Towards Islamic Psychology (Part 1/2)

By Salma Yacoob

BrainAs a Muslim woman, born, brought up and educated in England, I have sometimes experienced some discomfort in practicing Western psychology as a psychotherapist. Many times I see patients who I believe would benefit from a more holistic approach, taking into account their spiritual needs as well as their emotional and physical needs, but it is as if there is a taboo in mixing faith with treatment – it is not “acceptable” or considered “professional”. In our training as psychologists, spirituality is hardly even mentioned, and if it is, it is done so usually in a very negative way. I was interested in analyzing why there was this split in psychology and religion, why in the West it is that any integration of the two is viewed with suspicion. Through a little research and reflection it became apparent that this split in psychology and religion actually reflects the split between science and religion in the West. Indeed the schism between science and religion is the defining characteristic of Western thought, leading to a separation of sacred and secular discourses.

The Split between Western Science and Religion

The reasons for this actually lie in the Renaissance period of Western history many centuries ago when the church was seen to be an obstacle to scientific advancement. The ideas of philosophers and scientists were banned from publication and discussion; e.g. Galileo who observed through the then new invention of the telescope that the earth moves around the sun and the sun does not move around the earth, as thought at the time, was labeled a heretic by the church and placed under house arrest. His views were considered contradictory to Christian teaching. Bruno who publicly stated such ideas was interrogated by the Inquisition and then punished by burning to death at the stake.

The result of this repression and persecution by religious authorities was a split between science and church. But ultimately, science was victorious over the church because the evidence of its rational observation and experimentation just became too compelling. As a consequence, all religion became associated with being backward, superstitious, and regressive, and so secularism – which was a rejection of religion – became associated with being rational, liberated and progressive. Even hundreds of years after the conflict between church and science, the effect on the Western psyche is still very apparent. This is why the secular discourse still remains the only acceptable discourse. It is important to give this historical perspective as it helps us to understand why it is so difficult to bring any religious or spiritual meaning to science nowadays (and of course to my particular field of psychology).

This conference is special not just because it is “Women in science” but “Muslim” women in science. It is important that we celebrate this identity proudly. There is no contradiction in being Muslim and pursuing science.

Islam and Science

There has never been a split/ schism in the Islamic tradition, between religion and science as in the West. Indeed Islamic civilization began to flourish in the 8th century A.D. The Persian and Roman civilizations were in decline and Europe was still in the dark ages. Interestingly it was not until the Renaissance (around the 15th century) that Western scholars had access to the Arabic material, which was then taught at Universities several centuries after the original work had been carried out. Many principles of modern scientific method had already been established by Muslims. For example, the employment of doubt, by Al-Ghazzali, as a prelude to reaching certain knowledge; the founding of the philosophy of history by Ibn Khaldun; medical and surgical advances which formed the basis of medical study in Western institutions for several centuries- contributions of Razi (called Rhazes in the west), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Abul-Qasim (Abucassis), the mathematical concepts of algebra, zero, ciphenas espoused by the likes of al- Khayyam, and al- Birund. You name it, Muslim scholars made some contribution. It is significant that the West rarely acknowledges the great debt it owes Islamic scholarship – in English schools for example, we are taught about Roman civilization/ Ancient Egypt, but never the Islamic civilization and contributions to knowledge. The first Universities and Hospitals (both open to men and women, it should be noted e.g. Qarawiyyin University here in Fez) were constructed during this time, centuries ahead of the first such institutions in the West. Science and religion were seen as complementary and not contradictory. Indeed the scientists considered it their religious duty to pursue such knowledge. It is interesting to note that the first words revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) pertained to the importance of knowledge: not just for a small elite but for all people.

Read in the Name of your Lord, Who created. Created man from a clot. Read, and your Lord is the Most Bounteous. Who teaches by the pen. Teaches man that which he knew not. (Al-`Alaq 96: 1-5)

It was with the demise of the Islamic civilization that Muslims lost their lead in science. However, we should not just look sentimentally to past glories but into a determined vision for the future. If we take hold once again of our great Islamic legacy there is no reason why we cannot regain our position in the forefront of science instead of lagging behind in the manner we are doing today. We are transferring technology from the West now, when the West used to transfer technology and knowledge from the East. Let us move from the backseat to the driver’s seat.

Types of Knowledge

According to the Islamic perspective, knowledge is of two types: “revealed” Divine knowledge and material knowledge. Divine knowledge is intuitive, subjectively experienced and leads to a transformation in the individual. Material knowledge is what is generally considered to be “objective” and is experienced more as a process of accumulating information. There is a difference in transformation and information. For example, in today’s Universities information is collected in the head but one can walk in and out of University with the only difference being a change in age and perceived status but not as a human being. Divine knowledge and material knowledge though are not necessarily contradictory. They reflect the co-existence of the two different (but not opposing) dimensions: the spiritual dimension and the physical dimension.

Islam and Notions of the Self

It is interesting to note that the Human Being is considered to be the meeting point of these two different dimensions. The Arabic word for such a meeting point is barzakh – interspace: SPIRITUAL (BARZAKH) PHYSICAL.

In the light of this Islamic perspective, any efforts to gain an understanding of the self require a study of the spiritual aspect of the self. Knowledge of the self, and what it means to be human, in modern times however is not so much the domain of religion as the domain of the field of psychology. In today’s secular age, the field of psychology is in a way the new theology, and therapists and psychologists are the priests of this age. The irony is that the word “psychology” is based on the Greek word psyche, meaning “soul”, or, “spirit”. Psychology therefore means study of the soul. However it is now anything but, and indeed the idea of a soul or spiritual nature is not even acknowledged in mainstream psychology. As I discussed earlier this attitude of rejecting the spiritual can be traced to the implicit assumptions of Western psychology rooted in secularism – which arose out of a negation of religion or spiritual experience. Instead, within Western psychology, a fragmented view of man is presented. In trying to gain a deeper understanding of human nature, Western psychological theories have tended to focus only on one aspect of the self, e.g. psychoanalysis focuses on the unconscious, cognitive psychology focuses on thoughts, and behavioral psychology focuses on behavior. No doubt, important insights have been gained, yet no model is truly comprehensive in itself. I believe most Western psychotherapies are limited at both ends of the spectrum – they ignore individual spirituality, and they ignore the effects of socio-political factors on the lives of the clients. Fundamental questions relating to man’s existence e.g. (Where have we come from? (What is our purpose in life? (What happens after we die? cannot be addressed even by the more sophisticated approaches in mainstream psychology. So really how much knowledge of the self do they have, and how deep is their understanding of human psychology? Even very ‘new’ more integrated therapies which try to include more than one aspect of the self are limited, as they too ignore a dimension of the self which many people regard as central to being human – the spiritual dimension.

On the other hand all Muslims should be excellent psychologists. Our whole life is based on knowing the answers to these basic questions. Wherever you go, from remote villages to modern cities, practicing Muslims will be able to tell that we are on a journey: Before we were born we were with Allah, and all souls bore witness that Allah is their Lord (Al-A`raf 7:172) Our purpose in this life is to worship Allah (Adh-Dhariyat 51:56) After death we will be raised up and according to our deeds in this lifetime we will be rewarded or punished (Al-Qari`ah 101:5-8).

Importance of Developing Islamic Psychology

From an Islamic perspective, any truly comprehensive psychology can only develop out of a very different set of assumptions. In effect a different paradigm of knowledge is required, so that a genuine ‘study of the soul’ can take place and a ‘genuine psychology’, (remember the word psychology means study of the soul), which addresses all aspects of the self can emerge. This is why I believe that it is very important that Muslims define and develop Islamic psychology based on the Qur’an, which Muslims regard as the most reliable source of knowledge possible, as it is from Allah who created us and therefore knows absolutely everything about us. Other knowledge may give us ‘glimpses’ of truths about ourselves as researchers continually ‘discover’ what Allah has created. However, human theories remain limited as they lack the overall picture: they have a very narrow context. For no matter how ‘intelligent’ scientists are, they will always be limited and fallible and subject to the time and culture they live in. And while they might try to address details of specific problems, they do not have answers for the most basic of questions people face regarding the meaning and purpose of life.

I have proposed a model of the self, outlining different aspects of the self, together with the differing influences of the self (both internal and external). I have attempted to show how insights from modern knowledge can be integrated into notions of the self, based on Islamic principles, so that a creative synthesis may be possible of the two different bodies of knowledge. This model also indicates implications for the therapeutic interventions. Cognitive, behavioral, affective aspects of the self are acknowledged, as is the validity of drawing on techniques (as opposed to overall rationale or implicit metaphysics) of various Western psychological approaches. It emphasizes the unification of the different aspects of the self via the spiritual aspect. In this model spirituality underlies and has the capacity to influence all aspects of the self. The aim and method of Islamic psychology, then, is not fragmentation but unification – acknowledging and returning man to his original state of wholeness.

From an Islamic point of view, human beings are not simply physical beings – complex animals. They have another dimension to them, their spirituality, which links them to God. In the Qur’anic account of creation, following the breathing of God’s spirit into Adam, God commanded the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam, “ and We told the angels , ‘Prostrate to Adam’ and they prostrated” (Al-A`raf 7:11). The angels were in effect prostrating before the Divine mystery within Adam, and acknowledging that he was God’s representative – Khalifa in Arabic – a station which even they as sinless beings had not been accorded.

Concept of Fitra

An important concept relating to the concept of human nature from an Islamic perspective is fitra. Fitra refers to the primordial state of man- his natural condition and disposition. The optimistic view of human nature is rooted in this concept. Islam posits that the natural state of man is a positive and ‘good’ state – one in submission to God. This is related to the idea that all souls made a pledge with God before earthly existence, acknowledging Him as their Lord (Al-A`raf 7:172). Even before we were born, or were conceived, our souls met with Allah. The spiritual aspect of every human has therefore already experienced the Divine. The defining experience of man in the Islamic perspective then, is not his physical aspect, but his spiritual aspect. This spiritual aspect of man is what the Qur’an, along with all spiritual traditions, appeals to. If early childhood experiences are considered to impact strongly on an individual’s life (even if only unconsciously) as suggested by Freud, the impact of such an experience going back to a time even earlier, of course would be fundamental. According to an Islamic point of view this explains the instinct in all individuals for right and wrong, (although in some it may be buried more deeply than others).

Spiritual or religious experience is therefore more a form of recognition than discovery. This is exemplified in the Qur’an in Chapter 7, verse 157:

He the Prophet enjoins on them that which they themselves sense as right, and forbids them that which they themselves sense as wrong.

The religious emphasis is thus more on the inner experience than an externally imposed experience… a part of us already knows the truth. Due to the initial experience of union with God, a part of the individual seeks that union again. This quest is often begun with a search for the meaning of life. According to the Qur’an, the eternal aspect of each individual, the soul, is on a journey and passes through various stages in life. The end point of this journey though, as was the beginning, is God.

In surah Al-An`am 6:94 we are told:

And now you have returned to Us alone, as We created you at first, leaving behind all that we bestowed on you.

To be continued…


Courtesy with slight editorial modifications.

Salma Yacoob is the former leader, and former vice-chair, of the Respect Party and a former Birmingham City Councillor. She is also the head of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition and a spokesperson for Birmingham Central Mosque.



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