Religion is an important aspect of life for a majority of Muslim youth in the United States. According to the Gallup Organization’s 2009 report Muslim Americans: A National Portrait, the percentage of young Muslims who say faith is important (77%) is roughly similar to the proportion of young Protestants (74%).
Yet, walk into most Masjids, whether that’s on a busy Friday or a weekend when classes are being held, and you’ll find Muslims under 10 or over 30. Those in between are usually absent. Especially noticeable is the lack of youth, between the ages of 11 and 19. While they may have attended weekend school classes as children, they have chosen to distance themselves from the Masjid as teens.
It’s an old crisis that requires new strategies and answers. Some Masjids have caught on and are trying to bring the youth back. Others believe it’s a lost cause. Others still, are willfully ignorant or are not willing to be a little flexible to allow greater space for teen participation in our mosques.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was not only aware of the dynamism and strength of young Muslims. He made sure to harness them to build a better Muslim community. He gave responsible youth positions of leadership; he interacted with them in a down-to-earth manner, making a point to not only hear them out but to praise them for raising a good point in front of their elders.
The Masjid is the heart of the community, the core of who we are collectively. These houses of worship were not built exclusively for men over 30 or children 10 and under. They were built for everyone. And Muslim teens, those who we rely on to keep Islam going after the older generation is gone, cannot and will not participate unless we make a strong effort to not only organize programs for them, but really make an effort to make them feel close to the Masjid.
Below are 10 ideas that can be used as starting points.
1. Use congregational activities to create a sense of belonging
There is power in the Jama’ah (group). We know that praying together, doing Dhikr (remembrance of God) together, eating together, and more are all considered acts that are given higher reward than if done individually.
One of the most important things teens seek is a sense of belonging. This is why Masjids should capitalize on various acts of collective worship to bring teens in. Some ideas include:
-Muslim teen back to Juma program. Have a couple of young Muslims take charge of texting or tweeting their friends, encouraging them to attend Friday prayers together.
-Daily collective prayer reminder: do the same as the above, except for daily prayers, especially Fajr and Isha, when teens are not in school, as well as all five of the Salaat on weekends.
2. Hold monthly youth open houses
Open houses at Masjids have become a staple activity in the community, especially for interfaith purposes. Expand this concept to Muslim youth by hosting “Youth Night“. The point is to reacquaint teens with their mosque.
Make sure plenty of pizza, snacks, and drinks are present, along with healthier alternatives (e.g. vegetables and dip). In terms of activities, choose a topic focused on God’s Attributes and character-building and hold a discussion. Teens often complain of not being allowed to express themselves and discuss issues with their parents and other community elders. Let them do this during the course of this event, but lay some ground rules from the start so it doesn’t get out of hand.
Avoid topics that have been presented over and over again to this age group (e.g. music, Hijab, modesty, etc.). It’s not that they should not be talked about. But the purpose of this kind of an event is to start off with the basics of the faith that will instill a deeper faith and connection with Allah and the mosque as a community institution.
3. Offer good customer service
In America, many houses of worship have caught on to this concept. Some have bent over backwards to bring youth in, sometimes at the expense of their principles. But good customer service means some simple things smart businesses do that allow customers to feel welcome to buy products: smiling customer service representatives; clean surroundings; affordable products; perks like loyalty cards, or even benches and vending machines near the entrance so potential buyers can be comfortable.
At our mosques, we are not “selling” Islam. However, we do want to make sure we all represent it in the best way through, as the Quran says, “wisdom and beautiful preaching”. Do we see that at most mosques? Frankly, no.
When it comes to Muslim teens, we often tend to be even harsher. Whether it’s the constant frowning at them or in general, Khutbas of little relevance to the lives of most youth, and sometimes intolerance of someone’s way of praying or dressing.
Let’s consider the big and small ways we can “add value” to the Masjid experience by re-embracing the original concept of “wisdom and beautiful preaching” when it comes to mosques and teens.
4. Make your Masjid text-friendly
Studies have found that Four out of five teens (17 million) in the United States carry a wireless device (a 40% increase since 2004). As well, texting is replacing talking among teens. Teens admitted spending nearly an equal amount of time talking as they do texting each month. The feature is so important to them that if texting were no longer an option 47% of teens say their social life would end or be worsened.
A number of Masjids have caught on and text their members updates of events, and allow them to text donations as well. Most, however, don’t. Making the Masjid text-friendly is critical to connecting teens to the mosque.
5. Get onto Facebook - today
At the start of 2010, 40% of Facebook users were under the age of 25. Teens are heavy Facebook and social media users. Every Masjid in America needs to have its own Facebook page which is regularly updated with events, prayer times, activities, and more.
The page should not only be a repository of information about the mosque. It should allow for carefully moderated posts and discussions of issues pertaining to the Masjid. As mentioned above, teens want to be heard. A Facebook page offers them a way to establish first contact with the mosque, which insha Allah, will develop into a desire to visit in person.
6. Hold a Khutba meeting with them
Sleeping or texting worshippers are hardly uncommon at Friday prayers. Some of this may be due to genuine fatigue or an emergency. But more often than not, they are a reflection of a boring Khutba.
Hold a meeting with a couple of the youth who attend your Masjid regularly. Seek out their advice on what kinds of topics to discuss in Friday sermons. Also post this question on your mosque’s Facebook page, and solicit feedback through texting as well.
Take it a step further and offer one Friday a month as a time when a teen will give a Khutba. Offer Khutba training for those who need it.
7. Make a special effort to include young Muslim women
Many Muslims still hold myths about women’s attendance and participation at the Masjid, ranging from “girls and women can’t go” to “women can’t have any decision-making power”.
Make a special effort to create a sister-friendly environment for women in general. Also encourage young Muslim women to be part of the board or mosque’s main committee, so they can share their concerns and issues.
8. Sell hope
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, "Make things easy and do not make them difficult, cheer the people up by conveying glad tidings to them, and do not repulse (them)'' (Bukhari and Muslim).
We are living in difficult times for Muslims in America and around the world. The Masjid should not only be a place where these challenges are talked about it, but it should also be where Muslims can find solace.
Young Muslims, in particular, may face bullying at school because of their faith. Other than that, the pressure to do the right thing in line with Islamic values is hard, especially at this age.
Make your Masjid a repository of hope and comfort for Muslims. At least once a month, Khutbas should be about an optimistic topic, something that will infuse listeners with joy; Imams, Khateebs, and everyone who volunteers regularly at the Masjid should smile more often; positive news about good things Muslims are doing or of others standing up for Muslims should be given publicity in sermons and newsletters.
9. Provide a forum for community service
Young adults have a great amount of energy that, if directed to the right channels, can reap incredible results for not just themselves, but the entire community at large. One way to do that is to organize service projects planned by youth, in collaboration with a responsible adult. Events like Islamic Relief’s Day of Dignity are one example.
Anything that makes teens feel they are doing good and benefiting others are the kinds of things that will build self-esteem individually, as well as collectively. If done at the Masjid in a proper way, they will elicit respect from the youth, and in the long-term, a desire to become more connected and involved insha Allah.
10. Encourage Halal entertainment
Music has long been considered a controversial issue in Islam and the Muslim community, while teens grapple with the fact that most contemporary music they listen to spouts ideas and values antithetical to their faith.
However, Islam does and has allowed for artistic expression, and there are ways young Muslims, who often enjoy music and other forms of entertainment can benefit from a Masjid-focused Halal entertainment event. One is Quran recitation competitions (these can be conducted in front of men-only and women-only audiences). Another is Nasheed (Islamic song) competitions. Others could include Islamic art and poetry.
In addition, on Eid, encourage young brothers of the community to take the responsibility of reciting the Takbir-al-Eid in a beautiful, melodious manner that will uplift hearts and bring joy on this day of happiness.