There was an intriguing debate about role models that took place way back in 1993. It all began when Charles Barkley, the world famous NBA star, featured in a commercial in which he said that he was not a role model. He was only a basketball player. It was the responsibility of parents to be role models: “Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”.
This provoked other athletes to say no, he was mistaken; as a public figure constantly in the limelight, he and other athletes must accept the onus of being role models.
Barkley had a point. Jumping high might have great entertainment value, but it doesn’t make the world a better place to live in. And it won’t solve the urgent problems facing the world. His logic was that if suddenly nobody played basketball in the world, would it affect the real issues in anybody’s life? Apparently not.
Although public figures may need to act responsibly to act as good examples for children, that debate struck at something deeper and more worrying in society. It wasn’t just about children and people wanting to emulate athletes. Because there is nothing wrong with wanting to aspire to becoming an athlete or sports star. Athletes work hard. They earn their living through hours of hard training and endeavour. This can’t be a bad example for children to follow.
But children weren’t just aspiring to become great athletes, more and more youngsters were being attracted to the celebrity image first, and many sports stars or other public figures focussed as much on their image as on their work, and this is why children looked to the celebrity as a role model.
The acclaimed late columnist and 1972 Pulitzer Prize Winner Mike Rokyo, who wrote over 7000 articles, writing for one of his columns in the Chicago Tribune in 1993 said:
“Before TV kidnapped our brains…we didn’t have the endless parade of celebrities that now roll across the TV screen…. that left [as role models for us] the family and neighborhood grown-ups – parents, other relatives, neighbors, storekeepers, the beat cop, the bookie, the tavernkeeper, precinct captain and maybe a teacher or the school janitor.”
That was in the early 90s. Roll forward 20 years and the celebrity culture has well and truly strengthened its hold on the aspirations of a generation. A few years ago the Association of Teachers and Lectures (ATL), who represent 160,000 teachers in the UK, carried out a survey into the aspirations of students. 70% of teachers polled said that “celebrity culture was having an influence on their pupils’ aspirations”.
There are good-natured celebrities who could be deemed good role models. But we live in a cash-driven world. Negative aspects of the lives of celebrities are highlighted more. Unfortunately, scandals help sell newspapers and magazines. Charitable events rarely make front page news. In the ATL report, a teacher from Essex said: “I think it encourages underage drinking and anti-social behavior and most of the media focuses on many of the celebs negative behavior”.
The ATL General Secretary, Dr Mary Bousted said:
“It reflects the current media obsession with celebrity and the effect of celebrity culture on society as a whole. “
The important question is that what is the end-aim and goal in trying to emulate any role model? What do we desire to achieve?
For a Muslim, there is a clear purpose in life, and he has been provided with a role model to help obtain that purpose. The Qur’an states that we have been created to worship God, Who designed and sustains all that we see before us. This entails two aspects: fulfilling the dues of the worship of God, for example Prayers etc., and also serving His creation in the best possible manner. The aim is to form a peaceful society where neighbours, friends, relatives and even enemies live in mutual accord. To help us attain this purpose, God commissioned a Prophet(saw) Whom He declared set the best and most perfect example for us to emulate. This Prophet(saw) did not just possess one or two virtues. He demonstrated the highest standards of virtues in every aspect of life. The Qur’an tells us that by striving to emulate him, we can attain the purpose of our being.
So whilst many celebrities have admirable qualities—for example some have donated the majority of their wealth to charity or others may be virtuous family persons—they only possess few virtues within them. There is no harm in aspiring to emulate those good aspects of their lives. According to the Qur’an, anyone who does good will be rewarded by the Lord. But to attain that purpose for which we are here, we have before us the perfect role model to aspire to in the shape of the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw). He possessed every single virtue known to man and demonstrated these qualities in his life to the highest degree humanly possible. The details of this are recorded in the Qur’an and history for all to see.
For a Muslim, therefore, the perfect role model to emulate is that Great Prophet who can best assist one on the journey of attaining life’s true purpose. In this era, the Promised Messiah(as) was commissioned by God, as prophesied, to remind the world, through his virtuous actions and also through his teachings, of the qualities of that perfect role model that we need to make efforts to adopt. After, his Successors, the Khulafa also embody a reflection of that perfect role model, and guide us towards emulating him in the best possible manner. When parents strive to emulate the example of that perfect role model, they also then become excellent role models for their children and the society around them.
1. Mike Rokyo, Chicago Tribune featured in Seattle Times, 2 July, 1993
2. ATL Annual Conference Press Release, 14 March 2008