As the new school year begins and the distinct smell of sharpened pencils lingers in the air with the scent of an impending crisp Autumn, parents may breathe a sigh of relief as routine and regularity return to their schedules. Depending on their age, children may be filled with excitement and enthusiasm for the start of the new school year or trepidation and reluctance. In any case, a new school year means a time of discovery and learning. Whether home schooling, public schooling, Islamic schooling, or college-bound, our concerns as parents most likely consume us as to what type of education our children will experience this year.
While packing my children up and sending them out the door at three different stages of elementary school, middle school, and college, my heart inevitably turned to making sincere dua’ for a year that is filled with all that is beneficial for their social, spiritual and emotional growth in addition to their academic expansion of mind, heart, body, and soul. Returning from school on the first day, my younger children were eager to discuss their classmates, teachers, and subjects. My oldest daughter was a bit more reticent and thoughtful. Later that evening, as I sat with each of my children during their “alone” time, I asked her about her first day at college.
Having experienced only an Islamic school environment throughout her school years, we both expected college to be a bit of a new transition. She began speaking to me about the surrounding atmosphere on the college campus and her classes. In her Intro to Geology class, the professor began the lecture with the Big Bang Theory and a complete denouncement of any place for religion in the study of science. She then spoke to me about how many students in their class introductions proudly announced that they were agnostic or atheist and of course we spoke about the rampant sexuality that seemed to occupy the minds and the focus of many of the students on campus.
Following our general conversation about the college atmosphere, she broached one of the most difficult subjects that tugged at my heart strings. We began to discuss the reality that many Muslim youth on campus seem eager to shed their identities and step away from Islam, despite their upbringing and their connection to the faith at a young age. Unlike other fears that parents may have regarding raising their children, lack of faith is one that can go unnoticed initially since externally the teen might continue to share in the rituals of practice 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, drug or alcohol abuse, or evidence of dating or inappropriate relationships. Yet, the complexity of losing one’s religion lies more in the state of the heart rather than in outward rebellion in terms of actions. “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) . While acts that defy religion undoubtedly affect the state of the heart, disregard for rules and questioning of religious relevancy are often the more likely culprits that lead our youth astray and direct them towards adopting a more agnostic or atheist outlook.
What are the reasons our youth may tread this path?
To begin with, 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 reject. With that rejection of authority and discipline, they may also reject the faith that their parents have instilled within them from a young age.
How do parents react when their children come to them with questions about faith?
We are often very reluctant to engage our youth in their modes of questioning. Rather than answering their questions in a language they can understand, we instead tune them out and guilt them for the asking. The question of “why?” should never be turned down from a child or a teen. Instead, we need to engage the questioning. We have examples in our prophets who sought solitude to question themselves and those around them in terms of the faith direction that they were following. Through the questioning, they came to a greater sense of awareness and an awakening towards the absolute power of monotheism and kalimat La ‘illaha ‘illa Allah.
The questions of our youth can also stem from a place of curiosity and a desire to truly understand. Look at the example of Prophet Musa (peace be upon him)) and how he had many questions about the hikmah of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). He was not turned away nor told not to ask. Instead he was shown the answers he was seeking through traveling with Al-Khidr and understanding that the knowledge of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) 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 such as when he asked Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) about the resurrection of life and he was instructed to separate the bodies of several birds and place them on different mountaintops to understand how Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) can bring the soul back to life. Prophets Ibrahim and Musa (peace be upon them) 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 is a return to the fitra that we are all born with but that sometimes gets muddled and clouded by society along the way.
Let’s not be so quick to dismiss our children’s questions of faith. Let them ask and if we don’t know the answer, we should commit to finding out what it is. Appeal to your child’s sense of rationale or to his or her creative bent in responding. If your teen begins to turn away from faith because he or she feels that Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) was not there for them when they needed His help, allow them to understand the concept of a dua delayed and teach them Ayah 286 from Surat Al-Baqarah that explains that “On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear…” and Ayah 216 in Surat Al-Baqarah: “…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.”
Why else do 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 may be pulling them away. 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 you can steer your child 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 child and teen so that they feel comfortable sharing their feelings and their friends with you. 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 the deen 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 virtual reality. If you can, take your teen to Makkah and Madinah to disconnect from hi-tech and walk in the footsteps of the Prophet ﷺ. Provide your teens with avenues and 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 but be sure to vet the online sources they are traversing since there can be many false sites out there as well.
Engage your child in understanding what it means to truly live Islam. Camp out in nature and teach your teen the miracles of the Quran that they can relate to their everyday surroundings. Learn how to speak their language to reach them. YOLO is not just an abbreviation for “You Only Live Once” but a mantra that our youth are surrounded by today. With a society that is constantly telling them to Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) by not worrying about tomorrow, it is no wonder that so many teens have lost their way. Bring your teens to the masjid and create an atmosphere for them where the masjid is not just seen as an “old people’s place,” but as a place that thrives and flourishes with the interaction 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 live their faith out loud through the goodness of character along with the memorization of Quran. Allow them to connect the dots between their faith and their questions by teaching them to love the Prophet ﷺ. Since it is very hard for someone to love that which they do not know, encourage them to get to know the Prophet ﷺ through the seerah that will touch their hearts and help them understand the character of the Rasool ﷺ.
What if, after all this, your teen still refuses faith and insists on denying the existence of God?
Don’t give up on your child. Don’t disown him or her. Be there for your teen with constant dua. Remind your teen of the beauty of repentance and teach them that the door to tawbah is always open. Today your teen may be living through a crisis of faith but tomorrow that same teen may be even stronger in iman than you could ever imagine. Keep your own faith strong in the face of one of the biggest trials a parent can tested with. Hold fast to the ayah of the Quran that tells us “…never despair of Allah’s mercy….” (39:53)
May Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) bless all the children of the ummah and may He protect them from all that may 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. And may this be the start of a blessed school year for our children.
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