Keeping It Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys

Keeping It Halal: The Everyday Lives of Muslim American Teenage Boys

by John O'Brien


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A compelling portrait of a group of boys as they navigate the complexities of being both American teenagers and good Muslims

This book provides a uniquely personal look at the social worlds of a group of young male friends as they navigate the complexities of growing up Muslim in America. Drawing on three and a half years of intensive fieldwork in and around a large urban mosque, John O’Brien offers a compelling portrait of typical Muslim American teenage boys concerned with typical teenage issues—girlfriends, school, parents, being cool—yet who are also expected to be good, practicing Muslims who don’t date before marriage, who avoid vulgar popular culture, and who never miss their prayers.

Many Americans unfamiliar with Islam or Muslims see young men like these as potential ISIS recruits. But neither militant Islamism nor Islamophobia is the main concern of these boys, who are focused instead on juggling the competing cultural demands that frame their everyday lives. O’Brien illuminates how they work together to manage their “culturally contested lives” through subtle and innovative strategies—such as listening to profane hip-hop music in acceptably “Islamic” ways, professing individualism to cast their participation in communal religious obligations as more acceptably American, dating young Muslim women in ambiguous ways that intentionally complicate adjudications of Islamic permissibility, and presenting a “low-key Islam” in public in order to project a Muslim identity without drawing unwanted attention.

Closely following these boys as they move through their teen years together, Keeping It Halal sheds light on their strategic efforts to manage their day-to-day cultural dilemmas as they devise novel and dynamic modes of Muslim American identity in a new and changing America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691197111
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/06/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x (d)

About the Author

John O’Brien is assistant professor of sociology at New York University Abu Dhabi.

Read an Excerpt


The Culturally Contested Lives of Muslim Youth and American Teenagers

Sunday Morning at the City Mosque

I steer my rusty green Toyota Camry into a parking spot in the lot behind the mosque. I turn off the engine, step out of my car, and walk toward the back of the white, two-story building. I yank open the heavy back door and step into the open space of the social hall, set at the back of the mosque. The large room is alive with a bustling mix of adults and children — Arab American, African immigrant, East Asian, South Asian, and a few African American and white Muslim families as well. The adults' chatter and the kids' playful noises echo around me as I weave my way through the crowd and toward the opposite door, through which I pass into the more spacious and sunlit front lobby. Here I see Thomas, a short, balding, dark-skinned man, stationed at his normal post at the front reception desk, which is positioned oddly but as usual, facing away from the mosque's front door. Thomas's face breaks into a wide smile as I approach, and I briefly stop to shake his hand.

"As salaamu alaikum," I say.

He smiles and greets me in return: "Wa alaikum as salaam."

"I'm going up to the youth program," I tell him. He nods and jokingly sweeps his arm dramatically in the direction of the staircase, as if I don't already know where to go. I swing around to my right and climb the winding, carpeted stairs to the second level, where I take a sharp right turn, walk a few steps, and push open the door to the youth room.

This room is even noisier than the social hall, with about thirty-five middle and high school–aged kids sitting and talking in various clusters. I scan the width of the space for a particular group of boys but don't see them. I consider the possibility that they're late today, which would not be surprising. Suddenly, I hear a voice from my left call out, "Hi, John!" I look over to see Miriam and Sana, two of the youth program's older members, sitting side by side and waving to me. Today both of them are wearing their curly hair tucked under intricately decorated black hijabs, or headscarves. I wave back and say hello. Just then, Farah, one of the youth program's leaders, crosses in front of me and says to someone else, "Are they in there?" I figure she might be referring to the "they" for whom I'm also looking, so my eyes track her as she walks toward the door to the youth program office — a small box of a room off the main youth room — and opens it. I peer around her and catch a glimpse of Muhammad and Yusef, perched on the edge of the desk at the back of the office. As Farah walks into the room, I slip in behind her. Yusef sees me and says, "What's up, John?" and the other boys follow suit. Each of them gives me "dap"— a combination of a handclasp and half-hug — and says, "As salaamu alaikum" as they do. It took me a while to get the mechanics of this particular greeting down. But now, about a year into my time at the mosque, it's become habitual.

Sitting on the large black desk at the back of the room, their legs dangling and swinging, are five teenage boys: Yusef, Ali, Muhammad, Abdul, and Fuad. They range in age from fourteen to seventeen, are of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, and are all Muslim. I walk over and take a seat on the desk to the right of Fuad. Now we're all facing Farah, who stands directly in front of us, her eyebrows raised in an expression of stern expectation.

"Are you guys ready?" she asks. I ascertain that the boys are supposed to be preparing some sort of presentation and are expected to share their work with the rest of the group in a few minutes. They are each holding small white and green books of the hadith — abbreviated collections of the sayings and behaviors of the Prophet Muhammad authenticated by the ninth-century Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari, among others.

As if to reassure the group, Muhammad says, "We're just doing the five pillars. It's Sunday School stuff!"

I say, "You guys have to do the five pillars?" Yusef says, "Yeah, it's a hadith about the five pillars."

From my own experience with Islam, I know that the "five pillars" are considered the core religious obligations of Muslims and include an initial proclamation of faith (the shahadah); prayer five times per day (salat); the paying of alms to the poor (zakat); ritual fasting during the month of Ramadan (sawm); and the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj), which includes walking seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped holy site. The review and reinforcement of the five pillars is often a standard activity within Muslim youth programs such as this one.

The boys speak rapidly, trying to determine which of them will present which of the five pillars to the larger group.

"Okay, I'm doing shahadah," Yusef says.

"I'll do fasting," Ali volunteers, adding with a shrug, "That's easy — Ramadan."

"Okay, who's doing prayer?" asks Yusef.

Muhammad raises his hand: "I'll do it."

Yusef replies, "Okay," then turns to the remaining two boys.

Abdul says, "I'll do Hajj."

Fuad follows with, "I'll do zakat. That's easy; just giving money to the homeless. What is it — like 25 percent?"

"No," I tell him. "It's lower, like 2.5 percent."

"Oh," he replies.

Farah looks at me with a smile and says, "Okay, you're in charge," and leaves the office.

Adopting a tone that suggests it's time to get down to business, Yusef turns to the others: "Okay, you guys. We gotta get this straight." He raises the small book in front of his face and reads with sincerity: "These are the five pillars as recorded by ... Bu-kar-i." He stumbles over the name a little.

Fuad asks, "Bacardi?" Abdul and Muhammad crack up.

Yusef says, "Come on, you guys!" Then he pronounces it more carefully, using his native Arabic: "Bukhari ... Bukhari ... Okay. ... After I read this introduction, we can each read the part about our pillar and then say whatever we want to add about it."

They do a quick rehearsal. Ali reads the part of the hadith about shahadah and then adds, "This is the declaration of faith. The beginning of everything."

Next, Muhammad reads the section about prayer and says, "You should do this five times a day."

Yusef looks at Muhammad, frowns thoughtfully, and offers, "You could say that if people think it's hard to pray five times a day that they should be thankful because it was going to be fifty times, but Prophet Muhammad went to the Prophet Mousa [Moses] and said, 'My people cannot pray fifty times.' So, it could have been fifty."

Muhammad responds, with friendly aggravation, "Man, you got that from Omar!" He is referring to Omar Hashmi, the mosque's religious director, who often gives lessons on Islamic education as part of the youth program. Many community members refer to Omar as the imam, or religious leader, of the mosque.

"So?" says Yusef, slightly defensively. "It's a good story so people understand that it's not that hard to pray five times a day."

"Man, you're like a baby Omar!" says Muhammad, smiling.

Fuad reads the passage about fasting and adds, "This is what we do during Ramadan."

Abdul reads the section describing Hajj and states, "Hajj is a pilgrimage." There's silence as if the others are expecting more, but when Abdul remains quiet, the others start to laugh.

"That's it?" asks Fuad.

"Um, you walk round the box seven times," Abdul adds. When everyone laughs loudly and hoots disapprovingly, he continues, "Okay, okay, it's a pilgrimage to the House of God, and you walk around the black box seven times ... and I'm not talking about the cable box."

Everybody cracks up. "Come on, Abdul!" cries Yusef, with an undertone of genuine frustration with his brother.

"Okay, okay," Abdul replies. "You walk round the Kaaba seven times." This seems to appease Yusef and everyone else.

Finally, Fuad reads the section about zakat, concluding, "This is when you give money to the homeless ... or to me?" He smiles.

Farah opens the door and calls in, "Okay, you guys, it's almost time to go."

As the door closes again, Yusef looks around at the others: "Okay, are we straight?" He channels his nervous energy into a quick spinning dance move in the center of the office and remarks: "Hoo! That was like the Jackson Five."

As we all gather and walk toward the door to the larger youth program room, I elbow Abdul and say in a teasingly accusatory tone, "Around the box seven times?"

Abdul smiles and nods: "I'm gonna say that."

Ali eggs him on, "Yeah, yeah, you should really say that!"

"No, come on, you guys!" Yusef interjects with a flash of serious aggravation.

"See, he's like a little Omar," Muhammad says to the other three.

In response, Yusef unbuttons his khaki Dockers and tucks his blue and white–striped button-down shirt deep into his pants so that he can pull them comically high. "Here we go," he says, in a mock-nerdy voice.

"Oh, no!" Muhammad and the other boys cry out, laughing hard.

As Yusef readjusts his clothing back to normal in preparation to step out the door and the group's laughter dies down, Muhammad turns and faces his friend directly with a quizzical, thoughtful look on his face. "I don't understand, Yusef," he says. "How are you an athlete, a math nerd, a rapper, a gangster, and an imam?" Yusef looks straight back at him with a bemused smile and shrugs his shoulders. They turn and walk through the open door together.

Muslim Young Men and Muslim American Lives

This book tells the story of a group of young men growing up together in early twenty-first-century America. At the time of my fieldwork, the friends at the center of the story — whom I call the "Legendz" after the name of their sometimes active hip hop group — were urban American teenagers and second-generation immigrants. They attended large and diverse public schools, were exposed daily to mainstream American media and pop culture, and lived in a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood in a major city in the United States. This social location meant that these young men faced expectations from school peers, community friends, and each other to engage in cultural practices, styles, and discourses associated with modern urban American teenage life, including hip hop music and fashion, dating and romantic love, personal independence and autonomy, and a low-key presentation of ethnic identity. In other words, they were expected to live a social and cultural life that was recognizably adolescent American. These young men were also at the very same time self-identified and practicing Muslims embedded in a tight-knit religious community. This social location meant that they were expected by parents and community adults, peers, and sometimes each other to meet the religious and social obligations of Muslims as understood within their local context, including praying five times daily, attending the mosque, fasting for Ramadan, abstaining from premarital dating and sexual intercourse, avoiding consumption of alcohol and drugs, limiting their exposure to potentially profane pop culture, and identifying as Muslims in public. In other words, they were expected to live a religious and cultural life that was recognizably Muslim. As some of the central cultural expectations associated with urban American teenage life were understood to be in tension with or even direct opposition to those locally associated with being a "good Muslim," these young men led what I call culturally contested lives. As such, the everyday lives of the Legendz were characterized in part by the presence of two competing sets of cultural expectations, or what I will call cultural rubrics: urban American teen culture, as manifested in their schools, peer groups, and the media they consumed, and religious Islam, as locally practiced in their mosque and by their families.

Because of this complex social position, the Legendz often faced practical situations of cultural tension in their everyday lives. The cause of this tension did not lie in any inherent or fundamental incompatibility between Islamic and American youth cultures but rather in the way that particular elements associated with each culture were often treated as fundamentally incompatible with or in opposition to one another by individuals who were socially significant to the Legendz — parents, religious leaders, other Muslim youth, friends at school, and, sometimes, themselves. When individuals who were important to the Legendz repeatedly emphasized alleged incompatibilities between specific aspects of religious Islam and specific aspects of American youth culture, a tangible sense of cultural tension could be perceived in these young men's lives.

When the Legendz came up against these situations of cultural tension as they moved through their daily lives — situations that were usually centered around popular music, romance and dating, ritual commitment, and the presentation of Muslim identity in public — it could seem to them that the appropriately "Islamic" behavior or course of action was directly in conflict with the culturally "American" behavior or response. At these points, the Legendz faced a practical cultural dilemma: If they took the more culturally "American" adolescent course of action, they risked falling short of local expectations of acceptable Islamic religiosity and identity. If they took the more Islamically appropriate route, they risked losing their status as "cool" and culturally American urban teenagers. In response to these recurring and vexing dilemmas, the Legendz worked together to come up with and utilize an array of practical strategies for the management of their culturally contested lives. They used and adapted tangible cultural materials, adopted and altered recognizable modes of speech, embraced and amended locally meaningful embodied practices, and both invoked and rejected particular aesthetic genres in subtle and ongoing efforts to signify complex identities, perform multiple and shifting states of belonging, and reveal themselves as both sufficiently "Islamic" and acceptably "American." Precisely how these young Muslim American men innovated and applied these creative social solutions to their immediate cultural dilemmas, and how these efforts marked them as fundamentally similar to a broad range of other American teenagers, is the focus of this book.


At the heart of the Legendz's friendship group were two pairs of brothers, Muhammad and Fuad, and Yusef and Abdul. The two older brothers — Muhammad and Yusef — first became friends at the age of nine while attending Qur'an classes at the City Mosque's "Sunday School." Over time, they and their wider families grew so closely intertwined and familiar that by the time I met them eight years later, all four of the boys referred to each other as "brothers," regularly spent time in each other's homes, and were alternately cared for and gently scolded by each other's parents. Both families had immigrated to the United States when the boys were quite young, Muhammad and Fuad's family (the Abdulkarims) from Sudan, and Yusef and Abdul's (the Hussainis) from Jordan. In the United States, the boys' families were all solidly working class, with their parents employed as taxi drivers, daycare providers, and social workers, and the boys attended large and diverse urban public schools. A central activity in their lives was regular participation in the Muslim Youth Program (MYP) housed at the City Mosque. It was in this context that they also pulled a few other young Muslim men closely into the orbit of their friendship circle, most notably two South Asian youths named Tariq and Salman, as well as a Somali young man named Abshir.

The particular form of Islam taught to the Legendz was shaped by and filtered through various historical and social forces, most notably the worldwide Islamic revival of the 1970s and 1980s, which emphasized a return to basic texts (i.e., the Qur'an and the hadith) and practices (e.g., prayer and fasting); the City Mosque leadership's flexible approach to the interpretation of issues such as gender and music; and their parents' desire to raise their children as "good Muslims" who would maintain the minimum local requirements of that identity. For the Legendz, the cultural rubric of religious Islam took institutional and social form in their lives through their participation in the mosque, their family homes, and, to some extent, their friendship group. Among its other functions, the City Mosque served as a space where the culture of religious Islam was visibly present and alive, manifested in the call to prayer heard five times a day, when people would stop other activities and move toward the prayer area; in the prayer area itself, which was set off from the main lobby and held an ornate chandelier and framed selections of the Qur'an written in calligraphy; in the hijab worn regularly by some women and during prayers by all of them; in the Qur'anic verses (suras) recited together by the youth group at the end of their gatherings; in the names of young people called out across the lobby or playground outside ("Yusef!", "Omar!", "Aziz!", "Yasmin!", "Sara!", "Noor!"); in the warm greetings of "As salaamu alaikum" as people met one another in the social hall; and in the lectures of mosque elders Dr. Mubarak and Dr. Nasr as they spoke about an Islamic approach to bioethics or introduced new converts to the life of the Prophet Muhammad, their words ringing out through the lobby, amplified by a slightly too loud microphone.


Excerpted from "Keeping It Halal"
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Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Finding Everyday Muslim American Lives ix

1 The Culturally Contested Lives of Muslim Youth and American Teenagers 1

2 “Cool Piety”: How to Listen to Hip Hop as a Good Muslim 22

3 “The American Prayer”: Islamic Obligation and Discursive Individualism 50

4 “Keeping It Halal” and Dating While Muslim: Two Kinds of Muslim Romantic Relationships 78

5 On Being a Muslim in Public 112

6 Growing Up Muslim and American 149

Appendix: The Legendz 169

Acknowledgments 171

Notes 177

References 183

Index 191

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Keeping It Halal is a sensitive, lucid, compelling portrait of the social complexity of male Muslim teen life. It should be read by anyone concerned with the way young people navigate complicated cultural terrains."—Omar M. McRoberts, author of Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a Black Urban Neighborhood

"Engaging and insightful. O'Brien provides rich descriptions of the cultural work these teenagers do in their efforts to be both good Muslims and fully American."—Mark Chaves, author of American Religion

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