Editorâ€™s Note: InFocus News, one of our ethnic media partners and a winner of two awards in the just-concluded Southern and Central California NAM awards, reports that the rate of Muslims committing suicide in Orange County and Los Angeles alone between 2006 and 2008 was 15.5 times higher than the rate in the previous ten years. Some names in this story have been changed to protect privacy.
Samir was only 11 when he held a knife to his throat and threatened to kill himself. Later, at the age of 12, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a psychological illness that causes unusual shifts in a personâ€™s mood, energy and ability to function. Samirâ€™s condition was severe, and along with it came debilitating periods of depression.
â€œI just feel like thereâ€™s nothing worth living for anymore, like my life is meaningless,â€ explains Samir, who is now 15 years old. â€œI get so depressed sometimes I just think like how am I ever going to overcome these [problems], and the only way I actually can is to commit suicide.â€
One day last summer, while off his medication, thatâ€™s exactly what Samir wanted to do. â€œBefore I went to the hospital I had a plan thatI would just take a knife and stab myself in the throat,â€ recalls Samir. â€œIt wouldnâ€™t be just an attempt; it would be the real deal. I really felt that I just wanted to die.â€
Samirâ€™s story is not a rare one. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among those 15-24 years old. In the United States, a person commits suicide about every 16 minutes, with an attempt estimated once every minute. In fact, between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, the suicide rate among U.S. males aged 15-24 more than tripled.
While hearing these staggering statistics, Muslims have a widespread misconception that they are immune. However, according to the southern California-based Muslim Mortuary and Cemetery Committee, the rate of Muslim suicides in Orange County and Los Angeles alone between the years of 2006 to 2008 was 15.5 times higher than the rate in the previous ten years. From 1996 to 2006 there were five suicides. However, in the two-year period between 2006 and 2008, there were at least 17 suicides by Muslims in Orange County and Los Angeles County alone.
Such astonishing numbers are testimony that Samir is not alone in his struggle. Samir explains that while in his depression, he felt there was no other way out. Now, looking back, Samir says he sees things differently.
â€œIn my mind there was no way to overcome [the problems] and they were so severe in my mind,â€ says Samir. â€œNow when I look back on them, I realize theyâ€™re not that severe; itâ€™s just the depression.â€
But that depression had a profound effect on Samirâ€™s entire demeanor. His mother, Maryam, describes how different he was when he was on his medication. Describing him as friendly and organized, she says that on his medication, he acted like â€œPrince Charming.â€
Yet, as soon as he began to rebel and get off his medication, Samir started to isolate himself and argue with everyone. He wanted to sleep all the time and had very little energy. His mother describes looking inside his eyes and seeing nothing there. It was as if she could see right through him.
He kept saying, â€˜Life isnâ€™t worth it, itâ€™s not worth living here, I have a plan; No one can stop me,â€™â€ recalls Maryam. â€œYou call someone and say â€˜Iâ€™m going to commit suicideâ€™ â€” thatâ€™s a cry for help.â€
So, last summer, Maryam took that cry very seriously and committed him to the hospital with constant surveillance. Since then, he has been back on his medication, and Maryam describes him as a â€œdifferent person.â€
But even while drowning in his depression and despite his yearning to die at the time, there was one thing that Samir says held him back. As a believing Muslim, Samir knew suicide is a grave sin.
â€œThe main reason I really wouldnâ€™t do it is that it was a straight passage to hell,â€ says Samir. â€œI wanted to die, but I want to at least have a chance to go to heaven.â€
For Samir, his faith in Allah played a major role in his ability to cope. Along with his depression came paralyzing paranoia. Samir explains that when he would stop praying, the paranoia would become increasingly severe. He says that when he would start to pray, â€œAll those bad feelings go away.â€
â€œSometimes when I used to go to sleep, I would be paranoid like someoneâ€™s going to kill me tonight,â€ recalls Samir. â€œAll these thoughts would flood my mind and I would say a duaâ€™a (prayer) and everything would just stop and I finally would have tranquility sort of and just be able to fall asleep.â€
But Samir wasnâ€™t the only one suffering. For his mother, Allah was equally essential in her ability to cope.
â€œAllah is the only thing that kept us all above water,â€ says Maryam. â€œWe would just start praying and crying at the same time; I would make a lot of duaâ€™a.â€
She explained that for a child who â€œnever had a quiet moment,â€ the only thing that would calm him was the athan (call to prayer). Praying would settle him down for a while and she would work to read about the prophets and Prophet Muhammadâ€™s companions and try to fit Islam into their childhood.
â€œI would tell him â€˜Allah wouldnâ€™t want you to commit suicide. Allah loves you and wants you to live a long life,â€™â€ says Maryam.
Maryam explains that when Samir would get very sad, he would â€œpour his heart out to Allahâ€ and it would bring him closer to Allah.
And getting closer to Allah is a big part of the solution, as described by Dr. Mohammed Sadiq, a clinical psychologist who has been practicing since 1974.
â€œIslam is a lifestyle,â€ says Sadiq. â€œAny Islamic solution requires that you live by Islam; if you donâ€™t live that Islamic life, Islamic solutions donâ€™t help you.â€
It was the need for this true type of Islamic cure that inspired Shyam Sriram, certified by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as a suicide support group facilitator, to create the Muslim Suicide Survivors Association.
â€œMuSSA has three goals,â€ explains Sriram. â€œTo provide Islamic solutions for Muslims suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies; to educate the Muslim community about depression and suicide; and lastly, to bring Muslim survivors of suicide loss â€“ like myself â€“ together so that we can heal our wounds in a caring, group environment.â€
To work towards achieving these goals, Sriram has traveled the country giving presentations about Islamic solutions to depression and suicide. He teaches people about what Shaikh Husain Abdul-Sattar, who studied in Syria and Pakistan before returning to his hometown of Chicago, calls the depressed soul and physical depression.
According to Abdul-Sattar, in an Islamic sense, the soul becomes depressed when â€œthose acts of worship that once made it healthy become burdensome.â€ Following the soulâ€™s depression comes the physical depression, when â€œthe depressed soul begins to shut down the physical body; the depressed Muslim starts to complain that he or she sleeps all day, is lethargic or apathetic.â€
Sriram explains that in his major work, â€œThe Alchemy of Happiness,â€ the great classical scholar Imam Al Ghazali writes that there are four stages to purify the heart to â€œturn from the world to Allah.â€ He lists those steps as: knowledge of self, knowledge of Allah, knowledge of the world as it really is, and knowledge of the afterlife as it really is.
To achieve this purification, Abdul-Sattar says, â€œThe crux of the cure â€¦ is the company of righteous people â€¦ as the company you keep is the epicenter of your soul.â€
He recommends three ways to keep good company. First, come to the mosque regularly for prayer and other community activities. Second, immerse yourself in the company of those with whom you can discuss issues of your soul. Third, take advantage of the scholars of the deen.
But in order to retain this cure, Abdul-Sattar says the Qurâ€™an stresses performing good deeds and acts of charity, restraining the lower nafs (desires), and constantly making duaâ€™a, remembering Allah, and doing istighfar (repenting).
Lastly, he stresses that one should remember that the mark of the believer is the one who is tested and that this world is fleeting. He reminds the believers of the words of Allah in the Qurâ€™an, when He says: â€œAllah does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear.â€ (Qurâ€™an, 2:286)
According to the AFSP, risk factors for suicide among the young include suicidal thoughts, psychiatric disorders (such as depression, impulsive aggressive behavior, bipolar disorder, and certain anxiety disorders), drug and/or alcohol abuse and previous suicide attempts, with the risk increased if there is access to firearms or situational stress.
There are a number of Muslim-specific issues that often trigger depression and suicidal tendencies. These issues include pressure and unhappiness of marriages, parental pressure, adolescence, and cultural norms.
According to Shaikh Yassir Fazaga of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo, a counselor and member of the IFN Religious Advisory Board, many of the young people expressing the desire to commit suicide are young girls.
â€œWith the girls, itâ€™s due to family issues,â€ says Fazaga. â€œItâ€™s usually family relations and marital aspects.â€
Sadiq found that among Muslims, depression was often caused by an identity crisis. â€œWhen a person loses an idea of what heâ€™s about and does not know where he or she belongs, that will cause depression,â€ says Sadiq, who also has an internet counseling service and holds workshops around the world. â€œYou have to help them decide what they want to be, and what is the best way to go about it and gradually motivate them to make the right choices.â€
However, both Fazaga and Sadiq, explain that although these Muslims express the â€œdesire to die,â€ Islam prevents many of them with carrying out the suicide. Sadiq describes one young Muslim patient who during Ramadan got into a tub and wanted to cut himself.
â€œIt was Islam that kept him from doing it because he knew that â€˜if I kill myself, I will be in hell forever and ever and ever,â€™â€ says Sadiq.
It is Islamâ€™s strict prohibition against committing suicide which is preventing many, even non-practicing Muslims, from carrying it out. In the Qurâ€™an says, Allah says â€œDo not kill yourselves. Verily, Allah is ever Merciful unto you. Whoever does that through aggression and wrongdoing, We shall cast them into Fire, and that is ever easy for Allah.â€ (Qurâ€™an, 4:29-30).
According to Imam Hajar al-Haytami in his â€œal-Zawajir an Iqitiraf al-Kabaâ€™ir,â€ suicide is classified among the â€œmajor sinsâ€ in Islam. There are a number of ahadith (prophetic teachings) which talk about the fate of those who do commit suicide. For example, the Prophet has said: â€œA man was inflicted with wounds and he committed suicide, and so Allah said: â€˜My slave has caused death on himself hurriedly, so I forbid Paradise for him.â€™â€ [Bukhari]
However, there are disagreements as to whether or not paradise is forbidden for them eternally.
Shaikh Salman Al-Odeh has said: â€œParadise being prohibited for him does not mean he is a disbeliever (Kafir). It was said that â€˜Paradise being prohibited for himâ€™ is for a certain time, such the time the first righteous Muslims enter Paradise; it was also said that this statement was made to indicate the seriousness of such act and that the real meaning of the statement is different than the apparent meaning.â€
With regards to praying Janazah (funeral prayers) for someone who committed suicide, there is also a difference of opinion among the scholars.
Since the Prophet (s) did not pray over a suicidal person, some say it is forbidden to pray on them.
However, although the Prophet (s) himself did not pray over them in order to make a statement against the act, the companions of the Prophet (s) did. Because of this, the majority of the scholars say it is permissible to pray on the person.
Despite this balanced Islamic opinion, survivors within the Muslim community continue to be shunned.
Fatima*, who lost her husband to suicide 20 years ago after a long fight with mental illness, describes how she was ostracized by the Muslims in her community.
â€œThe Islamic stigma of suicide was such that almost everyone refused to perform the Janazah,â€ says Fatima. â€œFinally, a brother who had known him as a child and understood that there was mental illness involved agreed to do the Janazah.â€
However, because of the stigma, the community refused to bury him in a Muslim cemetery.
And this stigma continues, despite the fact that according to the AFSP, â€œNinety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.â€
And yet, Fatima found no support from the Muslim community.
She says once people found out about it, they tended to stay away from her, â€œas if [she] were the cause of the suicide.â€
â€œDeath is hard enough to deal with and if it is not considered a â€˜normalâ€™ death (i.e. natural causes), you are ostracized unless these are people who know you very well,â€ says Fatima.
â€œGiven that most people do not understand mental illness and itâ€™s ramifications on family and friends, itâ€™s very difficult for people (Muslim and non-Muslim) to understand the nature and cause of suicide.â€
Instead, Fatima found solace in Allah. Shortly after her husbandâ€™s death, she found the quote: â€œWhen you have nothing left but God, then for the first time you become aware that God is enough.â€ For a long time, she says, it was â€œthe only thing that kept [her] going.â€
Warning Signs of Suicide
If someone you know expresses thoughts of suicide, it is imperative to take those words very seriously. Warning signs include observable signs of serious difficulties (such as, unrelenting low mood, pessimism, hopelessness, desperation, anxiety, psychic pain, inner tension, withdrawal, and sleep problems), increased alcohol and/or other drug use, recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks, threatening suicide or expressing strong wish to die, and making a plan (giving away prized possessions, purchasing a firearm, obtaining other means of killing oneself), and unexpected rage or anger.
To intervene, there are three basic steps: show you care, ask the person specifically about thoughts of suicide, and get help.
It is the hope of intervention that drives many suicide prevention activists such as Sriram to continue his struggle.
â€œMy motivation for starting MuSSA, like most of the activities in my life, was based on the wisdom of Allah through the Qurâ€™an,â€ says Sriram. â€œI know that I cannot save every Muslim in the world who is depressed and cannot prevent their suicides, but I do know that if Allah gives me the taufiq (ability) to do something and I donâ€™t use that ability, then Iâ€™m going to be held accountable on the Day of Judgment for my failure to help people.â€
Sriram finds comfort in the words of Allah when He says: â€œâ€¦if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.â€ (Qurâ€™an, 5:32)