While serving as youth director for a Knoxville mosque, AbdelRahman Murphy took a group of teens to a University of Tennessee football game. At sunset, Murphy tapped them on the shoulder: Time to pray. As his bashful charges watched, he asked a security guard whether the group could have a little space inside the stadium.
“On one condition,” the guard replied, as Murphy tells the story. “Just make sure you pray for the Volunteers.”
The teens got it, Murphy said in an interview this month: Don’t be shy about practicing your faith. And know that you can build bridges in surprising places.
The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center in Roxbury has recruited Murphy, a 27-year-old mental health counselor and aspiring cleric based in Dallas, to work with teens and college students in Boston for three days each month over the next year.
New England’s largest mosque is trying to serve a burgeoning contingent of young members. But recruiting the right person to work with them proved a challenge, given the dearth of professionally trained Muslim youth educators who are conversant in American culture.
Murphy, who helped develop a youth curriculum in Dallas and Knoxville called Roots, made such an impression among Boston teens and young adults on a previous visit that mosque leaders decided to bring him back regularly.
“It’s an opportunity for us to learn more about youth work he’s done and begin to build a fabulous youth program here,” said Yusufi Vali, the Boston mosque’s executive director.
The move comes at a fraught moment, when the news media have been saturated with stories about Muslim teenagers in the West being recruited by Islamist extremists overseas.
Vali said Murphy’s hiring was not a response to fears about extremism. And yet, he said, just as Murphy could help youth address issues such as drugs, anxiety, and family conflict, another byproduct of his work could be resistance to extremist ideologies.
“It’s a real preventive strategy against all kinds of ills and harms,” said Vali, who recently made headlines for opposing a government program that seeks to prevent disaffected youth from becoming terrorists. He maintained that the program unfairly targets Muslim communities.
Of the 1,400 or so people who attend midday prayers at the Roxbury mosque each Friday, Vali said, about half are college age or younger. Many are children of immigrants from all over the world; their parents have widely varying incomes and levels of educational attainment. The usual teenage struggles can be compounded by cultural gaps with parents, racial and religious discrimination, and for some, gang violence.
“What this is fundamentally about is putting on good youth programming that is going to help young people in the Muslim community develop in a healthy way, with the right kind of understanding of Islam, and help them grow spiritually,” Vali said.
Imam William Suhaib Webb, the mosque’s first imam and now a resident scholar in a religious community in the Washington, D.C., area, said Murphy is committed to “an Islam that is sustainable and functional within the context of America.”
Each long weekend he spends in Boston, Murphy plans to lead a discussion over coffee at an area college — his first was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on March 12. He will then preach at the mosque’s Friday midday prayer service and give a talk there that night. On Saturdays, he will work with teenagers in the community, beginning with a series called “Be like Muhammad.”
Murphy, in his approach to youth, combines heavy doses of recreation with service and religious enrichment. His ideas about what works best: Keep age groups separate, so older teens don’t get turned off. Use sports, games, and travel as classrooms. Don’t shove religious education down kids’ throats; cultivate a rapport with them, and they will want to learn. Teach tradition in ways that make sense to them.
In Boston, he said, he imagines planning trips to Cape Cod and ventures to professional sports events.
“I don’t necessarily need kids to spend the night reading the Koran — if they are in good company, doing something fun and beneficial, as opposed to going to a club, or wasting their life ... the positive will appear naturally,” he said.
Murphy is attuned to the dangers of Islamophobia — he said he was a friend of Deah Barakat, one of three young Muslims killed in Chapel Hill, N.C., in February, in a shooting seen widely in the Muslim community as a hate crime, despite the fact that no civil rights charges have yet been filed against the defendant.
“It does weigh very heavily on me,” he said.
But he exudes a warm, upbeat confidence about his faith and his ability to get along with everyone. When last in Boston, young people flocked to him, said 13-year-old Yusra Mukhtar, who is active at the mosque and attends its school, Malik Academy.
“You’ll be at a public event with 100-plus people, but the way he presents himself, it’s as if he is talking directly to you,” she said. “He’s a person you would just feel comfortable going to talk to and getting advice from.”
Murphy spends most of his time in Dallas, where he is pursuing advanced Islamic studies and teaching at the seminary his mentor founded, the Qalam Institute.
He grew up in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, the son of an Egyptian immigrant mother and Irish-American father who converted to Islam, and the fourth of five close-knit siblings. He attended private Islamic school until ninth grade, even studying in a kind of religious study-abroad program in Saudi Arabia.
At public high school, where he excelled in sports — and, he says, “partying” — he drifted from the faith. In college, while studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago to become an English teacher, he found his way back to Islam through a student group, and delved into programs at a local mosque. He met his wife, who is from Tennessee, after she responded to some of his writings about faith online.
His life changed forever one evening when a friend dropped by for dinner with Shaykh Abdul Nasir Jangda, a scholar from Dallas who was visiting Chicago.
“He’s Pakistani, traditionally dressed — white robe, turban, big beard,” Murphy recalled. “He walks into my house and the first thing he says is, ‘Man, the Bears suck.’ ”
Murphy stared. Serious religious scholars were not supposed to have fun, right?
Jangda, a proud Cowboys fan, continued: “I would be depressed if I had to be a Bears fan.”
The two struck up a quick rapport, and Jangda said in an interview that he immediately saw Murphy’s talent for connecting with people. That night, he began talking to Murphy about becoming an imam. Not long afterward, Murphy moved to Dallas, where he spent days studying with Jangda and evenings working with youth at a local mosque.
After a year there, he moved to Knoxville, where he worked with local teens and college students as the Muslim Community of Knoxville’s full-time youth director and obtained a master’s degree in mental health counseling.
Hatem El Dakhakhni, treasurer of the Knoxville organization, said Murphy often helped immigrant parents and their American-born children understand each other.
“There is often a communication barrier and a cultural difference between kids and parents,” he said. “He was always a go-to person if a kid had an issue with faith, or a family issue.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.