by Prof. Sayyed Hossein Nasr
Reprinted courtesy of Hamdard Islamicus Vol. XXIII, No. 2
The impact of the modern world upon young Muslims, whether they happen to live within the Islamic world or have come to the West to study, comes most of all through what can be called the modern lifestyle. Much more than modern philosophies and theologies or ideologies, the modern lifestyle, which needless to say, reflects a particular philosophy on its own level, affects Muslim youth directly and immediately with an impact which can be seen in almost all major urban centres of the Islamic world as well as among many Muslims studying or living in the West. This infatuation of the young with the modern lifestyle, which has its origin more in America than Europe, is in fact not limited to the Islamic world. Rather, it is a world-wide phenomenon and reflects the attraction of many youth, on whatever continent they happen to be living today, for what appears to be complete individualistic freedom from tradition and principles which have been handed down over numerous generations.
Today, one sees an intense attraction among the young throughout the world for the so-called pop music whether it be rock, heavy metal or other forms and for the wearing of such typically modern dresses as blue jeans which reflect the idea of freedom from constraint and of mobility and of the individual declaration of independence from social norms. There is also the attraction for fast cars and forms of entertainment which involve speed and daring as seen in Westem-made movies and other forms of mass entertainment. Most of the youth are travelling fast without knowing where to go. This fascination or even mesmerization with the everyday modern lifestyle emanating from the West, which is world-wide, is shared by large numbers of young Muslims, especially those bombarded by television and other forms of mass media transmitting the cultural values of the modern or so called post-modern world. Of course, one of the most important characteristics of the new lifestyle is rebellion against what youth consider to be tradition, as customs and habits and all that has been transmitted to them from older generations. This has created what is called the 'generation gap' which has not existed until now in this way in the Islamic world.
To this must be added the fact that to an even greater extent, many children are brought up in a home in which one of the parents is absent and the other parent, not being able to fulfil the authority of both parents, often times relinquished that responsibility which parents had in traditional families to transmit ethical values and provide in all cultures in one form or another, but today its commercialization and overemphasis have brought its significance out of proportion and made it into almost a substitute for certain types of religious activity. The sports champion along with heroes of pop art and especially pop music, constitutes the new cultural hero in a society given to the worship of the body and the senses.
One of the basic features of the modern lifestyle is, of course, the impact of the mass media. One cannot overemphasize the significance of the role of the media upon the creation of the world view of the youth and, in fact, almost everyone else in modern society today.
The modern lifestyle is also characterized to a large extent by an earnest search for meaning. It is the loss of the meaning of life for many of the young that leads them either down the road of immediate sensual gratification through sexuality or the use of drugs and in some cases to violence and crime or to the quest for new philosophies, cultures and even religions. This phenomenon of the search for the rediscovery of the meaning of life had had both a positive and a negative aspect. Its positive aspect is that many spiritually sensitive and intellectually alert young people in the West have become, for the first time, open to the spiritual message of other cultures and religions and there is much more receptivity to other spiritual worlds among them.
As for its negative aspect, it is that much of this openness turns to shallow emulation of often times inauthentic forms of Eastern religions and cultures to the detriment of what still remains of the once authentic Christian and Jewish traditions in the West and also the sudden appearance upon the scene of , what are called new religions. If the modern world marks opposition to tradition and religion as traditionally understood, these new forces represent in many instances the setting up of a counter tradition and counter religion and the dissolution of the traditional world view. Therefore, in a sense, they go hand in hand with the nihilism, relativism and deconstructionalism which can be seen in so many fields, especially in the philosophical and literary domains.
A young Muslim cannot understand the modern world and cannot continue to live as a Muslim in the modern world without understanding in depth, not only the various aspects of the modern lifestyle in its ever changing kaleidoscopic nature, but also the impact that this lifestyle has, often unconsciously, upon Muslims who may not be fully prepared to respond to the challenges which it poses for themselves as individuals and mot of all for them as Muslims who have dedicated themselves to Allah and have surrendered themselves to the Divine Will. Needless to say, it is this Will which has the last say because Allah's Will is always triumphant. But in our contemporary world the very presence of this lifestyle poses a challenge of the utmost importance, complementing the philosophical, scientific and theological challenges of modernism, and, in fact, presents a more powerful current against which Muslim youth, whether they are in the Islamic world or studying in the West, must learn to swim and presents challenges for which Muslims of different ages, whether parents or the younger generation, must learn to provide authentic Islamic answers, which can only be found in al-Qur'an al-Hakeem and the Sunnah (customary behaviour) of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) and of the Khulafa' who followed the right way (RA).
Courtesy, The Pakistan Observer, 24th Jan. 1999