Mental Health and Islamic Reform

In my practice as a therapist in a Muslim society I have observed that orthodox interpretations of Islam contribute to social backwardness by causing significant personality distortions among a large number of people. For example, so many people feel inadequate and unworthy because they become convinced that they are not good Muslims, being unable to carry out the required rituals in the precise manner required. Distraction in salat is a big problem: people’s minds wander away from the memorized Arabic verses and they blame themselves for it. Since no help is available, only exhortations that not praying properly is a sin, people are afraid to talk about such issues and become more and more confused and paranoiac.

The traditional sermons in the mosques or their equivalent female “dars” gatherings try to make people “good” Muslims by inducing guilt for not living upto Allah’s expectations. Women are made to feel bad for simple things like dressing up and wearing nail polish. I know this from personal experience, as well as from numerous patients whose fear and guilt made them feel anxious, inhibited, repressed, and at times physically sick.

Many educated Muslims are now having the courage to challenge rules they don’t understand. They are not willing to sacrifice their happiness in this world for the promises of the next world. The idea that religion has to evolve and adapt with the needs of society is taking root among some Muslims.

The way women are viewed in the shariah is now a well known scandal and international embarrassment for us Muslims. The point to understand is that other religious traditions have progressed and so can we. Women cannot be priests in the Catholic Church or sit beside men in orthodox Jewish synagogues. But reform Biblical interpretations made possible emergence of progressive denominations like Reformed Churches and Reform Judaism. I believe there is no alternative but to have reform in Islam. Why Muslim women cannot pray together with men, or a female scholar give a khutbah and lead prayer? Women are created equal and not as servants to men. The fact is that women tend to have a better ability to be intuitive and relate to deeper feelings. With education and encouragement they can help make mosques as places of healing and nurture that most people are looking for. The concept that their presence in religious gatherings will excite men to distraction is just too dysfunctional and destructive in the modern world.

Discrimination against women is just one part of the self-imposed suffering. Tens of millions of Muslim people in the world live their lives in guilt and shame simply because they were born with homosexual preferences. In fundamentalist regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran, homosexual men are routinely killed by the state in the name of Islam. In other Muslim countries they are beaten and abused by police, teachers and relatives. Homosexual attraction is normal at some stage of life even for many people who are normally heterosexual. Such harsh repression means that nobody can talk about their feelings.

Life is a suffocating experience for young men and women because no legitimate contact is allowed before marriage. I am surprised at the large number of even educated people who consider their daughter liking a man to be a family dishonour. These archaic attitudes cause unnecessary family conflicts , violence and personality distortions that are transferred from generation to generation.

The repressed attitude towards sexuality has been prevalent so long that it has become institutionalized in Muslim societies everywhere. It is a mystery to me that preachers of Islam have made sex a dirty word for Muslims, never to be discussed or taught in a rational manner either in the mosque, or school or at home. The Prophet Muhammad discussed it freely and the Quran speaks of it without inhibitions and with notions that were progressive for the society in which Islam was first introduced. The Muslim society has to open itself to discussion of people’s sexual natures, their desires and the consequences of repressing or punishing these powerful human forces.

We must question the authenticity of religious teachers and scholars if their own lives are empty, miserable and un-inspiring. A genuine teacher of Islam has to be a mentor, who has learned to solve problems in his/her own life by connecting with deeper meanings and can teach such life-skills to others.

Let us face it. Either we will learn to incorporate modern knowledge of the human psyche in our understanding of Islam, or we as individuals and people will continue to be the neurotic world-haters that we are perceived as today. More and more Muslims will turn to other philosophies and ideas to solve their life issues. I believe that it does not have to be so. Within Islam there are deeper teachings that can help us lead happy and fulfilled lives.

Dr. Abdul Hafeez