Imagine you’re cheering your team at a sports event, in a huge open-air auditorium holding tens of thousands of people.
You’re wearing your team’s green colors and waving their green flag excitedly. Then you look around you and notice that you’re the only one wearing green and waving a green flag.
Everyone around you is wearing red and staring at you, frowning. Suddenly, all the excitement drains out of you. You lower your flag, feeling extremely awkward and nervous, and a strong urge to escape.
It’s always easy to go with the flow, and hard and stressful to swim upstream, to be the odd one out. Most people decide to do the first.
Peer pressure is a very strong force. If you are a young Muslim living in the West, and you see almost everyone from your generation going against Islamic principles, even ridiculing them, then it’s hard not to lose your Muslim identity.
But there are steps you can take to loosen the pull of peer pressure on your mind.
Step 1: Think
Sometimes, while walking down a busy road, you walk in the steps of the person right in front of you. But then the person takes a left turn, and you, ruminating over some past event or future plan, follow him, though your destination lies in the opposite direction.
Because your mind is too busy to think where you’re going, and so you just go with the flow.
That’s why Allah Almighty asks:
So where are you going? (Quran, 81:26)
Do you know where you’re going? Or are you just following the general direction mindlessly?
Mental laziness is a common human weakness. We’d rather go with the general opinion than take the trouble of using our brains. That’s why Allah tells us repeatedly in the Quran to reflect, ponder, and think.
In fact, Allah Almighty compares those who do not think with livestock. (25:44) A sheep follows its herd mindlessly; it doesn’t use its brains to find out how to choose the greenest and safest fields.
So step one for loosening peer pressure’s hold is: Don’t be like livestock. Utilize the advanced thinking organ Allah has gifted you.
Step 2: Look Through the Quranic Lens
Even if we choose to think and ponder, external influences affect our thinking processes and can make it warped.
How do you correct your thinking? By looking through the lens of the Quran. Build a strong connection with the Quran, because it’s the friend and guide that helps you think clearly. It teaches you how to use your mind unbiased. Allah calls the Quran ‘light’, because it sheds light on the truth and clears away prejudices and confusion.
Step 3: Surround Yourself with Righteous Companions
There’s a very famous experiment that every Psychology 101 student knows about. The experimenter, Asch, lied to each participant that he was going to have a vision test. A group of Asch’s confederates pretended to be coparticipants. Asch showed them the following picture and asked which line in the second picture matches the one in the first:
As you can see, the answer is very obvious. But the fake participants (stooges) all chose a wrong answer on purpose. The real goal of the experiment was to count how many times the real participant chose the wrong answer to conform with everyone else.
Asch found out that, in twelve trials, 75% people went with the wrong answer at least once, and 32% gave wrong answers in every trial. Interestingly, this number plummeted from 32% to 5% if only one fake participant went against the group and gave the right answer.
That proves the power of having even one likeminded companion in combating peer pressure.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) compared a good friend and a bad one with a perfume seller and a blower of bellows, respectively. Even if you don’t buy perfume or use the bellows, just coming in touch with the person will leave a scent, or soot, on you. (Bukhari 5534)
Where to Find Good Friends?
But how do you know which friends are good? You’ll find out by following steps one and two mentioned above.
A man who had killed a hundred people went to a scholar and asked if he could repent. The scholar advised him to leave his evil town and migrate to another town.
There you will find people devoted to prayer and worship of Allah, he said. “Join them in worship.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
You live in 2020. You don’t need to physically migrate to another town. All you need is virtual migration.
Apps like Muslim Central can provide you with the virtual company of scholars. Websites like ours share thoughts of practising Muslims from all over the world. There are even virtual educational institutions offering degrees in Islamic studies. And there are thousands and thousands of Islamic books you can order online.
Also, Islamic institutions in the West (such as Al-Kauthar and Al-Salam Institute in UK and Bayyinah Institute in the USA) arrange seminars, bootcamps, retreats and tours where you come in touch with practising Muslim peers.
Try to connect with the Muslim youth around you. Hang out together and offer prayers together, for, as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
The wolf eats up a solitary sheep that stays far from the flock. (Abu Dawud)
Step 4: Increase Exposure to Nature
Humans aren’t the only creation of Allah. There are billions of other kinds of beings all around you. And, what’s more, all these beings are Muslims (submitters to Allah).
Do you not realize that everything in the heavens and earth submits to God: the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings, though for many others punishment is well deserved. (22:18)
If you expand your definition of ‘peer’ to everything in creation, the peer pressure from the comparatively few disobedient human beings will seem negligible.