Advice to Muslim teens
First of all, I have to admit that I hate the words ‘fitting in’. When I was a teenager I had no problems about daring to be different – I’m afraid I was the rebellious one who must have been a nightmare for all those well-meaning souls – (I mean our dear parents and teachers, of course) – who seemed to be so insistent on wanting me to conform. It was the last thing I wanted to do – not that I felt I was being particularly awkward or unobliging. It was simply the case that I was different, and had a rather conceited and arrogant contempt for what seemed to be a deliberate attempt by society to make everyone the same. This attitude was quite normal then amongst the young who were aware of society – we’d all read 1984, Big Brother is Watching You, and sang songs like ‘They all live in little boxes, and they all look just the same’.
We hated the theory that society was going to be brainwashed with television, drugged by it into sitting in chairs all the time instead of actually ‘living’, and trying to make sure that nobody thought for themselves or stepped out of line. Many of us are beginning to think that many of these predictions actually came true – and now it is far worse. Teenagers all want to wear the same clothes, eat the same food, go to the same places, do the same things. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s how it looks to us oldies – and it was also, in my not very humble opinion, a major reason why schools began to go wrong, everyone being urged to turn out the same, teachers having to teach the same, everything taught everywhere being the same, no matter what the individual talents of staff or pupils. Can you believe that when I was at school, you had to decide whether you were an artist or a scientist or a linguist by Year 9, and then dropped all the irrelevant subjects? Now complete oafs are expected to learn foreign languages, puddings forced to do PE, the tone-deaf forced to do music, and those who loathe reading supposed to write poetry! But if you were a girl who wanted to play football, or a boy who wanted to do typing or needlework, they’d think you were a nuisance.
Now I’m a bit older, and have had over 30 years as a teacher, I suppose I am a bit more sympathetic towards other adults and teachers struggling to make sense of their own lives, trying to get through stressful and worrying days coping with their own exhaustion, bringing up teenagers who seem determined to wreck their lives through stupid mistakes. It is the hardest thing for an adult who loves people to watch others heading – as you think – straight for disaster, and not be able to do much about it except nag. The nagging, of course, is appreciated by those you care about just about as much as I appreciated all the nagging done to me. It’s quite odd to look at the old folks around you, and imagine that those respectable wrinklies once may have gone through even more nagging and earache than you!
So, daring to be different is not much problem for the natural-born rebel, although it can be a big headache for the adults responsible for you until you set up on your own. And even then it doesn’t really stop – my mother still thinks I’m about 14 and still nags me!
The problems are:
For the shy Muslim teenager who longs to be like everyone else in the group and feels left out,
For the Muslim teenager who is being tempted into non-Muslim ways – getting drunk, smoking, sexual activity etc
For the Muslim teenager who is so committed to serving God that he/she is in danger of becoming a ‘pain in the neck’ – an extremist.
What to do?
First – who are your friends? Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) wisely advised people to choose their circle of friends carefully, and not take as your intimate friends those who will make fun of you or your faith. He was right. You may admire particular people, and long to be like them, but if they laugh at you and your religion, or make you feel threatened, or inferior, or small, or stupid – then they have a character problem. Something in there is not very nice. They enjoy bullying and making others feel small. They may be ‘with it’, or handsome, or beautiful, or dressed in all the latest, but so what? The friends around them will either be cronies of similar type, or will probably be afraid to upset them. This applies not only in general terms, but even amongst Muslims themselves – sometimes one type of Muslim can be very hurtful about another type, and it is probably sensible not to get worried or upset about this but to seek out those of like mind to yourself – for example, Salafis and Sufis of every nationality might not mix successfully.
This is what adults mean when they advise youngsters to form their relationships with those they really like, especially when considering life-partners. We all tend to fall for unsuitable people – but we really need to fall in love with someone we like. ‘Love’ can be exceedingly stupid sometimes; often we are really only in love with the clothes they are wearing, or the way they dance, or whatever – and not the actual person. When they finally upset us over the limit, we suddenly wake up and realise how silly we were to be so fooled. It’s amazing how often young people can be so desperately in love one moment that they would literally give up anything or do anything for the adored one, but they get ‘dumped’ and perhaps by next week they’ve been forgotten and somebody else has come along.
So choose your friends wisely. Even if you manage not to copy the bad behaviour and habits of unwise friends, people tend to judge all those in the group as being ‘all tarred with the same brush’, and you might pick up a reputation for something you haven’t actually done. And remember, once a tomato starts going mouldy, it tends to quickly affect all the others around it. It’s a process virtually impossible to stop.
Secondly – what is it about being a Muslim that is causing you worry? Whatever it is, it may be that if it is upsetting you or your friends it is something or some aspect of Islam that you are getting wrong, or emphasizing wrongly. Real Islam, the noble path, is so beautiful and attractive that it never drives people (or you) away from God – it draws them in. Real Islam is something even non-believers admire and look up to. Those ‘westerners’ who seem to be against Islam are not really – they’re against hypocrisy, cruelty, injustice etc, and they have noticed that many ‘Muslims’ are guilty of these things while claiming to be good Muslims. So let’s just think about this.
There are three main aspects of Islam – the physical practice of the five pillars; the amal – putting your faith into charitable action; and the tariqah – the development of noble and heroic character which is beloved by God.
Beginners have to start somewhere, and I suppose the usual thing is to start with the prayers, and reading the Qur’an, and the fasting. All are very hard. Sometimes we might get fed up, and then we feel really guilty – have we let God down? Will He ever forgive us? Sometimes we just don’t feel like it, we get bored, we are not in the right mood. We may not want to keep this up for the rest of our lives. Don’t panic – you feel that way because you are human and not a saint – everyone gets tired and fed up sometimes.
This is why the first pillar, the shahadah – which might seem unimportant by comparison with the others – comes first, and is vital. If you don’t really believe that God is real, and full of love and compassion, and knows everything about you, everything you do and even think – then of course it is hard to keep up the disciplines. It is hard to keep them up even if you do believe!
God is real, and He loves you (even if you are the most naughty child in the world, or the most wicked adult). He knows all your weaknesses and struggles, and even if you go wrong (even in a big way) He still loves you. What He does not love is the wrong you have done – but He still loves you. He will never ‘turn His back’ on the person who is sorry and asks for help to be put right again – never! Even if everyone else does, and nobody else understands, He does, and He will never leave you even if you leave Him from time to time.
But don’t forget – Islam is much more than keeping the disciplines of praying and fasting. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) made it quite clear that honesty, and courage, and generosity, and modesty, and being helpful, kind and unselfish were more important. If you broke those on a fast day, then you have broken your fast even if you never ate or drank anything! If you tell lies, or steal, or use obscene language etc etc, then thinking you are a good Muslim because you say prayers at the exact times five times per day looks a bit of a joke.
On the other hand, if you can manage to resist the temptations and build up a noble character for yourself – and often the more hardships and struggles we face, the firmer the character becomes – then you are already travelling on the straight path and soon your ‘meeting times with God’ will not be a nuisance but a joy!
What about Muslims who really do love God, very much, but somehow they seem to go too far, and have either forgotten or never knew, Prophet Mohammed’s (pbuh) warnings against extremism. The point is really this – anything you do for the sake of God in private (like extra long prayers, or wearing certain clothes) is entirely between you and Him, and is your own choice, and fine. But anything you do in public has to be with the love of that public in mind. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) actually told off the Imams who prayed for so long that it made it awkward for people who had to go to work, or mothers who were struggling to pray in the mosque with crying babies, or people who were in pain through arthritis etc. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) wanted these people to come to the prayers, and wanted them to be comfortable and happy. He actually mentioned all these three examples himself.
Those who wanted to say very long prayers were welcome to do so – and good for them! – but in their own private circumstances. They were not compulsory. Other people were not in any fault if they felt that doing likewise would be a burden to them. Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said: ‘Recite as much of the Qur’an as is easy for you’, and then keep your practice regular. Don’t try to make people do more than they can cope with, or they will just collapse and give up.
Those who go to extremes sometimes do it for the wrong reason – they want to be admired; but those who admire them are usually only the same types as themselves – the outcome as regards other people is usually the opposite, they get on their nerves, even if they are too polite to say so, or are worried that they will be disapproved of. An extremist will feel that this does not matter, the people who are put out about it are just failures, those who don’t care enough about God. The Muslim of insight will see that this attitude is the very opposite of dawah, and it does matter. Believe me, God knows everyone’s hearts and motives (their niyyah). Nobody can fool Him.
But, of course, He loves His extreme followers too – they are trying so hard and maybe sacrificing so much for His sake. It’s just that what they are doing makes others fell uncomfortable or guilty or antagonistic. Their devotion has actually started driving others away, the last thing either they or God wants.
So, if you are a Muslim girl, and you want to insist on covering your face because ‘this is God’s will’, then please do it if you wish, but realise it was not asked for – and look at the evidence of the countless thousands of Muslim women, even martyrs and Companions of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), who did not do this. Are you really claiming that you are a better Muslim? Of course not. But this is what your action implies to others, and that is why it makes others feel uncomfortable with you (unless you have chosen all your friends of the same type). Please note – I have not talked about girls wearing a head-veil; this is a whole separate issue on its own. I said face-veil. Similarly, wearing a head-veil before puberty was not asked for, although many adults think it is a good idea to get little girls used to it early.
I would make the same sort of comment for young men who want to grow beards or wear short-cut trousers (or even shalwar-qameez) to school. When you face God, who will judge you on your lives and what you did with them, you will not have either veil, beard or trousers! In any case, Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) never wore shalwar-qameez in his life. And since not having these are not sins, the lack of them will not be entered in your book against you anyway. But whether or not you lied, cheated, bullied, stole, took drugs, intimidated others, neglected others, used obscene language or acted promiscuously, will.
Read, read, read, and learn. Remember, there is a big difference between peoples’ opinions (including mine) and reading the actual sources – the Qur’an and the hadiths in good English, but watch out for poor translations.
If all around you are poking fun, or having a go at some unfortunate bullied person, (including your poor teachers!) – dare to be different. Be like Abu Bakr, who weighed in to the defence of those being bullied, even if he got beaten up himself. What wonderful courage.
If all around you are talking dirty, making obscene jokes and remarks, dare to be different. Be like Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), who could not abide crudity. If you cannot stop your friends doing it, don’t be like them. Walk away. Don’t be tainted with it. There is nothing more offensive in the world than Muslim boys in a State School joining in with verbal sexual abuse of girls – even non-Muslim girls who are being called ‘slags’ etc. Even if a girl or boy was being provocative and offering herself/himself to you, don’t take advantage. Make a friendly response, but walk away from the temptation.
If all around you are giving in to temptation, dare to be different. Say no. You are not responsible for them, nor they for you. You have to grow up, and tread your own path, forming your own character, You will be judged in the end by what you did, not anyone else.
Many of today’s young people are in a terrible state because of the traumas and tragedies they face at home. They may feel (and be) unwanted, and very insecure. They may have grown up with no father in the house, or someone else’s father, or a stream of different ‘uncles’. They may have pushed down the love they have given up hoping for from a father, and become sexually active too soon, really because they are desperately seeking for love.
Dare to be different – be like Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), who was shocked at men who hurt and deserted their women, and did his best to make fathers (and mothers) live up to their responsibilities. No Muslim man should take advantage of a woman, get her pregnant, and then walk off leaving her and the children to cope and grow up as best they can.
When I think of ‘good Muslim man’, I don’t have the picture in my mind of a holier-than-thou extremist at all, but rather a real ‘knight in shining armour’ – whatever he happens to be wearing. When I think of ‘good Muslim woman’, I don’t think of someone all covered up, who has conquered the wish to be heard speaking, or to go out. I think of young Aishah – only fourteen – on the battlefield nursing men with terrible injuries, or my favourites Umm Sulaym and Umm Ayman who were doing the same thing in their late fifties, even while managing to be pregnant at the same time. What a fuss they would make of that these days – women soldiers, pregnant in their fifties!
My ‘good Muslims’ are men and women who would find being dishonourable, or foul-mouthed, or cowardly, or dishonest, or mean and selfish, completely beneath them – no matter what the world is doing. Not because they think God can see them and they will go to Hell if they do something wrong, but simply because they love God and such behaviour IS beneath them.
May God bless you, and keep you firm on the Path. Wasalaam,
Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood.