Anxiety & Depression – An Islamic Perspective

There is a very insightful hadith of the prophet (SAW), related in Sunan Abu Dawud on the authority of Abu Sa’id Khudri (RA), which mentions that the prophet (SAW) entered the mosque one day and found a man from the Ansar, who was known as Abu Umaamah, sitting there. He said, “O Abu Umaamah why do I see you sitting here in the mosque when it’s not a time of salah?” Abu Umaamah replied, “O prophet of Allah I am overwhelmed with worries and the debts that are upon me.” The prophet then responded, “Should I not teach you words that when you say them Allah will relieve you of your worries and arrange for your debts to be paid back? He said, “O messenger of Allah please do.” The prophet then said, “when you reach the morning or when you reach the evening, say O Allah I seek refuge in you from worry and sadness, and I seek refuge in you from inability and laziness, and I seek refuge in you from fear and miserliness, and I seek refuge in you from overwhelming debt and being overpowered by men.” (When relating this) Abu Umaamah said, “I did this (as instructed) and Allah relieved me of my worries and arranged for my debts to be paid back.”

We all can relate to how one can be affected by one or more of these shackles but it’s important to note that what the messenger of Allah (SAW) placed on the top are effectively psychological states, worry (هم) and sadness (حزن) and these states are what we will be talking about in this khutbah.

When we have  هم we worry about something in the future, it hasn’t happened yet. But we have some concern about, e.g. what kind of job am I going to get, who am I going to marry? How am I going to pay the bills? It’s all about future actions that have not yet occurred. حزن is a sadness about things in our past. Things you cannot change but they’ve saddened you. Someone you have lost, some terrible thing you went through or even some missed opportunity… you have hazan over it.

The modern equivalents for these terms are anxiety and depression. When you’re afflicted by either of the two you’re not living in your present moment, you’re either in your past or worried about the future and you’re anxious about that. And this prevents you from living in the moment, which is where we should be in terms of our recognition of the blessings that Allah has given us in this particular moment. To a certain extent every human being will go through these in their lives.

To help us get a sense of how common and frequent psychological disorders are in our society, I wanted to share some statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which is the federal agency for research on mental disorders:

  • 40 million Americans who are 18 years or older, experience some form of anxiety disorder in a given year. Women are 60% more likely to experience anxiety in their lifetime. More than 8% of teenagers have an anxiety disorder.
  • about 7% of US adults experience major depressive disorder. Women are 70% more likely than men to experience depression in their lifetime. More than 3% of teenagers have experienced a seriously debilitating depressive disorder.

As Muslims, we would be remiss if we assume that our individual community is somehow isolated from these statistics. We experience these things at the same rate as others and in some realms, even more if you throw in the effects of racism and discrimination, the effects of being targeted by media or the community at large. There is enough evidence to show that Muslim teenagers for example can experience degrees of bullying or discrimination that affects them even more strongly than an average American.

So consider if I throw up any statistics for flu or heart disease, whatever it is, if the general society is susceptible to that we as Muslims will be susceptible to that simply because we live in the same environment and we have the same influences, consume the same stimuli that everyone else does in the society as well.

When we think about mental or emotional health we’re talking about these parts of our natural human experience. How are we functioning in our day to day life? How do we interact with challenges that we encounter in our life? How healthy is your reaction to things that happen in your life?

Spiritual Health on the other hand is tied to our relationship with Allah, how is our relationship with Allah. How does your religious practice uplift you in a spiritual way? How does your relationship with God strengthen what we do in our day to day setting? What types of spiritual or religious things do you do to give you that inspiration, to keep you on the straight path?

Many times we could see how those two overlap with one another and we sometimes conflate faith and our psychological well-being, which can potentially be very problematic, so someone would say “if you have strong Iman, you will never be depressed.” In a way you can relate to where such a statement may be coming from especially when someone is speaking about tawakkul, placing our reliance on Allah and how we have tawakkul as a spiritual base, then we will be able to go through life with a certain resilience.

But when one emphasizes that the state of our iman is intrinsically linked to our psychological health, what happens when someone experiences an issue. The implication would be that if we’re depressed then that our iman is weak. So when a person is going through a psychological and emotional crisis, then on top of that we’ve added a spiritual crisis, which didn’t have to be there. Now on top of their depression, they’re wondering am I even a good Muslim, which is unfortunate so those two things should be separated out. Although there is significant overlap between our spiritual and our emotional well-being those should not be mapped 1 to 1. If you have strong faith you can still go through overwhelming emotional experiences and that has no bearing on your faith.

We have an example in the story of Yaqub (AS) and Yusuf (AS). Allah describes the state of Yaqub (AS) as having cried so much that he lost his sight as a result of his grief.

wabyaddat ‘aynaahu minal huzni wa howa kazeem
And he turned away from them and said, “Oh, how great is my grief for Joseph!” His eyes had turned white with grief, and he was choked with anguish.

So Yaqub (AS)’s continued grief over his son had no bearing over his iman and that’s what we need to keep in mind.

When we read the description of the Prophet (SAW) some of his characteristics were like a sad reflective person. He would tear up at certain moments, for example when he listened to the recitation of the Quran and in general, he had a mellow presence to him (SAW). Surah Kahf described the Prophet’s state as “Then perhaps you would kill yourself through grief over them, [O Muhammad], if they do not believe in this message, [and] out of sorrow.”

Then we have statements of the prophet (SAW) where he said for example, “If you knew what I knew, you would laugh a little less and you would cry a little more.” So that brings us to the question, if that is how the prophet (SAW) was, sometimes he would look sort of sad, is there such a thing as healthy depression. Maybe there’s some doze of sadness that is okay to have. We talked about it being natural and sometimes it helps when you have a moment of sadness and reflection and introspection. To think about your life and the direction we’re heading, maybe it helps sober us up a little bit. The world after all is a distracting intoxicating place.

So in our spiritual tradition, it may sometime seem that there is a depressed or sad portion to it and that’s normal and that’s part of our world view because it allows us to put the temporal nature of this life in perspective. So we cannot and should not avoid or prevent emotional or mental stress but we should be cognizant how we react to it.

If we feel worried about the future, that should be an opportunity for us to seek God’s help realizing I don’t know what’s going to happen. Allah I put in your hands so that would calm me down. Its sort of the opposite in a very individualistic society where the individual is highly emphasized, you should be in control. If you’re not in control, you get nervous. Our view is exactly the opposite. We believe that Allah is in control and that makes us less nervous when we understand our place in the Divine plan. In fact one of the duas that we were taught by the prophet was:

اللَّهُمَّ رَحْمَتَكَ أَرْجُو، فَلاَ تَكِلْنِي إِلَى نَفْسِى طَرْفَةَ عَيْنٍ
O Allah, it is Your mercy that I hope for, so do not leave me in charge of my affairs even for the blink of an eye

Sometimes the criteria we define to judge our success are superficial and Allah allows us to fail for our greater good. If we reflect on the story of Musa (AS) and his encounter with Pharoah’s magicians, specifically from the perspective of the magicians there are significant lessons we can learn in this respect. We see when the magicians were summoned by Pharoah, the first thing they said was:

ainna lana la ajran in kunna nahnul ghalibeen
Shall we truly have a reward if we are the victors?

So they were not there to have a theological debate with Musa (AS) but to do a “job” for which they were hired by Pharoah. On the day of the event, when they first created the illusion of snakes running around, Musa (AS) threw his staff and completely annihilated their magic making it clear that what Syedna Musa had was not magic but a miracle of God. Now from their perspective, the magicians failed to deliver to what they were hired for and in that respect were an utter failure. But that supposed failure turned out to be a moment for them coming to realize Allah’s truth. So moments where things in life do not go the way you think they’re going to go actually may have a wisdom behind it that we perhaps didn’t realize. We sometimes tend to get lost in the greater details and in the process lose sight of the bigger picture.

In a hadith qudsi, Allah says:

أنا عند ظن عبدي بي فليظن بي ما شاء
I will be according to my servant whatever their opinion of Me is. So think of Me what you will.

So if we think that Allah is watching out for you. He’s protecting you, He’s guiding you. He’s taking you on some path for your benefit. We will see a reflection of that in our life.

The consumerist culture that we’re a part of is a culture that constantly keeps us engaged with what we’re missing and in the process we’re no longer seeing our blessings. This is also why things are sold to us with this kind of advertisement. Are you tired of 1, 2, 3 and they give you a list of complaints. You don’t have to deal with this anymore… Then they offer their product to you as a remedy to all of those problems. But my dear brothers and sisters, very often the greatest blessings in life  Listen to what the prophet (SAW) said:

مَنْ أَصْبَحَ مِنْكُمْ آمِنًا فِي سِرْبِهِ ، مُعَافًى فِي جَسَدِهِ ، عِنْدَهُ قُوتُ يَوْمِهِ ، فَكَأَنَّمَا حِيزَتْ لَهُ الدُّنْيَا بحذافيرها
Whoever wakes up in the morning and he is in peace with himself, physically he is healthy, and he has the sustenance for the day he is (so blessed) as if this whole life was presented to him on a golden plate.

Towards the end of Surah Ibrahim, Allah (SWT) describes some of His signs and blessings upon us and then He reminds us

Wa ataakum min kulli maa sa’altumuh. Wa in ta’uddu ni’matAllahi laa tuhsooha. Innal insaana lazaloomun kaffar
And He gives you something of all that you ask of Him, and were you to count the Blessings of Allah, you could not number them. Truly mankind is wrongdoing, ungrateful.

Everybody will experience situational anxiety like when you’re about to take a test or what have you, in which you’re level of sensitivity would be heightened and you would be more anxious at that very moment. Clinical anxiety however persists and has no connection with the environment you’re in, you could be in a very relaxed environment or a stressful place and you’re just anxious.

In terms of what we can do, its important to build circles of trust between our family and friends so we could openly express our feelings and worries without being judged. Sometimes the most powerful way to help someone is to just show them empathy, to let them understand that you recognize that they’re going through something difficult, that you’re going to be there for them and you do this in the most non-judgmental way. You give them the most welcoming environment for them to thrive in and you’ll be amazed at how much just a person who listens to you, how much that can help someone. You may not have said a word but can help just by sitting there and listening to all they have to say.

In conclusion, I would like to share a profound statement that’s attributed to ibn Hazm (RA), the famous Andalusian legal jurist:

Ta’ammaltu fi amrin naas min ‘arabin wa min ‘ajabin min sagheerin wa kabeer dhakarin wa untha faqeerin wa ghanee fawajadtu annahum qadijtama’u ‘alaa tarkil ham. Fa maa wajadtu an ja’ala tardil hammi minat tafakkuri fi amril aakhirah
I have pondered upon the affairs of humanity, be their Arabs or non-Arabs, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, I found that they all had one thing in common; that they all agreed in ridding themselves of anxiety. I have not found a better cure for anxiety than reflecting upon the matters of the Hereafter.

Because at that point everything becomes so insignificant compared to what awaits us on the Day of Judgment.

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