“What happened to Ahmad?”: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk

“Ibrahim,” he asked, “can you speak with me?”  Ahmad*, 19, was a young Muslim man struggling with peer pressure at his community college to drink and engage in sexual activity. I was not the imam, nor was I a chaplain at this time, but I could see in his eyes that he was desperately seeking some good advice and someone who would listen to him.  While Ahmad came from a practicing Muslim home, he did not feel comfortable speaking to them about the peer pressures he faced.  He confessed to me that he had been giving in to them and knew that what he was doing was wrong.  Though he had wanted to seek help for some time from his local imam, he worried that the most the imam would tell him was that what he was doing is ḥarām. Ahmad also felt the imam, who had been raised in another country, would not understand the pressures of growing up in an American society.  He wanted to speak to someone who, he felt, would understand the pressures he faced and not simply offer a legal verdict.

Ahmad approached me one evening outside our mosque after finding out that I was a convert.  He wanted to know what about Islam gave me the strength to leave behind the type of life I could have led had I not converted.  I knew immediately that this was not a normal “what brought you to Islam” question.  Ahmad was looking for something inspiring about the religion he had known his entire life, or some practical advice that could strengthen him against falling prey to these pressures.  For nearly an hour we spoke that night and I offered him the best advice that I could; yet it was not just advice he was looking for, he was also desperate just to find someone able understand his situation. Though I worried and prayed for him, since then I have not seen him. Two months after we spoke, however, I found out that his parents had asked him to move out of their home. They had discovered he used alcohol and dated women.  He has not appeared at the mosque since, and I have I heard nothing more.

Muslim Youth at Risk

Like Ahmad, most American Muslim youth encounter biological, psychological, and social developmental changes which influence how they experience and perceive the world around them.  In addition to these—and the parental pressure to maintain cultural and religious customs—Muslim youth also experience peer pressure, like in Ahmad’s case, to participate in activities and behaviors contrary to their religious beliefs; such as dating, engaging in premarital sex, and abusing alcohol or drugs.  Muslim youth are often caught between having to choose either engaging in what they may see as “normal youth behavior” and risk being ostracized by their family and religious community, or acting in accordance with their family and community’s wishes and facing alienation, loneliness, and rejection by their peers due to their differences in lifestyle and beliefs.  Because of a perceived, or real, lack of support from their family and community, and alienation during these critical developmental stages in their life, many Muslim youth may actually become more predisposed to abuse drugs and alcohol.

While imams and Islamic centers can, and should, play a crucial role in providing health services, if the imam is not seen as being culturally sensitive to the pressures of American Muslim youth they may be less likely to seek his help when in need.  Imams are often times unfamiliar with health services; more capable of acting as a jurist than a counselor. Their religious education often focuses on the religious ruling of alcohol and its evidences and not how to counsel one fighting peer pressure to begin or continue using it.  In a study conducted of 22 mosques in New York City, none of the imams, except for one, had any formal pastoral training. Ninety-one percent of them were also foreign born/educated and reported having difficulty with language barriers and/or relating to second-generation Muslims.  This lack of connection with the youth may be related to the results of a recent Gallup poll showing young Muslims (aged 18-29) among the least likely to be satisfied with their local communities, and least likely to see their community as improving.  This dissatisfaction is even more disturbing when seen in light of the fact that many (41%) reported that they still attend their mosque at least once a week; 14% higher than the national average for worship-service attendance!

Imams can play a crucial role if they have the right training, however American Muslims presently lack any sufficient educational institution providing this training alongside other traditional sciences expected to be known by an imam.  One issue that also arises is that the position of imam is not one that is necessarily earned through an ordainment process or curriculum of study.Rather, the position may be granted to any individual the congregation, or those in management of it, deem qualified.  Often times looking for someone with pastoral training is simply not a top priority.  Many congregations require nothing more than knowledge of the sacred scripture (the Qur’an and Sunnah) and an ability to preach.  Due to this relative selection process the level of education for imams can also vary greatly, some graduating from prestigious Islamic universities and others primarily self-educated.

In response to the ever increasing American Muslim population a call for Muslim chaplains has been made by hospitals, the military, prisons, and more recently universities.  The Muslim chaplain position is a new one for both Americans and American Muslims to accept; however the position may prove useful not only for these institutions, but also the greater Muslim community.  The Hartford Seminary, the first graduate school to offer an Islamic chaplaincy certificate, provides education and training for Muslims interested in pastoral care.  Graduates of the program have also gone on to find jobs in hospitals, military units, prisons, and universities.  Their training and skill, however, should also be sought out as a rich asset to their surrounding Muslim community, starving for mental health services.

Due to a cultural stigma of Western mental health services and to the fact that many health services organizations are not all culturally sensitive to Muslims, mosques have become a primary resource for Muslims seeking mental health services.  Without having a professional on hand familiar with mental health services (how to provide them and/or direct someone to the proper service provider) mosques may be missing an opportunity to provide much needed help to their community.  The unique combination of religious studies and pastoral training makes the Muslim chaplain an ideal addition to mosques and Islamic centers.  In combination with the services the imam provides, a Muslim chaplain can administer more specifically to social needs of the community while able to work with the imam in his other duties.  The increasing reliance upon the mosque to provide not only religious services for the Muslim community, but also mental health and social, has shown that providing leaders who are trained in pastoral skills has become both needed and necessary.

Want to continue this discussion?
Check out: “Responding to Ahmad: An al-Azhar Student Reacts”

This article has also been shared and published by: SeekersGuidance Blog and MuslimLink: Ottawa’s Community Newspaper.

Bibliography

Abu-Ras, W., Gheith, A., Cournos, F. (2008). The Imam’s Role in Mental Health Promotion. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 3:2, 155-176.

Ahmed, Sameera. (2009). Religiosity and Presence of Character Strengths in American Muslim Youth. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 4:2, 104-123.

Ahmed, S., & Akhter, K. (2006, August). When multicultural worlds collide: Understanding and working with Muslim youth. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Association, New Orleans, LA.

Fuller, R. C. (1996). Religion and wine: A cultural history of wine drinking in the United States. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Gallup, Inc. (2009). Muslim Americans: A National Portrait. PDF.

Michalak, L., Trocki, K., Katz, K. (2009). “I am a Muslim and My Dad is an Alcoholic—What Should I do?” Internet-Based Advice for Muslims About Alcohol. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 4:1, 47-66.

Morgan, J. H. (2010). Muslim Clergy in America: Ministry as Profession in the Islamic Community. 2nd Edition. MECCA Project.

Sheff, D., Larkin, W., Ketcham, K., Eban, K. (2007). A Disease of Young People. Addiction: Why Can’t They Just Stop? Holtzbrinck Publishers, New York, 85-117.


* Ahmad’s name and other identifying information has been changed, or withheld, to protect his identity.

6 thoughts on ““What happened to Ahmad?”: Responding to Muslim Youth at Risk

  1. Janet Aly

    Assalamu alekoum,

    Ameen to that! More full-time staff at masjids, including a position similar to counselor or chaplain would be an indispensable asset to the community. I wholeheartedly agree. Did you see Ta’leef Collective’s question posed to Facebookers on Tues.? Some of the respondent’s comments were spot on, and in line with your essay. I think the saddest part is that while Foreign born Imams KNOW they have a disconnect, I think most of them really don’t care enough to do something about it, let alone even broach the subject at all. Nice read, thanks for posting,

    Janet

  2. mimuna

    Assalamu Ailakum,

    Well said Br. Ibrahim and JazakAllah Khair for shedding light on some of the serious issues facing Western Muslim youth. Although Ahmed’s story is heartbreaking, it’s sadly the reality of many young brothers and sisters. This actually reminds me of a documentary I saw not long ago, that followed group of young Muslim sisters who were struggling with their religious and cultural beliefs and wanting to fit in. Sadly, at the end of documentary the sisters ended up moving out of their parents’ homes and choosing to put aside their religious believes.
    I do agree with you on part of the solution being Muslim Chaplain, which isn’t even available in Canada yet. But I also think the parents need to find better solutions to the miscommunication with their children than dropping them off at the Imam’s office when things have gotten out of control. Parents want someone to provide instant solutions to their teenagers’ problems or asking youth workers to fix their children. Having sat between a parent and a struggling teenager on more than one occasion it’s a very difficult position to be in. Parents want you to quote Ayats that pertain to the respect of parents and the teenagers want you to make their parents understand their point view since we’re close in age.

    With all due respect, I disagree with you sister on Imams not caring enough, as someone who has worked with several Imams who were all foreign trained. They do try to make an attempt at finding solutions but a lot of them are over extended so having someone like a Chaplain around would really help.
    I actually heard of one program in South Africa for the retraining of Imams from all over the world by non-profit organization called Mercy Mission.
    But I think the real long term solution is reevaluating our Islamic education in the West. As someone who was born into the religion I was taught what the rules were and how to abide by them. But I was missing the essence of the religion the “whys”, the meanings and the wisdom behind everything we do. You’re taught to fear God but not a lot of emphasis is placed on having love and hope in Allah. Being someone who has never blindly followed anything and was taught to be critical thinker I wanted more. Blindly following the religion which is the way a lot of born Muslims practice it, especially back home isn’t working anymore. I remember as child hearing the call to prayer for the first time walking by our local mosque hand in hand with my father and telling him I wanted to be an Imam. The reply was a stern “no” without an explanation, which stayed with me until I understood why women couldn’t be Imams.

    I think there should be emphasis put on the importance of religious studies not just secular education but a healthy balance between the two. Religious studies should include a lot more and emphasis should be placed on spiritually; developing and nurturing a relationship with Allah. With every problem, I always come back to myself on how I can change myself to provide a solution to it. I think we all need to be part of the solution and help our struggling brothers and sisters. The saying, “ it takes a village to raise a child”, is true.

    JazakAllah khair for opening up this important discussion.
    Wasalam

    1. Wa ‘Alaikum As-Salam,

      It is unfortunate that there is such an apparent disconnect between the imam and many Muslim youth. This is, of course, not indicative of all centers. The position of imam in North America (and Europe) has been taking on a unique shape and added responsibilities likely not seen before. Whereas these responsibilities used to be more shared across the community, maybe due to the lack of diverse (and locally responsive) Islamic institutions in a community these responsibilities have been placed upon his shoulders alone. He must be the jurist, the youth counselor, the marriage counselor, the interfaith speaker, the educator and also lead the Friday sermon.

      What I would actually like to see are more diverse positions open up at Islamic centers to help spread out these tasks. Sharing the responsibilities will also allow better trained people to focus on these areas, or at least allow people to make this area their sole focus. For example, having a youth minister (a position some places have already adopted) who works directly with youth activities and education. Also a counselor who can help people with more social and mental health issues, and maybe also provide educational seminars to the community which can work as a preventative measure to common problems.

      In this sense the imam, still offering the Friday sermon and answering fiqhi questions, can direct people to these other leaders when in need of help; and once communities realize that it is better to invest in human resources than overly decadent buildings these positions should also be paid. This provides both a path for people to help the community full-time and professionally, and to be able to make a living for themselves. wa Allahu ‘Alam.

      wasalam,
      Ibrahim

  3. khalid

    MashahAllah very nice articel it addresses the issue very nicely, the health services in NZ are currently looking for ways to improve Imams knowledge around health especially mental health so that they can better support the needs of those members of community who are desperate for help,, people like ahmed.

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