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The Myth of the Depression-Proof Muslim

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There’s this article I haven’t written yet, the one where I confess to struggling with depression.

In that soul-baring masterpiece I finally admit to sleeping too little and breaking down too often. I talk about having a child with autism, a rare genetic disease, and the heart-breaking pain of watching my children develop the same disease too.

I cry while writing it, you cry while reading it. Its completion gives purpose to my years of private struggle but – but I haven’t written that one yet. So I’m writing this one instead.

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We Muslims have some pretty ridiculous myths about depression, and the worst is that somehow there is “no depression in Islam.”

O mankind, there has to come to you instruction from your Lord and healing for what is in the breasts and guidance and mercy for the believers. – Qur’an 10:57

Allah calls the Qur’an the healer of hearts. If depression doesn’t exist, is Allah referring to coronary heart disease?

This myth’s existence is based on the idea that depression is a form of ingratitude or low faith. Therefore, a person in depression mustn’t be “in Islam” so to speak.

Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested?  Allah asks this of us in Surah Anqaboot. You think being a believer means never being stressed? Wrong.

We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false. – Qur’an 29:2-3

Allah tested believers before, and He’ll test believers now. To say that depression is a sign of weak faith is to imply that those with bad lives are guilty of being bad Muslims, and this completely contradicts what we know about the most righteous people. In fact, the more righteous you are, the more likely you are to be tested.

Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqaas, may Allah be pleased with him, once asked, “O Messenger of Allah, which of the people are most sorely tested?”

The Prophet ﷺ said: “The prophets, then the next best and the next best. A man will be tested in accordance with his level of religious commitment. If his religious commitment is strong, he will be tested more severely, and if his religious commitment is weak, he will be tested in accordance with his religious commitment. Calamity will keep befalling a person until he walks on the earth with no sin on him.”

For as long as people have been unhappy, the human mind has struggled with understanding the difference between a test and punishment. A person can suffer and instead of seeing their suffering as temporary opportunity, they wonder what they did to deserve such punishment.

Shaitaan loves this train of thought, because it travels due south. I’ve done everything Allah asked me to. I know I’ve messed up, but I said I was sorry. Why is He is doing this to me? Either Allah’s not fair or Allah’s not really there. Either way, this sucks and I don’t wanna do this anymore.

That’s a dangerous ride to take, and if you don’t change direction before going too far, your options become limited to loss of faith or loss of life. You either give up on Allah and find other reasons to continue living, or discontinue living entirely.

No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.  – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Life is painful and unpredictable and complicated, so when it comes to knowing the difference between a punishment and a test, all you have to remember is this: How are you reacting to it?

If you find yourself faced with depression and you fight it with the help of Allah and all the means He puts at your disposal, it is a test and you have passed it even if you NEVER fully defeat depression. As long as your keep your faith and stay patient, you have shed sins the way a tree sheds its leaves in fall. You trade some pain in this life for reward in the next, that other believers will be halal jealous of.

However, if you find yourself faced with depression and you resent Allah for it, allowing your state to push you farther from Him and closer to any sinful thing you can use to distract yourself from it, then your test has become your punishment. Your response increases your pain in this life AND the next.

Say: “Nothing shall ever happen to us except what Allah has ordained for us. He is our protector.” And in Allah let the believers put their trust. – Qur’an 9:51

A dear friend of mine called me once, knowing that I was struggling. She had been taking a class on the names of Allah, and when she read up on Al-Jameel, she just had to tell me about it.

“Zeba listen!” she said excitedly, “Allah is Al Jameel, He is Beautiful! He creates beautiful things! He loves Beauty!”

I thought of flowers and fractals and fish. I didn’t see the relevance. “And?”

“Don’t you get it? Al-Jameel wrote your Qadr with beauty too. He wrote autism into your son’s Qadr. He wrote beauty in all of it, even in your pain.”

If that hit you in the heart the way it hit me, make dua for Mona. I think of that phone call often, because it was the first time I began to see pain as part Allah’s plan, rather than my own failure at the emotional invulnerability that I believed all good Muslims were supposed to have.

I wasn’t hurting because I was a bad Muslim, badly managing Allah’s punishment for my badness.  I was hurting because Allah was allowing me to experience hurt, and hurt forced me to seek Allah out for healing.

How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for his affairs are all good, and this applies to no one but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is thankful for it and that is good for him. If something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience and that is good for him. -Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Being depressed feels like sitting underwater in the bottom of a well, hating the darkness but starving for the air and strength needed to swim toward the surface. It’s cold and lonely and desperately hopeless down there. Depression feels so very far away from Allah, but it forces me to fight my way closer to Him. And I feel safer and less afraid knowing that Allah put me at the bottom of the well the same way He put Yusuf down there, peace be upon him.

Allah knows I’m  down here. He knows I can make it out. I don’t have to know everything that He knows, I just have to trust Him.

In my other article- I’ll write it one day maybe – I have this totally neat, emotionally satisfying and perfectly well-rounded conclusion. I put depression in its proper context by calling it a test, not a punishment or curse for weak Muslims. I let on that I was depressed before but I’m ok now, and if I can make it out of depression then you can too.

That’s in my other article though. In this one, I’ll be frank. I get sad sometimes, I get really, really sad. And then, I feel guilty for feeling sad. Not because I’m blaming myself for not being “Muslim enough” to get happy already, but because I when I look at my first world life and my first world problems, I feel as if I am making a big stink. Like oh pity me, I’m chronically sick but happily married, well supported, and have a good healthcare plan that covers most of my deductibles and I also don’t live in a war zone. 

None of my self-deprecating objectivity seems to work. I can imagine all the children dying in Syria and Palestine and Burma and South Sudan, but when mine cries in my lap because she’s not feeling well for the 99th day out of the last hundred, I feel like my heart is broken.

I’m trying to remember that my heart is NOT broken though. It’s working perfectly well and doing the things my heart is supposed to be doing. It is aching out of sympathy for the love of my children, because they too are being tested by the will of Allah. My heart is struggling and in pain, and I will use that pain to seek healing by the will of Allah. Because that is what my heart is supposed to do. Hearts are supposed to hurt.

Because Allah has promised to heal them.

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Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org and the producer of the newly launched Muslimmatters Podcast, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Samir

    March 14, 2017 at 7:33 PM

    You’re not alone sister. I was seeking knowledge in the East, praying all my prayers in congregation, reading Arabic books in Islamic knowledge when I was hit with panic/anxiety and almost fell into depression as I was upset about being unable to study at the level I was before.

    Although I’m not as familiar with depression as I am with anxiety and panic, the key to remember is that these mental disorders have a biological component as well and are related to your nervous system. It’s not purely spiritual.

    A big mistake in thinking among many Muslims, even some du’āt and scholars is that depression and anxiety disorders can be cured by just fixing one’s spiritual habits.

    There is some truth in this, not being alone with your problems and keeping righteous company helps A LOT, as well as just slowing down and taking the time to have ikhlās and khushū in your daily actions, spending more time in tawakkul and sujūd and less worrying/ruminating etc.

    But the biological component of these disorder is still there, as well as the psychological. It is highly imperative to be able to speak to someone qualified to counsel you. I highly advise you to find a good therapist (preferably one with personal experience with depression and who is understanding of your need to be a faithful Muslim). If not, or if it doesn’t help much then medication is plan B.

    Do not continue on your own. Seek help, seek understanding and righteous company, and seek professional treatment. It’s been just over a year for me and I’m almost out of mine alhamdulillah.

    • MalikSaabSays

      March 15, 2017 at 8:20 PM

      As a healthcare Pro, the “medication” isn’t really medicinal, and proof of it is in the cure rates after accounting for other variables.
      The power of belief reigns supreme. Belief can effectively ​bring about physical and biological changes – and it does. Neurotransmitters start depleting when negative & irrational trains of thought are left unchecked. Those who check and remove them (whether by self or through help) their neurotransmitters get back up to speed again.

      Brain, mind. The One who designed it hasn’t left it without a service manual. And for sure we did not design it, nor it designed itself, and for certain it’s degree of specificity and precision is not a product of randomness …

    • Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:45 PM

      JazakAllahuKheiran for sharing your experience Samir. You’re 100% right about there being two parts to depression, one that we can influence through our spiritual input, and one that’s plain ole biology. Having strong religious practices certainly can’t prevent depression, but it definitely helps mitigate it. :)

  2. dhaakirah

    March 14, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    I thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts with us. jazakillahu khairan.

    We have all been created unique & different and so our struggles & tests are also unique and tailormade for us. Our syrian bros and sis’s have their own tests, as do our Burmese, Palestinian, Sudanese and all the rest of humanity. They may see our struggles in the ‘free’ (non war-torn) world and be thankful for theirs while we see them and may feel guilty about ours. But Allah knows us all, every single one of us and so has gifted each of us with our very own personal pains that we can bear and overcome…(no soul is burdened with what he cant bear).
    (O Allah let them overcome their soon aameen).

    The Best of Planners has a plan for you and your family and maybe part of that is for you to get close to Him in this way, after feeling so far away, so that your children will emulate you and thus leave a beautiful legacy for yourselves.

    I recently learned that everyone in Jannah will each be there for a unique and different deed – maybe this is your unique path to Jannah.

    Imagine the unique depression of Yunus AS in the depth of the ocean and darkness of the whale when he made his dua of desperation, and then he is saved. I find that incident so inspiring and encouraging whenever I feel like I’m slipping into the proverbial well.

    Make dua the rest of us quickly find the direction on our paths and we meet among the Gardens.

    Sincere duas for you all from across the pond :)

    • Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:47 PM

      This was a lovely thought and I will definitely hold on to this: “I recently learned that everyone in Jannah will each be there for a unique and different deed – maybe this is your unique path to Jannah.”

      And I love the mental image of Yunus AS in his darkness. I can only imagine what must have been going through his mind. May Allah have mercy on us all.

      • N

        March 11, 2018 at 5:54 AM

        I’ve tried to understand it but I can’t. How can you feel hopeless if you trust Allah, if truly internalise it its impossible. There’s a difference between sadness and depression. Depression is a hopelessness and that is why Yunus A.S made taubah a hundred thousand times for his hopelessness. If you believe your negative thoughts shaitan wins. I hate negativity. Know Allah and know happiness.

  3. Sofekul Allum

    March 14, 2017 at 9:40 PM

    Aa, A very interesting and beneficial article. The articles benefit me greatly in understanding mental health, depression etc.

  4. Alia

    March 14, 2017 at 11:09 PM

    Jazaki Allah Khair sister. I’m feeling your pain and I’m glad I read this. But Allah also asked us to take care of our health which includes our mental and emotional health. And our beloved prophet Asws “Tadawoo” use medication to heal. It’s obvious you are going through enourmous stress and sadness and it’s important that you seek professional help. It’s part of faith to care for yourself. I love you.

    • Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:47 PM

      Jazakillah sis :) I love you for the sake of Allah, and ask that Allah make you among those most beloved to Him.

  5. Saara

    March 14, 2017 at 11:41 PM

    insh’Allah may He give you the ease after your hardship. I relate to what you wrote so much.
    Depression among other mental illness has a biological component, so I hope you know that prayer helps us deal with going through life with illness but it’s definitely not a because of a lack of faith. We don’t say that about other illnesses I hope the Ummah comes to know this about mental illnesses too.

    • Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:49 PM

      You know Saara surprisingly sometimes we do say the same about other illnesses… and it’s not great there either. I’ve been told that if I made more dua my son wouldn’t have autism anymore. It’s important to recognize that people mean well, even if they are accidentally tearing holes in your heart without realizing it. Alhamdulillah. :)

  6. Shine

    March 15, 2017 at 12:46 AM

    Asalaamualaikum… Hey sister you are not alone. i have been there. And i admit i do sometimes revisit that well again and again. But as you said it should take you closer to Allah swt not away from Allah swt. It doesnt matter whether it is trail or punishment, what matters is how we deal with it.. What matters is the consolation that it was written in our Qadar. And we muslims believe in Qadr. What is apparently bad to us has many hidden dimensions that are known only to Allah swt. And we have this consolation that overall whatever Allah swt plans for us is the best. We may not always know the wisdom behind the trails, but we need to be assured that all trails have deep wisdom behind them. Sister nothing that happens in this world is futile, nothing is redundant. Everything that happens, even the leaf that falls has a deep wisdom behind it. You see Allah swt is not concerned with end results. You and i are depressed, thats perfectly okay but inspite of that even if we try to come out of it and struggle to fight it .Even if you may not come out of it but you tried and struggled with it . Thats called effort. and thats what Allah swt values. He values efforts rather than end results. I am sure sister you know all this but we need to keep reminding ourselves again and again because REMINDER BENEFITS THE BELIEVER. In the end we all need reminders sometimes even those that were written by us only.
    http://www.abezsez.com/2013/11/dear-not-a-loser/
    I pray May Allah swt ease our trails and give us best in this Life and Akhirah. Aameen

    • Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:56 PM

      Hey sis, of course I remember you! <> Jazakillah for the reminder, reminders are awesome.

  7. Ali Saeed

    March 15, 2017 at 10:06 AM

    So much truth in your powerful ending: “Hearts are supposed to hurt….Because Allah has promised to heal them.” – makes you wanna cry in sajdah

  8. Mariam

    March 15, 2017 at 5:06 PM

    I hope you also get to finish your other article with a good ending inshaAllah. And also an ending with a never-ending joy and contentment of the Hereafter, ameen.

  9. Mubashira Ajmal

    March 15, 2017 at 6:49 PM

    Assalamualaikum

    Jameel..also, as in, Sabrun Jameel.. a beautiful patience. Duas for u, ur little one, n those fighting the hard times everywhere

  10. Zenubia

    March 15, 2017 at 11:48 PM

    If the believers didn’t feel sad or depressed there wouldn’t be a chapter in the seerah called Aam Ul huzn – the year of sadness.

  11. umm ismael

    March 16, 2017 at 1:11 AM

    Asslam u alaikum
    May Allah Alleviate your burdens and May He Make ease in your affair and may He Grant you from His endless bounty. May He Heal and cure you and Provide you from where you did not even imagine ameen

  12. Waffles

    March 16, 2017 at 2:23 AM

    I loved that you shared this. I think as Muslim communities, we always share good things or accomplishments. I think it’s harder to share loss, grievances, or just daily struggles. But this is what Muslims are about. We are there for each other thru thick and thin. More than that, we believe Allah is there thru it all.
    Thank you for your beautiful words and pointing us all back to Allah (swt).

  13. Amatullah

    March 16, 2017 at 2:35 AM

    Your fear for your children reminds me of Yaqoob AlayhiSalaam. He was so much in depression after the temporary loss of his child – Yusuf AlayhiSalaam. He cried until his eyesight got weak. But Allah delivered Yusuf AS “beautifully” back to his father, SubhanAllah.
    La Ilaha Illa Anta Subhanaka Inni Kuntum Minazzallimeen.

    • Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:58 PM

      Beautiful reminder Amatullah- Yaqoob, may Allah bless him, lived for years in sadness and cried until he went blind and of course he was a proper Muslim, he was prophet of Allah!

      SubhanAllah :)

  14. Simeen

    March 16, 2017 at 12:30 PM

    Subhanallah, Zeba! This is so beautiful, I’m lost for words. Barakallahu feeki. May Allah ta’ala bless you and your family With His best both in this life and The Hereafter.

  15. Farah

    March 16, 2017 at 6:55 PM

    JazakAllah so much for sharing your thoughts and story. You are so strong. May Allah make all your hardships easier, may He give you sabr through the hard days and the ability to find little precious joys amidst the sad moments. May Allah grant your children health amd happiness and guide them to all that is right and good. Ameen.

  16. amtullah

    March 17, 2017 at 4:28 AM

    New Atheist Fantasyland?
    Quick question before I start exploring your blog: U an atheist?

  17. Abu Aaliyah

    March 22, 2017 at 8:10 PM

    I am a Psychiatric Social Worker and can confidently state that there is no such thing as a depression-proof Muslim. Anxiety and Depression are very common in the Muslim community. Thank you for taking the courage to write about your experience and raising self-awareness on this issue. Thank you for being vulnerable and using it as a tool to let others connect with your experience(s). I want to share with you an article on vulnerability that you may find useful.

    http://www.thismuslimreads.com/read/daretobevulnerable

  18. Mahmoud

    April 19, 2017 at 1:30 AM

    Dear Zeba,
    As said by others, your will not walk alone. Once in a while i do get down for no reason. But possibly worth sharing is that i have been struggling with an anxiety disorder for over 30 years. My outsider demeanor is that of a calm and composed Muslim but inside there is periodic storm! Though i am aware, Alhamdulillah, about my excellent articulation of of issues, speaking publicly coherently is a arduous task, not withstasding the pounding heart. It may sound ridicuous even after self positive talk about the absurdity of that current emotional being.To flavour the challenge, there is this ringing ear (tinitus) which occassionally roars.
    This is part of the tests we will all be subjected. In sha Allah, as one sister mentioned it may be the ‘dog’ that will propel you to Jannah.

  19. Maria

    September 25, 2017 at 7:15 AM

    Thank you sister for this article.
    I thought I was the only one who thought that being depressed is unislamic and proof of my weak eeman, being ungrateful for what I have and that my anxiety issues are a result of little tawakkul. It turns out I was wrong.
    May Allah bless you and give you lots of strength.
    P.S.
    What I found hugely helpful was a self help book “Manage your mood” by David Veale & Rób Willosn. It’s about using Behavioral Activation techniques.

  20. craig turton

    December 7, 2017 at 9:26 PM

    You are right, I too have experienced what you have. But what has lead us back, our-believe in the God of Abraham, brings us back and stronger!

  21. anne

    March 21, 2019 at 5:53 PM

    This has helped me so much. I am feeling so lonely at the moment.
    I am married, have good healthy kids Alhamdolillah, not going through what you are with your child, and not living in abject poverty or in a war zone, but I am so terribly in a bad place, that there are times where I will sit alone and stare into space, not wanting to do anything.
    Maybe I have depression, but why? What have I got to be depressed or sad about?
    Yet here I am, day after day, wondering why am I sleeping so much, always feeling tired and lethargic, and I don’t even know what am I feeling sad about.
    I have this feeling of my own personal black cloud filled with gloom hovering over my head. Everyone seems to be getting on with things, but I am feeling useless. I get invited to places, but the mere thought of attending fills me with anxiety and stress. I feel I have to act happy and the effort to do small talk with others fills me with dread.
    I have such low esteem, and I don’t know how I can get my confidence back.
    I feel I am no good at anything. I miss my parents and siblings who live quite far from me, but yet I have a husband and children, so nothing to really be complaining about.
    I listen to Islamic talks whilst I am alone at home, am chirpy and smiley when I do meet people, but it is just a mask.
    I feel all alone. Your article has given me hope that maybe this is only a test, and I should be optimistic that it will be my turn to shine one day. I don’t feel I am of any real use to anyone anymore. If I cry I chastise myself for feeling sorry for myself when I should not have any real reason to cry. I can’t talk to anyone because they too will think it strange, when I have nothing to feel depressed about. I am grateful for everything I have but am stuck, like you described, on the cold floor at the bottom of a well, peering through the blurry water, but not making any progress to rise above it.
    Everyone tells me to get a job or a hobby or do something, I wish I could.
    The first step seems to be the hardest hurdle, I feel I need to do something, but cannot motivate myself to do anything.
    So I will carry on, being the stay at home mum that so many will envy. You are so lucky they say, and I am, so why am I still feeling sad and unfulfilled? Am I so ungrateful? I don’t want to be.
    I hope this feeling passes, and until then, I will just put on my happy mask for my kids sake, and hope for the true healing of my heart, and all of yours too.

    • Zeba Khan

      March 27, 2019 at 4:46 PM

      Anne habibti, I feel you. Depression doesn’t make sense and it’s not the same as being sad because you lost something or you’re missing someone. It’s something your brain does regardless of whether there’s a reason to or not, and maybe that’s your jihad. Allah reward you for the struggle and the patience, Ameen! <<>>

  22. S Saleh

    December 15, 2019 at 3:29 PM

    More Muslims need to speak up about mental illness so that we can remove the stigma associated with it. I’ve started a website to try and break through the barriers. We need to hear from more people who have been through these struggles so that others who are suffering will speak up.

    • Ali

      March 13, 2020 at 10:03 AM

      It is something that seems to be tatoo especially with the older generation but they fail to take into consideration societal changes and diminishing communities. I can emphatise with those going through the challenge, while we do our upmost best to attend the masjid and pray there seems to exist a void if there does not exist a support network, opening the doors for one to succumb to loneliness, it makes it more difficult when the family evironment is toxic. Regardless we have to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward.

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