By Dr Qari Asim
Imam at Makkah Mosque, Leeds
Mental Health related problems are ever present in the modern world and the Muslim Community is not immune from them. In addition to the silent nature of the illness there is still an unnecessary stigma attached to mental health problems.
It is encouraging to see that many Imams are openly addressing the issue of mental health in their sermons and debunking the stigma that is attached to this issue. However, much more needs to be done. On the World Mental Health day 10 October 2014, many Imams across the country addressed the issue.
Health in Islam
Allah has bestowed human beings with countless favours. In the midst of these abundant favours, there are two favours in which may people are deluded. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) highlighted their importance when he said: “There are two blessings which many people lose: (they are) Health and free time for doing righteous deeds.” [Bukhari].
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) further pointed out: “”The one who is physically healthy, safe in his community and is sufficiently nurtured will possess the whole world.” [Tirmidhi]
The preservation of this blessing can only be achieved through taking good care of one’s physical and mental health and taking every measure to maintain and enhance healthy living. In addition to avoiding unhealthy diet, Islam encourages physical and mental fitness. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said a strong believer was better than a weak believer [Muslim]. He was referring to being strong in faith and character but also indicating mental and physical strength. The daily performance of five prayers is in itself a form of mental rest.
Mental Health & British Muslims
Mental health problems are on the rise amongst the British Muslim community. There could be many reasons for mental stress and depression. These could range from experiencing identity crisis, financial difficulties, physical illness, disputes with family members, friends and colleagues, education related issues, unemployment, crime and youth offending, social care and housing.
There is still an unnecessary stigma attached to mental health problems. The stigma not only attaches itself to the individual who is experiencing mental health issues, but also attaches itself to the family. The belief that mental problems are attributed to weak personality, spirit possession and the evil eye is prevalent in many non-Western cultures. This may encourage individuals and families to avoid seeking help for their psychological problems for fear that they will shame their family or that they are considered as being weak.
Suffering in silence or living in the vain hope that the illness will go away without any proper treatment can make matters worse. Proper treatment must be sought to reduce the chances of mental health getting worse. The active practice of Islamic belief can reframe mental distress and may reduce the incidences of depression and mental illness.
There are many aspects of Islam which can assist in overcoming mental health symptoms. However, due to brevity, we will focus on one such aspect only, namely Hope.
Life is full of trials and tribulations, demands and sacrifices, and requires patience. Many people go through set-backs, suffer bereavements, experience loss of wealth, loss of health, loss of status, shattered dreams etc. Life is full of many struggles – spiritual struggles, educational struggles, moral struggles, matrimonial struggles and financial struggles.
Many Muslims suffering from depression and/or mental stress ask themselves “why me?” and wonder whether Allah is punishing them because they are having such difficult and challenging time in their lives. This is not the case at all. Everyone has their different tests, of varying degrees and at different times but the purpose is not necessarily to punish, rather to strengthen and refine them.
“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient.” [Qur’an 2:155]
Allah, the Majestic, treats all people with equality and justice and does not overburden anyone. The Qur’an also teaches that we can deal with these difficult times: ”God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear.” [Quran 2:286]
Similarly, we should never think that the success and pleasures that others enjoy are signs of Allah’s pleasure or that they are privileged. We are encouraged to remember Allah in good and difficult times.
A person who is feeling overburdened with troubles or pressures should turn to Allah and never sink into despair that Allah has deserted him. Allah tells us in the Noble Qur’an “And we are nearer to him than his jugular vein” [Qur’an, 50: 16]. Allah Almighty is always there to help us through our difficulties. All we need to do is to sincerely turn to Him and face life’s challenges with patience.
Patience & Prayer
In Islam, illness is considered as a method of connection with God and should not be considered as alien, but rather a mechanism of the body, that is serving to cleanse, purify, and balance us on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual planes.
Mental stress can also be seen as an opportunity to remedy disconnection from Allah or a lack of faith through regular prayer and a sense of self-responsibility. Life tests are natural and inevitable but we need to remember the message of Hope, promised by the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth: “After hardship there is ease. Indeed, after hardship there is ease.” [Qur’an 94:6-7]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) has said: “For every misfortune, illness, anxiety, grief, or hurt that afflicts a Muslim, even the hurt caused by the pricking of a thorn, Allah removes some of his sins.” [Muslim]
Times of austerity and difficulty will eventually fade away and we need to go through them with patience, perseverance and strong determination. “Seek help through “Sabr” and prayer.” [Qur’an 2:45]. Unlike patience, which implies resignation, the concept of “sabr” includes a duty to have unshakable trust in Allah and to remain steadfast to achieve one’s goals despite all odds.
In the Noble Qu’ran, Allah provides us with two powerful tools that can ease our worries and pain – patience and prayer. Prayer helps us to endure and be patient in adverse circumstances. We cannot control everything that happens around us or to us but we can control our reaction to our circumstances. “Sabr” helps us grow spiritually and remain positive at times of difficulty.
The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) has said:”How remarkable is the case of the believer! There is good for him in everything, but this is not the case for anyone except for the believer. When the believer receives any good, he is thankful to Allah, and gets a reward. And when some misfortune befalls him, he endures it patiently, for which he is (also) rewarded.” [Muslim]
Spiritual aspect is important but those suffering from mental health problems need to seek medical assistance to identify the problems, if any. There is nothing wrong in asking for help. There is nothing wrong in going to GP and admitting that one is experiencing a mental health problem and that one needs psychological help. Suffering in silence is not an option as it will consume one from inside. As the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) said to one of his companions, “tie up your camel and then trust in God”[Tirmidhi] that it will not run away; therefore, it is important that we act to preserve our mental well-being as well as have faith.
Islam strongly encourages that Muslims must take care of their spiritual, emotional and mental health and adopt a healthy living lifestyle. It is a worrying reality that mental health related issues are a growing phenomena amongst Muslim women and young people. British Muslims, collectively, must try harder to understand, from within and outside the community, the issues that result in a person suffering from mental health issues.
The cultural normative beliefs which may be mis-labelled or unidentified due to cultural insensitivity also need to be addressed, particularly insofar as such mislabelling may lead to both the unnecessary stigmatization of those who, in fact, do not have psychiatric problems, and the failure to help individuals who do need it.
Family members need to provide ‘safe space’ so that those suffering do not feel afraid or ashamed to ‘open up’ and share their emotions and stress. Those suffering should not be seen as a burden for the family rather appropriate help from family and friends may ease their anxiety and pain.
Mosques and Imams are neither responsible for providing medical treatment or therapeutic help nor establishing preventive measures. However, Imams can lead the way in this regard by addressing ‘sensitive’ issues, such as mental stress, depression and other mental health problems and provide spiritual and practical guidance in this regard.
Practical training is also required in certain quarters of the Muslim community to help them use adversities, failures, wrong decisions etc. constructively and turn those negatives into positives. This will help us overcome challenges and strengthen our faith.
Culturally responsive services and nontraditional therapeutic interventions that may help overcome barriers to mental health help-seeking behaviors must also be considered and, if necessary, applied.