When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in the midst of an acute manic episode and psychotic break, I was convinced that I was a prophet. Having discovered the meaning of life (don’t ask, I forgot), I was ready to lead others. Not so easy from a locked isolation room.
So I settled on prayer, thinking that perhaps this was all preordained, so that God could send me further messages from on high without interruption. I attempted to recite the first surah of the Qur’an, the Al-Fatiha. I had recited it countless times before—during daily prayers, funerals, weddings, baby showers; before driving, flying, eating, sledding; and above all, at times of crisis. There is no series of words that I know better by heart, and there is no series of words that I have committed more deeply to heart.
But at that moment, locked alone in a room with nothing but a mattress and fleeting hallucinations to keep me company, the surah escaped me. I’ve never felt more alone in my life. Certainly, I could have simply prayed in my own words and reached the Lord just as effectively. But mania had robbed me of the reason and patience required to construct more than a handful of coherent sentences at a time.
The recitation of the Al-Fatiha is far from the only way to connect with God. But He was not the only source with whom I yearned to connect. More than anything, I wanted a witness, another human being in the room to remind me that I was human and worthy of attention, if not love. Reciting the Al-Fatiha represented an attempt to connect with humanity. Knowing that over a billion people in the world seek solace in those words, I wanted to join them. I knew that somewhere in the world, perhaps on the same street or even in the same hospital, there was another human being seeking Divine guidance at that exact same moment, through those exact same words.
I don’t belong to a particular mosque. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve attended formal services. Partly, it’s on account of my disdain for the highly un-Islamic practice of gender segregation that occurs in most mosques. Partly, it’s because I have learned through experience that the more “organized” a religion becomes, the more corrupt its leaders and congregants tend to grow. Not to say that there aren’t some wonderful imams out there. There are. I can attest to that firsthand. I’ve just never found God in a building. Like the great Sufi poet, Rumi, I too sought God in edifices once—in churches, temples and mosques. And like Rumi, I did not find Him there; I found Him in my heart.
This is the Islam I know. So to suddenly be struck by this urge to connect with other Muslims in such a profound way was entirely new to me. I’d appreciated and related to many other Muslims in my life, but I did not find comfort in the Ummah, or community of Muslims. Having lost my mind and become the object of fierce indifference and dehumanization, however, things changed for me in a profound way. I suddenly appreciated the value of community, and I longed for it.
Community, however, was not what I found after being released from the hospital. Rather, I found a great deal of judgment from other Muslims—many of whom insisted that I was in a spiritual crisis that required prayer and prayer alone. As the daughter of two physicians, a student of science and an experienced psychiatric patient, I knew better, and I said so. While some folks were interested in learning more about the scientific view, others dismissed it outright. Still, Islam places a great deal of value on science. Just consider the Islamic Renaissance or the bordering-on-pathological propensity of Muslim parents to encourage their children to become doctors.
Soon, I realized that if I sought any sort of meaningful community, I would have to do so strategically. I found that the more educated an individual was, the more likely she was to accept the scientific basis of my brain disease, while still supporting the role of spirituality in coping with it. In short, when we learn better, we do better.
If Muslims want a more tolerant and educated Ummah, we have to go about creating it ourselves—not through chastisements or condescension, but rather through education. That can mean holding educational seminars in mosques, but I think it’s worth getting creative here. Art, driven as it is by the heart, can be far more enlightening than any seminar. Plus, it sounds, looks, feels, smells and tastes better than most pamphlets. The most meaningful connections in our minds, after all, begin—like art—in our hearts.
This article was originally published on the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website.
By Melody Moezzi