A recent encounter with a young girl opened my eyes to a silent, yet seriously disconcerting issue that many young people in our communities face. Almost everyone experiences something similar at some point in their lives; some succumbed to it while others overcome it. Yet for others it remains a constant struggle of negotiation and reconciliation. This isn’t an abstraction, it’s something genuine and deeply personal: the issue of doubting one’s faith and reconciling a perceived conflict of values.
The girl I spoke to was only 14. I could tell that she was unusually sharp for her age (our conversation was more stimulating than many I’ve had with adults). After giving a talk to a group of high schoolers about fasting the month of Ramadan, she found the opportunity to approach me once the audience had cleared. It was apparent she had many questions, difficult questions, and I was in no way qualified to answer most of them. I’m not a shaykh, an imām, or any type of authority, yet the fact that she approached me spoke volumes to a deeper issue.
Unfortunately, like many young people today, she was being mounted with the pressures of securing her future and navigating a career while still only a freshman in high school. She worried about securing her grades, playing sports, getting involved in school clubs, volunteering, and the list goes on. “How did you figure out what you wanted to do?” she asked. To her surprise, I told her that it wasn’t until a little over a year and a half ago that I discovered my calling. She didn’t know how to juggle all these demands and still be successful academically. It wasn’t until I suggested she spend her volunteer hours at her local mosque that our conversation took a more interesting turn.
Recent experiences, which I did not ask her about, had made the mosque an uncomfortable place for her to frequent. She told me that she did not wear the hijāb and that her visits to the mosque were usually met with judgment by other members and leaders of the community. Moreover, someone very close to her had become an atheist and, from what I understood, it was a subject of conversation between them. Finally, in a confessional outburst, she revealed that some aspects of Islam seemed sexist to her. I couldn’t blame her. She did not feel comfortable approaching anyone in her community. She had been alienated from and by her own tradition.
For many, she fit the profile of an irreligious, rebellious, and corrupted youth. Instead, I saw a concerned, passionate, and inquisitive mind desperately searching for answers. Her search for a moral anchor and authenticity had driven her to approach someone she had just met for the first time, and with no idea of the qualifications the basis of my speech. With my inexperience and lack of knowledge I didn’t really know what to say. Still, her worried expression indicated a hope that maybe I could provide some answers, maybe I could help ground her wandering pursuit for truth. Given that I was a stranger to her community, perhaps it was in the security of anonymity that she found comfort in opening up to me.
At 14, she seemed to understand these issues — hijāb, sexism, and atheism — as if they concealed seeds of hypocrisy. Maybe she thought that doubt is a taboo. Maybe it was my lecture’s discussion of al-Ghazālī, one of the greatest skeptics of our tradition, that inspired her to express her uncertainty. Obviously there was no one she felt comfortable in opening up to. In confirming my suspicion, she told me that she had only been exposed to a rigid binary law of halāl and haram (right and wrong), a model all too many of us falsely call “Islam.”
I tried the best I could. I told her that what she understood to be sexist was a construction of popular values that appeared to conflict with a particular interpretation or (mis)understanding of Islam. It was her way of reconciling what she understood to be moral and what she was told was “Islamic.” She didn’t tell me what it was exactly she found sexist about Islam, but I think I had a good idea. Like many other Muslims, especially at her age, she had been presented with a shell and nobody had told her about the pearl that lay hidden within it.
These issues often arise when Muslims try to reconcile a set of values with the outward form of an Islamic practice without knowing the morality and spirit embodied by that practice.1 What is surprising about a Muslim who questions the virtue of hijāb, marriage, and other issues pertaining to women when they are bombarded with what they conceive as being a contrary understanding of right and wrong? Young Muslims in the West are growing up in an environment where they struggle to reconcile their values — often conflated with their identity — with their immediate contexts. They are familiar with the rules, but they struggle to find meaning in them.
I felt that rather than trying to rationalize different Islamic rulings to her, it would be more effective and lasting if I shared with her a principle that could help her understand the roots of her struggle. God knows best, but I could have been wrong. Still, I know she sensed my sincerity. Echoing my teacher, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl (may God preserve him), I told her that God is beautiful and His religion is beautiful. In short, I told her that she should not let her set of experiences or the way others convey Islam to her tarnish her appreciation for that beauty.
I’m reminded now of a time when my sister came to me with a very similar set of concerns some years ago. Having read a few books and taken a few classes, I told her that her questions were misguided and that she had been influenced by a corrupt set of values. I told her that understanding the wisdom of the law is irrelevant and all she should concern herself with is submitting herself to its letter. Alhamdulilāh (praise be to God), my sister was smart enough to see beyond my arrogance, or maybe my arrogance suggested to her that there was a problem. Nevertheless, she understood that God’s religion was more beautiful than that.
I ended my conversation with the 14-year-old girl with an analogy. God’s religion is an ocean. It is vast, deep, and beautiful.2 Any student who tries to navigate the ocean knows how easy it is to drown in it. Unfortunately, too many people tend to treat it like a kiddie pool. Don’t run! Don’t splash! Don’t jump in the pool! That’s the model that many of us grow up with: a strict set of do’s and don’ts. Yet we are expected to love it when we don’t even understand it. I pray that teachers, community leaders, and especially parents can tolerate the curiosity of our youth and, with empathy and compassion, show them the pearl that gives beauty and meaning to the shell.