The Tail and the Head

By Mohamedarif Suleman,

Nairobi, Kenya

Students of African Literature are probably familiar with this analogy depicted in the header above. Whenever it came to the question of the youth, the African sage always remarked whether it was wise to let the young (tail) lead the head (elderly), or whether it was possible. Islamic history teaches us of one such incident when a very young man was called upon to lead a unit in a battle, only to invite the wrath of the well established veterans , who felt incensed that this should even happen given their long experience.

In modern day, the entry level for adulthood has consistently been drawn down, and as a result not only do we have under-10-year-old PhD’s but 20 year olds who earn in six figures as well. Our community, like all other peoples of the world, has for time immemorial been trying to deal with the problem of ever-demanding youth. And for the purpose of this discussion, we would as well have to clarify that when we speak of these youths; we normally refer to those under-25, and unmarried generation, for it is nowadays commonplace for over-40s to persist in becoming youths themselves and why not, is age really a state of mind?

R H Lesser in “The Growing Youth” offers an argument of the growing youth who needs to be restrained and directed, “as an animal that must follow his instincts”. But when the animal is mounted upon or controlled, say, by a shepherd, there is a stricter measure in the vanities of the animal. And so by design, a youth must accept that in order for his strength and vigour to be harnessed in the most positive manner, he must encourage the shepherding by an elder person who has passed the very path that he is now walking in amazement. And at the same time, it is the older generation’s responsibility to ensure that such opportunity is not wasted or mistrusted. For if it is, it is adequate to repel any such father- son, mentor- follower relation in future.

The responsibility of such elders is to guide the thought of these young men and women that we are looking up to for tomorrow’s leadership as well as relationship. It is up to the elders to train their thought in trying to assist them evaluate and accept why certain Islamic or even Indian traditions that we today hold so dear, are in fact in the best interest of the preservation of the family unit, and hence the society.

Last week the popular queen Latifah talk show was aired in the local free-on-air channels of Nairobi, and the focus was on teens that spoke of their problems with their parents. Most children, it appeared wanted understanding from their parents regarding matters affecting their lives. Nothing wrong about that, in fact a very healthy and important essence of their lives. The only problem was that they were seeking understanding for the sins and crimes that they had committed. Girls were feeling guilty for having had premarital sex. But they were not feeling so because they committed social offence, but rather that they really wanted to share the experience with their mothers, but they knew that they would not understand. Boys, who did drugs or got others in trouble, even causing death, were flimsily avoiding the issue with their folks, who they felt would only shout at them. So, all of these young men and women had decided to deal with the situation themselves. This is the kind of paradox that the Western society builds over morality today, that whereas it speaks gloriously about communication being open in their own societies, they have trouble in their own backyard that they are unable to handle. And this would apply to any family that seeks to depart from Islamic teachings in pursuit of some man-defined open communication, flawed and faulty as it may be.

In the end, it would be awful if we did not address a problem that the “heads” themselves create. Leadership by example. If the head does want to lead, it must prove its worthiness. If at the age of 40 plus, it is still wagging and wandering like the uncertain tail, it is creating a leadership vacuum. A father, aged 30, says that he cannot sit in a majlis because (a) it is boring (b) the Urdu is tough (c) another 98 reasons; is not giving much room for preaching and sermons in future. Perhaps that is why the Prophet (SAW) did mention China as the ideal destination for acquisition of knowledge. China would have been boring, and the language should be a tough excuse, plus of course all the other 98 reasons. But do we really care? Then, why are we averse when it comes to the tail leading us? Majlis is just one example, but we do find that we practically live life with a barrage of excuses when it comes to practicing religion or assuming leadership.

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