By Fahad Mayet*

Mar. 21, 2006

In recent years, people have been posing the question many times, “How on earth do we get youth back into Islamic Centers where they will gain insights on their cultural and religious values and heritages?”

Whether you look at Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or even Hinduism and Sikhism, the solutions are fundamentally similar. To arrive at the appropriate answers, we must look at the spiritual needs of youth today and compare them with what religious centers offer.

Could it not be that many youths are not going to these centers because the needs of the youth evolve all the time, and that these evolved needs aren’t being met? Our imams and community leaders need to get their psyche around the simple fact that what they once required when they were youth may have completely changed for the new generations.

We cannot load each teenager onto the same bandwagon that was used three decades ago and assume that the same formula will still work. Doing this will certainly achieve the antithesis of attracting youth to Islamic centers.

As a young person who frequently communicates with “community elders,” I know that many of these people find it hard to accept change, let alone implement these changes into the activities of the mosques and centers that they are responsible for.

Young people today have more dynamic interests, and the work of religious institutions should begin working dynamically with them. If this does not happen, youth participation will decrease. Most youth are not going to walk into lectures at their local mosque or Islamic center on their own accord.

There are many things which contribute to young people’s lack of participation, such as their fear that appearing religious will be perceived as being “uncool” by their peers, in addition to the lack of spiritual influence at centers and the lack of communal participation and interaction with other like-minded Muslims.

There is also a real need among our youth to be educated not only about the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the Qur’an, and Sunnah, but also about the great spiritual thinkers of Islam. Learning about the immense cultural and intellectual heritage of Muslims who lived many centuries ago, and the role that Islam played on the intellectual world stage would be able to reversing the attitudes some of us hold about religion being “uncool.”

Learning about the great intellectuals of medieval Islam, such as Imam Al-Ghazali, and our spiritual leaders, such as Jalal Ad-Din Rumi, will restore our pride in our heritage and help reverse the apparent “uncoolness” of religion. Reversing this trend will definitely bring youth and adults alike (some who hold the same attitude!) back into Islamic centers and circles. A few Islamic groups and institutions have already started discarding the “uncool” attitude by organizing fun activities that also incorporate religious education.

Many teenagers in our society feel that the spiritual nature of Islam is absent from the programs of many Islamic centers. Young people feel alienated in a way because they are bombarded with sermons that say they will suffer and be punished if they don’t conform to such and such a law.

To be honest, Muslim youth recognize that there is more to Islam than the judicial aspect of it. Another side of Islam is the spiritual (Sufi) aspect of Islam. Although many of us do not know it by name, we recognize that there does exist a real spiritual dimension of Islam. We need not only to hear about punishment, but also how we can get closer to Allah and how we can earn His love.

It is this that modern Muslim youth yearn for but do not necessarily have awareness of. Many young people’s disillusionment with religion may be changed if our institutions were to give a bigger picture of what this beautiful deen of Allah is all about.

We must also do away with the notion that Allah is vengeful and is waiting for us to put a wrong foot down — this notion is too often propagated by parents and imams. However, Allah is far from vengeful — it was related that there are eight doors to Heaven but only seven doors to Hell. This metaphor is used to portray the mercy of Allah and His favors upon His creation.

We must instill in our youth the idea that Allah is merciful so that they can appreciate Islam and seek to enlighten themselves in such matters by their own accord. Only through this will we be able to achieve true taqwa and piety.

Another aspect which we young people lack is a yearning for religious knowledge. This can be increased, as said above, by educating young Muslims about their heritage. But it also can be done in other ways. A friend once exclaimed to me — and this I, too, can relate to — “Wwouldn’t it be great to understand what he [the imam] was saying?” My friend was of course referring to the Jumu`ah sermon which is traditionally given in Arabic.

Our zeal for knowledge would be increased by long overdue changes to the typical madrasah curriculum. Adding subjects such as Arabic into the conventional madrasah timetable would increase interest in Islam among many of us and would create a yearning for more religious knowledge.

However, credit must be given to many mosques and centers that have begun to overcome the problems of the lack of youth participation. Some places have begun with what teenagers like the most — being with their peers. Here in the United Kingdom, many mosques have begun programs and conferences designed primarily to engage youth and help them network with each other.

These programs usually attract massive numbers of children, teenagers, as well as the parents of the young people. They often deal with current issues concerning Muslim youth. Although this has begun, there is a long way to go before such activities are perfected.

It must also be said that although there are “youth conferences,” the majority of these cater for brothers and there is a real lack of resources and facilities for the sisters of our communities. Something must be done to tackle this problem.

There was one such conference held in Lancashire, United Kingdom, which some friends and I attended.

Many of my friends described the conference as “exciting” and “really interesting,” which proves that the organizers were on to something with regard understanding what appeals to youth. These ideas must be built upon to attract a wider range of Muslim youth who may have different interests, and facilities must be built up the for sisters.

These are just some of the obstacles the Muslim community faces with regard to getting “us” back into Islamic centers to study and learn about our faith. Only once these problems are overcome will youth participation increase in our communities. This is something we must all strive for, so it is ensured that we, the youth, are equipped with the adequate knowledge to face the world with regard to Islam.

At this point in time, Islam has been receiving so much bad press that it is necessary to educate our leaders of tomorrow so that this culture of bad publicity is reversed and Islam will be revered for what it really is about.

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* Fahad Mayet is a 16 year old, studying in London, UK. Currently, Fahad is studying for his GCSE’s and is taking an A Level in English Literature. He has interests in political, youth and social issues, which he enjoys writing about. Recently, he has been commended by Chatham House for an article about last year’s G8 Summit. He is also an active member of the London Citizens Organization, which runs various projects and campaigns for Londoners, and has received a Student Founder’s Award from them.

Fahad is also a member of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth in England. He can be contacted at youth_campaign@iolteam.com