By Syed Amer Safir
Isolation is a pressing issue for the world today. 7.2% of European Union citizens (over 30 million people) were found to be socially isolated.This means they never meet either relatives or friends. In the UK a study by Age UK [a charity that works with older people] found that half a million people over 60 spend each day alone, with no interaction with others.This fact may not seem as surprising as one would assume the elderly would suffer more from loneliness than other age groups.
Yet a study in the United States of America by health insurer Cigna, who took a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults, found that ‘half of Americans view themselves as lonely.’ The study found that younger Americans were suffering the brunt of loneliness. ‘Generation Z’ – the generation born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s – feel the most lonely.The New York Times reported that ‘social isolation is a growing epidemic, one that’s increasingly recognised as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences.’
According to Science Daily, social isolation and loneliness may be a greater risk to public health than even obesity and the research shows that the impact is growing.Other reasons for isolation include greater reliance on technology, the effects of social media and a diminishing sense of responsibility for the care of parents in their old age. Some may prefer isolation after suffering the loss of a loved one, unable to recover from the grief. In short, there are countless reasons why people may feel isolated.
A 1400-years-old Concept Relevant Today
Recently, a fascinating concept was expounded on by the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba) in his Eid Sermon (Eid is the annual festival celebrated by Muslims) based on the teachings of Islam from the Holy Qur’an, revealed 1400 years ago, which today is supported by modern science.
His Holiness explained Islam’s concept of happiness versus grief and explained that the gathering of people together and social interaction with others is what brings happiness. By contrast, grief and sorrow are intensified when a person prefers solitude and isolation. When a person stays away from other people for longer periods, it eventually can lead to depression. However, by sitting in the company of their friends and expressing their grief, their feelings of grief or depression can be reduced.
Amongst those who isolate themselves there are different categories. Some may isolate themselves when experiencing grief or heartache. They may prefer to stay away from others during moments of sadness and prefer crying in isolation. Others prefer isolation in all circumstances to the extent that even if a loved one passes away, they do not welcome others visiting to express their condolences and instead, want to be disconnected from everyone. This often leads to depression and physicians advise people suffering from depression and isolation to get out and socialise with others.
In summary His Holiness outlined that Islam, as a religion based on human nature, provides maximum opportunities for Muslims to gather together and socialise as part of their faith, rituals, festivals and practices. This in turn increases people’s happiness. For example, Islam commands Muslims of different areas to assemble on the occasion of Eid. So while solitude is preferred in times of affliction and gatherings promote happiness.
After the Eid Sermon, I was discussing the concepts outlined with some of The Review of Religions team, include one of our senior Editorial Board members who is a clinical psychologist, and we reflected how the concepts outlined by His Holiness regarding isolation mirrored what was taught in modern clinical practice. I was intrigued to further my learning on this concept, in particular because Islam in some cases seems to ask Muslims to search for isolation.
For example, the Qur’an says to pray in isolation to God. Also seclusion is often related to times of intense supplication. How then, I was eager to learn, can we reconcile isolation, grief and how we cope with it? What is the link between isolation and grief? Does isolation lead to depression in all circumstances? When for example some one passes away, does isolation result in grief when someone is mourning?
I therefore was very fortunate to have had the chance to ask these questions to His Holiness over the course of two sittings in his office. Regular readers will be aware that the words of His Holiness are replete with wisdom and practical advice and are always based solely on the teachings of Islam. His Holiness very graciously gave ample time to provide incredibly insightful responses on this topic for which we are eternally grateful and our heart-prayers emanate to God to shower His mercy and grace upon His Holiness. Below are the full answers of His Holiness, presented to readers of The Review of Religions.
Interview with His Holiness, Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
Amer Safir:Your Holiness, in your Eid Sermon you gave a fascinating insight into how people cope with isolation and gain happiness. Your Holiness said that happiness is linked to socialising and congregating with others, whereas sadness is linked to keeping isolated and a lack of socialisation. Your Holiness, my question is regarding the concept of isolation linked to sadness. What is the link between grief and isolation in the context of sadness? Does isolation always lead to grief, in light of how Islam apparently seems to ask us to search for seclusion in some circumstances? When someone passes away, then, is grief increased through isolation?
His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaba: In terms of isolation, if we take responding to someone’s demise for example, there is a psychological experience that people go through. People want to reduce their grief and they have to deal with it properly by isolating themselves and crying over that loss. For example, when someone (near to oneself) dies it can lead to sleepless nights, intense grief and one becomes closed-off to the extent that they even succumb to depression. Doctors sometimes advise that a person should cry when grieving over the loss of someone.
In the past (and still sometimes today) people often stoically bore their anguish and held back from crying, which in turn had an adverse effect upon them. So such people were advised to cry to release their sorrows. If you suppress your feelings when you are grieving and you suffer in silence by not expressing it or letting it out, it will affect your heart. Therefore, you should cry and express your remorse.
This is what the Holy Qur’an advises us and what the Holy Prophet Muhammadsainstructed us as well. God tells us to cry and weep before Him, which is clear from this verse:
اَلَا بِذِکۡرِ اللّٰہِ تَطۡمَئِنُّ الۡقُلُوۡبُ
‘It is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts can find comfort’(Ch.13:V.29)
Therefore, one should express everything before Allah – when your prayer is accepted it gives great satisfaction and relief.
(His Holiness: Haven’t you experienced that when you cry after suffering heartache, you become happier or more tranquil?)
(Amer Safir: Yes, your Holiness, I have)
His Holiness: Some people try to bear it and contain their anguish within themselves. They do not express their grief and instead they prefer isolation. By remaining isolated they are able to lament, or cry in their prayers. With grief, you have to shed it or release it somehow. So to lessen one’s sorrows sometimes a person resorts to crying and thus the sadness diminishes.
Observe that when a person is enraged or angry and he holds back from speaking his mind, his mind will feel like exploding and by holding all of this within himself, such a person may be driven to insanity. So he either directs that anger towards someone else, expresses it to a friend or he may cry and lament in order to feel some release.
So therefore, what I mean is that it is in people’s nature to cry when in sorrow.
We see that when somebody suffers a loss or an injury, people come to comfort them – they hug them and they cry with them.
Here when a tragedy takes place you will observe people placing flowers – and you will also often see people crying and hugging one another – whilst others will endure their suffering and not cry. Some people have the ability to tolerate their emotions, so that if they even cry for just five minutes they feel as if they have alleviated all their sorrows and have started a new life!
Islam does not say to ‘cry forever’ – rather Islam has prescribed for bereaved husbands and wives that they should pray for 40 days. For widows, Islam has set four months and ten days for the mourning period. However, in all other instances we have been told that after three days we should not grieve further.
The extended period of mourning is only for husbands and wives. So the widow is allowed four months and ten days to express her grief , while Islam instructs others that, even if your close relative dies, you should not mourn for more for three days.
Amer Safir: Your Holiness, what about prophets who apparently especially sought to isolate themselves in some circumstances?
His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba): The prophets performed the Nawafil(the voluntary prayers) – that is what solitude means here. At night they would pray and submit to Allah. The Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa) told Hazrat Ayesha(ra) that he wished to pray at night. It is narrated that on one occasion she woke up during the night and saw the Holy Prophet(sa) bowing down in prostration. There was another occasion when Hazrat Ayesha(ra) woke up during the night and saw that the Holy Prophet(sa) was not in his bed. In fact he had gone to a graveyard and was there, praying in isolation (silent prayer).
That is the meaning, then, of isolation, which is to cut yourself off from the world and to disconnect yourself solely for the sake of Allah and to absorb yourself wholly in Him. Only then will you become one of God’s (beloved ones). This is true isolation.
However at the same time despite this, during the day the prophets would complete all their worldly errands and fulfil all worldly relationships and dealings.
Amer Safir: Your Holiness, you mentioned that the mourning period is only three days apart from widows, who have a longer period of mourning. What is the wisdom of only three days mourning? What if somebody is in deep agony due to the sudden loss of, say, a child or otherwise, which lasts beyond three days?
His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba): The shock produced by a bereavement and the setback one experiences does not simply come to end after the three-day mourning period. Grief affects one’s mind and emotions and it has an enduring impact even after the mourning period has ended. However, it is the outward expression of such grief that should end after this time period.
For widows, it is said when her husband dies, she should not adorn herself with makeup nor should she especially dress up as she may normally do. While she should wear clean clothes and keep herself tidy, she should not over-embellish herself. For other categories of bereaved women [e.g. mothers, sisters, daughters], there are no such restrictions on makeup and dress.
The underlying reason behind this is that our physical state has an impact on our spiritual state. This is not to say that you should not grieve, as the anguish does not just end after this mourning period. A person will never forget those who they have lost. A wife may overcome some of her grief in the future by marrying a new husband, but when someone loses their child, they will never replace the grief, which will always stay with them.
So, we are told to not sustain an outward state of mourning. Indeed, the mourning in one’s heart is a feeling that will never diminish. For this, one should pray at night in prostration to express one’s grief and agony to Allah the Almighty and to seek prayers for relief and comfort. However, in terms of your physical state, it should be rectified and purified. One should maintain cleanliness, bathe and keep clean and maintain this outward state of purity.
Amer Safir: Your Holiness, why is it four months and ten days for widows especially and not husbands?
His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad: Men have been instructed to go out and earn. They are the ‘breadbasket’ for their home. If a man were to stay at home idly for a similar time-period of mourning (as is prescribed for widows) then his family and children would end up hungry. This is why they have been instructed to leave the home and work, whilst they are still grieving.
Also, those women who have to rely on their own income, do have permission to go out and earn even during this period, based on their specific circumstances. In that situation, they are allowed to go out and work, but should limit their activities to work and returning home straight after.
Thus, justice and fairness has been established and it has not been made into an unwavering principle, rather there is some relaxation based on the individual’s situation. Further, if the widow is pregnant the allocated time period allows for this to manifest itself.
Some men also have sexual urges, which they are unable to bear, whereas in contrast women are less likely to succumb to these. Therefore, men have been allowed to marry again, as in such cases, it is better to do so than to allow them to submit to temptations that they cannot tolerate.
Once a sixty-two-year-old man came to me saying he could not tolerate his urges, and wanted to marry a thirty-five-year-old, saying that he felt obliged to support this girl and to marry her and greatly wished to. Even at the age of sixty-two, these were his sentiments.
In contrast, a sixty-two-year-old widow does not usually feel the need to remarry for the same reason, unless she lacks the support of her children or wants companionship. Even here, usually older people do not normally re-marry unless they fall in love or perhaps for other reasons. After a certain age, one’s sexual requirements change and are not desired in the same way. People here even resort to medication for this.
Amer Safir: Your Holiness, how should one react after situations of extreme trauma and shock?
His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba):
اَلَا بِذِکۡرِ اللّٰہِ تَطۡمَئِنُّ الۡقُلُوۡبُ
‘It is in the remembrance of Allah that hearts can find comfort.’ (Ch.13:V.29)
We should turn to Allah and beseech help and support from Him. Islam also guides us to increasingly participate in social activities after such events. Those who are suffering from depression are also told by psychiatrists to go and socialise with others – to get some fresh air and exercise, and to meet people instead of being isolated.
Amer Safir: Your Holiness, should we resort to taking medication in such situations of mental distress or consult with psychiatrists, as some people I have heard say that Islam shuns this?
His Holiness: At times of depression, a person can take medication. I also sometimes administer homeopathic medications to people suffering in this state. At times people are so depressed they cannot even sleep. I often send people who are in such circumstances to psychiatrists myself.
About the Author: Syed Amer Safir is the Chief Editor & Manager of The Review of Religions