Atheism, marijuana, alcohol abuse, dating, depression, suicide, and rebellion – these are just some of the controversial topics discussed in the El Ansary Podcast. The podcast, created and hosted by Mahmoud Elansary, is celebrating its 1-year anniversary this month with over 75 segments and 25,900 views on YouTube. Elansary is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland (Baltimore County), a business analyst, and now an influencer. The podcast is centered around his life as a young Muslim American, born and raised in the West, forging a Muslim identity while avoiding the pitfalls of a liberal culture. Formerly known as Thinking Allowed, the Ansary Podcast aims to provide a voice to our youngest community members and future generation of Muslims.
Elansary describes it as “centered around young Muslims trying to get a better understanding of who we are, why we are here, what our values are, and how we can thrive and succeed as Muslims in Islam's ‘Medieval Times.’” In European history, we know that the medieval period or the Middle Ages began after the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance, a period of rebirth and rediscovery. Similarly, the Muslim community is at a crossroads – Muslims in the U.S. are still learning to adapt to a new, technologically-driven age in which their religion is viewed as archaic. One of the central questions for our teens is are they Muslim before they are American or can both identities coexist?
The Struggle is Real for our Youth
Inspired by his own struggles and that of his peers, Elansary, who is still in his early twenties, decided to develop the show after observing and experiencing the hardships of upholding Islamic values in a secular society. Growing up as a first generation Muslim Egyptian American, he often felt isolated and like he was living a double life. He said, “I am personally trying to stay on the Islamic path and not fall into partying, drinking/smoking, and girls, yet struggle to do so. And I know so many Muslim Americans who feel the same but have no one who can relate to their unique situation nor anyone to talk to.” He believes the podcast is a safe space for young Muslims to learn more about themselves, their religion, and how to juggle the pressures inside and outside the Islamic community, where certain topics are still taboo. Guests include Muslim teenagers, doctors, professors, artists, lawyers, politicians, activists, and faith leaders.
Elansary hopes to touch young lives before, as he describes, they “self-destruct.” He explained, “We are losing a lot of our Muslim youth to atheism, drugs, alcohol, sex, and even suicide. I, myself, have lost friends to all of those categories. People like me need help.” Most of the audience are confused non-practicing Muslim youth and even some non-Muslims. Bringing on guests who have been there and done that – passed through adolescence and young adulthood while still maintaining their Islamic faith – may be the boost other children need to stay on the Straight Path. Rather than shame Muslims who have strayed and fallen into vices, he advocates for offering them reassurance that they can redeem themselves.
It is no coincidence that the meaning of El Ansary in English is “the helper;” like the dwellers of Medina who supported our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, after the hijrah. Mahmoud Elansary is using his namesake to help others by having the uncomfortable conversations other Muslims avoid. Usually, he does the interviewing in his podcast, but for this article, we decided to ask the questions. Here is what he had to say:
Q: What do you think Muslim teens are missing growing up in the U.S.?
“A sense of belonging. The quote from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, “Glad tidings to the strangers,” is also a recognition that it is difficult for a human being to feel like a stranger and remain a stranger, especially if they feel that way in a land where they were born and raised.”
Q: How can parents play a more supportive role for their teens? What should they avoid?
“There are many things [they can do], but I believe that if parents can strategize their parenting style towards ensuring the child is confident in their identity, that solves almost all the other things. One can remain firm in their faith even with little knowledge if they have identity. And many Muslims around the world go under this category – few Muslims are truly knowledgeable. It is best to combine identity and knowledge, but if you’re going to neglect one of them, make sure it’s not identity that you neglect.”
Q: As a Muslim child, what do you wish you had more of growing up?
“The most general thing I can think of that applies to me and others, is a true sense of friendship with my parents. (Now) we have a friendship, but that’s because there was a conscious effort by both parties to get there, alhamdullilah. But when I was a teenager, I wish I could’ve talked to my parents about personal things. That never felt like it was available. So, who do we turn to instead? Friends. Parents trade in the desire not to hear cringey stuff like “their child has a crush” in exchange for their child’s company, faith, and sense of identity. It’s odd.”
Q: What advice would you give to parents and children when it comes to how they deal with growing up Muslim?
“My advice [to the parents] is Islamic advice, “7, 7, 7.” [This is a reference to a hadith which suggests that parents play with their children for 7 years, educate them for 7 years, and be their friend for 7 years.] To the children I’d advise to learn as much as they can about Islam, it’s history, and the tafseer of the Quran. Memorizing is not as important as understanding what the Quran says.”
Q: How can youth who have strayed bounce back and find their way to the Deen?
“I believe that part of “finding your way” is the Deen. The Deen is not a destination, so you’ll never find your way to it. The Deen is a journey, finding your way is a part of that journey. Muslims need to understand that this life is truly a journey. Trying to pray, being better with your parents, and fasting one week then falling off and partying and smoking the second week. Then trying again to be kind and generous and caring the third week. Then falling off and hanging out with girls the fourth week. Then bouncing back and working on your anger, patience, and Quran recitation the 5th week. That’s a journey many Muslim teens are in right now.
“It’s true that you can put each day and week under a magnifying glass and say, “Whoa, what a horrible person,” but if you zoom out into 75 years of life, what you’ll find is a Muslim who had their downfalls and weaknesses, but nevertheless kept struggling towards Allah, crawling, and fighting their way back. Even when they fell short, even when everyone saw them as a stoner, drunk or womanizer, they got back up and tried again. And if they keep fighting and they’re sincere, they’ll find that Allah will open the doors for them.”
Q: How do you hope your podcast can help Muslim youth?
“I want kids to understand what a Muslim identity can LOOK like in America. What is our culture as western Muslims? Where do we as Muslim Americans draw the line? And we want the lines to be set exactly where Islam placed them. Not over the line and not behind the line, which is currently the state of most Muslims. They’re either too harsh and strict in their religion or too lenient with their religion and morals. Both are indications of ignorance of the religion.”
Elansary hopes to rebrand the image of Islam in the West, from the “celebrity sheikhs” that many of his young listeners are turned off by to a more realistic, flawed yet hopeful Muslim – much like the flawed heroes we are used to reading about and seeing on the big screen. His idea aligns with the timeless words of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, who said, “All of the children of Adam are sinners, and the best sinners are those who repent” (Tirmidhi).
For more about the El Ansary Podcast, subscribe to the Youtube channel: youtube.com/c/ElAnsaryPodcast and follow Mahmoud Elansary on Instagram @mowelansary.