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Islamic practices and mental health

In this video, Dr Rothman describes three Islamic practices: salah, dua and dhikr and discusses the ways in which they can impact on the mental health
For the Muslim believer, religious practices are a large part of how their faith in God is realised. Islam is an embodied religion and includes many physical acts of worship, both inside and outside the mosque. These Islamic practices are intended to be integrated into one’s daily and otherwise mundane life as a way to bring the sacred in and to remember God, integrating the spiritual within the worldly existence. It’s therefore important to understand how some of these practices may impact mental health and ways in which Muslims seek mental health support. The main practice that Muslims are instructed by the Quran and the Sunnah to do on a daily basis is the Salah, the five daily prayers.
This is a physical act of worship that involves reading passages from the Koran while standing and going through multiple cycles of bowing and prostrating. There are certain times of the day when each of the five prayers are to be performed and they can either be done in a mosque, at home, at work, or even outside. As the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that the whole Earth is a place of prayer. This obligatory act of worship establishes a daily habit of resetting and grounding and it’s literally grounding oneself by putting one’s head on the ground.
In conventional Western mental health training for crisis intervention, we’re taught to have someone who is experiencing extreme panic or anxiety to get into what is called the foetal position where they are on their knees with their head on the floor, much in the same way a Muslim prostrates in prayer. So this physical position is grounding, it helps to calm a person and to centre themselves in their body connected to the earth to counteract our tendency to get caught up in our thoughts and our feelings of being out of control. So this five times daily practice that is integral to a Muslims way of life is a potentially great resource for building resiliency and emotional stability.
So the prayer is not just an abstract theological practice of asking God for things. It’s a physical practice that marries intention with action and gets one’s mind, body and soul aligned. It enacts the will to reset the person, ideally keeping them from getting caught up in the anxieties and complexities of daily life struggles that can be such a burden on people and really can affect their mental health in numerous ways. However, while this is a potential outcome, it’s not always the case, as some people may not be so intentional about the practice, and it can become simply a behavioural act.
While many Islamic practices can positively impact a person’s mental health, depending on their relationship to an understanding of the meaning of these practices, they can also become obstacles to addressing mental health issues and seeking mental health support. One example of this is the practice of making dua, or asking God to assist one in one’s affairs. In addition to the five daily prayers in the form of the Salah, Muslims are encouraged to ask God for help and for what they want. In the Quran it says, Call upon me and I will answer.
And while this can certainly be a positive resource for hope and resilience, this practice of asking for God to change one’s situation can become a type of what is known as spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is when a person uses spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional or psychological issues, to avoid doing the work of personal development. So Muslims have the potential to misuse the practice of making dua as a replacement for addressing their own mental health concerns. A popular practice is for people to go to a shaykh or an imam, a Muslim religious authority to ask for a special dua to overcome a difficulty instead of working through that difficulty.
The potential problem here is not that they make dua and ask for God’s help, but that they do this instead of taking self-accountability. While Muslims believe that everything is in God’s power and control, they are also instructed to take responsibility for their own inner state. In the Quran, it says Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. However, due to the stigma of mental illness and the misinformation about both Islamic principles and psychology, this practice can be a potential barrier for Muslims to seek mental health support. Dhikr, or remembrance, is a practice of repeating certain phrases in Arabic that are reminders of God similar to a mantra.
This widely adopted practice is one that was encouraged by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and can be done either after the five daily prayers or throughout the day as it can be a silent repetition of the phrase in one’s mind. This is a practice that can have an enormous benefit for one’s mental health, especially where a person struggles with negative or pervasive thoughts. The human mind naturally tends to perseverate, to get stuck on thought statements that can often reinforce maladaptive or negative thoughts, which then lead to emotional responses, behaviour patterns, anxiety, depression. And so the practice of dhikr can be a powerful tool to redirect that tendency of the mind toward a positive and beneficial outcome.
The idea is that it both reframes cognition towards something positive and connected to the person’s belief, but that eventually it also affects the heart and impacts the inner state of the person, not just their thoughts. This is an example of how Islamic practices familiar to most Muslims can be powerful and practical tools for positively impacting mental health

In this video, Dr Rothman describes three Islamic practices: salah (five daily prayers); dua (asking for God’s assistance) and dhikr (remembrance of God) and discusses the ways in which they can impact on the mental health of Muslims.

Religious practices integrate the spirituality of Muslims into their everyday lives. It is therefore helpful for practitioners to be familiar with these practices, to understand their significance and role in the day-to-day lives of the Muslims they support.

Dr Rothman explains that Islamic religious practices can be “powerful and practical tools for positively impacting mental health”, highlighting the ways in which these practices can be used as psychotherapeutic tools to build stability and resilience.

However, practitioners should also be aware that Islamic religious practices may also affect mental health in less positive ways. For example, when religious coping through religious practice is taken as an alternative to seeking mental health support. In the next step, Dr Rothman outlines the impacts of religious beliefs on Muslim mental health.

In this video at 03:38 Dr Abdallah Rothman says: “call upon me and I will answer.” The quotation from the Qur’an referred to reads:

Your Lord has proclaimed, “Call upon Me, I will respond to you. Surely those who are too proud to worship Me will enter Hell, fully humbled.” (Qur’an 60:41)

Over to you

Think about one of the practices that Dr Rothman mentions in the video (salah; dua; dhikr), and consider the following.

  • Is this practice similar to any of the methods you use to provide mental health support?
  • How would you feel about incorporating it into the mental health support you provide, do you have experience of doing this?

Add your thoughts to the comments below.

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Understanding Mental Health in Muslim Communities

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