This is the first part of a talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf on approaches to depression and anxiety in Classical Islam. Here he speaks on the holistic view of Islamic psychology.
I am going to be talking about the issue of depression and anxiety in classical Islam. My focus is on some of the ways in which depression and anxiety were tackled in the classical Muslim civilization. Primarily I will talk about two theorists who approached this issue in rather different ways. Both of them were actual polymaths. One of them lived in the ninth century, which is around the time of Charlemagne from a perspective of European history. The other one lived in the 11th century. He was born in 1066, which is the only year in history that any of us know anything about.
I want you to bear this in mind. We are talking about people who lived nearly a thousand years ago. Both of them have things to say about depression, about anxiety, and more broadly about the human condition. Because cultures vary and they vary vastly, lots of things are relative, but the human condition isn’t. The human condition is the same no matter who you are and where you go.
A Lovely Tale
There is a lovely tale about Shah Bahauddin Naqshband, the great Sufi spiritual master. It is said that some merchants came to see him for advice. They sat around waiting for their turn quite patiently, but he was busy with this, busy with that. Days go by and they’re not getting a chance to come and ask their questions.
Eventually they say, “Oh, you know the the shaykh is obviously very busy. We’ll go.” They get up to leave and the shaykh says: “Oh, where are you going? Come here.” One of them said, Shaykh, you’re obviously really busy. We’ll come back some other time.” The shaykh said, “No. The answer to your question is this. The answer to your question is this. The answer to your question is this. The answer your question is this.”
And they of course are flabbergasted as always happens in these stories. They are flabbergasted and amazed and astounded. And they said, “How did you know? Did you read our minds?” He said, “No. Every human is created from Adam. Adam was created from dust. We all come from the same source. We’ve all got the same issues, the same problems, and the same ways of dealing with them.” And there is a universality that underlies the issue of mental health, mental illness, and mental well-being, notwithstanding the many ways in which they manifest in different cultures.
A Wise Physician
I remember an old doctor, a teacher of mine. The old Indian ladies loved him and we didn’t know why. We all used to sometimes have clinics in South Africa in the middle of nowhere. You’d have 100 patients in the clinic and they’d all come out smiling. They’d love this guy. We asked him, “What do you do?” And he says, “Well, these ladies they all come to me and you know some of them have pains in their bones, and some of them have a heart problem, some of them have this, that, or the other. I give them all the same thing.”
I said “What?” He said, “I give them an antidepressant.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because that’s what the problem is.” And that’s when I learned what somatizing is. In that particular community you deal with emotional distress by converting it into physical distress, because that’s acceptable. It’s acceptable to have a pain in the elbow and a pain in the back and a headache. It isn’t acceptable to say, I am sad and I don‘t know why.
The Tradition and Its Sources
Both scholars come from the Islamic tradition. The Islamic tradition is a very rich intellectual, spiritual, and cultural tradition, with many many fluorescences and many manifestations over the centuries. All of it however derives its root from one source and that source is the scripture. and I want to talk very briefly at the beginning about scripture, because the Islamic Scripture, the Qur’an is actually quite a difficult book to read. It’s difficult because it doesn’t read like you expect a book to read. It reads like what it is, which is a series of messages.
Now there is a thematic unity to it, but you don’t get an “In the beginning” at the beginning of the book and “Here’s how it will all end” at the end of the book. It is written in a circular structure. The other version of Scripture which is the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, that consists of his ways, his dealings, his guidance, his acts, and so forth.
These are also difficult to navigate if you’re not used to it, because they are so scattershot in the sense that you have snapshots and photographs from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. And his guidance is often denuded of their context. So you have lots of sayings, but you don’t know what it was about unless you actually study it. What you get is quite a fragmentary approach. This is if you navigate this without having the benefit of a teacher.
These two things, however, come together, and where they do and you start to see coherence and a theme is actually in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In the sea of what is called the Sira. This is where all this guidance and the scripture comes into context. It is in the life history of the Prophet Muhammad, about which we know a great deal, that you really start to see the human condition manifesting.
Not only in his own case. Not only in the case of his Companions. But in the case of those who opposed him also. In the case of those who just happened to be there. There are descriptions. Vivid descriptions like you would find in the Old Testament actually.
Conceptions and Misconceptions
I was in a retreat for faith leaders. It was about models of leadership. And one of the things we did is read the scriptures. The passage from the Old Testament was fascinating because it was Moses complaining to God about the Israelites, and it was all: “God why have you troubled me with these people? Am I their mother that I have to suckle them to my breast? When are they going to grow up?” It was exactly that tone. And I kind of sat there thinking, I know that Moses. That’s the Muslim Moses.
Then you got the Christian version of Jesus. It was the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is very calm and full of wisdom. And you just think, I know that Jesus, too. Then I came to the one about the Prophet Mohammed, and I said to the people that I was talking to that I know the Moses, I recognized that Moses from my own scriptures. I recognized that Jesus. The great tragedy is that you don’t recognize the Prophet Mohammed. You don’t have any sort of conception of who he was. You don’t have an image in your head about who he was.
What that has led to in the world is the projection of Muslims onto the Prophet Mohammed. I remember when there was the whole stuff about the cartoons. I think this is an important point because of what I was saying about universality. I remember when there was this the big fuss about the drawings the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and I saw some of those cartoons. I said, Well, they’re basically drawing mawlanas like you might do when I was in madrasah. You know, after school, I might doodle a picture of the mawlana in the book and it would look exactly the same.
Projections of Empty Forms
All that’s happening is a projection. And I think for us to understand one another we have to get beneath some of the rhetoric and also some of the formalisms to the real characters underneath. It is really the human that we connect to. That’s the same sort of thing I see when I deal with patients with mental health difficulties. What I see is a temptation for staff, for clinicians, for family members, for carers, to see the person as their diagnosis as opposed to seeing them for who they are. Once you see the person as themselves it changes your entire outcome.
What we see in Scripture are very vivid descriptions of grief, of anxiety or fear, of bereavement, of joy. Many of them from the Prophet Muhammad himself. I will mention one thing that he said and he said this at the age of 62, one year before he himself passed away. 18 months beforehand he became a new father. His baby who was called Ibrahim Abraham was about 18 months old when he was struck down by a sudden illness and died. The whole city goes into mourning.
Now, this is a prophet who whose whole mission, whose whole temperament, whose whole outlook is about focusing people on what comes after death. Don’t just think about this world, think about the next world. It’s not a neglect of this world. It is a focus on what matters to your soul. What is his reaction? There are two narrations.
The Prophet on Grief and Loss
The first is that his daughter sends a message to him saying, “Please come. Your grandson is dying.” And he says to her, “Be patient. Be patient.” Be patient. Trust in Allah. Again she comes to him. She says, “Your grandchild, the child is very sick. Please come.” And he says, “Be patient.” And then the third time she comes, he gets up and he goes with his Companions. And it is these Companions who narrate this.
He goes to the house. He sits down with his daughter. He takes his baby grandchild, days old, in his arms. The child looks at him, and he looks at the child. Then the child expires in his arms. And the Companions who are with him, report that his the tears streamed down his face to such an extent that his thick beard became wet with with tears. They said, “O Prophet, what is this? You were the one saying be patient.” And he said, This is not impatience. This is compassion. And God puts it into the heart of whomever He wishes.”
When his own son passed away. When he buried his son. This is a 62 year old man burying his child. The sixth out of seven of his children that he has buried. He was left with one surviving child and that child – he knew because he told her – would pass away six months after him. This is the beloved of Allah. A prophet of Allah. He buries his child and again his Companions see that he is weeping. They say to him, “O Messenger of Allah, what is this? And he said, “The heart grieves, the eyes weep. But we don’t say anything that will not be pleasing to our Lord.”
The Human Condition and Its Expression
What we take from this is the following. In terms of bereavement, in terms of sadness and depression, there are three components to it. There is a physical component: a physical manifestation of it. There is an emotional component to it. And then there is a cognitive component to it. There’s a way that you think about what has happened to you.
The way you manifest your thoughts is with your tongue. What the Prophet is actually saying here, that he corroborated elsewhere in a less dramatic way shall we say, is that it is beneficial to physically manifest sadness. It is part of being human that you feel those emotions. However, how you think about what is happening to you is critical in how you process the grief. The cognitive approach that you take to de-stress is critical.
This talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf was given at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University, entitled “Approaches to Depression and Anxiety in Classical Islam.” This is not a transcript but an edited post based on the first part of the talk.