When Your Teen Questions Faith

Published February 1, 2015

By Dr. Suzy Ismail

“I don’t believe in God.” Five small words that no Muslim parent ever wants to hear uttered by their teen. Unfortunately, the reality is that many Muslim youth today do question their faith and may potentially follow a path of denial. Unlike other fears that parents may have regarding raising their children, lack of faith is one that can go unnoticed initially since the teen might outwardly continue to share in the religious rituals, but internally he or she may feel their faith fading away. Parents and community members often look for overt signs or indications that a teen is rebelling against the deen such as not praying or fasting, use of drugs or alcohol, or evidence of dating or inappropriate relationships. Yet, the complexity of losing one’s religion lies more in the state of the heart than in outward rebellion seen in the behavior. “Indeed in the body there is a lump of flesh; if it is good, the entire body will be good, and if it is corrupted, the entire body becomes corrupted, and that is the heart” (Sahih Muslim).

“I don’t believe in God.” Five small words that no Muslim parent ever wants to hear uttered by their teen.

What Are the Reasons Our Youth May Tread This Path?

While actions that defy religious rules and morals undoubtedly affect the state of the heart, the questioning of religious relevancy is often the more likely culprit that leads our youth astray and directs them towards adopting an agnostic or atheist outlook. Our society today espouses a type of self-exploration that is a bit too encouraging in its individualist bent. Youth are inspired to “find themselves” through experimentation and breaking all the rules including defying figures of authority. Often teens see their parents and the rules of religion as symbols of authority that they should challenge. With that defiance of authority and discipline, they may also come to reject the faith that their parents have instilled within them from a young age.

How Should Parents React to Their Teen’s Questions About Faith?

We are often very reluctant to engage with our youth when they begin questioning. Rather than answering their questions in a language they can understand, we instead tune them out and guilt them out for the asking. Questions from a child or teen should never be ignored, ridiculed, or condemned. Instead, we need to engage with them and their questioning. We have examples in our prophets who sought solitude in order to question themselves about the faith direction that they were following. Through the questioning, they came to a greater sense of awareness and appreciation for Allah SWT and the principles of tawheed.
The questions from our youth can also stem from a place of curiosity and a desire to truly understand. Look at the example of Prophet Musa (AS) and how he had many questions about the hikmah (wisdom) of Allah (swt). In the story in the Qur’an about Musa traveling with Al-Kidr, he was told to be patient and to not ask Al-Kidr about anything until he mentioned it to Musa. He was not turned away or told never to ask questions. By the end of their travel together, Al-Kidr answered all of Musa’s questions and Musa (AS) came to understand that the knowledge of Allah (swt) far exceeds any human knowledge. Likewise, the inquiring of Prophet Ibrahim was a questioning that did not stem from doubt but from seeking affirmation of a truth he already knew. When he asked Allah (swt) about the resurrection of life, Allah said to him, “Do you not believe?” Prophet Ibrahim replied, “Yes, but [I ask] just to reassure my heart.” He was then instructed to separate the bodies of several birds and place them on different mountaintops to understand how Allah (swt) can bring them back to life. Prophets Ibrahim and Musa (AS) were not questioning out of a denial of faith or a form of rebellion as we often assume with our children’s questions, but out of an honest desire to learn, understand, and strengthen their faith in the absolute oneness of God. This conviction is a return to the fitra (primal, pure nature) that we are all born with but that sometimes gets muddled and clouded by society along the way.

Answer Your Teen’s Questions According to Their Disposition

Let’s not be so quick to dismiss our teen’s questions of faith. Let them ask and if we don’t know the answer, we should commit to finding out the information or understanding needed to satisfy them. Appeal to your teen’s common sense or reason or even to his or her creative bent in responding to questions. For example, if your teen asks why he has to pray five times a day, ask him to research various academic disciplines and find one, only one, for which a person does not need to practice some regimen or develop a skill set that serves that expertise. You could then ask him to write an essay that draws parallels between the requisites and systematic training in an academic discipline and a spiritual discipline. By doing so, he will, in a very important way, be answering his own question about the need to pray with regularity and discipline.
If your teen begins to turn away from faith because he or she feels that Allah (swt) was not there for them when they needed His help, allow them to understand the concept of a du’a delayed and teach them ayah 286 from Surat Al-Baqarah that explains that “On no soul does Allah place a burden greater than it can bear…” and ayah 216 in the same surah: “…But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.” Then you and your family could have a family meeting and together come up with examples in everyday life of things that are good for us but might appear difficult or unpleasant, until they become habit and then we perform those things we ease. The list could include countless things like eating healthy foods, brushing one’s teeth, doing homework, being patient with younger siblings, and so on.

Why Else Might Our Youth Stray from Faith?

During the critical teenage years, our youth are exposed to books, movies, and music that cultivate an obsession with the self and the dunya. This focus on worldliness rather than on adopting a more spiritual perspective may pull them away from the deen. Be sure to provide your teen with alternatives to the music and the movies that can lure them away from a religious orientation. It is very difficult to steer a teen away from a path that is anti-Islamic without offering a constructive alternative. This same concept of offering alternatives applies to friends as well. Always be aware of who your child or teen is befriending. Allow your home to be the safe haven where friends can come over and enjoy themselves. You can steer your teen towards the social circle that will pull them closer to the faith rather than push them further away. It’s not easy, but it is worth it to make the time to cultivate a strong relationship with your teen so that they feel comfortable sharing with you their feelings about what’s going on in their lives as well as details about their friends. Remember the Sahih hadith that states, “The parable of a good friend and a bad friend is that of a seller of musk and a blacksmith. The seller of musk will give you some perfume, you will buy some, or you will notice a good smell. As for the blacksmith, he will burn your clothes or you will notice a bad smell.”

What Can You Do If You Feel  Your Teen’s Faith is Slipping?

Bring the beauty of Islam to life for them. Youth are very tactile and visual and need to experience spirituality in a way that may be different than what we grew up with. Today, everything offered to our youth is high-tech, engaging, entertaining, and visually appealing, from 3-D movies to the virtual reality of video games. If you are able, take your teen to Makkah and Madinah to disconnect from hi-tech and walk in the footsteps of the Prophet (pbuh). Provide your teens with opportunities so they can understand the faith and connect with it in a way that appeals to them. If you can’t travel, let them experience the beauty of Islam online. Help them find forums and lectures through the sites they like to browse that will assist them in dealing with their questions and crises of faith.
Engage your teen in understanding what it means to truly live Islam. Camp out in nature and teach your teen the miracles of the Qur’an that they can relate to their everyday surroundings. Bring their attention to the numerous verses that instruct us to think and reflect, and to observe the world of nature around us that is teeming with Signs of Allah’s design in its perfect order and proportion. Learn how to speak their language in order to reach them. YOLO, the abbreviation for “You Only Live Once,” is a mantra that our youth hear repeated every day in so many ways. With a society that is constantly telling them to carpe diem – seize the day, enjoy the present, don’t worry about tomorrow – it is no wonder that so many teens have lost their way. So bring your teens to the masjid and be involved yourself to help create an inviting atmosphere for them so that the masjid is not seen as an “old people’s place,” but as a place that thrives and flourishes with the dynamism and involvement of the youth. Find places where they can play basketball or just hang out with other Muslims.
Create opportunities where they can learn how to demonstrate their faith through the goodness of character, like volunteering at a soup kitchen or participating in collecting items for a clothing drive for the needy. Encourage them not only to memorize the Qur’an but to understand its meaning. Also help them to get to know the Prophet (pbuh) through the seerah. Let their hearts be touched by the countless stories of his strong yet gentle and compassionate character.

What If Your Teen Still Denies Faith or Even the Existence of God?

Don’t give up. Be there for your teen with constant du’a. Remind your teen of the beauty of repentance and teach them that the door to taubah is always open. Today your teen may be living through a crisis of faith but tomorrow that same teen may be stronger in eman than you could ever imagine. Keep your own faith strong in the face of one of the biggest trials a parent can be tested with. Hold fast to the ayah of the Qur’an that tells us “…never despair of Allah’s mercy….” (39:53) May Allah (swt) bless all the children of the ummah and may He protect them all from anything that could lead them astray. May the youth of our communities truly become the beacons of light that will carry our faith forward, generation upon generation, insha’ Allah.

Dr. Suzy IsmailAuthor Dr. Suzy Ismail is a speaker, consultant and author of “When Muslim Marriage Fails: Divorce Chronicles and Commentaries”.

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