It’s nearing the end of Taraweeh prayers on the first night of Ramadan and palms are open to the ceiling all around me. Amidst the tears, are cries of supplication to God, with emotion hanging heavy in the warm mosque air. To my left is a woman collapsed in prayer, weeping silently for the protection of her family and friends. I look down into my hands and try to pour out anything I can and I feel… nothing. Surrounded by devotion and passion for my Creator, I couldn’t even muster a tear. I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the women around me, so consumed in their piety, while I sat detached and unaffected. Did this make me a bad Muslim? Why wasn’t I able to connect like everyone else? What was wrong with me?
This is the reality of many Muslims during Ramadan. In a month when the feeling of community and belonging are so romanticized, what happens if you just don’t feel that way?
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder three years ago, but for a long time before that, I blamed my symptoms on not being close enough to God or not being “Muslim enough.” There have been nights where I would fall asleep on my prayer mat after spending hours begging for some sort of feeling. There have also been nights where I could barely pick myself up to pray at all because my lack of motivation was so strong. The mistake I made was trying to separate my religion from my mental health; Islam, like anything else, requires effort and drive. Sometimes depression affects that – so it’s natural that would in turn affect someone’s ability to meet religious responsibilities.
My spirituality has a long-running relationship with my depression: Sometimes it’s the cure, but more often it feels like my mental health is a wall that I can’t climb over to get to the other, more pious side. In Ramadan, this relationship is amplified, and a lot of the time it’s not in the best way. And the stigma around depression in the Muslim community doesn’t help.
Young Muslims are often met with suggestions like, “You should pray more,” or, “Just ask Allah for forgiveness,” which can be helpful, but can also gloss over the fact that prayer should be used alongside mental health resources rather than instead of them. Watching everyone else grow stronger through fasting, praying, and supplicating can be isolating. And if you can’t fast due to medication, it’s hard to feel like a “good” Muslim at all.
Let’s be honest: not having that special “Ramadan feeling” sucks. It sucks to want to feel something and not be able to because it’s out of your control. And it really sucks to feel like you have to pretend to be excited for Ramadan because you know you should be.
Obviously, this isn’t the same for all Muslims with depression: Mental illness affects everyone differently. But what can you do if you’re struggling with lack of motivation and feelings of hopelessness and loneliness during the Holy Month? The answer isn’t black and white, but one thing is for sure: keep trying your best and make sure you’re getting help. It’s easy to fall into the narrative of self-blame, while forgetting that just because you don’t feel a certain way, you aren’t any less devout of a Muslim. Lack of motivation to do religious activities doesn’t make someone a “lazy Muslim.” As cliché as it may sound, your intentions matter. God sees your struggle.
It took me a lot of Ramadans to realize that the narrative of a “normal” Muslim doesn’t exist, and trying to fit into it is a waste of time. We should always remind ourselves that we are all struggling with something on some level.