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Why do Muslims seek mental health support from imams?

Dr Mansur Ali asks why do Muslims seek mental health support from imams?
© Cardiff University, Muhammad Mansur Ali

If religion is viewed as the fourth emergency service, it is inevitable that people will resort to professional practitioners and guides of religion for help. For many Muslims this help is found in the person of the mosque imam.

The word ‘imam’ is an Arabic word with multiple meanings. It’s basic meaning is ‘to lead’ or a ‘leader’. Anyone who ‘leads’ is an imam. However, in common usage, the word ‘imam’ refers to a male who has been employed to lead the daily prayers in a mosque. The imam is employed in the mosque because he has gone through some form of religious training, the most fundamental of which is to accurately recite the Qur’an. The imam’s knowledge of the religion as well as his position in the mosque confers upon him an authority where people seek him out for religious advice. However, the imam does not necessarily need to be employed by a mosque. The imam can also be a chaplain, in which case the role is not confined to men. The imam can also be an itinerant religious scholar, not associated with a mosque, or an internet celebrity.

In addition to the imam’s primary duty of leading the prayers, there are other duties he is responsible for including teaching children, blessing new-borns, officiating marriages, and conducting funeral rites (you can remember these three roles as: hatching, matching, and dispatching). Furthermore, there are some duties which are not contracted but assumed and come with the role of an imam. These include marriage and dispute resolution, Islamic divorce proceedings, interfaith dialogue, issuing fatwas (non-binding Islamic opinions) on all sorts of matters from the mundane to the ethically complicated. How does one offer the funeral prayer? Is it permissible to invest in crypto currency? Is abortion permissible? Is one allowed to donate their organs? If cryogenics are permissible, what happens to the soul? And many more.

Because so many people turn to imams for their problems, imams are transformed into accidental counsellors or spiritual healers (even though they may not have had any professional counselling training or medical training). Their religious knowledge confers upon them an authority which is not afforded to other community leaders. There is an understanding that the imam will provide good advice and solutions based on his knowledge of Islamic scripture. This does not always turn out to be the case.

Muslims believe in the spiritual world, a parallel dimension to the material world of unseen forces such as demons, spirits, and angels. They believe that what happens in the spiritual world may influence the material world. Since mental health issues are things which are beyond the material grasp and comprehension of the average person, they may associate these things with the spiritual world. The mosque imam is believed to be the gateway to understanding the spiritual world due to his knowledge of scripture. Thus, the chances are that Muslims will resort to their imams for help with such issues.

Whilst researching for my book ‘Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy’ (Gilliat-Ray, Pattison and Ali 2013), I was shadowing a hospital chaplain who was doing pastoral visits to all Muslim patients in the hospital. I recall we met an elderly patient who started to sob like a baby when he saw the chaplain. He beseeched the chaplain to pray for him because he believed that God was punishing him for a sin he committed in his youth. Whilst the patient mentioned that he didn’t mind the punishment and will brave it as penance for his past sins, the thought of God being angry with him was too hard for him to bear. Here is an example of why Muslims may resort to their imams for assistance with mental health illnesses, or indeed any illnesses. The elderly patient made an association between his illness, sin committed in the past and God’s wrath. Since the chaplain is knowledgeable about scripture, and presumably closer to God in the mind of the patient, he implored him to intercede on his behalf.

Whilst certain actions may have underlying medical causes such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a Muslim suffering from OCD specific to religious rituals, such as ritual washing or cleanliness, may refer to the imam for such problems. Depending on the level of the imam’s knowledge in recognising OCD, the advice may vary. He may attribute the problem to a demon called ‘walhan’ who makes people forgetful; being a very literal translation of a Prophetic statement, or may recognise that the problem is beyond his expertise and refer the person to a specialist.

Inadvertently, imams are the first port of call for many in the Muslim community. It will only serve the community if they invested more resources in imams’ Continuous Professional Development.

© Cardiff University, Muhammad Mansur Ali
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Understanding Muslim Mental Health

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