“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.
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.
Ibrahim J Long is a Muslim Chaplain at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT