It was my first ‘normal’ Friday after weeks of depression, though it still took effort to shove myself out of the house. I went to a sister’s house where a lecture was being held.
Amidst all those cheerful people, I was beginning to feel almost like a normal person.
Then it happened.
The teacher was talking about faith, occasionally looking at an Islamic book she was holding.
“Depression is a sign of weak iman [faith],” she said. *
Her eyes met my shocked ones. She smiled a bit and kept going.
That incident made me question myself in ways perhaps I hadn’t done before:
“Is my iman weak? Is that why I am suffering all this pain? Is that why my life comes to a standstill every now and then for weeks?”
About seven years have passed. I have travelled a long way along the thorn-strewn path of depression. I can’t say I have completely defeated the enemy, but Allah has helped me study and learn many of its attacking strategies.
In this article, I attempt to answer those painful questions, based on my own experience, so that those who’re now asking them can find their answers, if Allah wills.
What Depression is
Depression isn’t like your usual sadness. It is a persistent disease that affects your thoughts, moods, and behaviors. Not just that – it affects the very structure and function of your brain, and plays with your neurotransmitters.
Sadness is just one symptom of depression. Here are some others:
- Feeling tired and lethargic
- Persistent aches
- Digestive issues
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Eating too little or too much
- Losing interest in things you used to like
- Difficulty in concentrating, remembering and decision-making
- Feeling persistently sad, anxious, or “empty”
- Feeling guilty, worthless or helpless
- Thinking of or attempting suicide (WebMD)
Notice that the first few symptoms are physical and behavioral, showing that it’s not just ‘all in your mind’ and you can ‘snap out of it’.
Is Low Iman a Sign of Depression?
Research shows that there are plenty of non-Muslims who never have long-standing clinical depression in their life. Other non-Muslims recover from severe clinical depression through medicine and therapy – without accepting Islam.
Common sense says that low iman does not cause depression. Muslim psychologists have been trying to dispel this myth for years.
Depression is a very complex, nebulous disease whose roots are often hard to define. But researchers say that it’s to an extent genetic – if you have a relative with clinical depression, you’re five times more at risk. And it’s often triggered by a traumatic experience, such as the death of a parent or marital abuse.
How can a disease that has genetic and environmental causes – things that only Allah can control – be a sign of weak faith?
Also, psychiatrists can often completely cure depression only using antidepressants – pills that tweak with your neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin. But when you stop taking the medicines, depression comes back. That sounds like taking insulin injections for diabetes, a physical disorder.
Telling someone they have depression because they don’t have iman is like telling someone they have diabetes because they don’t pray salah.
High Iman Doesn’t Make Us Immune to Depression
The Quran describes a prophet who grieves over his lost son for decades, and, when he loses a second son, finally loses his eyesight out of sheer grief.
And he [Yaqub] turned away from them and said, “Oh, my sorrow over Yusuf,” and his eyes became white from grief, for he was [of that] a suppressor. (Quran, 12:84)
We can’t tell if Prophet Yaqub had depression or not, but it looks a lot like it. We do know for sure that his Iman was top-level. Yet he still felt this intense and long-standing grief for his lost son.
Depression is Linked to Iman in Another Way
Low iman doesn’t cause depression, but depression can cause low iman.
When I am in a depressive episode, it affects my iman in two ways:
Reduction in the Quantity and Quality of Worship
Depression can make you avoid acts of worship in the same way that a fever can do. You barely have the energy to drag yourself out of bed, make wudu and pray the obligatory prayer. Voluntary acts of worship don’t appear on the scene.
Also, depression weakens your power of concentration, and even when you’re doing an ibadah, it’s harder to focus on it.
My slave keeps on coming closer to Me through performing nafl [voluntary] deeds – till I love him. (Hadith Qudsi, Al Bukhari)
If you keep shirking some of your regular good deeds and perform the rest on autopilot mode, it can distance you from Allah.
Increased Susceptibility to Satanic Activity
Depression makes your brain work slower than usual, and you have more difficulty controlling thoughts. Your mind’s already in the clutches of cognitive distortions and thinking errors.
An opaque veil is blocking any ray of sunshine from touching you. You’re punching yourself in your mental stomach a hundred times a day out of self-hatred.
And then shaytan creeps in and whispers:
“You’re a loser.”
“Your husband’s a green monster.”
“Your future is a huge stinking garbage dump.”
And depression says, “Yes, that’s so true.”
At one point you get confused – is it my own soul speaking, or is it depression, or is it shaytan?
That’s why, if you’re in a depressive episode:
- Never ever miss your obligatory prayers, no matter how robotic it feels, and
- as much as you can, seek protection against shaytan. **
High Iman Can Give Immunity Against Some Symptoms of Depression
Having faith in Allah can protect you from two of the most dangerous symptoms of depression:
You know what Prophet Yaqub (peace be upon him) said right after his eyes became ‘white’ with crying?
O my sons! Go and search ˹diligently˺ for Yusuf and his brother. And do not lose hope in Allah’s mercy, for no one loses hope in Allah’s mercy except those with no faith. (12:87)
Depression isn’t a spiritual disease, but hopelessness is. If you believe in Allah and the hereafter, then no matter how long or murky the tunnel is, you’ll still see a tiny flicker of guiding light at the end of it. And that will give you the strength to endure.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
He who commits suicide by throttling shall keep on throttling himself (forever) in the Hellfire. (Al Bukhari)
That part of the hadith is enough to shield a true believer from suicide. He’d rather welcome the pseudo-hell of depression with open arms than keep strangling himself forever in the real Hellfire.
The essence of iman is your connection with Allah – a relationship of deep love. And love, unlike happiness, is an emotion you can feel during depression.
It all boils down to one question:
Do you love Allah?
If yes, then don’t be scared. Maybe your depression is actually elevating you to a higher level of Paradise.
The One you love He will pull you out of the abyss and make you thrive once again, inshaAllah.
* Paraphrasing from what I remember
Some useful resources for learning about shaytan and how to seek protection from him –
Satan is Clever… Here is One of His Tricks
4 Evils to Protect Yourself From
“ Weapons Against Shaytan”, by Muhammad Tim Humble
“How To Protect Yourself From Magic, Evil Eye & The Jinn”, ibid.
The World of the Jinn and Devils, by Sheikh Dr. Omar Bin Sulaiman Al-Ashqar
Exposing Shaytan, by Shawana Abdul-Azeez.