Saturday, January 2, 2016

Islam Must be a Shared Journey or (How to Connect American Youth with Islam)

Being a Muslim is a journey that must be active and ongoing. For second-generation Muslim American youth, I think it is especially important to have mentors that are also searching to enhance their understanding of Islam. It is also important for youth to integrate their different interests with their faith so that Islam becomes seamless with all aspects of their lives.

Actively exploring Islam with my parents as a young adult made it possible for me to connect with the religion. As a college student, I had begun learning about the world in a sophisticated way. I was experiencing new things all the time. I was being trained to question and analyze everything. So it only made sense that, in order to connect with Islam, the process would have to be similarly analytical and exploratory. A didactic approach would never be enough. Thus, my parents became my colleagues as well as my mentors as we explored Islam together. 

When I was a kid, my parents always did their best to explain things to me in a way that would make sense to me at the time. As I got older, that challenge became increasingly difficult.

I have always had strong faith and belief in God, but in my first years of college, I felt disconnected from Islam as a religion. I could not relate to the other Muslim students on campus at all. Their practice of Islam seemed very far removed from my own sensibilities. I could not get involved with the Muslim community there. I admit that for a long time I didn’t pray regularly. I had not yet figured out how to connect my faith with my social life, my academic pursuits, or even my identity.

My parents felt an urgent need to help me internalize Islam as a young adult. They recognized that the process could not wait. That was one of their motivations to intensify their study of Islam. They began to put extensive effort into researching and interpreting Islam in a way that makes sense to them, and in a way that can make sense to a second-generation Muslim in her twenties.

The most important factor in this endeavor was that my parents included me in the process. They always shared what they were learning and discussed it with me. They challenged me to consider every example from both my own perspective and the perspective of others.

Finding a community that we could relate to helped all of us to broaden our connection with Islam. When I was growing up, I sensed my parents’ dissatisfaction with the conventional Muslim communities we knew then, and that in turn made me feel alienated from those communities. But when my parents discovered the Webb community, and started meeting all of you, and introduced me to the group, I was able to connect with other Muslims for the first time. Like my parents and I, this community is searching for a better way to engage with Islam. Finding a Muslim community I was comfortable with helped me learn how to relate to Muslims in other communities, no matter where they’re coming from. Now, I am actively involved with the Muslim student community where I currently live in Berkeley.

The initiative to start your own prayer group was also a formative opportunity for me. It offered the first Friday prayer experience that I could relate to and find fulfilling. I feel completely at home in this gathering.  Hearing everyone’s personal experiences and perspectives on Islam has helped me to realize that I am not alone in my struggles, and that understanding Islam needs to be a continuous process no matter what stage of your life you are in. I never used to attend Friday prayer service in college except on Eid. Now here I am giving a khutbah.

Observing my parents’ evolving practice of Islam has also had a critical influence on me. In their own journeys, they have shown me the real purpose of ritual in Islam. For example, when my father returned from Hajj a couple years ago, I could tell how transformative it was for him. It gave him a new lease on life, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I have seen a similar transformation in my mother since she committed to praying five times every single day. She comes away from each prayer very calm, focused, and reassured. Following my parents’ journey taught me that maintaining a connection through ritual allows Islam to permeate your life and give you balance.

My parents never pressured me to pray with them, but always invited me to do so. Eventually, I felt compelled to get back into it regularly. They always encouraged me to lead the prayer. This summer I decided to start attempting tajweed. With some coaching from my father on the guidelines, I started developing my own style of recitation. It has made prayer a more deeply spiritual experience for me. I now feel that, through recitation, I can relate to that level of transcendence I have observed in my parents’ practice of Islam.

I’m going to recite part of Surah Al-A’la…

I went from not praying at all to praying every day because I was sharing the experience with my family, and because I was able to personalize the ritual. Now it feels as natural as anything else I do.

Although I felt distanced from the religion early in my young adult life, the most critical factor that made it possible for me to connect with Islam was sharing the journey with my parents and with our community. If I had been handed a codified set of rules, with no room for interpretation or growth, I never would have been able to connect with the religion. But because it has been such a dynamic process, and a shared experience, my practice of Islam has become completely congruent with my faith and with every other aspect of my life.


One way that my parents encouraged me to engage with Islam was to connect it with other things I was learning. This allowed me to take agency of my understanding of Islam. It also helped me to bridge my faith with my academic endeavors, which were also very important to me. I’d like to share an example of how my non-Islamic studies actually helped me to understand Islam.

One of the most difficult questions I struggled with growing up was the question, “why does God make bad things happen?” I used to ask my father this question periodically. It was one of the few for which he did not have a clear answer. He said, “I don’t know, Sara. There are some things only God knows the answer for.”

This question continued to occupy me over the years, and it still does. But I found a way to reconcile the problem through an unconventional source: earth science.

My studies of earth science have trained me to approach every matter through the lens of “deep time,” as we refer to geologic history on the order of millions of years.  I have thus adopted the habit of considering everything from scientific problems to personal matters on both short- and long-term scales. And I find that alternating between the two allows me to see how things are connected.

Consider, for example, earthquakes. Earthquakes can devastate towns and kill a lot of people. Why would God make such a thing happen? 

Consider the deep-time perspective: earthquakes happen when tension is released between two tectonic plates (large pieces in the Earth’s crust) that slide past each other. Tectonic plates typically move very slowly, in pace with the growth of your fingernails. Over time, stress builds up between the two plates, and eventually that stress is released all at once as an earthquake.

I have learned that movement of these tectonic plates is actually vital to our existence. Tectonic plates made the Earth habitable by life billions of years ago. Volcanoes that formed of the margins of tectonic plates spewed out gases that created an atmosphere. The atmosphere allowed water to condense and collect on Earth’s surface as a liquid. It also trapped enough of the Sun’s heat to keep the planet from freezing over.  The movement of tectonic plates also shapes the planet; it forms continents with mountains and plains; it affects climate and environment, which affects the evolution and distribution of organisms. Without these processes, we would not be here, nor would we have any of the natural resources on which our survival depends. 

Earthquakes are a necessary consequence of tectonic activity, a byproduct of the laws of physics. Earthquakes are not punishments from God; they are a necessary part of the system God created that allows us to exist. It is therefore up to us to use our capacity for observation and analysis (as the Quran tells us to do repeatedly) to figure out where earthquakes are likely to occur and how to mitigate their effects on people’s lives.

So in answer to the question, “Why does God make bad things happen?,” I would suggest that God does not make bad things happen, but rather, that bad things sometimes happen as a necessary consequence of the system God created that allows us to exist. That still doesn’t explain why a given earthquake must strike at a particular time, or affect particular people. But I also believe, as all Muslims do, that every injustice, whether circumstantial or deliberate, will be accounted for on the Day of Judgment. Taking the “big picture” perspective does help me to reconcile these and other disastrous events and understand why they must happen.

So in summary, what helped me connect with Islam was exploring it with mentors who encouraged me to search for my own answers, and who were actively searching for answers themselves. Islam has to be an ongoing journey. Here’s to a fruitful journey for all of us in the New Year, insha’Allah!

I will end by reciting the second half of Surah Al-A’la…