Can Muslims Suffer from Mental Illness? Interview with Sayema Zulfeqar

Can Muslims Suffer from Mental Illness? Interview with Sayema Zulfeqar

Sayema Zulfeqar is the CEO & Co-Founder of Afiyah Counsel & Care, a global institution established in 2015 to create mental health awareness within the Muslim community. For over 4 years, ACC has conducted free webinars, onsite workshops & provides affordable 1:1 online counselling services.

In addition to her responsibilities at ACC, she works as a Counselor for the International Open University (formerly known as Islamic Online University) & an Academy Coordinator for Productive Muslim.

It’s my pleasure to interview our dear sister Sayema Zulfeqar.

Assalaam ‘alaikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh Sister Sayema. How are you?

Walaikumassalam warahmatullahi wabarakatuh,

Alhamdullilah I’m doing very well. I hope the same for you, insha Allah. Thank you for this opportunity. May Allah reward you immensely, Aameen.

Ameen and same to you. Yes, I’m feeling great Alhamdulillah.

The intro about you says a lot. But could you tell us any additional thing about you to know you a bit better?

Haha sure. I’m Sayema, born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but currently residing in India. I still consider Riyadh to be my home as that’s where my passion for Psychology & Social work truly originated. I studied Psychology & Islamic studies simultaneously, which definitely helped me establish a connection between both; which I was earlier unaware of.

Whilst studying, I landed on my first job as a Kindergarten teacher for an Islamic school, for a year. Then, I was fortunate enough to work with Productive Muslim in 2015, as a Customer Support Executive, shortly after, I was promoted as a Director of the Customer Support team. Being in the Customer Support department gave me necessary exposure to different kinds of people – the happy clients, the angry clients, the impatient clients & the advice-seeking clients. Soon I realized, I loved working & communicating with people, especially those seeking advice on relationships or mental health. 

Later in 2015, I co-founded Afiyah Counsel & Care, along with my best friend, Ishma Imroz, with the goal of providing free online support to Muslim sisters undergoing relationship and/or mental health crisis.

That’s impressive! Allahumma baarik! How long have you been practicing counselling?

It’s been nearly 5 years, since Afiyah Counsel & Care has been established. However, I have decided to pause practicing as a Counselor for a year now, as I’m trying to focus on delivering workshops and webinars- locally & Internationally. Alhamdullilah, we have a team of qualified Counselors who are ready to support.

What inspired you to study psychology and get into counseling?

Back in School, I remember being a life guru to all my friends & class fellows. They often came to me for relationship, spiritual, or study advice & I loved listening to their issues & brainstorming a solution together. They enjoyed talking & I enjoyed listening.

At home, I’m grateful to my parents for empowering me to make decisions & reaching out to me for my opinion, whenever they needed. This made me feel valued, confident & sparked my interest in Psychology & Counselling.

Do you focus on counseling Muslims or work with anyone?

Currently, we focus on working with Muslim clients, as we’re still growing. But we do intend to work with a broader audience soon, insha Allah.

Is mental illness the same across the board for everyone? If not, what are the differences?

One size does not fit all. The experience of mental illness will not be exactly the same for everyone. Two people suffering from depression may exhibit completely different symptoms. One may experience insomnia & weight loss while the latter experiences something completely the opposite; such as increase in sleep & appetite. Each disorder has a variety of physical, psychological and emotional manifestations. 

Unlike physical illnesses, mental health disorders don’t have a rigid symptom checklist, age of onset, and course of treatment, which is why diagnosing them can be quite challenging.

Based on your knowledge, do you know of any mention of mental illness in Islam? If so, what does it say about it?

Although we don’t have records from the time of the Prophet (SAW) or the Sahaba explicitly discussing modern-day mental health terminologies, just like the physical illnesses, we do have some references.

Firstly, the concept of mental sanity or soundness of the mind as a precondition for acts of worship like prayer, fasting, Hajj, etc. acknowledges the existence of mental illnesses .

The Prophet (SAW) said, “the pen has been lifted for three: from the sleeper until he awakens, from the child until he reaches puberty and from the insane person until he becomes sane.” (At-Tirmidhi).

Based on this hadith of the Prophet (SAW), we learn that if a person’s mental illness affects their reasoning or consciousness, they’re exempted from these rituals and aren’t accountable for their actions. 

Secondly, the Prophet (SAW) taught us certain prayers (duas) for dealing with anxiety, stress and distress, which he wouldn’t have, if such conditions didn’t exist:

  • In al Sahih Bukhari & Sahih Muslim it was reported from Ibn ‘Abbaas that the Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to say, when he felt distressed:

“La ilaaha ill-Allaah al-‘Adheem ul-Haleem, Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah Rabb il-‘arsh il-‘adheem, Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah Rabb is-samawaati wa Rabb il-ardh wa Rabb il-‘arsh il-kareem 

(there is no god except Allaah, the All-Mighty, the Forbearing; there is no god except Allaah, the Lord of the Mighty Throne; there is no god except Allaah, Lord of the heavens, Lord of the earth and Lord of the noble Throne).”

  • Narrated by Ahmad (3528) from ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ood, who said: The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “No person suffers any anxiety or grief, and says: ‘O Allah, I am Your slave, son of Your slave, son of Your female slave, my forelock is in Your hand, Your command over me is forever executed and Your decree over me is just. I ask You by every Name belonging to You which You named Yourself with, or revealed in Your Book, or You taught to any of Your creation, or You have preserved in the knowledge of the unseen with You, that You make the Qur’an the life of my heart and the light of my breast, and a departure for my sorrow and a release for my anxiety’ but Allah will take away his sorrow and grief, and give him in their stead joy.” It was said: O Messenger of Allah, should we not learn them (these words)? He said: Yes indeed; whoever hears them should learn them.” 

Subhanallah (glory be to Allah).

Mental illness is almost a taboo topic in the Muslim community. But Alhamdulillah, there seems to be more people bringing it up now. Do you think there needs to be more awareness of this issue?

Alhamdullilah, I’m happy that more and more Muslim initiatives are stepping to create awareness about Mental health in the community, but sadly, taboos and stigmas associated to it still exist. A lot of these taboos & stigmas stem from the consistent attribution of poor mental to weak Iman, evil eye, black magic or possession of the jinn, which prevent people from seeking help. Some working class Muslim families within the Asian subcontinent, deem mental illnesses to be the “diseases of the rich and white”. 

I personally believe that at this stage, there’s a greater need to address the misconceptions surrounding mental health, educate the masses about the how, when, and who to approach for help and make therapy accessible and affordable to everyone.

Right! We often hear that if a person stays close to Allah, he/she doesn’t experience depression. Based on your studies and career practice, do you think a devout Muslim could go through stress, depression, anxiety or other types of mental illnesses?

Of course, absolutely! A devout Muslim can experience stress, depression or any other mental illness, just as any physical illness like cancer or thyroid. According to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 people suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. Without denial of the power of the Qur’an and Sunnah in healing mental illnesses, it is imperative to understand that suffering from mental illnesses isn’t a choice. One doesn’t choose to become depressed, stressed or anxious. 

This life has been created with trials and difficulties, therefore, as humans, we’re bound to experience stress, sadness or anxiety at some point.

“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient.” (Quran, 2:155)

The Prophet (SAW) said : “No exhaustion, pain, anxiety, grief, harm or distress befalls a Muslim, not even a thorn that pricks him, but Allah will expiate some of his sins thereby.” (Al Bukhari)

In fact, our religion also encourages us to seek help, as the Prophet (SAW) said, “Verily, Allah sent down the disease and the cure, and for every disease he made a cure. Seek treatment, but do not seek treatment by the unlawful.” (Abu Dawud)

That’s powerful!

What does a person suffering from mental illness do when he/she finds no support in the community? What are the necessary steps?

With the advent of technology, Alhamdullilah, everything is just a click away. It is advisable to maintain a directory containing important contacts. If you feel you need to talk to someone for help, you can:

  1. Call local Mental Health helplines for immediate assistance (or)
  2. Contact institutions that offer online chat counselling services
  3. Contact institutions that offer online video and/or email counselling services
  4. Find a local counselor/psychologist for face-face consultation

What can we do when someone we love is suffering from a type of mental illness? How can we detect that there’s a problem?

Always look for signs. Is there something different/unusual you’ve observed in their behavior? When it comes to depression, for example, you might notice a change in your loved one’s sleeping (sleeping a lot or sleeping too less) & eating patterns (eating a lot or eating too less), find them to be irritable or socially withdrawn. When someone is suffering from a mental illness, they usually exhibit dysfunctional and/or unusual behavior. 

What can you do?

  1. Talk to them. Understand their situation. Be empathetic and kind. Assure them that everything will be okay and you’re concerned about them. Encourage them to seek help
  2. Refer them to a counselor/psychologist for professional help
  3. Support them during therapy and explain that suffering from a mental illness isn’t a personal flaw, but a decree of Allah, and it can get better with treatment, if Allah wills
  4. Help them grow closer to Allah by educating them about concepts like Tawakkal (reliance on Allah) and Shukr (gratitude towards Allah)

Do you think the Muslim community at large needs to consider counseling?

I think everyone needs constant motivation and reminders, as Allah (swt) said in the Qur’an, “And remind, for indeed, the reminder benefits the believers.”(15:55)

Unfortunately, a lot of people assume that counselling is exclusive to people suffering from mental illnesses. Rather, counselling can be for anyone; someone looking for marital advice, someone looking to deal with procrastination, or someone considering changing their career. It is a broad spectrum. 

There is definitely a need to offer Counselling services from an Islamic perspective and make it accessible and affordable for everyone. 

We live in a busy world where everyone is trying hard to make sense of everything, make a living, sort out personal and family issues, and stay sane at the same time. What can a Muslim do to balance out everything and still make eternal happiness in the Hereafter the main goal?

We should strive for Ikhlaas (sincerity of intention) and Ihsaan (proficiency) in all aspects of our life. To consciously purify our intention before each task. Today in the modern world, we’re all about maintaining huge daily to-do lists, but checking off all the items on the to-do list is not the goal. Our ultimate goal is to worship Allah and seek His pleasure in everything that we do; commitments at work or commitments at home. All of these can be converted into acts of worship through renewing our intention. 

Once a man came to Allah’s Messenger sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam and said: What do you think about a person who joins us in the fighting only to seek fame and wealth? So Allah’s Messenger sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam replied: “He receives nothing!” The man repeated the question three times, each time Allah’s Messenger sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said: “He receives nothing!” Then he said: “Indeed Allah does not accept an action except if it is done with ikhlas (i.e. purely for Allah’s sake), seeking nothing but His Face.” (An-Nasai)

One practical tip that works for me (and may as well work for you) is to write down your intention beside each item on the to-do list. This helps me to keep my intentions at check.

With Ikhlaas comes Ihsaan, to strive to complete each task with proficiency. We should strive for excellence in everything that we pursue at work or home, giving our best always, no matter how diminutive or big a task is. Focus on the quality and not the quantity.

“Verily, Allah loves proficiency in all things.” (Sahih Muslim)

What are your short and long-term goals for counseling? And what would you like to see happen in the Muslim community in this regard?

My short-term goals for counselling include making it accessible and affordable for everyone. I aim to make counselling accessible to the underprivileged and to the stigmatized embarrassed to seek face-face help, while ensuring its pocket-friendly. And my long-term goals include integration of faith-based practices (eg. dhikr, salah, etc.) in therapy. 

I aspire to see our Muslim community embrace and promote the concept of mental health actively.

May Allah make it all a reality! What is your greatest life lesson?

Comfort is comfortable but is deceptive. By not chasing discomfort, you’re honouring stagnation. 

What’s the best personal or Islamic quote that comes to your mind right now?

I’m reminded of the wise saying of Ibn al Qayyim:

“Truly in the heart there is a void that cannot be removed except with the company of Allah. And in it there is a sadness that cannot be removed except with the happiness of knowing Allah and being true to Him. And in it there is an emptiness that cannot be filled except with love for Him and by turning to Him and always remembering Him. And if a person were given all of the world and what is in it, it would not fill this emptiness.”

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers, in shaa Allah?

That’d be enough for now, Insha Allah. May Allah facilitate all our affairs and remove all our worries. Aameen.

Ameen!

For anyone who would like to know more about mental illness or counselling, where can they reach you? 

They can send a DM to @afiyahcounselandcare on Instagram.

Jazak Allahu khayr for your time and for sharing your knowledge. 

 

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