What’s The Matter With Muslims?

Article 4: How is mental health viewed in the Ahmadi Muslim community?

Adeel Shah addresses a crowd at mosque. Photo: Adeel Shah.

“When you think of mental health, it is something that, for a very long time, has been brushed under the carpet,” says Adeel Shah, 26, one of Britain’s youngest imams.

As an Ahmadi Muslim, Adeel works closely with Baitul Futuh mosque in Morden, South London.

Founded by a 19th century Indian scholar called Hazrat Ahmad, the Ahmadi Muslim community is based around his teachings. This distinguishes Ahmadi Muslims from Sunni or Shia Muslims, a difference which makes Ahmadis a target for persecution in countries all over the world.

Currently based in East Hampshire, Adeel moved from Pakistan to the UK as a child. From then on, he decided that he wanted to serve his community. As an imam, Adeel is tasked with leading prayers at the mosque. He also carries out community work including donating blood and fundraising for numerous charities.

Adeel Shah (left). Photo: Adeel Shah.

Adeel is enthusiastic about explaining how tight-knit the Ahmadi community is. From memory, he quotes verses from the Qur’an, both in Arabic and in English, seamlessly intertwining them in conversation, an indicator of his seven-year training as an imam.

Mental health plays a role in Islam, suggests Adeel.

He explains: “Not just in Islam, but generally, mental health was not given the right attention. Especially amongst men, it wasn’t accepted, that’s why men ignored speaking about it. If a boy was having issues, he would have had a hard time explaining his situation, due to the fear of being understood as weak.”

Drawing upon his Islamic knowledge, he continues: “There’s a verse in the Qur’an where God says “Surely in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find comfort.” If you come to a mosque, they are so peaceful and quiet. Our community stands firm with conviction that Allah speaks to humans like He did before. We say it with utmost belief.”

By “before”, Adeel is referring to 7th century Arabia, which is when Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed directly to them.

He adds: “One way that God says to let off that steam is to converse with Him — have that relationship with Him. It’s through prayers and through the many programmes that we conduct [in the Ahmadi mosque] that there is a platform for community members to let off steam, such as feeding the homeless and tree-planting. If they are experiencing difficulty, they can share it with an imam like myself.”

Adeel advocates that mosques are a safe haven. When mosques closed their doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Adeel, along with other imams, turned to virtual consultations instead.

He explains: “I think spirituality provides a deep sense of meaning to life and a sense of belonging, safety and security. Mosques give Muslims a chance to meet other people. During lockdown, everything that used to be physical turned virtual. We had classes with kids virtually, which I still make use of today. It’s a way for people to alleviate stress or issues. But I’m not ignoring the fact that yes, people suffer from very real mental health issues.”

Adeel Shah addresses a crowd at mosque. Photo: Adeel Shah.

Engaging in a dialogue about mental health could be a coping mechanism, Adeel recommends.

Adeel continues: “There’s a verse in the Qur’an where Allah says He has made it incumbent upon Himself to be forgiving and merciful. If a Muslim with pure intentions speaks to Allah about their discomfort and seeks knowledge, God listens and answers their prayers.

“Islam does acknowledge that a person can feel negative, but that’s why Islam has also said: the company you keep, the community you live in and how you live matter. The Qur’an says if you want to prolong your life and live a fruitful life, then serve people. So, Islam provides ways of engaging.”

But what of modern psychiatry and Islam?

There is a link between psychiatry and Islam, says Dr Shakeel Ahmad, an Ahmadi Muslim and Consultant Psychiatrist. Having trained at King’s College London, he works with patients using different psychiatric strategies including medication and psychotherapies.

Photo: Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Outlining the impact of Covid-19 on Muslims’ mental health, Dr Ahmad says: “Mental illness is a fine balance between one’s individual coping ability and on the other hand, the stress coming in. Isolation has deeply complicated the emotional coping strategies that we [Muslims] used to employ to prevent mental illness coming. Also, in terms of our infrastructure, our social lives, socialising with neighbours, Eid parties, those have not happened. That also takes its toll, particularly on those who are already vulnerable.”

The Ahmadi community takes mental health very seriously, according to Dr Ahmad.

He continues: “We have departments that cater specific programmes to specific groups, for example, for men, women, older people. So these programmes have been going on during Covid-19, virtually, rather than face-to face programmes. That’s been very helpful. We also have our television channel on Sky called Muslim Television Ahmadiyyah and a digital radio called Voice of Islam, which run health programmes. When people want to be confidential, they are advised to come directly to a professional. We have an internal referral system which gives advice to whoever wants it.

“We are bound by Medical Council limitations, so if formal treatment is required, we would then advise the person how to go to their GP or anything that is appropriate.”

Finally, Dr Ahmad points out how the scientific nature of the Qur’an can further help Muslims.

He continues: “Islamic teachings are a lot more progressive, scientific and rational than some Muslims believe. If Muslims follow Islamic principles, they will automatically see a huge merger between the Qur’an and science. There’s no ‘either-or’. If someone says Islam is on one side and the Qur’an is on the other, then neither have they understood Islam correctly, nor have they understood science.

“In the last 25 years, I have found studies that support the role of religion in the development of society. Research has shown that incidents of stress-related illness was lower in Jews, Christians and Muslims, than for a controlled population of people who categorically denied belonging to any organised faith. If stress-related illness did develop, then prognosis was better [in the faith groups], so they had less severity of the condition and they recovered quicker.

“So, I think Islam does contribute to mental health in a very beautiful and profound manner.”

This article is part of a 5-part article series titled ‘What’s The Matter With Muslims?’

Find out more about the Ahmadi Muslim community here.

Follow Adeel Shah on Twitter here.

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Saima Akhtar

Saima Akhtar

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MA Journalism student at The University of Salford, 2020–2021. Aziz Foundation Scholarship Recipient. Aspiring writer. Twitter/Instagram: @saimathewriter