If you encounter American Muslim teens only through the media, you couldn’t be blamed for imagining that most are praying, fasting, pious youth. In the PBS documentary “The Muslim Americans,” for example, Judy Woodruff interviews two Muslim teens who describe how they decided to wear hijab and why they won’t date before they marry. Geneive Abdo argues in her 2006 book, Mecca and Mainstreet, that American Muslim youth are more religious than their parents. Even ReligionWriter is guilty of portraying American Muslim teens and pre-teens in what is, perhaps, and overly religious light.

But a new book from an Arizona family, The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook, provides a peek into the real lives of these teens, and the view is somewhat surprising: American Muslim teens may be much less observant than you think.

The handbook’s authors — Pakistani-born Dilara Hafiz and her two American-born teens, Imran and Yasmine — mailed out questionnaires to more than 40 Islamic schools around the country in 2002 and received 150 responses. Obviously 150 is not a huge sample, but the source is significant: the young people responding to the survey either attended full-time private Islamic schools during the week or attended the Muslim equivalent of Sunday School on the weekends. In other words, these young folks came from families where religion was valued highly enough for Islamic education to be a priority — they are as religious as it gets.

The brief questionnaire asked Muslim teens and pre-teens about their religious practices, and it included the question, “Do you pray?” (As most readers of ReligionWriter will be aware, Muslims are obligated to pray five times a day: before dawn, after noontime, in the late afternoon, after sunset and late in the evening.) Their answers? The large majority of the teens said they did not pray, and many reported that they did not know how to pray.

“I think there’s a serious disconnect between what parents expect and the reality of what kids are actually practicing,” wrote Dilara Hafiz to ReligionWriter in an email on the subject.

The Hafiz’s findings are significant if only because there is so little scientific data right now about the lives of American Muslim kids and teens. A recent Pew Forum study, which interviewed 1,050 American Muslims, only included respondents 18 years of age and older. The National Study of Youth and Religion , probably the most comprehensive and up-to-date study of youth religiosity in the United States, included no data on Muslims.

If more than half of the most religious American Muslim teens don’t pray or even know how to pray, this would mean American Muslim teens are significantly less observant that older American Muslims, because according to the same Pew study, 41 percent of adult American Muslims report praying all five daily prayers (and an additional 20 percent pray at least once a day.)

So you’re clueless, now what?

The handbook attempts to fill these gaping holes of religious knowledge for teens by including quick overviews of Islam’s central tenets and providing an illustrated guide on how to pray. In this sense, the book makes excellent reading for anyone who deals with American Muslim teens, such as teachers or counselors, and have no idea themselves about the basics of Islam.

Hafiz writes in the book’s introduction that the inspiration for the project came from two sources: Her daughter, Yasmine, browsing through books for Christian teens and wondering why there were no similar titles for Muslims, and her son, Imran, being called a “Taliban” by kids at his middle school. Hafiz writes: “My children and I have written this book with the best of intentions — to let Muslim teenagers all over American know that they are not alone or forgotten.”

In the style of other written-for-teens books, the handbook is short and lively and funny — and not a little controversial. In the chapter on the five daily prayers, for example, the authors argue that “sometimes quality can outweigh quantity.”

If you are only able to pray once or twice a day, or even once or twice a week, but you really concentrate on your prayer and truly try to honor God, then who is to say that you are less pious or ‘good’ than someone who prays five times a day, but does so unthinkingly out of habit?

Those would be fighting words to many Muslims, who generally hold that even if you fail to make the five daily prayers, there is no rationalization about “quality” that can substitute. But the authors here are bold: they are meeting Muslim teens where they are — largely unobservant and often unaware of religious requirements — even if that’s not where parents would like them to be.

The book is sprinkled with classically witty, literal teen observations, gathered from the questionnaires. In a section titled “Random Thoughts About Why I Love Being Muslim,” one teen is quoted as saying: “I’m helping pigs stay alive by not eating them.” And another: “I don’t have to eat dry matzo crackers or dry fruitcake after religious holidays. (Okay, I do have to help finish off the dry dates after Ramadan.)”

And when asked “Who is your Muslim role model?” answers ranged from the Prophet Muhammad to “my grandparents” to “Mr. Meyers, my English teacher, because he’s a convert and has a totally strong faith, yet he is normal and not at all fanatical right-wing/Taliban.”

When it comes to guidance, the book offers a thoroughly American point of view: You have to figure it out for yourself.

Whether you choose to ignore it entirely, complaisantly accept your parents’ version or explore it for yourself - the choice is yours.

On the question of dating, interestingly, the authors veer more conservative, insisting that teens should only date if they are ready to consider getting married. “If you’re not ready for marriage, then don’t date. It’s as simple as that. Go out with your friends in a group — you’ll have fun and won’t get bogged down emotionally with a lot of feelings you’re not ready for as a teen.”

According to Dilara Hafiz, the book has been well-received so far by fellow Muslims, though she said she “anticipating some level of negativity” from the wider Muslim community. One weakness of the book is that it speaks primarily to teens from immigrant families, who must blend their families’ Muslim culture with American culture; for African American, Hispanic or Caucasian American Muslim teens, the book may be less relevant. And for truly devout teens, the book may be redundant and overly liberal for their taste. But for what seems to be majority of Muslim teens out there, the book just might provide the religious hand-holding they need.

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By Andrea Useem, Religion BookLine- Publishers Weekly, 5/30/2007 (reprinted here with permission.)

When most Americans look at Osama bin-Laden, they see a terrorist. Eboo Patel sees that and something more: To him, bin-Laden is a highly effective youth organizer.

“Al Qaeda has a phalanx of people who are focused on shaping the identities of young Muslims toward totalitarianism. Why don’t we have a phalanx of people shaping young Muslims toward pluralism?” asked Patel, a former Rhodes Scholar and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based non-profit that organizes young people of different religions around service projects.

In his new memoir, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon, July), Patel outlines his personal and intellectual crystallization around the idea of pluralism. “The most profound trend among Muslims in America today is the emergence of a civic Muslim identity based on a religious ethos,” Patel told RBL.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the son of Indian Muslim immigrants, Patel suffered from racist bullying and struggled to find his place as a “brown” minority in America. Patel writes that he was rescued from this identity limbo by a Y.W.C.A. camp, where he was encouraged to serve others and become a leader.

At college, he was drawn to the inspirational legacies of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and the Teach for America program, while discovering first hand that working side-by-side with people of different faiths was a great way to establish meaningful connections.

But in his book Patel casts a horrified glance at the story of Hasib Hussain, a shy Londoner who became one of the July 7 suicide bombers. Patel realizes that if radical preachers had reached him instead of the Y.W.C.A. counselors, his own story might have ended much differently.

How then to make pluralism “sexy” in the way jihadists have made totalitarian Islam attractive to young Muslims?

“I try to speak about pluralism in a way that gets deep into the soul. That’s one of the roles I can play: telling stories, starting with my own,” said Patel. Since he founded the Interfaith Youth Core seven years ago, the organization has now involved more than 10,000 young people around the world in its projects. “The goal is to build momentum to attract a large number of people and marginalize the extreme fringes.”

And is that ambitious goal attainable? Answering with optimism and determination, Patel said, “Scientifically, the bumblebee can’t fly. But look, it just flies.”

See also ReligionWriter’s earlier review of Patel’s book. 

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Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press: July, 2007), is the memoir of Eboo Patel, a former

Rhodes scholar with a Ph.D. in religion from Oxford, is founder and director the Interfaith Youth Corps, a Chicago-based group aimed at creating a movement of religious young people, and an increasingly prominent public figure.

Why the Book is Notable: Though many academics have recent titles on American Islam (including Sherman Jackson and Haddad/Smith/Moore), as well as journalists (Paul Barrett, Geneive Abdo and Donna Gehrke White), American Muslims are themselves now filing this market niche, joining the ranks of editor Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, activist Asra Nomani and, most recently, ex-Muslim Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Good Parts: Describing the aspects of himself he saw in the young Muslims who bombed the London transit system in 2005 – anger at Muslim oppression around the world, a taste for risk-taking, an experience of white racism – Patel asks: “How does one ordinary young person’s commitment to a religion turn into a suicide mission and another ordinary young person’s commitment to that same faith become an organization devoted to pluralism?” His answer: Leadership.Young Muslims need visionary leaders who can make sense of modern Muslim identity and mobilize them for a vital cause.

Bad Parts: Patel’s memoir shares the same flaw for which he criticizes other interfaith events: it’s sometimes boring. “We were two twenty-somethings in

Chicago exploring spirituality, diversity, community and social justice,” he writes about himself and a friend. Patel also glosses over his peculiarity as an Ismaili Muslim: he strives to embody the “progressivism” of the Aga Khan, a spiritual leader that non-Ismaili Muslims would question. How far can Patel’s influence in the Muslim community spread? Finally, Patel doesn’t answer the central question: How to engage Muslim youth in a meaningful cause? While interfaith service projects are exciting for Patel, it’s hard to see how they might satisfy the longings of most Muslim youth.

Related Content: See journalistic coverage of radicalized youth after the

London bombings, including CNN’s documentary “The War Within.” The most recent and comprehensive study of religiosity among American teens is analyzed in the 2005 book, Soul Searching, by sociologist Christian Smith. See also theology professor Shabana Mir and Marcia Hermansen’s 2006 book chapter, “Identity Jihads: The Multiple Strivings of American Muslim Youth.”  For an interview with Eboo Patel, see Religion and Ethics Newsweekly’s April 13, 2007, episode.

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