Aisha Badeji

Deep sigh. Trust me, I understand that this topic seems like a taboo to some members of the Muslim community because of the misconceptions that surround it. These misconceptions are largely due to ignorance. But, you know what? We cannot but discuss this topic. This is an article that is very much needed at a time when mental health advocacy is on the rise. I mean, it is all over the place and many Muslims are suffering in silence due to the negativity associated with depression. Needless to say, some people do not even know what depression is, while some others are afraid to speak out about their condition for the fear of being stigmatised.

So, for a start, what is depression?

Actually, there isn’t any generally accepted definition of depression. Depression manifests in different ways in different people. However, the persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest in all activities that used to be enjoyable can be termed as depression. Also, there is the black cloud that kind of settles over one’s hand, the struggles with the demons in one’s head and feeling of hopelessness or emptiness. Depression could be situational, clinical, post natal (or postpartum), bipolar and the numerous other forms of this mental illness.

With this fairly good picture of what depression looks like, can a Muslim be depressed?

For one, Islam doesn’t require us to be super humans (there will always be highs, lows and the low-lows) and this has absolutely nothing to do with weakness of the Iman (faith). More often than not, Muslims who have reached the state of being real with their mental ill health are told that they suffer from the disorder because ‘’their Iman is low’’, ‘’they are not saying enough Salah’’, ‘’their good deeds are not enough’’, ‘’Allah is displeased with them’’ and all manner of things that can further plunge such individuals into an abyss.

You know what is also dangerous? These Muslims who have a lopsided view about mental ill health, in their magnanimity, also advise the struggling Muslims to have Sabr (patience), Tawakkul (reliance on Allah) and they should increase their acts of worship. True, every Muslim should do all these. But, to give this kind of advice is to say that you cannot possibly be Muslim and depressed, because a true believer should be content with what Allah had planned for them. As a result, Muslims who suffer from mental illnesses (and who already have to deal with the guilt of not being Muslim enough) struggle to reconcile what they are told with their belief of a Merciful and Loving Allah.

Again, Islam is a religion that acknowledges the totality of our humanness and all the baggage that comes with it. When a Muslim is experiencing depression and they are told ‘’well, you cannot be sad because other people have it worse than you do’’, this saying is not only dangerous, it is also invalid in Islam.

It is a pity that we don’t show as much concern for mental health as we do for physical health. When a Muslim has a cut or sprains an ankle, they are not told to offer extra prayers or Sunnah fasting, why is this so for depression and other forms of mental disorder? There is a popular narration of Anas  ibn Malik, who reported that a man said ‘’O Messenger of Allah, should I tie my camel and trust in Allah or I should leave her untied and trust in Allah?’’ The Prophet (peace be upon him) said ‘’tie her and trust in Allah’’. [Sunan Tirmidhi 2517]

This Hadith simply alludes to the fact that Islam offers both practical and spiritual approaches to problems. In fact, Muslims of the past have a rich history of contributing to psychology or what is known as ‘’ilm an-nafs’’ in Islam. The earliest Muslim thinkers such as Ibn  Sina(Avicenna), Al-Ghazali and the rest of them paved the way for mental health treatments. Ibn Sina in his well-known book, Kitab Al-Shifah (book of healing), accepted and used hypnosis as a form of treatment for mental disorder. He also gave the psychological explanation of illnesses such as insomnia, mania, dementia, melancholia etc. and he always explained the physical and psychological illnesses linked together.

Al-Ghazali started contributing to psychology after he was exposed to Sufism whose objective is the reparation of heart by turning it away from everything else except the Almighty. His theories and writings have, in some aspects, formed the basis of modern psychology.

To make things clear, depression is a clinical condition that can be diagnosed and treated medically, but we cannot look down on the importance of faith based therapy. So, for mental health sufferers within the Muslim community, it is not about choosing either a medical solution or a spiritual one, but it is more about combining the two.

For those of us who have struggling Muslims around us, please, don’t walk up to them and say ‘’I hope you get over it soon’’ or I’m sure it’s not so bad, you are being overdramatic’’. They do not need that kind of vibe. Approach them with lines like ‘’I hope this gets easier for you’’ or ‘’I’ve got your back and I’m here for you’’. To be honest, you cannot fully understand the demons they are fighting and how they feel about their condition, but you can reach out to them with kindness and offer support without being judgmental. Also, please don’t preach to them.

There is a great need for the Muslim community to continue to educate themselves about mental health issues. This will help us build a network of highly supportive Muslims who can reach out to the struggling members of the Ummah and say to them ‘’I got you and I hope you can find hope for yourself’’

Remember to educate yourself, reach out to people sincerely and be kind.