What appeared initially to be a bubble gum Facebook meme page for Muslim teenagers, has transformed into a space for satirical social commentary on the diverse modern Muslim experience. The closed group “Halal Memes for Jannah Minded Teens” has flooded newsfeeds this Ramadan, with people creating original memes, liking posts and tagging their friends in them.
The group has grown to over 34,000 members in just a few weeks since starting at the end of April. At any given time, admins and moderators are sifting through 40 meme submissions. Many memes illustrate the irony of being Muslim in today’s political climate, others playfully mock at everyday Muslim experiences—cheesy pick up lines while trying to woo bae, the hunger games that is iftar, and sharing of jinn horror stories. A number of memes have touched on controversial issues such as the taboo around wet dreams and menstruation. Some memes depict harsh realities that historically the Muslim community has had difficulty confronting: homosexuality, sectarianism, rampant anti-blackness and failure to be inclusive of converts.
Though the page is not without its criticism. Some memes depict sexist commentary, despite the group’s posting guidelines, which prohibit against it. There is also a huge disparity in representation of a range of Muslim experiences among the memes. Increasingly, the page has become overrun with memes speaking primarily to South Asians. One meme portraying a Queer Muslim experience turned into a vicious battleground for religious ideology and, eventually, admins disabled the comments section. It’s worthy to note, these issues are largely reflective of the sexism, cultural imperialism, homophobia and exclusivism plaguing Muslim communities.
I interviewed 20-year-old Abdirahman Osman, one of the founders of the group and junior at Vanderbilt University. We discussed how memes are a storytelling vehicle for Muslim youth to share their experiences and connect with others, and how there is still a lot of work left to be done to make the Muslim community more inclusive.
How did you come up with the idea for “Halal Memes for Jannah Minded Teens”? How did the group get started?
Osman: I had an idea to create a meme group where it would be college Muslims memes for us to share our own experiences as being Muslims in universities. I was talking to a friend of mine at Princeton, Sirad Hassan, and her friend Azwad Iqbal about this idea. They said as a joke, we should create a group called “Halal Memes for Jannah Minded Teens.” I said, “Oh my god, we actually should do it.” I was kind of the catalyst in creating the meme group because I took the initiative and I was like we should actually create this. It went from being a joke to something that was real. We started adding people and I was trying to contact people at different universities. Things kind of blew up from there.
When did you start noticing this page was growing in popularity?
Osman: Maybe two or three weeks into it. It was really a surprise. There is a lot hunger out there—Muslim youth who are looking for a Facebook group to call their own so I guess that’s why things started growing so fast.
Why did you decide to call it “Halal Memes for Jannah Minded Teens” rather than target it towards college students as you had initially planned?
Osman: I liked it because it’s ironic. A lot of the members of the group are not teens at all—they’re in their 20’s. I kind of found that funny.
In many ways, this group has become a forum for social commentary around controversial topics in the Muslim community. Did you envision the page becoming this? Why do you think people feel comfortable sharing such content here?
Osman: Starting off this group, I expected memes would cause social commentary, but I didn’t realize how big the scope would be. I thought we might have discussions about racism or sexism in the Muslim community on the meme page. I didn’t realize that the discussions such as what we have had recently around women in the Muslim community, LGBTQ in the Muslim community—I didn’t think the scope would be this big. Memes are a way that young people nowadays talk about the world around them and talk about social issues. I think most Muslim youth are open-minded and willing to listen and learn. [The dialogue] has been mostly positive so far. People realize that this page is a safe space for them and that they can find people who relate to them, which is what I had hoped for when we first started this out. People are turning to this page to connect to people who feel the same way they do or share similar experiences as them.
Do you feel the page is representative of the diverse Muslim experience?
Osman: There’s definitely a lot of South Asian and Arab memes on the page. I do realize there’s still a lot of work to be done. We need to get more people from other Muslim groups to share their experiences. But I’m a Somali black Muslim and I’ve seen a lot of things I relate to as a Muslim.
What are your favorite memes?
Osman: I’m loving the Ramadan memes. Those have wide appeal and everyone relates to them—the feelings of hunger during the day, breaking the fast. One of the things we are trying to do is connect people to places where they can eat iftar. Some people who are converts, some people who are going to school somewhere alone who want to have the opportunity to eat iftar or break their fast with other Muslims. That’s one of the initiatives we have started right now.
What do you bring to this group in terms of your own identity and background as a Muslim?
Osman: I’m a Somali Muslim, a black Muslim and that has been part of my experience as a Muslim. Something that has always been on my mind is that the Muslim community should focus on problems that face black Muslims. For example, when there are disasters in Sub-Saharan Africa, they tend to be ignored even when its impacting Muslims. In America itself, we need to do a lot more to make our mosques where everybody is welcome. Issues around racism are very important to me and that’s shaped by me being a black Muslim. That’s my big message. It’s important Muslim youth in America find ways to connect with one another and share experiences and tackle the issues in the Muslim community.
Responses have been edited for style and clarity.