Teenagers on a camping trip sitting together and looking at a mountain


Dr. Widaad Zaman

Abu Huraira reported that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Seven are (the persons) whom Allah would give protection with His Shade on the Day when there would be no shade but that of Him (i.e. on the Day of Judgment, and they are): … a youth who grew up with the worship of Allah…

Sahih Muslim: 1031

The challenges of the teenage years have always been abundant, but any parent raising a child in today’s world will tell you that those challenges have increased exponentially, from social media to mental health issues to moral relativism. Ask a parent who is trying to raise a Muslim teenager, and the list of challenges grows even longer. As difficult as it is for the parent though, imagine how much more demanding it is for that adolescent, enduring physiological growth, hormonal changes, changes in the structure of their brain, along with all the societal and cultural expectations and pressures that come with now being labeled a teenager, a person who must soon decide the course of their future. Of course, ultimately, guidance is in the hands of Allah SWT, but what do our adolescents need from the adults in their world to successfully navigate these challenging years?

Identity Formation

In the hadith above, the Prophet (saws) specified a youth, meaning a teenager, who grows up in the worship of Allah SWT. What does it mean to grow up in the worship of Allah, and why is this a special feat that grants a person a unique status on the Day of Judgment? If we consider the challenges of adolescence, there is one that stands out above all else, and that is the formation of a healthy adult identity – who I want to be in life, what I want my future to look like, and where I see myself during adulthood. Identity development begins during the adolescent years and extends into early adulthood, allowing a person to link their past, present and future into a single cohesive life story of ‘this is who I am’ (Erikson, 1969). This is not an easy task, and the teenager who gets lost in it often winds up idle or misdirected well into adulthood. Couple this already daunting task with competing cultural and societal expectations from one’s native culture, one’s adopted culture, and one’s religion, and Muslim teenagers face the enormous ordeal of getting it right. But as always, in the sunnah of Allah SWT, the greater the struggle, the greater the reward.

The challenge for Muslim teenagers living in the West is to successfully navigate two distinct and often competing cultures, and to shape an identity that allows them to optimally function in both worlds. Parents and cultural institutions play the greatest role in helping adolescents navigate this process, which begins long before adolescence. What we expose our children to in the media and their social environment, how we shape their world by affording them various opportunities with Muslims and non-Muslims, the kinds of acquaintances we surround them with, and our own example to them as Muslim adults living in the West – all have tremendous influence on what they will eventually adopt into their identity.

Identity Development is a Cultural Process

Identity development is very much a cultural process in that any values, beliefs and life goals adopted by the person must represent their cultural norms and fit within their cultural life script, that is, what the culture expects of them (Thomsen, Pillemer & Ivcevic, 2011). Therefore, people who emigrate from one country to another face a unique identity crisis, because whereas teenagers from the majority culture must incorporate just one set of cultural values and expectations into their developing identity, teenagers from minority cultures must incorporate both sets of cultural values, and still be able to successfully navigate each individual culture. Furthermore, where those cultural values may clash, the teenager must then either choose between one or the other value, or somehow successfully come to a compromise between them. Islam is the immunization that adolescents need to successfully navigate these difficult decisions. The key is to equip adolescents with the tools to think like a Muslim when faced with those cultural clashes. We need to raise children who are certain that their dependency on Allah SWT will get them through any difficulty, who are confident that even when things don’t go their way, the way that it did go was the way it was always supposed to be. We cannot do that by simply having them sit in a once-a-week madrassah, memorize the Qur’an without understanding, or even attend Islamic schools. None of these builds the kind of immunity against difficult cultural clashes the way that involved parenting does.

Raising our children in a Muslim bubble surrounded only by other Muslims so that they never learn how to interact with the dominant social world does no favors to the Muslim teenager raised in the West, who, upon entering college, will suddenly find themself surrounded by a culture that challenges everything they thought they knew about morality and life. Similarly, exposing our children to everything in this world without any filter, with the only Islamic upbringing being a weekend madrassah, also does them no favors in developing a healthy Muslim identity.

Islamic Values Must be Pervasive in all Aspects of Parenting

A healthy identity is not carved out by being a “sometimes” Muslim; a healthy identity is carved out when the beliefs and values of that identity inform every aspect of your life growing up. Islamic values need to be pervasive in every aspect of our parenting, e.g., calling them to salaah 5 times a day, making Qur’an and dhikr a daily family activity, studying Islamic knowledge together. Islamic values need to be pervasive in every aspect of our lives that we model for them, e.g., in the way we treat others, in the charity that we do, in the decisions that we make regarding our careers, our possessions and our friendships. Islamic values need to be pervasive in every aspect of their upbringing. Instilling simple Sunnah habits and Adhkaar that accompany all their actions; monitoring who and what they are exposed to in the media; being mindful of who we allow into their friendship circle; teaching them to structure their activities around the salaah times, and not the other way around – these are all critical aspects of the process of identity formation.

This prevalence of Islam in their lives, regardless of what they must do for school or clubs or work allows them to begin to understand their identity as Muslims in this society, to construct an identity in which they can be citizens of their country in a way that is both productive to the society and pleasing to Allah SWT. When they see their entire world through the lens of Islam and the worship of Allah, they will be able to face the many challenges that come their way. They will be able to say no to things that contradict their Muslim values, and they will learn that they can do anything in life as long as it fits within the framework of Islam. Perhaps, because of this outlook on life – this identity – the throne of Allah SWT will shade them on that Day.

Dr. Widaad Zaman

Widaad Zaman was born and raised in Guyana, and owes much of her Islamic upbringing to the Guyana Islamic Trust. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Stony Brook University, and a Masters and Ph.D. in Cognitive Developmental Psychology from Emory University, concentrating on the social construction of autobiographical memory in children, and the different patterns of children’s attachment to mothers compared to fathers. She is currently an Associate Lecturer in the Psychology Department at the University of Central Florida, where her research focuses on identity development in minority college students, and the factors and outcomes related to healthy identity development. Every minute of her free time is spent homeschooling her three children, and studying the deen.

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