TW: This post discusses suicide, suicidal ideation, bereavement and death
Suicide is rarely discussed in the Muslim community and as a result many Muslims are suffering immeasurable and significant levels of psychological pain unnecessarily. I am a Muslim woman and I know for a fact that suicide is an unspoken issue in our community. The unfortunate reason that I can say this with such conviction is because I have lost a loved one to suicide. I have written this article with the heartfelt desire to raise awareness of this critically important issue.
Before my loved one died by suicide, I had only heard of two other Muslim suicides. Looking back now, I can’t believe how naive I was. How can it possibly be true that only two people in the Muslim community over 20 years took their own lives? I now know that the stories I had heard of were sadly just the tip of the iceberg. Suicide happens in the Muslim community, just as it happens in any other community.
As Muslims, we are human too, and suicidal thoughts are part of the spectrum of the human condition. We just don’t talk about it. Hand in hand with that denial is ignorance of the fact that when we brush something under the carpet, we are not making the problem go away. We are just making it far worse.
There are no current specific statistics for the suicide rate within the UK Muslim community. According to the latest statistics, in 2021 the overall suicide rate in England and Wales was 10.7 per 100,000 . There are an estimated 3.3 million Muslims in the UK . Put these two figures together and we would at current rates expect there to be around 361 suicides in the Muslim community per year . That’s almost one Muslim dying by suicide every day in the UK. This figure does not take into account the number of suicide attempts by Muslims in the UK which did not lead to death.
A recent study in 2022 suggested that Muslim countries have lower than average suicide rates . The authors concluded more research was needed to investigate the reasons behind this, as it is impossible to know whether this finding is due to the impact of religious belief or due to underreporting in these countries. It is important to remember that this study was comparing Muslim majority countries, and perhaps a more relevant study to look at is the analysis of the rate of suicide attempts amongst Muslims in the USA, based on research published in 2021 . This study found that the suicide rate was twice that of other faith groups (including those of no faith). This research is a more useful comparison, as the USA study is not assessing Muslim-majority countries. Instead it is looking at Muslims as a minority community in a liberal democracy in the West, hence transferability of the conclusions from this study to the UK experience would be more suitable.
Sajid Javid is one of the few Muslims in the UK who have spoken publicly about losing someone to suicide. Former health secretary in the UK and someone who describes himself as of Muslim heritage, he suffered the tragic loss of his brother by suicide in 2018. Saijd Javid has described how he was told to lie about the cause of death because of the stigma attached to mental health . Inayat Bunglawala, former media secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, lost his son to suicide in 2021. Inayat Bunglawala has written about the need for communities to move away from suicide being a subject of controversy, and instead for people, and especially religious communities, to come to a point where suicide is viewed in a similar way to a death by cancer in terms of our attitudes and our response .
Death by suicide is a traumatic event that can affect a large circle of people beyond immediate family and friends. It is estimated that around 135 people are affected by every death by suicide . In the Muslim community such a death can be considered shameful and this hampers the ability of those with suicidal thoughts to seek help, and it prevents families from getting adequate support if they are sadly bereaved in this way . Umair Ahmed, the director of Janazah Community Services, a Muslim funeral home in Brooklyn, New York, has talked about how the desire to preserve family privacy can drive the containment of information around the cause of death. He sees around one suicide a month in his funeral home, yet the issues of mental illness and suicide are rarely discussed as a collective . As noted above, with one death by suicide nearly every day in the Muslim community in the UK, the topic of suicide needs to be addressed urgently.
Yet community leaders themselves are also reluctant to talk about suicide. Perhaps this is due to a fear of rocking the boat amongst the people they serve or because they lack the skills to deal with such a complex issue. Either way, it is likely that this hesitancy is linked to a simplistic understanding of the religious position regarding suicide. Religious scholars and leaders need to do more to understand the topic of suicide in a more nuanced manner, and to share this amongst their communities.
As described below, this would involve shifting the perspective amongst Muslims to one that links suicide to poor mental health, as opposed to a lack of or weakness of iman or a failing in the observance of a religious prohibition. This paradigm shift can happen if we look at the hadith that reference forgiveness alongside mental health, and remind Muslims about the removal of responsibility for actions when mental illness is present. Perspectives which link suicide prevention to the well-known reward of saving a life can also be highlighted. In the United States, there is a major programme being rolled out by Maristan across the country which aims to train 500 community leaders in suicide prevention strategies. This will go a huge way towards challenging the stigma around suicide, and such a programme, if implemented here, could have the potential to make a massive difference in the UK too.
It is really important to note that all communities have stigmatising views around suicide – the Muslim community is no different in this respect. It has been suggested by Carpiniello and Pinna (2017) that to an extent, the negative attitude towards suicide in the Muslim community can create protective factors, and this is certainly something that many Muslim scholars would probably argue. However Carpiniello and Pinna also note that a simplistic approach is not helpful because in general, stigma can increase suicidality because it increases psychological distress . With this in mind, we must all do better.
The best way to break down the stigma around suicide – which can be lifesaving on a mass scale – is to start talking about it. Those with suicidal thoughts, and the families who are grieving the loss of someone who has died by suicide, would not be stigmatised in the same way if the illness had been cancer or a heart condition. The Muslim community needs to start addressing attitudes to suicide and mental illness so that we reach a stage where singling out people affected by suicide and mental illness become unacceptable. The worsening crisis of mental health during and since the pandemic is only going to lead to more deaths by suicide if the Muslim community does not change.
One of the most famously quoted verses in the Quran is on the topic of saving lives and the reward for doing so. Allah tells Muslims in the Quran:
“whoever saves the life of one human being, it shall be as if he had saved the whole of humankind…” (Quran 5:32).
Instead of viewing suicide as a taboo, we need to start to think about suicide prevention. Suicide prevention is fully in the spirit of this Qur’anic verse. As Dr Rania Awaad MD points out, suicide prevention is actually a Fard Kifayah (collective obligatory duty) upon the Muslim community . Despite some progress amongst the Muslim community in the last couple of decades in understanding mental health, much of this narrative has focussed on depression (and there is still huge progress to be made in this area). There is rarely talk of mental illnesses at the more severe end of the spectrum, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia; or where there is discussion it is often filled with fear and misunderstanding.
Collectively across all mental health conditions, the outdated views held by some Muslims such as depression always being triggered by weak religious faith, or an entrenched distrust of mainstream services, mean that Muslims still have some reluctance to seek help when they experience a decline in their mental health. The impact of this is huge. The problems don’t go away immediately, and this reluctance to get help can mean a decline in mental health lasts longer than it needs to, or mental health deteriorates. This can eventually lead to hospital admissions, perhaps under a section in order to keep the person safe, or at worst, as in my family’s experience, it can mean that a person takes their own life.
Estimates from an oft-quoted statistic in suicide research state that 90% of people who die by suicide are those who are depressed or mentally ill . Some have recently questioned whether this is an overestimate, but there is a clear consensus amongst most people in suicide research that suicide usually happens within the context of mental illness .
Mental illness, depending on its severity, can hamper the ability of someone to make decisions, and the decision we are discussing here is quite literally life-changing. If affected by mental illness, an individual is not necessarily making such an important decision from their own rational mind with full control. As Muslims we know that there is leniency in our faith towards those with some mental health conditions because they are not considered to be completely in control of their actions. Yet we rarely consider that leniency in our discussions around suicide. Of course, we don’t want to encourage others to see any positives in such drastic action of ending their own life and being careful about language is a major principle of suicide prevention. However, by ignoring the issue completely we instead deny people with suicidal thoughts the ability to seek the help they need; and we also stigmatise the loved ones left behind.
It is undeniably true that suicide is seen as a sin due to clear injunctions in the Qu’ran telling Muslims not to kill themselves. That prohibition does not necessarily mean that one who dies by suicide will be punished however, because they may not be accountable for their actions due to their mental state at the time of death. We should not be scared to say this, and we should not be fearful of this perspective encouraging suicide. Allah alone knows what is in people’s hearts. At the end of the day, it really is best we leave all judgment to Allah, the Most Just .
Voicing the potential for forgiveness is not actually about telling people it is OK to end their lives because they will be forgiven (and besides, that is not what is being stated). It instead has two very significant other benefits:
Suicide deaths are preventable right up to the last moment, as Professor Rory O’Connor, Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Glasgow Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory and President of the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), tells us :
“For some, suicide is about bullying, divorce, the loss of a job. For others, it is about bereavement, bankruptcy, shame, discrimination, loss of benefits or illness. It is about how we respond to stressful events and circumstances as well as the cards that we are dealt at birth. But it is important to remember that suicide is never inevitable. It is preventable right up until the final moment”.
That is a fact. We CAN prevent suicide and we all have a role to play in that. Any efforts to do so carry with them a huge reward as Allah promised in the Qu’ran in the aforementioned verse.
If you are short of time and want to take the simplest of actions, please share this article to help others benefit and start the conversations on suicide that need to happen in our community.
If you have a little more time, please spend just a few minutes completing the Zero Suicide Alliance online training, which will help you broaden your understanding of suicide, how to get help and how to support those around you who may be feeling suicidal.
If you are experiencing mental health problems and suicidal thoughts, know that you are not alone, though you may feel that way. There are resources available to you and professionals and support systems that you can reach out to. I cannot guarantee that seeking help will not be without its problems, but I implore you to try because it is more likely to lead to a better outcome than suffering in silence.
If you are supporting a loved one, don’t be shy to ask them if they are feeling suicidal. You could save their life. You may think, as I did and as so many do, that by asking this question you are putting ideas into someone’s mind. Evidence, however, shows the opposite is in fact the case and that acknowledging and talking about suicide can actually reduce suicidal ideation . By asking directly about suicide, you are showing someone you care. You might be the person who encourages your loved one to get the help they need.
Try to help support your loved one along the journey to get the care they deserve, and look after your wellbeing whilst doing so. Seek out any support you may need on this journey. Many Muslims are fearful of mainstream services. Services are indeed under huge pressure and by no means perfect, but you can have an important and meaningful role to play to help advocate for your loved one to ensure that they do receive the standard of care they deserve.
If you don’t fall into any of the above categories, spend some time learning more about mental health. With 1 in 4 people suffering from a mental health problem at some time in their lives, we will all be touched by mental illness in some way at some point. If we are better informed to help look after our own mental health and that of those around us, we can reduce the number of people who feel suicidal.
There are some important things the Muslim community needs to do as well. Imams in the UK need to talk more about suicide and mental health and raise awareness of how to respond. Imams may also be the first port of call to some Muslims in distress, and Imams need to have some basic level of understanding of how to support someone who is suicidal. To do this, we need more training for our Imams and our community leaders. Dr Rania Awaad in the US, Stanford University and US based mental health research and education body Maristan, are pioneering some groundbreaking work in this area. In particular they have developed some brief and user friendly guidelines for talking about suicide in Jummah khutbas, which are easily available on Maristan for anyone looking to do this in their local mosque.
We also need to support those bereaved by suicide much, much better. The stigma of suicide makes such a painful death only more so. That I have had to share what I have to say anonymously is enough to indicate that we have a long way to go. I pray this article goes far and wide to help start that collective journey. That is a journey which can quite literally save lives and save our Ummah from crumbling from within.
It is my sincere hope that the conversation around mental health, suicide and the Muslim community can start to happen at all levels. By this I mean discussions within our immediate families, our extended families, amongst our friends, within our own social spheres, within local communities and across the Muslim community as a whole. Currently in the UK, almost every day a Muslim ends their own life by suicide. It’s time for us, each and every one of us, to do what we can to stop this needless loss of life.
Here are some support services you can reach out to for help, whether you are feeling suicidal yourself, or you are supporting a loved one who is suicidal. Hopefully you will get the help you need, and if you don’t the first time, please don’t give up and instead try one of the other support services. Please also reach out to your friends and family who can support you and show you you are not alone.
If you are in crisis:
Note: Samaritans and the Muslim Youth Helpline also help in non-crisis situations, if you just want to talk to someone. You can also search online for your local crisis services, which should be available 24/7.
If you are supporting someone who has, or who you are worried might have, mental health problems or thoughts of suicide:
For long term support if you are having or have had thoughts of ending your life:
For more information about suicide:
If you have been bereaved by suicide:
Note : The data for the suicide rate used here is for England and Wales only. Suicide data for the UK is broken down per nation. The suicide rates in other nations of the UK are slightly higher. For ease of reference the lowest figure, and the figure that relates to the nation in which most Muslims reside, i.e. that of England and Wales, has been used. The data for the Muslim community is for whole of the UK, and there are no recent reliable statistics for the Muslim community in each nation. Nevertheless with these caveats in mind, the figure of 361 suicides in the Muslim community in the UK is taken as a reasonable estimate.
This piece was written by a member of the Amaliah community. If you would like to contribute anonymously, drop us an email us on firstname.lastname@example.org