By Mariam Fam
Dr. Rania Awaad was attending a virtual religion program this Ramadan when discussion turned to an unexpected question: Is it religiously acceptable to say a prayer for someone who died by suicide?
Suicide is a complex and delicate topic that Awaad, as director of the Muslim Mental Health & Islamic Psychology Lab at Stanford University, knows much about—but one she says isn't discussed nearly enough in U.S. Muslim communities. When it is, she said, it's often poorly understood and shrouded in misconceptions.
Awaad and other mental health professionals are trying to change that, working alongside some faith leaders and activists to bring nuance and compassion to such conversations, raise awareness in Muslim communities about suicide prevention and mental health and provide religiously and culturally sensitive guidance.
The effort took on new urgency in the aftermath of an apparent murder-suicide that left six family members dead in Allen, Texas, in April, sending shock waves through Muslim communities in the area and beyond. Investigators believe two brothers made a pact to kill their parents, sister and grandmother before taking their own lives.
The incident sparked a flurry of activity in Muslim spaces, from public discussions on mental health and trainings on suicide response to healing circles and private conversations.
“The initial reaction of the community was total shock,” said Imam Abdul Rahman Bashir of the Islamic Association of Allen, where the family's funeral was held. “Their reaction went from shock, grief to then concern about other families around them: Are they saying something that they can't hear? Is something out there that they can't see?”
“It definitely opened up the conversation for understanding what mental health is and the importance of mental well-being,” he added.
Suicide is theologically proscribed under Islam, and Awaad while acknowledging that, takes a nuanced view on the issue, arguing that it's not up to people to judge. Contrary to what she's heard some say about people who took their own lives, she believes the deceased may receive prayers regardless of how they died.
“We don't know the state of a person when they reach this point in their life, and we don't know their mental state in that moment,” she said. “... Only God can judge on this.”
The importance of seeking professional help for mental health struggles, without worrying about what people may say, is a message the Texas Muslim Women's Foundation sought to drive home in a recent video. Aimed at the South Asian American community, it featured actors, young activists and others sharing their experiences to help break the stigma.
Some community leaders in Texas addressed suicide and mental health issues after a Muslim American woman took her own life in 2018, according to Saadia Ahmed, director of the foundation's youth leadership program. Following the Allen tragedy, she's heard from lots of people who have reached out to share their personal battles or ask how to get help for loved ones.
One young man opened up about having previously had suicidal thoughts and about how getting help made things better. There was a high school student who needed therapy but her parents weren't getting her any; with the aid of a school counselor, she ended up getting help. Ahmed also heard from parents worried about their kids.
“I feel like at least I see progress,” Ahmed said.
Sameera Ahmed—no relation—a psychologist and executive director of The Family & Youth Institute, a not-for-profit research and education institute, said that when her group was developing suicide prevention resources for Muslim communities a few years ago, some questioned the need.
“People wouldn't share what was happening because they were afraid of the stigma,” Ahmed said. “They were afraid people wouldn't come to their loved one's janazah,” or funeral.
But today she sees more openness to conversation and says some well-known imams have begun addressing the issue from more compassionate perspectives. Still, much work remains, she added.
Following the Allen tragedy, Awaad gave virtual trainings on suicide response from her base in California to help people navigate the aftermath, including to religious and community leaders. Her lab at Stanford provided guidelines for Islamic sermons.
“The crisis response is the hardest part,” she said. Many imams and religious leaders grapple with “striking a balance between healing the community and Islam's stance on the impressibility of suicide.”
She also co-authored a piece detailing do's and don'ts after a suicide, like providing resources and support to those who may be struggling, while refraining from speculation on spiritual implications such as whether someone who took their life will go to paradise.
By the end of 2022, Awaad hopes 500 Muslim religious leaders will have received training on suicide using material developed by a nonprofit, Maristan, in collaboration with her lab at Stanford that's grounded in both science and the teachings of Islam.
Several religious leaders have thrown their weight behind the effort.
One of them, Imam Bashir, of the Islamic Association of Allen, said that while Islam doesn't allow suicide as a way to solve problems, the faith “encourages the community to be one body with ears, eyes and arms to help each other not get to a point where that would be a consideration.”
Wrestling with difficult questions around suicide isn't unique to Muslims. Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, said a belief common to theistic traditions is that one's life belongs to God, so taking it “fundamentally violates” God's most precious gift.
Yet attitudes have been evolving with a greater appreciation of the complexities of mental illness, he added, and it's important to challenge beliefs that suicide signals moral weakness or a failure to be grateful of God.
“While an understanding of God as merciful is important,” Schmalz said, “equally important is being part of a faith community in which mental health issues are taken seriously and not stigmatized.”