MuslimMatters is excited to welcome Haleh Banani on board, a trained and experienced psychologist and practicing Muslim sister. She has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Houston, and over 10 years experience in diagnosing mental and emotional disorders and administrating programs of treatment. She has given inspiring lectures in the U.S., Dubai, Jordan and Egypt. Read more of her biography here. Haleh will be helping MM take the next great leap in helping our communities and families by providing information that will help the healing process where psychological disorders or social problems are taking a toll. We are formulating a column where Haleh will answer selected reader questions on a periodic basis. If you have suggestions of what you would like to see, feel free to add them here.
Join us in welcoming Sr. Haleh!
If you are breathing and interacting with others you need psychology! You may think that psychology is just common sense and not really a necessity. But I beg to differ. Limiting beliefs and cultural taboos of “shrinks” may be hindering you from seeing the value of what this field has to offer. Now, I’m not suggesting for all of you to run out and make an appointment with the nearest therapist, but what I am asking from you is to have an open heart and an open mind while reading my articles. If your cup is full or turned upside down you will not be able to receive any benefit. Knowledge of psychology can either simply enhance your life or completely transform it. In my practice, I have worked with many suicidal clients that had lost their will to live. Using psychology in the light of Quran and Sunnah, they not only choose to live, but they are living with purpose celebrating life, Alhamdulillah. Psychology can help you to understand yourself, which will affect every aspect of your life. By understanding yourself you will be much more capable of relating to others. That means having a better relationship with your spouse, raising your kids with ease and deliberateness, learning to be a better friend, and achieving success at school or work.
Learning psychology can help you to understand yourself on a whole new level. It’s absolutely fascinating to learn how your psyche works – what makes you tick, what motivates you, how to overcome fears and phobias. Once you know how your mind works, you can start programming yourself for success. You no longer have to stumble upon success – you can aspire, plan and achieve while putting your complete trust in Allah. Then when you have taken a decision, put your trust in Allah, certainly, Allah loves those who put their trust in Him (Surah Al-Imran 3:160). You will no longer be at the mercy of other peoples’ approval or validation because you can learn to accept yourself and in accepting yourself you can accept others. In learning about behavior modification, you can learn how to motivate yourself and others to make that oh so necessary change; like shedding 20 pounds, giving up bad habits, forgiving others, controlling your anger and getting organized. Allah will never change the state of the people until they change themselves (Surah Al-Anfal 8:53).
If it’s not motivation you are lacking, you can learn to cope better with all of life’s challenges. Learning coping skills can be a matter of life or death. Thousands of people die due to heart attacks and strokes because they never learned to cope with the daily stresses. Your outlook on life can become optimistic by becoming aware of your internal conversation which is called self-talk and you can even reinvent yourself by vigilantly avoiding negative thoughts the way you would avoid a poisonous snake. The pursuit of happiness has to begin within. If you don’t like yourself, you can’t expect others to make you happy. Once you like yourself, you will be able to embrace the people around you and focus on giving to them on a deep, emotional level. Each one of these concepts I have mentioned requires an article to explain; however this is an introduction to the psychological material I will be covering insha’Allah. Consider this article as a preview of coming attractions!
When you start becoming happier with yourself, the first people who will notice the change will be your friends and family. Your relationships with them will improve significantly because you will no longer be consumed with your inadequacies. Learning to accept yourself with all your shortcomings and imperfections will make you less judgmental of others. You will be able to be more tolerant and respectful of people even if they are not your ideological clones. Many times we classify differences in others as flaws and we quickly dismiss them. This way of critically judging everyone prevents us from achieving a higher level of empathy and insight. Many times in hearing different perspectives, we broaden our understanding and become more compassionate. This compassion is essential within families. Kind words and forgiving of faults are better than Sadaqah (charity) (Surah 2 Al-Baqarah:263). Genuine acceptance, sympathy and forgiveness creates an environment conducive to effective communication and conflict resolution. Learning the fine art of expressing your needs and resolving problems could drastically improve the quality of your family life.
As you nurture yourself and improve your family life, you will become more at peace, exuding happiness and confidence which will make you more appealing. But all the appeal in the world cannot compensate for a lack of interpersonal skills with your spouse. Having the skills to nurture this vital relationship and the diplomacy to resolve conflicts will transform your married life. He grants wisdom to whom He pleases; and whoever is granted wisdom is indeed given a great wealth (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:269). When you acquire the necessary tools and wisdom to nourish your relationship, serenity will descend and difficulties will become more manageable.
Having a strong and stable relationship with your spouse should be a prerequisite to having children because of the impact it has on their personalities and their lives. Not only do people lack the skills or role models in having an efficacious relationship, they also believe they can just improvise on parenting without any prior training or knowledge. Ask people of knowledge if you do not know (Surah Nahl 16:43). It’s disheartening to know that a person is required to take courses and seek training from experts in order to drive or hunt, but when it comes to becoming a parent and raising the future generation there are absolutely no criteria. Seeking knowledge within psychology regarding effective parenting and applying the beautiful example of our beloved Prophet (peace and salam upon him) will enable us to have a map which will guide us in the rugged and unpredictable terrains of parenting.
Empowered with the knowledge of psychology within the Islamic framework will have you parenting with ease and deliberateness, while reaping the rewards of gratifying relationships. You will introspect and understand your emotions, which will enable you to be more accepting of yourself and others. Aspirations will be achieved with simple guidelines when accompanied with perseverance and trust in Allah. It is my hope that this article has wet your appetite for learning more about psychology in the light of the Quran and Sunnah, insha’Allah.
Our Struggles – Mental Health And Muslim Communities | The Family and Youth Institute
By Elham Saif, Sarrah AbuLughod and Wahida Abaza
Fariha just started her freshman year at university. Overnight, she was separated from her support system of family and friends and thrust into a foreign environment. She was facing many new challenges, including a heavier workload, new friends, student clubs and organizational responsibilities. She was drowning in endless assignments, exams, and meetings.
Fariha never thought much about mental health issues beyond the few “mindfulness” posts that she’d scroll through on her Instagram feed, but recently she was starting to feel out of sorts. She started to feel anxious as a hijab-wearing woman on campus especially after hearing about anti-Muslim incidents on the news. All of the possibilities of what could go wrong played over and over again in her head–and kept her up at night. Everything was beginning to feel overwhelming. She started having trouble getting out of bed in the morning and was losing motivation to complete her assignments. She felt confused and at times, even afraid.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, close to 50 million Americans suffered from mental health issues in 2017. One in 5 adults in America is living with a mental health illness at this very moment. American Muslims are not an exception to these statistics. According to different studies, like Fariha, 15-25% of American Muslims report suffering from anxiety disorders and 9-30% report mood disorders. Many of these mental health issues in the Muslim population go unaddressed and unresolved because of lack of knowledge, stigma and shame experienced in many Muslim households and communities.
When these issues go unaddressed, people report that the pain and suffering they experience rises and that overall their problems tend to get worse. Sadly, their struggles can snowball into additional illnesses that were not present before, such as self-harm or addiction. According to the research, mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are sometimes not considered to be “real” illnesses. Community members often see mental illness as a sign of weakness, a mark of poor faith, or something that doesn’t affect Muslims. They may also see it either as a “test from God” or sometimes as possession by evil spirits. Even when there is an awareness, many of these illnesses and issues are culturally stigmatized as shameful and kept hidden within the person or family. People may be concerned about the reputation of their family or their marital prospects should a psychiatric diagnosis be disclosed.
The irony is that Islam ought to be more of a protective factor given how intertwined Islamic history is with the fields of psychiatry and psychology. The contribution of Islamic scholarship to the field of psychology is documented in our history and legacy from health promotion in the Quran and Sunnah, to early scholarly diagnosis, treatment, and intervention. Alaa Mohammad, FYI researcher and co-author of the chapter “Mental Health in the Islamic Golden Era: The Historical Roots of Modern Psychiatry” in Islamophobia and Psychiatry points out that,
“there was a lot of focus on concepts like ‘sanity’ and the significance of mental capacity as well as the general mental/emotional state in many of the early Islamic texts especially in regards to Islamic rules and law.”
Early Islamic scholars described the “cognitive components of depression and sadness, anxiety and fear, obsessions, and anger in detail and suggested a variety of therapies and treatments.” Learning more about this rich history and pulling from these stories in the Prophet’s (SAW) seerah is a key step towards opening the way for people to get the help they need and learning how to support one another.
Fariha knows that she needs help. She was considering seeing one of the mental health workers on campus, but she’s afraid of what her parents would say if they found out she shared so much with a stranger, especially one that is not a Muslim.
What can parents do?
Research has found that in the face of rising Islamophobia, supportive parenting serves as a protective factor and helps strengthen young Muslims’ sense of identity while unsupportive parents who don’t help their children navigate their experiences end up weakening their identity, which then increases their chances of participating in more risky behavior.
When Fariha finally shared her fears and anxieties with her parents, she was surprised and relieved to hear that they took her seriously. They listened to her and she didn’t feel like they were ashamed of her, only concerned for her well being. They were eager to find her the help she needed to feel like herself again.
As Muslims, we need to shift our mindset around mental illness and the effects of Islamophobia. Like Fariha’s parents, it is imperative that we listen carefully and look more deeply at the issues facing our youth. It is through this openness that we can reduce the stigma and encourage more people to seek help.
The Family and Youth Institute recently released an infographic that talks about some of the struggles facing our American Muslim communities. They teamed up with Islamic Relief USA to get this infographic printed as a poster and will be sending them to over 500 masajid/community centers around the United States in the coming months.
What can you do to help?
- Reduce the stigma by sharing this article and infographic and starting a conversation with your friends and family members. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize and destigmatize mental illness and move towards mental health.
- Organize a community conversation around the issue of mental health. Invite a mental health specialist to come speak to your mosque youth group or parent group.
- Seek therapy when needed. Connect with SEEMA and the Institute of Muslim Mental Health for a list of Muslim therapists. If you are seeing a clinician who is not Muslim, share this book Counseling Muslims: Handbook of Mental Health Issues and Interventions with them to give them a better sense of the specific religious and cultural needs of their Muslim clients.
- Educate yourself – There is a plethora of information out there about mental wellness and wellbeing. For help navigating through it all, sign up for The FYI’s daily article share to receive vetted infographics, articles and videos on this topic. Mental health affects our whole life. Whether you are struggling with bullying, helping a loved one with depression, living with and caring for an elder or wanting to build the best environment for your new baby, we have a resource for you!
These steps are just small ways we can begin to shift the conversation away from shame and stigma and towards help and healing. Mental illness and mental health issues can be scary, but they do not need to be faced alone and in isolation. As the Prophet Muhammad said, “The parable of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever.” Together, we can fight the existing stigma and misconceptions, provide support, educate the community and advocate for our brothers and sisters suffering with mental illness and their families.
Aftab A., & Khandai, C. (2018). Mental Health Facts for Muslim Americans. APA Division of Diversity and Health Equity, Washington, DC.
Basit A, & Hamid M. (2006). Mental health issues of Muslim Americans. The Journal of Islamic Medical Association of North America, 42(3), 106-110.
Ciftci A., Jones N., & Corrigan, P.W. (2013) Mental health stigma in the Muslim community. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 7(1), 17-32.
Hodge, D.R., Zidan, T. & Husain, A. (2016). Depression among Muslims in the United States: Examining the role of discrimination and spirituality as risk and protective factors. Social Work, 61(1), 45-52.
Zong, X., Balkaya, M., Tahseen, M., & Cheah, C.S.L. (2018). Muslim-American Adolescents’ Identities Mediate the Association between Islamophobia and Adjustment: The Moderating Role of Religious Socialization. Poster session presented at the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development, Queensland, Australia.
Who Can We Trust?
Spiritual abusers are con-artists, and if they were easy to spot then they would be far less successful. That is why you must exercise vigilance and your own judgment above that of public opinion. Never let the person’s position make you trust them more than you would without it.
Spiritual abusers work covertly, present themselves well, and use their service as a cover beneath which to operate. The way to avoid them is to recognize their tactics and avoid being caught by them.
Spiritual abuse often begins with hard-to-spot precursors, with manipulators exploiting grey areas and blurring boundaries to confuse targets. For example, when setting someone up for illicit relations or secret marriage, teachers may begin with inappropriate jokes that lower boundaries.
They may touch others in ways that confuse the person touched as to permissibility, for example, men touching women on their hijabs rather than direct skin. They may inappropriately touch someone in ways that leave him/her wondering whether or not it was intentional.
There may be frivolous texting while the premise of engagement is ‘work only’. Boundaries may be blurred by adding flirtatious content, sending articles praising polygamy, or mentioning dreams about getting married. The recipient may struggle to pinpoint what’s wrong with any of this, but the bottom line is that they don’t have to.
While these tactics may be hard to prove, you don’t need to prove that you don’t want to be communicated with in this way and that you will not tolerate it. You can withdraw from the situation on the basis of your own boundaries.
One of the key challenges in standing up to spiritual abuse is the lack of confidence in calling out bad behavior or the need for validation for wrongs. We may be afraid to a question a teacher who is more knowledgeable than us when he is doing clear haram. However, halal and haram are defined by Allah and no human has the right to amend them. If a religious leader claims exemption to the rules for themselves or their students, that’s a big, bright, red flag.
Beware of Bullying
When you witness or experience bullying, understand that a Muslim’s dignity is sacred and don’t accept justifications of ‘tarbiyah’ (spiritual edification/character reformation) or breaking someone’s nafs (ego). If you didn’t sign up for spiritual edification, don’t accept any volunteer spiritual guides.
If you did sign up, pay attention as to whether these harsh rebukes are having a positive or negative effect. If they are having a negative emotional, mental, or physical effect on you, then this is clearly not tarbiyah, which is meant to build you up.
When abuse in the name of tarbiyah happens, it is the shaykh himself or the shaykha herself who needs character reformation. When such behavior goes unchecked, students become outlets of unchecked anger and are left with trauma and PTSD. This type of bullying is very common in women’s groups.
Trust Built and Trust Destroyed
There are different levels of trust, and as it relates to religious leaders, one does not need to investigate individuals or build trust for a perfunctory relationship. You do not need a high degree of trust if you are just attending someone’s general lectures and not establishing any personal relationship.
If you want to study something with an Islamic teacher, do so as you would with a school-teacher, understanding that their position does not make that person either exceptionally safe nor exceptionally harmful. Treat religious figures as religious consultants who are there to answer questions based on their knowledge. Give every teacher a clean slate, don’t have baseless suspicions, but if behavior becomes manipulative, exploitative, cultish, or otherwise abusive, don’t justify it either.
Personal accountability is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and we have to take responsibility for our own faith and actions. There is no need to be suspicious without reason, but nor is there a justification for blind trust in someone you don’t know, just because they lead prayers or have a degree of religious education.
It is natural to ask ourselves whether people can be trusted after experiencing or learning about spiritual abuse. The answer is yes – you can trust yourself. You can also trust others in ways that are appropriate for the relationship. If you know someone well and they have proven over a long period of time to be trustworthy, keep secrets, and do not use you or take advantage of you, then it makes sense to trust that person more than a stranger or someone who has outward uprightness that you do not know well. That level of trust is earned through long-time demonstration of its characteristics.
Seeing someone on stage for years or relying on testimony of people impressed by someone should not convince you to lower your guard. Even if you do believe someone is pious, you still never drop your better judgment, because even saints are fallible.
Don’t Fall for Reputation
Never take other respected leaders praising or working alongside an individual as proof of his or her trustworthiness. It is possible that the teachers you trust are unaware of any wrongdoing. It’s not a reasonable expectation, nor is it a responsibility for them to boycott or disassociate themselves from another religious figure even if they are aware of them being abusive.
Furthermore, skilled manipulators often gain favor from respected teachers both overseas and domestically to gain credibility.
If one shaykh praises another shaykh, but you witness abusive behavior, don’t doubt yourself based on this praise. The praise may have been true at one time or may have been true in the experience of the one giving the praise, but no one knows another person’s current spiritual state as spiritual states can change.
Even if the abusive individual was previously recognized to be a great wali (saint), understand that there are saints who have lost their sainthood as they do not have isma (divine protection from sin or leaving Islam) like the prophets (upon them be peace) do. What was true yesterday, may not be true today.
Often praises of integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are heaped on men who support influential female figures. However, men who are praised as ‘allies,’ and thanked for ‘using their privilege’ to support female scholarship and the participation of women in religious organizations and events are no more trustworthy than those who don’t.
Abusers are often very image-conscious and may be acting to improve their own image and brand strength. Influential male and female religious figures also help one another with mutual praising and social-proofing. That is how the misdoings of men who are supportive of women are ignored, as long as they support the right politicized causes such as inclusive spaces and diverse panels.
Don’t be tricked into trust through a person’s credentials. An ijazah (license) to be a shaykh of a tariqa is purportedly the highest credential. It’s a credential that allegedly has a chain that goes all the way back to the Prophet , but that does not impart any of the Prophet’s character or trustworthiness in and of itself. A shaykh has to continuously live up to the ijaza and position. The position does not justify behavior outside of the sharia or any form of abuse. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophet only to the degree to which they embody his character.
When a teacher who hasn’t spent adequate time with righteous shayukh abuses, they are said to lack suhba (companionship of the pious), and that is why they are abusive.
The truth is many of the worst abusers in traditional circles are highly certified, have spent adequate time with shayukh, are valid representatives of them, and are able to abuse because the previously mentioned credentials lead to blind trust.
Don’t let certifications about spiritual abuse, ethical leadership, or the like mean anything to you. Skilled narcissists will be the first to get such certifications and take courses because they know this will make people trust them more. You will see courses on ‘healthy leadership’ and ‘spiritual abuse prevention’ being taught and designed by them. There is a false premise behind such certifications that if religious leaders knew how abuse occurs and the damage it causes victims they wouldn’t do it. The fact is they know how abuse works, know how damaging it is, and don’t care. In a way, it’s good to have lessons on spiritual abuse from purveyors of abuse, just as learning theft prevention from a thief might be the most beneficial.
Don’t judge by rhetoric
Don’t look at the rhetoric of groups or individuals to see how seriously they take abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs in all groups. It is common for members of one group to call out abuse that they see in another group while ignoring abuse occurring within their own group.
Sufis who will talk about the importance of sharia, label others as ‘goofy-Sufis,’ and insist that real Sufis follow sharia, will very often abuse in private and use the same justifications as the other Sufi groups they publicly deride.
Many imams and religious leaders will talk publicly about the importance of justice, having zero-tolerance for abuse, and the importance of building safe spaces, while they themselves are participating in the abuse.
Furthermore, female religious leaders will often cover up secret marriages, and other abuses for such men and help them to ostracize and destroy the credibility of their victims as long as their political views align. Muslim mental health providers often incorporate religious figures when they do programs, and in some cases they involve known abusers if it helps their cause.
In some cases, the organization does not know of any abuse. Abusive individuals use partnerships with Muslim mental health organizations to enhance their image as a “safe person.” This is especially dangerous due to the vulnerability of those struggling with mental illness and spiritual issues, who may then be exploited by the abuser. It is a community responsibility to ensure the safety of these vulnerable individuals and to ensure that they do have access to resources that can actually help them.
Don’t judge by fame
One false assumption is that the local-unknown teacher is sincere while the famous preacher is insincere and just wants to amass followers. This contrast is baseless although rhetorically catchy.
The fact is, many unknown teachers desire fame and work towards it more than those who are famous. Other times the unknown and famous teacher may have the same love of leadership, but one is more skilled than the other. They both may also be incredibly sincere.
Ultimately, we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart but must look at their actions, and if their actions are abusive, they are a danger to the community. Both famous and non-famous teachers are equally capable of spiritual abuse.
Look for a procedure
Before being involved in an organization, look for a code of conduct. There is no accountability without one in non-criminal matters. Never depend on people, look at the procedures and ensure that the procedure calls for transparency, such as the one we at In Shaykh’s Clothing published and made free for the public to use.
Procedure also applies to an organizations’ financials. Do not donate money to organizations based on personalities, instead demand financial transparency and accountability for the money spent. There is great incentive for spiritual abusers to win the trust of crowds when it means they can raise money without any financial accountability.
But what about Husne-Zann? Thinking well of others?
Allah tells us يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ
“O You who believe, leave much suspicion, indeed some suspicions are sinful” (Quran 49:12).
From this verse, we see that some – not all negative opinions are sinful. The prohibition is partitive, meaning some bad opinions are permissible.
If someone punches you, it is not hunse-zann to assume that person just happened to stretch with a closed fist and did not see your face was in the way. This kind of delusion will lead to you getting punched more. To be wary of their fist isn’t a sinful level of suspicion.
Part of why spiritual abuse is difficult to detect is that its purveyors have a reputation for outward uprightness. They are thought well of in the community, and in many cases they are its pillars and have decades of positive service to their defense. Assuming that someone cannot be abusive simply because they have been a teacher or leader for a long time is not husne-zann. When facts are brought to light- like a fist to the face – it is delusional to assume they didn’t mean it that way.
If someone does something that warrants suspicion, then put your guard up and don’t make excuses for those actions. Start with a general guard and be procedural about things which require a procedure. For example, if you are going to loan someone money, don’t just take their word that they will pay you back but insist on a written record. If they say they are offended, just say “it’s my standard procedure to avoid any confusion later on.” A reasonable person won’t have an issue with that. If someone mentions on the phone they will pay you $100 for your work, write an email to confirm what was said on the phone so there’s a record for it.
Lastly, and most importantly, never leave your child alone with a teacher where you or others cannot see them. Many cases of child sexual assault can be prevented if we never allow children to study alone with adults. There should never be an exception to this, and parents much uphold this as a matter of policy. Precaution is not an accusation, and this is a professional and standard no one should reject.
Bipolar Exiled: Oscillating between the Mind’s Terrain and Physical Boundaries
By Farzande Jehan
“And what is the matter with you sister, you are not well either?”
She is speaking to me in Urdu. We are both Pathan. And now I am thinking of one universal ailment that I can supply this lady with and leave it at that. I say that I have depression. She looks at me puzzled, looks at the lady sitting next to her, searching her face for a clue but to no avail. Can I explain ‘depression’ to her? This is going to be difficult. Why don’t I..
“I have a mood disorder.”
Pakistanis use the word ‘mood’ and ‘moody’ all the time; she should know. As I wait for a response, the same blank expression on her face. No comprendo. Rescue her furzy, she is losing you.
“Okay, so sometimes I am very happy, bohth khush,” I raise my hand as high as possible, “And sometimes I am very sad, bohth khafa.” I bring my hand down low.
The thing’s been expressed in the right words.
To elaborate I say: “What I come here for…” -and there is newfound confidence in my voice too- “…is to make sure that it is leveled.”
This I demonstrate by slicing through the room with my theatrical hand. I resettle in my chair. I have successfully regained my right to be here. I am quiet not because I am rude, but because I need composure.
I was 23, visibly Muslim, living in NYC, and just about ready to enter an adulthood promised to many of the youth of my time. I was a graduate student the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had all but completed two of the courses that led to my degree. I owed many of life’s successes and some failures too -but more of the good- to my ex-commuter status. My family preferred that I live at home, so I’d take the D from Brooklyn and transfer to the 1 somewhere in Midtown (God help you on the weekends when maintenance reroutes).
The summer of my onset, two white passengers in an underground train whispered about the news of Michael Jackson’s death. The couple scheduled to get help from martinis to cope with their pain.
The isolation I experienced and the spiritual inclination I harbored from a young age worked as seamless elements in the pursuit of removing me from my reality… your reality. I lived in a place that was in extreme contrast to the ideals I cherished. New York did successfully provide the tools that accurately identified the whatnots so that the whats that mattered remained.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How do you reconcile a reverence for a Deity that felt too far? My jugular vein reminded me of vessels and of things that hold quantity. Water indeed is life and Muslims agree that God is everywhere, so where do we draw the line? If I labored just enough, the distance that separated me from my Creator would shorten, I believed. The city that never sleeps left me sleepless.
A dirty curtain separated the men from the women. We were in the fourth season of the year and I start counting mine from Spring. My family returned to the go-back-to-your-country type of country in 2014, before Trump came to office and after Obama dropped drones on my ancestors’ homeland. A heater was supplied for the menfolk. The woman who was interviewing me earlier tended to her sick child, laid stretched out on the seat because her daughter had difficulty sitting up. Mental distress carries the marker of a plague struck in nations like the one where I live. Poverty exposes what little cover there is.
The office we were in was Dr. Rehman’s. His portrait was grinning at us. It seemed to be saying, “Give me your money you lunatic, you need help!”
An ayat from the Holy Quran about shifa, remedy, that it is ultimately in the hands of Allah , hung on the opposite wall, punching the arrogant grin in the face. In life we seek balance. The verse reassured me: “Don’t worry so.” It seemed to say: “Answer the man’s questions and go home happy – all is well.”
I breathed in as I looked down at my feet. I know that in Spirituality, things have specific destinies too and not just mortals. The thought that visits me from time to time: maybe it’s the shoes I am wearing that are carrying me to places where I don’t belong, belong.
A woman placed a prayer mat in front of me that day for herself. She was facing the qibla for the fourth time. I patiently waited for my number to be called. “Twelve!” I heard. Covering my face -because now I will be passing through rows of men- I got up to leave the patients’ patience testing room.
I was twelve-years old in the year we immigrated to America, eleven when I first landed on the brave soil. We were arriving in two hours and mother wanted everything in order. The first thing she saw was the sight of her younger daughter’s head. My head! It needed attention. It required attention. I almost wanted to cry when she was brushing my hair, and not because she was pulling at the strands. I had tears in my eyes because I had tasted Tropicana orange juice with no pulp for the first time in my short life.
My best friend from high school had paid me a visit on my second hospital stay, I had been in treatment for four months and in denial of my initial diagnosis. The proceeding to dump all medicine and carrying on with life until trouble lurked once more -the serpent raising its head drama played itself out. It’s a common prelude that way too many people experience in the initial processing of a newfound knowledge about the self.
Brooklyn was hit by a storm so severe that my family walked several of the miles on the day I was getting discharged. There were no taxis in sight for hours and the MTA was not functioning. My friend was expecting her first baby and had rushed to see me. She had a bag full of oranges to give to me. The setting and the process of checking in to visit your loved ones -and not to mention the presence of other patients who are sometimes in worse condition than you are- has the potential to throw your visitors off. I did not want to shock her but I was too helpless in offering an alternative view.
People go to zoos to see animals in cages. Seeing me in a gown, though I had my head covered, a scarf -in that was the familiar-, had I seemed weak to her? Was I the sight people conjure when they think ‘mentally ill’? This was my friend, and I wonder how much of the stereotype I filled in for her and to what degree, if at all? Had she had pity on me or was being sympathetic her character trait? Shouldn’t unborn children be kept away from sick persons like me at that time?
For those of us in societies where there is chaos within and a violence outside, was I mentally ill if my brain is part of my body? I was bodily ill, wasn’t I? Organ-ly ill. My mind had not stopped working. I was not pagal*, No! (*refers to somebody who is insane and is mainly a pejorative in South Asian communities) My brain had gone into overdrive and my thoughts were shooting at each other. This I know because I lost control. How did I allow myself to become so wild that I needed to be tamed? What was this force? Was it even my fault and does every event have a cause? I must have looked like a prisoner yet I have tasted freedom. Out of my own free will, I carried a transaction to deposit the ‘me’ in me in the hands of the One who made me. Whereas qismt (destiny) is sometimes cruel, God we know is always Merciful.
It requires strength to hold an image of a person you care for, far removed from a space that you once shared and to meet them at that threshold. An image like that is etched in memories for long times. Sadaf knew of my liking of oranges. Her gesture meant more than any flowers ever could represent her love for me. My employer was her ex-employer, otherwise knowledge of my hospitalization(s) was usually limited to family. After getting discharged and being somewhat stable at this point, I visited her at her house. Ibraheem assumed that the beauty mark on my chin was nothing but a button! That if he pressed on it, I would turn into a walking/talking toy. I let him play for as long as he wanted since I loved seeing the smiles on his face and the way he would giggle. I’d behave like a robot and only stop the awkwardness when he’d press the button again.
The disorder that I have and the control that it has over me is somewhat like little Ibraheem’s curiosity. It presses a button and I turn into a person other than me. I please it. I entertain it to the extent where it starts to get bored or needs a diaper change not when I lose the strength to continue. The only downside in playing this game is that the thing habitually forgets to turn the button off. It leaves me running into walls and breaking things and getting hurt in return. We need a team of rescuers, a hospitalization, and strange medicine with stranger names to bring me back.
I was shocked when I first read in our Islamic literature that the Creator laughs.
Abu Razeen reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah laughs at the despair of his servant, for he will soon relieve him.” I said, “O Messenger of Allah, does the Lord laugh?” The Prophet said, “Yes.” I said, “We will never be deprived of goodness by a Lord who laughs!” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 181]
I understand a thing like that somewhat differently from how others read it.
After spending my twenties toiling in making sense of it all, my recovery has a lot to do with a change of terrain. It is the distance I needed to sort things out. I studied Orientalism in New York but read Edward Said speak of his love for an aunt who helped Palestinian refugees find shelter in his Out of Place: A Memoir here in Pakistan. The human component of scholarship, something that was missing previously, became vital at closing the gaps of humanity I was made deprived of. Healing begun.
By sharing my story, I’d like for people who are diagnosed with illnesses like bipolar to keep steadfast. No matter your creed or the place where you are from, know that you are not alone. And for family and friends who bear witness to the turmoil that infects a loved one to stand strong. Your strength or lack thereof has a direct impact on our wellness.
In the Quran it says that we will be tested with sons and wealth [Surah Al-Anfal;28]. Having a mental illness is a kind of test that has no beginning, nor a definite end. Take care of your health before sickness visits you is a famous saying of Prophet Muhammad . There will be days when you feel frustrated and question the just ruling of a Just God. Reach out and feel blessed, for being a Muslim carries the weight of family keeping bonds.
Ideally, the Ummah is one that conducts checks and balances so that the affairs of our Muslim brethren are running smooth. Unlocking and internalizing the goodness and the kheir that Allah has placed in the world for our taking requires humility, an admittance of our own neediness followed by the realization of and acknowledging our smallness in a universe that is run not by us. Believing in God and trusting in Him are not the same.
The meaning of the word Islam is peace. Muslims exchanging the greeting of peace with other Muslims is an experience. Transferring that practice and truly living that peace needs patience. The challenge of living with and sometimes outliving a mental illness requires a tailored kind of submission. The hush of stability hums low in the beginning when loud is the announcement of a calamity. Faith after all is belief in the existence of hope alongside the tragedy that is life. What is more, our bodies are rented to us. The obligation of living inside them is not a punishment. It is a privilege. The challenge is to be at peace with our predicaments and that can be easily achieved since I believe that all of us are capable of nourishing our minds and feeding our souls, perhaps not at the same pace but the possibility of recovery is guaranteed once we take that initial step. It is realizing the potential of and exercising resilience itself that saved me. To transfer that hope in the mode of words is the least I can offer. May Allah accept, ameen.