“God defends those who believe, God does not love the unfaithful, ungrateful” (Quran, 22: 38)
After a tough event I was going through in my life, my sheikh, a wise man of few words, advised me to recite this verse everyday. As I started my daily recitation, all what I was thinking about was that I’m the good one, I’m among “those who believe” so God will defend me and my oppressors fall under “the unfaithful, ungrateful” and thus God does not love them. Yet, as the days went by and as I kept repeating the verse over and over again, I found myself delving deeper into the meaning… I realized that the verse wasn’t about the oppressors and the oppressive event… it wasn’t about them… it was all about me… It is about the choice I have to make, do I choose to be among “those who believe” or among “the unfaithful ungrateful”? Do I choose to be among those who God defends or among those who lose His love? The recitation my sheikh instructed me to perform was a daily heart-cleansing exercise, a compass that re-orients my intentions, my thoughts and actions towards Him alone, exalted be He.
It is that change in perspective that makes all the difference. It’s all about me and my relationship to God, exalted be He. It’s all about the choices I make, the worldview I choose to adopt and the lens through which I choose to see my world. It’s all about me… about my heart and how hard I work at purifying and cleansing it, how diligent I am in the pursuit of ihsān, spiritual excellence, in all my acts and thoughts… It is about how I choose to worship God as if I see Him, although I do not see Him, but He sees me… how I choose to walk the Path of Love and Service with the intention of only seeking God’s love and being His servant. It is not about whoever wronged me. I can’t judge them… I don’t know their motives, their intentions, their hearts… I simply don’t know… What I know, though, is that they were sent my way for a reason… they were here to teach me a lesson that, if I choose, will draw me closer to my Lord, exalted be He.
When I asked my sheikh about forgiveness, he told me that I’m not obliged to forgive; he told me that it was my choice. Forgiveness is a praised value in our Islamic teachings, he explained, but still, it’s optional not obligatory… I could choose not to forgive, that’s my right… My wise sheikh paused for a moment, and then added, “Yet, at a certain point on our spiritual journey, we can go no further if we do not forgive.” It is then that I realized, that again, it is not about “them,” it’s not about whoever wronged me… it’s all about me and my relationship with God, exalted be He. Choosing to forgive clears the heart so it’s exclusively His, exalted be He… Choosing to forgive frees me from the chains of worldly gains… I’m seeking Him, and only Him, exalted be He… choosing to forgive shows me that I learned my lesson, I’ve grasped the wisdom embedded in my exhausting tribulation… choosing to forgive is choosing to believe that, as our Prophet teaches, “if all people gather to benefit you, they will not be able to benefit you except with that which God has fore-ordained for you; and, if all of them gather to harm you, they will not be able to afflict you with anything other than that which God has pre-destined against you… The pens had been lifted and the ink had dried up.”
It’s the fine work of surrendering to the Divine decree and striving to change your life and your heart for the better… It is the heart that balances every thing; “God does not change the condition of a people until -and unless- they change what is in their soul,” (Q. 13: 11)… until we change what is in our souls… what is in our hearts… See, we’re back to “it’s all about me” it’s all about my heart… it’s not about them… it’s not about retribution… it’s not about waiting for Divine punishment to befall the oppressors… they are simply out of the picture… I need to zoom in… on me… on my heart… on its connection to the Divine, exalted be He… How is this connection? How sincere am I? How free am I?
It’s a life-long struggle… a struggle for a wholesome sound heart, qalb salīm (Qur’an, 26:89). Returning to God at the end of our life with this sound heart is our ultimate aim... A sound heart is one, like Prophet Abraham’s, that is sincerely filled with the truth of Divine Oneness and free from worldly attachments, free from judgements, free from doubts, free from fears, worries, and vain; an empowered heart that has surrendered entirely to its Creator, exalted be He; and that wishes for others all good that it wishes for itself.
It is estimated that psychosis affects around 2% of all population across all ages. From evolutionary perspective, those traits must have survived because they are required to play a role in human development: leadership, working under extreme pressure, thinking out of the box, wild creativity, invention, art and poetry… are among many characteristics found in people suffering from different forms of psychosis like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
It is interesting to see that no traditional culture looked at those traits as disease or impairment. People affected were regarded as different, yes, but they were still considered “normal.” Their atypical behavior was part of the grand scheme of the societal structure. And, who has the right to define “normal”? Nowadays, evidence-based healthcare relies heavily on statistical analysis of a collected data. Lennard Davis argues that the use of statistics, which began in the 1800s by eugenicists, aimed, and in most cases is still aiming, at establishing the “normal distribution” of human beings in an attempt to reduce deviation from the norm. This idea of the norm in itself is a tyranny that ignores many aspects of the human experience trying to fit the entire population into well-defined boxes.
Even the neurotransmitter theory, it is just that, a theory. We know that dopamine is elevated in people with schizophrenia and that serotonin is low in people suffering from depression. But, we don’t know whether it is a cause or an effect: Is the elevated dopamine level causing the schizophrenia, the bipolar or the psychosis, or is it caused by them? And, is the elevated serotonin level causing the depression or is it caused by it? No one really knows.
The human brain is way more complicated than our neurotransmitter or neurobiological model of reality. People experiencing those symptoms have always been assimilated into society. They were “different,” but still “normal.” They were atypical, but still functional. They performed specific roles that no “normal” person can do. Like shamans in native cultures, Joan of Arc in France, and Al-Hallaj in Sufi history, if any of them were to be presented to our modern conventional medical model, they would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Yet, at their time and in their culture, they were very special, even gifted individuals and highly esteemed at times.
Joseph Polimeni, a British psychiatrist and author of the book Shamans Among Us, believes that “people with schizophrenia are the modern manifestation of prehistoric tribal shamans.” Nevertheless, he affirms that he still treats his patients within the conventional biopharmacological model, because, we simply have no other alternatives. For those people to be assimilated into society and for them to lead a functional life, our whole social structure needs to be changed. Dr. Gabor Maté, the renowned Canadian psychiatrist, sees that a person with schizophrenia in a tribal culture holds a better chance of survival and well-being than one following the Western medical model. Our view on mental illness cannot be removed from the person’s context and culture. Our Western materialistic and individualistic society focuses on achievements and possessions cutting off emotional, social, and spiritual needs, which, according to Maté, separates us from ourselves and paves the road for pathology. Unfortunately, those ancient cultural and tribal modes of life do not exist anymore. They have been crushed under the weight of industrialism and individualism. The nuclear family is not enough nor is the extend family -that still occasionally exists in some communities- to assimilate those individuals’ needs. The whole societal model does not accept or tolerate anyone who is “different.” Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, notes how history has never witnessed such high rates of mental illness. As opposed to the traditional tribal culture where everyone is involved in a meaningful community role and purpose, modern Western culture, he adds, and I totally agree, made us feel un-necessary and unimportant, which is one of the main reasons behind modern-day mental disorders.
I totally acknowledge that in many cases, those individuals could pose substantial risk on society. They could be violent and even dangerous. But, how do we know that this violence is not triggered by violent media, movies, and video games that we, as a society, are bombarded with on a daily basis? How do we know that this violence is not caused by nutrients deficiency from our genetically manipulated and heavily sprayed food, or by chemical pollution from our toxin-loaded environment, or by viral vulnerability from our highly compromised immune defence?
I believe we are messing with a highly precious gift that God has bestowed upon us, our brain. This highly sophisticated neural system was supposed to be a tool that helps us read “the signs on the horizons and within our souls” (Q. 41: 53), the signs that show us the way to the Truth, to our Creator. It was supposed to be a tool that helps us align our innate heart and soul knowledge of Him (our Fitrah) with our logical, analytical understanding of ourselves, our world, and our life meaning and purpose. This highly precious gift has been corrupted and damaged. It has been confused and disconnected from its source.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I honestly can’t envision hope in the near future. This is not because the answer is difficult or untenable, but rather because we are looking for answers in all the wrong places. If we are to effectively find answers to the rising rates of psychosis, mental illness and all chronic diseases for that matter, we need a paradigm shift. In the modern Western biomedical model, the scientific research is still based on and undergirded by the Cartesian-Newtonian dualistic, linear, and reductionist approach to life. This view “not only presents an inaccurate vision of human existence but also contributes to the disease of modern society.” All research concerning our health must conform to the evidence-based, statistical “scientific” model that highly overlooks the multifactorial nature of causation (instead they focus on linear causation); the interconnectedness of mind, body, and soul (instead they see life through the dualistic Cartesian lens of separation); and the interrelated holistic nature of life (versus the isolation, compartmentalization, and individualization view of modern thinking).
In the 1970s, William Dembski introduced his idea of Intelligent Design in an attempt to intersect science and theology. The Intelligent Design theory relies on scientific research while acknowledging the Divine action and order. He advocated broadening our understanding of scientific evidence to include metaphysical first principles and include thoughts, feelings, relationships, and holistic view of life. His theory demonstrates that reinstating the bridge between science and theology can reinvigorate the ethical stream and promote the flourishing of human life. I believe we can make a difference if we start with even the tiniest step towards re-connecting:
Sufis teach that if our life journey “appears to move through time and distance, that is not that we can eventually reach God, since ‘He is with you wherever you are’ but rather ‘so that He can cause [us] to see His signs’ that are always there, ‘on the horizons and within [our] souls,’” those signs that lead us to Him. We need to stop ignoring the signs and stop messing with the precious tool God gave us in order for us to heed those signs.
 Daniel Nettle. Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity, and Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2002)
 Davis, L. J. (2013). The Disability Studies Reader. (4th ed.). New York: Routledge.
 Kelly Brogan, A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives (Harper Wave, 2016) and Craighead, W. Edward. Miklowitz, David J., and Craighead Linda W. Psychopathology: History, Diagnosis, and Empirical Foundations (3rd ed.). Hoboken: Wiley, 2017.
 Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal (2016). From YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_j5mmBa4mw (accessed October 30, 2017).
 Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal.
 Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York: Harpercollins Publishers, 2016).
 Epperly, B. G. (2000). Prayer, Process, and the Future of Medicine. Journal of Religion and Health, 39 (1), 23-37.
 Dembski, W. (1999). Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology. Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
 ʿArabī, The Meccan Revelations.
The Thunder, Chapter 13 of the Quran, describes how the thunder with its scary roar, in its essence, it glorifies and praises God. Could this be a parallel for our pains and sufferings? The roaring pain that brings within its folds a blessing and a gift from the Divine?
In its essence, suffering, like the roaring thunder, praises and glorifies God. Initially, our pain brings with it fear that might throw us into a chaotic narrative… the chaos of a life-threatening diagnosis or a life-altering illness, the chaos of cancer, depression, autoimmunity, fibromyalgia, or chronic pain… a chaos that forces us to press a pause or even a stop button on our lives…
But, what if we pause and listen? What if we try to decipher the message our body is sending us? If we listen carefully, we will hear our suffering opening the door for spiritual insight, a door that will take us closer to God. We will hear our suffering praising our Lord.
The Thunder chapter (Surat Ar-Ra’d) challenges our belief about the dichotomy of good and evil. To discern the wisdom in our trials, we need to challenge this modern cognitive frame. We need to stop judging evil solely on the basis of it not serving an immediate interest or pleasure. Likewise, healing should not be reduced to curing the illness. Healing means becoming whole again, becoming at peace with oneself, the world, and the Divine.
Healing entails finding meaning and purpose that is bigger than ourselves and bigger than our suffering. It entails bringing all who we are, body, mind, heart, and soul into a relationship with the Divine. As physical suffering is drawing us towards a bigger life meaning and purpose, to a vocation and a calling, in reality, it is drawing us towards God. To find our calling, we need to know ourselves; and to know ourselves, we need to know God. Such knowledge allows us to understand the interconnectedness of all things around us and within us and the relationship to and ultimate dependence of this amazing web on its One and Only Creator.
Listen to the inspiring story of Ali Banat: Gifted with Cancer, May God bless his soul.
At a point on our journey, we are forced to withdraw into our “innermost cave” where life challenges become just too much for us to bear... when we realize that it is not about power, strength, or fighting… when we finally accept that it is okay to be vulnerable.
In our innermost cave, we learn to be humble, we clearly see our limits as human beings and we acknowledge our limitations.
The cave is dark, cold, and scary, like the dungeon prophet Joseph (Yusuf) was thrown into… Yet, it is in this cave that our connection with God gets stronger, it is there where we realize that God is our only solace… it is there where we meet God on the deepest level… we meet Him as servants and slaves meeting their Master… we meet Him in awe and humility… we meet Him as our souls as dying from starvation and thirst… only His presence can feed our souls and only His words can quench our thirst.
Sometimes, all what we need to do is pause and connect… come back to our deepest core … to the place that Marie Schwan describes as “Home.” Home is this beautiful innermost place within us where we are truly ourselves. Home is a place where we are profoundly and genuinely connected to God, speaking to Him in our own words and mindfully listening to His reply.
Al-Harawy (d. 1089 C.E. /481 A. H.), the eleventh-century Muslim scholar and Sufi mystic, describes human beings as travellers on a life-long journey towards knowing God. This hundred-stage journey starts with the most critical step: Awakening. For him, awakening is achieved through awareness:
Awareness is essential to reach this pure centre inside each and every one of us, this Home, that is still deeply in touch with its Creator… with God who is above time and space, yet who is “closer to [us] than [our] jugular vein,” (Q, 50:16).
In our innermost cave, as we connect with God… as we strip bear our soul… as we become humble and in awe, we learn to surrender… We learn to let go and let God show us the way… the way to Him… the way back “Home” to who we truly are.
Also check staying connected blog
Since the dawn of civilization, one fundamental question that has always perplexed human being is “why?” Why is there so much suffering in the world? Illnesses, physical pain, and suffering could be debilitating and crippling. Nevertheless, for some people, they turn out to be the most rewarding experience of their life, a blessing for them and others.
The arabic word for patience is Ṣabr, a word from which the name of the cactus plant, Ṣabbār, is derived. Cactus is a plant that can grow in the toughest conditions of the desert, it adapted itself to withstand the most difficult and extreme harsh environmental conditions. Cactus represents hope, hope in the face of adversity and hardship, hope coupled with determination to survive despite the circumstances, hope that defies, hope that strives to make life worth living.
Ṣabr means more than patience… within its name you get meanings of:
Ṣabr is also the Arabic name for the Aloe Vera plant. Aloe Vera is the highly bitter cactus that offers amazing medicinal properties. Herbalists classify Aloe Vera as vulnerary, meaning it helps heal wounds. It is applied to burns, abrasions, and even to bites to sooth the pain and promote healing.
Bearing those meaning in mind, now, look at our Ṣabr, It is like an acknowledgement that patience in the face of pain and suffering is bitter, it is spiky and prickly, it hurts , yet in its deep core, it is soothing and healing.
Like the cactus, Ṣabr is not passive, it does not helplessly wait for conditions to change or for water to pour down from the sky. Rather, it digs its roots firmly in the ground and stubbornly reaches for those underground invisible streams; it toughens its skin and, faces the desert harshness with determination and fortitude; it saves water for the rough days and perseveres when the sustenance is scarce. Ṣabr is an active engagement in life, it honours the struggle, the grit, the pursuit, it is motivating and empowering.
The Quran teaches: “So be patient with gracious, beautiful patience” (70:5)
“فاصبر صبرا جميلا”
A gracious, beautiful patience is brave, assertive, honourable, determined and active.
And, “God does not change the condition of a people until and unless they changes within themselves” (13: 11)
“ان الله لا يغير ما بقوم حتى يغيروا ما بأنفسهم”
Change is tough, but, as Anais Nin says: “and the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Change happens when the passive, helpless patience turns into an active determine Ṣabr, this Ṣabr is the quality of the people of excellence, people who do good - people of Iḥsān.
“ واصبر فإن الله لا يضيع أ جر المحسنين”
“And be patient, for indeed, God does not allow the rewards of those who do good to go to waste.” (11:115)
Trying to just go through life with the illusion that only by willpower we can achieve everything is just that: An illusion… Our rational, logical self-control is like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider seems to hold the rein and direct the elephant… But, the rider can never force the elephant into a direction it does not want to go into. The elephant is the one running the show… We have always learned that Ramadan fasting is there to strengthen our willpower… it is there to train us to be more in control of our desires… but unfortunately, we got the mechanism all wrong… if we treat our fasting as mere training of self-restriction and self-control… we will be further wearing off our self-control muscle… Ramadan Fasting is not a physical exercise that trains us to withstand our hunger… Neither is it a psychological exercise that teaches us to control our desires, temptations, and urges. Ramadan Fasting is a spiritual practice… We reduced Ramadan to numbers and rituals (and an endless supply of sugars, fats, and carbs). Our heart and soul are not into it… We drugged the elephant so that it takes a nap until we finish the holy month; We dissociated our hearts from the whole process… because our hearts are already very heavy, exhausted and weary... So how can we make the best out Ramadan? How can we tame our elephants?
In 2013, when I first came to Canada I was introduced to Dana, a Libyan Canadian lady who had a project in mind. Dana wanted to gather ten Arab women and help them write their stories. She wanted to collect stories of immigration, living in a new culture, leaving the homeland, feelings of homesickness, stories of hope, loss, pain and gain, and stories of helplessness and bravery. Her aim was to publish the stories in an ‘Arab Women’s Notebook’ for the world to know more about those women’s dreams, hopes, pains, and struggles, for women around the world to see their own stories in those ten women’s narratives and reshape their own stories of hope and survival.
It was a long journey, and for me, it came at exactly the right time. My chapter was entitled ‘Journey of Self-Discovery’. I wrote it during a time of my life when I was wondering who am I? Where do I belong? And where am I heading? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? I wrote my story at a time when I had lost my grandmother, my only anchor in the world, her loss created a vacuum that seemed never to fill up. I wrote it at a time I lost my homeland, not by migrating away from it, but by it drifting away from me. I chose to leave as the land wasn't my land and the country wasn't my own. I was forever a stranger as I witnessed the collapse of the values, morals, and ethics I grew up with.
The book, An Arab Women Notebook, was published in 2016. At the book-signing event, we, the authors, met many women who told us how they found their stories in ours. They told us how our stories helped them heal and empowered them to re-shape their own narrative.
Between 1987 and 2002, 67.5 million antidepressant prescriptions were written in the U.S.; this accounts for almost quarter of the U.S. population. Many of the people taking the medication might, in fact, need it, but do they all? And, are they offered any other alternatives? In the late 1980s, early 1990s, Japanese strictly resisted the use of anti-depressants that Eli Lilly decided against selling Prozac in Japan. By early 2000s, however, Japan became a massive market for anti-depressants after removing what Bradley calls “cultural obstacles.” All it took was few years to ‘educate’ people about the importance of those medications in their life. Huge financial investments, media shaping public view, and continued medical education funded by pharmaceutical companies are clear conflict of interest that most people tend to ignore. All those facts make me question who is really benefiting from Bell’s Let’s Talk initiative? It is a double edge sword, removing the stigma by ‘normalizing’ mental illness is a good intention, yet are we offered any alternative, other than the biomedical model?
Junger, in his book Tribe, notes how history has never witnessed such high rates of depression and mental illness. As opposed to the traditional tribal culture where everyone is involved in a meaningful community role and purpose, modern Western culture, he adds, and I totally agree, makes us feel un-necessary and unimportant, which is one of the main reasons behind modern-day affective disorders. Dr. Gabor Maté sees that a person with schizophrenia in a tribal culture holds a better chance of survival and well being than one following the Western medical model. Our view on mental illness cannot be removed from the person’s context and culture. Our Western materialistic society focuses on achievements and possessions cutting off emotional, social, and spiritual needs, which, according to Maté, separates us from ourselves and paves the road for pathology. Loneliness, is radically different from solitude. Loneliness is not about being alone; it is rather about the lack of belonging and the feeling of unworthiness. Belonging is a stepping-stone to our independence, freedom, and maturity. Our self-image, self-esteem, and self-worth are major components of how we perceive and interact with our surrounding. And, this self-worth is defined within the context of the whole community.
Taking a closer look at Western Muslim community, one notices the oppression, cultural stigma, and social isolation enforced upon people living with mental illness. Attributing pathology to lack of faith is a way of blaming the victims for their own affliction. Sometimes, society could be more coercive towards people with disability than their physiological or physical limitation. Initiatives working at eliminating social barriers and stigmas are so much welcome, they will allow disabled people to better integrate into the society and assume better responsibility for their own life. But, are they truly authentic?
Foucault, the famous French philosopher and social theorist, argues that coercion is no longer a direct phenomenon; it is rather a series of subtle disciplinary practices, which gently causes the oppressed to internalize their own oppression. People start to discipline their own actions to comply with the ‘norm’ whatever the coercive power defines as ‘norm.’ The process happens in such a subtle way that most people do not even notice they are changing (like the Japanese cultural change discussed earlier). The hegemony of normalcy becomes a tyranny enforced by media ads, movies, novels, and the like. In a way, eugenic practices are still applied to date albeit in a much subtle and ‘socially acceptable’ methodology. The most affected are people “located at the intersections of difference.” Without realizing it, this difference, or ‘deviation from the norm’ becomes their identity. Replacing normalcy by ‘diversity,’ as the new trend is going here in Canada, does not quite solve the dilemma of mental illness discrimination either. In an open global economy where consumerism and lifestyle define one’s identity, the diversity picture does not make room for non-consumer mentally or physically disabled individuals.
If we are to tackle the mental illness issue, we need to go beyond the psychiatric, genetic, biomedical, and even psychotherapeutic models, taking societal, cultural, intersectional, political, spiritual/religious, economic, and historical sides into account. We need to find alternatives and collectively work at raising human awareness.
 Bradley Lewis, Depression: Integrating Science, Culture, and Humanities (New York: Routledge, 2012), 73.
 Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York: Harpercollins Publishers, 2016), 10.
 Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal (2016). From YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_j5mmBa4mw (accessed October 30, 2017).
 Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal.
 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2010), 35.
 Sima Barmania,“Islam and depression,” The Lancet 4 (2017): 669.
 Tom Shakespeare, “The Social Model of Disability.”
 Mohammed Ghaly, “Disability in the Islamic Tradition,” Religion Compass 10, no. 6 (2016): 150.
 Michel Foucault, “Docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. (Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1979).
 Lennard J. Davis, “Introduction: Normality, Power, and Culture,” 10.
 Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear, "Unspeakable Offenses,” 359.
 Lennard J. Davis, The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 1-14.
About the Author
Hi, I'm Amira... I'm all for simple, natural, uncomplicated life... My core values are derived from my Islamic faith... My definition of wellness includes lots of smiles, human interactions, delicious food, music, joy, colorful paint, Mediterranean sunshine, blue sky and turquoise sea, care, love, compassion and deep heart-felt peace.