The conversation never gets old. Two parents are standing at the edge of the Masjid, on the verge of losing their kids to the crowd. It appears that the influence of their peers and the challenges of being young are getting the best of them. One concerned parent says emphatically to the other, “We need to do something for the youth!” A few cities over, the same realization is echoing at the weekly board meeting of your neighborhood Islamic Center and resounding from the pulpits of Muslim communities across the nation. If you’ve been involved in activism long enough you might have heard these words a thousand times.
How do we instill this conviction in Muslim youth? One of the most effective ways is to put them through specialized dawah training. Why? Because many of them have the very same questions and doubts
Nonetheless, there is an increasing awareness within our communities of a need that has been both present and pressing for a very long time. Where we have been delayed and left lingering for too long, however, is not in recognizing the need; rather it is in bringing forth and implementing practical solutions and methods to facilitate the fulfillment of that need. In other words, we have yet to cover the distance between “the what” and “the how.” We have yet to bridge the gap between the principle and the practical. We know we need to strengthen our Muslim youth but we don’t always know how. We know we need to cultivate in them the love of Allah and His Messenger, but again, we don’t always know how. We know we need to keep them engaged and active at the Masjid but we don’t always know how. This is where the old conversation usually comes to an end, and this is where the new conversation has to begin…
There is a very beautiful and profound chapter of The Quran that is simple and short enough for a three-year-old child to memorize and to understand. In this chapter, Allah lays out a roadmap to success that is relevant to all of humanity and especially practical for Muslim youth. From it we can derive five basic necessities that, by Allah’s permission, will not only help our youth prosper in their religious affairs (deen) but will also help them prosper in their worldly affairs (dunya). The chapter that I am referring to is none other than Al-Asr (The Time), and the five necessities, that it so eloquently captures, are as follows: time management, conviction, righteous activity, inclusive engagement, and positive reinforcement.
Allah says “By time, mankind is in a state of loss…” (103:1-2). One of the greatest challenges for our Muslim youth in the pursuit of their fullest potential is the fact that they have too much free, unaccounted for and unmonitored time, and not enough positive alternatives with which to fill that time. Many of them, in fact, are being left to their own devices and their own discretion without proper intervention or regulation, and as a result their true potential is being wasted. Yes, many of them may be doing well or excelling in school; but at the same time they are spending valuable hours on video games and social media, on the phone, watching 3-hour movies, and excessively engaging in fruitless activities. All the while, they are falling behind in their Islamic development.
Mentorship is important for the success of youth because it creates a source for advice and support that is separate from the sensitivities that are present with family and friends
Without a doubt there is great benefit in relaxation and entertainment, but when it begins to consume the lives of young people, then it becomes detrimental. What if we could cut the time that they spend engaging in entertainment and social media in half or even reserve a third of that time for beneficial endeavors? Now, instead of simply excelling in school, they could be over-excelling in school or taking on an extra-curricular that may contribute to their future success. In fact, with the amount of time that the average young person spends on the internet alone, they could be learning a trade or gaining a level of accreditation in one of the sciences of Islam. Time management is so vital and so necessary for our success that Allah uses the remainder of this chapter (Al-Asr) to lay out for us a specific regiment for the usage of our time.
After informing us that all human beings are in a state of loss, Allah makes an exception by saying “…except for those who have faith…” (103:3). The second and the most important necessity that should occupy the time of our Muslim youth in order to prevent their potential from being lost is the development and preservation of their conviction in Allah. Why? Because without true faith and certainty in Allah, their taqwa (their mindfulness of Allah which leads to virtue and prevents sin) cannot be fully developed. Moreover, as long as they have doubts about Islam they run the risk of not only falling into sin but of losing their identity all together. On the other hand, if they do develop the necessary level of certainty and mindfulness of Allah, then they will begin to take account of themselves and make their own initiative to maintain their Islam. The real question, however, is how do we instill this conviction in Muslim youth?
One of the most effective and practical ways to nurture conviction in the hearts of Muslim youth, especially teenagers, is to put them through specialized dawah training. Why? Because many of them have the very same questions and doubts that a non-Muslim would have. Many of them don’t know why they believe what they believe, and a part of the reason why is because they have not been introduced to Allah’s proofs in a way that captivates their minds and keeps them engaged. In fact, many young Muslims have never even been asked the question “Why are you, personally, a Muslim?” And the very inability to answer this question is a sign that their conviction may be deficient or unfounded, and their Islam may simply be cultural, a lifestyle that was passed on to them from their parents. Such a possibility should never be left unresolved. Also, dawah training, if done properly, should accomplish three things. It should stimulate faith and build certainty, connect hearts to the Quran, and provide individuals with the language and the skill to articulate and defend their Islamic identity in a time when Islam is at the center of the world stage.
After conviction, Allah mentions righteous activity which is the third necessity for success. Allah says “… those who do righteous deeds” (103:3). Oftentimes when we think of righteous activity, we limit it to praying, fasting, giving charity, and basic acts of kindness. However, righteous activity is that which is essentially beneficial and is a very broad category that can even include such things as physical fitness and social events if they are facilitated in the proper way with the correct intention. Righteous activity also includes those activities that will prevent you from falling into disobedience as well as those activities that facilitate good deeds. A good example of this type of righteous activity is participating in sports. Not only does sports prevent many young people from wasting time and engaging in other harmful things, but also through sports certain qualities and life skills are practiced and developed such as sportsmanship, teamwork, sacrifice, effective communication, tolerance, strategic planning, and even self-confidence. Moreover, if these activities are being facilitated by Muslims, then prayer and beneficial reminders can actually be incorporated as well.
Now, I know that not every young Muslim likes sports. That’s fine. There are plenty of other activities that can benefit them and keep them engaged. Be creative! Ask them what their interests are and develop your programming around them. Take their favorite game shows like Jeopardy and Family Feud and create Islamic versions. Try to put them together in teams as much as possible and create incentives and merit systems to reward those who put forth their best efforts. Facilitate writing workshops that reinforce the importance of creativity and written expression in Islam, and encourage them, for example to write poems about the prophets or short pieces about what Islam means to them. Make sure that study circles for the youth seem less like lectures and more like conversations that involve both the speaker and the listener. Ask them if they know before you tell them the answer and they will be much more attentive. Lastly, one of the most transformative righteous activities that Muslim youth can participate in is feeding and helping those in need. This has a very profound impact on young people, especially those who have lived a relatively privileged life, without deprivation in food, shelter, or other basic necessities.
As for the fourth necessity on the roadmap to success, Allah says “…and those who participate in and encourage truth…” (103:3). If we want to see Muslim youth attached to the Masjid and taking up the cause of Islam on their own initiative, then participation is paramount. They have to feel like the Masjid is their Masjid. They have to feel like they are a part of the process. Even if they are given a donation basket to hold on Friday or a stack of flyers to hand out to the congregation as they leave, that seemingly small act of inclusion may change their entire perspective of the Masjid and their relationship with it as well. Through participation we not only can instill a sense of ownership in them, but we can also begin to cultivate leadership, and transition the youth into active, even proactive, members of the community!
If you want to take it a step further, then don’t just let them hand out food to the needy on the day of distribution; let them manage the entire process themselves. Let them make phone calls from the office phone in the Masjid. Let them collect donations from community members. Let them plan the coat drive. Let them organize and host their own events under the guidance of the administration. Let them decide where they want to go for their quarterly youth trip. These things may seem insignificant but they can go a long way in the life of a young Muslim. Lastly, offer tutoring in English and math and SAT preparation classes at your community center because this will send the signal that you are concerned about the overall success and well-being of the Muslim youth. It also is a strategic way to bring them together in the House of Allah with other young Muslims.
As for the fifth necessity for success, Allah says “…and those who observe and encourage patience and perseverance” (103:3). Strengthening Muslim youth is all about positive reinforcement which should ultimately manifest into a comprehensive support system that includes family, friends, and mentors. This creates an environment wherein Muslim youth are constantly being invited and encouraged to do good. One of the most vital components to this support system is the youth group because youth are more influenced by their peers than anyone else, and are more inclined to come to the Masjid and participate in programs when they know that other youth will be present. What can enhance the positive youth-to-youth impact is the collaboration with other youth groups. This provides an extended sense of belonging, and sends the signal that other people like them are enjoying themselves doing similar things.
Mentorship is perhaps just as important for the success of our youth because it creates a source for advice and support that is separate from the sensitivities and incentives that are present with family and friends. Youth need a safe-zone where they can express their insecurities and their personal struggles without feeling that they are being judged or condemned. They have real challenges that are not simply overcome just by knowing right from wrong; and the Imam might not be the person that they feel comfortable disclosing themselves to. This is where the mentor becomes very important. Some ideal candidates for mentors are university students, young professionals, and athletes – all of whom should be well-grounded and well-balanced in their Islamic identity.
Lastly, everything crumbles without positive parental reinforcement in the homes. In fact, without it, the positive effects of involvement with high-minded Muslims peers and the guidance and support of mentors are undone. Parents cannot think that just because they send their children to the Masjid or even to Islamic school that their responsibility has been fulfilled. Rather, they have to know that they are the single most important pillar in the lives of their children because of the level of authority and proximity that Allah has given them. Ultimately, the five necessities cannot be properly implemented, monitored, and measured, without the involvement of the home.
To conclude, we should know that Muslim youth are just youth who are Muslim. Their challenges and their interests are very much the same as other youth. However, the only thing that sets Muslim youth apart, and will allow them to prosper through the challenges, is the clear guidance sent by Allah!