‘Young people can become drivers for justice and social change in the world’

Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar

Since the tragic school shootings in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, which left 17 people dead and maimed at least 14 others, there has been a growing student led protest movement demanding action to end school shootings in the United States of America.

The student movement calling itself calling itself #NEVER AGAIN have convened a number of solidarity vigils and also led a protest to the State legislature in Tallahasee, Florida, to demand tighter gun control measures. The students are planning two national protest events during the month of March: the National School Walkout on March 14 and the March for Our Lives on March 24. The theme of both events: Enough is enough.

I propose that student and youth led movements for social change is not alien, strange or incompatible with Islam but is in fact celebrated by the Glorious Qur’an. In Surah al-Kahf, Chapter 18, verses 13 & 14, Allah, the Sublime, edifies us by not only apprising us of the legendary story of the Companions of the Cave (Ashab al-Kahf), but more significantly revealing their identity, namely that they were youth.
We shall narrate to you their exemplary story:
Behold they were youth who believed in their Lord:
And so we deepened their consciousness of the Right Way.
And We strengthened their hearts so that they stood up against injustices and proclaimed:
“Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth.
We shall invoke no god beside Him,
for (if we do so) we shall have uttered a blasphemy. (Q18:13-14)

The story of the Companions of the Cave or more widely known as the “Sleepers” can be found in the Jewish as well as the Christian scriptures. It tells of a group of people who stood up against idolatry, wrongdoing and evil within their community, and as a result of their struggles for faith and justice were compelled to seclude themselves in a cave where they spent a long period (some versions says over three centuries).

The Qur’an also relates this story but removes many of the legendary embellishments, which had obscured its true perspective. Right at the beginning of the Qur’anic version is the proclamation that the Companions of the Cave (Ashab al-Kahf) were youth (fityatun) who were believers.

It is highly instructive to note that the Arabic word used in the above Qur’anic verses to refer to young people; namely fityatun (sing. fata), has a special meaning and usage in Islamic literature. Its infinitive form futuwwah, meaning youth and chivalry, is a composite of virtues, such as energy, revolutionary vigour, heroism and an altruistic character that derives pleasure from helping others. Not surprisingly, these same characteristics have often adorned the dispositions of young people who have frequently been witnesses for justice at various epochs in human history.

It is my considered view that through these verses the Qur’an is exhorting its readers to be attentive to the fact that young people are more likely to challenge the status quo and become drivers and levers for social change. The case of the large numbers of South African youth who led the struggle against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa as well as the large numbers of youth who participated and continue to challenge despotic regimes in the so-called Arab Spring since 2011 are cases in point.

Furthermore, by describing them as ashab literally companions, the Qur’an is also alluding to the bonds of friendship that comes naturally to young people and it is these bonds of solidarity that must have sustained the companions of the cave during their long period of adversity. It is these same bonds of friendship and comradery that continue to inspire young people to challenge inequities at various times in human history.

We may thus interpret the above verses of the Glorious Qur’an to endorse the idea of not only paying tribute to the heroic role of young people in the past but also to advise us to remain attentive to the potential role of young people in pioneering future social change.

Lamentably the Qur’ans unequivocal message of acknowledging and supporting youth led social movements for change within our communities remain unheeded, and with it we squander our greatest potential for social progress. Ultimately, in the above verses the Glorious Qur’an is advising us that our hope for social progress and our future lies in the youth (fityatun).

The #NEVER AGAIN student led movement for gun control in the US is awesome and inspiring. Their success lies not only in their sustainability but more importantly in their creativity in linking their common struggle to that of the #BlackLivesMatter student movement, who has been fighting the same cause for sometime now, but have not received the same mainstream media coverage.

We make pray that God, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, guides, and blesses the #NEVER AGAIN and #BlackLivesMatter student movements, allows student movements to flourish across America and enables them to achieve their goal of achieving a safer school environment and ultimately a more just and caring American society. Allahumma Amin

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