The Challenges of Becoming a ‘Practising’ Muslim in a ‘Muslim’ family

One segment of the ‘practicing’ Muslim population that often is overlooked are those (usually youth) from non-practicing or more secular families who are brought into the light of guidance by Allah.

We often talk about the challenges of converts and those who grow up Muslim, but we don’t often talk about these people. This is a segment we need to address. I know the frustration because I was one of them, and guidance for issues specific to my situation were often hard to come by. The only people I found sympathetic to my grievances were those who had gone through similar awakenings within their families, and they were rare.

What differentiates our group from converts is that the initial and most concentrated opposition to us being ‘religious’ often comes not from non-Muslims, but Muslims. These Muslims are often family or friends, people who we assume should be on the same wavelength as us because they also call themselves Muslims.

When we start practicing we undergo, often in our very homes, experiences that trouble us. We want to pray in the mosque, a Muslim stops us. We want to wear hijab, a Muslim stops us. We want to start establishing boundaries between ourselves and relatives of the opposing gender, the push-back comes from Muslims. We want to spend more time with other practicing Muslims and learn our dīn, it’s Muslims who intervene. We want to marry a religious person, it’s Muslims who object. We may even be labelled extremists just for doing obligatory acts. A similar effect may be produced by growing up in a more secular niche of a Muslim society (like middle-class areas in big cities).

Because of these experiences, it becomes very easy to fall into a binary system of thinking and adopt an us vs. them mentality in how we see other Muslims. It starts with seeing ourselves as being on the ‘truth’ and others on ‘falsehood’. We are following ‘Islam’ while others are following ‘culture’. We may end up justifying the use of harsh speech or bluntness in order to stand our ground against the pressure of people close to us. If we are young all this may drive us to adopt uber-conservative views in Islam as a form of rebellion against the ‘non-practicing’ system. It may push us to become prematurely vocal about problems in Muslims, Muslim politics and Muslim societies. The problem can also spill over into how we perceive Muslim/non-Muslim relations. This may be why we see many such people over-represented in extremist groups.

And this attitude evolves. First we begin to differentiate between the ‘practicing’ and the ‘non-practicing’ Muslims. Then as we learn more about our faith and interact with the Muslim community, we binarize more fault lines. There are the ‘Sufis’ and the ‘Salafis’. Those following the Qur’an and Sunnah, and those not. There are the conservative and the liberal Muslims, the religious and the secular Muslims, the traditional and the modernist Muslims. These often false binaries we encounter reactivate our emotional and spiritual trauma from before. And to wrap it all up, it becomes very tempting to encase our binarism within the mu’min/munāfiq binary. But the mu’min/munāfiq binary is theology. In practical reality, you cannot delineate who is a mu’min and who is a munāfiq. At it’s core imān and nifāq are matters of the heart. There is a major difference between theology, and how theology manifests itself in practical reality.

This is where the practical reality we have experienced become more important. If you have grown up in a ‘religious’ family and around ‘religious’ people and friends, chances are that you have met people whose religious conduct is highly diverse. You may meet someone who judiciously prays their 5 daily prayers but then commits other sins. You may meet someone who doesn’t pray and drinks alcohol but is furious when Allah and His Messenger are insulted and vigorously defends their faith. You may meet someone who is outwardly ‘religious’ but otherwise corrupt in their character. The binarism melts away to reveal a more complex picture.

All of this (and more) is why I think studying Islam in a structured format and exposure to multiple types of Muslims instead of your little bubble is more important for us newly practising Muslims (especially the young ones) than it is for those born into religious families. Our group is in greater need of structuring our inherited understanding (which we often assume to be partly correct and often with the gaps filled in by content from the internet), and in greater need of better and more diverse examples of Muslims on which to base our understanding of the state of Muslims and our societies. Perhaps a great start is to normalize relations with our family members (easier said than done I know).

I originally wrote this as a post on my Facebook page, and someone in the comments asked if I had any specific advice on how to deal with negative pressure from parents or family. I want to summarize and refine some of the points I mentioned there.

1) The first thing to understand is that it will take grit, persistence and patience to get through it. There is no escaping it. Mujahadah (struggle) is a part of Islamic Spirituality. This is your test from Allah. Either you will get through this with your faith intact and your status with Allah raised, or you will succumb and break and lapse back into what you were. This is the journey. This is how it goes. It’s supposed to be hard.

2) I know it feels like you vs. the world, but don’t yourself fall into that mindset. Finding Islam in such an environment can lead to a harmful binary attitude and a dysfunctional understanding of what it means to be religious. Anger, rebelliousness should not be the fuel of your faith. Your drive to be ‘religious’ should be good theology, Qur’an, dhikr, salah, khushu and good akhlaq etc. You want to make sure that as you get older and that rebelliousness and anger wear off, your connection to Allah is intact. So ground your faith in the right emotions and mindset.

3) Study Islam. Spend time with seekers of knowledge and scholars. Let your faith be guided by principles and knowledge instead of whatever is popular. Don’t be swept up into empty rhetoric and popular sentiment. Do structured courses and programs available online or in your local community that ground your newfound love of Islam to principles instead of emotion. Knowledge will also help you to show your family that your newfound faith is not irrational or overly dogmatic. You will also avoid unnecessary arguments and fights over issues that are differed over.

4) Spend more time with religious, practicing Muslims who don’t have your baggage. It’s tempting to only associate with those who have gone through the same trials & experiences as you, but religious Muslims who come from religious families often have a more balanced implementation of Islam in their lives. You may even find this ‘more balanced implementation’ to be impure, irreligious or not up to the standard of perfection you expect. But that’s the whole point, you have to spend enough time with religious folks to understand that they vary, and that its normal. Not everyone is perfect. As you get older and life becomes more complicated you will appreciate this balance more, as the anger and rebelliousness that fueled you in your youth will gradually dissipate as you get older.

5) Don’t look at your parents or family as hypocrites, liberals, seculars etc and all those other generalizations that are so easy to apply onto them. It doesn’t do you any favors to have outbursts, fight and yell with your parents or family on you being religious. Not only will it harm your akhirah, but it just reinforces the stereotype of ‘religious people’ in their eyes.

Also, they may surprise you. I have seen Muslims who barely pray vigorously defend Islam in public. Perhaps your family is affected by anti-religious sentiment that is the result of history and colonialism. Its not that they hate Islam, or that they are liberals, secular, munafiqin etc. The categorization is never that neat except in extreme examples. Usually they just don’t know any better because of their life experiences, and they are much older now so their attitudes are deeply grounded.

Make lots of dua for their Islam and have hope that Allah will answer your prayers. But at the same time be realistic. Your religiosity will come up when you are choosing your career, getting married, raising your kids etc. It’s going to happen, and you have to live with it. Treat being good to your parents as your personal jihad. It will require struggle, but it’s worth it.

6) Build some healthy distance if you need to. If you can, move out. For females obviously this is incredibly difficult. But building distance doesn’t only mean moving out. Spend more time in the masjid, volunteering for a Muslim charity organization, at school, with good religious friends etc. It may not be possible to do all of the above if you constantly stay in an environment hostile and toxic to your faith (and because of all the conflict your mental and emotional health too). But keep the distance healthy. Don’t cut off family and especially parents.

7) Lastly, marriage is not the ultimate solution to your problems. It may help, but it can also make things worse. There are a lot of factors involved. In the end your relationship to your parents/immediate family is between you and them. Marriage will not make that go away. You will still have to maintain it, try to fix it, and make dua for them. For some it does get easier when you start working, if you are married or have kids, as parents realize that you are mature and have not become overly dogmatic to the point where you can’t live a regular life. But for some it may not improve much.

This is advice that I wish I was given when I first became ‘practising’ in university. I also advise reading the book mentioned in the comments below.

3 Replies to “The Challenges of Becoming a ‘Practising’ Muslim in a ‘Muslim’ family”

  1. I just want to say what you write really resonates with me. We have had similar life experiences with the same conclusions. It’s good to know someone is articulating what is on my mind too. I’m sure other readers feel like this. I wanted to record my thoughts as an encouragement. Criticisms will come when appropriate. God bless!


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