Opinion: Identity crisis? Living as a Muslim in the West

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Hamaad Muin Ahmad, Medical Student, Czech Republic  

Practising Islam in its truest sense can, at times, be challenging. Add the atmosphere and culture of the West into the mix and the jihad (struggle against sin) grows drastically. 

Being raised in a society where the social norms have become pre-marital relationships, alcohol consumption, recreational drug use, partying for the sake of social engagement, homosexuality – all acts which Islam advises against – may create the sense that Islam does not belong in Western society, a common argument presented today.

Despite this, Muslims hold a resolute belief that Islam is a religion sent directly by Allah through Prophet Muhammadsa for all times and places. Therefore, it cannot make sense, at least for Muslims, to assert that Islam does not belong in a modernised, “developed” society. 

Interestingly, the Holy Prophetsa said:

“The hour will not be established till the sun rises from the west; and when it rises and the people see it, they all will believe.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Fitan)

Many Muslims misinterpret this hadith and think that one day, the Sun will literally rise from the western side of the sky rather than the eastern side. However, Allah has said in the Holy Quran: 

سَبَّحَ لِلّٰهِ مَا فِي السَّمٰوٰتِ وَالۡاَرۡضِ ۚ وَهُوَ الۡعَزِيۡزُ الۡحَكِيۡمُ

“Whatever is in the heavens and earth glorifies Allah; and He is Mighty, the Wise.” (Surah al-Hadid, Ch.57: V.2)

This verse purports to say that everything that is created by Allah in the universe performs its allotted task punctually and regularly by using the powers that Allah the Almighty has bestowed upon it through being the sole Designer and Architect. All creation in the universe works together and by doing so, bears testimony to the fact that Allah’s creation is free from flaw, defect or imperfection. The natural laws of creation embedded in the universe by Allah cannot be changed as that will contradict the very purpose of creation and His unity.

Therefore, the hadith quoted earlier cannot possibly mean the Sun will one day haphazardly rise from the west; rather, it means that a day will come when the pure light of Islam will beam from the West – synonymous with the sun’s dazzling light. In a nutshell, Islam is destined to rise in the West.

Having established that Islam does indeed belong in the West, let us return to the subject at hand. 

Growing up in the West, it is not uncommon for Muslim youth to find themselves living two lives – one life at school amongst friends, and another at home with family and fellow Muslims. This is not always due to any fault of their own. It often comes from the ever-growing social pressures on young people today. Preposterous social pressures linger on social media like reluctantly biting into an orange. You do not know if the orange will be sweet or sour. Occasionally, you will find a sweet one but nine times out of 10, the taste is sour.

Instagram crams young people’s minds with unnatural body images compelling teenagers to believe that the smallest bit of fat, stretch marks or loose skin is something to be ashamed of. TikTok does the same, often showing vulgar and explicit content to the extremely young children who use it. Twitter often fills youth with hate comments and consequently leads them to a toxic hellspace. 

It seems that for a young Muslim living in the West, there’s a constant tug of the alluring culture of the West and the deep-seated reality Islam pulls towards. This often leads some Muslim youth to adopt one personality outside of school, college or university, which complements Western values and pleases the court of public opinion. In contrast, they adopt another personality at the mosque, their home and amongst Muslim family members which agrees with Islam, thus leading into a double life.

Given the circumstances, these struggles and causes of frustration in Muslim youth are not surprising. It is a reality that many Muslim youths currently reside in. In my humble opinion, I believe the majority of difficulties whilst residing in the West can be uplifted by having a strong sense of identity. In a world nearing eight billion, identity is the most precious thing we hold. It is what separates everyone. 

Erik Erikson, the famous 20th-century German-American psychologist has said:

“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”

I also believe that a root cause of anxiety today is estrangement – the feeling of not (truly) belonging anywhere. These two feelings of no identity and estrangement when combined, result in young Muslim youth feeling they have nowhere to turn to, thus producing a vicious cycle.

For myself, aged 23 years and born in the UK, having grown up in London, understanding my identity as an Ahmadi Muslim and the Jamaat I belonged to greatly assisted me in facing social pressures. 

Nearing the end of secondary school in 2013/14, social media began to take off. Then, in college, my non-Muslim friends whom I grew up with, spent their free time partying, drinking alcohol and some even turned to homosexuality. Of course, I knew these acts were prohibited in Islam for my benefit. What helped me through this transitory period was taking part in community activities organised by Khuddam-ul-Ahmadiyya. Through this, I was accompanied by groups of young boys who were like-minded and shared the same values as me. Eventually, I went on to develop lifelong friendships with these khuddam. 

Baitul Futuh Mosque
Photo courtesy of Suhaib Ahmad

Likewise, I also researched my family history to understand why I am who I am. Who were my ancestors? Who in my family accepted Ahmadiyyat? Who from my family migrated to the UK and why? One element which cannot be left unstated whilst growing up is my relationship with Khilafat through regular letters. This was a crucial lifeline.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for Muslims when living in the West. We should not succumb to the negative influences that surround us and completely give up our faith and in doing so adopt their ideologies. 

It must be clarified that not all Western practices are negative. A multitude of Western principles are unquestionably admirable, such as integrity, freedom of religion, punctuality, effective organisation of society and the Western education system among many, many more.

In the history of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat, numerous influential icons actually studied in the West and went on to become men of God. Namely, Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmadrh and Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, both of whom studied in British universities.  

In March 1954, in Rabwah, Pakistan on a spring afternoon, whilst leading the afternoon prayer, a young man advanced from the front line and attacked Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra. A long sharp dagger was driven into the blessed neck of Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra. After two years of trying different treatments, it was decided that it would be best to seek the advice of specialists in London. At the age of 26 years, the son of the Second Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh accompanied him to London. It was later decided that Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh should stay in London and seek further education.

Here, I will list a few anecdotes Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh experienced whilst studying in London.

He once recalled:

“My educational background was so poor that it was impossible for the University of London to admit me in the normal way. But, fortunately my father knew Sir Ralph Turner, who was the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies […] So that is how I became a student of the University of London. 

“My habits did not change. Instead of learning what I was supposed to learn I started meeting people, going places, visiting towns, hitch-hiking all over Britain, socialising, playing squash, everything except the prescribed course. I lived as a truant, and I was accepted as such. 

“I don’t know whether it would be right to say that I was popular, but it seemed everyone on my course knew me and I knew everybody. It was a tremendously happy time. I made many, many friends. It was a very, very pleasant time.” (A Man of God, Iain Adamson, p. 66)

His fellow students knew him as a good companion.“His eyes always seemed to be friendly and he was able to laugh at all sorts of things. It seemed to me he was a kind person”, said one student. (Ibid, p. 67)

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh, born in 1928 in Qadian, India had initially learned English at school, but his spoken English was poor. Since he lived in London, he wished to tackle this and he took a full course in English phonetics.

“First I had to demolish entirely the way I was speaking – it was totally wrong. The people who had taught me English did not really know English. They knew how to construct sentences grammatically, but grammatically correct sentences may be absolutely wrong as far as spoken English is concerned.” (Ibid, p. 69)

“Once you are used to an incorrect pronunciation you never notice, even if you listen to the BBC, that you are mispronouncing words […] So, I told all my friends, ‘Please do not be polite. Correct me if I say something wrong.’

“Once I was in the UK for New Year’s Eve. Countless people had gathered at Trafalgar square; on this night, people are usually engulfed in all sorts of indecent acts and as soon as the clock strikes midnight, they think they are free to do anything they please, losing all sense of morality and religious obligations. That night, by chance I happened to be at Euston Station. So, I decided to offer nawaafil – voluntary prayers – which was nothing special on my part, as, by the grace of Allah the Almighty, the majority of Ahmadis begin the New Year in the same manner. I laid out a newspaper to offer my prayers. After a few minutes, I felt as if someone was standing beside me. I had not yet completed my prayers when I heard someone weeping. Upon completing my prayers, I saw an elderly English gentleman crying profusely. I became deeply concerned and thought that perhaps he was sympathising with me, thinking that maybe I had gone mad. So, I asked what was the matter with him? He replied: ‘There is nothing wrong with me, but my people have lost their senses. At this time, my people are engrossed in all sorts of immoral acts and there is only one person who is remembering their Lord.’ This thought had such a profound effect on my heart that I was unable to hold back my tears. He then repeatedly said the words: ‘God bless you, God bless you.’” (www.reviewofreligions.org/19582/a-new-years-celebration-prayer-charity-and-good-will-to-all/)

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh then went on to say, “Even if the entire world mocks at us, an Ahmadi youth should not care one bit, for he has every right to exercise his freedom and is answerable to God Almighty alone.” (www.reviewofreligions.org/19582/a-new-years-celebration-prayer-charity-and-good-will-to-all/)

This, in essence, describes the pride we should hold for Islam whilst living in the West. 

Our pride for Islam should stand resolute and we must remain courageous in front of an anti-Islamic society. However, we should not remain isolated out of arrogance in the belief that we are better than anyone but should indeed integrate into society using Islamic principles. 

I believe understanding and being proud of our identity is vital whilst living as a Muslim in the West.

Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, the Fifth Khalifa has extensively spoken about the integration of Muslims into the West and how Ahmadi youth can operate as Muslims and beneficial members of society. At one place, whilst discussing what truly constitutes integration, Huzooraa said, “to apply all abilities to serve for the betterment of the city; through education and service of the nation. This is why the Jamaat encourages students to excel in science and education and serve their country better.” (www.alhakam.org/this-is-true-integration/)

This is the integration that Muslims can be proud of – by operating in the West as successful and beneficial members of society, who hold fast to their faith and identity.

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1 COMMENT

  1. So true, the youth today have tremendous challenges to face! It is the rope of Allah that they have to hang by. Sincere salat, constant Duas, recitation of the Holy Quran, reading the books of the Promised Messiah (AS) will inshallah, make them fly out of the dangerous web. May Allah ta’ala keep all Ahmadi youth on the path of righteousness, ameen

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