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Duaa Haggag, LPC holds a Master’s in Counseling and works in private practice as a child, adolescent, and family therapist in Greater Flint, Michigan. She serves as a Community Educator at The Family & Youth Institute and works with Muslim youth through the Muslim American Society. She is the mother of three girls, ages 16, 14, and 11 who make sure life is always an adventure.
On a hot and sweltering day, the cool shade of a forgiving tree can provide such relief and solace. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ shares with us a vivid image of the day where we will all be filled with fearful anticipation. Only a select few, seven types to be exact, will have the mercy of Allah’s shade, on a day where there is no shade but His. One of these categories is youth who grow up in the worship of Allah ﷻ.
How can we help youth maintain their relationship with Allah so that it endures the many developmental changes of life? For some, engaging in prayer throughout childhood was easy, perhaps because it was part of a family tradition, or because parental admiration meant so much that they were conditioned to pray like everyone else. But, what happens when the innocence of childhood wanes and the strong need for parental approval wears off? Do these youth carry on prayer as an essential part of their daily living? Do they take ownership of this cornerstone of faith, or do they shed it amongst other things in their quest for independence?
Model Salah as a Source of Comfort & Direction
When the Prophet ﷺ would ask Bilal (ra) to make the call for prayer, he would say, “Relieve us with it, O Bilal.” It is fascinating that the reference to salah here is one of relief, and directly relates to the relief we will also get when we are under Allah’s shade on the Day of Judgment. A key to instilling prayer in teens is the perspective that prayer is a source of comfort, release, and reprieve from the woes of the world and struggles in society.
The seeds of this perspective start before the teenage years. As caretakers, we must model and show that we look forward to our salah as a way to re-center our vision and as a means of grounding our daily living. In surat Ta-Ha, Allah ﷻ says, “Bid your family to pray, and pray steadfastly yourself. We are not asking you to give Us provision; We provide for you, and the rewards of the Hereafter belong to the devout.”[20: 132] In essence, we must practice praying steadfastly ourselves when we ask our youth to pray, and we do so for our own benefit and reward.
When our children see us complete our prayers as a rushed after thought or task to “get out of the way,” they will not grow to see it as a worthwhile pursuit in their lifestyle. When teens do not feel invested in salah, or that they will get something out of the experience (both in this life and the next), they will run after alternative activities that give them not only comfort, but purpose.
Create Positive Memories and Associations with Salah
An important aspect of the psychosocial development of adolescents is identity formation. If we want our teens to strongly see Islam and prayer as an important aspect of who they are, it is imperative that we establish positive memories and associations with prayer. When young people can positively associate prayer with their own history or narrative, they are most likely to continue it later in life. Emotionally, it has been ingrained in their identity.
Do you have a memory of sitting with your grandfather after salah and reciting tasbih? Was there a certain smell, sound, or feeling that you associate with that memory? Do you remember a special road trip you took where you stopped on the side of the road at sunset to pray? How about the nervousness or excitement of a prayer on a soccer field before a game? These are all memories that create a personal narrative, and if we latch these memories to prayer, it stays with us forever. Parents and youth leaders can use this knowledge to enhance the centrality of prayer in their youth’s identity formation. We must find ways to engage our youth’s five senses during prayer, and to weave salah into the historic milestones of their lives.
Be wary that negative associations with prayer are also difficult to erase. Do we create negative associations with salah in the way we deal with them before, after, and during prayer? Do we only remind our teens to pray in moments of sadness, despair, or anger? Do we represent mercy and beauty and grace when it comes to salah; or roughness, harshness, and rigidity? These associations make a big difference in the relationship our teens create with Allah ﷻ through salah.
In a moving narration, Ibn Masood (ra) describes how the Prophet ﷺ would hold his hand as a way of endearment while teaching him the tashahhud. If tenderness can affect an adult’s memory and practice, then surely teens can be equally moved. Instances of affection make it difficult for young people to not remember salah as something warm and worthwhile. This sometimes can be tricky to do when our children get older and shun visible forms of endearment, but get creative! How about wrestling after salah, or eating a special dish? More importantly, it’s our demeanor that allows a teen to hold on to that tradition of salah and create their own traditions, whether with peers, a significant other, or their future families.
Allow Ownership of Salah to be a Personal Practice
Sometimes my teenagers will pose this question to me: “If I don’t do x.y.z (wear hijab, pray, etc.), what will you do?” As long as it doesn’t infringe on the right of others, I usually reply with: “Nothing. I will be sad, but that’s between you and Allah.” This elicits a groan, “I hate that answer, Mama! Because now I have to do it.” While this is seemingly annoying to my teenager, it makes me chuckle because this is exactly the response I hope for.
Adolescence is a delicate time when youth, in crossing the bridge into adulthood, learn to take ownership of their life decisions and responsibility for their actions. There is an exhilaration that comes with creating goals for one’s self and accomplishing them based on conviction and hard work. When we dictate to our teens how they should pursue their relationship with Allah, we take this ownership away from them. As our kids get older, our role as caretakers should move towards that of a coach. As long as we’ve taken the time in the early years to establish belief in Allah ﷻ and His oneness, we must shift towards simply advising, guiding, sharing anecdotes or feelings, and trusting that our youth will figure out the rest.
Let Salah Be Its Own Reward
Remember those cute little sticker grids to keep track of our kids’ salah progress and perhaps offer prizes? Ditch them. While tracking can help younger children create long-term habits, this kind of structured incentive may have a less desirable effect in teens. We see this in classrooms that require children to fill out logs after their daily readings. Children who normally enjoy reading often lose that joy when they have to report their daily progress. Allow the benefits of salah to be an intrinsic reward. Through salah, teens can find inner peace, purpose, identity, and a sense of ownership and responsibility. This relationship they create with salah, and consequently with Allah ﷻ, is what allows their salah practice to become sustainable.
Provide Resources for Deeper Understanding
In order for teens to create a positive relationship with salah, it is useful to have a basic understanding of what they are saying and reciting in prayer. Help your teens connect with resources that allow them to understand the supplications uttered in salah. Get a good English translation for Quranic verses. Enrich them with meaningful tafsir books, videos, or teachers. If you have the means and access to mentors, schools, or environments that teach Arabic, open the opportunity for your teen to understand the conversation in salah on a deeper level.
Pay Attention to Peers & Role Models
During the teenage years, parents are often designated a backseat in their child’s daily life. Peers take on a much larger role in their influence. Capitalize on this. The Prophet ﷺ advises us that, “A man is upon the religion of his best friend, so let one of you look at whom he befriends.” Surround your teen with peers who are keen on their salah. Open up opportunities for them where the pool of friends to choose from are those who care about their relationship with Allah ﷻ and aren’t afraid to show it.
It is true that we do not have complete control over whom our children befriend, but we have considerable influence as to the environments our children are a part of. Where they find themselves will designate where they can find their friends. Take them to Muslim camps that stress God-consciousness and have families with a like-minded vision. Connect them with honorary “aunts and uncles” you trust who can give them spiritual guidance away from the confines of parenthood. Positively comment (ever so subtly!) on those friends you want your teens to spend time with and invite them to your house. Take your teen’s friends out to eat and get to know them better. Allow your son or daughter’s friends to befriend you so you may serve as a mentor to them, and in a way, influence your own teen. The more your teen spends time with peers and mentors that connect them with Allah ﷻ, the more chance they may see salah as something valuable in their life experience.
Make Duaa and Trust in Allah
In a beautiful supplication made by Ibrahim (as), he asks, “My Lord, make me an establisher of prayer, and from my descendants. Our Lord, and accept my supplication” [14: 40]. This special prophet could have chosen anything to ask for, but he chose prayer. He knew its importance in the well-being of his family and the generations to come. In turn, Allah ﷻ responded to his prayer with a descendant line of many prophets, all leading to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
We, too, must strive to view salah as an essential component of our children’s spiritual, physical, and emotional health, and thus a priority in what we wish for our children. At the end of the day, even after due diligence in providing the space and resources to help our teen connect with salah, her guidance ultimately lies in the hands of Allah. In Surah Yunus, we read that “… Allah invites to the Home of Peace and guides whom He wills to a straight path ” [10:25]. This understanding, along with the hope that our children will be guided, compels us to constantly beseech the Creator to allow our teens to become “establishers of prayer.”
On a day when there is no shade but His, we hope and pray that our beloved youth are included in His privileged subset. Even after training our children in their early years, maintaining salah in adolescence can be quite challenging. We must take conscientious steps to ensure our teens come to love salah and see it as a valuable part of their life experience. Ultimately, despite our best efforts, we should come to the realization that the utmost guidance comes from the Source of all peace. Only by putting complete trust in the Most Merciful can our teenagers become establishers of prayer, and fortunate enough to earn His favor on the Day of Judgement.