Illustration of teenage girl wearing a hijab looking at herself in a mirror


Young, Hip, and Muslim

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Jane I. Smith

Souhaila, age 8, is changing the clothes on her doll Razanne for the tenth time this evening. She is thrilled that her mother finally bought her the Barbie equivalent that can be dressed in a range of Islamic styles. Razanne comes in several models, this one tan in skin color and with the special ability to bend her legs so as to assume the various prayer positions. Twelve inches tall, she has outfits to be a Muslim Girl Scout, a teacher, a nurse, or a mother, each dress accompanied by the appropriate hijab, or Islamic headgear. Meanwhile, in the other room her brother, Hasan, 11 years old, is working with his father to assemble a three-foot model of the Kaaba, or Holy House, in Mecca. Last week they did the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.

These Muslim children are being raised in as complete an Islamic environment as their parents are able to provide in the United States. They are not allowed to watch television, but have shelves of videos about Muslim heroes, play Islamic games online, and, through such agencies as the Sound Vision Foundation, have the most up-to-date technology available to be educated in the faith while having fun. Tomorrow they will go to the Islamic school in the next town. Their parents worry that the level of education at the school may not be sufficiently high, but decide that the trade-off is worth it. Public schools may require inappropriate clothing for their daughter in physical education, may advocate birth control and tolerance of homosexuality in sex education classes, and may expose their children to the dangerous temptations of a secular environment.

While I am not Muslim, I have been learning and teaching about Islam for a good number of years. Much of the information shared here has been gleaned from talking with Muslim friends, interacting with their children, and thinking about the important role that the younger generation plays in the development of American Islam. I have also done considerable research and writing on Muslims in the United States.

Souhaila and Hasan, whose family is based on many I know well, are not necessarily typical American Muslim children. Their parents are practicing Muslims who pray five times each day, fast during the month of Ramadan, and are faithful in mosque attendance. Many Muslims in the United States consider themselves to be secular and raise their children simply as young Americans, with no religious education or identity.

Contemporary America is the most Islamically diverse country anywhere at any time in the history of the world. Such heterogeneity raises issues for Muslims in general and their youth in particular. How can they find an Islam to follow that is not culture-bound? Is it possible to formulate a distinctively “American Islam”?

Increasingly, families are taking advantage of the great range of opportunities available to make sure that their children understand what it means to be Muslim as well as what it means to be American. Most parents—unlike those of Souhaila and Hasan—send their children to public rather than parochial schools, especially since the latter are expensive and often lack well-trained teachers. Presently there are only 200 or so Islamic schools in the United States, almost all ending with the eighth grade, so the home and the mosque have necessarily become the training grounds for helping children learn both the essentials of Islam and the particulars of their own ethnic and cultural heritage. A small but growing number of Muslim children are now homeschooled, preparation for which is readily available online.

For Muslim families, raising children is a responsibility to be taken extremely seriously, especially as parents from different parts of the world struggle to balance involvement in American culture with some sense of either religious or cultural identity. Some families practice aqiqah, an initiation ceremony to welcome a new baby seven days after birth. While circumcision for boys traditionally has been carried out ceremoniously some years after birth, in America baby boys are usually circumcised (required of Muslims) while still in the hospital. Most Muslim families are quick to affirm that female circumcision, despite allegations by the press, is not an Islamic practice.

Muslim children in America often grow up without the benefits of extended family, though in some cases grandparents may be present. When children are younger, these older adults can be useful both in terms of childcare and in helping with religious instruction. As children grow older, however, they can find it irritating when elders insist on stricter modes of behavior, or they get embarrassed in front of their friends when grandparents cannot speak English well or display a “peculiar” ethnic appearance.

The issue of dress also becomes more important as children get older. When she reaches the age of puberty, Souhaila may choose to wear some kind of Islamic dress, as her mother does. In all likelihood, however, she will wait until she goes to college and finds a peer group. Members of university Muslim student associations, for example, often wear jeans, shirts, and hijabs. Only in rare cases in the United States do girls adopt any identifiable Islamic garb before their teenage years, and many choose never to do so. Nonetheless, girls can amuse themselves by browsing the many websites that feature Islamic dress in alluring as well as trendy styles. The use of denim in outfits designed originally by African American Muslims has become quite popular. Occasionally, boys wear caps or tunics that identify them with Islam.

Families in the United States differ greatly in the extent to which they observe the religious duties of Islam. If parents choose to perform the daily prayers together, which involve physical prostrations (Razanne can demonstrate), children often participate as early as possible. Mosque-attending Muslims take their children with them, the girls and small boys accompanying their mothers to a place behind the male worshipers or in a separate room or balcony apart from the men. As soon as they are able to participate in the prayer prostrations, little boys stand (and bend) with their fathers on the main floor of the prayer hall. While females in general insist that gender separation is necessary for proper piety during prayer, some girls find it very annoying when their brothers strut around with pride at being able to be closer to the imam during the service.

Fasting is rarely, if at all, expected of Muslim children before the age of puberty. Sometimes children of practicing parents are eager to show their own piety, however, and during the month of Ramadan they try as hard as their parents will allow to observe the rule of not eating from sun up to sun down. One young mother said to me that even though her children, ages 8 and 10, refuse to eat at school during Ramadan, she conscientiously packs their lunchboxes every day so that the teachers will have no grounds for charges of child neglect. Mosques and Islamic centers are increasingly providing the kind of fast-breaking meals, as well as feasts for the major Islamic holidays, which are the responsibility of extended families in traditional societies. Muslim children who attend these festivities love the food, the fellowship, and the opportunity to be part of an inclusive community in which the presence of youth is cherished.

As I listen to Muslim parents talk, I realize that they face many concerns raising children in America. For instance, should they allow their children to listen to so-called Islamic music, a fairly new phenomenon in which performers offer rap music with religious rather than violent lyrics? “Don’t know about you, I know about me. I’m proud because I’m rolling Islamically,” sings the group Native Deen. Listening to music like this, as well as wearing head-scarves or other forms of Islamic dress from trendy designers, helps teenagers be part of “cool Islam” while at the same time affirming traditional Muslim values. Some parents object, while others hope that such activities will help their children avoid the culture of drugs and easy sex that seems to them rampant among American youth. Other parents fear that becoming too involved in affirming Islam in such outward ways may make their children more susceptible to the radical interpretation of Islam preached by some extremist groups.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that most observant American Muslim families face is keeping their adolescents from being beguiled by the consumerism and materialism of American culture, and persuading them that the tenets and values of Islam are still relevant for them. As the 12-year-old son of a Muslim friend of mine said to his parents, “I’m old enough now to think for myself. Why do I have to follow all the rules set by old guys centuries ago? I can be a good person without all that.” Activities for youth in Islamic centers, such as basketball and other sports, supervised social gatherings, summer camps, and service organizations, may help mitigate concerns like the ones this boy expresses. But parents still worry.

It is common knowledge among the Muslims I know that since September 11, 2001, “Islamophobia” has grown. Children are far from immune to this reality, and they suffer greatly when acts of extremism hit the news and their classmates call Muslims “terrorists” and “bomb throwers.” Some children have seen relatives and family friends who lack the proper papers deported simply for being Muslim. For the last eight years, resources have been made increasingly available through counselors and internet sites to help parents talk to their children about anti-Islamic responses in the United States and how they can understand and communicate that theirs is really a religion of peace.

The Muslim youth of America today seem to be taking lead roles in helping articulate what an “American Islam” might look like. It is this generation’s children who will carry the responsibility for determining what it means to be Muslim in America. Boys and girls well short of the voting age are already busy at that task.

Jane I. Smith is associate dean for faculty and academic affairs and Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, coming from Hartford Seminary where she was Professor of Islamic Studies and co-editor of The Muslim World journal. Her most recent publications are Islam in America (Columbia University Press, revised ed. 2009) and Muslims, Christians and the Challenge of Interfaith Dialogue (Oxford University Press, 2007).

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