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The Suicide of Dutch girl Noa Pothoven and Finding Light in Our Darkest Moments

There is a popular line in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls which acts as a kind of summing up of all that was wrong with the Birling family and their mistreatment of the young Eva Smith, around whom the play is centred: “What happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.” The moralistic teaching of the Inspector, Inspector Goole, who visits the family home, sets him up against capitalists Mr and Mrs Birling and younger members of the household in that his teachings and directives offset their sentiments of wanton disregard and indifference towards the suffering and tragedy of Eva Smith. In the play, Eva had committed suicide due to a sequence of failings she encountered from each member of the Birling family. Each had abused, taken advantage of, turned away, and disregarded her until she resorted to suicide. The Inspector comes to inform them of the tragedy and to alert them to the dismal roles they each played in her death.

In May 2019, Noa Pothoven [1] stopped eating and drinking. On June 2 2019, she was pronounced dead. The young girl had been hospitalised multiple times due to several suicide attempts and had spoken of her battle with PTSD as a result of sexual abuse, rape, and anorexia. She chose to end her life due to what she described as an unbearable suffering.

The rape and sexual abuse of a child, Noa Pothoven, was a monstrous atrocity, a trampling on her weakness and vulnerability, and a complete disregard for the trauma and travesty such an assault would leave on its victim. Pothoven attributed her agonising suffering to horrific sexual abuse she had experienced first as an 11-year-old and then due to a rape by two men at the age of 14. This suffering was furthered by severe anorexia, leading at one point to near organ failure. She suffered from post-traumatic stress in the wake of the sex attacks and spoke of “humiliating” and “degrading” experiences she had had to confront. One cannot but sympathise with Pothoven for what she had undergone and none of us can fully understand her trauma. Trauma can leave its ugly mark differently on people and we must try and understand first the tragedy left on Pothoven herself.

“Certainly among people there are those who are tested and those who are preserved. So have mercy on those who are tested and praise Allāh for your preservation.” [2]

Contrary to early media speculation, Pothoven’s death was not the result of legal euthanasia but of voluntary suicide. Pothoven spoke and wrote about youth mental health care and was a tireless advocate. It is important for us to try and better understand her suicide and the situations that can sometimes seem to engulf us in life. What outlook and remedy does Islām provide for some of our darkest and hardest moments?

The Consequences of our Actions

Firstly, in light of the injustice that led to Pothoven’s state of depression, we are reminded that the Qur’ān teaches that the things we do in this life will not only have a consequence on our eternal fate in the next, but that our actions have a determinable effect on the lives of others in this life and the way such actions are intended and carried out will also weigh considerably on our eternal judgement. The Qur’ān informs us that sins not only have consequences on those who carry them out but also on those who witness then, who are affected by them, who are inspired by them, partake in them, and refuse to prevent them.

Maintaining Good Conduct

Secondly, the Qur’ān calls to maintain good conduct with others, to be mindful of one’s speech, to be warned of rage, of extremes, to be warned of injustice, oppression, and cruelty. It cites examples of persons and people who had displayed arrogance, had oppressed others, who had defrauded others, and had done so with a feeling of utter impunity – for which they were punished. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), in a adīth which bespeaks the severity of being mindless of the rights of others and of levelling cruelty onto others, once witnessed Abū Masʿūd (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) beating a slave of his. Abū Masʿūd explains:

“I was beating a slave of mine when I heard a voice behind me, ‘Know, Abū Masʿūd, that Allāh is more powerful over you than you are over this boy.’

I turned around and there was the Messenger of Allāh, may Allāh bless him and grant him peace. I said, ‘Messenger of Allāh, he is free for the sake of Allāh!’

He said, ‘If you had not done that, the Fire would have touched you (or the Fire would have burned you).’” [3]

Protecting the Innocent

One of the early verses in the Qur’ān concerned the crime of burying baby girls alive. In a scene depicting the Day of Judgement, the Qur’ān describes:

وَإِذَا ٱلۡمَوۡءُ ۥدَةُ سُٮِٕلَتۡ  *   بِأَىِّ ذَنۢبٍ۬ قُتِلَتۡ

“And when the girl-child that was buried alive is made to ask. For what crime she had been slain.” [4]

The verse draws attention to atrocities committed against innocents, those unable to defend and protect themselves, so that on the Day of Judgement wrongs and injustices will be requited and the guilty shall be brought forth to answer for their crimes. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) spoke of the care and compassion due unto animals, that a woman was met with punishment for imprisoning a cat and refusing it food, nor affording it the chance to catch its own food.

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “A woman entered the (Hell) Fire because of a cat which she had tied, neither giving it food nor setting it free to eat from the vermin of the earth.” [5]

The Qur’ān stresses that the infirm, children, orphans, widows, and strangers are to be protected and honoured, that their wealth protected and that a general air of mercy should encompass all social dealings with others:

فَكُّ رَقَبَةٍ  *   أَوۡ إِطۡعَـٰمٌ۬ فِى يَوۡمٍ۬ ذِى مَسۡغَبَةٍ۬  *   يَتِيمً۬ا ذَا مَقۡرَبَةٍ  *   أَوۡ مِسۡكِينً۬ا ذَا مَتۡرَبَةٍ۬  *   ثُمَّ كَانَ مِنَ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ وَتَوَاصَوۡاْ بِٱلصَّبۡرِ وَتَوَاصَوۡاْ بِٱلۡمَرۡحَمَةِ  *   أُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ أَصۡحَـٰبُ ٱلۡمَيۡمَنَةِ

“Freeing a neck, or the feeding, upon a day of [one’s own] hunger, of an orphan near of kin, or of a needy [stranger] lying in the dust, and being, withal, of those who have attained to faith, and who enjoin upon one another patience in adversity, and enjoin upon one another compassion. Such are they that have attained to righteousness.” [6]

Empathy for the Suffering of Others

As we consider the plight of Noa Pothoven and the tragedy of loss and pain left in her passing, we are alerted to the great need of showing empathy for the suffering of others. Empathy is a very important Islamic attribute – to feel for another. Understanding the life experiences and motivations of another can provide us with much clarity about another’s way of thinking, insecurities, fears, and joys. This is shown beautifully in Sūrah al-Ḍuḥa in which the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), having undergone unease at the six-month delay in revelation was met with the revelation of a new, hope-inspiring chapter. The chapter consoles the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), reminding him of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā)’s favours upon him and also reminding him of the promise of a better future. The sūrah stands out for a people beset with anxieties, uncertainties, and depression:

وَٱلضُّحَىٰ  *   وَٱلَّيۡلِ إِذَا سَجَىٰ  *   مَا وَدَّعَكَ رَبُّكَ وَمَا قَلَىٰ

“By the morning hours; by the moon when it is stillest. Thy Lord hath not forsaken thee nor doth He hate thee.” [7]

Upon reminding the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) that Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) had indeed provided him succour, shelter, and provision, what follows are instructions about how others should be treated. The empathy bearing is in relation to what the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) experienced as a young man. That personal circumstances of poverty or loneliness can be understood in relation to how others are to be perceived and treated imparts unto us the importance of having a broad field of cognitive and compassionate vision with respect to our relations with others:

أَلَمۡ يَجِدۡكَ يَتِيمً۬ا فَـَٔاوَىٰ  *   وَوَجَدَكَ ضَآلاًّ۬ فَهَدَىٰ  *   وَوَجَدَكَ عَآٮِٕلاً۬ فَأَغۡنَىٰ  *   فَأَمَّا ٱلۡيَتِيمَ فَلَا تَقۡهَرۡ  *   وَأَمَّا ٱلسَّآٮِٕلَ فَلَا تَنۡہَرۡ  *   وَأَمَّا بِنِعۡمَةِ رَبِّكَ فَحَدِّثۡ

“Did He not find you (O Muḥammad) an orphan and gave you a refuge? And He found you unaware (of the Qur’ān, its legal laws, and Prophethood, etc.) and guided you? And He found you poor, and made you rich (self-sufficient with self-contentment, etc.). Therefore, treat not the orphan with oppression, And repulse not the beggar; and proclaim the Grace of your Lord.” [8]

Imām al-Qurtubi explains the injunctions to the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) as an instruction for him to treat others in relation to a recalling of events he underwent in his own life as a young man:

“When Allāh says, ‘Therefore, treat not the orphan with oppression’, it means ‘remember when you were an orphan’.

And when Allāh says, ‘And repulse not the beggar’, it means ‘remember when you were poor’.” [9]

Ibn Kathīr explains: “Be unto the orphan as a merciful father.” [10]

Considering the Fate of Others

For each and every one of us, life is an alternating between states, of ease and of difficulty – requiring gratitude and necessitating patience. Some human beings find themselves as victims of war, suffering the tragic loss of family members and loved ones. Some are victims of rape, of torture, and of horrendous abuse in prisons. Some have lived through the most gruelling of circumstances and have survived to tell the tales. As difficult as our plights might be, looking outwards and considering the fate of others can help us make sense of our own suffering, draw us to empathise with others, and most importantly remind us of the favours and blessings we still enjoy in life:

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

“Look at those who are beneath you and do not look at those who are above you, for it is more suitable that you should not consider as less the blessing of Allah.” [11]

Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl recounts in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, how those who had hope to return to something survived their experiences, and those who had lost all hope were the quickest to die – in that their bodies could not put up defences to try and cope, withstand, and persevere. For them, there was nothing left to live for. In Sūrah Yūsuf, we are presented the life of a child who was betrayed by his siblings, abandoned in a well, separated from his father for decades, isolated in a foreign land, ensnared by a seductress, imprisoned for a crime he did not commit until he grew, became strong and independent, was valued and relied upon, and until his siblings reconciled with him and his father found joy in the reunion of all his children. Though difficulties are sometimes extremely gruelling, Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) engenders man with a remarkable spirit of tenacity and perseverance, and with a reminder that no suffering will be left without recompense:

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, “No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allāh expiates some of his sins for that.” [12]

There is something particularly haunting about Noa Pothoven’s suicide. We feel an added layer of sympathy for a young girl whose emotional state would have fluctuated wildly through adolescence as she struggled with her emotions. Would she have encountered moments of hope, of inner strength? We would not know. Her mother once said, however: “We didn’t get it. Noa is sweet, beautiful, smart, social and always cheerful. How is it possible that she wants to die?” Whatever might have happened in those tragic final days of Pothoven was known to her and known to the One who created her, but we must promote life and hope and resilience and the belief in a better tomorrow. No two days are the same in the life of the son of Ādam. Our yesterdays are not entirely like our todays and nor should we assume that our todays will replicate our tomorrows. Life is in flux and sometimes things can rapidly change, offsetting a negative emotion or life circumstance. What is required on our part is hope, faith, and some resolve to keep ploughing.

Avoiding ‘Falseness’ and Self-Advertisement

Finally, in the passing of Pothoven, there was something self-advertising about her suicide, something so expected in our world of social media and reality TV. In her Instagram post, Pothoven had said that she would stop eating and that she expected to die within 10 days. Sometimes we become the main characters of our shows and the camera creates a culture of celebrity – even in the advertising of one’s own death. Pothoven informed us all of what she intended to do and so there was something self-advertising about her suicide in the way she broadcasted what she was going to do and why she was going to do it. Images become our means, we become illusionists and a ‘falseness’ seems to pervade the air.

Reciting the Qur’ān

Believers are encouraged to recite the Qur’ān in times of despondency – to examine their lives in the greater frame of human existence, to find strength in the stories of previous Prophets (ʿalayhim al-Salām) and so that the divine words serve as a form of healing. In his moment of intense despair Prophet Yāʿqub (ʿalayhi al-Salām), still grieving the loss of his son, Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām), was informed by his children that his ‘other son’, the younger Binyāmīn had been kept back in Egypt. The moment was climactic. How would the ageing father, who had known that his sons had been deceptive in the initial news they produced about Yūsuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām), now cope with the news that another of his sons had disappeared? The response is remarkable:

يَـٰبَنِىَّ ٱذۡهَبُواْ فَتَحَسَّسُواْ مِن يُوسُفَ وَأَخِيهِ وَلَا تَاْيۡـَٔسُواْ مِن رَّوۡحِ ٱللَّهِ‌ۖ إِنَّهُ ۥ لَا يَاْيۡـَٔسُ مِن رَّوۡحِ ٱللَّهِ إِلَّا ٱلۡقَوۡمُ ٱلۡكَـٰفِرُونَ

 “[Hence,] O my sons, go forth and try to obtain some tidings of Joseph and his brother; and do not lose hope of God’s life-giving mercy: verily, none but people who deny the truth can ever lose hope of God’s life-giving mercy.” [13]

The father reminded his sons not to lose hope in Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā), to remain optimistic in spite of the bleakness of what things looked like and most crucially – of what confronted the father. One would have perhaps expected the sons, guilty of the first betrayal of Yūsuf and their father (ʿalayhima al-Salām), to console their father with such reassuring words but the words are their father’s. A lesson from the many other lessons is that Iman provides a great sense of succour in even the bleakest times and in reminding others of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā)’s great favours there is a self-comforting and healing.

May Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) heal our hearts and minds, and may we remember to use the duʿā’s that He has given us. Āmīn.

 

اللَّهُمَّ رَحْمَتَكَ أَرْجُو فَلَا تَكِلْنِي إِلَى نَفْسِي طَرْفَةَ عَيْنٍ وَأَصْلِحْ لِي شَأْنِي كُلَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَا أَنْتَ

O Allāh, it is Your mercy that I hope for, so do not leave me in charge of my affairs even for a blink of an eye and rectify for me all of my affairs. None has the right to be worshipped except You. [14]

 

اللَّهُمَّ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِكَ مِنَ الْهَمِّ وَالْحَزَنِ، والْعَجْزِ، والْكَسَلِ، والْبُخْلِ، والْجُبْنِ، وضَلَعِ الدَّيْنِ، وغَلَبَةِ الرِّجَالِ

O Allāh, I take refuge in You from anxiety and sorrow, weakness and laziness, miserliness and cowardice, the burden of debts and from being overpowered by men. [15]

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2019/06/award-winning-young-writer-chooses-to-die-due-to-unbearable-suffering/

[2] Muwaṭṭa Imām Mālik, attributed to Prophet ʿĪsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām): https://library.islamweb.net/newlibrary/display_book.php?bk_no=77&ID=742&idfrom=3823&idto=3878&bookid=77&startno=7

[3] Al-Bukhārī, Adab al-Mufrad, ḥadīth no. 171

[4] Al-Qur’ān 81:8-9

[5] Al-Bukhārī

[6] Al-Qur’ān 90:13-18

[7] Al-Qur’ān 93:1-3

[8] Al-Qur’ān 93:6-11

[9] https://quran.ksu.edu.sa/tafseer/qortobi/sura93-aya9.html

[10] http://quran.ksu.edu.sa/tafseer/katheer/sura93-aya9.html#katheer

[11] Ibn Mājah

[12] Al-Bukhārī

[13] Al-Qur’ān 12:87

[14] Abī Dāwūd

[15] Al-Bukhārī

About Dr Uthman Lateef

Dr Uthman Lateef has a BA (First Class Hons) in History, an MA (Dist.) in Crusader Studies, and has completed a PhD in the Place of Fada'il al-Quds' (the Merits of Jerusalem) and Religious Poetry in the Muslim effort to recapture the Crusades. Currently, he is a khateeb at Stoke Poges Lane Mosque and Islamic Centre, Slough. He is in the process of publishing his PhD thesis and is currently conducting post-doctorate research in International Relations ('The effect of war media iconography on US identity: disruptive images, counter hegemony and political syncretism'). He presents a weekly show on Islam Channel (813), 'The Greatest Generation' and is a speaker at mosques and universities in the UK and internationally.

2 comments

  1. A very though provoking article which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. You managed to highlight many of the ills of our current time and as well give us comfort through the reminders from Quran and Sunnah. Jazakallahu khayrun. May Allah protect all of us especially our youth.

  2. This is the first time I read an Islamic article in English. It made a massive effect on me.
    Jazak Allah Khyran Dr Lateef.

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