Islam and Depression: A Survival Guide

A street in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Please note that this article is not meant as a replacement for medical help, but as a supplement to it.

What does Islam have to offer someone who has been suffering depression for years and sees no end in sight to their suffering?

Depression is not sadness and cannot be cured by thinking positively as some people insultingly think. The dismissive attitude of many Muslim immigrants toward depression is due to the fact that, thanks to having very large and well-functioning families, they enjoy a very powerful protection against depression that is largely lacking in the West (for more on this see the section on loneliness and social alienation below). Depression is what it feels like to be stuck in darkness between two high walls, with no way forward and no way backward. Every bad memory of the past feels as if it happened this very moment, while the future feels as if it will contain nothing but a continuation of the present misery. Depression is not caused by thinking negative thoughts. The line of causation is in the opposite direction; it is the depression that causes the negative thoughts. A depressed person can think a happy event that took place years ago but only remember the negative things that happened during it. The negativity of depression blankets all of their thoughts like a dark cloud.

Some forms of depression are caused by life circumstances, while others, such as bipolar depression, are caused by chemical changes in the brain that are completely outside a person’s control. Positive things happening in their lives can help them experience short episodes of happiness, but these episodes end very quickly and the depression always comes back. For this reason, such people need long-term strategies that take the reality of their situation into account.

In this essay I will describe a long-term plan for dealing with depression that first takes the spiritual side into account and then the material side. This plan is not a cure, it is designed to make depression understandable and manageable for the person who suffers it so that they may, with God’s help, slowly climb out of it.

Acceptance

When we are depressed, we feel as if we have been abandoned in this big, wide world to suffer on our own, without any purpose and or wisdom behind it. Day after day passes, we suffer, and we are not better off for it. What is the point?

The first step toward dealing with depression is to realize that God could solve all of our problems and take away our depression an instant, but He is choosing not to do it. You have not been abandoned by Him, He is allowing this to happen to you and watching you suffer every second. This sounds rather cruel, why would a kind God allow this? Some people abandon religion because of this, being unable to accept that a true God would watch humanity suffer without intervening to help them.

But think about Prophet Muhammad . He was chosen by God to teach and spread His religion. Yet he had to suffer abuse and persecution in Mecca for 13 year. Why did God allow this to happen? God could have made the Prophet successful on the very first day he received the revelation. But instead he had to go through an excruciatingly painful 13-year process filled with failures and losses.

The reason for that is that the universe is designed by God to function in this way. We can call the process that the Prophet had to go through “suffering through time”. Patiently suffering through time is how a believer’s character is proven. The Prophet could have just suffered for a day or two, or a month, then he could have been granted success. But God did not lose anything by letting him suffer for 13 years, those years were necessary for him to be shaped into the person he was.

Suffering through time is how we prove, every hour of every day, that we have faith in God. It enables us to affirm, and affirm, and affirm our faith day after day and year after year until we have truly proven ourselves to God. Once we reach the stage He desires, He can then grant us the greatest success and the greatest happiness in a single day.

Your depression is not purposeless. Your depression is a matter between you and God. He is completely in charge of it and only He can put a stop to it, if and when He wants. This is not to deny that your depression may have a material cause and may be treatable with the right drugs and therapies; but it is all up to God whether you will be able to find the right people to help you and the right treatment. God’s help does not come down from the sky in the shape of angels, He helps us by arranging this world in the right way for us to be helped while hiding His own hand in the matter. God does not want us to see Him or to see any direct evidence of His existence, He wants us to always have the option of doubting His existence, because this is what enables us to prove our faith in Him. There is no point in having faith in something when you have direct evidence of its existence, it would be like having faith in the law of gravity.

When you suffer, if you turn your back on God and blame Him for not helping you, you are failing His test. The attitude He wants you to show is one of submission and acceptance, the attitude that the Prophets of the Quran all show toward God when they suffer. Your attitude should not be, “God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. You are so cruel to allow this to go on!” Your attitude should be:

God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. Forgive any sins that may have brought me here, help me correct any mistakes I have made that have brought me here, guide me and increase me in knowledge. Help me learn what I am supposed to be learning.

Depression is one of the ways that God distinguishes His faithful believers from the fair-weather believers whose faith is only strong when things are going well in their lives. Depression is an opportunity for you to transcend your human limitations, to show that you can love God and believe in Him even as He watches you suffer. This proves that you truly respect Him the way He deserves to be respected (by always thinking the best of Him) and that you have faith in His power, wisdom and love.

So be like Prophet Muhammad and the other Prophets. Do not despair, for if you do, you fail the test.

Think the best of God

It can be very difficult to think any positive thoughts about God when you feel so bad. In fact, sometimes it can be all that you can do to stop yourself from thinking very bad thoughts about Him. Those who truly fail their test are those who allow their suffering to permanently color their thinking about God. They build up a strong grudge and hatred against God for creating them, for creating this world the way it is. Some of these people end up calling themselves atheists, even though they do not really doubt God’s existence in their hearts, they just have a blinding hatred for Him.

If the best that you can do is to resist negative thoughts about God, then this is the best that you can do. God does not ask you to do more than you are able. Resist negative thoughts and constantly pray to God for His help.

Give up, surrender and learn the lesson

Depression causes you to suffer through time, sometimes for months and years, in order to prove your powerlessness to you. Depression shows you that you are not in charge. It is like a storm that throws us here and there, wherever it wants, while we are powerless to do anything about it. And that is the point. Suffering is designed to make us humble ourselves before God:

We sent messengers to communities before you, and We afflicted them with suffering and hardship, that they may humble themselves. If only, when Our calamity came upon them, they humbled themselves. But their hearts hardened, and Satan made their deeds appear good to them. (The Quran, verses 6:42-43)

The Quran also says:

But those who do not believe in the Hereafter are swerving from the path. Even if We had mercy on them, and relieved their problems, they would still blindly persist in their defiance. We have already gripped them with suffering, but they did not surrender to their Lord, nor did they humble themselves. Until, when We have opened before them a gate of intense agony, at once they will despair. (Verse 23:73-77)

The above passage describes the response of many people to depression. Rather than using the opportunity to affirm their faith in God, they despair. And if they are cured, rather than learning anything from their suffering, they again go back to ignoring God for most of them time.

Your depression is designed to help you break that cycle. God wants you to give up and surrender, to acknowledge that there is no power in this world besides Him. The Quran tells us the story of Prophet Yunus (Biblical Jonas) who also despaired of God like so many people do, but he was able to overcome his despair:

And Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!” So We answered him, and saved him from the affliction. Thus We save the faithful. (21:87-88)

Like Prophet Yunus, surrender completely to God and acknowledge that He is in charge and that only He can help you.

Stop hurrying

When suffering depression, we always wish for a magic cure that will stop the pain immediately. But remember the stories of the Prophets. Prophet Yaʾqūb lamented the loss of his son Yusūf for years before God gave him back his son. God could have prevented his suffering, but He did not. Yaʾqūb did not complain to God, asking Him why He had to do that to him when He could solve all of his problems instantly. He instead accepted his fate and knew that the matter was in God’s hands and that only God knew where it would lead.

Rather than rejecting your suffering, come to terms with it by accepting it and accepting the fact that it may go on for the foreseeable future. Rather than giving God an ultimatum, saying He should cure you within the next week or month or else you will stop believing in Him, your attitude should be one of utter submission. You belong to God and it is His business what He does with you.

Imagine someone who suffers depression for 60 years, dies, then enters Paradise, where every day is as good as the happiest memories of their lives, and where they can live forever. Exchanging a mere 60 years for an eternity of complete happiness is very much worth it if we think about it.

But the deal God offers us is actually much better than that. The Quran says:

Truly, with hardship always comes ease. (94:5 and 94:6)

It also says:

Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer, We will grant him a good [worldly] life—and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do. (16:97)

It also says:

And thus We established Yusuf in the land, to live therein wherever he wished. We touch with Our mercy whomever We will, and We never waste the reward of the righteous. But the reward of the Hereafter is better for those who believe and observed piety. (Verses 12:56-67)

Prophet Yusuf suffered unjustly for many years, being away from his family and later being put in prison for no fault of his own. But the Quran says God rewarded him in this worldly life by granting him a very high status, while also keeping in store a greater reward in the hereafter.

Cure your soul then seek a material cure

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes...

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, “The Journey of Job”

Let us say, like in those lines above from the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, you have accepted your fate. You have faced God and said to Him in all sincerity that you are willing to take whatever He sends your way. What is there to do next?

The next step is to make it part of your daily routine to perform a certain amount of extra worship, if you are able (if not, read on for what to do). What I recommend is performing at least an hour of tahajjud and Quran-reading every night before bed (see here for more details), other times and other forms of worship might work better for some. Your goal should not be to perform this until you get a cure. Your goal should be to perform this daily for the rest of your life.

It is impossible to remain close to God, to submit to Him and to rely on Him in full sincerity unless you dedicate a part of your day, every day, to extra worship. Just a few days of skipping this extra worship is sufficient to re-attach your heart to the worldly life and to put you back in square one, lost in the worldly life and faraway from God.

It is against human nature to submit to God, to remain pure of sin, to rely on Him and to only seek refuge in Him. Human nature makes us want to be egotistic, short-sighted and selfish. We need daily work to subdue the ego and restore the balance. You cannot maintain the character and spirituality of the Prophets and saints if you do not work for it daily. As soon as you stop the work, your human nature will reassert itself. This is a struggle that we have to keep for the rest of our lives.

If you are desperate to escape your depression, then this should be your first step. Promise God to perform an extra hour of worship every day for the rest of your life if He enables you to do it, and ask Him to give you a meaningful and productive life in return. Do this and your life may completely change within the next few months.

If you are too demotivated to perform worship

Sometimes it is enough of a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. If that is the case with you, start praying for these three things every time you think about God: ease, guidance and forgiveness. Even if you do not feel repentant, even if you cannot help but feel resentment for being in the situation you are, keep asking God for His forgiveness. Instead of turning your back on Him because of your suffering and resentment, turn to Him despite these things. Start facing Him and conversing with Him even if you do not feel like it, even if your negative thoughts make you feel as if He dislikes you and has abandoned you. Voice your thoughts to Him and complain to Him of your situation and your suffering.

Keep turning to God again and again and again even if everything makes you want to turn away from Him in anger and resentment. Do your best to think the best of Him regardless of how you feel. God is not going to ignore you. But He will not magically cure your situation either, God, in general, does not perform miracles in front of us, because that would be direct evidence for His existence. He wants to hide Himself from us so that we have the choice of having faith in Him or rejecting Him. While God will likely not suddenly fix your situation, if you keep up doing these things, He will cause small changes in your life that will accumulate over time, so that in three months, or six months, things could be very different for you.

Keep asking for God’s help and slowly, but surely, He will help you get on your feet and rebuild your life.

Start measuring time in periods of 3 months

When we are depressed, we tend to measure our suffering in minutes and hours. We feel as if our situation will continue in exactly the same way for eternity. We cannot think of any happy memories and we cannot think of anything to be optimistic about.

That is the normal depressed brain at work. What you should do is override that type of thinking by reminding yourself that change takes time, because God does not magically solve our problems for us. He helps us help ourselves, helping us so subtly that afterwards we are almost always able to take all the credit and ignore His part in it.

Start thinking of time in terms of three-month periods. Follow the advice in this essay then three months from now look back and see how things have changed. Chances are you will be in a much better state than you are now. And three months after that things will be even better. After a year passes, you may still have some depression, but God may have caused many changes in your life that enable you to feel much more purposeful and optimistic than you feel now.

Material considerations

Get potted plants

A common feature of depression is the feeling of alienation in time. Either one feels stuck, so that time does not seem to pass, or they feel as if time is running out and their problems are piling up without being able to do anything about it. Plants are a great way to rehabilitate your sense of time. As you take care of them and watch them slowly grow, they calm down your sense of the passage of time while also turning the passage of time into something positive, rather than something to worry about. A few days after taking care of a plant you start to look forward to seeing it grow. You will look forward to seeing how it might look in a few days or weeks. And that makes your depression slightly more manageable.

Potted plants are cheap, so get as many as you can (I recommend ten if your room or house is large enough). You can get plants that require very little care (if you feel you may not have the energy to take care of them), such as aloe vera, which thrives best when you leave it alone for weeks at a time.

Indoor plants are also great at fighting indoor air pollution. Carbon dioxide builds up inside homes that are not well-ventilated, sometimes reaching double the levels compared to the air outside. High carbon dioxide severely affects mental performance. Just a few indoor plants are sufficient to reduce indoor carbon dioxide significantly. This is a cheap and easy way of feeling better. Plants also reduce other harmful chemicals in indoor air that increase inflammation and make you feel unhealthy. One plant that is supposed to be great for reducing indoor air pollution is the Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata), which you can get in a small pot and watch it slowly grow into a nice little tree three or four feet high.

Exercise

Some people claim that exercise can cure depression. You should rightly be skeptical of such claims. But it is true that exercise can greatly improve your levels of motivation. It might make you feel 30% better than you feel right now, you may still feel depressed, but this might just be enough to give you the motivation to perform tahajjud, Quran-reading and other beneficial things. I recommend performing an hour of vigorous but not too strenuous exercise on an exercise bike. You can do it while watching a video.

Loneliness and social alienation

People who grow up in larger families are less likely to be depressed. Merely having more people around you in your life can be your greatest defense against depression, even if your relationship with these people has many flaws. For some Muslim immigrants coming from the Middle East, depression sounds like a wholly alien and impenetrable thing because they have never experienced it themselves and have no idea what is like to experience it. Some of them rather insultingly talk about how it is a lack of spirituality or a possession by Satan that is causing depression. The reason these people cannot experience depression is the fact they come from societies organized in such a way that make depression almost impossible, and in this is an important clue for treating depression.

In the Middle East, it is common for a person to be surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles, siblings and other relatives who all contribute to a person’s self-esteem. The conviviality of these societies makes each person feel cared about, as if they have a very important place reserved for them by their societies. To understand the nature of this “place”, it is best compared to a king or queen’s throne. A king or queen gets treated with extreme respect and consideration regardless of who they are and what kind of personalities they have. The fact that they are king or queen, the fact that they have this “place” reserved for them by society, makes everyone treat them that way. In the same way, in a well-functioning Middle Eastern society, each person is given a “place” that ensures them love, respect and consideration regardless of their personalities. In other words, a person in such a society does not have to do anything to earn the respect and consideration of those around them. These things are automatically granted to them merely by the virtue of being born into that society.

Imagine if one day you woke up and discovered you are in a king’s palace and everyone started treating you like you are the king or queen. It will not take very long for you to believe it when everyone does that for you. In those Middle Eastern societies I am describing, a person is made to feel the same way by their relatives; they are treated as if they are lovable, as if they are important, as if they matter very much, and since everyone around them does that, a person starts to believe these things. This is probably more powerful than any anti-depressant. Each relative contributes 2% or 3% to a person’s sense of being important and lovable, and what do you know, it all adds up to such a high degree that it is made physically impossible for that person to suffer depression.

In the West, while certain people enjoy similar societies, this is the exception. In general, people in the West are socially alienated; most of the people around them do not treat them as if they have a place of great importance reserved for them. They are not surrounded on every side by people who treat them as if they are very important and very worthy of love. And because of that, people feel that they do not really have a place in society. They feel displaced, alienated.

To understand these things better, I recommend that you read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (in the 19th century at least some Western societies used to be like the Middle Eastern ones I describe). In the story, Mrs. Bennet is a rather ignorant and annoying woman and people are aware of it, yet everyone treats her as if she is an important person and as if she matters very much. It can be said that she does not “deserve” this good treatment. She has not done anything to deserve it, it is something automatically given to her by her society, and this acts as a very strong defense against her feeling lonely and depressed. It is almost as if there is a society-wide conspiracy to make her feel important and loved.

For a person to feel as if they matter and as if they are loved, it is essential that people around them constantly reaffirm these things. In the Middle East, this happens for most people on a daily basis because it is embedded within almost every social interaction. No one needs to say “I love you” because it is so strongly assumed that saying that is as ridiculous and unnecessary as saying “electricity exists”. In the West, however, a person can spend an entire day without anyone affirming their worth and importance. And if this continues day after day and week after week, so that feeling loved and cared about is a pleasant surprise rather than as common as air, then apathy and depression are the result.

Depression, in other words, is the natural result of people not constantly reassuring you, implicitly through their actions and manners, that you are loved and cared for.

According to that, the cure would be to have a large extended family that acts the way I described above. But since the type of family and society we have is out of our control, there isn’t much we can do about them. But recognizing the displacement and alienation are important contributors to depression can help you come up with strategies to use this knowledge to reduce your depression.

For example, having people around you. even if you do not know them. can help improve how you feel. You can confirm this by going to a coffee shop or library. You will be a lot more motivated to read something beneficial at one of these venues than you will be alone at home. Just having people around you gives you a sense of belonging that somewhat reduces your depression.

The best way to attack depression would be to increase your social connections, simply increasing the number of people you meet on a daily basis who are nice to you will greatly improve your self-esteem and diminish your depression. Many cities have clubs and meet-up groups that you can join to spend more time around other people. There are many sites like VolunteerMatch.org that help you find volunteering opportunities around you, volunteer at the charities and projects you like and the people you meet and your interactions with them can help you as much as any antidepressant can.

For an introverted person, meeting new people is always a challenge, this something that exercise can help with because exercise reduces social anxiety. If you just ran for two miles, social anxiety would be the last thing on your mind for a while.

Try to spend less time alone and more time around other people. If you live with your parents, stay in the living room more often and spend less time in your room.

It is not always possible to do something about loneliness, and sometimes you are stuck around people who only worsen your depression. For this reason it is crucial that you constantly ask for God’s help, because He can arrange your circumstances for you and create ways for you reduce your loneliness. He can open doors for you that you did not know even existed.

Get medical help

Some types of depression are caused by your brain’s physiology. A person with bipolar II is going to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of depression and elation. Some of these people never get diagnosed because they are good hiding their depression and their periods of elation never reaches the point of mania and psychosis (as happens in bipolar I).

While medical help will likely not entirely cure you, it can improve how you feel to the point where you can feel motivated to do other things to improve your situation. If there is a drug that can reduce your depression by half, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t benefit from that. Therapy can also be very helpful, not necessarily because of any special knowledge of the therapist, but because just having someone be nice to you and treat you like you matter is very important for fighting depression.

Educate yourself

There are many people who, after reading a dozen or more books, were able to find just the right lifestyle and routine to help them keep their depression under control. Read memoirs and autobiographies by people who suffered from depression. Read any book on the topic of depression that you find interesting. These books can help point you in the right direction even if none of them give you a complete answer.

Summary: Remain with God

God can help you get into exactly the right situation you need to cure your depression. He can help you find exactly the right type of medical help that can help you, or guide you to the right advice or the right life choices. Realize that you are not in charge and that if God does not help you, nothing can. You should do everything you can to help yourself, but it is God who can make all the difference between whether your efforts will be successful or end in failure.

You should therefore prioritize the spiritual side over the material side. Take care of the state of your heart and soul, and God can take care of the rest for you by making things easy for you and guiding you in the right direction.

For more Islamic advice relevant to depression and other hardships, please check out my following essays:

 

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