At the age of seventeen years, young Usama bin Zaid (rtam) heads an army under the newly-formed caliphate of Abu Bakr Siddiq (rtam). He was appointed by none other than the beloved Prophet (sa) while he was alive. Usama (rtam) rises to the occasion, leading much more experienced (and perhaps more pious) stalwarts in his army and successfully combats the enemy. How long has it been since we have heard of feats of leadership like that? Given today’s wondrous technology, opportunities, exposure to the world, and efforts in education, why don’t we see any Usama bin Zaid (rtam) amongst us?

My humble experience tells me that our Usamas are being raised with a different vision, and I am deeply concerned. I see their roles being reduced to that of insecure followers. They are not Iqbal’s Shaheens anymore. They are just one of the flock, and they are not trained to soar the skies. And the tragedy of it all is that they consider this to be their freedom: traversing territory already charted out for them, at times by their parents, at times by their desires, and many times by the society at large. Chances are that the higher your education level is, the more cowardly you will turn out to be because that is what the present educational system demands. It does not want free-thinking souls, liberated by their subservience to Allah (swt) alone.

The education today is prejudiced and leads one away from his or her true purpose in life. It promises golden shackles to the ones who best serve a capitalist system. Mentioning Allah’s (swt) name becomes taboo at some highly accredited schools and universities. So the educational system assures that your faith and freedom to fly is all buried for good. Religious and secular education stay divorced.

When you ask a seventeen-year-old today, “What do you want out of life?” his answer is likely to be, “I don’t know.” “…See, I want to become an artist… but my parents want me to pursue medicine …” or “all the money is in information technology. I want to be as rich as Bill Gates.” Little does he know that Gates worked very hard and very early to achieve what he has given to the world today. This poor seventeen-year-old soul is confused and succumbs to pressures for the rest of his life, leading to chronic dissatisfaction and disillusionment. We have seen generations like that come and go. This cell phone or that cell phone? This girl/boy or that girl/boy? This company or that career? This country of residence or that one? And the whirlwind of choices will whisk him away from his real purpose of life until he lands in his grave. We think death and depletion is only meant for others, not us. But young people do die young at times. And young people get old, too.

The only freedom that the system grants him is to waste away his or her life chewing gum or sipping cola, chat on Facebook or any other hyped-up social media, buy a movie ticket and head for the cinema, and choose for himself or herself out of the obvious choices laid out before him or her. If the youth dares to be different and naïve enough to express deeper and more meaningful desires, he or she is immediately put in his or her place or taken to a counselor for a wise word. Nobody is allowed to blaze the trail here. The only option is to take the freeway, even if you have to sit in a massive traffic jam. That is the safest and surest way to get to success. So they say.

Amad Abdul Karim from LUMS questioned: “Is our cookie cutter educational system capable of producing someone who can break the mould?” And believe me, it is not just a Muslim problem, as we generally assume it to be. Here is what Martin Luther King (of the USA) had to say as an undergrad student at the Morehouse College about the modern educational system in 1947: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

For our (costly) educations to be truly worthwhile, we had better begin to ask ourselves the difficult questions. What is my stance on homosexuality, both morally and legally? What is our country’s role in the Middle East? Why are we over there anyway?

If those questions make us uncomfortable, that is a good sign. King contends that to begin the journey towards finding our philosophy of life, we must discover our moral and ethical truths. Our educations must challenge us to ask the questions that are not politically correct, to question our teachers, and our leaders. According to King, it is only in the sincere pursuit of truth that we can land on “worthy objectives upon which to concentrate”.

There may be serious repercussions if we do not do this. He ends with a warning I pass on to myself, my fellow classmates and my teachers: “If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of closed-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, ‘brethren’! Be careful, teachers!”

Martin Luther King was not a Muslim, but just like any other visionary, he was highly concerned about the kind of ideology the American educational system then, and now the global education systems such as Cambridge, are delivering. He was talking about the same universities we aspire to become the alumni of and those our home colleges and educational institutes are currently emulating. What struck America years ago through its educational philosophy is striking the world and Pakistan now. Freedom of speech is endorsed when atheistic and lewd views are debated upon in the class. But it is extremely despicable and objectionable to quote from the Quran, Ahadeeth, or other religious texts. Today’s education can teach subjects, but it has failed miserably in inspiring individuals to live by principles, purpose, and ethics. What good would the products of such an educational system be then?

Writer Ahmed Mitchie surveyed and revealed that “the percentage of American undergraduate students who found ‘being very well off financially’ as ‘essential’ or ‘very important’, rose from 42 percent in 1966 to 80 percent in 2011. The percent of students who found ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ as ‘essential’ or ‘very important’ dropped from 85 percent to 47 percent. This trend in our views on education starkly contrasts with what King viewed as its true purpose.”

History is inspirational and essential. Muslim educationists and students would do themselves and the world a service if they learned from it and kept it in mind on a daily basis. Umar (rtam) said: “Men were born free. Who are you to enslave them?” We must question status quos in the political, personal, religious, and social spheres. Our role as individuals with the potential for leadership and influence is to realize our personal duty to seek truth and meaning in our lives. It is from this platform that we can begin to change ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world for the better.

And, please, stop fooling yourself if you believe that religion and terrorism is responsible for Muslims’ downward spiral. The absence of a correct belief system and a faulty educational system are the reasons why we no longer have an Usama bin Zaid (rtam) today. It’s not the number of universities, colleges, or schools that will save us. It’s what’s being taught and what’s not being taught there that will decide our future.