How to Have Compassion in this Age of Heightened Tensions
Ustadha Raidah Shah Idil works as a counsellor for the SeekersHub Question and Answer service. She is deeply interested in the role of spirituality in healing trauma. In this interview, she speaks on the role of compassion in everyday life, the mindfulness necessary to stay grounded, the role of tarbiyah in the digital age, and the mental health challenges within the Muslim community.
We live in what is called by some as the ‘age of anger’, where there is limited patience, and heightened tensions. In such a world, where do you see the role of compassion, both individual and collective, in setting the balance of the world right?
I strongly believe that compassion, on an individual and collective level, is absolutely necessary. One of my favourite verses of the Qur’an is: “We have sent you but as a mercy to the worlds.” [Al-Qur’an 21:107] Our Beloved Prophet is a manifestation of mercy to all of creation. He taught us how to be kind, how to forgive, how to be brave, and countless other virtues – not only when it’s convenient, but especially when it’s hard. These lessons from him (upon him be blessings and peace) are there for us to navigate our daily lives, and not just something we learn in theory and never apply.
As Muslims, who are reminded again and again of Allah’s compassion, what responsibility do we have in ensuring we have empathy and compassion in our everyday lives?
Every day is a new beginning, and every day brings about new opportunities to respond with empathy and compassion. It is our responsibility, especially as parents and teachers, to model these Prophetic virtues to the children in our care. Choose love; choose mercy; choose forgiveness. This is especially important to those of us who have children or the elderly under our care, because the daily stresses that come with being a caretaker can really take a toll. It may feel much easier to lash out, but that just shows a difficulty in regulating one’s emotions. It’s never okay to take out our frustrations on others, especially on children. However, we’re only human. Mistakes can and will always happen, which is why apologising and repairing that relationship is so important. That teaches our children to make amends too. The Prophetic way is not one of pettiness, revenge, tit-for-that, aggression or abuse. The Prophetic way is everything that makes you grow, and growth can hurt, until it becomes part of you. If more Muslims behaved the way the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) taught us, then perhaps our children would be inspired by the deen, instead of feeling repulsed by its false representation. Islam is there to help us be the best versions of ourselves, through how we are every day of our lives, until the day we meet our Creator.
As someone who is a practitioner of Reiki and has interest in ancient Chinese medicine, do you see these methods at odds with Islam or compatible with it?
I see these healing modalities as being compatible with Islam. I’d like to add my practice of mindfulness, Pilates, Qi Gong and homeopathy to my self-care list. I am grateful for my exposure to all these useful practises over the journey of my life, but I do caution you to choose your teachers wisely. I am currently living in Malaysia, where there is a lot of access to trustworthy Muslim teachers, but that is not always possible in the West. Even if non-Muslim teachers are the only available resource, ensure that what they teach is in line with Islam, and be that Muslim agent of change others can learn from. It’s useful to remember that even the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) was supported by non-Muslims, including his own uncle, Abu Talib. Listen to your gut. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, then steer away from it. For instance, refer to this hadith: Wabisah bin Ma’bad (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: I went to Messenger of Allah (upon him be blessings and peace) and he asked me, “Have you come to inquire about piety?” I replied in the affirmative. Then he said, “Ask your heart regarding it. Piety is that which contents the soul and comforts the heart, and sin is that which causes doubts and perturbs the heart, even if people pronounce it lawful and give you verdicts on such matters again and again.” [Ahmad and Ad- Darmi].
Over the past two decades, there has been a rising interest in meditation across the world, but for stressed young Muslims it can also be unclear whether meditation (vipassana, low hertz music, chakra meditation and so on) goes along with their religion. What would be your advice?
My advice is to keep it simple, listen to your instincts, and consult with a trustworthy and compassionate scholar if you are unsure. My preference is to meditate to a calming guided voice track (apps such as Calm or Headspace are useful), or to nature sounds, to bypass the complications of differences of opinion surrounding the permissibility of music. The most important thing is to make mindfulness a daily practice, even if it’s five minutes a day. Sitting down after every obligatory prayer and making five minutes of dhikr – truly being present with it – is a more a familiar example of mindfulness. Using the entire body and breathing techniques is also very calming. Qi Qong and Tai Chi are very grounding.
I’ll return to the subject of internet, as it is of such importance. It provides unmatched access to information, but also misinformation. There is knowledge but there is also endless distractions. How is then one to approach seeking knowledge via the internet?
I would always advise seeking out a trustworthy teacher in real-life. If that isn’t possible, then please study through SeekersHub or through Skype classes. The risk of falling through an information wormhole is very real, especially when unsupervised, and the best anchor is a trustworthy teacher. I do not recommend looking up fatwas online, especially without a proper foundation. As a student, always, always, always be connected to a trustworthy and compassionate teacher. I have also come to realise that there is no replacing the tarbiyah that comes from raising children within a close-knit family, including extended family members. There is a refining of the nafs that comes when one is constantly in contact with not only one’s parents, but also one’s grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins, and so on. It’s rarely easy, but it teaches children from a young age how to be more forgiving, compassionate, selfless, cooperative, and so on. Keeping family ties also then becomes second nature. You can’t learn that from the internet, or a book, especially during this day and age of so much disconnection.
There is a lack of clarity on what Islam says about mental health issues. Many people also do not have access to professional help, either due to material deprivation or stigma. What has been your experience, as a counsellor, in dealing with mental health issues in the Muslim community?
I find that there is still shame and misinformation surrounding mental illness in the Muslim community, with unique challenges depending on the locality. For examples, the mental health challenges in Sydney are different to Kuala Lumpur. However, I also find more access to supportive information about mental illness, and healthier discussions. I think there is also growing awareness that so much of the trauma of today has been accumulated over generations. The side-effects of migration on Muslim youth in the West is also garnering more attention. It’s not easy topic, and so many families grapple with this. There is no better time than the present to make a change, and it always starts from within. Even the Companions struggled with present-day challenges such as depression and anxiety, and the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) taught us duas to assist with that. Anas b. Malik said: I used to serve the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) and often hear him say: “O Allah, I seek refuge in You from grief and anxiety, from the hardships of debt, and from being overpowered by men.” [Sunan Abi Dawud] I strongly believe that so many major problems faced by Muslim youth today (drug and pornography addiction, suicide etc) stem from unresolved mental health issues that have worsened over time.
There is a lack of qualified Islamic scholars amongst many local communities. The lack is even more acute when it comes to female scholars. What are the fallouts of this situation? What are possible solutions for the same?
One of the biggest fallouts is lack of sensitivity and compassion when it comes to responding to issues in our ummah, especially issues pertaining to women e.g. domestic violence situations, attraction to non-Muslim men, removal of hijab etc. Another fallout is the rise of toxic masculinity in Muslim communities, which drives people away from the deen. A possible solution is for families to support female scholars, to emphasise the seeking of sacred knowledge alongside secular knowledge, to connect to authentic scholars even if it’s online, to nurture and appreciate the feminine principles in both men and women, to honour the role of women inside the home and outside of it, to learn about the history of great Muslim women all over the world, and to support vulnerable women in need (single mothers, convert women etc).
We find that be it secular or Muslim, political regimes use the dressing choices of women to bolster their secular or Islamic credentials respectively. What is the reason for this?
This is a difficult question. Historically, women have constantly borne the brunt of public scrutiny. Perhaps the creative and nurturing power inherent in all women is threatening to those in power. Silencing women, objectifying them, or using them as scapegoats are common and effective methods to maintain a toxic status quo. This is not the way of Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace). His wives (may Allah be pleased with them all) were strong, intelligent and vocal, and never simply reduced to their outer forms.
You have educational qualifications in both the secular (psychology) and the sacred (Islamic studies). How do you see the combined effect of both in shaping your worldview?
Both have contributed immensely in shaping my worldview and go hand-in-hand. I remember feeling a distinct sense of relief when I started my sacred studies in Jordan. It felt like I had finally come home. That missing part of me was finally being nourished. Prior to that stage in my life, my Islamic studies had always been relegated to the sidelines. It felt very healing to have my sacred studies take up the focus of my attention. Now that I am a mother of two very small children, my time is limited. I am grateful that Allah set my Islamic foundations when I had the ability to travel and spend long periods of time in uninterrupted study. However, my daily life with my children gives me tremendous insight into what it means to be truly patient, forgiving, and so on. Every day, I have the opportunity to practice the theory I learned when I was younger!
Ustadha Raidah Shah Idil has a Diploma of Counselling from the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. She began her online Islamic studies with Qibla (Sunnipath) as a university student, alongside her volunteer work as a hospital chaplain for 5 years. After completing her Bachelors of Science (Psychology), she completed Qibla’s Shifa Summer program on the ground in Kharabsheh, Amman. She stayed on for two years and studied Shafi’i’ fiqh, Arabic, Sira, Aqida, Tasawwuf, Tafsir and Tajweed with various teachers such as Shaykh Nuh Keller, Shaykh Hamza Karamali, Shaykha Noura Shamma. She lives in Kuala Lumpur and continues her study through local scholars and SeekersHub.