The demoralised Muslim mind

Nayla Majestya 

During my graduate studies some years ago, I remember having countless conversations with my peers concerning our struggle to feel happy. It appeared rather ridiculous; we were a group of young, healthy students, with a decent level of intellect, and in a stable enough financial situation to be able to choose graduate school over earning our keep. Yet in a bid to feel truly content, some of us turned to sports and yoga, some went to therapists, some went to parties, some joined political rallies, and some delved into the self-help psycho-philosophy rabbit holes. But once the therapy sessions were finished, the parties and the rallies ended, and the adrenaline gone, we descended back into the dark abyss of depression, anxiety, and self-inflicted existential traps. 

In the years since, I thought I had managed to establish a good distance from this malady of mind-and-heart. Until one evening, when my aunt sent my younger cousin to me to “talk”. My cousin wears hijab, prays five times a day, and recites the Holy Qur’an every now and then. Yet my aunt was worried because even though on the outside my cousin seems like a perfectly normal Muslim girl, she was depressed all the time and expressed a certain kind of disdain towards Islam. She grumbled about “old-fashioned”, observant Muslims, refused to go to any halaqas, and rolled her eyes at her Mother’s habit of listening to sermons. My aunt, who saw nothing wrong with her daughter’s lifestyle (good grades, good social life, well taken care of by her family), was baffled at her attitude. 

Some conversations later, my cousin finally admitted to me that she often feels depressed and cries her heart out without even knowing the reason why. She also emphasised that her mental state is quite normal among her circle of friends, Muslims and non-Muslims. My cousin rationalised it the way a friend of mine did during my study days, “It’s probably because we’re young. Aren’t all young people depressed?” 

Being Discontent and Dispirited 

In his article, The Demoralised Mind, psychologist John Schumaker noted that our progress towards the Age of Depression seems unstoppable[1]. Three decades ago, the average age of depression was 30, while today it is 14, with rates in Western industrialized societies doubling with each successive generational cohort. Schumaker differentiates being demoralised from being clinically depressed. The former refers to a mind which is in the state of cognitive breakdown, yet is resistant to drugs. It is a modern mental illness that is the result of living in industrialised societies and a consumer-driven culture. 

According to Schumaker, consumer culture “with its driving features of individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness, and debt are all correlated negatively with our psychological wellbeing”. It gives way to a “short-attention span, over-indulgence, and masturbatory approach to life”. It is designed to maintain an “existential vacuum” which is a prerequisite to demoralization. 

Since the life of the consumer revolves around the overkill of meaningless low-level material desires, it is quickly engulfed by boredom, jadedness, and discontent. Slowly, it graduates to “existential boredom” wherein people find life as uninteresting and unrewarding. 

Without a life compass that grounds people to their reason of being, the commercialized mind gravitates toward what Noam Chomsky termed as “philosophy of futility”, in which people’s attentions are preoccupied with superficial things like fashion, food, and entertainment. The mind of those who are trapped in the “philosophy of futility” feels the loss of power and significance beyond their conditioned role as docile consumers. As Schumaker eloquently puts it,:

Lacking substance and depth, and adrift from others and themselves, the thin and fragile consumer self is easily fragmented and dispirited. 

Consequently, in both youth and adults, the demoralised mind finds contentment only by fulfilling its insatiable appetite for technology and entertainment. By immersing themselves in virtual realities offered in everything from streaming sites to gaming platforms, they diminish their awareness and numb their feelings.

Our Fragmented and Politicised Self 

Growing up in a Muslim household, I heard enough sermons amplified through the mosques’ loudspeakers on the perils of modern-day entertainment. The promotion of prohibited actions, from pre-marital relationships to violence, drug use, and pornography, was widely spoken on. But, as typical public-school educated kids, it was lost on my friends and I. We spent our youth consuming cultural content, our mind pliant enough, our soul void enough to be filled with voices and suggestions: that perhaps Islam is outdated, that Islam is what holds us back, that Islam is what makes us miserable with all its rules, obligations, and demands. 

It did not help that my teenage years were the first decade after 9/11. It was a downright hostile global political climate for Muslims everywhere. Muslims became the suspect community, looked at from a security lens and classified accordingly. Under the pressure of the Western gaze and the genuine fear of potentially receiving military aggression like Afghanistan, Indonesian Muslims developed a new cultural complex. Our first defence mechanism was to label ourselves as a separate entity from ‘those terrorists’. We are the cultured kind of Muslims, the peaceful one, the moderates. We are those who fiercely stand behind the hashtag #notinmyname.

Soon enough, the moderate Muslim identity gained traction in public discourse. To maintain this political stance in the global conversation, being a moderate Muslim is no longer enough. We need to be the enlightened Muslims as opposed to those barbaric and backward Islamists. We need to be the ‘Good Muslim’ (the liberal, the progressive) as opposed to that ‘Bad Muslim’ (the radical, the Islamist). As Mamdani notes, the Culture Talk of ‘Good Muslim/Bad Muslim’ is not merely talk – it is the driving force behind American foreign policy in the post-9/11 era[2]. Naturally, with the globalised War on Terror, came the globalised Culture Talk. 

But the most harmful effect of this Cultural Talk is that it has turned religion into a political category. Being a Muslim no longer associated with our submission to One God and Islam as a revelation-based belief system that regulates our way of life. The ethnographic designation formed by the combination of secular-liberal education, numbing cultural consumption, and the global politics of the War on Terror has put us in a tight spot where we always have the urge to explain ourselves as the harmless/enlightened/”good” Muslim. 

Moreover, our socio-political experience in the post-9/11 world conditions us to internalise the need to have a political stance about Islam. It is no longer enough to explain that Muslims are those who submit to Islamic faith. Now, to explain oneself as a Muslim is to preemptively answer unspoken questions; “What kind of Muslim are you?”; “Which Muslim group or Islamic strand do you belong to?” In the case of being an Indonesian Muslim, one’s stance towards Islam is currently measured according to one’s position in the political spectrum of supporting the khilafah (meaning that you are radical, thus the enemy) or supporting ‘Indonesian Islam’ or ‘Cultural Islam’ (meaning that you are moderate, thus socially acceptable). 

It is no wonder that most Muslims today are in the state of cognitive dissonance. Our identity is caught up in a war between the spiritual struggle to worship our Lord and the cultural struggle to be politically correct. Despite some attempts to argue that this is what the ‘middle way’ is all about, to be stuck between these continuous struggles is actually taking a heavy toll on our psycho-spiritual health. It burdens our souls. 

Being Unified in Our Reason of Being 

At its core, demoralisation according to Schumaker “is a generalized loss of credibility in the assumptions that ground our existence and guide our actions”. As we immerse ourselves into consumerism and a ‘philosophy of futility’, we are naturally experiencing more difficulty to identify with the values, goals, and aspirations that were once part of our reality. 

Since the illness is normalised in our culture, to treat it with therapy is rather futile. What is needed is the rebuilding of the unconscious foundations of our lives. To begin to heal a demoralised community, what is needed is an approach that focuses on the sources of a person’s underlying assumptions, identity, values, and centres of meaning, with the aim of constructing a worldview that better connects the person to themselves, others, and the natural world. 

In sum, to overcome a demoralised mind, one needs to have an existential compass. 

Schumaker’s solution to demoralisation by rebuilding one’s unconscious foundation of life is fundamentally a call to a coherent conception of reality that unifies the intellectual and the spiritual dimensions of life. In Muslim-speak, it is a call to tawheed, an Islamic concept related to the Oneness of God or what Zohair Abdul-Rahman described as “an integrative and unifying force that mirrors the unity of the Divine”.

We are living in the age where spiritual fulfillment is marketed through the practice of yoga, meditation, philosophizing, veganism, and art. They might provide a short relief from our mental burdens. But they lack things that ground us to true spiritual development. What demoralisation brings into the discussion on our psycho-spiritual health is the realization of the problem which on the surface seems trivial (non-clinical depression), but is indicative of a deeper humane need to ground our understanding towards reality in a coherent premise about creation, the Creator, and the reason of our being.

Allah ﷻ has stated in the Holy Qur’an:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُون

 “I created not the jinn and mankind except that they worship Me (alone).” (51:56)

This verse is the basis of our raison d’etre. It is also the basis of tawheed al-‘ibadah, the most important aspect of tawheed[3]. It refers to maintaining the unity of Allah’s worship. Allah ﷻ emphasized the importance of directing worship only to Him, because He alone deserves worship, and it is He alone who can grant benefit to man as a result of his worship. This indicates that Allah ﷻ, who has the power to turn our qalb (heart), is our ultimate Healer. It is only through His Blessings over our worship that we can attain true contentment. 

In Islam, it is our fitrah (human nature) to be dependent and always yearning to seek perfection in something beyond us. This yearning requires a system of sanctification, otherwise it causes human misery. Our aspiration for contentment is achieved from the sanctification of our creator, from worshipping Him in all aspects of life. 

In this framework, demoralisation is understood as a malady of mind-and-heart which calls us back to our human nature as fragile, weak, and needy beings. It is a wake-up call to exhibit our brokenness in the face of the Almighty (Al-‘Aziz) and the Giver of Peace (As-Salaam) through our worship.

Abdul-Rahman points out that Islamic spirituality actually relies on self-actualization: “When a person realizes that the unified pursuit of the Divine is the fulfillment of all their needs, an internal unification occurs that results in a person becoming a unique individual”[4]. Self-actualization here refers to the ideal outcome of our spiritual journey towards God through the realization of our human nature and our purpose in life. 

Our spiritual instinct is part of human nature that naturally seeks spiritual fulfillment by inquiring about our existence. From an Islamic perspective, this need can only be truly satisfied by grounding our worldview in tawheed. It gives us a chance to find true contentment from the sanctification of our Creator who has promised us in the Holy Qur’an: 

الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوب

“Those who have believed (in Oneness of Allah — Islamic monotheism) and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of Allah; verily, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest.” (13:28)

The Mu’min Mindset

In essence, demoralisation is a modern illness that calls for a re-examination of reality. The Islamic solution for this non-clinical anxiety and depression is a return to tawheed, which is the basis of Islamic belief. As the Muslim identity is increasingly politicised, a Muslim who yearns for a true contentment needs to rethink the basis of their identity. Is it tied to their political stance? Or is it based on what Allah describes in Surah Ali ’Imran: 

قُلْ يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْا إِلَىٰ كَلِمَةٍ سَوَاءٍ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ أَلَّا نَعْبُدَ إِلَّا اللَّهَ وَلَا نُشْرِكَ بِهِ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَتَّخِذَ بَعْضُنَا بَعْضًا أَرْبَابًا مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَقُولُوا اشْهَدُوا بِأَنَّا مُسْلِمُون

Say (O Muhammad), “O People of the scripture (Jews and Christians)! Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but Allah (Alone), and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides Allah. Then, if they turn away, say: “Bear witness that we are Muslims”.  (3:64)

This verse describes the true meaning of being Muslim. Muslims are those who worship only Allah, do not associate Him with other partners, and do not take other lords beside Allah. Muslims are those who submit themselves to the Oneness of God. 

This means that the Muslim identity refers to those who own a certain mindset that is tied to a certain belief in God; a Mu’min (believer) mindset. 

The foundation of the prophetic mission is to call people to tawheed, to submit ourselves to Allah ﷻ as the only God who deserves to be worshipped.  A faith’s validity is not based on understanding every aspect of law[5]; once we can accept the Islamic faith’s answers to theological questions regarding God, life, and purpose, the minutiae of law are then accepted. 

In discussing the effect of demoralisation on Muslims’ psycho-spiritual wellbeing, we are inevitably talking about Islamic theological foundation. For demoralised Muslims, it is very easy to see Islam as nothing beyond rules and prohibitions. And when rules are seen as simply part of a legal system, without considering the very reason of why we have to obey the law, it is very easy to transgress and underrate sins. 

Hence, the phenomenon of losing one’s religion through the mechanism of consumer and political culture is not really an intellectual problem, but rather a psycho-spiritual one. 

Nayla Majestya is a lecturer in media studies Jakarta, Indonesia. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, she is also an Arabic student at the International Open University. You can follow her on Twitter @MajesticNayla

[1]Schumaker, J. 2016, “The Demoralised Mind”, New Internationalist

[2]Mamdani, Mahmood. 2008. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. New York: Doubleday

[3]Philips, Abu Ameenah Bilal. 2005. The Fundamentals of Tawheed. Riyadh: IIPH.

[4]Abdul-Rahman, Zohair. 2019, June 13. In Pursuit of Conviction I: Faith Certainty. Yaqeen Institute.

[5]Yasir Qadhi

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