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An introduction to Islamic understandings of mental health

Dr Yusuf explains how mental health and mental health problems are, and always have been, recognised in Islam.
The Islamic tradition on mental health is a sustained one over 1400 years. Different mental health conditions and emotional states of the human are very, very much mentioned in the Scripture in the Quran which is the holy book of the Muslims, as well as in the Hadith, which all these sayings and wisdom and guidance of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him. There is also then an uninterrupted tradition of discussion about these topics, the psychology of the human being from a religious perspective that really runs from the birth of Islam all the way through to modern times.
From a scriptural perspective, there are a number of verses of the Quran that acknowledge the fact of human sadness, anxiety, despair, hopelessness, as well as positive qualities like patience, gratitude, endurance, hope and trust. And these verses are phrased in a very encouraging way. Do not despair. Do not fear. Trust in God’s mercy and so forth. In terms of the way of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him. There are lots of indications to the reality of humans’ emotional life, the emotional life of a human. One’s ups and downs. One’s triumphs and despairs. One’s happiness and sadness. As well as all other elements that come in.
There were people that came to the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, because of sadness, because of anxiety, because of a sense of… a sense of disconnection
from the world around them, or psychosis 00:02:11.840 –> 00:02:13.280 you might say.
There is a particular incident in the life of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, that is actually known as the Year of Sadness, a particular year from the 23 years of his prophecy, that is actually called Aam al-huzn, the Year of Sadness, because it was a period in which the Prophet himself, peace and blessings upon him, experienced a lot of reverses, difficulties and hardships, including the loss of his wife. So what you have in the Sunnah, in the life model of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, is a very balanced approach to dealing with adverse circumstances to dealing with one’s internal sorrow and anxiety.
There are sometimes specific remedies for ailments that are prescribed in the guidance of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him. And these include for psychological ones in the Sunnah or the life model of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, you also find this concept that there are diseases and cures or illnesses and cures. A very famous tradition of the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, states God has not sent down any illness except that He has also sent down a cure with it. And Muslims are therefore encouraged, in the words of the Prophet, seek cure from ailments. And this doesn’t only relate to physical ailments, but explicitly to psychological ones as well.
So the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, mentioned a particular type of a particular type of food which contains certain herbs like barley and honey and he said about this that in this, which is called Talbina, in Talbina, there is a cure for the grief of the heart. And this was actually prescribed to women, particularly in bereavement, post-natal bereavement, for example. This dish would be made for them because there was, it was seen to have a biological cure For these conditions. We then have a long tradition of spirituality and psychology. And there are two elements to this in the classical Islamic tradition.
One is that of prophetic medicine and the other is that of the approach of what you might call the great psychologists of Islam, people like Imam Ghazali, people like Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya. These are huge names that Muslim people will recognize. And there were different approaches taken, if you like. There is a medical approach taken to psychological problems. And then there is a psychological approach or a spiritual psychological approach that is taken. These two great traditions flow through the religion. So a great example of the former, if you like, the medical approach is Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, who was a ninth or tenth century public intellectual and physician from the heartlands of Islam, from Baghdad.
He has a book in which he lays out what you might call a Nosology or a categorisation of mental health problems in which he considers depression and mood disorders. He considers anxiety disorders, he considers OCD, and he considers suspiciousness and anger, which from our perspective, would relate to the beginnings of psychosis. He lays them out this way, these four categories. In each one, he talks about preventative mental health, so how you can prevent the problem before it occurs. He talks about self-curative aspects, so how you can help yourself if you start to experience each one of those conditions.
He talks about at what point you need to seek help from others and at what point you need to seek help from professionals. And then he gives tips about how treatments are to be arranged, both from a biological perspective in terms of certain remedies, herbs and medications. But then also in terms of psychology as well. So it’s an incredibly modern approach that he takes. And this is from literally a thousand years ago He lays it out in his work on this. You then have a very different approach, very parallel system, which is the idea of spiritual psychology.
And this is really about working on certain character traits, identifying those which are problematic in terms of mental and spiritual health, things like anger, things like jealousy, things like excessive greed, for example, and then those which are positive and beneficial, things like trust and compassion and patience and gratitude. And these are developed in highly sophisticated ways. One of the great works of Islam, written by Imam Al-Ghazali, the Ihya’ Ulum al-Din, stretches to over 6000 pages and it develops a comprehensive psychology of the self from this perspective. These approaches have in turn flowed into the modern world.
Where now with the development of modern psychology, you have a number of centers around the world that are looking to link this thousand-year-old tradition of Islamic psychology with modern concepts and understandings in psychology. So there’s lots happening. And the key take-home message here is that mental health is and always has been recognized in Islam. It is something that is part and parcel of the religion, not something that is foreign to it. And there are both classical models and then interfaces between these classical models and contemporary approaches as well.
And on this note of the integration and the interaction between contemporary modern psychology and Islamic psychology, we’ve now got a presentation by one of the leading experts in the world on this topic, Dr Abdallah Rothman, who’s going to be explaining to you about Islamic psychology itself.

In this video, Dr Yusuf explains how mental health and mental health problems are, and always have been, recognised in Islam.

Both the Quran and Hadith include references to the emotional lives of humans. The earliest of Islamic scholarship makes recommendations for both the prevention and treatment of mental health problems using biological, psychological and spiritual approaches. Dr Yusuf gives examples of the scholarship of key Islamic scholars Abu Zayd al-Balkhi and Imam al-Ghazali.


If you would like to learn more about Islamic approaches to mental health, please watch this recording of a seminar by Dr Yusuf, jointly organised by the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK and MIND Cymru: Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf: Approaches to Depression and Anxiety in Classical Islam.

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Understanding Mental Health in Muslim Communities

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