John Wooden (d. 2010), an American basketball player and head coach, once said that young people need models, not critics.
Like all youth, Muslim youth, too, need excellent role models to inspire, motivate and guide them. In the contemporary contexts, nevertheless, they are lacking.
It is true that the best role model to all Muslims is their Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), followed by his honorable family, the companions and all those who followed in their footsteps.
However, being what they are and perceiving things as they do, youth, in addition, need those individuals who, while fully emulating the Prophet (peace be upon him), established themselves as provisional exemplars. That could be the case in any aspect of youth’s or adults’ life affairs.
Muslim youth need to look up to such persons and witness their model legacies. They need to directly see and meet them, and thus, easily identify themselves and their struggles with them. They need inspirations and motivations that are products of their own time.
In more perceptible and real-world terms, they need to learn the characteristics of great and successful persons and to learn how to cope with recurring adversities.
Through them, Muslim youth could relate to the role model of all role models: the Prophet (peace be upon him), his honorable family and the companions. With the ideological gap bridged, the chronological gap between youth and their Prophet (peace be upon him) will pose no obstacle either.
However, what Muslim youth have at their disposal, firstly, are unsuitable or plainly erroneous role models, coming from all walks of life. They represent different cultures and traditions, and following them would mean, first and foremost, adopting the worldviews and value systems that they epitomize. It would in the end also mean the abandoning of one’s own cultural and religious identities.
Another option that Muslim youth have is Muslim corrupt and arrogant political and business leaders, on the one hand, and unwise, egotistical and puffed up scientists, artists and the leaders of what could be described as a Muslim pop culture, on the other.
There are of course many exceptions, but they constitute a minority and the situation remains as good as it gets. The case of Muslim problematic role models, owing to their influential positions, is akin to one of not only being in the wrong and misguided, but also misguiding and plunging others into error.
As regards the scholars (‘ulama), the guardians of society, their status and position are often maneuvered, so as not to conflict with the standing and function of the first type of “role models”.
The prominence and appeal of many true scholars and their potential influence are systematically downgraded, besides being painstakingly controlled.
If some of them posed a threat, however, they by diverse means and strategies would be neutralized and, in some cases, eliminated altogether. Their reputations and legacies are then methodically tarnished.
In their stead, mostly pseudo scholars and those who lack spiritual and intellectual integrity – but proved obedient and co-operative – are employed to be the face of the religious and traditional intellectual reality.
The void is further filled by outright incompetent – though perhaps sincere and willing – and self-styled scholars who, when all is said and done, may create more damage than benefit.
In the midst of all these developments stand Muslim youth who are desperate for inspiration, motivation and guidance, and who only want to live productive and honorable lives.
But what they witness is good presented as evil, and evil as good. They see knowledge served in the most attractive wraps as ignorance, and ignorance as knowledge.
The same holds true as regards the dialectics of light versus darkness, modernity versus primitiveness, progress versus backwardness, and happiness and joy versus despondency and sorrow.
To some, therefore, the only solutions are either to reside in particular historical episodes, overly romanticizing it and its protagonists, or to build castles in the air and live in their own fantasies with imaginary characters.