By Tariq Nelson
A few weeks ago, the Muslim Link ran an article about depression amongst the Muslims. I believe that this is one of the biggest issues quietly affecting us today.
One day, I received a phone call from an old friend. This brother – if you saw him – personifies sternness upon the Sunnah. His non-Muslim mother had just passed away and he felt sad. He had not seen her in over three years and she’d never even met his wife and children. This had caused him to reflect on where his life had gone for the years that he had been Muslim. He was in an unhappy “stranger marriage”, with no money, had cut off his non-Muslim family and was feeling lonely and depressed despite the outer appearance of firmly being upon the Sunnah and having a wife and children.
He was feeling depressed because he felt stuck in his marriage and desperately wanted a second chance at life to make things right and to correct the many mistakes in life he’d made, but saw no way to do so.
He quit college because he was told that it was haraam because of the free-mixing of the sexes and consequently never acquired any other marketable skills to be able to support himself and his family. Now, several years later he was basically a “ward of the masjid” – a staple of the zakaat line.
Before Islam – he told me – that he was a socialite and had many close friends. But now as he looked at his life, he was an outcast – even amongst the Muslims. He’d gotten used to it to an extent but it still hurt. He had no one to trust and confide in and had nearly reached the breaking point. This is why he was talking to me – albeit someone not in his town.
He told me that he’d been evaluating his life and found that he’d accomplished virtually nothing and did not know what to do with his life at this point. He was suffering from a crisis of identity.
In the past couple of years, I have had several similar conversations with brothers like this that were often recovering from a group or “movement mentality”. They entered Islam and associated themselves with a movement. These movements are often not about adopting the correct set of religious beliefs per se, but engaging in practices and adopting political positions that are a matter of opinion. But these differences in opinion were things upon which they drew the line and fought with other groups of Muslims and justified isolating themselves
In many of these groups, there is little or no tolerance for individuality. Instead, the movement forces those that enter it to assimilate or be boycotted or shunned: reducing their interactions, hiding secular achievements, and memorizing a list of scholars, thought terminating clichés and groupthink principles that needed to be regurgitated.
When these movements fell apart, these brothers found themselves going through a period of sadness and grief over a loss of a life in a movement that promised total fulfillment, anxiety about what will happen to them now that they no longer feel protected by the movement which has fallen apart, confusion about their identity and sometimes anger at their teachers and/or movement leaders.
They would love to start over from scratch, but have wives and children now to contend with from when they had a completely different (“movement”) understanding of Islam. They have to deal with years of bad choices made under the understanding of their movement that are not simple to repair. They have to deal with their marital relationship and, consequently, with their movement-influenced reactions to their spouses. In those situations in which the couples were mismatched, but have no children, the partners might choose to divorce and go their separate ways. However, when the marriage has produced children, separation can be complicated.
Within a movement, even mismatched stranger couples can be held together if their conviction in the movement is stronger than their desire for personal happiness, but when one of the parties leaves the movement (not Islam, but the movement) then the relationship might begin to fall apart as one or both of them shed the imposed movement mentality.
All of these marital situations cause additional stress on individuals who are attempting to adapt to the real world and their new approach to Islam.
In the 1990’s, brothers like this would come into Islam and found their way into movements like this. This is what made “stranger marriages” so prevalent. Many of these new Muslims in these movements decided – with sincerity – to conform to what is expected of them by the group/community that they had just entered. That usually meant getting married as soon as possible and often without proper consideration of the compatibility of the prospective spouse.
To make certain that thought reform took place, they were instructed to immediately cut off as much human interaction with non-Muslims – and Muslims in other movements – as possible in anticipation of an egalitarian utopia of some type. Many were told when they became Muslim that EVERYTHING that they did in the past – even the mubah – was absolutely wrong.
Everything – from the way they walked to even the type of foods they ate – had to change. They were told that they must squeeze all of the emotion out of themselves and speak in thought terminating clichés in order to reach this mechanical “perfect” Muslim ideal. Those who question this approach had their Iman questioned by the self appointed “righteous patrol”. In fact, many former members of these “patrols” are the same people now mired in depression and feelings of hopelessness. Their actions in the past had alienated many other Muslims and now they are isolated.
They would completely sever all ties with their past lives for this bubble. They isolated everyone around them. They isolated their non-Muslim family and immediately cut off all old acquaintances. (Don’t get me wrong, it is good to cut off past bad influences, but they went too far in cutting off everyone in the family – including in many cases their parents and siblings – and it came back to hurt.)
However, years pass and one eventually finds that if they are following that way, that they are completely isolated and have made a serious mistake in jumping into this movement mentality. Their relationship with their parents and siblings are damaged. They have no intimate friends to trust and are struggling to take care of four or five kids. And this was why the brother that called me was sad.
We just do not live in a bubble and the tragic results manifest themselves years later when the person finds him/herself depressed and feeling like a complete failure in life. They find themselves asking: What happened to the perfect life that was supposed to be produced from being part of the movement? Why is my marriage a failure? Why do I have nothing to leave my children? Why do I have no true friends? Why am I mired in debt? Have I thrown my life away? Then all of this is enhanced by feelings of embarrassment at the actions of our co-religionists shown daily on the news. And many have no one to talk to about these feelings
Why did many of us – as converts – feel this urge to throw our entire past away and cut off all ties with our families? Why did many of us accept these edicts so willingly? And from doing this, what do we expect in our new lives if we start cutting out those things that have always been a part of us, like playing football or enjoying Big Momma’s chocolate cake, because you suddenly believe that these things are “evil” and haraam?
Converts are not only expected to completely disavow their former beliefs, but also all of their happy experiences of the past. “Astaghfirullah!” is usually the exhortation, as if simply by mentioning that the church had a nice youth center, a convert is questioning Islam.
Within these movements, converts are instructed to tell themselves that they really hated every moment of the times at Sunday dinner at Big Momma’s. We must tell ourselves: The past was all bad and all evil and then I became Muslim.
Yes, past sins are forgiven, but part of our journey to Islam includes how we were affected emotionally and spiritually by
doing what we did in the past. Things from a convert’s non-Muslim past can and do shape the way they look at life. Some people are children of divorcees. Some never had a father in their lives. Some were abused as children. Some were over-achievers. Some were under-achievers. Whatever the case, these things shape who we are, and pretending like it did not exist only make things worse in my humble opinion.
Even when we consciously or unconsciously
strive to be the opposite of our ‘past lives’, we are being influenced by it.
A person can try to run away from the pain of a divorce before Islam by putting on some new clothes and growing a beard, but that past will very likely shape how they approach the new marriage in Islam.
I don’t mean that we should take pride in the bad things and spread them, but we converts must come to terms with our pasts so that we can understand how it made us the people that we are today.
After the movement falls apart, the convert begins to re-look at things after the tragic mistakes in their lives cultivated in the environment of the movement, the people will often start to recover repressed (and often harmful) aspects of their pre-Islamic personalities and don’t know where to draw the line because they are questioning everything. They go through a dramatic period of change as new (or recovered) behaviors and outlooks on life are reconsidered.
This is why you will find these cases of “burnout” that a man with a long beard and thobe will – after some time – be clean shaven with shorts and seen with a girlfriend or a woman formerly in all black and niqab will suddenly begin to wear a mini-skirt and go to the night club. Others obviously go to lesser extremes and begin to renew relationships with pre-Islamic friends and pick up some bad habits.
If we are not honest with ourselves in the beginning and have a more realistic approach to our Islam, we will crash land and end up in depression and/or living out our lives in anger, resentment, loneliness and emptiness and sometimes eventually even leaving the deen. (We seek Allah’s refuge from that)
Another thing that leads to depression is the fact that we – as a whole – have in many cases developed a culture – fostered by these movements’ powerful influence even on those outside of them – in which we do not form any true, close and lasting friendships. Instead we are ‘classmates’. You are only supposed to know where a brother or sister lives so that if he/she doesn’t show up for class, you can go ask them what happened. You can’t know their children or any thing else about them. Many of us have superficial relationships that mean nothing when times get tough. When problems come, instead of perhaps looking to see that our approach is flawed, we make excuses and/or provide slogans.
Within this, the “everyday Muslim” – who did not necessarily cut off the family and old friends – becomes torn between what is natural and these instructions on how to be this lifeless Muslim. Muhammad Al-Shareef mentioned that he thought that many Muslims are depressed because they live two lives. One life when they are around Muslims and the other life they lead when they walk out of the door.
Masha Allah, I think this is an excellent point. The everyday Muslim, who is under pressure to toe the line set by movement leaders, is forced into this double life. At work, he may
meet a co-worker he talks to, laughs with and jokes with. He may talk about the Super Bowl or the Basketball game that was on TV last night with them. However, he feels that he is doing this from a weakness in Iman and feels bad because he is supposed to be angry at work and hate his non-Muslim co-workers.
On the other hand, he cannot let this personality at work carry over to the Masjid because he has to put on his “game face” and pretend that he is the stoic angry individual that he is required to be
But over time, he is disturbed when he finds that he is actually forming a more natural human bond with his non-Muslim co-workers, than with his Muslim brothers at the masjid where he has this pretentious surface relationship and where he is hiding a significant portion of who he is. The relationship is not real at all. He has nothing in common with the people in the masjid at all because relationships are based upon unrealistic and unnatural ideals.
At the end of the day, this is why we really need to have more psychologists and counselors that are also trained in Islam, involved in the masjid and the community in general. People are quietly suffering and desperately want answers to these feelings of depression, sadness, failure and great pain within an Islamic context. People want advice on how to reinvent their shattered lives.
Therapy should be provided to attempt to provide a safe place for Muslims to express their uncomfortable feelings — feelings that would have been deemed ‘dangerous’ to express in a movement and that continue to be experienced as too dangerous to express within the post-movement experience. A place where they will not be chastised for five minutes and sent home, but a place they can seek lasting help to strengthen their Islam and their lives in general.
If one is to maintain their sanity, then they must realize that they are a human being and repressing natural human emotions will only lead to psychological problems. We must realize that it is OK to be human.