Faith and Islam in The Age of Antidepressants

Without question, prescription drug use to remedy our insufferable moods has skyrocketed in the last few decades. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), antidepressant use has increased by 400% since the 1990’s. That figure alone should be cause enough for alarm for all us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

This is not an indictment on those who feel compelled to use medication to ease their suffering (including my friends and members of my own family). Rather, it’s in indictment on the misguided belief that such pills and potions are actually curing us of our existential ills and angsts. They are not. They are simply numbing us to life and that distinction cannot be emphasized enough.

Unfortunately, so many of us have simply accepted the use of antidepressants as necessary to quell the grief, anxiety and sorrow that hover like foreboding ghosts in our lives. Faith and God are no longer considered sufficient for us to endure the various trials and tribulations inherent to existence. Certainly, the psychiatric paradigm has little use for faith with its dogmatic insistence that chronic anxiety, depression and all else that assails our proverbial psyche are the results of chemical imbalances in the brain. And, yes, it is a dogmatic claim. Take, for instance, the following quote from a piece in The New Yorker from 2013:

“Despite their continued failure to understand how psychiatric drugs work, doctors continue to tell patients that their troubles are the result of chemical imbalances in their brains. As Frank Ayd pointed out, this explanation helps reassure patients even as it encourages them to take their medicine, and it fits in perfectly with our expectation that doctors will seek out and destroy the chemical villains responsible for all of our suffering, both physical and mental. The theory may not work as science, but it is a devastatingly effective myth.”

For all the rampant use of antidepressants such as Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, etc., the actual science behind them is not only suspect, but may be categorically wrong as well. The commonly held notion that depression is the result of low serotonin levels in the brain is, at the very least, an antiquated notion. It’s also imperative to note that placebos are close to 40% as effective as antidepressants.

However, what all this rampant prescription drug use is doing is numbing us from both the necessary joy and suffering inherent to our lives. It is also turning us into inadvertent addicts at the behest of our, albeit, well-intentioned, but often naive doctors. According to Brene Brown, a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston famous for her TED Talk:

“We are the most addicted, we are the most medicated, obese and indebt adult cohort in human history.”

Worse, suicide is a secret epidemic. Even amid all the gun violence and mass shootings, suicides still outnumber murders 2 to 1 according to the Center for Disease Control. Things are clearly not right in our so-called modern world and the pharmaceutical methods we desperately cling to have failed us.

The Case For Faith

 “Trust in God, but tie your horse’s leg.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

I certainly don’t believe that one can simply pray their way out of anguish or sorrow. It requires work, sometimes arduous, painful work. In many respects, faith is synonymous with endurance. In Islam we are taught to gracefully endure our mental and physical burdens. In fact, endurance, patience and gratitude are hallmarks for all the major religion traditions including Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. In the Quran we are told:

“Your Lord has neither left you, nor despises you. What is to come is better for you than what has gone before for your Lord will certainly give you, and you will be content. Did he not find you an orphan and take care of you? Did he not find you perplexed and show you the way? Did he not find you poor and enrich you? So do not oppress the orphan and do not drive the beggar away and keep recounting the favors of your Lord.” – Quran, 93:2-11

This specific Surah was directed at the Prophet (pbuh) in his own moments of anguish and grief and also has universal implications for all of us. Not only does it assuage and avail our own sufferings by insisting on patience, gratitude and compassion, these verses also demonstrate that even our beloved Prophet (pbuh) suffered, but steadfastly held onto the reigns of faith and gracefully endured. As Muslims, this is the example we must follow.

While I do believe that offering empty prayers in any time of need often proves insufficient in addressing all that we may suffer, it’s not the prayers themselves that are at fault. It is the inherent lassitude involved in such mindless efforts. Certainly, saying our daily prayers, performing zikr and meditating on God are a boon to our psyche and can remedy the chronic stress that fuels our modern, maddening pace of life provided we remain steadfast and consistent in our efforts. In this sense, praying is not wishful thinking, it is actively engaging our soul with our Creator, giving us reprieve from the burdens of the world.

Speaking of effort, we are told and taught to battle with the negative aspects of ourselves, our nafs so to speak, not accept them as facts of life. Even something as simple as 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise is proven to be more effective than taking antidepressants according to this study done at Duke University. Some may object and argue that even something as simple as exercise requires a Herculean effort. That is the battle we must fight with faith and with fortitude. Despair is not an option.

Faith and Addiction

If any of you have a friend or family member recovering from addiction, chances are you’re, at least, somewhat acquainted with the twelve steps associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Aside from the very first step of acknowledging the addiction, the very next steps require the recognition of a Higher Power, i.e., God and putting one’s faith and trust in this Higher Power.

Many of you might object with the argument that drug addicts and alcoholics are not the same as individuals on antidepressant medications. While the consequences of such obvious addicts are easier to discern the goals are the same: An ardent desire to quell the fatigue, the gloom, the despair. As a society, we’ve simply accepted some forms of addictions as more palatable and, therefore, acceptable as long as a doctor has scribbled it on a notepad. However, the motivations are the same. Any honest addict will tell you the goal is not to feel good, but to stop feeling bad. Addicts genuinely seeking help are also at rock bottom. Many have already spent a lifetime contending with the maze of excuses and rationalizations to avoid confronting their sufferings head on. Unfortunately, the same is not true for many people on antidepressants. The actual causes of their anguish and sorrow have been swept beneath the medicated rug.

Depression, anxiety, stress, etc., are not new phenomena.   Suffering in all its various guises is inherent to existence and has been around since the Fall. How we go about enduring all our trials and tribulations is a testament of faith and who we are as human beings. Viktor Frankl, no stranger to suffering as a Holocaust survivor, puts it quite succinctly in his seminal work, Man’s Search For Meaning:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

It also must be noted that Frankl believed faith in God an imperative even though he lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust including his beloved wife.

No pill or potion can avail us of our suffering no matter the popularity of such false remedies. Faith is not offered as some easy platitude, but as a necessary way to orient ourselves toward the proverbial light and away from all the encroaching darkness around us. Amen.

 

An Olive Branch to Ex-Muslims

There’s a fair amount of understandable anger and vitriol among those that have left Islam alongside a dizzying amount of issues to contend with – one’s family, one’s identity, one’s place in the grand scheme of things, etc. I say understandable because it’s a fair reaction to a belief that people often feel or have felt confined and bound by due to their upbringing and, dare I say, misinformation from mullahs to muftis to one’s own relatives. And before that triggers an onslaught of naysayers and ad hominems, hear me out. I was just like you if you can believe it.

In short, I grew up in an Islamic household in small town America that went from fairly normal to fanatical upon moving to Saudi Arabia for a spell. My parents (yes, I still love them dearly!) became obsessed with rules and strictures to the point of absurdity. Many of you know the drill – the most mundane, trivial misstep resulted in perishing in hellfire for all eternity. Worse, I attended a parochial school in Saudi Arabia where teachers habitually slapped students around. For example, if our feet were not perfectly aligned with one another during prayers, a brutal turd of a teacher would sneak up behind us and whip our feet with a rubber hose in the supposed name of Islam. Imagine going from a sweet old lady as one’s grade school teacher to that. I habitually vomited every time I stepped off the bus out of anxiety and fear. Thank God my friends were mostly refugees who taught me to toughen up. Back in the States I could only relate to folks generations before me who had similar stories growing up in Catholic schools.

Upon returning to America three years later, my older brother and I quickly began to shed our religious skin. We grew wild the way preachers’ sons in America grow wild. We lived two very different lives: the one inside our home and the one outside. My brother abandoned God entirely while I simply grew to hate Him. For many former Muslims I sense that same resentment toward Heaven. For some, it’s difficult to shuck the belief in God altogether. Instead, a rueful spite forms. I get that as well.

Later, as an adult I grew even wilder, slowly entering a wilderness of proverbial sin and despair (even if we don’t use the term ‘sin’ I certainly wasn’t making good choices) in part because I inherited all my orphaned father’s unrequited ghosts and because of the inherent sense of dislocation than many sons and daughters of immigrants feel or have felt no matter where they are. Still, I managed to publish my first poem in The Seattle Review around this time. I’d finally captured how I’d felt as a boy on paper, warts and all, regarding faith and loneliness:

A Small, Dark Boy

I thought I could pray
hard beside the schoolyard wall
right before the recess bell
to keep from being this

permanent stranger in the only town
I had known. All the pretty girls
seemed to fall between the spaces
of my open hand. I had to
pray a little more. I thought

I could betray what I knew
to be imminent: for a long while
I would have to be alone.

At this point, I began my academic pursuit of philosophy and literature. This led me to the studying of religious philosophy which led me toward various academic scholars of Islam. Now I say Islamic scholars, but most of them were non-Muslims. I’m not talking about muftis or mullahs. It is supremely ironic and cannot be emphasized enough that it was non-Muslims who allowed me to slowly rediscover Islam. If this is an indictment on the current state of Islam as practiced by many Muslims so be it. The Islam I was learning about from scholars such as Anne Marie Schimmel, Carl Ernst, Huston Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, etc., was literally night and day to the Islam I was taught as a boy. Even now, ten or more so years later, I continue to devour their works among so many others. Gone was all the fire and brimstone and obsessing over pork and premarital sex ad infinitum (my folks even had a book entitled, Gelatin)! Certainly the principles were not dismissed nor abandoned, but emphasis was put on the big picture, ideas and humanness toward one another in relation to God rather than rote dogma and an often idiotic zeal for strictures. Did I suddenly stumble back onto the proverbial straight path? Of course not. However, it did manage to pry open the proverbial door to both faith and Islam and, most importantly, a genuine sense of peace and contentment (not always, of course, but more so than I ever could have imagined) after so many years of restlessness, ennui and despair.

Of course, I’m not trying to sell you on Islam or anything else, I’m just suggesting that maybe don’t slam the door on God just yet, even if that means finding another path toward Him. And in doing so, be fair, not only to others, but to yourself. I’ve perused a lot of the posts and comments on /r/exmuslim. Many of you are young, highly intelligent and engaging. However, when I read your comments regarding the Quran or Prophet (pbuh) they seem borne more out of frustration and anger than logic or some careful exegetical analysis.

Many of you are avid readers and understand that reading poetry and literature often requires a high level of comprehension to fully understand or, at least, better understand what is being said. Two telling examples for me in this regard happen to be two of my favorite books: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick. When I read these novels in the 8th grade they were just fun adventures and not much else. However, when I reread them in my late 20’s the breadth and scope of these works seemed, at times, limitless, especially, Huck Finn.

I understand that many of you have deep-seated resentments toward Islam and therefore the Quran and Hadith. As result, it’s become quite common (and easy) to henpeck verses, refuse context or a deeper understanding in order to prove its inadequacy. This is more a disservice to your intellect and humanity than anything else. If you’re venting vent. I get it. However, only the most daft of literalists would argue that Ode to a Nightingale is about Keats’ love of ornithology. The same goes for any scripture or religious text as well. At the very least, respect the nature of discourse lest we devolve into rants akin to FOX news.

This is already decidedly longer in the proverbial tooth than I had hoped and there is so much more to be said regarding notions of identity and whatnot, but I’ll leave you with a few quotes:

“No one wants advice – only corroboration.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

“Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary.” – William James, Varieties of Religious Experiences

Be well and take care.  Amen.

 

 

 

ISIS, Dr. Jonathan Brown and Concubinage in Islam

“It was in the institution of marriage, however, that Islam made its greatest contribution to women. It sanctified marriage, first, by making it the sole lawful locus of the sexual act.” – Huston Smith, The World’s Religions

 Appeals to Tradition

 The issue of ma malakat aymanukum (“those that their right hands possess”) in relation to sex outside of marriage between husband and wife is a vexing and volatile subject for what seems like an infinite amount of reasons.  Historically speaking, there have been numerous theological interpretations in Islam permitting sex with slave-women sometimes even non-consensual sex. In fact, in a recent AMA on reddit even Dr. Jonathan Brown, an esteemed Islamic scholar teaching out of Georgetown University, indicated as such with a rather strange, anthropological explanation. When asked about the permissibility of raping one’s slave, Brown responded as follows:

“…’slave rape’ is a tough term to decipher from a Shariah perspective. A male owner of a female slave has the right to sexual access to her. Though he could not physically harm her without potentially being held legally accountable if she complained, her ‘consent’ would be meaningless since she is his slave.”

As insightful a scholar as Brown can be, I think he is categorically wrong in his theological assessment. In fact, I find his response not only in error, but absurd as well, especially when compassion is at the very root of our faith:

“God will not show mercy to him who does not show mercy to others.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Now, of course, the draconian fools that make up ISIS have offered their own abundantly ignorant claims to ma malakat aymanukum. However, as foolish as ISIS is, their terrible decrees tantamount to sex slavery are not an historical exception in the history of Islam. Even now many of the so-called ‘royalty’ in some parts of the Middle East certainly bend and twist the notion of ma malakat aymanukum to allow the consummation of their illicit desires though maybe not with the obvious brutality of the likes of ISIS. Also, whether it’s a despotic warlord or some spoiled prince they most certainly have a coterie of theologians or mullahs capable of twisting and contorting faith to suit their misguided ways:

“There are those who believe that if they study the Quran, and so learn the words of knowledge of religion, and then go to kings and princes to seek favor from them, that they can keep safe their piety. It is not so. From a thorny tree you will get naught by thorns, and likewise you will get nothing from kings except sins to commit.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

The most common arguments permitting sex with ma malakat aymanukum outside of marriage are innumerable appeals to tradition often citing various questionable Hadith for corroboration. However, unlike the Quran, the validity of any given Hadith can be called into question, especially when it contradicts or even seems to contradict the Quran. Also, even if a theological interpretation has remained popular for centuries this doesn’t automatically validate such interpretations as true or irrefutable. Too often I hear fellow Muslims make fallacious appeals to tradition when defending any number of positions on Islam including this very contentious subject matter.

Worse, such appeals and interpretations regarding ma malakat aymanukum have offered a kind of derelict boon for many Muslim men’s wayward desires for centuries. Not for all, but certainly for some. Stories of harems and courtesans decorate much of Arabic poetry and literature and, of course, prostitution remains an institution in many Islamic countries including Turkey and Pakistan. As absurd as it sounds, I can only imagine some wayward brother browsing pornography with his right hand in some feeble, misguided attempt to rationalize his dull desires. Lest we forget, the devil is a lot more clever than we think, especially when leading us astray.

Suffice it to say, there’s quite a bit of exegetical work necessary to fully understand ma malakat aymanukum in Islam. While I’m under no illusions of providing a definite answer to satisfy everyone or put to rest the issue, I’m certain that I can provide a sound argument that demonstrates that any sexual relationship with slaves or concubines is strictly impermissible in Islam unless sealed by the bond of marriage.

The Process of Revelation is Key to Understanding Ma Malakat Aymanukum

Surahs in the Quran are distinguished by when they were revealed either as Meccan in origin or Medinan. The latter indicates Surahs revealed to the prophet post-Hijrah. Thematically, Meccan Surahs tend to focus primarily on God and humanity’s relation to Him. Medinan Surahs tend to detail practical applications of faith such as the treatment of women, laws of inheritance, judicial and punitive measures, etc. Much of what we define as Shariah draws from the Medinan Surahs and these are the final arbiters regarding moral and ethical behavior for Muslims.

The process of revelation (not to be confused with process theology) as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – again, from Meccan injunctions to Medinan ones – demonstrates that sexual relations with slaves were finally decreed as impermissible. Remember, the entire revelation of the Quran took over twenty years to complete. Outside of worship of God and God alone, the practical moral framework established in Islam involved a definite and legitimate process.

Certainly the Quran was revealed in perfection and remains perfect. In relation to ma malakat aymanukum, the early Meccan verses understood that sexual relations were occurring between owners and their slaves. More importantly, these early verses understood that virtually no boundaries existed at the time for the sating of one’s sexual desires. Worse, women had no place or value in pre-Islamic Arabia:

“Drunken orgies were commonplace…marriage arrangements were so loose as to be scarcely recognizable. Women were regarded as nothing more than chattel…” – Huston Smith, The World’s Religions

As a result, the early Meccan Surahs decreed as follows:

“…[Those] who abstain from sex, except from their wives or those their right hands possess…” – Quran, 23:5-6 (Yusuf Ali)

“And those who guard their chastity, except from their wives or those their right hands possess…” – Quran, 70:29-30 (Yusuf Ali)

These early verses are not granting permission they are establishing a very clear boundary. This distinction cannot be impressed upon enough. A limit had now been set on one’s sexual conduct as decreed by the Quran in relation to the existing licentiousness throughout the pre-Islamic community.

As the process of revelation moved forward and the first Islamic community formed post-Hijrah the mandates regarding sexual relations were finally codified in the Medinan verses regarding ma malakat aymanukum:

“If any of you have not the means wherewith to wed free believing women, they may wed believing girls from among those whom your right hands possess: And Allah hath full knowledge about your faith. Ye are one from another: Wed them with the leave of their owners, and give them their dowers, according to what is reasonable: They should be chaste, not lustful, nor taking paramours: when they are taken in wedlock, if they fall into shame, their punishment is half that for free women. This (permission) is for those among you who fear sin; but it is better for you that ye practise self-restraint. And Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.” – Quran, 4:25 (Yusuf Ali)

“Let those who find not the wherewithal for marriage keep themselves chaste, until Allah gives them means out of His grace. And if any of your slaves ask for a deed in writing (to enable them to earn their freedom for a certain sum), give them such a deed if ye know any good in them: yea, give them something yourselves out of the means which Allah has given to you. But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity, in order that ye may make a gain in the goods of this life. But if anyone compels them, yet, after such compulsion, is Allah, Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful (to them)…” Quran, 24:33 (Yusuf Ali)

The Meccan verses set a limit, the Medinan verses established the rule. The Medinan verses make clear that consummation is allowed only within the confines of marriage regardless of social status, be it a free woman or a slave. As a result, any interpretation or ruling allowing for sex with slaves outside of marriage is now deemed a sin.

In this day and age of rampant Islamophobia and fanaticism it’s also vital that we understand that the revelatory process has nothing to do with the decidedly legal concept of abrogation. Theologically speaking, the concept of abrogation exists in the Judeo-Christian traditions and in reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions. Christians believe the laws of the Torah (Old Testament) were abrogated – as in nullified or canceled out – by the Injeel (New Testament).  The Quran explicitly states that it too abrogates previous revelations not the revelations that comprise the Quran itself.  However, there is no abrogation within the Quran.  In other words, God does not change His mind.

Translating Ma Malakat Aymanukum

For the sake of brevity, I stuck with Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Quran. However, it’s also worth noting that Both Ahmed Ali’s and Muhammad Asad’s translations of the Quran delve into the Arabic lexicon to better interpret ma malakat aymanukum. Ahmed Ali translates it as ‘women slaves of old’ to connote the aforementioned revelatory process. Asad takes legitimate issue with the notion of there even being an option present by rooting out the coordinating conjunction ‘or’ in the verses that state, ‘from their wives or those their right hands possess.’ Asad’s notes on verse 23:6 is really worth quoting for its detailed analysis:

“…with the significant difference that in the present context this expression relates to 
both husbands and wives, who “rightfully possess” one another by virtue of marriage. On the basis of this interpretation, the particle ‘aw’ which precedes this clause does not denote an alternative (“or”) but is, rather, in the nature of an explanatory amplification, more or less analogous to the phrase “in other words” or “that is”, thus giving to the whole sentence the meaning, “save with their spouses – that is, those whom they rightfully possess [through wedlock]” – Muhammad Asad, Message of The Quran, 23:6

Rather than providing an option in these early Meccan verses, Asad insists that ma malakat aymanukum is simply a reiteration to emphasize one’s spouse(s).

Again, I very much doubt I’ve settled such a large, vexing issue, but for me at least, I find my minor hermeneutics sufficient in understanding ma malakat aymanukum. God knows best. Amen.

 

Awe is The Salve That Heals

“Divine breezes from your Lord waft through the days of your life. Listen! Be aware of them.” – Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

Today, outside the window of some random discount gym high atop a shopping center, the massive, frantic 405 freeway spasmed with traffic.  A parade of anxious faces pinned behind their wheels raced toward their respective fates.  Anxiety often masquerades as ambition.  Fixated on fears of failing at some grand enterprise or compelled by the hopeless conquest of purchase, we drive ourselves into the ground.  We must consider again our notions of success in relation to what we ought to value, namely our faith in God Almighty.

Below the staggering wall that carried this desperate river of cars and trucks, a gentle row of small deciduous trees remained undeterred by our neurotic pace. Tucked away by fate or chance, they shifted in accordance to the desert winds of Los Angeles.  A hummingbird, resolute in its fleeting life, darted through the leaves, a whirl of blessed feathers.  I was stuck to the glass, enchanted.  Even through the window I could hear Truth labor in the wind and the trees.  This small music compelled me toward hope, a higher, heavenly hope far beyond the smog and smoke of this volatile city:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” – John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Our days pass with so much monotony, malaise and routine. God and our place before Him are often peripheral, distant concerns. There are jobs, bosses, relationships even groceries to contend with. Worse, there are those seemingly endless wayward impulses that often confound us even more – that is, the things we shouldn’t do but do so anyway out of compulsion, despair and fatigue – junk food, pornography, endless hours in front of the television or computer screen, gossiping, etc.  Sin rarely entices us with much spectacle. More often than not, the devil’s most valuable tools are restlessness and boredom:

“In all the squalid zoo of vices, one is even uglier and fouler than the rest…I speak of Boredom which with ready tears dreams of hangings as it puffs its pipe.” – Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal

Of course, even our best efforts in pursuit of pleasure and distraction leave us mired in discontent and misery.  We must hone and sharpen our sense of awe and wonder in relation to the Lord of All Things as we once did as children. No easy task, but a task that rests upon our shoulders as Muslims nonetheless. Our prayers, our good deeds, are all reminders for us, but so is this bittersweet world that abounds in beauty and enchantment when the dross leaves our eyes and we can see clearly even if for just moment:

“Wherever you turn, there is the face of your Lord.” – Quran, 2:115

Amen.