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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