Following religious rules can be a matter of personal preference for many youth

“I don’t listen to music … I used to listen to all music, but then I stopped for the sake of Allah.”

No One Direction. No Justin Bieber. No Austin Mahone, Lorde, Imagine Dragons. No music.

Amal Muse does this to keep her Islamic faith. To her, it’s a simple way to strengthen her connection to God.

“Music makes you do things you wouldn’t really (want to) do,” Muse said.

Some might look at cutting yourself off from music as extreme, but rules and traditions—both individually enforced and institutionally recommended—are part of every major religion.

Religious rules often serve as a way to accomplish a goal—perhaps getting to heaven, pleasing God with a specific offering or allowing for reincarnation beyond your current life. Catholics not eating meat on Fridays during Lent or Muslims fasting during Ramadan can be reminders of sacrifice and suffering. Important rules can be offered up in a book—the Bible’s Ten Commandments, for example—or might be passed on by generations of religious leaders as an ideal way to show faith.

Ultimately though, it falls on the individual practitioners of that faith to determine how strongly they want to follow rules and traditions—and how often they should apply them to their daily lives.

“Rules are a practical necessity. I mean, you need rules to govern life, and regardless of whether or not there is a God, regardless on whether or not there are spirits that other religions believe in, you need rules to make society function,” said Edward “Ted” Ulrich, a theology and world religions professor at the University of St. Thomas.

“But then you find that different religions, and different branches of religions, have different takes on this. Some schools of Buddhism, for instance, are real relaxed and laid back when it comes to rules. But there are some schools of Buddhism that are very strict. And likewise, schools of Christianity find the same sort of mix. I’m guessing it’s the same with Islam.”

Right: A South Minneapolis church celebrates Palm Sunday festivities in April of 2013. Marking a triumph of the Easter season, Palm Sunday is one of the most important traditions of the Catholic church. (Photo by ThreeSixty staff)

CONNECTION WITH GOD

In Muse’s case, she needs rules to focus on her faith. The 16-year-old from Minneapolis prays five times a day and follows the Five Pillars of Islam (declaration, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage).

To her, Islam is not a religion. It’s her lifestyle. Her protection and shield.

“It’s not a religion that is really strict, because when you think about it, all these things we are doing (are) to better ourselves and to protect ourselves,” Muse said. “This (points to her hijab, a headscarf that Muslim women wear) is to protect myself from evil eyes (of predators). That’s the way I think about Islam … it’s my connection with God.”

As a modern teen in America, Muse admits that it can be hard to follow rules and traditions.

“I’m a human, and I make mistakes sometime,” Muse said. “It’s very hard when my friends are listening to music in front of me (and) … I shake my head to the music without even knowing. Then I’m like, ‘Oops, what am I doing?”

Jennifer Mejia, an Evangelical Christian from St. Paul, goes to church with her family every weekend. She became invested in her religion around 12, thanks to the formal tradition of baptism.

“I never really saw it as a religion much, because I was like, ‘Oh, you go here every weekend.’ I didn’t feel anything toward the religion at all,” Mejia said. “I guess I started (thinking about it) around 11 or 12, because when you’re 13 you have to be baptized. Then you have to fully make it your religion.”

Within the last year though, Meija said she hasn’t felt as connected to her religion as she wants to be. Most of that is due to not “having time for prayer” or reading the Bible.

“I’ve been too busy to read the Bible, so I don’t have a full understanding toward it. I guess I’m not a truly religious person,” she said. “Because my dad preaches. He reads the Bible for four hours (straight). And I haven’t … even read a chapter.”

But Mejia wants to improve.

“I want to be (better) and I want to pray more, but then I feel like I have been doing the best (in the situation I’m in),” she said.

FACING JUDGMENT

Are rules how followers should be judged on their spirituality and faith?

As Ulrich pointed out, some religious practitioners are good at following the rules laid out by their books and leaders, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they “see the bigger picture” of how to treat people.

Muse said she does her best to avoid judging others as to whether they are a “good or bad Muslim.” Yet it almost seems inevitable.

“There are people that don’t cover up and they are called a bad Muslim. I don’t really like when that happens,” Muse said. “I mean, I cover up, of course, but maybe that person isn’t ready for it. You cannot judge … based on their appearance. We believe that if you have a better heart, that Allah is going to see that. He is all knowing.

“Every religion has a bias and not everybody is going to be a good Muslim, Christian, or whatever. Every religion is going to have someone to judge you.”

Likewise, Hamdi Salat, a Muslim teen from St. Paul, wears a headscarf and proudly serves as a “display of my religion.” Salat grew up in a religious family and began to “truly understand” the rules and traditions of her Islamic faith while at her local mosque.

“Ramadan nights. Just being at the masjid (mosque) praying. That’s the moment when you realize that you’re passionate about your religion. You feel that you love it,” Salat said.

To her, the rules of Islam create a barrier from “bad things”—for instance, rules against sex before marriage or drinking/doing drugs prevent teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, car crashes, and even death. If you don’t follow all of the rules, you lose your “safety net.”

“It’s part of your life. It’s a puzzle. If one piece is missing, your puzzle won’t be complete,” Salat said.

‘WALKING THE WALK’

Aron Knigge, 20, of Minneapolis, wasn’t born into a religion. However, for the last three years, he’s dedicated himself to being a non-denominational Christian. While at a youth conference with a friend in 2011, Knigge realized he needed to change his life.

“I heard a message about lukewarm Christianity, and I realized that I was talking the talk and not walking the walk. And then I decided to fully commit my life to Jesus,” he said.

As part of his weekly routine, Knigge leads Bible study two nights a week, prays every day and goes to church on Sundays with the intent of “loving Jesus with all my heart and mind, strength and soul.” Though Knigge strives to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, he doesn’t judge others who fail to lead by example.

“Before you blame or accuse others of not being good enough, you should look internally and see if you are adding up to your own standards. If you do see a fault in someone else’s life, you should address them with love and not negativity,” Knigge said.

“There are definitely standards you can put on yourself for being good enough, but the way I cope with that is knowing that I am eternally loved by God and nothing can change that.”

In the end, the level of spirituality one feels—and how powerful their connection to faith is—can often be guided by how well rules are followed, Ulrich said. Yet while they serve as important daily “reminders,” modern adaptations of religious rules have become much more fluid—especially to young people.

“You go to any religious text of any number of religions and traditions, and yes, you can get very strict rules laid out … ‘Do this, or you’ll suffer in flames. Do this or God will be angry,’” Ulrich said.

“But for a lot of people, they’re very laid back … and don’t need to be threatened with hellfire, or that God is going to be mad … or if they don’t conquer their desires, they’re going to suffer forever. That’s not what it’s about to most religions.”

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