‘Then do you remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and reject not Faith’ (2:152)
I have a special connection with one of my cousins. We don’t talk often, but we share something that surpasses even the long-distance silence: we both suffer from anxiety, and have a history of depression. In a society which is slowly starting to have the honest, non-judgemental conversation about mental illness, we are each other’s rest and repose for sharing our experiences with each other, and providing a safe space in which to be heard and understood. It is an invaluable source of strength and companionship for me. She was the first to bravely share her condition with me, and that gave me the courage and language to air something which I hadn’t even acknowledged to myself. The difference between the years of silence and suddenly bringing forth a hidden part of me into the light of shared dialogue highlighted the loneliness I unknowingly felt in carrying around this stressful condition, and the relief of finally being able to talk about it like I wasn’t exposing myself to confusion, pity, and extreme awkwardness.
Lonely as I might have felt, my cousin and I are not alone: according to Time to Change, one in four people will suffer from mental illness this year.
My cousin and I also share another special connection: a deep commitment to our faith, a spirituality with healthy and inquisitive roots. Again, we are not alone: I believe as Muslims we are part of a privileged (and large!) community for whom reaching for God is a normal, even ingrained, part of our everyday lives.
We are invited to do it, which I always find an extraordinary honour: Allah SWT wants us to remember Him, call upon Him, ask of Him, and rely upon Him. Thinking about Allah SWT is part of my quotidian existence, and as I exchanged thoughts and feelings with my cousin about our anxiety, faith was also interwoven into our conversation. It is natural for us to look at our situation through the lens of faith, and through that seek some better understanding of what it means and how to handle it.
How do we as believers turn to Allah SWT with an affliction like anxiety or depression – nebulous, devilishly pervasive conditions which are not only difficult to define but explain, pin down, and handle?
Can faith even help us tackle the dark, dangerous vortex of predatory thoughts and feelings which can make even Allah SWT feel out of reach?
During one of our conversations, my cousin said something which struck me. She said that maybe her anxiety made her closer to God, and it was a positive thing for her.
I could see why she would say that: my experience of anxiety was like being helplessly caught up in an ever-tightening knot of concerns, worries, and heightened fears about any number of terrible outcomes happening in response to a situation, and it drove me to despair. When I was having more pronounced episodes, I would pray frantically and beg to be spared from the potential, unrealised terrors that tortured me morning and night. Anxiety would drive me to the prayer mat and unleash an emergency level of worship – nafl fasts, paying sadaqah, reading tasbihs and extra nafl prayers, and so on. Plus, I felt alone, and extremely helpless, and in that state I was acutely aware that only Allah SWT could save me and grant relief. So I turned to Allah more than I normally would. I could understand her point of view. It’s not an unusual view in Islam to see troubles as a prompt to remember Allah SWT.
‘O seeker of the Truth!’ Rumi said, ‘Be happy if you have sorrows! They are the tricks of reunion that the Beloved has set for you since one remembers Allah and seeks refuge in Him when one is overcome by sorrow’.
Yet…I feel a little uneasy with the conclusion that anxiety is somehow a vehicle for remembering Allah SWT; that it is somehow a good thing for that reason. I can understand that in times of trouble we should turn to Allah SWT, and there is great comfort and relief in doing so, but I struggle with the idea that troubles of any kind, mental illness or otherwise, are a foundation for strengthening and maintaining faith.
I recalled the verses from the Qur’an which warn us against what I call ‘fair-weather faith’: turning to Allah SWT in times of trouble, only to forget Him again when He has answered our prayers and granted relief.
‘When trouble toucheth a man he crieth unto Us (in all postures) lying down on his side or sitting or standing. But when We have solved his trouble he passeth on his way as if he had never cried to Us for a trouble that touched him! Thus do the deeds of transgressors seem fair in their eyes!’
This passage, from the beautiful Surah Yunus, is followed by an explanation of the fate of those who maintain a fair-weather faith, and fail to recognise the ‘Clear Signs’ which demonstrate Allah SWT’s many blessings and mercies towards His creation. We are reminded that Allah SWT is the One who sustains us ‘(in life) from the sky and from the earth’; He is the One who has ‘power over hearing and sight’; who ‘rules and regulates all affairs’; who can do what no other ‘partner’ non-believers might hold up against Him; who has revealed the Qur’an, which cannot be replicated, no matter how others may try (10:31-37). It seems to point to a faith that is grounded in belief in God for His own sake, in recognition of His immense Power, Grace, Mercy, and Knowledge. It is in consequence of such a faith that we would turn to Him in times of trouble, but a faith that sits on the shifting sands of personal circumstance is warned against.
To be clear, this is categorically not a criticism of anybody who has discovered a new depth to their faith because they have turned to Allah SWT in times of trouble. I have done it myself, but I challenge myself to maintain the same level of faith that I had ‘pre-trouble’ as I had during.
It is a personal fear that I become dependent on anxiety, stress, difficulty in any form to keep me connected to Allah SWT, and I do not want my faith to be built on that.
I do not want that to distract me from the purer, more stable faith which I know is possible, and I believe I am invited to have, which exists independent of the circumstances in my life.
It is a high aspiration, for we are tested by our circumstances in many ways, but I do not want to rely on troubles to keep me connected to Allah SWT, because His very existence should be enough, and the innumerable blessings that He has granted me. I don’t want to rely on what I don’t have to remember Allah SWT; I want to rely on His Presence as my Creator, and what He has granted me – and there is always something, even in times of trouble. I am reminded of Rabia al-Basri’s powerful words, which set the standard for an aspirational level of faith:
‘O Lord if I worship you for the fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship You in the hope of paradise, forbid it to me. And if I worship You for Your sake alone, do not deprive me of Your eternal Beauty’.
It is a privilege and a blessing to turn to Allah SWT in times of trouble; He wants us to ask of Him, but the Qu’ran also warns against fair-weather faith, where our reliance on Allah SWT depends on our troubles. There is also a risk of making anxiety or other mental illness acceptable or even desirable because it can make someone turn to God and encourage faith. Knowing Allah SWT is closeby is a huge comfort in any situation, but my personal aspiration is to nurture a faith which supports me in my troubles, and not to use my troubles to support my faith.