Building a Tool Box of Psychological Coping Strategies through Islamic Education

The role of self-knowledge and self-awareness is intricately related to mental health.

Islamic Educational Paradigm provides a framework for the development of these capacities and human potential. According to Avicenna, the Ruh (spirit) of man/woman is innately self-aware and by increasing awareness of the Ruh, one becomes aware of their innate self-awareness. Perfect mental health, however, eludes us because knowledge and understanding of the Ruh, the spirit and essence of man/woman, is only known to Allah SWT. In Surah Al-Isra (The Journey by Night, verse 17:85) of the Quran, we are reminded the Ruh (spirit) is commanded by Allah SWT and not even a little knowledge of it is given to humans. Nonetheless, the awareness of the Ruh through the softening of the Qalb (heart) goes a very long way when it comes to mental health.

The post-renaissance paradigms of Reductionism and Abstractionism have eliminated the Existential Reality of Ruh in all human endeavors.

This is of course because the Ruh can not be stated or described in any perception and cognitive human understanding, and is only known to Allah (verse 17:85 of the Quran). According to Islamic Sciences, the omission of the Ruh is a limit of Psychoanalytical Theory, founded by psychologist, Dr. Sigmund Freud. Even so Dr. Freud’s list and description of the primitive and sophisticated psychological defense mechanisms offer useful reference points, as they pertain to a limited scope of reality.

This being said, Ruh (spirit) is the essence of transnaturization (change at the level of nature, rather than change at the level of habits) of non-existence into existence. Any entity in creation has been brought into existence from non-existence by Allah SWT. None in creation has any knowledge of non-existence other than Allah SWT. There is a spectrum of existence and non-existence in Allah’s creation and humans can only perceive a finite part of the Existential Spectrum. The deduction from all this is Ruh is not known fully by anyone other than Allah SWT. Allah SWT has created us in synergy, spirit and matter. Synergy and matter can be defined by humans, but not spirit.

Therefore, if no one can define spirit (Ruh) then how can one create a process, procedure and practice and name it “Spiritualism?” Is spirituality/spiritual practice a non-existential illusion of Abstractionism? In Islam, with regards to the interconnectedness and unity of things (Tawheed) the concept of Divinity is a better descriptor than Spirituality. Additionally, using the term Divinity instead of Spirituality helps to differentiate between good and evil essential interconnective qualities.

In consideration of the aforementioned, three psychological coping strategies embedded in an Islamic education are illustrated below:

The first psychological coping strategy is a striving for Unity of Personality. Through reflection upon the concept of Tawheed, we further understand unity of personality. Unity of personality refers to consistency in thought, action and emotions. When such consistency is our intention and we strive towards it, our mental health improves, as does our functioning in important areas of life. When psychological consistency is lacking cognitive dissonance arises. Cognitive dissonance in turn leads to anxiety. Anxiety, if unmanaged and without a proper channel of expression, will lead to behavior based upon psychological fragmentation and the element of fragmentation will be introduced into our environment.

There are three factors that obstruct the unity of personality.

These three factors are; uncertain insight, unhealthy attitudes, and imbalanced actions. When a person suffers from one or more of these factors his or her mental health will be adversely affected and his or her functioning in important areas of life will be impaired. Islam coordinates these three factors and provides grounds for mental health (Sajedi, 2008). For example, a person who is suspicious of others and assumes the worst about them will exhibit behaviors that embody this unhealthy attitude and it will affect his/her social behaviors. With regards to uncertain insight, a Muslim identity grounded in the insight arrived at through an Islamic education, provides a person with a basis for opinions. This is important because a person who has no particular opinions is easily affected by everyone (Hamidi, Bagherzadeh, Gafarzadeh, 2010). Another case in point is a person who is prone to narcissistic behavior will eventually alienate themselves from others and as a result will experience symptoms commonly associated with depression and anxiety. If and when one experiences psychological discomfort, he or she may counter these feelings by sublimating them into a striving for unity of personality. One way to do this is through heartfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy or self-study.

A second psychological coping strategy from Islamic education is the cultivation of Hope.

Without hope, we are left with symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as loss of motivation, anger outbursts and/or inability to prepare for the future. Islam places great emphasis on hope. An Islamic education teaches us how to access hope through Allah’s mercy and rise above our worldly affairs through a sense of value for our own dignity. According to Imam Ali, the person who knows the value of his/her dignity finds the world to be too small for him/her. It is when we are disassociated from our iman (faith) that disappointment in Allah’s mercy occurs and we lose our sense of dignity. The result of a loss of dignity is an unnecessary preoccupation with temporary and worldly circumstances.

According to Dr. Lazaros and Dr. Folkman, who came up with the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, the person who has hope has confidence in themselves. In turn, confidence is positively correlated with positive affect enhancement. Hope may be arrived at through the cultivation of higher levels of patience, as patience enables one to persevere in spite of hardships. In Islam, there are levels of patience. At the bare minimum, patience entails refraining from doing bad. A higher level of patience is refraining from doing bad without complaining about it. An even more sophisticated level of patience is refraining from doing bad, not complaining about it, being thankful for everything because it is from Allah SWT and finally channeling this gratefulness into good deeds.

A third psychological coping strategy informed by Islamic education is Self-knowledge and Self-development.

Al-Ghazali, in The Book of Knowledge asserts that seeking knowledge is the duty of all Muslims. This knowledge extends to self-knowledge. It is through knowing one’s self that one can cultivate awareness of the Ruh and consciousness of Allah SWT. This consciousness has a calming effect on the psychology of the person. Moreover, self-knowledge is the introduction to self-development (Hamidi, Bagherzadeh & Gafarzadeh, 2010). According to Dr. Maslow, self-development is the highest form of psychological growth. By intending self-development, aligning one’s behaviors, and attuning one’s heart into this endeavor, a sense of serenity is experienced.

A practical tip to building a psychological toolbox with the aforementioned coping strategies is to spend 5 minutes at the end of the day reflecting upon the events of the day with evenly spaced attention. This reflective exercise builds self-knowledge in general, and in specific, it is an exercise of patience through the examination of one’s strengths and areas for growth. Furthermore, this reflective exercise supports one to have insight into the fragments in one’s personality; where one’s emotions, thoughts, and actions would benefit from greater integration. Such insight provides one with the direction and freedom necessary to strive towards the unity of personality.

Reference -
The Role of Islamic Education in Mental Health, by Farideh Hamidi , Zohreh Bagherzadeh ,

Sobhan Gafarzadeh , 2010
The Rest of this Ravan, by Sajedi Abolfazi, 2008