My parents converted to Islam as young adults in the late 1970s. Choosing to become Muslim changed my parents’ health behaviors immediately. I was born to two people who, in love with their new way of life, no longer consumed pork, alcohol, and tobacco, preferred men and women separated at gatherings, fasted during the month of Ramadan, and joined a community of like-minded converts to sustain their practice and grow religiously. Islam does not separate day-to-day action from belief; therefore the behaviors that my parents immediately accepted as a common daily practice were not simply rituals performed during certain times of the year. My parents’ conversion to Islam was their attempt to create a new and better life for themselves and my family. Interestingly, while the physical health behaviors of my parents changed almost immediately, the mental health challenges remained the same among my uniquely Muslim nuclear family and my non-Muslim extended family.
In college, I would read magazine articles about women experiencing depression, domestic violence, or self-esteem/self-worth issues. I believed I was immune to those kinds of problems because of my Muslim identity and upbringing. It was not until a devastating personal experience that I was forced to ask myself hard questions that I needed help in answering. In that journey of truth and reconciliation, I discovered that I was not immune to mental health challenges, and I began to wonder about resources in my community to help me recognize and break dysfunctional family habits and behaviors. With so many questions, I sought help from a therapist and began to read anything related to Muslim mental health.
While on this journey, I read two articles that changed my life: “Minding Our Minds – the Lost Skill of Disciplining Our Own Thoughts” and “Minding Our Minds – Thinking Our Way to the House of Joy on Earth” by Leslie Schaffer and Kamal Shaarawy. In these articles, printed in Al-Jumuah Magazine, the authors destigmatize counseling and normalize mental health problems. They offer solutions from an Islamic perspective, citing the Qur’an, hadith, and classic books by Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazli, and Syed Qutb. The biggest lesson from their articles is that Islam is a transformational religion. The answers for any affliction we experience in life can be found in the Qur’an and sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). How is it that we have excelled with performance of the physical health routines and not the mental health ones? This question led me to study health behavior at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
What I have learned in my first year of graduate school is that behavior change is a unique and delicate process and that the most important determinant of behavioral change is intention. This is a foundational concept of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said, “Actions are only by intention and every man shall have what he intended.” About this statement, Imam ash-Shaf’i said, “This hadith is a third of all knowledge.” The connection of intention and action is important and the major difference between “My intention is to stop overeating” and “My intention is to understand why I choose to eat in manner that is unhealthy and against the core tenets of my faith, so that I can stop this behavior.”
As I mature in my faith, I better recognize the depth of protection God provides for our mental health with a religion that offers instruction for every action – from how to enter a room and use the bathroom to how to bury the dead. I believe part of the answer to the aforementioned question is explained by the gap in communication about why we engage in the common daily behaviors that characterize Muslims all over the world and how those behaviors are a protection for our complete mental and physical health in our particular environment. For example, it’s important to understand the unique challenges Muslims encounter while living in America. In talking about alcohol, it’s imperative that discussions focus around the Islamic prohibition of alcohol within an educational context that also offers solutions to prevent its use.
Alcohol and other challenges that face American Muslims are often different from those of Muslims in other countries. In fact, the challenges of Muslims living in Durham, North Carolina, are different than those living in San Diego, California. Understanding communities in the context of their environment is necessary to promote health through the religion to influence informed intention-making practices of members. In addition to this gap in communication, many of our communities lack the patience, understanding, training, and effort to support the holistic well being of its members.
I believe mosques in the United States are in a unique position to engender sustainable change in individual lives for the creation of healthy, creative, and progressive communities. I once heard Dr. Abdul-Hakim (Sherman) Jackson say that we are all human beings first because if we stopped practicing Islam we would still be human beings. Just as Schaffer and Shaarawy did in their articles, we need Muslim health professionals to promote mental health well being by explicating knowledge from the religion and developing strategies to communicate that knowledge to the community. But first we have to accept that Muslims, all Muslims, are simply imperfect beings who practice a perfect religion.