Every Friday, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ had the habit of reading the Surah of the Cave from the Qur’an. Both the story behind its revelation and the stories contained within the Surah itself hold enough wisdom that numerous books, lectures, and volumes of exegesis on them have found their station in our tradition. The namesake of the Surah is the story of a group of youths (Ar. pl. fityah, s. fatan) who remained resolved in their faith in the face of animosity and tribulation. Allah thus increased them in guidance and elevated their mention in His book. Every Friday, an untold number of Muslims continue this tradition, praising these youths further for their devotion to their Lord.
These ayahs show the amazing potential contained within young men (and women). It is a tradition to uphold these virtues of youth and chivalry that began with Adam (alayhi al-salam), was revived with Muhammad ﷺ, and has continued ever since with each generation of noble youths who stay resolved in their faith and virtue.
A Bit of History
In his famed travelogue, Ibn Battuta records his travels to Anatolia, which was in the process of establishing a unified Ottoman Turkic state. Ibn Battuta describes what he notes as being “Youth Brotherhoods” (ah-akhiyyah al-fityān), and he describes the nature of these clubs as follows:
They are present in the entirety of the lands of the Turks in Rūm, in every countryside, city and village. There cannot be found in the world any group like them in their hospitality to foreigners, nor more ready to provide food and other necessities, nor more opposed to oppressors and killing of people, and whoever is associated with them from among evil men. The akhī is the one who gathers the people of his trade and other young bachelors and the destitute, and they are undertaken by him (in charge), and this is chivalry [futuwwah]. [The akhī] builds a lodge, and places in it horses, saddles, and whatever tools he needs, then he helps his companions by day in what they need in their lives, then they give him in the afternoon what they earned, so he uses it to buy fruits and other foods for the lodge. If a traveler were to come to that land that day, they would take him in, and he has his hospitality with them, and he remains with them until he departs. But if no traveler appears, then they gather upon their food and eat and sing and dance, then go to their trades in the next day, then come again in the afternoon to their president with what they gathered. The people are called the fityān (fatās), and their president is called, as we mentioned, the akhī. I have not seen in the world any actions more beautiful than theirs.Ibn Battuta, Tuhfat Al-Nudhdhar fi Ghara’ib Al-Amsar wal-’Aja’ib Al-Asfar (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-’Ulum, 1987), 292. Own translation.
This system of organizations played an immense religious, socioeconomic, and political role in Turkish society. Young men who were no longer children to be kept at home were in need of a place to learn (1) a trade to earn money, (2) a sense of belonging, and (3) how to fulfill the responsibilities of adulthood as a providing man.
Through these clubs, young men were given a space to grow into their position as adults in their society. They were given a sense of belonging and purpose. Their work during the day was not centered around a materialistic aim for gathering wealth, but instead to feed one’s brothers and guests. Their reward came in the form nightly feasts with singing, dancing, and halal fun, guided by an older “Akhi,” who often was also the Murshid (spiritual guide) of these young men as well. By living in this environment until the young men were ready to marry and establish houses and families of their own, they learned the virtues needed to produce good men in an Islamic society.
So… what now?
In our time, I would argue we are experiencing a great fall in the virtue, motivation, and mental health of the fityah (both young men and women). In the realm of education, young men have fallen into complacency that will soon mean there will be half as many college graduate men as women. While an advance in women’s education might be welcomed, the issue is that men seem to have lost a sense of purpose in their work. Combine this with a loneliness epidemic hitting young people the hardest, a confusing atmosphere of moral ambiguity due to neo-progressive values, and major mental health concerns predominantly in the young male population, and we have a very worrying outlook for the future of our youths.
My hope is to establish a club of sorts in the spirit of these old futuwwah groups that blessed our communities in the past. This is not meant to be a learning circle, but there will be learning. Nor is this meant to be a place for spiritual guidance, but I hope we all will benefit from one another’s spiritual insights. What I aim for is to give the young men in the club a sense of attachment to their religion as a source for guidance in a dismal atmosphere. I hope to approach this in a number of ways:
1) Weekly Meetings
Meeting weekly at a masjid is important for a number of reasons. We want our youth to feel comfortable in the institutions they will be the next leaders and patrons of. Having our meetings in the masjid also makes an important point: what we are doing is dedicated to Allah, and we hope He counts it as an act of worship and i’tikaf for that reason.
2) Book Club
If they are not enrolled in an Islamic school or other Islamic studies program, there is a good chance the young adults in our community receive little exposure to Muslim and Islamic literature. Since the time of Adam (peace be upon him), our literary and oral tradition have formed the most important vessel of our culture and social legacy. The book club will include classical titles from authors including Imam al-Haddad, Imam al-Ghazali, Shaykh al-Sulami, and others, rendered into modern English. It also will include modern works related to the experience of Muslims in the West. Both genres serve as important starting points for discussions about our place in these traditions.
As Ibn Battuta mentions, an integral part to engaging the youth is through activities. Having occasional potluck brunches, basketball games, hikes, or even archery classes (I hold USA archery instruction certification) will benefit the spirit of our endeavors, in sha Allah.
I ask Allah for His tawfiq and taysir and purification of my intentions.