My Religion is Not for Self-Harm
Today’s snowflake is al-Salaam – Allah as the source of ultimate Peace and Safety. And the phrase that I think of most often when I think of this essential truth is one that I find myself saying to my clients all too often – “your religion is not for self-harm.” I say it so often in fact that I have lost track of which clients I have said it to, and I used it as the title for a talk I gave a few months ago in Toronto. Today’s reflection is a piece of that talk, a little window into the work I do and how this little nugget of insight became my catchphrase. Apologies in advance that this piece is a bit longer and more academic than the previous ones, but it was written for an academic talk after all!
In the early days of my practice, I was sitting across from a client discussing the impact of her faith on her life. She had sought me out specifically because of my expertise in both mental health and Islam, and we had spent a good part of our sessions up that point discussing religion. But this session was special and, looking back, it marked a turning point in her therapy. She was speaking about the ways in which Islam had been used against her over the years, how it had been leveraged as a way to silence her, to force her to suppress her own needs, and to violate her boundaries. This perspective had become internalized to the point where she was using Islam against herself – her internal dialogue was self-deprecating, almost to the point of cruelty. She was perpetually feeling that she was not enough – not a praying enough, not practicing enough, not a good enough Muslim. The result was anxiety and depression that were both the result of and managed by her faith. And in the context of all of that, we had one of our great ‘aha’ moments – you know those moments of insight that suddenly come to you sometimes, which help to make everything clear.
“Your religion is not for self-harm,” I said. And in that moment, I could see all her thinking suddenly grind to a halt, and her brain worked to bring in this new idea.
This insight has been a guiding force in my practice since that moment. It has come up again and again, with nearly every client I have had. The Muslim women I work with in particular often come to me with deep trauma. While the type of trauma varies in terms of degree and specificity, one of the features that has remained remarkably, albeit disturbingly, consistent is that they have all suffered spiritual abuse. They have each been in environments, particularly family environments, in which Islam has been weaponized against them, and has been used as a tool to oppress them.
This abuse manifests itself in various ways. For example, body image issues that come from being told that their bodies are a source of fitna, inherently problematic and needing to be covered up so as to prevent strife and sin for others; narratives about filial obedience that allow parents to oppress their children, especially young girls – to restrict their movements, monitor their activities, and be verbally and physically abusive, all in the name of respect for parents and concerns for “safety”; and a deep-seated sense of not being good enough – that no amount of practice, no amount of ritual, will ever make them truly good, because hell is always just around the corner, having been used as a way to keep them in line for as long as they can remember.
In this context, religion becomes a vehicle for self-harm, a way to punish oneself for not being good enough, a narrative that reinforces one’s sense of inferiority. I have had clients come in who feel nothing but anxiety when it comes to performing prayers, because any little slip up, any small omission, would result in the prayer not being accepted. I have had clients for whom listening to music, or being in a place where alcohol is served, causes such anxiety, because if they were to die in that moment, they are absolutely certain they would go to hell. All this despite being powerhouse women who do an incredible amount of good in their lives, who are kind and generous and who do everything in their power to live their lives as faithfully as possible.
These are the kinds of issues that land women on my couch, depressed, anxious, and struggling with life. They are in spiritual crisis. How could they not be, when their faith has been used against them in so many ways for so long? How does one understand God in the context of a family or a community that tells you that that God’s love is conditional upon your perfection? And that crisis of faith often results in a larger existentialist crisis. Islam has been the base narrative for them for so long and that foundation is deeply shaken when they realize it has been used against them, it leads to questions about the meaning of life, the purpose of struggle, and the value of continuing on in this journey.
Now in my experience, most mental health practitioners (coming as they generally do from white, non-Muslim backgrounds) might suggest that perhaps Islam is the problem and that what these women should do is take a step back from Islam, because it’s obviously causing major issues for them and it is having a disproportionately negative impact on their lives.
But, and here’s the really important thing, faith continues to be deeply important to each and every one of my clients. None of them come to me because they want to leave Islam. Every single one is looking for a way to maintain their faith, to understand it in a way that allows them to distance themselves and heal from the trauma, while still remaining committed Muslims.
And it is in that context that the simple phrase – “my religion is not for self-harm” – can become a beacon of sorts, a reminder that the way in which religion has been used in their lives is not the only option, not the only lens through which we can see our faith. It becomes a pathway to seeing Islam in all its rich diversity, opening up new ways of experiencing faith that allow for authenticity and healing.
That diversity of thought and interpretation is an essential part of the Islamic faith – we have always had a wide variety of communities of interpretation who, for the most part, have acknowledged the validity of one another’s approaches, recognizing that none of us has ultimate authority over Truth, because that belongs to Allah alone.
I fundamentally believe that this diversity is an intentional blessing of Allah, a way to encourage us to be open and empathetic to one another, and hopefully to ourselves. I root that belief in Allah’s words in Sura al-Hujurat:
“O humankind, indeed we created you male and female and made you [diverse] nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another. Indeed the noblest among you in the sight of Allah is the most pious. Indeed Allah is All-Knowing and All-Aware.”
To me, this verse has always been about not just diversity between various religious communities and the value of interfaith work, but a deep commitment to pluralism within each tradition as well.
I should be clear that by pluralism I do not mean a simple acknowledgement of diversity. I use the term more in the way that it has been defined by Diana Eck for Harvard’s Pluralism Project – that is, pluralism is about an energetic engagement with diversity that goes beyond tolerance and seeks understanding across lines of difference. It requires not relativism but rather a deep encounter of commitments, and a genuine desire to dialogue with one another.
Each of these principles is indispensable for anyone in this field and my own practice is no exception. My ability to help my clients navigate their lives, and especially their understandings of Islam, requires that I truly hear where they come from, how they have understood Islam in their own lives, from a place of deep respect and empathy. We then dialogue about other approaches to Islam, with the goal not of convincing them that one version or other is best, but rather that each of the varied interpretations has its merits. Every one of these conversations focuses on an approach to Islam that allows for historical and cultural context and diversity of thought and interpretation.
A pluralistic approach to Islam is, in my opinion, the key to allowing people who have been spiritually abused to still find meaning and solace in their faith. It allows clients to feel that their Islam is valid, though it may be different from the Islam they have previously known, and it gives us pathways to continue using Islam as a resource and a tool to support them through their trauma, without re-victimizing them.
Make no mistake, this is difficult work. I am in awe of every single person I get to witness doing it, and deeply grateful too. They are each incredible in their willingness to be vulnerable, to break down deeply held beliefs, and to build their faith anew. It inspires me to be more insistent on depth in my own practice of faith, more committed to my own journey and the struggles that are inherent in it. It is such a blessing to do this work and I am so humbled that you all allow me to do it.