AL-BALKHI’S most famous work is arguably his text, Sustenance for Bodies and Souls. In this monumental manuscript, Al-Balkhi first addresses physical health, after which he delves into the area of the soul. It is worth noting here that to the secular mind, the soul might be likened to the psyche, bringing with it a person’s psychological state. It is the second section of this work that is receiving huge interest in the contemporary world for several reasons, primarily due to the work’s insights into the field of psychology.
The work is divided into eight chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the soul, or the self. There are many aspects of the text that make it extremely impressive to the contemporary reader.
Normalising psychological illness and distress
ONE of the initial goals for psychologists practicing in the Western world today is often normalising the illness. Even in the most developed parts of the world, stigma and shame often accompany psychological illness, aspects of which are still seen as taboo.
Many parts of the Muslim world contain much more deeply entrenched stigmas and taboos in this realm; psychological illness can also be seen as a shameful thing, brought down upon a family as a punishment for their sins, or resulting from a weakness of faith.
The process of normalising illness is so important within therapy, because most of us who experience psychological illness deem ourselves to be abnormal, unusual and altogether unnatural. By normalising the illness, a client can begin to stop ascribing to themselves labels such as these. More than a millennium ago, Al-Balkhi was promoting this idea .
The first self-help book?
ANY reader of Al-Balkhi’s work will notice that the language he uses is accessible and easy to understand. This was a result of a conscious decision by Balkhi to make his work understandable to all levels of readers. His most prominent biographer, Al-Hamawi, notes that this distinguished him from his peers, and many other classical scholars who, like many contemporary scholars, were notably verbose. Commenting on this, he wrote: “We have followed an easy abbreviated style that takes the form of simple reminders and guidance and advice”.
Mind-body connection a millennium before Freud
BALKHI makes the now widely disseminated and accepted connection between the mind and the body, with the health of each having significant consequences on each other: “when the body becomes ill…it will prevent…learning and other (mental activities), or performing duties in a proper manner. And when the soul is afflicted the body will lose its natural ability to enjoy pleasure and will find its life becoming distressed and disturbed”.
He also recognises the reality of psychosomatic illness, “psychological pain may lead to bodily illness”. This recognition, which is also later discussed in the works of the Persian physician, Haly Abbas, did not enter the consciousness of western psychologists until Freud began exploring the idea nearly a millennium later.
Cognitive solutions and cognitive Therapy
PERHAPS the most impressive aspect of Balkhi’s method is his use of an early, pioneering form of cognitive therapy. Throughout the text he advocates for the use of talking therapy, employed to modify an individual’s thoughts and so consequently leading to desired improvements in their behaviour.
His prescribed treatment of depression echoes the ideas of psychotherapy; he describes using “gentle encouraging talk that brings back some happiness” while he also advocates for music therapy, and other activities that might warm a person’s psychological state.
When reaching out to the anxious or fearful reader, Balkhi advocates the use of positive self-talk that is aimed at soothing an individual’s mindset, and gaining an upper hand over one’s fear. In the text he also strongly advocates discussing one’s issues with a trusted friend or confidant.
While Balki does entertain the idea that obsessive thoughts can in part be caused by the devil, he spends all of the text focused on “earthly” solutions. Crucially, Balkhi argues that even if the cause of obsessive thoughts is the devil, the symptoms should be fought by cognitive strategies.
Accuracy of descriptions
DEPRESSION was known, and wrote about, by the Greeks well before Balkhi’s time. What is impressive about his descriptions is that he seems to be the first writer to distinguish between depression that is caused by environmental or circumstantial factors, and depression that is a result of internal bio-chemical factors, or what might contemporarily be called, organic depression.
On obsessive compulsiveness, Balkhi’s descriptive criteria is in harmony with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible of psychiatric and psychological illness. The DSM-V describes obsessions as:
“Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress” .
This is extremely similar to Balkhi’s descriptions:
“Annoying thoughts that are not real. These thoughts prevent enjoying life, and performing daily activities. They affect concentration and interfere with ability to carry out different tasks. Afflicted individuals become preoccupied with fearful thoughts and expect these events at any time”.
There is also stark commonality between the two texts in describing the afflicted individual’s attempts to suppress the unwanted obsessions; the DSM-V mentioning their attempts to, “ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges or images”.
Balkhi’s text talks of the individual not being able to “use their mental faculties to deal with anything else, and would be too busy with the imagined imminent danger to enjoy any pleasures or to concentrate on what is said to him or to socialise with others. Whenever he tries to let go and socialise, the disturbing thoughts will shoot up to control his mind”.
Balkhi’s work a millennium ahead of his time
BALKHI’S work is undoubtedly a whole millennium ahead of it’s time. From differentiating between types of depression, to acknowledging the inheritability of proneness to obsessive thinking, Balkhi proves himself to have had an impressively discerning eye for the psychological.
Balkhi strikes a balance between the spiritual and the material that might be said to be uncharacteristic of his time; rather than explaining everything through words such as devil, jinns and sins, he relies instead on psychological language to explain psychological phenomena, without completely disregarding the unseen.
This balance seems to elude contemporary psychologists, who have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water in their attempt to achieve scientific rigour by completely dismissing spiritual matters.
While Balkhi’s work does contain some words and ideas that are likely to be problematic to the contemporary reader, it is important to read the text with its context in mind. Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Balkhi’s work, for both the psychologically minded and non-psychologically minded contemporary Muslim, is the marriage his work embodies between the religious sciences and what we might now call the secular sciences.
By striving for a mastery of both, he produced content that harmonises the two, something that many today say is impossible due to the false dichotomy between religion and science.
| By Tamim Mobayed | ILMFEED |