Ilm al Nafs – Islamic Psychology

The history of ‘modern’ psychology was shaped by Ancient Greek wisdom for many centuries, until the Islamic scholars carried the Greek texts to the great Houses of Wisdom. Here, they developed their own ideas and a new Islamic psychology emerged, which would later influence Europe as it shook off the memory of the Dark Ages and underwent the first Renaissance. Islamic psychology was based upon looking at ways to cure and heal, rather than merely theorise.

As indicated above, lot of the contemporary psychological approaches, it could be argued, stemmed from some of the writing of Muslim scholars. Historically, during the Dark Age of Europe, mental ill patients were considered the battlefield of demons, devils and evil spirits. Consequently, they were tortured physically and mentally. At times they were kept starved, burnt alive, whipped, chained and even mutilated in public. Whereas, during this period and before, the Muslim philosophers and physicians had a very healthy and optimistic concept about mental health and mental illness.

Ilm al Nafs or the knowledge of the self was a term used by some classical scholars when they referred to in their discussions of mental and spiritual health. Ibn Bhajja, for example, wrote an entire book and titled it ilm al nafs. He basis his psychology on physics. He defines heterogeneous functions of soul (mind), such as sensation, imagination, rational thinking, reasoning and intuitive functions in understanding the process of human growth and development. Scholars such as Ghazzali, al Razi, Ibn al Arabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Taymiyyat, Ibn Rushd, Al Muhasibi, Ibn al Qayyim, et al, provided the theoretical and theological framework. Some of them, such as Ibn Sina, al Kindi and al Farabi, were heavily influenced by Greek and Hellenistic philosophy to the point that they espoused heterodoxical views that pushed Scholars such as Ghazzali to consider, for example, Ibn Sina and al Farabi, to be non-Muslims. Some, however, argue that Ibn Sina, for instance, repented and judgement should be left to God. Nevertheless, some of their contributions have been extremely beneficial in the formulation of psychology in the Muslim societies.

Two remarkable individuals stand out in the area of Islamic psychology. 1). Al-Ghazzali, he was a polymath who went through various stages of growth and developments. He did not fully adopt Greek philosophy like Ibn Sina and others, he was able to filter eastern and western knowledge and provide a God centric Islamic framework on tasawwuf, philosophy and psychology. His work on the self in his ihya Ulum al din is an indispensable resource for the Islamic psychology researcher. 2) Ibn al Qayyim, another luminary in the Islamic scholarly tradition, his work on Islamic spirituality and psychology is, without a doubt, a great resource for the Islamic psychology researcher. He wrote numerous important books on tasawwuf, spiritualty and Islamic psychology. One of the most important of his works is, Madarij al Salikin (stations of the seeker). This book is based on a book written by Abu Ismail al-Ansari al-Harawi al-Sufi who was a Hanbali scholar from Hirat in modern day Afghanistan. The name of his book is Manazil al-Sa’ireen (the Stations of the Travellers). Abu Ismail named one hundred stations that the traveller during his journey to God passes through. The author starts by giving tafsir of surat al Fatiha. The rest of the book are the stages that the traveller moves through in “You do we worship and You do we seek help from” [Fatiha, v5]. Ibn al-Qayyim, unlike Ghazzali and others, did not explicitly engage Greek philosophy. His focus was to approach psychology purely from the Islamic perspective. His works, in many ways, provides both the theoretical and practical application to Islamic psychology, which at times, is lacking from other scholarly writings.

Ilm al Nafs, therefore, may be argued that forms a large part of what may be termed as Islamic psychology along with tasawwuf (or tazkiyat nafs) in the Islamic tradition. Scholars employed various terms and labels to describe the study and effects of the soul (nafs) on thinking and behaviour with each sub discipline focussing on one aspect of human living according to the God centric vision. It is difficult (here) to delve into the various interfaces and discussions among the classical scholars. Suffice it to mention, the nomenclature is not necessarily always important, what is essential is to understand and appreciate the meanings (ma’ani) and haqaiq (their intelligible forms) behind these taxonomies cited in the Islamic discursive texts and the Islamic scholarly tradition.

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