Ramadan, the Muslim month of reflection and fasting, began Tuesday, and Amina Iro has some goals: Study her Koran more. Try to use less profanity. Spend more time with her family.
“Sometimes my Mom and I butt heads, and I want to be more patient. I’m realizing more and more that this life is not forever, so I have to make the most of it,” the 17-year-old from Bowie, Md., said.
Iro is part of a group of Muslim teens who have been exploring a key Ramadan theme — self-betterment — this year through their participation in one of the biggest Muslim youth events in the country.
Organizers of the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament, or MIST, picked the topic of self-improvement after surveys last year showed many of the largely traditional teens carrying guilt, worried about sinning and making mistakes. The thousands of teens compete in everything from improv comedy to photography to spoken word.
“They felt like because they sinned or they did things that weren’t necessarily the best, they didn’t consider themselves religious,” said Tara Mohammed, regional director for the D.C.-area MIST, which includes nearly 600 youth. “They felt, ‘There’s no hope for me now, I might as well turn to other things, partying.’ We are trying to push self-awareness, patience, the idea that you can always rise to something better.”
Iro, a rising senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md., took first place last weekend in short fiction at the MIST national championship in Michigan. Her story was about two sisters living in an orphanage. The younger has schizophrenia, making it harder for them to be adopted. The older sister struggles with anger and shame about her sister. Meanwhile, the younger one has elaborate imaginary adventures.
Iro says she is fascinated by people with conditions like schizophrenia and wanted to explore the life of “someone who is generally misunderstood.” As a girl who has been bullied for wearing a hijab, or head covering, she sees parallels with her life as a Muslim in post-Sept. 11 America. She knows what it is like to feel a bit out of the mainstream culture.
“We live in a society where not everyone knows everything about my way of life,” Iro said. “There was a subconscious thought to try and make a connection.”
Anam Khatib, 16, who won the regional short film competition for her video about a relationship between a father and son, went to a religious school for middle school and said observant Muslims “struggle in public school” to resist drinking, drugs and sex. “There’s a lot we know we can’t do. Sometimes we do them and feel guilty.”
Does doing such things make someone a bad person, or a bad Muslim?
“I don’t think anyone is a bad person. Some actions make them feel like they are,” said Khatib, a rising senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, whose parents immigrated from India (her father played the father in the film). “And relationship with God is a very individual thing. Other people can’t judge you on your actions. Only God can.”
Islam teaches that Satan is chained up during Ramadan, giving Muslims extra protection as they fast and try to become closer to God. “That means it all comes down to us,” she said. She doesn’t make specific resolutions — though many Muslims do during Ramadan — but will generally try to be more charitable, a better student and a better daughter, she said.
Khatib’s brother, Arbaz Khatib, 15, placed second in the regional championship in photography for an image of an hourglass and a century-old tree outside their Greenbelt home. He wanted to show how the tree had survived storms and time and was still prospering. He shot it from the bottom looking up to emphasize how its movement was upward.
“When we mess up, and go against our religion, either by accident or on purpose, the guilt should be there. It’s a sign of repentance,” he said. “But also you need to have patience. Yes, you messed up, but we are all humans.”
This Ramadan, Arbaz Khatib said he’s working on being more respectful to his parents and being more prompt about starting his five-times-daily prayers. After professing yourself a Muslim, praying on time is the second most-important thing, he said.
Idiris Mohamed, 16, of Hyattsville, Md., said he’ll work this Ramadan on memorizing more of the Koran — a feat particularly valued in certain Muslim communities, including Mohamed’s native Somalia.
“It’s cultural, but it’s really for God. At the end of the day, whatever you do is for the sake of God,” said Mohamed. “[Memorizing] makes you more involved in your prayer. Once you get more involved in your prayer, everything falls into place in your life. I’ve found that, definitely.”
Mohamed goes to Dar Us-Salaam private school in College Park, Md., and says going to a school with other Muslims doesn’t necessarily make it easier to deal with peer pressure and other things that can challenge a teen’s self-image.
“At the end of the day I’m human,” he said. “As a Muslim, usually if you can realize you’re doing something wrong you can still feel you have a good heart. “
He made it to the national semifinals for improv comedy and took first place in the regionals for a graphic design image of an unproductive painter.
Teens at MIST talk a lot about how to stick to traditional Islamic values and resist having boyfriends or girlfriends. They also talk about family problems and what to do if a sibling or friend “is going astray,” he said. “Muslims understand it’s wrong [to have physical relationships outside marriage] but still do it anyway.”
One of the most powerful moments at the national competition, he said, was a spoken word piece by a teen who is, like Mohamed, from Somalia. The piece was about the boy’s father leaving him. The other teens chanted the boy’s name at the end.
“That’s to me the whole point [of art], to use your own life story to change others,” he said. After the other youth’s performance at nationals, “everyone became more grateful for their lives.”