Najwa Awad is a psychotherapist and fellow at the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research who is passionate about helping Muslims heal, grow, and thrive after adversity. She has a private practice, Amanah Family Counseling, in which she provides online and in-person counseling to children, adults, and families. Najwa also enjoys giving workshops to destigmatize mental illness, address current mental health issues within the community, and promote psychological health from an Islamic perspective.
Islam provides a general framework on life, and within its teachings one can find many recommendations that promote mental health. Although these tenants are inherently acts of worship, the secondary benefits of maintaining one’s wellness through these actions is supported by modern day research. As a psychotherapist I can attest to the importance of spirituality on mental health, and in this article will discuss three important connections between Islamic practices and mental wellness.
1. Connection & Love to the Ultimate Provider
The greatest need human beings have after their basic necessities are met is love and connection. Healthy attachment is essential to growth, meeting one’s full potential and building meaningful relationships with others. Some people are blessed with an understanding of healthy attachment with loved ones; however many individuals go through life feeling disconnected to others. In the absence of healthy attachments humans tend to be at greater risk for isolation, low self-esteem, unstable mood.1
In my clinical practice I’ve found that those who have a healthy and loving attachment to Allah can be phenomenally resilient during times of hardship. When others have let them down or stressors are too much, they have firm faith that Allah has their best interest at heart and will carry them through. Let’s examine some aspects of how a relationship with Allah is different than any other type of relationship a person can have:
An Ever-Present Connection
Humans in their most beloved relationships can struggle to communicate and understand each other’s needs, but Allah tells us in the Quran that He understands our thoughts and experiences in a way nobody else can apprehend. This connection, of knowing someone is with you and understands you no matter what, can be a great starting place for emotional security.
“And We have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than [his] jugular vein.” (Quran, 50:16)
“…When I love him I become his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his leg with which he walks; and if he asks (something) from Me, I give him, and if he asks My Protection (refuge), I protect him”. [Al- Bukhari]
An Ever-Abundant Relationship
As humans we can expect consistent and equal reciprocity from others at best, as most human beings do not have the capacity to give more than they receive over long periods of time without resentment or burnout. Allah tells us that He will not just meet us where we are at in effort, but will always surpass our undertakings to become closer to Him:
“Allah the Almighty said: I am as My servant thinks I am (1). I am with him when he makes mention of Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself; and if he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. And if he draws near to Me an arm’s length, I draw near to him a cubit, and if he draws near to Me a cubit, I draw near to him a fathom. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed…” [Al-Bukhārī]
Allah tells the believer in the Quran that He loves them and that there is no greater bond than when serving Him. For Muslims this love, attachment and privilege can feel overwhelmingly satisfying.
“Say, [O Muhammad], “If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Quran, 3:31)
“….So whoever disbelieves in false gods and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” (Quran, 2:256)
2. Sense of Self & identity
In a world in which many people demonstrate a personality ethic instead of a character ethic, meaning individuals care more about how their personalities appear to others instead of actually internalizing those characteristics2, the Quran does an excellent job of highlighting important characteristics for both worldly and spiritual success. Allah outlines these characteristics throughout the Quran and few examples include:
“… Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly. (Quran, 5:42)
“…And Allah loves the steadfast. (Quran, 3:146)
“Who spend [in the cause of Allah] during ease and hardship and who restrain anger and who pardon the people – and Allah loves the doers of good.” (Quran, 3:134)
Why are knowing and embodying positive characteristics important for mental health? Understanding who you are or want to be can contribute to a strong sense of self; something psychotherapists like myself work on with clients in session to increase self-esteem, life purpose and healthy relationships. Falling back on core healthy characteristics during times of hardship can also be guiding in how one handles interpersonal conflict, difficult feelings and ethical uncertainties.
3. Islam Promotes a Healthy Way of Life
Muslims follow the tenants of Islam out of conviction, but there are many mental health benefits in following an Islamic lifestyle. Below are a few of the many acts of worship that have been demonstrated to have mental health benefits in scientific literature:
Zakat: Almsgiving is one of the pillars of Islam. Research shows that giving charity increases happiness equivalent to the happiness correlated with doubling one’s income.3
Fasting: Fasting is another pillar of Islam that has been demonstrated to have medical benefits4, and mental health benefits5. Psychologically, fasting can increase discipline and goal oriented thinking. It also increases consciousness of God and can help one relate more to those who have less than them.
Prayer: Another pillar of Islam that has benefits beyond spirituality are the five daily prayers. The physical movements of prayer are good for the body and psychologically there are mental health benefits to consistently connecting to a Higher Power throughout the day6. Reciting the Quran, which can be a part of the prayer, also has shown to have some psychological benefits.7
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is typically associated with Buddhism, but is actually a very important topic in Islam8. While mindfulness has more recently emerged in clinical research as having mental health benefits9, this is a practice that has been discussed (albeit a little different than mainstream mindfulness) by Muslim scholars hundreds of years ago.
There are many aspects of practicing Islam that promote good mental health, and this article just scratches the surface of how spirituality can increase resiliency. I’ve found in my psychotherapy practice that spirituality can be very effective in decreasing risk factors as well as facilitating coping. While these Islamic principles are first and foremost acts of worship, the secondary benefits towards mental health are evident throughout scientific literature.