Wednesday, August 20, 2003

REFLECTION: Are Black Dogs Permissible?

No, I am not talking about poodles that aren’t white. Nor is my subject those cute puppies you see in the pet store.

Whether we like it or not, many of us live with a black dog. It stays with us, barking at us around the clock, keeping us awake and causing maximum disturbance in our daily lives.

And when we go and ask our scholars, our ulama, our maulanas and shaykhs, all we hear is:

Your black dog is a sign of ungratefulness!
Or we hear:

You have lost hope in the mercy of Allah and this is haraam!!
Or we might even hear:

Astaghfirullah! Dogs in the house? You should not have dogs in the house. Didn’t your parents teach you that?
And so we get no help from our leaders on coping with our black dog. We just return to our miserable existence, thinking that we must continue to feed the damn thing and give it shelter whilst it bites away at our soul.

Muslim communities commonly deny this black dog’s existence. Some think only those nasty kuffaar (i.e. persons who may not yet be calling themselves Muslim) or naughty lapsed Muslims live with the black dog.

This black dog is not an animal. The title ‘black dog’ was coined by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to describe an ailment that afflicted him for many years. It is an illness that has afflicted millions since the first families were formed from the seed of our Prophet and father Adam (peace be upon him). It has been recognised by physicians, witch-doctors, voodoo-freaks and associated medicine-men (though perhaps with different labels).

The ancient Greeks called it ‘melancholia’. You will even find references to it in classical books of prophetic medicine (tib an-nabawi), together with various cures and formulae to ward it off.

Modern medicine calls it ‘depression’. In Australia, it afflicts one in five people at some stage of their lives. In the US and Europe, the proportion is higher. For many, the issue of living with depression is as simple as a regular visit to the shrink and popping some pills each night. But for the people of faith and spirituality, depression can pose some difficult questions for which there are no easy answers.

You’d think that spiritually profound faiths like Islam (as opposed to Islaam), which didn’t throw their gnostic traditions into the ‘bida’ rubbish heap, would have plenty to say on this subject. Well tasawwuf (or sufism, but I hate that word so don’t say it in front of me) does say plenty. Indeed, tasawwuf is often translated as ‘spiritual psychology’. It is an exact science, and it has helped so many find peace and solace when faced with depression.

The pride of the Kurdish nation, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, once wrote about his life: “Were it not for my taqwa (God-consciousness), the problems of my life would have led me to commit suicide years ago”. And the pride of all creation (peace and blessings of God be upon him) is believed to have had feelings of deep depression during the early period of revelation during a gap of some months between revelations. Some classical writers of sirah (biographical literature) tell is that at times he would feel like throwing himself from the mountain.

We know of the deep sadness (his students thought it was madness) Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi felt during the various absences of his somewhat eccentric mentor Shams-i-Tabrizi. We know that at the height of his career, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali just through away his professorship and went wandering.

Our traditions are full of examples of people who appear to lose and then recover their emotional balance as a result of a loss. And yet for some reason, “modern” depression gets treated as ungratefulness and lack of faith while “classical” depression is regarded as a part of prophecy.

And when Muslims, many of them young and/or new to the faith, find their emotional difficulties ignored or even denigrated, is it any wonder they shun the community and reach for the zoloft?

Seriously, I am not meaning to denigrate psychopharmacology. Nor do I suggest that the thousands of people who are on medication, and for whom it is a crucial part of the management of their condition, should throw out the pills and head for a zawiya or khanqah or ashram.

But in addition to medications and psychological treatment, support systems must be created in the community. We all need support in hard times. Even the Prophet Muhammad (peace of blessings of God be upon him), when praising his wife Lady Khadija, said words to the effect of: “She supported me when most were against me, she supported me with her love …”. May God bless this noble woman whose love and devotion to her husband formed a basis for his words and works that continue to provide solace to millions.

When we feel down and depressed and go to the mosque and find the imam cannot understand us, what do we do? When we want to ask the imam certain questions about our condition but are too scared he will tell others about our illness, what can we say? For instance:

1. Which imam can tell me at what stage depression must reach before performing salat/nemaz (otherwise compulsory five daily worship sessions) is no longer compulsory? This is also relevant to the thousands of mothers suffering from post-natal depression.

2. How do the rights and responsibilities of parties to a marriage change in the event one succumbs to a mental illness?

3. If a person begins to suffer from schizophrenia or serious bipolar disorder before marriage and is in a state where s/he is not allowed to marry, how should such a person’s emotional and sexual needs be met? For instance, is it forbidden for a male sufferer to, say, visit a prostitute? And if he does, is he accountable for his deed?

Many of you will be reading this and saying to yourself: “The answers to these questions are so damned obvious! Irf, stick to writing articles hacking into ex-Australian media moguls or praising the sexual exploits of your mughal ancestors”. Well if the answers are so damned obvious, how come I cannot find them in my copy of Behisht-i-Zewar (an old Indian hanafi law manual originally written for women) or Mufti Abdul Rahim Lajpuri's Fatawa Rahimiyya (a collection of rulings originally published in an old Indian newspaper)?

Bodies like the Zaytuna Institute and others have done some excellent work on focussing upon the developing Islamic legal tradition that applies to Muslim minorities. But how about the ever-growing minority within these minorities? What about these suffering mental illness? Perhaps Shaykh Hamza (one fellow I have utmost respect for. How many imams do you know who actually have had exposure to mental illness and brain injuries in a professional capacity as a medical or nursing practitioner?) and his crew can look into this.

So there you have it. A religious tradition whose spiritual core (tasawwuf) is a tradition of psychology in its own right. And yet so many of its alleged practitioners and experts find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the everyday problems that beset the millions suffering from mental illness. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.

First published in the now-defunct e-zine on 8 August 2003.

Words © 2003-08 Irfan Yusuf

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