Is Islam Compatible With Psychology?

By Monique Hassan

Islamic Psychology

"The pen has been lifted from three; for the sleeping person until he awakens, for the boy until he becomes a young man and for the mentally insane until he regains sanity."[at-Tirmidhi]

If we look back at Islamic History, we see the first large-scale psychiatric hospital built by Muslims in the year 705 AD (86 AH) in Baghdad, Iraq. Shortly after this more were built such as in Cairo.

During the Golden Age of Islam, advancements were continuously being made in a variety of medical fields. Outstanding minds like Mohamed Al-Razi and Abu Zayd al-Balkhi were studying illnesses and making progress in the understanding and advancement of psychology alongside other medical fields. We were utilizing treatments that resembled early cognitive behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis years before these were known as western advancements.

Contrary to some stigmas and attitudes prevalent in today’s society, the patients were not automatically viewed as being influenced by sin or possessed by jinn. Although diseased hearts being influenced by sin is a factor in one’s mental state and we cannot ignore the possibility of jinn, we cannot assume all cases of mental health concerns are related to those variables.

In most cases, therapy alongside faith is not only an effective treatment but it serves double duty as a catalyst to improving one’s own self- awareness and lifestyle choices related to their deen.

We must remember that our brothers and sisters struggling with mental illness are shown mercy and patience from Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). We must strive to show mercy to the ummah if we expect such mercy to be shown to us.

Islamic Psychology Basics

Various theories and treatment models exist within psychology, however, you will notice an overlapping of concepts between what we know to be true within our deen and what we study in psychology.

One of the most famous names in Psychology is Sigmund Freud, who amongst other things, believed that humans were driven by subconscious sexual and biological urges. Freud also proposed that human beings are innately dark and full of desire. Others such as Alfred Adler disagreed with Freud and argued that humans are more driven by social urges rather than innate biological desires. This is a classic nature versus nurture argument.

Islam tells us the full truth, that both of these doctors are correct to some extent. We know that struggling against our inner temptations and thoughts is a form of jihad (struggle). We also know that men and women are biologically different to the point how we perceive and interpret the same situation will not be identical.

We are a product of our environment; we cannot deny the impact of socialization upon our personality. We must also acknowledge we are impacted by our DNA, we can look to stories of twins separated at birth yet when they met up again as adults they have similar jobs and life choices. We are a product of both nature and nurture; we are not exclusive to one.

Our Subconscious

Subconscious influences are described by some within psychology as a set of deep, inner instinctual desires which are then filtered through our moral compass and rationalizations. We can think of it like an iceberg. Below the water lies the dark and mysterious subconscious which has our desires and primal urges. As we move closer to the observable tip of the iceberg we encounter our thought patterns and moral compass. Once we break the surface we see the product of our moral compass critiquing our earthly desires.

From the Islamic perspective, we know that our nafs are part of our self, our subconscious. This is sometimes interchanged with ruh or spirit. Often nafs is designated for the soul inside of the body whereas ruh refers to the soul being outside of the body. In Quran, one’s inner self or nafs, are described in 3 stages.

  • Nafs that influence evil, Nafs al-ammara bissuu (primal, raw desire, pleasure seeking)
  • Nafs that blame, Nafs al-lawwama (self critique, morality, decision making, awareness)
  • Nafs at peace, Nafs al-mutma inna (righteous behaviors, contentment, tranquil, striving for hereafter)

We can think of Nafs al-ammarra bissuu as earthly, primal desire. Nafs al-lawwama as a transitional stage where we engage in jihad against our own temptations and self. Nafs al-mutma inna can be thought of as spiritual enlightenment and a reassured soul.

[To the righteous it will be said], “O reassured soul, Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing [to Him], And enter among My [righteous] servants, And enter My Paradise.يَا أَيَّتُهَا النَّفْسُ الْمُطْمَئِنَّةُ رْجِعِي إِلَىٰ رَبِّكِ رَاضِيَةً مَّرْضِيَّةً فَادْخُلِي فِي عِبَادِي وَادْخُلِي جَنَّتِي

[Quran 89: 27-30]

Heart

Our heart, or qalb, is mentioned many times throughout Quran and hadith. Some psychological disorders and behavioral issues stem from diseases of the heart. We can think of our heart as being one of three types.

  1. The dark, diseased and dead heart which is void of iman (faith). Shaytan (Satan) does not need to tempt this heart as he has taken up residence within it.
  2. The struggling heart that has iman and wants goodness, but is fighting against darkness. This heart is in a state of jihad and shaytan tries to take advantage.
  3. The illuminated heart full of iman .This is a protected and strong heart radiating noor (light).

The only way to have an illuminated heart is to make Allah (Swt) the center of our hearts. All too often we put things into this slot that were never meant to be there, such as career or spouses. That is not to say that we should not love our spouse, but no one can come above Al-Wadood (The Loving) An-Noor (The Light).

"And conceal your speech or publicize it; indeed, He is knowing of that within the heart"

وَأَسِرُّوا قَوْلَكُمْ أَوِ اجْهَرُوا بِهِ إِنَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِذَاتِ الصُّدُورِ

[Quran 67:13]

Therapists often look towards a person’s social network for ongoing support and increased accountability. They are trying to bring heart, love and service into the therapeutic equation. We know that when we submit to Allah (swt) and make duaa for Him to open our hearts, that is the best source of support and accountability.

 

Final Thoughts

Islamic psychology is essentially the integration of spirituality and modern psychology. Just as many Islamic principles like nafs line up with psychology, we can also look at elements of Islam from a psychological perspective. Such as looking at the psychological benefit of wearing the veil or how fasting impacts our behavioral health choices.

Therapy which is combined with faith will ultimately be more positive and impactful for those within the ummah that are struggling with mental health concerns. Not only is Islam compatible with psychology, we can see the field of psychology as a tool given to us from Allah (swt).