In many religions and cultures, children go through an important rite of passage to mark their transition from child to adult. In Christianity, Roman Catholics have Confirmation; Jews have a Bar Mitzvah (for boys) and a Bat Mitzvah (for girls), celebrated at ages 13 and 12 respectively. Latino girls celebrate Quinceanera, the Japanese recognize young adults at the age of 20 during a ceremony called Seijin Shiki… the list goes on and on.
Now: What about Islam? Islamically, we become baaligh – mature – when we attain the age of puberty, which is determined by the appearance of one of many signs (menstruation for girls, wet dreams and pubic hair for both genders; lacking any of those, age 15).
It's a momentous time, this time in which we are now formally (and legally, Shari'ah-wise) adults. Our eyes are opened to the adult world, and we have many new responsibilities and duties, and so much to learn!
The topic of this post, however, is not to go into the specifics of puberty, but to focus on another aspect of it – traditions associated with “coming of age,” and whether there are such traditions existent amongst Muslims today.
As far as I know, there is nothing special in Islamic Law, from the Qur'an and Sunnah, that is done to mark the occasion of a youth's emergence into the adult world. As for Muslim cultures, there seems to be a similar lack of emphasis when a child crosses over to the threshold of adulthood – it tends to be a very quiet, private affair (which is understandable, really, considering the rather sensitive nature of how we “come of age”). A quick Google search rendered only one specific result, on coming of age in Malaysia, although it seems to be what's most common amongst Muslims.
When I “came of age,” it wasn't a really big thing for me. It happened, I knew that now I was held accountable in the Sight of Allāh, and that was that. I didn't feel anything different, I didn't even think much about it – in fact, I felt as much a child that day, and the days after it, as I was before it.
It seems that was also the case with many others – it happened, and while there were often misunderstandings and misconceptions in regards to the issue, there never seemed to be any major “excitement” involved. Mostly it tended to be the cause of a great deal of confusion, misunderstanding, misconceptions, and general ignorance (as mentioned in Amad's post here).
So what I was thinking was – is it possible for us to create some sort of coming of age tradition for the future generations of Muslims to come? Is there any way we can make this a special moment, a momentous occasion, something that will both welcome and introduce a whole new generation of young adults? Can we even do that, or would it be counted as a bid'ah, as imitating the kuffaar?
Please note that I am not, in an way, shape or form implying that Islam is lacking or incomplete and that we need to introduce something into it; rather, I'm exploring how we handle this important aspect of life, and how we could perhaps change our current trend of general silence or awkward abruptness into something more comfortable and open.
I personally think that it could be something great. It ties into what we discussed about puberty/ sex education with our youth, and furthermore, it has the potential to change it from being a taboo subject and rather be a very frank, yet special, introduction to the ways of the world and the circle of life.
As well, it might prove to be something that will impress upon us youth the magnitude of what has happened to them, this new phase of life that they have entered. I know girls who, though they've had “The Talk” already, don't take it seriously (and if my brothers are an example of the general attitude amongst guys of the same age group, the same goes for boys). To me, coming of age is a serious thing, something that we should be forced to stop, take note of, and think deeply about. As with everything else in Islam, the Islamic stance on this issue encompasses different aspects of our life – physical, mental, and spiritual.
As Tariq Nelson often notes, there is a slow but sure emergence of an American (Western?)-Muslim culture as a new generation of young Muslims grows up here, distinct from the “back-home” Muslim culture of the first few generations of immigrants. Perhaps there already exist certain coming-of-age rituals (no doubt different from family to family) - and if not, then maybe constructing our own tradition would help with the confusion that surrounds those of us figuring out a way to comprehensively education the youth on the whole subject of growing up.
I suppose another question to think about is whether it's even necessary to have a coming-of-age tradition in the first place – would a comprehensive continuing education be all we need to introduce our youth to the responsibilities, duties, and privileges (such as they are!) of adulthood; rendering any 'need' (I'm not sure what word to use in its place, though I'm aware that need isn't the right word here) for a special tradition totally obsolete and pointless?
I'm of two minds about it, really – the former is/ was my experience, yet I wonder if establishing some sort of tradition might not make the job easier for parents and help the youth also.
Here's a parting question for parents – if your child has “come of age,” how did you deal with it? Did you make it something “special,” or was it more hushed-up, a “between me, you, and Allāh” sort of thing?