The Muslim community living in the West is at a crossroads, and among all the challenges we are confronted with is that of attempting to deal with our youth, culture, and Islam in the West. It is not feasible to do justice to such a broad topic in an essay of one thousand words. The attempt here is rather to put forth certain issues for consideration and thus initiate a much-needed dialogue at the family and community levels.

The research on adolescents in general and in particular minority adolescents points to at least four areas which pose similar challenges to Muslim youth. First, the youth must navigate the adolescent period — the so-called teen years. Second, the youth must learn and practice Islam. Third, the youth must learn and feel a sense of belonging to the dominant culture. Fourth, the youth must learn, make sense of, and feel a sense of belonging to their parents’ culture of origin. How well the youth navigate these four areas determines ultimately their successful and stable passage through early adulthood. It should be noted at the outset that the Islamic approach to life stages does not include the notion of “the rebellious years” as a synonym for the teen years. Rather, for Muslim youth, the onset of puberty confers upon them the complete rights and responsibilities of adulthood as understood by the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Such a dichotomy can be very confusing for the youth because all of their teen peers from other faiths are not yet considered adults and, therefore, are given a degree of latitude in terms of upholding societal norms.

“Allah Will Punish You!”

How successfully the youth manage to establish Islam in their daily lives will determine ultimately the degree of success or failure of our efforts to make our home in the West. The ideas shared in this essay, as mentioned above, are intended to initiate a dialogue, and therefore the reader is free to agree or disagree with what is being put forth here. A few questions to help jump-start this dialogue would be to ask the youth “What does it feel like to be growing up as a Muslim in the current sociopolitical climate? Do you have the social support and resources to help you navigate the challenges you face daily at school, with your friends, and even at home?”

One starting point for this dialogue is to consider the tasks that lie ahead for the Muslim community in terms of dealing with our youth. First, it is imperative that we help our youth to acknowledge and appreciate Allah according to all of His characteristics and attributes. Far too often, youth know of Allah only in the context of “Allah will punish you” for such-and-such an action. There is no doubt that the consequence of disobedience to Allah is punishment, but what are rarely emphasized are the boundless mercy, compassion, benevolence, and all-forgiving aspects of Allah Most High.

The Prophetic tradition tells us that Allah Himself said, “My mercy supercedes My wrath.” Even rare is the dialogue between the youth and the parents, guardians, teachers, and community members that reminds the youth of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad “All of the children of Adam (peace and blessings be upon him) make mistakes, and the best of them are those who repent” (Ahmad). It is not uncommon then to find the youth distant, wary, and quite rightly fearful of Allah, but fearful less out of actual fear and more out of fear of Allah because He is unknown to them and, unfortunately, unappreciated by them. We need to begin to relate to our children the vastness of Allah’s mercy and His forgiving, loving nature. Once they come to acknowledge the oneness of Allah and the 99 characteristics and attributes, for example, they will no doubt come to appreciate Allah and be driven to live life in a manner that pleases Allah.

A Dynamic Role Model

We should aim to develop youth who feel motivated to be effective and stable ambassadors of Islam in the West. Second, it is critical that we also help our youth to understand, appreciate, and apply the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Bearing witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah is the completion of the testimony that enters one into the fold of Islam; our youth must be exposed to the life of Prophet Muhammad less as an exercise in memorization of the dates and events in his life and more as the mercy to mankind! It is indeed unfortunate that certain actors in the present day sociopolitical drama have taken to hurling insults and false allegations at our beloved Prophet. In their desperate attempts to malign the religion of Islam, they turned their energies to spewing hatred about Prophet Muhammad through the airwaves and in print.

What is even more unfortunate is the unconscionable silence from segments of the Muslim community, especially the youth, who should have rightly raised our voices and put pen to paper in defense of Prophet Muhammad. A more perfect role model than Prophet Muhammad for all time and places will never be found, and yet we have not helped our youth to even begin to understand his character and his manners. Exposed only to dry, unstructured, and lifeless presentations about the life of Prophet Muhammad, the youth tend to see him only as a historic figure. He is, on the other hand, — as his wife the Mother of the Believers Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) described him — the “Qur’an in motion.” The Prophet said about himself, “My similitude in comparison with the other prophets before me, is that of a man who has built a house nicely and beautifully, except for a place of one brick in a corner. The people go about it and wonder at its beauty, but say, ‘Would that this brick be put in its place!’ So I am that brick, and I am the last of the prophets” (Al-Bukhari).

A more wonderful, dynamic, trustworthy, kind, merciful, loving, and compassionate role model one could not find other than the Prophet Muhammad. Once the youth come to know him, they would love him and wish to emulate him in all complex and interconnected roles he played as the Prophet of Allah. How wonderful indeed it would be for our youth to understand, appreciate, and apply the teachings of our beloved Prophet!

Contextualize the Teachings

Third, there must be sufficient attention given to ensure that the youth develop their own view of the world that is based on Qur’anic guidance and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. The challenges of growing up in the West are numerous. More effort must be exerted towards analyzing those challenges and then applying the guidance and the teachings with the aim of arriving at a resolution that is at once comprehensive and contextual.

Ultimately, the task before us is to help the youth to have sufficient exposure to these two sources of knowledge of Islam such that the youth begin to have a sense of ownership of the knowledge and attempt to live life guided by that knowledge. While ensuring the authenticity and accuracy of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad for example, we could very much contextualize the teachings and enrich their presentation by applying them to modern-day dilemmas that the youth specifically are facing. Why should the youth be under the impression that the Prophet of Allah did not address contemporary issues relevant to the youth? Or that the guidance in the Qur’an and even the teachings of our beloved Prophet are outdated somehow or irrelevant to modern times?

With sufficient dialogue between the youth and teachers who are well-versed in Islamic teachings as well as in the prevalent culture, it is entirely possible that our youth would master the science of using the lens of Islam to analyze and resolve challenges in their own lives. What a wonderful contribution it would be to future generations of Muslims if we work with our youth to develop an outlook on life that is based entirely on Islamic teachings and appreciative of all of the positive elements of both Western culture and the culture of their parents’ origins!

Islamic Culture and Cultural Islam

Fourth, concerted effort must be put forward to help the youth to differentiate between Islamic culture and cultural Islam. With regards to culture, the broad organizing principle for Muslims is that all aspects of a particular culture are acceptable except those aspects that are expressly prohibited according to Islamic teachings. This principle stems out of the universality and timelessness of Islamic teachings, thus making it possible for Islam to be practiced everywhere and at all times. There is no sense that Islam wipes out the indigenous culture of a particular people who choose Islam as their way of life. Rather, the attempt of the indigenous people to apply in their daily lives the guidance of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad gives rise to what is most aptly termed as Islamic culture.

This notion of Islamic culture stands in sharp contrast with cultural Islam, which is essentially Islamic culture that has become corrupted over time. In manifestations of cultural Islam, the organizing principle mentioned above is violated through the introduction of very clearly forbidden practices as if they are a part of Islamic teachings. The danger here is that the parents who only know cultural Islam are bound to transmit erroneous and warped interpretations of Islamic practices and rituals to their children. The youth need to understand the difference between Islamic culture, which flavors authentic Islamic teachings with the indigenous culture, as opposed to cultural Islam, which flavors and favors indigenous cultural practices with only traces of Islamic teachings far from the original sources, corrupted over time through oral transmission.

Receiving Mixed Signals

Fifth, we should aim to develop youth who feel motivated to be effective and stable ambassadors of Islam in the West. Part of the effectiveness and stability will be a function of how clearly the parents and community members articulate their stance towards the West. Unless and until the parents and the community members resolve for themselves what it means to live in the West, the children will continue to receive mixed signals. There can be no more doubt talk, no more double standards, both in the home as well as in the community.

At home for example, the parents watch Bollywood and Cairowood movies every weekend. These movies are no less than three hours long and full of indecency in dress, dance, and even dialogue. On the other hand, when the youth wish to watch even the most benign Hollywood production, the reaction of the parents is often that those “American” movies are “dirty” or “indecent.” What is the message we are giving to our youth? As long as the dirt and indecency is being produced by our people from our culture, it is acceptable, but the dirt and indecency of the “West” is unacceptable! A very decent-minded colleague of another faith confessed that he had to turn off the VCR midway through a Bollywood movie he rented because the content was so indecent. Apparently, the latest development in Bollywood is that movies are being made whose target audience is South Asians living in the West. These movies, according to this colleague, make even Hollywood productions look tame. Again, what’s the message when we bring such movies into our homes? Indecency and dirt, regardless of the source of their origin, should be rejected without differentiating between ours and theirs.

Similarly, there are times when our youth suffer from massive anxiety and confusion during times of international crises. The common reaction from some Muslim parents living in the West is to put down the West, insult the West, curse the West, and say that they “hate” the West. Some families have replaced “Western” television programming with direct feeds from Arab and Asian satellite networks. There is so much hatred against the “West” spewed in the newscasts on these satellite networks and the youth are the primary consumers of that hatred. The youth wonder, sometimes even aloud: If this place is so bad, why are we working so hard to live here? Why are we working so hard to sponsor more family members and relatives to move to the West? Why?

Overall, it was noted at the outset that this essay is only a starting point with some thoughts to initiate discussion and dialogue on this very critical topic of the youth, culture, and Islam in the West. It is our sincere hope that parents and community members make it a priority to begin to have a dialogue with the youth in order to develop some collective strategies to address this topic. Through more dialogue, more research, and the direct involvement of the youth in both, in sha’ Allah, we might be able to do justice towards resolving the challenges confronting the youth today as well as the coming generations.

By  Altaf Husain