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Filling the Chasm Between Islamic Teachings and Psychology


Arshi Parvez Dokadia

It was just a few decades ago that leading psychiatrists claimed religion to be a mental illness. Particularly, the argued upon father of Psychology, Sigmund Freud and his mentor, Jean Charcot, linked religion with neurosis. We have come a long way from the 1950s, and mental health practitioners today recognize the importance of spirituality in not only maintaining a healthy mind but also in preventing mental illnesses.

There is a stark shortage of Muslim mental health practitioners that can cater to the need of Muslim clients. We need practitioners who can not only acknowledge the faith of their client but who are also be able to work in tandem with the spiritual needs of the Muslim population.

In the 2010s the movement of Islam and Psychology gained momentum, and there have been attempts to make a framework for Islamic Psychology particularly based on the works of Imam al-Ghazali of the 12th century. The number of Islamic mental health practitioners has been increasing, and we need to add to the movement. However, this is not the only area we need to focus upon. It is important to note that Psychology goes beyond the arena of mental health and illness. The fields of positive psychology and applied psychology particularly focus on the everyday application of the theoretical elements to better the quality of living.

This is the area we need to focus upon, taking the elements of Islamic Psychology and making it a part of our life, because, at the end of the day, Islam is meant to be a way of life and, truly, we cannot find contentment and also reach our optimal potential unless we apply the teachings of our Creator to our life.

Elements of Islamic Psychology


It is not uncommon to hear that Islamic Psychology is the study of nafs. Many people use the term “self” or “ego” to draw parallels with the modern psychological concepts. al-Ghazali’s The Revival of Religious Sciences refers to nafs to describe an integral soul, which can be at different stages during our lifetime. According to Islam, our nafs or our own selves are under constant struggle, indicating the test of this lifetime. On one end of this struggle is Aakhirah or awareness of Allah and at the other end of the spectrum lies Dunya or all the distractions from Shaytaan.

Theorists, based on the ayahs of the Qur’an, classify nafs into three categories:

  1. Nafs al ammarah – the soul that inclines to evil – a state in which there is no struggle or effort to control our soul. The person does what they wish to, out of sheer selfishness rather than awareness of God. This state is also called ghafla which is forgetfulness of God.
  2. Nafs al lawamma – the self-reproaching soul – a soul that is struggling to shift from dunya to ruh and aakhirah. It is the stage where lies the most struggle and where most of us find ourselves in.
  3. Nafs al mutmainah – the soul at peace – it is the goal that we strive for. Many clerics claim that it is a stage that cannot be reached by most. However, there is an element of positivity in Islamic Psychology, the fitrah.


Fitrah is the nature of the soul. It is our natural disposition and Islam believes that everyone is born of fitrah. This natural inclination makes it completely possible to achieve the state of mutmainah (contentment) as long was our psyche and our mind are in sync with our natural disposition. Dunya acts as a distraction that takes us away from the natural way of our self. This causes the jihad an-nafs (struggle of the soul), where the struggle is between our desires and wants and our basic inclination. This is where the importance of our aql (intellect) comes in.

Aql and Qalb

Aql is our intellectual centre. Our intelligence is developed through our knowledge and experiences. It could be one of the reasons why knowledge is so important in Islam. We need to have aql not only to have reasonings to come back to our fitrah but also to have our qalb (heart) in the right place.

Qalb is our spiritual centre and often referred to as the heart. The literary meaning of the Arabic term qalb is something that keeps on changing. The dynamic nature is seen in our hearts, too. Our desires, our spirituality, keeps on shifting and if not reigned in with the knowledge, we might keep on shifting our hearts to the wind of the desire.

Achieving  Mutmainah (Peace)

The main goal of therapy, life coaching or even seeking spiritual guidance boils down the element of contentment. There is the desire to be at peace while knowing that change is inevitable and accepting that struggle is constant. The question rises is how do we achieve this seemingly paradoxical state where the world changes, we struggle and yet we are at peace and content with what we have?

In Islam, the answer comes in the form of Purification of Soul.

Tazkiyat an-Nafs

Tazkiyyah is cleaning, purification. Many Islamic courses have modules, if not courses specifically dedicated to this. The purification comes in with the struggle of the soul. It refers to working on the soul at any level. You could be mutmain but still tempted with something and denying this temptation could be referred to as the struggle of the soul.

Purification of soul has mainly two elements:

  1. Self-reflection: This is awareness or mindfulness (muraqabah). The first step is to be aware where you are and where you wish to be. This is similar to most modern approaches to psychology. The first step is always being aware, in the present. This state can lead to guilt, blame and insecurities.
  2. Character Refinement: Akhlaq or mannerisms (character) have a great importance in Islam. Just being aware is not enough—you need to take actions to fill the gap between your current self and ideal self. While self-reflection ensures that our intentions are for the sake of Allah, tadhib al-akhlaq or refinement of character ensures that our actions follow moral principles. Just changing the way we think is not enough, we need to change our behaviour, too. This redirects the negativity and guilt to working for positive and praiseworthy characteristics. Psychologists agree that the insatiable desires humans possess can lead to moral and mental problems. Reforming our manners helps shift that beacon of desire to doing the right thing.

These concepts are still under study, and research is being done to form an ideal framework on how to bring these elements under everyday practices that we can apply. Psychologists know that our belief system can make or break our mental wellness. It is important that we study these elements regardless of our profession and interest because awareness is the first step to making a change. The current generation struggles with loneliness, depression, anxiety and avoidance that can come off as laziness. All of this has a basis in our psychology. Bringing awareness of the core errors in thinking can become the key to the change we wish for ourselves and the world around us.