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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 10    Issue 20   01-15 March 2016

Psychology and Psychotherapy in Islamic Perspective

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Eurocentrism, which connotes a deeply entrenched belief in the supremacy of Western civilization, is a pervasive feature of much of Western intellectual tradition and cultural consciousness. It is conspicuously reflected in the Western view of civilization and modernity, in the historiography of science and technology, medicine and art and in the history of ideas.

A corollary of Eurocentrism is the Western view of non-Western cultures and civilizations, which betrays either an ignorance or absence of recognition of their contributions. By and large, Western attitudes towards other cultures and civilizations are at best condescending and at worst scornful. Francis Bacon (d. 1621), a well-known English scientist, philosopher and statesman, claimed that paper, the magnetic compass, gunpowder and printing were the key inventions that separated the modern (Western) world from the traditional world. He did not know, or did not care to know, that each of these institutions had originated in China. The Austrian sociologist Norbert Elias maintained that the ‘civilizing process’ began in Europe. He failed to recognize that this process occurred in other parts of the world and in much earlier times. The German historian and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann (d. 1768) held that the ‘true ideal of beauty’ could be seen only in the Greek aesthetic and artistic tradition. He considered Chinese art as inferior and decadent. Ironically, Chinese art exerted considerable influence on European art and decoration in the 18th century. The Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (d. 1835) considered the Chinese language inferior to European languages. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (d. 1803) was contemptuous of Chinese national character. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (d. 1859), a British politician and statesman, divided the world into civilized nations, with Britain representing the zenith of civilization, and barbarians, who comprised the non-Western peoples. He haughtily declared that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.” Some of the towering figures in 19th century Europe, such as Alexis de Tocqueville (d. 1859), August Comte (d. 1859), who is considered the father of sociology, and John Stuart Mill (d. 1873), viewed the Chinese as inferior (Goody 2006: 127-28). Prominent European intellectuals and writers such as Ernest Renan and Paul Tanney dismissed the possibility of an Arab contribution to science and philosophy.

In his stimulating and deftly argued book The Theft of History (2006), Jack Goody uses an evocative metaphor – the ‘theft of history’ – to describe a particularly iniquitous aspect of Eurocentrism. The theft of history, according to Goody, refers to the takeover or expropriation of history by the West. He says, “The past is conceptualized and presented according to what happened on the provincial scale of Europe, often Western Europe, and then imposed upon the rest of the world”. The theft of history, according to Goody, is reflected in the widely-held view among Western intellectuals and historians that some of the key institutions of modern times, such as science, democracy, mercantile capitalism and modernity, were invented in Europe. Goody argues that Europe has deliberately neglected or underplayed the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which it has misinterpreted much of its own history. He states that the claim that these institutions originated in Europe is historically untenable, and the fact of the matter is that they can be found over a much more widespread range of human societies (Goody 2006: 125, 215).

There is a pervasive undercurrent of Eurocentrism and parochialism in much of social science theorizing and historiography in the West. Hegel, Kant and other European philosophers contended that Africa had no tradition of writing and therefore had no history or civilization. Both Marx and Weber believed that what differentiated the East from the West was that the former was stagnant and the latter vibrant and dynamic. T. Brook and G. Blue have succinctly brought out the Eurocentric underpinnings of social science theorizing in the West.

    Too often the generalizations of social science – and this is true in Asia as it is in the West – rest on the belief that the West occupies the normative starting position for constructing general knowledge. Almost all our categories – politics and economy, state and society, feudalism and capitalism – have been conceptualized primarily on the basis of Western historical experience (Brook and Blue 1999: 14-15)

Kenneth Clarke’s celebrated 13-part TV documentary “Civilization” is blatantly Eurocentric in that it identifies civilization exclusively with the West and focuses only on the visual arts, architecture and philosophy in Europe over the past 100 years. It is astonishingly indifferent to the impressive civilizational legacy of the non-Western world, notably China and the Islamic civilization.

In her ground-breaking work The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (1990), Maria Rosa Menocal drew attention to the undercurrents of racism and chauvinism in European literary and cultural history. She pointed out that ethnocentric bias for centuries has prevented mainstream European scholars from recognizing the large influence of Arabic, Islamic and Andalusian cultures on the development of European medieval literature. She persuasively argued that scientific, cultural and literary advances in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire were in large measure due to the contribution of Muslim scientists, translators and intellectuals to the preservation and dissemination of the Greco-Roman heritage. She emphasized that Arabic influences in medieval Europe were not confined to literature but encompassed music, science, philosophy, architecture and the arts (Menocal 1990).

The history of psychology, as recounted by Western psychologists, bears the unmistakable imprint of Eurocentrism. Western historians of psychology trace the beginnings of the discipline in ancient Greece and then, leaping from the 3rd century BCE to the 16th century CE, concentrate on the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The Middle Ages, in which the seeds of the Renaissance were sown, are left out of account. Similarly, the highly significant and wide-ranging contributions of Muslim thinkers and physicians to psychology and psychotherapy find only a passing and peripheral reference in the historiography of psychology.

More than a thousand years ago, Muslim thinkers and physicians made a seminal contribution to psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry. The perceptive observations of Al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Qayyim, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Zakariyya al-Razi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al-Farabi, Ibn Miskawayh, Al-Kindi, Abu-Zayd al-Balkhi and Shah Waliullah related to themes and issues in psychology and psychotherapy are particularly note-worthy in this connection. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149-1209), who is well-known for his voluminous commentary on the Quran, in his book Kitab al-nafs wal-ruh, discussed the linkages and intersections between mind, body, intellect, self, heart and soul and their bearing on health and illness. Ibn Sina (980-1037), in his books Al-Shifa and Ahwal al-nafs, dwelt at length on the relationship between the mind and the body and the nature and characteristics of perception, sensation and emotions. He offered a classification or typology of mental disorders in terms of biotypology, psychosomatic interactions, pathogenic influence of the environment and the consequences of traumatic experiences and their associated memories for the onset of dysfunctional behaviour. He also discussed psychotherapeutic methods, including music therapy.

Some of the most important and original contributions to psychology and psychotherapy were made by the Sufi masters. They held consciousness to be the mainspring of cognition, motivation and actions and emphasized that an intense self-consciousness and self-reflection was the first step in the mystic journey. Drawing on the Quran and the Hadith, the Sufis maintained that the human psyche was the repository of two contradictory potentialities, one benign and angelic and the other demonic. Man, who has been endowed with the capacity for freedom and moral choice, can play an active role in the realisation of his inherent potentialities. The Sufis saw human life as an arena of struggle between benign and vicious thoughts, impulses and actions. They drew a distinction between the heart (qalb), which is the mainspring of benign qualities, such as kindness and compassion, generosity, selflessness and humility, and the lower self (nafs), which is the breeding ground for wicked impulses and traits such as pride and vanity, jealousy, greed and petty-mindedness.

The close linkage between the mind and the body and its bearing on health and illness, including dysfunctional behaviour and other pathological conditions, has been extensively dealt with in the works of Muslim scholars, thinkers and physicians. Al-Razi (854-925), who has been described as the ‘greatest clinician of all times’ by George Sarton, in his book Al-tibb al-ruhani, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) in his treatise Kitab al-nafs, and Ibn Bajjah (1095-1138) in Kitab al-nafs extensively discussed psychosomatic illnesses and various forms of personality disorders. Muslim thinkers and physicians espoused a holistic approach to the aetiology of illnesses and their treatment and suggested a range of therapeutic methods and techniques, including prayers, meditations and music therapy, for recovery from psychological disorders. Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350), in his book Kitab al-ruh, dwelt on the efficacy of prayers and meditation for recovery from personality disorders.

Muslim thinkers and physicians also focussed on the positive role of deeply-held beliefs and convictions, cleansing of the mind from negative thoughts and emotions and positive thinking in healing and recovery. They were in fact the forerunners and pioneers of what is today known as cognitive behavioural therapy. An Egyptian scholar, Abd al-Hakim Uthman, has summarised the contributions of Muslim thinkers and physicians to psychology and psychotherapy in his book Al-dirasat al-nafsiyyah ‘ind al-Muslimin (1963; also Ajmal 1974). Another Egyptian scholar Muhammad Uthman Najati has sought to explicate the principles of Islamic psychology in his books Al-Quran wa ilm al-nafs (The Quran and Psychology) and Al-Ahadith wa ilm al-nafs (Hadith and Psychology).

The restructuring of psychology as well as other human sciences in an Islamic framework entails the identification of the works of Muslim scholars, thinkers and physicians of earlier times which deal with themes in psychology and psychotherapy, the translation of such works into English and other modern European languages and the explication of their views, in a comparative perspective and with reference to the history of psychology, in the idiom and discourse of contemporary psychology. Needless to say, a formidable task of this nature can be undertaken only by Muslim psychologists who are well-versed in Arabic and have a deep familiarity with the classical Islamic sources and have at the same time an excellent grounding in their discipline (Haque 2004).

Malik Badri

Malik Badri, an internationally renowned Sudanese-born Muslim psychologist and psychotherapist, is one of the few contemporary Muslim scholars who have made a serious attempt at the restructuring of the human and social sciences in an Islamic framework. Badri was born in Rufaa, a small town in northern Sudan, in 1932. After receiving his bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the American University in Beirut, Badri travelled to the UK, where he obtained a doctorate in psychology from the University of Leicester in 1961. He also obtained a postgraduate certificate in clinical psychology from the Academic Department of Psychiatry of Middlesex Hospital at London University’s Medical School in 1966.

Badri has had a long career in teaching and professional psychotherapy at several universities and hospitals in Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain, Morocco, Lebanon and Malaysia. In 1977 he was elected a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and in 1989 the Society conferred on him the title of Chartered Psychologist. He was appointed a member of the committee on Traditional Medical Practices of the World Health Organisation. Badri was a Distinguished Professor at Ahfad University in Sudan and at present holds the prestigious Ibn Khaldun Chair at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Three distinctive aspects of Badri’s contributions to the reorientation and restructuring of psychology and psychotherapy in an Islamic perspective are note-worthy. First, he has documented and highlighted the original and pioneering contributions of Muslim scholars, thinkers and physicians in the Golden Age of Islamic Science (from the 8th to the 16th century) to the advancement of psychology and psychotherapy and has shown that they were forerunners of some of the central ideas and therapeutic techniques in psychology and psychotherapy.

Badri translated, with annotations and extended notes, the work of a ninth century Muslim physician and psychologist, Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, Al-masalih al-abdan wal-anfus, into English, which was published as Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behaviour Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician, in 2013 (Badri 2013). Abu Zayd Ahmad ibn Sahl al-Balkhi (850-934) was a Persian polymath who wrote extensively on mathematics, geography, astrology, medicine and philosophy. In Sustenance of the Soul, al-Balkhi dwelt at length on the close linkage and interplay between the mind and the body and emphasized that maintaining a balance between the mind and the body is a prerequisite of good health. He drew a distinction between physical and mental or psychological illnesses and noted the individual differences in the aetiology and treatment of psychosomatic disorders. Al-Balkhi classified depression into three distinct types: normal depression or sadness, endogenous depression originating from within the body, and reactive clinical depression originating from outside the body. He was the first physician in the history of medicine to draw a distinction between psychosis and neurosis. Al-Balkhi made an original and pioneering contribution to what came to be known as cognitive behavioural therapy more than a thousand years later. He emphasized the effectiveness of cognitive therapy for the treatment of psychosomatic disorders and dysfunctional behaviour. The idea of ‘reciprocal inhibition,’ which was introduced in psychotherapy by Joseph Wolpe in 1969, was anticipated more than a thousand years ago by al-Balkhi. Badri describes al-Balkhi’s psychotherapeutic approach as ‘rational cognitive therapy.’

Since his early years, Badri has been deeply inspired by Islamic values and principles. He has been particularly influenced by the ideas of two leading Muslim thinkers of the 20th century, Sayyid Muhammad Qutb (1906-1966) and Sayyid Abul ‘Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979). Badri’s writings and his psychotherapeutic career reflect a vision which is fundamentally rooted in the Islamic tradition and which, at the same time, draws on a selective and critical appropriation of certain valuable features of Western psychology and psychotherapy. He has demonstrated, in the context of recent advances in psychotherapy and in the light of his own psychotherapeutic experiences, the effectiveness and efficacy of some of the therapeutic methods and techniques, such as prayers and meditation, which are a part of the Islamic tradition and which were emphasized by Muslim thinkers and physicians several centuries ago, in the treatment of psychological disorders. His book Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study (1993) makes a significant contribution to this subject. The book was translated into Norwegian by Arne Repeal in 2015.

During the past hundred years or more, psychology, like other human and social sciences, has grown under the sprawling and overbearing shadow of the Cartesian-Newtonian cosmology. In the Western tradition, psychology and psychotherapy have been looked upon as exact sciences, characterised by objectivity and value-neutrality and untainted by subjective perceptions and value preferences. Sigmund Koch, in his authoritative six-volume work Psychology: A Study of a Science (1959-63), has concluded that the “entire 100-year course of ‘scientific’ psychology can be seen to be a succession of changing doctrines about what to emulate in the natural sciences” (quoted in Johnson 1975:10).

In the 1950s and 1960s, when Badri embarked on his academic career, psychology was dominated by two reigning paradigms, Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Classical psychoanalysis as well as behaviourism have been profoundly influenced by evolutionary biology and physicalist and mechanistic presuppositions. J. B. Watson (1878-1958), an animal psychologist and the doyen of behaviourism in the United States, rejected all references to mind, consciousness and purpose as scientifically irrelevant. Behaviourists reduced man to the level of a conditioned animal whose behaviour was governed by the laws of physics and chemistry in general and by external stimuli in particular. The Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), one of the most influential behaviourists of the 20th century, extrapolated from his laboratory study of rats to human behaviour. For more than half a century, the behaviour of animals such as rats and monkeys provided the model for the study and interpretation of human behaviour in psychology. Consequently, psychology produced what the eminent biologist Ludwig Betalanffy has aptly characterised as the robot model of man (Bertalanffy 1967:7-10). In the 1960s the aura surrounding classical psychoanalysis and behaviourism began to fade. Eminent psychologists like Ludwig von Binswanger (1881-1966) and H. J. Eysenck (1916-1997) mounted a massive and devastating critique of psychoanalysis. The growing disenchantment with the inherent reductionism of psychoanalysis and behaviourism led to the emergence of several alternative theoretical and therapeutic perspectives in psychology and psychotherapy, including existential psychology and psychotherapy, logotherapy, behaviour therapy, humanistic psychology and cognitive therapy. H. J. Eysenck proposed behaviour therapy as an alternative to psychanalysis. Some of the most influential contributions to behaviour therapy were made by the American psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe (1915-1997). He developed an ingenious therapeutic technique called systematic desensitization, which involves enabling or helping a patient to overcome his acute sense of anxiety or emotional disorder by encouraging him to imagine graded scenes or a hierarchy of situations that cause fear or anxiety.

Though Badri studied under Vic Meyer (d. 2005), who was a votary of behaviour therapy, in London in the mid-1960s, he had serious reservations about the mechanistic and behaviouristic underpinnings of behaviour therapy. He felt that though behaviour therapy was a highly effective therapeutic method, it needed to be disembedded from its scientistic and behaviouristic presuppositions. In the 1960s behaviour therapists tended to see the patient as though he were an animal or a thing and failed to take into account the bearing of cognitive processes such as consciousness, self-reflection, thinking and emotions on healing and recovery. Badri sought to overcome this limitation of behaviour therapy by supplementing the technique of systematic desensitization with cognitive therapy. This innovative method, described by Badri as ‘cognitive systematic desensitization,’ which aims at eliciting the participation and involvement of the patient through an interactive and dialogical engagement with him, has been particularly effective with Muslim patients (Badri 2014).

The technique of cognitive systematic desensitization developed by Badri forms part of what has come to be known as the Third Wave of cognitive behavioural therapies. Cognitive behavioural therapies emphasize that cognitive processes, including beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, ideas, attitudes and emotions, and behavioural and lifestyle factors have a significant bearing on healthy as well as dysfunctional behaviour. Researches in psychoneuroimmunology have lent further credence to the legitimacy and relevance of cognitive behavioural therapy. Psychoneuroimmunology deals with the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems, particularly with the complex ways in which the human brain modulates the functioning of the immune system. The Third Wave of cognitive behavioural therapies seeks to expand the scope of behaviour therapy by the activation and development of cognitive and behavioural repertoires and healthy behavioural skills for improving the patient’s quality of life.

Another aspect of Badri’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy is related to his thoughtful and balanced critique of the dominant theoretical and therapeutic paradigms in mainstream psychology and psychotherapy, which suffer from a pervasive West-centric bias. In The Dilemma of Muslim Psychologists (1978), Badri has dwelt at considerable length on the unwholesome consequences of the uncritical appropriation of the theoretical, methodological and therapeutic corpus of Western psychology and psychotherapy by Muslim psychologists and their unfortunate indifference to the magnificent contributions of Muslim thinkers and physicians to their discipline. At the same time, he has cautioned Muslim psychologists against the dangers of epistemological or academic xenophobia and has suggested that it would be prudent to selectively and critically appropriate what is worthwhile in Western psychology and psychotherapy and to incorporate it in a system of knowledge which is suffused with Islamic values and principles.


Ajmal, Muhammad (1974) ‘An introduction to Muslim psychotherapy’ Symbol (Lahore, Pakistan).

Badri, Malik (1993) Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought.

Badri, Malike (2013) Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behaviour Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician. London: IIIT.

Badri, Malik (2014) ‘Cognitive systematic desensitization: An innovative therapeutic technique, with special reference to Muslim patients’ The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 31 (4), 1-12.

Bertalanffy, Ludwig (1967) Robots, Men and Minds. New York: George Braziller.

Brook, T. and G. Blue, eds. (1999) China and Historical Capitalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goody, Jack (2006) The Theft of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Haque, Amber (2004) ‘Psychology from Islamic perspective: Contributions of early Muslim scholars and challenges to contemporary Muslim psychologists’ Journal of Religion and Health, 43(4), 357-377.

Johnson, R. D. (1975) In Quest of a New Psychology. New York: Human Sciences Press.

Menocal, Maria Rosa (1990) The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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