Mental illness and Islam
Mental illness and its effects on the individual are often misunderstood and negatively construed in communities and cultures across the world. The Muslim community is no different. Often, Muslim individuals are stigmatized and families are rejected and isolated for their association with mental illness, addiction and suicide (Pridmore & Pasha, 2004). The purpose of this paper is to provide a brief introduction to mental illness as viewed by Islam in order to raise awareness and dispel some of the myths and stereotypes held by the community about people with mental health issues.
Mental illness is broadly defined as a disorder that affects a person’s cognitive, social, emotional and/or behavioural state or abilities (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Islam views mental illness as a condition that results from an unbalanced lifestyle (diet, sleeping patterns, spiritual activities, and remembrance of God) or an unbalanced body (Rahman, 1998). Many prevalent definitions of mental illness are related to the culture of geographic areas. Popular beliefs in Middle Eastern, African and Asian cultures view mental illness as: a punishment from God; a result of possession of evil spirits (Jinn); the effects of evil eye; and the effects of evil in objects that are transferred to the individual (the evil is put into the object by someone with malicious intent) (Stein, 2000; Pridmore & Pasha, 2004). Traditionally, Islam does not link all mental illnesses to supernatural causes (Rahman). Furthermore, one of the early Muslim scholars in psychiatric health care, Ibn Sina, rejected the popular notion that mental illnesses originated from evil spirits (Pridmore & Pasha). It is important to note that supernatural causes to illnesses are widely acknowledged and are considered very real within Islam. However, as a Muslim community, we need to recognize mental illness as a legitimate medical condition that is distinct from illnesses of a supernatural nature. In this way, individuals can acknowledge or accept their mental illness and seek treatment with more community support and less stigma associated with their diagnoses.
Within Islam, as in Canada, mental illness is not synonymous with ‘insanity’. Insanity is a legal term that is generally defined in Islam as an ‘impairment of the mind’ that creates an inability to understand and prevents people from acting and speaking with reason (Dols, 2007). Historically, Islamic law protects people who are determined to be legally ‘insane’ by a psychiatrist. For example, a guardian is appointed to protect such an individual’s property. Although the person is considered to be a Muslim if his family is Muslim, he or she is not obligated to fulfill the pillars of the faith (e.g., five daily prayers) (Dols, 2007). The concept of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ was established in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) approximately seven centuries before records show that the Western world first acquitted an individual based on mental state (Pridmore & Pasha, 2004). In Islam, there is a legal process whereby the victims of crime are compensated for losses that resulted from the crime; however, individuals deemed ‘insane’ are not held accountable or punishable.
Now that we understand the definition of mental illness and insanity and potential sources of mental illness, what does Islam say about treatment options? It is likely that some of the first psychiatric hospitals in the world were built in parts of the Muslim world including Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus. In these institutions, patients received treatment that was both spiritual and ‘biomedical’ in nature (Pridmore & Pasha, 2004). Today, Muslims continue to develop theories and practices about healing and treatment within Islam (Rowe, 2003). Treatment modalities change with time and through space (again, culture influences treatment methods). One consistent factor is that everything is linked to a God-Centric world view; thus, traditional medicine, folk practices and biomedical approaches to treatment are complementary in nature. For example, in Morocco, mental illness is medically defined and is treated using psychiatric models similar to the West. However, at the grassroots level and often within the psychiatric institution, many Moroccans use protective amulets and recite verses from the Qur’an (Islam’s Holy Scripture) to facilitate the treatment process (Stein, 2000). This level of spiritual, cultural and psychosocial care is not unique to the Muslim world. The Moroccan example illustrates how two mental health frameworks are integrated and applied.
This short paper has provided a cursory overview of some of the key points of mental illness within Islam. The purpose intended is to increase our understanding of mental illnesses and thereby, treat people with mental illnesses with compassion and empathy, and encourage participation and inclusion within our pluralistic communities.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
- Dols, M. W. (2007). Historical perspective: Insanity in Islamic law. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 2, 81-99.
- Pridmore, S., & Pasha, M.I. (2004). Religion and spirituality: Psychiatry and Islam. Australasian
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- Rahman, F. (1998). Health and medicine in the Islamic tradition. Chicago: ABC International Group, Inc.
- Rowe, A. (2003). Honey, hadiths, and health day: A spectrum of healing in the daily life of Boston
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- Stein, D. (2000). Views of mental illness in Morocco: Western medicine meets the traditional symbolic. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 163, 1468-1470.