Finding the Creamy Center:  Challenges to Youth
Posted Jun 1, 2005

When those of us old enough to recall such ancient history as leisure suits and the Carter administration talk about challenges to Muslim youth, we can sound pretty smug at times.  We like to rattle off an endless list of do’s and don’ts, of harams and halals and a few more harams thrown in for good measure, just in case things seem too comfortable for our younger counterparts.

Although we mean well, praying as always for Allah (SWT) to judge us by our intentions, not our actions, we have to admit that our expectations for youth haven’t really made contact with Planet Reality.  They generally go something like this: no parties no dances no dating no girlfriends (unless you already happen to be a girl which really isn’t your fault) no green hair no Christmas no Big Mac’s no Calvins no Prince and you gotta wear all this stuff to school (unless you happen to be a boy but don’t look so smug, we’ll think of something weird for you to do, too) now aren’t you glad you’re a Muslim?!

Then, we expect the teenager (or young adult) in question to be fairly bursting at the seams with love of Islam.  Although the contents of our long-winded lectures may be (somewhat) correct, our timing needs some work: for as Allah (SWT) revealed Islam to the pagan Arabs, whose morality could make a skin-headed punk blush, it was love first?with the rules and regulations following faithfully at its heels.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should all sit around and wait 13 years to start adhering to sha’ria, far from it.  But our error lies in spotlighting the regulations while downplaying the beauty, dashing out heaping helpings of liver and spinach while hiding all of the sweet, cream-filled desserts in the back of the refrigerator.  For, once we’ve had a taste of these, of the pure joy of Islam, we’ll do absolutely anything for Allah (SWT) from cutting up our aprons to cover our hair and pouring our wine supplies in the streets, as the early Muslims did - to telling Michael Jackson to “beat it”.

I believe there’s one and only one reason for our apparent disregard of the grim realities of adolescence in our presentation of Islam:  high school diplomas.  Yep, that’s it.  The fact that, by the grace of Allah (SWT) (and I do mean industrial-strength grace), we no longer have to endure the universal agonies, ecstasies, and neuroses of this social war zone causes some of us to be a little cavalier towards those of you who do.  College is isn’t as bad, since it usually has a less provincial atmosphere.  By that time, people tend to be more open to new ideas, including the logic of Islam which frees them from all of the petty silliness they suffered through in high school.

Personally, I think every Muslim who has either accepted Islam as an adult or attended high school in a Muslim country, in other words, all of us geriatrics over 18 should be required to attend classes in an American public high school for just one day -in full hijab.  Men included.  No, no, astaghfirullah, just kidding.  Honest.  We’ll dress them up in robes and turbans and see how long they last.  After this, I think we’ll be able to address the strange and wonderful dilemma of the American Muslim youth with a touch of realism?as in reality, what a concept!

Now, we can talk about the great youth in Islamic history, youth whose valor and heroism puts Muslims of all ages to shame.  We can talk about Hadhrat Ali (RA), the second person to accept Islam, who risked his life for Rasulullah (SAW) when he was just a teenager; we can talk about Maaz bin Amar and Maaz bin Arfa, the boys who killed Abu Jahl; we can talk about Hadhrat Aisha (RA) who was busy asking all sorts of insightful questions, learning Qur?an, and absorbing the Way of the Prophet (SAW) at an age when the biggest worry of most girls is getting day-glo shoelaces for their roller skates.  But sometimes, these great young Muslims seem so distant.  Sure, in our stronger moments we can identify with them; we can imagine ourselves in their position and marvel at their faith and courage.  But when we?re sitting alone at lunch and would give anything for a friend, or we feel that awful ache of loneliness because we can’t go out and drink battery acid with the other kids, well, their situation just doesn’t seem to apply to us.

Sure, they were ridiculed, ostracized, boycotted.  Some of their elders probably accused them of being cultists, and I bet if they had deprogramming back then, a lot of them would have been kidnapped and locked in a room at the downtown Makkah Travelodge and forced to drink coffee and stay awake until they started worshipping Hubal and Lat again.  I?m sure those youth whose parents weren’t Muslim yet were laughed at in that awful, smug way that parents laugh and told that it was just a phase they’d grow out of, like that year when they were into drag racing the family camel or writing that weird poetry and you remember how long that lasted!  But not only were these youth exceptional individuals, but they had the support of a small, struggling, yet united Muslim community?and the inspiration of the Holy Prophet (SAW).  But, if we sort of squint our eyes a little and look at our life from a certain angle, we might be able to see that - hey, it’s not so bad here.  In fact, in certain areas, we have distinct advantages.  No, not just in cable TV and personal computers and microwave popcorn, but well, because Islam has stood the test of time, and the groundwork has already been laid.  And no matter what anybody says about America being the land of the great Satan, I think this country as it stands today is closer to Islam than pre-Islamic Arabia was.  We may have to use our imaginations a little to see it sometimes, but, that’s what Allah (SWT) gave us the stuff between our ears for, right?!

Not only do we have freedom of religion here, but a lot of the underlying values of this society are very Islamic.  IN fact, we have a lot of Americans running around who may have never heard of Islam (anything positive or true, that is) who, all in all, lead quite Islamic lives,  We also have Nancy Reagan, how wasn’t around back in the 7th century or was she?!  At any rate, I’m sure the “Just Say No” campaign to fight drug abuse is laughed off by a lot of teenagers.  I’m not naive enough to think that they’ve undergone a startling metamorphosis since I was in high school.  But at least she’s enlisted a stable of “celebrities” (I hate that word!) to speak out against drugs.  Sure, a lot of them are overpaid, under talented people with about three active brain cells who have probably forgotten what they were famous for in the first place, but nonetheless, people still look up to them.

So when Michael Jackson or Brooke Shields or Mr. T can publicly admit to not using drugs (whether they do or not), it takes some of the sting out of being so conspicuously normal and straight.  And if they can do it, it’s easier for Muslims to speak out.  We don’t have to act self-righteous and give everyone a thirty minute lecture on the evils of intoxicants, we can just assume sort of jaded stance and say something like, “Wow, you mean you’re still paying money to get stupid?!  What a geek!”  Hadhrat Ali (RA) said, “You must speak to the people according to their mental caliber so that they may not convey wrong things about Allah and His Apostle (SAW).” (Bukhari)  Yeah, speak their language so they don’t think, “Oh, wow, Islam just doesn’t want anyone to have any fun.”  No, that’s not true at all.  Islam just doesn’t want us to get sick to our stomachs and pass out, to run our cars into telephone poles or ruin our lives by getting pregnant before we even have a driver’s license.  It certainly doesn’t begrudge us amusement, take it from me.  I’m much sillier and happier as a Muslim than I ever was before.

The greatest challenge of Muslims of any age living in a non-Muslim society must be retaining an Islamic identity in spite of their surroundings.  But within this task, we have a lot of smaller chores to take care of as well.  We have to remain Muslims first and foremost while simultaneously living as Americans, normal, law-abiding citizens who are living reminders that Islam can fit into every time, place, and culture.

Then, on top of this, some youth have another challenge: being Muslims while remaining Americans while retaining a sense of the cultural identity of their parents.  Got it?  This goes for the children of immigrants as well as those whose families have lived here for generations.  So here it is, Muslim American of whatever-descent, all rolled up into one tidy package, a truly eclectic parcel containing quite literally the best of all worlds.  The way to do this is to always hold Islam to one side as a scorecard?yes, the Criterion, and then compare our cultures to it.  We can go right down the list and check off the aspects of American culture which don’t jive and do the same with those imported cultures, remembering to put a gold star in front of those customs and traditions which are compatible with Islam.

The good old work ethic which my parents used to always nag me about?  Alas, that has to stay: it’s Islamic as can be.  Honesty?  A five-star keeper, kindness to animals?  Great, but scratch the pet cemeteries, poodle psychiatrists, and the canine aerobics class, that’s going too far.  The American spirit of independence?  That’s fine, but we have to touch it up a little: keep the emotional and financial independence which encourages all of us to make it on our own, with the help of Allah (SWT), but let’s not impose this on others, shutting our aged parents into a home because we can’t be bothered with them or refusing to help a brother or sister who used to beat up our teddy bears when we were little.  After all, we don’t have to like our relatives, but we do have to love them.  The spirit of hospitality of our parents? (or grandparents?) homeland?  Great, where did that come from if not from Islam?  But we should tone down the lavish feasts and three ring wedding celebrations, not only does Islam encourage moderation, but few of us can afford such affairs in this country.  Listening respectfully to and obeying our parents?  We have to keep this, if we know what’s good for us, although being forced into marriages against our will or into un=Islamic acts just to please them are goners.

Ah yes, parents.  Frankly, those of us who accepted Islam as adults, always assume that life is one endless hot fudge sundae for those lucky enough to have genuine Muslim parents.  After all, you don’t have to worry about provoking a nuclear strike when you visit your parents’ home and inform your mother’s poodles that, no, they cannot offer salah with you; you don’t have to answer the 20 questions about why you don’t have a Christmas tree in your home, or the eternal clothing controversy and why do you always have to wear that silly scarf on your head every time we go out with you?  Is your hair dirty or something?!  Hey?compared to this, your life must be a piece of (100% vegetable shortening) cake!

Or is it?  I suppose, I grudgingly admit, that the Muslim youth born of Muslim parents may also have his or her own cross (or crescent, if you will) to bear on the home front.  After all, Islam is such a rich and multi-faceted jewel: it holds a different attraction for each individual, and it is even said that each aya of the Qur’an contains some 60 different meanings.  So, no two people will be able to look at it and see the exact same beauty:  they?ll each be infatuated with something slightly different.  Even within the boundaries of shar?iah, it?s wide enough to accommodate all types, all temperaments.

So, what happens when Mom and Dad see Islam one way and you, when you begin investigating it independently, are captivated by another side of it?  What if you feel inclined towards, say, a different school of Islamic thought?  That would certainly be a test all the way around: a trial for them, to see if they can give you the room to roam free, as long as you don’t start grazing under the fence, and a bit of a pop quiz for you, to check and see how much of your own ego you have invested into your newfound convictions, if you really fee strongly about them or if you’re just trying to rebel a little, and if you’re mature enough to keep your opinions to yourself when necessary.  The key, of course, is to remember that while each of us is accountable for his or her own actions, the Qur’an lists obedience to parents as second only to worship of Allah (SWT) Alone. (17:23).  So, if the issue is a gray matter, one on which there are a number of valid opinions, it’s best to keep peace in the family and beliefs to yourself and remember that soon enough, you’ll be on your own and free to practice as you like.

But then again:  there may be some issues which are more clear cut.  For instance, Mom and Dad maybe have been raised with some ideas back home which may be a little shakey Islamically.  Or, they still may have some habits from their pre-Islamic lives which you disapprove of.  This is where your diplomatic skills are called for: you have to take the good from their cultures and sift out (quietly!) the less-than-Islamic, without starting World War III in the middle of the living room.  And, if differences ever ripple noticeably through the familial waters, always remind your parents that the love of Islam which is causing you to (politely!) disagree is something you owe to them, that they raised you to question, to use your mind, and to follow the commands of Allah (SWT) and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (SAW).

Parents do not appreciate being lectured at by their children, this is a universal fact.  I remember when I was about 12 or so, I started going to classes in our church to prepare for confirmation.  They taught us all about the etiquette for receiving communion and becoming and “adult” in the church, and I thought I was really hot stuff.  I decided that I was going to be the world’s first female bishop, so I started telling my parents everything they were doing wrong.  When I told my father that he was committing a heavy-duty sin by eating Corn Flakes right before communion when we were supposed to fast for a few hours, he was not amused.  I thought I was a potential reformer and possible saint; he thought me a self-righteous little brat, which I was.

So, it’s all a matter of being a smart shopper.  IN the great supermarket of life, we just have to know what to put in our carts and what to leave sitting on the shelves.  And there?s absolutely no reason why we can’t be American Muslims, or, more precisely, Muslim Americans.  WE can be Americans without compromising an iota of our Islamic principles and Muslims without being social outcasts.  For there’s no reason why Islam, if practiced correctly, with faith and balance, should turn us into social sore thumbs.  Of course, the “best of peoples” are bound to stand out somewhat, be we can do so in the best of ways.

We should remember that we’re not the first religious minority to uphold our convictions in the United States, after all, this country was founded by religious refugees.  One of the best recent examples has to be the Jewish community who have managed to get their own Kosher foods into the marketplace and, as a whole, maintain their identity while functioning in this society.  I remember when I was in the 7th grade, my best friend was Jewish.  She also happened to be preparing for her Bas Mitzvah at the time, so she was really Jewish, she was deeply aware of her religion.  So, every time we had a Christmas program or a Commencement ceremony or Vespers, where we all had to sing hymns while we were sweating in uncomfortable white dresses and silly gloves, she always made a point of announcing to the music teacher that, as a Jew, she could not sing about any of that Son of God stuff.  She agreed to mouth the words, but she wasn’t about to actually say them just because the rest of us were foolish enough to.

No one thought anything of this; no one thought she was weird or made fun of her.  I think there were two reasons for this.  First of all, even thought there were probably only about a dozen Jewish students in the entire school, they followed Qur’an’s orders better than a lot of Muslims do: “And hold fast, altogether and be not divided among yourselves.” (3:103)  They seemed to have such a closely knit, cohesive group, and were always making jokes that no one else could understand in Hebrew or Yiddish, in spite of their differences and the fact that some were conservative, some reformed, and one or two even orthodox.  They knew that unity was the key to their survival, a lesion which Muslims still haven’t learned.  Another reason was that they never acted self-conscious or nerdy about any of the things that they couldn’t do.  They acted like it was the most normal thing in the world to turn down a piece of cake just because they weren’t sure if it came from a Kosher bakery, or not to get their ears (or noses) pierced, or, in the case of the more religious ones, not to date.  And when they declined all of these things they never said they couldn’t do them because their parents wouldn’t let them, it was because they went against their own personal beliefs.

That’s how we should always see and present Islam: not as something contingent upon our families, something that our parents make us do, but as something which we personally have found to be the best way of life.  That’s why it’s important to investigate Islam on our own, to find out what all the fuss is about, instead of simply taking someone else?s work for it.  After all, kids can be awfully cruel when they think that someone can?t do all the tings that they do because of their super-strict and old fashioned parents: it makes them fell like whatever silliness they’re doing is even more attractive.  But if they think that the person just doesn’t want to do all of those things out of their own free will, well, they?ll shut up eventually, for fear of being confronted with a convincing argument.

So, it’s all about developing your won, unique Islamic style.  No, this doesn’t mean inventing your own way of making salah or fasting in February instead of Ramadan.  It simply means developing your own individual, personal relationship with the One Who is closer to you than your jugular vein, discovering the unique way in which Islam applies to your own life, your own circumstances.  After all, the Qur’an says, “And those who strive in Our (Cause),—We will certainly guide them to Our Paths.” (29:69) Paths.  Plural.  Islam is a one size fits all Way, it can satisfy each and every individual taste and ability.  Even yours.

While you’re working on this style, you may have to learn to separate Islam from Muslims like a lot of egg whites.  But that’s OK, we all have to do that at some time or another.  Insha’Allah, you may live in an incredible Islamic community, you may have lots of great Muslim friends at school, and you may even attend and Islamic school.  But still, be on your guard?don?t base Islam on Muslims, no matter how wonderful they may be.  Islam is perfect, divine?it always was and always will be.  Muslims, on the other hand, are another story, we’re all too human.  If the meetings at your local masjid happen to be sort of boring and you sit through them wishing you were at the mall, don’t blame Islam.  If some of the Muslims around you seem to have some strange ideas that don’t seem quite right, and, no matter how good and pious they seem to be, you aren’t all that crazy about them, don’t blame Islam.  Base your faith on what Islam says, find out for yourself what it says, and let the actions and idiosyncrasies and human weaknesses of Muslims just roll off your back.

One of the best descriptions of Islam’s compatibility with modern American life that I’ve heard recently came from a new Muslimah.  She told me that before she embraced Islam, she got sort of a punk hair cut, you know, the kind that’ shorter on top and looks sort of like a frightened cockatoo.  Anyway, she said that because of that, when she came to Islam, it was easy for her to see the logic of the Islamic dress code.

She felt that hijab was based on some of the same principles that her hair style was.  Don’t laugh, it makes sense, if you look at it the right way.  Her hair cut was a statement, a statement that she didn’t accept the commonly held standards of beauty,  the ones put forth by the advertising industry in which women are all supposed to look like cloned refuges from a Lean cuisine commercial.  Her hair said that she wasn’t put on this earth as a sex object, to look a certain way, that she wanted to please herself, not a lot of passing strangers.  And the same went for hijab, it said that she felt she was worth more than the sum of her physical attributes, that who she was and what she had to say were more important than how she happened to look while she was saying it.

You see?  Islam can fit any style, in the most strange and wonderful ways.  NO matter how crazy the times we line in seem to be, it will be able to make sense in a way that everyone can understand.  Even us.  Even them.  If we look carefully enough, we can find a place for it anywhere?even in the least likely situations.  We just have to squint our eyes a little, put our imaginations to work, ask Allah (SWT) for guidance and sanity, and rise to meet the challenge.

originally published in the 1992 print edition of TAM.