A Quarter of Young American Muslims Say Their Lives Lack Meaning and Purpose: Here’s How to Change That

Faith can serve as a balm to worries about meaning and purpose, but this requires willful action on the part of spaces of worship.

Faith can serve as a balm to worries about meaning and purpose, but this requires willful action on the part of spaces of worship.

Sinthia Shabnam graduated from North Carolina State University in Spring 2020 with a double major in political science and sociology. Now, she works as a legislative fellow for the Poligon National Education Fund, a premier U.S. Muslim-American advocacy organization.

Sinthia loves her new job, but getting there wasn’t easy. “I had six different part-time fellowships and internships, many of which at the same time,” she told us, before quickly adding, “But every small experience was a blessing, because everything I did made an impact and contributed to my learning in the long-term.”

We were shocked and impressed that Sinthia still sported an optimistic attitude despite endless application processes and constant resume editing for nearly a year. We couldn’t help but ask what kept her psychologically above water. The answer? Her Muslim faith gave her a resilient sense of meaning and purpose.

“I’m always asking myself, why am I doing what I’m doing?” Sinthia remarked. “Is what I’m doing and pursuing pleasing to God, or is it displeasing to God?” When asked to elaborate, she said, “I know I can put in the effort to make decisions, pursue opportunities, and try to achieve different things, but if something is not meant for me, I simply have to train myself to understand that it won’t happen. When I stop resisting that, I find a greater sense of peace and a stronger sense of purpose in the opportunities that Allah does provide,” she explained.

We are both affiliated with Springtide Research Institute — Kevin in media relations and Nima on the Research Advisory Board — supporting the Institute’s efforts to understand how Gen Z is thinking about spirituality, politics, work, meaning and purpose, and more. As part of our most recent study, The State of Religion and Young People 2020, we asked 10,000+ young people (ages 13-25) how often they feel their lives have meaning and purpose.

We discovered that nearly a quarter of young Muslim Americans (22%) feel their life has meaning and purpose “rarely” and “not at all,” a notably higher proportion than their Jewish (14%) and Christian peers (13%). Of course, there are groups with even greater shares doubting the meaning and purpose of their lives, such as Atheists (33%), Buddhists (32%), and Hindus (25%). However, in these traditions, there are popular teachings and doctrines (e.g. reincarnation or existentialism) that are less resonant with the idea of one’s life having significant meaning and purpose.

Sinthia suggested that one contributor to the disparity between Muslims and their Judeo-Christian peers is the lack of infrastructure in the Muslim community for youth programming.

“Muslims donate a lot to build mosques and establish places for regular prayer, but imams and youth directors and severely underpaid, mosques are severely understaffed, and all communities don’t have equal access to places of worship depending on Muslim population density,” Sinthia explained, adding, “I’ve never had a youth director last more than 2 years at the mosques I attend.” 

Even if there is adequate financial backing to support imams and youth directors, their programs may not feel relatable to Muslim youth. “There is sometimes a disconnect in leadership and what mosques might talk about and focus on, versus what issues Muslim kids are really dealing with on a daily basis,” Sinthia said. Without a strong sense of belonging at their mosques, Sinthia observed that young Muslims “lack stable Muslim relationships, as well as access to trusted mentor figures and their spiritual guidance.”

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Sinthia’s observations find support in Springtide’s study, which found that only 4% of young Muslims say there’s a religious leader they can turn to — that’s 4 out of every 100 young Muslims. Young Muslims are less likely to say they attend a youth group (25%) than their Jewish (33%) and Christian peers (33%). Finally, young Muslims are less likely to trust organized religion — 56% rated their trust at five or below on a ten-point scale — than their Jewish (53%) and Christian peers (44%).

Sinthia acknowledged that her path has been different. “I have had seriously amazing mentors, a great example in family, and very supportive friends in my Muslim community,” she said, adding, “As a Muslim having a strong sense of community is a huge part of our faith. In Surah Fatiha, there is a verse that says ‘Guide us to the straight path.’ The importance of community is embedded in our daily prayer.”

As a young Muslim woman myself (Nima), I can wholeheartedly relate to and affirm Sinthia’s experiences. I have seen firsthand how a strong institutional support system — mentors, friends, and family — can uplift and sustain faith connections as well as keep me anchored in the things that really matter.

Fortunately, there appears to be a remedy for young Muslims — and all young people — who have less confidence about their meaning and purpose. Springtide’s study revealed that trusted adult mentors — whether it be parents, religious leaders, even employers — can make a powerful contribution to a young person’s sense of meaning and purpose. Nearly a quarter (24%) of young people with no adult mentors say they never feel their life has meaning and purpose. But for those with even just one adult mentor, this number drops to 6%.

Springtide also discovered that young people respond best to mentors who exhibit relational authority, mixing their expertise with transparency, authenticity, integrity, and genuine care. In other words, young people are more likely to trust mentors who are honest about their experiences, who listen well, and who meet young people where they are. Alternatively, approaches that rely on institutional authority to do the heavy lifting — pushing one’s pedigree, degree, or personal accomplishments — are less successful in gaining the trust of young people.

Faith can serve as a balm to worries about meaning and purpose, but this requires willful action on the part of spaces of worship. By facilitating youth’s relationships to trusted adult mentors, mosques can help young people use their faith to establish purpose and grow toward a meaningful life.

Nima Dahir is a member of the Research Advisory Board for Springtide Research Institute. Nima is also a Stanford University PhD candidate in sociology, studying access to housing and racial discrimination, as well as co-founder and board member of Refuge, an organization centered on mentoring young adult refugees. She also provides data scientific aid to school districts and educational organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area, aimed at furthering understanding about how interventions affect students.

Kevin Singer is Head of Media and Public Relations for Springtide Research Institute, an adjunct faculty member in religious studies at two community colleges, and a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University.