Islam and Mental Health: Fighting Stigma while Embracing God…

I’m no scholar of Islam. Although there was a time where I lived and breathed and walked and talked and drank and ate this religion (stealing Yusuf Islam’s words 😊 ) and a time that my greatest dream was to be a scholar of Human Rights in Islam. Dreams change, and sometimes they have to….

Further, I’m no scholar or professional on mental health. Although if we go by the 10,000 hours for developing expertise through studying and first-hand experience with mental health issues, I could arguably claim that expertise. And in fact, from everything I have dealt with and my efforts to overcome and educate myself and others around it, especially in the last 3-5 years, …yeah, I will insist on owning it.

…..We are in our first week of Ramadan, a Muslim Holy month of fasting and worship, and it just happens that a part of Ramadan fell on Mental Health Awareness Month again this year.

So I’d like to take a moment to offer a few observations about Islam and Mental Health. It cannot be comprehensive within this one post, but I may touch upon some sub-topics in later posts.

There is an expectation among some Muslims that if someone speaks about this religion, they have to be a scholar or perhaps a regularly practicing Muslim. But obviously, that is not the case for me. And this is not meant to be a comprehensive, informative and reference piece on the topic.

As I said, I’m not an expert on Islam, so I won’t be quoting verses from the Quran that will magically and instantaneously cure any sort of mental or emotional pain that a Muslim may be having, ….so we are taught.

And again, I cannot say that I am a comprehensively “practicing Muslim,” but I do consider myself a Muslim, although for many years I was agnostic, searching for solutions in other faiths, and I still consider myself “Universalist” in many ways. I don’t pray 5 times a day every day, sometimes I don’t pray at all, and I don’t fast every single day in Ramadan (mostly for health reasons), or read the Quran on a regular basis, as much as I used to.

I have spoken about a scratch of my struggle with faith in this post, and some of my challenges with mental health through my reflections of Haroon Moghul’s memoir in this post.

Like other communities that practice a certain faith, we are conditioned to believe that Prayers are the answers. We are told to seek the solutions to our “troubled mental state” through Religion. If we are sad or depressed, we are told to kneel before God and ask for His help and His guidance and direction, and with time everything will be okay.

That’s all good perhaps, but I argue, the premise of this conditioning is one of the primary reasons why we continue to have such strong Mental Health Stigma in our communities. It is both a cause and a catalyst for that stigma.

Firstly, it makes the assumption that with any mental health issue, like with depression and anxiety, we will automatically get a sense of relief and peace if we recite the Quran or offer a few prayers.

“Just recite Ayat ul Kursi and you’d be fine.”

“Just say ‘Aaoooooozoooobillahiminashaitanirajeem’ or ‘Bismillah’, and you’ll be okay.”

“Read the four Quls and you’ll sleep perfectly fine.”

Well, I hate to break it to those who firmly believe this, but especially with people who have the debilitating ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’ (OCD), where you have excessive intrusive thoughts and resulting intrusive compulsions, ….yeah…um…good luck with that. It may work as a “placebo effect” sometimes, in some cases, but it will not work for all people. ….no matter how many times you repeat those duas to replace a negative cognition or pattern of thought. And it really has nothing to do with your level of faith.

This further contributes to the assumption that Mental Health issues are somethings you just have to “get over” or learn to “let go,” and prayers will help you just “get over it.”

But, like with any physical illness, a practicing person of faith, whether Islam or any other religion, we will always pray to God to help ease our suffering. Along with that, we still have to take care of our health, we still have to go to the doctor, and we still have to take the appropriate medicine. We seek out the proper care.

The same must be understood and applied for those struggling with mental illnesses!

Mental Illness is a medical condition, just like any physical illness.

Mental Illness is a medical condition, just like any physical illness.

Mental Illness is a medical condition, just like any physical illness.

Mental Illness is a medical condition, just like any physical illness.

Mental Illness is a medical condition, just like any physical illness.

We must keep reminding ourselves this critical fact….

Further, another item of serious contention in religious communities, is Suicide. Among several Muslim communities, as with other faiths, there is this interpretation that Suicide is a “sin,” “forbidden,” so Muslims will not be compelled to kill themselves, based on this belief, IF they are a “True Muslim.” And we should condemn anyone who attempts, or “commits” suicide, or even thinks about suicide, not recognizing that suicide is an illness, and you don’t “commit suicide,” …you “die by suicide.” And some Muslims try to instill the fear of the punishment from God for anyone who tries to take their own life, as a way to prevent them to do so.

But the truth is, it actually doesn’t help. It makes things worse. And we continue to sweep our illness or condition under the jaanemaaz (prayer rug)…

We must know that mental health issues do not discriminate by race, religion, background, sexual orientation, etc. White people have no claim to this disease, even though sometimes it may feel like it in America.

Mental Health and Mental Illnesses cut across all boundaries, and the stats of those dying by suicide include Muslims too. Muslims are equally affected by these illnesses as any other Religion or Community or group of people.

Muslims also unfortunately die by Suicide. Muslims also unfortunately attempt to take their lives by Suicide. 

There is a very good reason why we have this unfortunate cultural stigma in our Muslim Communities. It has much to do with why our communities struggle with a lack of “inclusiveness.” Strict, out of context, and culturally influenced interpretations from the Quran and Islamic teachings, significantly impact how we address our contemporary realities, diseases, issues, etc., as individuals, as a collective, as an Ummah. But all interpretations must be taken into context.

I won’t go more into that, because I may get into more trouble than I already am now. 😊 What I want to talk about is that relationship with God, for those with mental health conditions.

Human suffering, your own physical, emotional and mental struggles, often times can lead many of us to develop a closer relationship with God. It is the most personal relationship. I have come to believe from my experience with Islam at a very young age that God loves those who struggle the most. And I have repeated this to myself and out loud and written about it. Because I do believe that sometimes God is placing more suffering on the person he wants most as His “Vicegerent.”

But Muslims who suffer with mental illness are often pushed into the margins of their communities. It is a second form of “othering” in the many other layers of “othering” we already experience in society as a whole. Our trust in our Muslim community that we once sought as our “refuge” amid the societal disenfranchisement, dissipates. It contributes to exacerbating the road to recovery.

Where do we go from here? Some of us are able to separate the religion and its “people,” some of us take a long time to learn that important distinction. The tragic thing is that we have to figure these things out, without the support of our communal networks, with potential communal resources that could help us. And this has largely to do with the pain from lost trust and betrayal, due to ostracization of “being different,” in our communities, and that shouldn’t have been and doesn’t have to be the case, with the recognition of the intersectional elements and value of our identity and existence.

So perhaps reciting “Bismillah” and all the duas and prayers,  during meditation, during mindfulness activities, during Yoga, during Pilates, during your jog, before and after gulping down your meds, when you wake up, before you go to sleep, ….all of this may be great and helpful. …

But the key point is that the duas (prayers) must be accompanied with a practical effort beyond it!

Just like with respect to the rhetoric surrounding gun violence in America.  Prayers have never been enough. Prayers will never be enough.

I may not be a “good Muslim” in the eyes of my Muslim brothers and sisters. And that is fine. I had accepted that a long time ago, after realizing that seeking “perfection” in Islam was actually the Grand “Suicide Mission” of all the “Grand Suicide Missions.”

But I came to realize through many obstacles, reflections, prayers, and contemplation, that my relationship to God is mine alone, and you telling me what I should and should not be doing, and saying such derogatory comments like, “I don’t agree with your life’s choices,” is not going to change how much I love Allah and how much I need Him.

And despite your judgments without consideration of all my struggles, I will still find a way to have mercy for you, and still have love to give you, even as you may have none to give me.

And I know that God is on my side. I believe that Allah will always be on my side. Because I need Him to be, just as much as you do.

Even as I continue to struggle with my faith, I always find myself kneeling down on the carpet, brushing my hands gently on the carpet area below my forehead during sajda or sujud (prostration), staring deep into the fabric, searching for Allah in the fabric…… And I always find myself staring up into the sky, searching for and conversing to Allah…..begging Him to please come into my heart.

And when I’m running away, I still find myself being chased by something. A shadow lurking around me… something that I cannot explain at times. I know God is there, even at the times when I try not to be with Him.

I will never preach what is right for you, as I hope you would not preach what is right for me. You may be surprised to know that it is in fact my own experience with mental illness, that has taught me that crucial life lesson.

It is in fact my mental illness, embracing my struggle with mental health, my quest for survival, that has brought me closer to Allah.

We may express anger to God and beg Him to tell us WHY? Why me? Why did You have to give ME this ailment to deal with? Why did You choose me for this!?!

WHY ME? WHY ME? WHY ME?

When I stepped back and looked at myself when I was screaming out this question, staring at the sky with disdain….I realized that I was talking to God.

This was a conversation I was having with God. And this realization, my friends, is what brought me back to Islam.

And Let me tell you, it is so overwhelmingly profound and incredible how it is the suffering that God gives us, that makes many of us come closer Him, to reunite with Him.

In a sense, at times it feels like the suffering serves as His call to us… to remind us that we need Him.

With this understanding, we need to learn to never ostracize, scrutinize, marginalize our brothers and sisters in our communities, for their differences and struggles, regardless of how and when they choose to communicate and embrace God.

I believe there is great potential in the genre of “Mental Health Awareness” that can contribute in making us a tighter Ummah, in uniting us in a bond beyond what we already may have, …as both within our Ummah, and as part of the human family.

Because learning to understand or experiencing mental health issues, ignites a compassion and comprehension for human suffering and a recognition of human existence and human identity in a way that nothing else does.

There are many reasons why I am ironically grateful for my mental health condition. I had come so very close to death with it, but interestingly it is my mental illness that literally “saved” me as well….in many ways and at many times in my life.

The only way that I can move forward to recovery with that knowledge that I cannot change the past, is by expressing gratitude for the struggle I have endured and continue to endure and recognizing how far I have come by embracing it.

Happy Ramadan, and Happy Mental Health Awareness Month.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Khalil Gibran

“There is no compulsion in Religion”… (Quran, 2:256)

“God does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear…” (Quran, 2:286).

 

Peace, warmth, and blessings,

Elsa

Warrior KQueen

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