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Are Black Dogs Permissible?
By Irfan Yusuf
No, I am not talking about poodles that aren’t white. Nor is my
subject those cute puppies you see in the pet store.
Whether we like it or not, many of us live with a black dog. It
stays with us, barking at us around the clock, keeping us awake
and causing maximum disturbance in our daily lives.
And when we go and ask our scholars, our ulama, our maulanas and
shaykhs, all we hear is: "Your black dog is a sign of ungratefulness!"
Or we hear: "You have lost hope in the mercy of Allah and this
is haraam!!" Or we might even hear: "Astaghfirullah! Dogs
in the house? You should not have dogs in the house. Didn’t your
parents teach you that?"
And so we get no help from our leaders on coping with our black
dog. We just return to our miserable existence, thinking that we
must continue to feed the damn thing and give it shelter while it
bites away at our soul.
Muslim communities commonly deny this black dog’s existence. Some
think only those nasty kuffaar (i.e. persons who may not yet be
calling themselves Muslim) or naughty lapsed Muslims live with the
This black dog is not an animal. The title “black dog” was coined
by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to describe an
ailment that afflicted him for many years. It is an illness that
has afflicted millions since the first families were formed from
the seed of our Prophet and father Adam (peace be upon him). It
has been recognized by physicians, witch doctors, voodoo-freaks
and associated medicine-men (though perhaps with different labels).
The ancient Greeks called it “melancholia.” You will even find
references to it in classical books of prophetic medicine (al-tibb
al-nabawi), together with various cures and formulae to ward it
Modern medicine calls it “depression.” In Australia, it afflicts
one in five people at some stage of their lives. In the US and Europe,
the proportion is higher. For many, the issue of living with depression
is as simple as a regular visit to the shrink and popping some pills
each night. But for the people of faith and spirituality, depression
can pose some difficult questions for which there are no easy answers.
You’d think that spiritually profound faiths like Islam (as opposed
to Islaam), which didn’t throw their gnostic traditions into the
bida rubbish heap, would have plenty to say on this subject. Well,
tasawwuf (or sufism, but I hate that word so don’t say it in front
of me) does say plenty. Indeed, tasawwuf is often translated as
“spiritual psychology.” It is an exact science, and it has helped
so many find peace and solace when faced with depression.
The pride of the Kurdish nation, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, once wrote
about his life: “Were it not for my taqwa (God-consciousness), the
problems of my life would have led me to commit suicide years ago.”
And the pride of all creation (peace and blessings of God be upon
him) is believed to have had feelings of deep depression during
the early period of revelation during a gap of some months between
revelations. Some classical writers of sira (biographical literature)
tell us that at times he would feel like throwing himself from the
We know of the deep sadness (his students thought it was madness)
Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi felt during the various absences of his
somewhat eccentric mentor Shams-i-Tabrizi. We know that at the height
of his career, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali just threw away his professorship
and went wandering.
Our traditions are full of examples of people who appear to lose
and then recover their emotional balance as a result of a loss.
And yet for some reason, “modern” depression gets treated as ungratefulness
and lack of faith while "classical" depression is regarded
as a part of prophecy.
And when Muslims, many of them young and/or new to the faith, find
their emotional difficulties ignored or even denigrated, is it any
wonder they shun the community and reach for the Zoloft?
Seriously, I am not meaning to denigrate psychopharmacology. Nor
do I suggest that the thousands of people who are on medication,
and for whom it is a crucial part of the management of their condition,
should throw out the pills and head for a zawiya, khanqa, or ashram.
But in addition to medications and psychological treatment, support
systems must be created in the community. We all need support in
hard times. Even the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God
be upon him), when praising his wife Khadija, said words to the
effect of: “She supported me when most were against me, she supported
me with her love.” May God bless this noble woman whose love and
devotion to her husband formed a basis for his words and works that
continue to provide solace to millions.
When we feel down and depressed and go to the mosque and find the
imam cannot understand us, what do we do? When we want to ask the
imam certain questions about our condition but are too scared he
will tell others about our illness, what can we say?
Which imam can tell me what stage depression must reach before
performing salat/nemaz (five daily ritual prayers) is no longer
compulsory? (This is also relevant to the thousands of mothers suffering
from post-natal depression.)
How do the rights and responsibilities of parties to a marriage
change in the event one succumbs to a mental illness?
If a person begins to suffer from schizophrenia or serious bipolar
disorder before marriage and is in a state where s/he is not allowed
to marry, how should such a person’s emotional and sexual needs
be met? For instance, is it forbidden for a male sufferer to, say,
visit a prostitute? And if he does, is he accountable for his deed?
Many of you will be reading this and saying to yourself: “The answers
to these questions are so damned obvious! Irf, stick to writing
articles hacking into ex-Australian media moguls or praising the
sexual exploits of your mughal ancestors.” Well if the answers are
so damned obvious, how come I cannot find them in my copy of Behisht-i-Zewar
(an old Indian hanafi law manual originally written for women) or
Mufti Abdul Rahim Lajpuri's Fatawa Rahimiyya (a collection of rulings
originally published in an old Indian newspaper)?
Bodies like the Zaytuna Institute and others have done some excellent
work focusing on the Islamic legal tradition that applies to Muslim
minorities. But how about the ever-growing minority within these
minorities? What about those suffering mental illness? Perhaps Shaykh
Hamza (one fellow I have utmost respect for. How many imams do you
know who actually have had exposure to mental illness and brain
injuries in a professional capacity as a medical or nursing practitioner?)
and his crew can look into this.
So there you have it. A religious tradition whose spiritual core
(tasawwuf) is a tradition of psychology in its own right. And yet
so many of its alleged practitioners and experts find themselves
ill-equipped to deal with the everyday problems that beset the millions
suffering from mental illness. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.
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