I’ll admit to being somewhat astonished when I heard that Sinead O’Connor has converted to Islam. She declared this yesterday: she has changed her name to Shuhada Davitt and is now covering her hair. This video of her on YouTube shows her singing the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer in her own inimitable style, clad in camouflage sweater and green beanie cap, swaying back and forth as she sings, lifting her hand in a triumphant witnessing of the one-ness of God. It’s almost too intense to look at, like the sun in full strength.
Already on social media the comments are flying thick and fast: that this is another exacerbation of her mental illness, that it’s a publicity stunt, that she’s seeking relevance. Muslims are of course delighted, welcoming her to the fold and calling her Sister. I wonder if the same things were said about Cat Stevens when he converted to Islam, but his interviews about the subject talk about something entirely different: a personal decision in the wake of a near-drowning. Religion is always a personal choice, but politics and critique always dog anyone who makes a choice toward Islam. This could be a bad thing for O’Connor’s mental health, but nobody expects the Internet to be sensitive or kind.
Sinead’s personal torment has always been public. I’m old enough to remember watching her on SNL, ripping up that photo of the Pope and shouting about child abuse in the Catholic Church. She was demonized for that, but years later, has proven to be right. Often when someone uncovers abuse, the first thing questioned is their mental health. Unfortunately child abuse does affect mental health, as we can see in so many people suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD and more severe mental illnesses. Sinead’s suffering has never been hidden — in fact she is open about it to the point of pain — but far more people suffer in silence. Child abuse is no less an issue in Muslim countries, either, with #MosqueMeToo emerging in the wake of the global #MeToo movement.
A tormented soul looks for comfort in any way and anywhere: through religion, sex, drugs, exercise, alcohol – any number of things. Perhaps Sinead’s conversion to Islam is another two fingers up at the Catholic Church, but I’m guessing it is a genuine cry from her soul for relief from her pain. And I’m a firm believer that God draws all of us closer to him in different ways. What I do hope is that she doesn’t leave her mental health treatment in the wrong assumption that God is the answer, and all else is unnecessary.
In this case the popular Islamic saying “trust in God but tie your camel” is very apt. Mental health is no more such a stigma in developed nations, but in Muslim countries, due to a lack of education and mental health professionals, it is still much of a taboo subject. Most people in poor Muslim countries think that signs of mental illness or epilepsy are actually signs of possession by jinns. Mental health professionals work hard in countries like mine to raise awareness of illnesses; war and terrorism have exacerbated these issues in vulnerable populations, like refugees and victims of attacks. Even the Prophet Muhammed is said to have questioned his own sanity when he first received the revelations that would become the Koran.
People will no doubt point out what they see as troubling aspects of Islam to her: their belief that Islam treats women poorly, or that child abuse is condoned in Islam because the Prophet (peace be upon him) married a six year old girl (At this point, this is somewhat of a moot point: evidence points to Aisha being older than six, or maybe nine, or even eighteen, but it boils down to what you want to believe about this event). Personally I know many Western women who have converted to Islam and don’t give these arguments much credence. There’s a lot to be debated and discussed about how Muslim societies safeguard the rights of women and girls: Muslim feminists have been organizing, spreading activism and education among their contemporaries for decades now.
But none of this will probably make much difference to a new convert, filled with love and bliss. What’s evident is that Sinead, now Shuhada’s, journey is far from over. Her pain is still evident, even in the video of her reciting the Shahada, but her mental illness should not be held against her in the making of this very personal choice. So I welcome her to the sisterhood of Islam, as a fellow Muslim woman, but I hope she continues to seek professional treatment for her mental health. She could be a great role model to many Muslims who need mental health treatment and have been too frightened to seek it.
As for me, I loved her as Sinead and I’ll love her as Shuhada, and I truly hope she finds peace wherever she turns.