Islamic centers are undergoing a diverse and dynamic transformation as different generations are coming together to make up today’s growing Muslim community. Along with resolving existing challenges like mismanagement, politics, and lack of funding, new themes have become common such as servicing seniors, retaining the youth, and providing support to new Muslims of all ages. Many board members and religious leaders are well into their 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s, and make the bulk of the decisions that affect congregations of a youth majority. Congregations experiencing these types of generational gaps require a unique approach to serve the best interests of all worshippers.
Describing Generational Differences
Currently, our masajid are hosting five distinct generations who may be gathering, praying, breaking fast, and learning together. As of 2019, the Pew Research Center defines the generational gaps as follows:
- Traditionalists – born before 1946
- Baby Boomers (aka “Boomers”) – born between 1946 and 1964
- Generation X (Gen X) – born between 1965 and 1980 or 1979 according to other sources
- Generation Y (Millennials) – born between 1981 and 1997 (or between 1980 and 1995 according to other sources)
- Generation Z (Gen Z) – born after 1997 or after 1996 according to other sources
In addition, there are a multitude of ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial backgrounds interacting on a daily basis in Islamic centers across the nation. This is the essence of community in Islam. Allah says in the Quran:
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided…”
(Surah Al-Imran, 3:103)
While community diversity is an admirable quality in the Islamic context, it can also give rise to a variety of conflicts. Think about older, immigrant “uncles” and “aunties” who scold the youth and new Muslims because of their preconceived notions of misbehavior or what is deemed inappropriate in their respective cultures. Or how about the isolated teen who prefers not to attend the masjid because he/she does not want to feel judged by the “boomers”? There are also those millennial or Gen Z mothers who want to attend gatherings, but they lack adequate space or support to bring along their infants or young children. Equally, there may be Gen X or millennial men whose opinions are not taken into consideration for important decision-making by the elder founding members who feel a sense of entitlement or ownership in their respective masajid.
Islamic centers or mosques composed of various generations have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to individual development, retention, and community stability. Thus, leaders, educators, and even parents themselves need to understand the dynamics of each generation and work to accommodate generational diversity.
Challenges of Generation Diversity
As the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
In order to ensure a united and stable Islamic community for our children, the village must provide a safe space where they can grow and flourish. The village elders have to set an example and build the stable environment that the youth need to feel secure in their faith and identity. The diverse Muslim body provides the opportunity to leverage unique backgrounds, experience, and perspectives, but only if we are willing – from top to bottom. Leadership should be open to receiving new ideas and evolving to suit the needs of their multigenerational congregations.
Undoubtedly, diversity can present challenges, especially for communities ill-equipped or unwilling to improve their cultural awareness. Each generation is known for its specific characteristics, which may or may not complement others. Here are some of those characteristics:
- For example, traditionalists and baby boomers – the parents of those who are currently middle-aged/40’s/Gen X and grandparents of millennials and Gen Z – are well known for having a strong work ethic, defending traditional hierarchies, and being loyal members. However, they may also be strict, unwelcoming, and not as technologically savvy or open to new technology as later generations.
- Generation X is known as self-autonomous, adaptable, resourceful, and creative – having grown up playing outside while their parents worked and not as exposed to information technology as their younger counterparts.
- Millennials are known as social, confident, team-oriented, flexible, and tech-savvy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Millennials are the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. Significant events that helped shape them include the rise of social media and online technologies, the September 2001 terror attacks in America, and the Great Recession.” Because of the effect of tech and the uncertainty of national security, they thrive off of constant feedback, need continuous engagement, short-term gratification, and connect with technology more readily than older generations.
- Although Gen Z is the freshest of the bunch, they are quickly becoming some of the most involved members of the Islamic community.
This multigenerational landscape in our places of worship is one with varying characteristics, values, and preferences, and we are not even taking into account the youngest generation, born after 2010 that is now approaching young adulthood. These are our children. How can we identify and address their needs?
First, leaders need to take into account the multigenerational diversity challenges and opportunities when planning community projects. Doing so will help minimize potential conflicts, frustrations, or resentments between community members, or worse, complete estrangement. It may be difficult for elder, founding members to let go of some of their ownership mindset and hand the reins to the youth. However, they must be open to the idea, considering that the newer generations will eventually assume the responsibilities of running future operations.
Second, in the classroom, educators should be placing greater emphasis on the history of Islam in their communities and the key players who have been instrumental in establishing thriving Islamic centers. There has to be an appreciation for the sacrifices of our predecessors for the rights and privileges we enjoy today.
Third, and more importantly, parents must teach their children how to interact with their elders respectfully and take advantage of chances to learn about them, their struggles, and triumphs.
Leadership Style of the Prophet
Effective leadership is necessary for any center or organization to be sustainable, preserve commitment, guarantee success, and ensure participation. Community leaders, educators, and parents have to strive to achieve and model certain prophetic qualities like trustworthiness, emotional intelligence/empathy, and compassion. These characteristics transcend generational gaps.
Our best example, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, was a balanced leader who knew how to communicate effectively with people across generations. Jarir ibn Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with him, reported:
“The Messenger of Allah said, ‘Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to people.’”
(Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim)
Similarly, Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-As, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“He does not belong to us who does not show mercy to our young and honor our old.” (At-Tirmidhi)
In this manner, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, set the stage for how to manage a growing, multigenerational group of believers – through mutual respect and mercy. Effective leadership places greater emphasis on setting an environment in which all community members feel equally accepted and valued. In addition, there must be an inspirational vision found in Islamic reminders (suitable for all) and a mission of creating a united front. This will stimulate intrinsic motivation where members, young and old, will devote themselves to the wellbeing of the community as a whole – increasing attendance, volunteership, educational opportunities, and even fundraising efforts.
Everyone wins when the community works together and is unified under effective leadership. However, this only functions well when all generations feel seen and heard. The only way to guarantee this is by sticking with the examples in the Quran and the Sunnah. Allah says:
“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allāh upon you - when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.”
(Surah Al-Imran, 3:103)
Managing Multigenerational Muslim Communities
Once leaders begin to focus on the needs of everyone they serve - across generations - and act with empathy, managing the community as a whole becomes easier. And so too, does quelling any conflicts that arise.
Here are some ways and approaches that can further help lead multigenerational Islamic centers.
1. Communicate and establish expectations continually.
This can happen by way of gentle reminders during events, gatherings, and congregational prayers. Respect should be given to those in authority so they can succeed in bringing the people together. As Allah says in the Quran:
“O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.”
(Surah An-Nisa, 4:59)
2. Encourage a community consciousness that is compliant and adaptable.
Successful leadership requires open-minded followers who are conscientious of meeting everyone’s needs and are flexible. Modeling this behavior may be especially effective for those in charge, as well as for elders, teachers, and parents.
3. Work to understand and value every member of the community.
Younger generations must recognize the value of historical knowledge and lessons learned that the older generations possess. Older generations should admire the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity of the younger generations. Joint events with a diverse panel of speakers or a seating arrangement that encourages youth and elders to share a table are great ways to foster meaningful connections.
4. Share responsibilities for event planning.
Leadership can identify how committees or teams will function, communicate, and work together. By doing so, everyone can acknowledge each other’s skills, roles, and contributions.
5. Promote mentorship opportunities. H3 Header
Assigning coaches or mentors to the youth from among the older generations can create a beautiful relationship wherein both learn from each other. The guidance and support system of mentorship helps those involved develop important interpersonal skills and prevents division.
Everyone Has a Role to Play
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, advised all of us with the following words:
“Be servants of Allah as brothers. Do not be hostile to each other and do not hate each other. Follow the right course, seek nearness to Allah in worship, and give glad tidings.”
Implementing this advice will guarantee us a peaceful, loving community of believers, and a bright future for our younger generations to come. Let us focus on recognizing the distinctive values that each member of our community brings to our places of worship and work in partnership for goodness.
When conflicts do arise – and they will because we are only human – we can refer back to the Quran and the examples in the Sunnah to resolve our differences. Communication, transparency, expectation-setting, mentoring opportunities, collaboration, flexibility, and above all, empathy, will lead to trust and commitment from everyone regardless of generation, inshaAllah, God willing.
Only when we begin to value one another will we truly experience success.
Pew Research Center (2015, September 3). The whys and hows of generations research. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2015/09/03/the-whys-and-hows-of-generations-research/
Pew Research Center (2019, January). The generations defined. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2019/01/PSDT_1.17.19_generations-01.png?w=405
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022, January). Time use of millennials and Generation X: differences across time. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2022/article/time-use-of-millennials-and-generation-x-differences-across-time.htm
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam
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