Mental Health and Religious Identity: Inspiring Transformation in Muslim Youth

Arab Thought Foundation

Adolescence to early adulthood is a natural time of self exploration and discovery that shapes who a person will become. When young people lack the right resources to support them through this developmental stage, it can create imbalances that affect their character, motivations and behavior. Research shows that meeting young people where they are and supporting them from within the lens of their worldview is the most effective way to reach them and positively impact their development.

Tabah Futures Initiative recently invited Abdallah Rothman, Counselling Psychologist and Assistant Director of Spiritual Life & Intercultural Education at NYU Abu Dhabi, to discuss these issues and explore how cultural and religiously oriented approaches to supporting young Muslims can tap into their developmentally appropriate process of identity formation and inspire positive transformation that is relevant to their world. What follows is a detailed summary of his presentation.

Rothman stressed the significance in describing Youth as a development stage, and further addressed the need for “Muslim Millennials” to incorporate an integrated understanding of their identity as both a “Muslim” and a “young person” in a globalised world. Additionally, he suggests that Islam offers an incredible resource to aid this process if communicated in a relevant and meaningful manner.

Youth as a Development Stage

In Psychology, adolescence is a critical stage in life and a time of self-exploration. Teenagers want to discover who they are as individuals, and often this may be expressed through an attitude of opposition to authority. Psychologist Erik Erikson brings the idea that adolescence takes hold in the fifth stage of development — the “Fidelity Stage”. This stage is often characterised by the questions “Who am I?” and “What can I be?” — and can lead to a form of “role confusion”. Through this identity crisis, community and relationships become vital, as adolescents look for role models. At this stage, however, the role models shift from authority figures (i.e. parents) towards other sources of guidance and mentorship.

While this push away from parental authority will be undoubtedly be a struggle, there are ways to support a child through this development.

In the Islamic tradition a report concerning advice for raising children that is attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib says:

“Play with them for the first seven years (of their life); then teach them for the next seven years; then befriend them for the next seven years (and after that).”
Abdallah Rothman

The principle of this statement, namely, that the roles of a parent evolve as children age, holds true to modern developmental psychology understandings and knowledge of brain function. During early childhood (first seven years), the parent must build trust with their child. The next stage (approx. 7–14 years of age) is the period in which parents can take an instructive role in a child’s life. However, parents have a tendency to try and force this “teacher-pupil” relationship outside of this stage, often with little receptivity. In the final stage (adolescence to adulthood), the most effective strategy is to advise the child as a close friend would. By asking for input and feedback, parents can reach out to their child and become a positive influence in their child’s life. Dictating to an adolescent as a parent does to a younger child does not yield any positive results.

It is beyond question that identity formation is affected by globalization. Regardless of our convictions, ‘Youth Culture’ exists and we must work with it if we want to have a positive influence in a child’s life. What parents often fail to recognise is that adolescents are still in the development process. In order to be more effective mentors we cannot just resort to being a “Professor Adult” who dictates instead of trying to understand the social pressures that young people come up against..

For any youth “respect leads to respect”. Where this plays out, it leaves youth receptive to guidance. Guidance that is offered and led within a framework of mutual respect leads to constructive development.

Competing Identities: The Muslim Millennial in a Globalised World

The Muslim youth of today, in a world of global influences, have a very different mentality of their world than any generation prior to them. The possibilities are endless. While this does leave youth more susceptible to influence, positive or negative, the curiosity that they have can be harnessed for the better. To be successful, the multiple identities that youth contest with should be integrated into any approach designed to help them with their process of forming and developing coherent identities.

Muslim Millennials are undoubtedly faced with at least two spheres of influence in their identity formation:

Abdallah Rothman

Having both of these competing influences can lead to “cognitive dissonance” in an adolescent’s life as they try to reconcile these identities. Some will attempt to neglect their Muslim identity in pursuit of pure youth culture. Parents may attempt to ignore their child’s need to fit-in with youth culture in hope of strengthening their Muslim identity. However, neither of these influences will cease to act upon a Muslim adolescent’s life. Repressing any one of them can create an imbalance that leads to a potential to rebel, and, in extreme circumstances, turn to destructive behaviours. As a healthy course of development in this stage, they must explore and understand where they stand in relation to their faith. As with anything, the need of Muslim youth (and any youth for that matter) for identity can be channeled anywhere. If the desire for that need is accompanied by anger and alienation, it only requires the intervention of an influencer with a malicious agenda to turn youth towards extremism. However, the intervention of an influencer with a positive and well-meaning agenda can lead to a positive transformation.

USA and UAE Experience

There are some notable differences between the influences of Muslims youth in the USA with the UAE. While Muslim youth in the US struggle to fit into secular society, Emirati youth do enjoy a group Muslim identity. While American society discourages an embrace of Islamic identity in favour of more individualistic and secular identities, Emirati youth may sometimes desire aspects of a more secular, liberal lifestyle. What remains common to both sets of youth is the push they experience towards millennial youth culture. Both contexts are struggling to integrate the varied cultural influences that act upon identity and are experiencing a “social identity complexity”.

Changing Approaches

Islam can act as an effective resource to support young people in their journey. When religion is communicated in a manner that is understood by the youth and relevant to the contours of their world, they are more likely to turn to it for guidance in their identity-formation quest. That does not mean that Islam as a faith has become irrelevant or needs to be altered in order to accomodate the needs of safe modern development psychology. Rather, all the principles and requirements of positive development are built into the faith. What remains is that faith as it is has to be presented in a way that makes sense to the realities of the modern world. At the core of religion are principles, ethics, values and morals that can greatly improve the lives of young Muslims when they are reframed for the context that young people live in.

Examples of reframing efforts might encompass the following ideas:

1. Framing religious prohibitions merely as ‘must-do’s and dont’s” does not speak to the ‘counter-authority’ youth tendency that typifies modern youth culture. However, when those prohibitions are framed as means by which to “master of the self” or a “tool of self improvement”, adolescents may be more receptive to them.

2. Addressing the issue of youth group identification (youth favouring group cultures and identity), Islam has a concept of ‘umma’ as a living community for all Muslims and humanity.

3. Adolescents respond to campaigns against social injustice. Highlighting the Prophet’s concern with correcting social wrongs and injustices, such as giving rights to vulnerable members of society (widows and orphans) and eradicating racism, provide a practical and powerful example for young people to follow in correcting injustices of our world today.

4. Physical and sport activities are popular among youth. Similarly, physical activities such as archery, swimming, and horse-riding are encouraged in prophetic teachings and can be used to provide a sports-based training program for youth.

5. Instead of scolding the youth to perform their obligatory prayers, prayer can be framed as a positive daily routine of self-discipline that can help keep one away from negative behaviors and influences. Being encouraged like this, younger generations will not only perform the prayer, they will actually want to pray.

These examples reframe the way religion and religious practices are seen. They can help young Muslims to view Islam as an entity that has a practical, positive, and relevant effect in their lives and an aid, as opposed to an impediment, in their search for fostering a balanced identity.