Did you know that July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month?
The following is an excerpt from the true story, No One Taught Me the Human Side of Islam: The Muslim Hippie’s Story of Living with Bipolar Disorder:
Sakinah ‘The Muslim Hippie’ says:
My friend Halimah wasn’t the only one who overhead me being talked about negatively in the Muslim community. There were others too, and each came and confirmed that I was not being paranoid and that they had defended me in my absence. However, one woman whom I considered a friend called to say that I deserved to be talked about openly.
“You’re the one who’s wrong,” she said. “You made the choice to do those things publicly, so it’s not backbiting if anyone talks about you.”
As I held the receiver to my ear, I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
“In Islam,” she explained, “it’s only backbiting if we’re talking about something you did privately. And anyway, you need to understand how difficult this is for the community.”
“What?” I said, unable to keep quiet any longer. “Difficult for them?”
“Yes,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing. “It’s really hard for them because they expected so much from you. They thought you were a good Muslim, and they can’t understand why you’re acting like this.”
“So I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” I said in disbelief.
“You at least need to understand that no one’s wronging you. Public deeds aren’t protected by the rules against backbiting. You know that.” She spoke as if reprimanding me for even feeling hurt by the public spreading of my faults.
Hearing these cruel words was like being punched in the stomach. Here was a so-called friend confirming that I was indeed being talked about publicly, but then blaming me for forcing the backbiters to talk about me. According to her, I was the aggressor and the Muslim community was the victim. My mere imperfect existence was a crime against the standards they’d built for me. So I should take responsibility for the part I played in harming them.
They expected so much from you, Sakinah. Long after I hung up, I kept replaying her words in my mind, and with each replay, it was like being punched in the stomach over and over again.
There are public deeds, I read online some time ago. Then there are deeds done in public. They are not the same in Islam. In other words, the author was explaining that in our faith, everything that occurs in public is not considered a “public deed.” Some things that occur in public are just deeds that happen to occur in public. In either case, both intent and circumstance are crucial to drawing a conclusion.
Actions are by intention is a famous prophetic hadith, and this principle applies very much to the case of a person suffering mania or psychosis, as I was during my so-called sinful “public deeds.” However, even in cases of people not living with mental illness, everything done in public is not “fair game” for public discussion, and it certainly is not automatically removed from the category of backbiting.
For example, a Muslim might have a drinking problem and become weak and go to the store to purchase alcohol. Though the store is a public place, if another Muslim witnesses this purchasing of alcohol, this purchase is not necessarily a “public deed” that can then be spread to others without falling into the sin of backbiting. However, if a Muslim does a public speech, publishes an online video, or posts a blog stating that drinking alcohol is permissible, then other Muslims speaking up against this sinful “public deed” is not considered backbiting. In fact, the Muslim community would be obligated to clarify the true teachings of Islam regarding consuming alcohol.
But was it obligatory for them to talk about me? I wondered angrily. Were there some blessings they believed Allah promised them if they spread my faults?
Despite there being neither obligation nor blessings in the public spreading of my misdeeds, many Muslims in the community were so excited to have a religious excuse to backbite me. Because I had “chosen” to misbehave publicly, I allegedly no longer enjoyed even the basic rights of being their Muslim sister.
I wondered why this excuse to backbite was so readily embraced by them. It was as if they were waiting for an excuse to eat someone’s flesh without falling into sin. And my flesh was what they enjoyed without the least bit of guilt or regret.
And I was supposed to believe they were the victim.
No Calls, No Visits
I felt so abandoned and alone as I battled the ups and downs of bipolar disorder with almost no support. [My friend] Halimah and her husband lived in a different city that was about an hour’s drive from me, so I was left in the care of Muslims who had made it clear that they didn’t value me except insomuch as I gave them an excuse to backbite.
What hurt most about learning of their consistent backbiting was realizing that they never really accepted me. I’d thought they loved and cared for me like a Muslim sister, and it cut deep to realize that they didn’t even love and care for me like a fellow human being.
As I battled feelings of rejection and abandonment, I continued to visit my mother and help her around the house. Her cancer was now in remission, and she seemed to be doing much better. This was good news, but I myself was going through a difficult time. Dr. Saleem was the only Muslim who seemed to understand my struggles and would respond compassionately and appropriately each time. He never made me feel like a bad Muslim for having depressive and manic episodes, and he didn’t try to convince me that ruqyah alone would solve all my problems. However, he did remind me that I should stay connected to Allah through prayer, du’aa, and reciting Qur’an to supplement my mental health treatments.
I listened to his advice and supplemented my medicine with du’aa and Qur’anic ruqyah, but I still battled debilitating depression. On more than one occasion, I was hospitalized in the psychiatric unit due to my suicidality and my fear that I would harm myself.
During my sickness, I spent day after day in the hospital, and I felt the depths of my loneliness. While other patients received calls and visits from loved ones, I received not a single phone call or visit from anyone. This was deeply hurtful mainly because I knew of the numerous prophetic narrations regarding the virtues of visiting the sick, and not a single Muslim showed up to get those blessings. Moreover, it was hard for me to reconcile their religiosity surrounding the alleged Islamic permission to backbite me, with their lack of religiosity surrounding the clear Islamic instructions to visit the sick.
When I was released from the hospital, I went home in a state of melancholy. I was no longer suicidal, but I was still lonely. I knew that no one would be there to greet me or welcome me or to say I was missed. My children lived with their father, but it was adult companionship that I longed. During this time, I wondered if I had even been mentally well when I made the decision to get a divorce.
As I battled my depressive and manic episodes, the mood stabilizer that Dr. Saleem had prescribed for me was helping tremendously. But I felt that it wasn’t helping enough. Though I knew I wasn’t supposed to, I began to increase my dosage of stimulants in hopes of feeling better faster and more often. Unfortunately, this ultimately led to me becoming addicted and suffering negative side effects. This addiction coupled with a sense of rejection and abandonment by the Muslims ultimately led me to drifting back to alcohol to comfort myself.
When I fell this far, I felt horrible and feared I was no longer Muslim. Everything I’d learned about Islam said that Muslims don’t drink, so I thought I couldn’t be Muslim anymore.
After being in remission for some time, my mother’s cancer came back aggressively. The doctors didn’t understand why this was happening, as she seemed to be doing fine previously. Facing this sudden bad news was extremely difficult for me, as my mother and I had grown so close. It was extremely difficult to see her so unwell. Though she herself had not become Muslim, she had always been supportive of me personally and spiritually. She had even become well-known in the Muslim community due to her frequent support of the school and Muslim events.
Somehow the news of my mother’s deteriorating health and hospitalization spread, and many women in the Muslim community wanted to come visit her. Many of them were the same women who had abandoned me, spread my faults, and said I’d effectively concocted a mental illness diagnosis so I could do whatever I wanted guilt-free. They were the same ones who’d felt they were given permission in Islam to backbite me because my manic episodes were “public deeds.” They were also the same women who hadn’t called or visited when I myself was unwell.
To add insult to injury, I felt it was at least partially due to their abandonment that my depressive episodes were so severe and that my suicidality landed me in the psychiatric unit of the hospital—where these women didn’t even feel it was necessary to call to check on me. But now, they wanted to visit my non-Muslim mother? Why?
“The sisters want to get blessings,” Halimah explained to me on the phone. The apologetic tone in her voice told me that even she saw the contradiction and hypocrisy in this.
“Blessings?” I nearly screamed into the receiver, I was so irate. “Doing what exactly?”
“Visiting the sick,” Halimah said tentatively, obligatory empathy in her tone. “Or maybe for da’wah?”
I grunted and rolled my eyes before responding sarcastically, “I think they taught my mother all she needed know about Islam with how they treated me.”
Halimah did not push the subject, and I appreciated her for that. But I wondered if she expressed my hurt and offense to a few other women because days later some sisters gave me a call to explain why they hadn’t called or visited in so long.
“We thought you weren’t Muslim anymore,” one woman explained, apology in her tone. She spoke as if she genuinely imagined that this would make it all better.
But you know my mother isn’t Muslim, I responded angrily in my mind. But I was too upset to speak my thoughts aloud. After talking with Halimah, I had a fairly good idea where this sudden compassion was coming from. They wanted to show my dying mother how kind and caring Muslims were in hopes of her converting to Islam.
The hurt and betrayal cut so deep that I couldn’t even think clearly after I hung up the phone. I was reminded of how kind and caring the community had been when I was the new Muslim, “Karen.” I recalled how proud they were of me when I followed all the do’s and don’ts they had outlined for me. I recalled how they put me on a pedestal and turned me into “the model Muslim” who was their spokesperson and promotional model at da’wah events. I recalled how good I felt about myself and my Muslim brothers and sisters at the time. I recalled how I’d actually imagined that I was part of a community, a faith family who would love and care for me no matter what.
We expected so much from you, Sakinah, I heard their condescending voices in my head. How could you do this to us? Shame on you!
Thinking of these women coming to my mother’s bedside sent me into dysphoric mania, followed by psychosis, I was so triggered by what I felt was gaslighting.
Spoken in the voice of Sakinah herself, this story gives a glimpse into the life of one Muslim woman as she finds her way from the darkness of uncertainty to become a passionate mental health advocate, whose blogs regularly appear on patheos.com and whose insightful perspective has been shared in The Mighty and Teen Vogue.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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