Islam Re-imagined: Young American Muslims’ Search for Balance

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By Aniqa Raihan

Introduction: Growing Up Muslim

I grew up in a relatively strict Muslim household in post-9/11 America. My parents are both immigrants from Bangladesh, a nation in which 87% of the population is Muslim. In their world, religion is and has always been an unquestionable fact. My parents’ religion dictated their values and their values dictated my life. Growing up, there was no part of my life left untouched by Islam; what I could eat, what I could wear, when I could go out and who I could go out with were all subject to the religious and cultural norms my parents brought with them when they emigrated.

My parents are not unique in their beliefs. For nearly 30 years, they have lived in America while constantly holding its culture at arm’s length. They have formed an airtight community of Muslim immigrants whose collective rejection of mainstream American culture keeps them clinging closely to the values they grew up with. In many ways, my parents’ Islam is even more strict and traditional than the religion as practiced by their families back home. As religion and culture evolved and adapted in modern Bangladesh, my parents held on to their culture as it was when they emigrated in 1987, Islam frozen in time.

I was never much of a rule follower, and it didn’t help that I spent the second half of my childhood in a small town whose population is 84% white. For many years, I was comfortable but not happy in my role as the token minority. Being a normal American teenager, whatever that may mean, was never an option I had, and from that realization grew anger. I hated the way teachers would look at me when we studied Islam in school, as if I had both the authority and responsibility of speaking for a religion with 1.6 billion followers. I hated that I was not allowed to wear shorts during the summer or dresses to school dances. I hated that I was never allowed to have close male friends. I hated that I was not allowed to date while I watched all my friends have their first kisses and their first boyfriends. Like so many others, I rebelled.

I began lying to my parents in middle school. Back then, it felt like the Earth would stop turning if I showed up to a sweet 16 wearing a dress my mother approved of. It began with clothes, mostly, and then spilled over into relationships. I found that contrary to my parents’ beliefs, being a normal American teenager was fun and that I felt better about myself when I felt like I fit in. By high school, lying was second nature. So much of my life was outside of the bounds of my parents’ approval (yet very reasonably within the bounds of mindnumbingly responsible high school virgin who has never once been to a real party) that it felt like they didn’t even know me anymore. I was happy in my world of American adolescence, and I was embarrassed by any remnants of my parents’ culture or religion.

Islam never seemed to fit into the world I so badly wanted to be a part of, and so I let it go. I never even stopped to ask myself if I believed in what the Qu’ran preached; Islam had been my prison all my life, and there was and still is no chance that I can find happiness within its boundaries. Even now, I go through the motions of prayer when my parents ask me to, like performance art I put on five times a day. During the holy month of Ramadan, I eat outside the house and text my parents to tell them I broke my fast at sunset just like them. I am hiding this paper from them like I hide so much of my life.

Just as my parents were not unique in their beliefs, I was not unique in my rebellion against them. Every Muslim-by-birth kid I grew up with led, and many continue to lead, a double life. There exists an unspoken vow of secrecy between us to keep each other’s secrets, no matter how long ago they were buried. Some of these young people have managed to stay attached to the faith and others, like me, have abandoned it completely. Those who still consider themselves Muslims believe and practice to varying degrees, but I have noticed that none of them practice in quite the same way our parents do. They do not exist in the same cultural setting our parents did when they were young; they are a religious minority, and that fact inherently changes their faith. The influence of American culture upon the religious beliefs and practices of these young people is far too immense to be ignored, and that is what I wanted to investigate. I wanted to understand why some young people stay in the religion while others do not and how and why those who do tailor it to fit into their lifestyles as young Americans.

New Islam

I first formulated questions to understand the scope of my research. I wanted to understand the ways in which Islam as practiced by young Americans differs from the religion as practiced by the older generation, often their parents. I know young Muslims who drink, date, attend parties, and engage in a whole host of other behaviors that would shock their parents, yet continue to believe in Allah and His message. I wanted to understand how young Muslims justify these differences as not unIslamic when so many think of religion as static and absolute. Most importantly, I wanted to understand how young American Muslims find a balance between religion and culture, and whether it is possible to do so without having to compromise either.

In conducting my research, I found that the divide between Islam as practiced by my parents’ generation and Islam as practiced by mine is so great that it constitutes a different label. I have decided to, for the purpose of this paper, label them “Old Islam” and “New Islam.” Old Islam is essentially what most people think of as Islam, whereas New Islam is described as such: Young Muslims all over the world—especially in non-Muslim majority countries—have long attempted to negotiate between the strict, often believed to be static religion and fluid, dynamic youth culture and have ultimately created a new brand of Islam. The rules and boundaries of acceptable practice in this “New Islam” vary from individual to individual but the common thread that connects young Muslims is the search for balance between traditional Islam and modern culture. New Islam strays in many ways from mainstream Islamic thought and practice, or the religion as practiced by my parents’ generation, but these differences are not the result of young people merely deciding to ignore or overlook certain aspects of the religion as is convenient, as they are often thought to be. Rather, these young Muslims understand that the Qu’ran was revealed nearly 1,500 years ago and choose to interpret it through the lens of modern culture. New Islam takes a holistic approach to morality and emphasizes the importance of intention and each individual’s relationship with Allah over the rest of the Muslim community.

The fascinating thing about New Islam is that it is highly individualized; the rules and parameters are created by each Muslim and apply only to that person. There are countless variations and ways to be Muslim in New Islam, but I have decided to focus on two extraordinary cases in order to better understand this trend. James Cotter* is a white 21-year-old and a recent convert for whom Islam is the most important thing in the world, but who still hangs out with the same friends, celebrates Christmas with his family, dates, and attends parties. Nadia Hossain is an old family friend who was raised Muslim and has been through many complicated stages in her religious journey, first away from Islam and then back towards it. These two young people (and I) have had vastly different experiences with Islam, but they are both young American Muslims who believe wholeheartedly in the religion and practice it in the way they best see fit, and I hope that their experiences can help to shed light on a more widespread phenomenon.

The Stories: Becoming Muslim

The last time I saw James, he was the captain of my high school fencing team and my classmate in advanced French. He played guitar and wore converse and spoke of great philosophers. He was intelligent, but often arrogantly so.

Now, he looks older and wiser with a full face of facial hair. He speaks confidently but with an air of humility that makes him seem closer to 30 than 21. He seems more sincere, somehow. He is undebatably more knowledgeable about Islam than I am, but his intelligence is no longer intimidating; now, his passion is intoxicating and contagious. It is as if when he talks about his dedication to Allah, he is sincerely inviting me to share in his religious harmony. In Islamic circles, he goes by Isa, the Arabic name for Jesus, one of the most important prophets in Islam.

When I ask James about his evolution of faith, he tells me that he grew up Irish Catholic but with a Protestant father. He went to church as a child but then had what he calls a teenage crisis of faith during which he not only stopped believing, but also began to look down on the religious as weak and superstitious, as many members of our generation have a tendency to do.

In college, he took a class on religion and found that many of the greatest men in human history, men who he admired, accomplished world-changing feats in the name of religion. He then took a class on Hinduism and said that he found its willingness to talk openly about sex and the darker parts of humanity refreshing, an openness he says he later found again in Islam.

Everything started to come together for James when he took a class on Islam taught by a former member of the Nation of Islam. At first, he was struck by the beauty of the Arabic recitation of the Qu’ran. He began to attend masjid, or the mosque, with Muslim friends and listened to the reading of the Qu’ran without understanding what it meant. After two and a half years of religious studies, he says Islam felt right. It felt, he explains, like what Christianity should be. He converted last March. Of the event, he says: “I have never in my life felt so much love.”

Now, James is the president of his university’s Muslim Student Association and describes Islam as the single most important aspect of his life. Speaking on his continued love for music, he tells me, “Everything I do is about worshipping God.”

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I have known Nadia all my life. I have seen pictures, before either of us were born, of her parents and my parents laughing together in their first days in America. They were Muslim culturally rather than spiritually. Nadia was raised in the fact of Islam much like I was, but religion was not a major part of her life until her mother remarried. She describes her stepfather, Saif, as knowledgeable but not practicing. Under pressure from him, Nadia and her younger sister began wearing the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, when she was in the fifth grade. She admits freely that she wore the hijab out of fear more than anything else and that it initially made her uncomfortable to be so visibly different from her peers.

In middle school, like the rest of us, Nadia felt increasingly vulnerable to social pressure. She continued to wear the hijab to appease her parents, but her values were completely estranged from Islam. By high school, she was taking her hijab off as soon as she left the house.

It was in the ninth grade that Nadia met and began dating a boy named Shakiv. Saif was very strict—she was to come home directly after school—so their relationship was largely confined to school. It was also during this year that Saif discovered her secret wardrobe and double life; in response, he forced her to switch schools and became physically violent.

When she was in the tenth grade, Nadia and Shakiv ran away to avoid her stepfather’s abuse. When they were found, Saif punished her by severely assaulting her for two and a half hours. Shakiv reported the episode to the authorities and Nadia was placed in a foster home, because of which she was forced to switch schools again. After three months in foster care, the young couple ran away again, and for the next two months they hid from their families in an abandoned house and stole whatever they needed to survive. The inevitable cycle repeated itself; they sought help from a relative, the cops were called, Shakiv was returned to his parents, and Nadia found herself in a new foster home. Following another short-lived attempt at running away and a brief stint in a juvenile detention center, Nadia’s parents finally decided to try a different approach.

Aniqa2She was informed, without being asked to consent, that a nikah, or an Islamic marriage, was to be performed and that she was to move in with Shakiv and his family as his wife. At the age of sixteen, she was burdened with the responsibility of being a wife and a homemaker as well as a fulltime student. When Shakiv’s parents left the country for the summer, she was forced to take on the extra duties of caring for him and his younger brothers, cleaning the house, and cooking for an entire family. She prides herself, however, on never letting her grades drop. It was during this difficult time that her relationship with Shakiv stagnated and in April of her junior year of high school, Nadia left Shakiv and moved in with her father.

She continued to attend the same high school until graduation and during her senior year, befriended a few Muslim girls who inspired her to change her lifestyle. “I always wanted to be better than my circumstances made me,” she says of her desire for reform. She found that she had no one to talk to, and so she prayed. After graduation, she donned her hijab again, this time of her own accord.

Three years later, she has stopped wearing the hijab, though it is clear that her faith is stronger than ever. She explains that she had allowed it to become a sort of crutch, convincing herself that wearing the hijab proved that she was a good and dedicated Muslim regardless of her other actions. She hopes to wear it again someday, but for now, she is allowing herself time and patience to unlearn toxic behaviors and replace them with new, better habits.

What I am struck by most in Nadia’s retelling of her story is how nonchalantly she talks about the things she has been through, much like the way I discuss middle school drama that once, laughably, meant the world to me. She sounds strong and self-assured. She sounds happy. She recaps her spiritual journey in one beautiful sentence: “It wasn’t like I was looking for Islam. I was looking for more, and Islam came to me.”

New Islam, New Rules

As mentioned previously, New Islam is unique in that it allows each individual to create his or her own code of conduct without passing judgement on others. One of my first and biggest inspirations in researching Islamic trends was an article written by Thanaa ElNaggar for Gawker called “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts.” In the article, ElNaggar discusses her hesitation in revealing her religious beliefs to fellow Muslims for fear of being judged for her lifestyle choices. ElNaggar, a believing and practicing Muslim, chooses to show her thighs and drink alcohol because it does not make her feel any less Muslim. She continues to pray, fast, give mandatory charity, and most importantly, believe in Allah. She mentions that her spiritual mantra is “Al‘ amal bil niyat,” which translates to “actions are dependent on their intentions.” The article initially struck a chord with me because it was unashamed to admit that Islam, as it is culturally practiced and accepted, is imperfect. ElNaggar does not excuse the cultural misogyny that plagues many Islamic societies nor the common use of fear and guilt as tactics to keep believers behaving in what is commonly thought to be the correct and Islamic way. She made Islam her own without sacrificing her identity as a Muslim and as a woman, and I found her bravery refreshing and admirable.

James dates, goes to parties, and plays music. He did make significant lifestyle changes following his conversion—he no longer eats pork, drinks alcohol, or engages in premarital/extramarital sex—but to many traditional Muslims and religious scholars, his lifestyle would still be considered unacceptable or even heretical. Despite not being mentioned among the five pillars of Islam, many scholars believe the rules regarding gender mixing and romantic relations are absolute. However, James confidently explains to me that because the concept of dating did not exist when the Qu’ran was revealed, nikah, commonly translated as marriage, could be interpreted to mean any kind of committed intimate relationship. On the free and platonic mixing of the genders, he points me to a hadith, or prophetic saying, about a woman who propositioned the prophet Muhammad as an example of Islam allowing open and honest communication between the genders, even in sexual matters.

He explains that the prophet Muhammad was a man who, like all men, viewed the world through the lens of his own culture, and that his beliefs must be reinterpreted through a modern lens. For example, James does not regularly wear a taqiyah, a type of cap believed to be worn by the prophet Muhammad that many Muslim men wear in emulation of him, because it does not fit in with modern American culture, and it is his belief that Islam is to be practiced quietly, invisible to outsiders. Traditional religious scholars seem to be obsessed with the concept of modesty, particularly in relation to women’s fashion, but James stresses the importance of modesty in thoughts and actions as well. He consciously chooses not to engage in behaviors (such as wearing a taqiyah ) that will make his faith a matter of appearance so that he can focus his attention inward on worshiping Allah to the best of his abilities. “Reinterpretation can feel like making excuses for un-Islamic behavior,” he admits, but the “Qu’ran is a discussion, not a monologue.”

When I interview Nadia, she is nine days sober from marijuana. She tells me that every time she stops, she does so with the intention of quitting for good, but that she always seems to fall off the wagon too soon. She is in a long-term relationship with a man who respects but does not necessarily share her religious views, and she is having regular sex. When I ask her what she thinks of Muslims who drink or show skin or take part in hookup culture, she says: “I don’t care—you can’t call yourself a practicing Muslim if you’re going to go out and judge people for what they do.”

Nadia admits that some of her behaviors are problematic—she points to the weed, in particular. Although marijuana is not expressly forbidden or even acknowledged in the Qu’ran, she considers it haraam , or forbidden, by extrapolating from the Islamic prohibition of alcohol that all substances that alter the mind and damage the body are haraam as well. She calls it “haraam on my terms,” which demonstrates the individualization inherent in New Islam.

She also admits that she used to appease her boyfriend, who did not at first encourage her wearing of the hijab, by removing it when they went out on dates. However, this felt like shirk, or associating equals with Allah. By allowing her boyfriend to interfere with her religious practice, she says she “was pleasing a creation instead of pleasing the creator.” He has since become much more comfortable with her faith and Nadia notes that their values, whether based on religion or not, turned out to be more similar than expected. The choice to stop wearing the hijab, then, was hers and hers alone. Now, Nadia is actively working to bring her behaviors in line with her idea of Islamic morality and hopes to someday feel intrinsically motivated to don the hijab again, but does not have any plans to end her relationship.

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Connecting Threads

Although New Islam means individuals live by slightly different rules, the importance of tolerance and intention are universal. Both James and Nadia mentioned that they are careful not to judge other Muslims who indulge in what they would consider un-Islamic behavior for themselves. Both expressed frustration with traditional Islam’s obsession with religious judgement, whether as serious as Saudi Arabia’s mandatory dress code for women or as small as women at the masjid who gossip about the appropriateness of other women’s clothes. There exists an understanding among these young Muslims that all practice is imperfect and that there are many ways to be a good and dedicated Muslim.

To these young Muslims, intention matters more than anything else. While discussing his decision not to wear a taqiyah, James explained that though many Muslim men consider it sunnah , or highly recommended but not required, his intention is to please Allah by practicing his faith quietly and without needing the approval of others. For him, in this case, intention matters more than the result. Nadia also discussed intention when she told me about her decision to stop wearing the hijab. Although she admits that the hijab is required for Muslim women, she felt that her intention was not pure and that it would be better to stop and focus on strengthening her faith than to veil for the wrong reasons. This sentiment is echoed by ElNaggar in “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts,” in which she discusses “feeling Muslim” and the importance of genuine belief over daily practice.

The concept of “feeling Muslim” and identity are important ideas to explore in relation to young Muslims. Many young people who are raised in the religion continue to feel culturally Muslim long after they stop practicing or even believing. For them, Islam is a set of traditions and values that correlate to mainstream Islamic beliefs but are not necessarily tied to spiritual reason. What I was truly concerned with, however, was not just religious identity but a balance of identities. Islam is a particularly demanding religion—prayer five times a day, a full month of dawn-to-dusk fasting every year, and a mandatory contribution to charity, among the five pillars alone—and growing up, it often felt incompatible with mainstream American culture, so I asked James and Nadia if they felt the same way.

James has a particularly interesting perspective as a white American who only recently converted to Islam, but he says he feels as American as ever. “Islam is as American as it gets, Muslims built this country,” he tells me, citing the statistic that up to one-third of slaves brought to America through the Transatlantic slave trade may have been Muslim. He also points to progressive Islamic beliefs—mainly that women should be allowed to own property and seek divorce without stigma or consequence—as proof that Islam is not as backwards as many Americans believe it to be. James also admits that he has been lucky in that his friends and family have not treated him differently since his conversion, a luxury that young Muslims in many parts of the country are not afforded.

Nadia, on the other hand, grew up Muslim and experienced much of the same uncertainty I did about my identity. She admits that when she first started wearing the hijab in elementary school, she worried about fitting in and that social pressure to conform led her to begin taking it off at school. By the time she was in high school, because she lived in an extremely ethnically diverse neighborhood in New York City, she knew other girls who wore the hijab and felt less alone in her insecurities. She understands the obvious disparities between mainstream Islamic culture and mainstream American culture, especially as a woman, and she admits that she struggles with Islamophobia, but feels comfortable in her spirituality and identity.

Though I truly believe that my relationship with Islam is unsalvageable, New Islam makes sense to me. I have never felt genuinely moved to pray, I have never felt like Allah is listening to or watching over me, and thus, I have never felt like a real Muslim. I, like many young Muslims, grew up fearful of Allah and Hell, and lived by the rules to avoid punishment. However, It always struck me as dishonest to go through the motions of prayer and worship in the absence of real, fundamental faith. If Allah knew all, as I was constantly told (it felt more like a threat than anything else), I assumed he knew of my disbelief, and so the whole charade seemed pointless. It also struck me as ludicrous and frankly petty that an all-powerful, merciful God would care what I wore and ate, but not that Muslim men in other parts of the world married barely pubescent girls or that the women at my local masjid made a sport out of gossiping and judging others, often young women and girls.

Islam was my prison, but I recognize that it is not everyone’s. I believe in its potential to be a force of positivity and kindness and I admire the Quranic verses that advise Muslims to be tolerant, generous, and altruistic. New Islam, Islam that makes room for modernity and reinterpretation, Islam that takes a holistic approach to morality and focuses inward on intention and belief, seems to me like the best possible future for the religion.

* For privacy reasons pseudonym are used

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

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