Psychiatry and Islam: Depression is not weak faith

Dying for some understanding

I spent my high school years wearing the uniform of an Anglican Cathedral School in Sydney’s Central Business District (CBD). Like most adolescents, I was heavily into music. Unlike all my other classmates, I attended Muslim youth camps during the Christmas holidays.

The music at St Andrews was an interesting mix. At chapel, we would listen to the sounds of one of the world’s great church choirs. But in our locker rooms and in the walkmans we listened to outside of class, it was Aussie rock.

At the Muslim camps, most of the “woggier” Muslim kids listened to Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. But being a St Andrews boy, I had to keep the Aussie rock alive. My stereo was bigger than their’s, and didn’t they regret it!

My idea of decent Muslim camp music was AC/DC or INXS (before they became popular in the US). Midnight Oil was also a rebellious favourite (most of the over-hair-gelled Lebanese kids could not understand the lyrics most of the time).

But one sound brought St Andrews and Muslim camp kids together. It was the sweet sound of the Finn brothers. Whether they called themselves Split Enz (a band that only seemed to enjoy American success in Canada) or Crowded House or whether performing solo, the Finn brothers were a hit for all of us.

But behind every great singer or band is a good drummer. And the magical drummer of both Split Enz and Crowded House was the talented Paul Hester. Paul was part of the musical force that brought St Andrews lads and Muslim camp louts together.

Paul’s end was also caused by a darker force that brings an end to persons of all ages and religions. Paul suffered from depression. He battled with the illness for years. He must have won many battles with it. But eventually, he lost the war.

When I heard about Hester’s suicide, I could not help but remember one of my relatives in Pakistan. The last time we spoke, he told me of visiting one of our uncles in a psychiatric hospital in Karachi. The uncle was lying on a mat on the floor with all the other patients. The stench of the ward was overbearing. The patients were a motley bunch � schizophrenics, the drug addicted and patients suffering various degrees of psychosis. My uncle was depressed and had been so for years.

Depression is supposed to be the common cold of psychiatric illnesses. Yet it kills an awful lot of people and destroys even more lives than one would expect from a simple flu. What saddens me is that depression is not being given the attention it deserves in Muslim communities.

Indeed, many of our scholars dismiss depression as simply weak faith. One prominent Muslim youth leader in Melbourne is known to have advised one depressed young man to recite dua’s (supplications) and take himself off the anti-depressants he had been prescribed. The young man followed the advice. Within 6 months, he had attempted suicide twice.

I was fortunate to meet a classically trained scholar from the United States last year. Naeem Abdul Wali was trained in Turkey by prominent scholars and sufis from the Naqshbandi tradition. I asked him what should have been a simple question: How can we tell the difference between sinful despair (giving up on the mercy of Allah and failing to recognise the truth of the last verse of Surat al-Baqarah)* and the symptoms of depression?

Shaykh Naeem agreed that it should be a simple question. He also agreed that if tasawwuf is the science of Islamic psychology, its practitioners should be able to answer such a fundamental question. But sadly, there was no easy answer.

In the case of his own Shaykh in Turkey (Mahmud Effendi), Shaykh Naeem acknowledged that many persons suffering depression approached him and asked for help. If he felt he had the skills to help them through spiritual means, he did. If not, Mahmud Effendi would advise them to see a psychiatrist.

This is true scholarly humility, a far cry from the arrogance of those local mosque imams and their blank-cheque fatwas on depression being weak faith.

Shaykh Naeem said that many ulama had failed to keep themselves abreast of recent developments in psychological treatment. More than that, it seems to me that many self-help books on the market merely re-package the existing ancient wisdom of traditional religions (including Islam). Indeed, I have probably read at least 5 ahadith of general advice given by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) which mirror the basic prescriptions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

But if you tell that to many of our imams, they will say you are falling prey to dangerous innovation.

We need to take depression more seriously. It is affecting more and more people in our communities. We ignore it at our peril. Yes, we know suicide is morally reprehensible and forbidden under the sharia. Depression often leads to suicide. This fact in itself should make us more vigilant of recognising depression and encouraging others we suspect are suffering from it to seek help.

Our imams also need to consider upgrading their knowledge of psychological and counselling techniques. They need to be equipped to provide spiritual support to depression sufferers and their carer families. Our community organisations need to be equipped with strategies to educate their communities about depression, its symptoms and effects.

Most of all, the stigma attached to depression must be lifted. Depression is an illness like diabetes. Both can be properly medicated and controlled. But both can also kill.

* “La yukallifullahu nafsan illah wus aha”, which more or less means Allah does not burden any individual with something s/he cannot bear. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (God have mercy on him) translates the verse as: “On no soul doth God place a burden greater than it can bear”.

Irfan Yusuf, an Australian industrial and employment lawyer, is a freelance writer whose interests include law, gender issues, international relations, spirituality and conservative politics. His writings can be seen online at Planet Irf and Madhab Irfy.

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