Career Choices of American Muslims
“So, what did you study?” a family acquaintance inquires.
“I finished my bachelors in psychology and masters in social work. I’m a social worker now,” I reply.
“Oh,” the woman responds. A look of sheer disappointment falls across her face. “Why didn’t you become a doctor? You’re smart enough to become a doctor!”
Those of us who have chosen “non-traditional” careers – basically any career outside of medicine, engineering, and more recently business and law – can probably recall similar encounters. Many of the elders in our community continue to propagate the idea of a career hierarchy; medicine is considered the ultimate ideal, followed by engineering, law, and then business. While these are noble professions, they are by no means the only ones available to our community. We are a people of diversity; God created and endowed each person with unique characteristics, talents, and skills to be utilized in varying professional fields.
Unfortunately, many parents continue to espouse the idea that certain careers are best, sometimes forcing their children to major in subjects they have no interest in or are beyond their capabilities. Most parents are well intentioned, hoping to ensure a positive future for their children. They may have faced many hardships and want a better life for their offspring. Some parents are living their dreams through their children, as they may not had the chance to complete their own education. Still, there are parents who insist on specific professions solely for prestige among their social circle. Regardless of the reason, when children are pressured into certain careers, the consequences can be detrimental to their relationship with their families, as well as their self-confidence. Pressure may lead to resentment, depression, shame, and low self-esteem.
In my counseling experience, I have worked with students who were struggling to reconcile their parents’ expectations with their personal career goals. Some of those students were torn between obeying and pleasing their parents and wanting a satisfying career. I remember one student in particular, who was depressed because she continuously failed her science courses. She was not the least interested in the subject matter, but she faced a lot of pressure from her family to become a doctor.
In contrast, students who pursue a profession of their choice are more likely to excel in their work. When their careers match their interests, they will reap the emotional rewards and be better contributors to society. Our youth should be encouraged to consider from the plethora of professional fields available.
A study conducted by Cornell University in 2002 found that American Muslims were underrepresented in law, journalism, and entertainment, while they tended to pursue careers in medicine and engineering. We know that there is a huge career disparity in our community. The good news is that after 9/11, there has been an increase in the number of students choosing alternative career paths. Muslims have learned the hard way how important it is to change the negative perception of our community and play a more active role in society. We must be more involved in the political and social issues impacting the world today. It is an obligation in our faith to serve our communities and be of benefit to the societies we live in. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) came as a mercy to all of humanity. If we restrict ourselves to certain occupations, we are doing a disservice to the human race.
Think for a moment about the array of professions it takes to build a community. We need educators, entrepreneurs, artists, social workers, psychologists, academics, chaplains, politicians, journalists, researchers, attorneys, and many more.
If you had a mental health problem, who would you talk to? How will our non-profit organizations and institutions function without managing directors? Who will advocate on behalf of Muslims? Who will research American Muslim issues? All of these careers serve our communities and are equal in the eyes of Allah. As long as career choices are within the bounds of Islam and are pursued with the intention to serve Allah and His creation, they will be rewarded. A career today is much more than just a financial pursuit; it is a lifestyle and an opportunity to gain entry into paradise. Having the ability to choose how best to serve others and gain the reward of Allah is invaluable.
Amal Killawi is a clinical social worker who provides counseling and conducts research.
Reprinted from The CommUnity Journal.
salam & peace everyone,
i totally agree with Amal Killawi. Being a doctor is not always the best choice for your kids. They should be allowed to choose the career that they are passionate about. What is important that the choice made must be within the acceptable morality. This ummah needs more journalists ,for example, to really inform the world of the real muslim & islam.
JazakaAllah khair to the author.
Mashallah! This was very good and to the point.
Asalamu alaykum, this eassay touches a major problem widespread especially in the eastern communities. I like the style so much, thanks for the great efforts.
This is a very good article, jazak Allahu khairan.
I would like to point out that nowadays there is a reverse trend amongst Muslim “activists”, leaders, and Imams. As an engineer who enjoys the field and is Alhamdulillah pretty good at it, I often get the same reaction you mentioned above when explaining my career choice to leaders in our communities. Their faces drop and they say “Engineering, everyone goes into engineering! Why couldn’t you choose some other field that is beneficial to the ummah?” This is often said with a straight face by those whose salaries are paid for by contributions by engineers, etc. (I come from the Silicon Valley).
I believe that a person should choose his/her career based on the following criteria:
1. What the person is interested in (for example, someone who is interested in writing should consider journalism, someone who loves math and science should consider engineering, etc.)
2. What the person is good at. This is important, since a Muslim should excel at what he/she does. Many times people like to go into a field that they are not good at (most often with the arts, and sometimes engineering and medicine). One has to be able to make a living to survive, so a career choice should match the person’s talents.
3. What is allowable according to Islam.
If everyone were to choose careers based on these criteria, we would have every single field covered because Allah (swt) created everyone with different interests and talents, and the Muslim population is large enough and diverse enough in the West to cover pretty much every single field of work.
We are a judgmental community, even the “pious” amongst us. This is a fundamental problem we have in our communities, and we need to combat this issue.
As an art student: story of my life. Unfortunately for me, this had led to create a strong bias toward the entire medical field, which made me stop and think for a second. I once met the most sincere doctor who loved what he did and I was honestly surprised. It’s not about not being a doctor or an artist, its about doing what you love and cultivating your God-given talent, ultimately for His Sake, in whatever field it happens to be…
It’s heartbreaking to see young Muslims painstakingly try to reconcile their parents dreams while they’re not allowed to have their own – and many times in the end, they reach neither “dream” because they are completely unhappy in many different perspectives.
Am I allowed to ask: why does it seem like some parents take advantage of their position, especially on this subject?
….this article has hit on a key issue, for those with young children please read “Coloring outside the lines” by Rogers Schank we must try to understand people better starting with our children. We need to start thinking outside the box for us to grow & be the best possible…
Jazakallahi Khair Amal for writing this article, I needed to hear this.
I am in the final year of my undergraduate career and when I started I was a pre-med student. Subhanallah, science courses (chemistry, bio) took my gpa down. Alhamduliah pre-med is not a major in my university, so from the second quarter of my first year, I majored in psychology. I was juggling both psych courses and pre-med courses. It took my junior year for me to decide to abandon pre-med. Physically and psychologically, this decision was traumatic (alhamdulilah it didn’t last for long). I am now appying to graduate programs (research and teaching oriented) in social psychology And after leaving pre-med, I was able to enroll in a minor I had always wanted – political science (which I am also applying to grad school in). My parents never pushed me, but I could understand a little disappointment in my mom after giving pre-med up (she now supports me fully). Sometimes in life, this may be hard to understand, but you have to give up something (throw the towel in ) for your own good. My grades in social science are stellar compared to my pre-med grades (which permanately scared my transcript). But regardless of the grades needed to enter graduate school, I feel as if I have alot more to offer inshallah. I hope to serve the Ummah through research on topics related to Muslims, with my ultimate goal being to please Allah.
Salaam, excellent article. As an education major (and a male) the uncles have torn me down at every family gathering, masjid, or islamic event. I think the problem stems from the survivalist mentality parents had who came from Pakistan, India, Egypt, etc. So they only viewed professions with the highest salaries the only ones worthy to pursue. In our generation that mentality is thoroughly out the window, and to reconcile that with the parents becomes difficult.
Alhumdulilah it took my parents a while to understand my choice of study, and then a while for accept it, and then a while to agree with it. Inshallah I believe we are headed in the right direction on terms of careers, I believe their are people who are going into fields other than the ones talked about the article. Wsalaam
SubhanAllah this is so true! Another thing that this ummah really needs are those in public service (firefighters, paramedics, cops,etc)
We need more Muslims in medicine and in other fields. I’m a doctor and there very few Muslims in the large hospitals that I work at. Although relatively overrepresented the Ummah would be proud of successful Muslims in medicine and other fields.
Whatever you do, do it with IHSAN.
This is so true! My friend and I were discussing a few weeks ago that there needs to be muslims in diverse fields; for example in gender studies. An agnostic friend of ours asked why it was wrong to be openly homosexual, and just saying “because God says so” doesn’t cut it. Our prophets (pbu them) were sent with the same tongue as their people and their message (even their miracles) were relevant to their people and in a way that people understood. We are encouraged to do the best we can by Allah but this is far from possible when we hate what we do.
As salamu ‘alaikum,
Your friend said, “…because God says so” doesn’t cut it..”.
I just wanted to say that Muslims should not falter and sway to this sort of attitude amongst non-Muslims. It is, in-fact, enough that “Allah (swt) says so” that one should not engage in the sins that He has forbade and should obey Him in what he commanded. The question in response could have been, “Well, why is it not sufficient for Allahs command to be law?”.
In this regard, I think the problem is that most Muslims don’t know how to defend the fundamental aspects of Islam such as the strength of the Quran and its revelation and transmission. Or to educate our non-Muslims counterparts about the attributes of Allah and their failure to submit to him completely (including intellectually). It is exactly this attitude (as mentioned by your friend) that is the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims and it is this attitude that seeks proof through science and placing the human being above The Creator which has cause Christians and atheist to do the most damage to the idea and concept of religion. Meanwhile, Muslims are debating and arguing internally on the most esoteric aspects of “creeds” but none have risen to the occassion to fight the increasing wave of atheism and Christians that are falling sway to the atheist arguments.
If anything we should be the most avid in defending submission to Allah in this age. At the end of the day for most logical and intellectual arguments do not lead them to the submission of Allah (swt). Kufr is a truly human phenomenon as it is complete and stark opposition to the reality of mankind and his affair on earth. That is to say, the power and awesome ability of Allah (swt) is clear as He manifest it in His creation. While many of the people that profess this sort of thought in terms of scientific approach and proof etc. When you argue with them in regards to the proof and veracity of the sources of revelation in Islam and the weakness of the proof and transmissions of the other religions. They have no response and it doesn’t lead them to submission. So we should not play that game it is a farce.
My two cents..and Allah knows best.
Thank you brother Abu Hunain for your response.
What I was trying to say, and I apologize for not being more clear, is that Allah has made a wisdom behind everything. We accept the commandments whether the wisdoms are apparent to us or not. We break our fast with dates because it is a sunnah, but science will back up the fact that it is beneficial for us. I wear the hijab because it is a commandment from God. I didn’t rationalize it beforehand thinking “well i want to be modest therefore…”
However, we are the Ummah of “iqra”, the Ummah that will go to the corners of the world for knowledge. When I explain the hijab, of course it is because Allah has told women to cover, but I will also show the effects when people do not dress modestly- this makes it easier for people to see. In the Qur’an, Allah doesn’t just tell us to believe, He exposes the fallacies and inconsistencies of believing in more than one god, for example, or Eesa (as) being the son of God.
So when I said “saying ‘God did it’ doesn’t cut it anymore”, I was trying to show that people accept Islam for different reasons; for instance, for some people it was through the scientific miracles evident in the Qur’an; others it is the belief in One God. It does us no harm to delve into some of the wisdoms behind Allah’s prohibitions and commandments. The reason why there are now gay Muslim groups (such as Al-Fatiha) is because they believe in the fundamentals, but find a way to twist the fact that their actions are haraam.
I wrote something about this a while back…many families have so stressed their children to become doctors that some have…gone insane. One true story I know of is a young brother who was indoctrinated to become a doctor by his parents to the point it was a like a “Jannah” to him. He lived it up so much in his mind because his parents stressed it virtually every day. When he finally got into medical school, he realized it was not what he had dreamed of and he lost his mind. He attempted to commit suicide and his parents no longer cared about medicine, they simply wanted their son back. He is now living in a mental asylum I believe. This is one extreme example, but it shows how fanatical this has become…
Becoming a doctor costs a lot of money.
It’s sad that people take riba loans so they can pay their tuition and costs ( which are in the hundreds of thousands).
If they had followed their passion and chosen a field where the degree didn’t cost as much, at the very least they wouldn’t owe as much money (if they still happened to borrow with riba).
Very good article. I was thinking of giving a khutbah or writing something on this exact topic. The other day an uncle from the masjid introduced his son to me saying “I wish for him to follow your path.” Obviously, being humbled by such a statement I thought he was referring to my, albeit diminishing, Islamic work. He follows with “I want him to become a doctor like you.” I was immediately disappointed. But I have thought alot about this myself.
1. Medicine isn’t for everyone. So many parents have the SAME exact goals/desires for ALL of their children. So when one child accomplishes this goal and the others do not, there is obvious destruction of the other childrens’ self confidence. Children have different desires, goals, and capabilities. We can’t expect the same from all of them. <–My focus is more on this element…the paradox of expectations from parents.
2. Like OK mentioned above I think there is a reverse "movement" where our community activists are calling youth away from the common professions (i.e. engineering, medicine etc.). I think that is unfair as well. We should encourage our young to pursue their dreams while at the same time having a sense of realism, and responsibility. At the end of the day we all have to support ourselves and our families, and quite frankly some professions can accomplish this more comfortably, and securely than others. I have the comfort, with Allah's permission and help, that after my training I will have a job SOMEWHERE in this country without much concern of losing my job. This job security truly does give me an edge in my Islamic work compared to some of my colleagues/brothers involved in Islamic work who have lost their jobs and this becomes their number one concern so that they may feed their families. So as leaders of the community we need to be more responsible and address people on a case-by-case basis.
3. Medicine is over-rated. Especially in the climate of Obama's health care plan the glory days of medicine is pretty much gone. The golden days of our parents' generation of million dollar practices is becoming more of a rarity. Medical students come out into the world with $100,000 plus debt and their early 20's pretty much given to their careers. On top of all that, with the exception of a few medical specialties, other Doctors will continue to have a demanding work lifestyle that takes them away from family life and involvement in the greater community. All this combined with the stress of looming malpractice lawyers (maybe our young should pursue this career $$$$), and demanding work hours. There are much better options out there that can provide job security, good family-oriented lifestyle, stable income while providing sufficient "status" for the community if young people so desire.
4. I personally believe we need to get more involved in academia. It is academia that defines the philosophy of the society. Sure we can get a BA/BS degree in Political science and become public activists; but quite frankly there are only so many rallies we can organize and hunger strikes we can develop (ofcourse I'm kidding). Instead we should aspire for the highest degree in Political Science (i.e. PhD) and mold the minds of the future. This is my philosophy, but truly this is not something I'll ever shove down anyone's throat. The real question I ask myself everyday is what do I advise my children? That is a question I'll continue to ask until the appropriate time arrives. May Allah make it easier for all of us.
Arif 5050 Hussain
There are some myths in this article itself. There are not too many Muslim doctors, engineers or lawyers. Yes we need more EDUCATED and PROFESSIONAL Muslims, but thats not to say that Muslim children should be discouraged from going into medicine or law if that is what they want to do. Yes journalism is a great profession and we need firefighters. But does anyone here want to do a 4 year degree and become a firefighter?
Individuals should go after their strengths and passions and have the best intention for whatever they do, whether it is a skilled trade, an academic career, or a professional in any field.
And yes doctors and lawyers dont always make huge amounts of money but in traditional society they are looked up to, and we need Muslims at all levels of leadership. The Jewish community had the same problems we are having now, but they didnt decide there were too many doctors and lawyers at such an early stage.
Sara, I totally agree with you. The problem is not that there are too many doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and other professionals in the community. We can never have too many of these in the community. The problem is that Muslim engineers, scientists and other professionals are not acknowledged as the very best in the country.
We need to push the younger generation harder to excel and become the very best in whatever profession they choose. And forget about the younger generation – are ‘older’ Muslims striving hard to be the best in our professions. As Muslims, nothing less is expected from us.
Here’s what I think is a little interesting……
I’m playing a little devils advocate here. 🙂
I believe in every person’s right to choose the pathway they want in this life and to pursue it, given with the conditions that you are to serve Allah swt. However, I think people also have this stigma that parents are ALWAYS out there to make you do what they what and we are the little victims here. It may be true – I’ve seen parents so honed in on Inganeering or Daktar that they really do push their kids in a psychological frenzy. But at the same time, I believe that you will never ever ever find a parent who doesn’t care. They may show it in different ways, but they care about your happiness. Maybe their perception is skewed, but it’s there.
Another thing is, let’s be real here…you don’t want to live in a cardboard box. Sometimes I wish people would stop taking the ‘stick it to da man’ mentality and push on for doing art, for example, without thinking down the line. Also, many of us make rash decisions during college, and personally I believe that alot of us don’t really know what we want to major in. I’ve seen people go into college being DEAD SET on something, sooooo sure, and then, we wake up two years later and find that it stinks. Parents can see that, for the most part.
Yes, you should do what you love, but you should also earn money. No, just because you reach a certain age doesn’t mean that you are at a maturity level to decide what you want. There are extremes everywhere…parents will always push. And people will always be affected.
I read your post and agree with how many of us dont take the time to research what we want to do for the REST of our lives when we graduate from highschool. For those of us who are older, we should assist our younger brothers & sister’s in what the work life looks like, Nonetheless, I wanted to touch on something you said (something my father told me), when we decide what we want to do in our future, dont ever look at the salary you will be making. Because at the end of the day, if you enjoy what your doing, you will most likely try harder than your peers which will enhance your capabilities which will eventually make you irreplaceable. At that point, you will enjoy a better salary. Furthermore, you should know that there are many people who are well off and hate their lives and wish they could turn back time. When your looking to choose your career, make sure you enjoy what you will be doing. I believe that many college students dont understand the gravity of this decision that they are making and need to take more time to determine what the rest of their life will be.
To be lawyer is a noble goal… but with it should come the realization that it is not a lucrative field. Caring for a family on a Public Interest salary is tough. People also need to consider that going to a specific law school can change one’s career outlook. See this website:
I agree with what sara wrote
as salaamu alaikum,
good article with important point at its root. It appears that the superficial message is fairly understood by the high school/college/young professionals, and in reality I think thats all people can ask for.
and to echo Arif’ point about medicine being overrated, quite frankly…it is. The perceptions held about the profession by our mothers and fathers are fairly detached from the realities of the issue as a whole. As a fourth year medical student I can attest to this as well.
that being said, do what you are passionate about to uplift the banner of Islam, and to improve our positions in the site of Allah, bc at the end of the day thats what is relevent. Like the author mentioned, if one is passionate about something than great things are within the realm of reality, while on the other hand if one does something without any passion, greatness(in this and the hereafter) is difficult, if not impossible, to attain.
iA as a soon to be parent I hope that I will have the same feelings down the road.
Imagine if all the professionals in our community united and started working together to build facilities that serve our Muslim brothers and Sisters as well as the rest of the country. Imagine how life would be if when faced with a decision of where should I spend my money today, a person decided to put that money in the pocket of a Muslim. Imagine if we united as one Umma, one family, How strong and secure would we be?
It does not matter who majors in what as long as the end result continues to leave us separated living in our big houses far from one another. Until we start working together we will never truly realize where we lack in professionals nor will we reach the highest levels of success our community has the ability to attain.
Why not purchase land and build a neighborhood of big beautiful houses intermixed with smaller ones as well as an apartment complex across the street centered by a Masjid and reserved strictly for Muslims who want to be a part of a Muslim community. Why not build a Muslim run and owned hospital as well as an engineering firm, law firm, and business center?
We have the ability to do anything as long as we work together and decide to live as one family. I personally dont think it matters what we do if we are not together as one unit. Finally, the only way we can work as one unit in one community is if we do diversify so we can satisfy all our needs on all levels.
May Allah guide us all to the right path.
I’m in my last year of high school in Australia, and after that, is University. I’m really unsure of what career path I want to pursue. As many of you can understand, I was also raised as a muslim girl wanting to become a doctor, as my father always told me its a great way to help the muslim females in our Ummah. However, I don’t want a career that becomes the focus of my life, to the point I forget the main purpose of life. I mean, so many times when I’m really involved in work, I can’t concentrate in Salah and begin to substitute acts I do for Allah (such as reading Quran, reading Islamic material, etc) so I can excel in my worldly education. I don’t want a career where my relationship with Allah swt is going to be affected. Because at the end of the day, when we are in our graves, you may have a doctor/lawyer/engineer in the nearby grave, but what benefit will that title have?
So what are some careers that I can look into the benefit the Ummah, as a Muslim women? I enjoy sciences, and math, but I’m trying to look beyond Medicine/Dentistry/etc