“Depression is the sign of weak faith (Iman)” or “a strong Muslim is never depressed” are refrains we have most likely all heard. In this article – the first in a series – we explore this issue and look at why it is affected by flawed thinking of both the Islamic conception of sadness and grief, as well as being out of step with modern science.
But is this really the case, and is the matter really as simple as some Muslims may make it out to be?
Many Muslims mistakenly believe that depression is a sign of weak Iman.
The argument goes as follows: Having a strong Iman means having belief in qadr and in Allah’s mercy, and the fact that everything goes according to Allah’s plans. It also entails having hope in Allah.
On the other hand, being depressed is a sign of hopelessness, losing faith in qadr and in Allah’s mercy, and therefore it is a sign of weak Iman.
In other words, only those who have weak iman will ever get depressed, and no true Muslim will therefore suffer from depression.
What is depression?
Depression is a psychological disorder and understanding about its physical and chemical reality have advanced greatly in the last few decades. Yet some myths about it persist.
Depression is a real illness with real symptoms, and it’s not a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”.’
It’s not just a persistent feeling of sadness and hopelessness; there are also physical effects of depression.
It affects the very structure and function of your brain, and affects your neurotransmitters – key chemical signals that are sent to your brain that impact your mood, function and other such elements of your body.
Some of the physical symptoms include feeling constantly tired, sleeping badly, having no appetite or sex drive, and complaining of various aches and pains; for women, it also disrupts menstrual cycles.
Making anyone feel guilty, then, for going through such a condition is a bad idea without first understanding it well.
How depression can develop
There are many causes and triggers of depression. While many of these are still being studied or understood, we do know enough to be able to meaningfully say something about the physiological causes of this pernicious disease.
Some triggers include:
- Genetic predisposition towards depression
- Traumatic and genuinely difficult life events
- Certain sorts of injuries and illnesses such as hypothyroidism and head injury
- Birth of a child triggering a wave of chemical reactions and bodily impacts (postpartum depression) that have only begun to be properly understood in the last 3 decades
- Alcohol and drugs, with their ability to impact on the function of the body
- A lonely lifestyle, which studies are increasingly linking to impacts that lead eventually to depression.
As you can see, most of these causes are outside human control. Many are biological or chemical.
It raises the obvious question: How can a biologically triggered illnesses be the symptom of spiritual weakness?
Is depression a sign of weak iman?
As hinted at above, depression is a complex disease whose roots are often hard to define. But researchers say that it is to an extent genetic – if you have a relative with clinical depression, you’re five times more at risk.
And it is often triggered by a traumatic experience, such as the death of a parent or marital abuse.
How can a disease that has genetic and environmental causes – things that only Allah can control – be a sign of weak faith?
Psychiatrists can often completely cure depression only using antidepressants – pills that tweak with your neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin. But when you stop taking the medicines, depression comes back. That sounds like taking insulin injections for diabetes – a physical disorder.
Further, plenty of non-Muslims have never had long-standing clinical depression in their life. Others who have recover from severe clinical depression through medicine and therapy – without accepting Islam.
While it goes without saying that Islam gives us the tools to be spiritually content in a way that nothing else does, to say that depression – a largely physiological condition – is down to a lack of iman is a problematic assertion.
An incredible story from the Qur’an
The famous story of Ya’qub (AS) is an interesting one to explore in this context.
Prophet Ya’qub lost his beloved son Yusuf (AS) when the latter was just a boy.
Years later, he lost another son, Benyamin, in the exact same way, which not just added to his sorrow, but also triggered the old pain of losing Yusuf as well.
Reflect on what Ya’qub must have felt when he said the following:
وَتَوَلَّىٰ عَنْهُمْ وَقَالَ يَا أَسَفَىٰ عَلَىٰ يُوسُفَ وَابْيَضَّتْ عَيْنَاهُ مِنَ الْحُزْنِ فَهُوَ كَظِيمٌ
And he turned away from them and said, ‘Oh, my sorrow over Joseph,’ and his eyes became white from grief, for he was [of that] a suppressor. [12:84]
“Ya Asafa” is a lament, a heart-wringing cry for Yusuf. And we learn in this surah that Ya’qub (AS) became blind from grief!
If we were to hold the assertion that depression and “going overboard” in sadness are a sign of “weak iman”, it would be hard to square with this story. How can one dare to accuse a prophet of Allah of having weak iman? Then how come he became so miserable that he lost his eyesight?
His sons then told him:
قَالُوا تَاللَّهِ تَفْتَأُ تَذْكُرُ يُوسُفَ حَتَّىٰ تَكُونَ حَرَضًا أَوْ تَكُونَ مِنَ الْهَالِكِينَ
They said, ‘By Allah , you will not cease remembering Joseph until you become fatally ill or become of those who perish.’ [12:85]
His reply is the ultimate proof of his tawakkul, his belief in Allah and the strength of his iman:
قَالَ إِنَّمَا أَشْكُو بَثِّي وَحُزْنِي إِلَى اللَّهِ وَأَعْلَمُ مِنَ اللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
He said, ‘I only complain of my suffering and my grief to Allah , and I know from Allah that which you do not know. O my sons, go and find out about Joseph and his brother and despair not of relief from Allah . Indeed, no one despairs of relief from Allah except the disbelieving people.’ [12:86-87]
We learn from this surah that even deep, prolonged sadness (that manifests itself in physical effects, no less!) is not contradictory to rock-solid iman in Allah.
And when we combine this with an understanding of such parables from the Qur’an, it becomes abundantly clear that sadness, feeling down, etc can often be the results of very difficult circumstances, and are not a sign that a person does not have strong belief in Allah.
We will continue to explore these themes in subsequent articles on our website, and look forward to bringing them to you, insha Allah!
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