current iteration of this centres on the tension that has arisen around this notion of “youth leaders”, their role in the community as spokespeople and their interaction with the euphemistically labelled “elders”. The real problem arises when ‘youth leaders’ stop commenting on youth matters per se and move into general community or societal issues – at this point they are no longer young people bringing a Muslim context to youth concerns but someone who is commenting on behalf of the Islamic community on complex and sensitive issues. This then brings them into direct conflict with the ‘elders’, particularly with the emerging trend of their views being considerably different, amid cries that they are not suitable to be such spokespeople or that their views do not truly represent the community.
The counter argument is that these individuals resist being labelled as such, stating that they have never claimed to represent the community, are only expressing their personal opinions and that there should be a diversity of opinion represented across the community. Finally, the claim has been made that in fact the views of these younger people are in the norm and it is the elders who are out of touch and it’s about time they accepted this.
Let me make my position on this clear from the outset. “Youth Leaders” are not community leaders. They should neither hold themselves out to be nor allow others to hold them out to be community leaders. The role of a youth leader is essentially twofold, firstly to make sure that the problems faced by youth today are receiving the attention they deserve and that the input of the youth sector forms part of the solution to those problems. The second aspect of the role is to provide guidance and support to the adolescent generation coming up behind them. Their role is not to provide a youth perspective on Islamic issues nor an ‘Islamic youth perspective’.
There is no such thing as an Islamic youth perspective. There is only an Islamic perspective, regardless of whether it is being conveyed by a young person or an older person. That is not to say that the Islamic view on all matters is homogenous, for it clearly isn’t, but that diversity of view is not beholden to generational issues in any way whatsoever. It is in fact a function of Islamic Scholarship and knowledge and without those foundational matters no individual, regardless of age, has the mandate to challenge the orthodox religious position on any matter let alone extremely contentious ones. Clearly then a young person could be a community spokesperson or leader if they had these basic building blocks to support them. But how likely is that?
From an Islamic perspective it is commonly accepted that the age of ‘youth’ actually extends right through to 40. In the Quran we are told (46:15):
“And We have enjoined upon man to do good to his parents. His mother carried him with difficulty and delivered him with difficulty. And his carrying and his weaning is (in) thirty months, until when he attains his maturity and reaches forty years, he says, “My Lord, grant me that I offer gratitude for the favour You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I do righteous deeds that You like. And set righteousness, for my sake, in my progeny. Of course, I repent to you, and truly I am one of those who submit to You.”
The Scholars tell us that generally it is not until this age that a person can truly be considered intellectually mature. If we look back at the earlier points about adult learning we can clearly see why this would be the case. One not only has to acquire knowledge, they need to understand that knowledge and apply it in their own lives to truly be considered mature. This is not something that can be done in a year or two. So, if we don’t reach the age of intellectual maturity until about 40 years of age where does that leave someone who is in their early 20’s?
I posted a comment in relation to another opinion piece recently in which I said, amongst other things, “With all due respect, someone in their mid-20s who has spent all their time in academia is not equipped to make social commentary”. All of the above factors are the basis for this comment. It is not a reflection on the capability of the individuals, for clearly they are extremely capable and articulate, but rhetoric and western academic dogma is not a suitable replacement for sound theological understanding when entering the fray on controversial Islamic issues. Nor does academic research, while important, completely replace the benefit of life experience. As the old adage says, you need to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to truly understand their view – reading about their shoes, reading other people’s opinions about their shoes, even watching them walk themselves, is not the same as experiencing the reality yourself.
Social commentary is a judgmental action – we make judgments on issues facing society, what we believe to be right and wrong, and we try to convince others of our point of view. In doing this we have a set of values or principles that we apply. This is the scorecard that we test societal norms against. As a Muslim there is no question as to what that framework is. Any Muslim who is making public statements cannot divorce themselves from this. It is not enough, nor appropriate, to argue that these are just my personal opinions and I am not speaking on behalf of the community. Firstly, there are no personal opinions in matters of religion. Certainly not unless you are an acknowledged scholar with a full understanding of the primary sources and Islamic legal methodology that then allows you to draw conclusions on the issues at hand. In Islam this process is referred to as “Ijtihad” and someone qualified to undertake this is a “Mujtahid”.
In the absence of the years of study and mentoring of a recognized Scholar your personal opinion is limited to your own feelings on these matters and not on the religious position of them. So, while it is your prerogative to have a personal opinion that you don’t understand the prohibition against alcohol, for example, or that you don’t agree with the reasoning given for that prohibition, it is not open to you as a Muslim to say I do not agree with the prohibition itself. That is because there are matters so fundamental and so clear cut in the primary sources that to deny them is tantamount to disbelief, may Allah, Most Majestic and Exalted, keep us away from such matters.
A fundamental reason why it is said in Islam that maturity is not reached until the age of 40 and why young people, who do not have adequate theological training, should not be community spokespeople, is because they do not have the ability to truly appreciate the nuances of the discourse they are entering. While on the face of it the downside may seem like nothing more than public embarrassment the reality is that they are toying with heresy. In the Quran we are told:
“And pursue not that of which thou hast no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning).” (17:36) and
“Is one who worships devoutly during the hours of the night prostrating himself or standing (in adoration), who takes heed of the Hereafter, and who places his hope in the Mercy of his Lord― (like one who does not)? Say: “Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition.” (39:9)
These are just two admonitions from the Quran and Sunna against speaking about religious matters without the knowledge to do so. The reality is that these so called ‘youth leaders’ at the centre of the current debate simply do not have the knowledge to talk about theological matters.
Secondly, on this issue of not speaking on behalf of the community, such statements simply show the naiveté of the people concerned. To those individuals I would say, look closely in the mirror and ask yourself this very basic question – if you were not Muslim would you be asked for your opinion on this issue. If the answer is no, then whether you like it or not you are being held up as a community leader or spokesperson. If you proceed on that basis then you are taking on the burden of truly representing what the religion of Allah, Most Exalted, is and the above Quranic verses should be your yardstick. Do you have the knowledge to do this or not?
We do not need ‘youth’ leaders or ‘elders’. What we need are leaders who have learnt their religion and who continue to learn their religion. It just so happens that by the time you have even a modicum of knowledge in this area you are getting close to no longer being a youth. And what we need are youths who are willing to learn from those who came before them so that they may also become learned leaders of their community.