Khutbah Friday 14 December 2019: ‘Bearing witness’ to the Lives of Young People in an Era of Vulnerability  by Professor Aslam Fataar, Stellenbosch University

Khutbah Friday 14 December 2019: ‘Bearing witness’ to the Lives of Young People in an Era of Vulnerability  by Professor Aslam Fataar, Stellenbosch University

All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds. We thank Allah for His ni’am (favours) and for conferring on us the qualities for a productive life.

We pray that Allah’s mercy and compassion encompass us as we confront disorganisation brought on by rapid change and calamity.

Our compassion or rahmah-inspired a’mal (practices) galvanise us to live our lives with sabr, steadfast perseverance.

Embodying Allah’s rahmah opens us up to an encounter with our own human vulnerabilities. Rahmah allows us to gather our emotional, physical and intellectual energies as we stay focused and productive.

Allah (SWT) exhorts us to adopt a productive attitude to change, in the oft-quoted aayah in surah -al-Ra’d, The Thunder (Q13, V11),

Verily, God does not change people’s condition unless they change their inner selves (nafs)

The emphasis in this verse is on developing capacity to adapt to change. As the verse beseeches, we have to cultivate psycho-social and community capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.

In this khutbah, I emphasise the view that we have to approach our adaptations by listening with a conscious mind – sam’a wa huwa shahid (Q5, V37), as the Qur’an advises, to the ‘ground’ that we stand on.

I am particularly interested in listening to the ground that young people are standing on. I sense that our social and religious discourses misrecognise the conscientiousness of young people as they make their way through life.

This misrecognition of young people’s paths is borne of an intractable generational communication gap between young people and broader society, especially us in the older generation.  What is now paramount is that we listen with a conscious mind to try to understand young people’s thoughts, words, and deeds.

We must move beyond what I call ‘normative listening’, which is listening with adult society’s preconceptions about what is right or wrong. Instead, we have to try to enter the messy terrain of the youth’s actual livelihoods.

And, we should let them speak for themselves, lest we end up in a situation described in the parable of the Ashab-al-Kahf (Q18, V8-9), the youth of the cave, which Allah explains in the following way;

When those youths took refuge in the cave, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Bestow on us grace from Thyself, and endow us, whatever our [outward] condition, with consciousness of what is right!”

Surah Kahf refers to the story of those young people who took refuge in the cave in protest against their society’s failure to worship Allah and to commit themselves to morally righteous living.

This situation alienated those young people from their society. They were searchers of truth and an Allah-conscious life. Yet, their society was indulging in disbelief in God, while unable to recognise their own transgressions.

In exasperation, the youth entered the cave to flee from their society. Perhaps young people today have escaped also into their metaphorical cave, from where they encounter the world, without any adult reference and moral guidance.

Like the ashab-al-kahf, young people today are living their lives with social registers that are unrecognised by adult society.  Their cave is the world of social media, algorithms, and games. Their entire social existence is filtered through Twitter, Instagram, apps, and social media.

Young people express themselves in shorthand and cryptic symbols. And, their psychologies and emotions are produced and circulated via exposure to technology and online connectivity.

Islamic and other religious discourses are now competing on a vastly new ethical canvass. Young people live in a world where religio-moral discourses operate obliquely, in somewhat of a grey area, not fully visible. Islamic discourses have lagged far behind this new popular cultural swing that has been with us for at least twenty years.

Let me tell you the story of ’Amr Salie, a12-year old boy from Macasser who authored two books, and is completing a third. ’Amr is from a family whose parents provide him with an enriching, supportive Islamic upbringing.

’Amr is an avid reader and gamer. He has taken courses in Coding and is currently designing a game. He recently launched his second book called ‘The Mothmen Files’. I was asked to speak at the event for which I read his book.

At first blush, the well-written book is about the triumph of the forces of good over evil and saving a world threatened by alien forces.

I was struck by several elements of the book. There are no adults of consequence in the book. The children have super-powers which they unleash to fight the baddies. They save the world. The heroic girl enters a zone of power to unleash special weapons to beat back the enemy.

The book references anxiety about the future of the world. The parents come into the picture only after the children have saved the world.

’Amr’s book is a gift when read through the eyes of children’s imagination and consciousness. He may be shouting out from within the cave to tell us adults that children are now perceptibly on their own.

Amr story allows us to understand that young people’s consciousness is framed in interaction with popular messages, knowledge, and images acquired via playing games, interacting with apps, and active social media presence. These children imagine their lives very differently to adults.

The question is whether our moral and religious registers are recognising young people’s languages and new ways of being. What we see in the house of Islam are heightened ceremonial and devotional expressions. What haven’t emerged are ways of recognising and connecting with young people’s consciousness, and moral worlds.

That we see, instead, is an embellishment of our Qur’an recitation tradition, widespread sufi mystical tariqa trends and long intense seasons of celebrating mawlid and Ashura. A generalised intensification of devotional and salvific Islamic expressions may be stepping into the breach to fill the void created by the lack of a shared language to make sense of the world.

Devotional acts, our ’ibadah, are the means to connect with Allah’s command. They serve as a dhikr, a reminder and disciplining of our bodies that connect us to our moral purposes.  But devotional acts should not be the be-all and end-all of our religious responses. Exuberant ceremonial acts cannot stand in for the intellectual work and practices that are required in our search for ethical living in difficult times.

Ethical registers have not emerged in the house of Islam that are attuned to the sounds coming from the cave. What is important is that adults must actively work out the meanings of young people’s popular culture if they are to be allowed into their worlds.

Another prime example of a youthful conscientiousness is the creative work of rap artist Youngsta CPT, a Muslim named Riyadh Roberts from the Southern Suburbs. His artistic expressions are based on a mix of history, youth-subcultural life on the Cape Flats, and always inflected with the edgings of Muslim identity.

Youngsta CPT is not an example of narrow moral virtue preached from the mimbar. Yet, he is fully alive. He is a creative meaning maker experimenting with life’s contradictions and multiple challenges.

Understanding his art holds potential for us to access young people’s meanings on their own terms. It contains the potential for religion to productively become part of the mix of young lives, a force for good, not a distraction.

I end the khutbah with a call for building common ground for inclusive dialogue. Developing complex Islamic literacies is an urgent task. We must now step away from a cut and paste version of Islam. The past is a resource for critical application. An unthinking literal Islam simply won’t do.

Young people are voting with their feet against moral languages that don’t speak to them. We must put ourselves into a position as a society to come to understand the complex ground on which young people go about making their lives. And, we must listen attentively to how life works for them.

We must respond to the call by Allah in Surah Ibrahim (Q14, V4),

And never have We sent forth any apostle otherwise than [with a message] in his own people’s tongue, so that he might make [the truth] clear unto them

This aayah makes it clear that we must learn to speak with clarity in the tongue or the language of youth by connecting with their concerns and problems.

It is only by locating our moral and religious language inside of the complexity of young lives that we will make Allah’s mercy and compassion a touchstone for them.

Such a situation will depend on us adults radically shifting our dominant religious and moral language towards connecting with their registers rather than expecting them to shift towards ours.

Failure to do this would mean that young people will figuratively choose to remain in the cave, refusing to become contaminated by the deadening religious languages that fail to recognise their concerns and livelihoods.

References

Fataar, Aslam. 2019. Searching for Ethical agency in postapartheid Cape Town: An anthology, Africa Sun Media, Stellenbosch.

Salie, Amr, 2018. The Mothmen Files. Printed by On Demand: www.printondemand.co.za

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