Ghazali’s Science of the Soul – Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf

This is the third part of a talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf on approaches to depression and anxiety in Classical Islam. Here he talks about Imam Ghazali and his science of the soul.

Imam Ghazali [in contrast to Abu Zayd al Balkhi] is not a physician. He is a philosopher. He is a theologian. He is a jurist. And in each of those things at the first rank. He wrote the greatest works in all of these fields for 200 years on either side of him. But above all else he was a spiritual master.

The sum total of his of his life’s work is contained in the Ihya Ulum al Din, The Revival of the Knowledge of the Religion, of which it has been said, numerous times by scholars in his time and after, that were all the works of Islam to be lost, including the Qur’an and the books of hadith, and only this work remain, by itself it would be sufficient to renew the religion. It would bring back the religion from the brink.

The Biochemistry of Happiness

Why is that? Because the subject of that work is the human soul. And it is about the human soul attaining a state of felicity. This is most well and most precisely explained in the Persian equivalent. The Ihya is in Arabic. The Persian equivalent, written in a quite different way, is called the Kimiya al Sa‘ada.

Now given that this is a work about the human being and it’s called Kimiya al Sa‘ada, I think a perfectly fair translation for this is The Biochemistry of Happiness. Kimiya is chemistry. Sa‘ada is happiness. And it means ultimate happiness. Abu Zayd al Balkhi mentioned this. He said if the root cause of all mental distress is anxiety, the root cause of all mental health is happiness. That is to say, happiness is not merely the result of good mental health. It is also the cause of good mental health.

Ghazali focused on this point, taking from the philosophical traditions of Islam as well as from the more theological approaches to Islam. Ghazali, especially in the Persian equivalent of his work, focuses on something that always has been, from Greek times, a central theme in philosophy. Now when you ask today, what is the central theme of philosophy? People don’t really know because it’s kind of all gone a bit weird.

Happiness and Care for the Self

If you ask people in the 1700s, the 1800s, during the Enlightenment, what is the central theme of classical psychology? [sic] They would say, Know thyself. But one of the central themes, when you go back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and so forth, one of the central themes of the philosophers of those times was actually not simply know thyself, but take care of thyself; look after thyself.

There was a focus on care of the self. One of the things Ghazali borrowed from that tradition, but which he also found in the tradition of classical Islamic thinking, of which he was of course the foremost representative, is that happiness is something that is to be sought, not only in the Hereafter but in this life as well.

Happiness is not, however, in external things. Happiness is in your internal reaction to those things. As an example of this a student of mine came to me after one of my religious classes and said, I want to talk to you. I want to ask you a question. I said, Yes, what’s the question? I’ve got 15 minutes before the next class starts. She said, I want to ask you about locus of control. I said, Okay. In 15 minutes? She said, Yes.

The Locus of Control

What’s a locus of control? A locus of control is: Where’s your happiness button? That’s what locus of control means. If my happiness button is there. [Places phone in front of him and points.] Then that means my sadness button or my anger button is there. You can come along and go [presses button], and I’ll get sad or anxious or angry or whatever it happens to be.

If my button is here [puts phone close to himself] I can protect it. You can’t come along and press it. This is an internal locus of control. [Phone is close.] That’s an external locus of control. [Phone is further away.] People don’t come and press your buttons unless they’re not very nice. They don’t generally come and press your buttons. What presses your buttons? Circumstances, situations, press your buttons.

I’m driving down here knowing that Sophie and Mark are going to be wondering, Where is this guy? Is he going to do his usual thing and come late? And I hit traffic and I think, Oh my God. What has happened? Now this is a circumstance that is tailor-made to provoke anxiety in me. I know that I am going to have to look at Samina and she’s going to say, How do I get out of this traffic? It’s a circumstance, it’s a situation, that presses the button.

God Is The Root Cause

Why does it press the button? I said to my student: Look. You see this? [Raises phone.] Is this the button or is this the situation? She says, I don’t know. I said, It’s both. The problem with the external locus of control is you don’t realize that this is actually two separate things. There is the event. [Phone cover.] And there’s the reaction to it. [Phone.] These are separate from each other. You can’t control this. [The event.] But you can control this. [The reaction.] Simply put, you can’t stop it raining, but you can carry an umbrella.

Alright. What’s the problem that people who have an external locus of control have? It is that when it’s raining they go outside and they say, Stop raining! Stop! And it doesn’t stop raining. Eventually you get so tired of shouting at the clouds to stop raining that you give up and you say I can’t stop it raining. It’s trying to have control over something you can’t have control over. Why? Because you’ve linked these two things [the event and the reaction] together. They are one and the same.

She said, I did an online survey and I have an external locus of control. How do I deal with it? I said, Separate the emotional reaction from the event. Now what do you do? I said now you need to recognize that this event is not caused by the outside world. It’s caused by God. this is caused by God. It’s not caused by your nosy neighbor. It’s not caused by your troublesome mother-in-law. It’s not caused by the weather or the traffic or anything like that.

It is caused by God. A benevolent God, mind you. A benevolent and all-powerful God. So if you recognize that everything that happens to you in your life comes to you from God, and that God will send you sweetness and bitterness, both of which are there to teach you something about yourself, you can keep this button to yourself.

Surrendering the Locus to God

You can keep that button to yourself and you can control how you press it. What you’ll then find is that there is nothing on the table. The table is the world. There is nothing on this table. There is God and there is you. There’s God and you and everything else is simply an instrument. Once you understand that you have a completely external locus of control because now you actually say, Do you know what God? I’m gonna leave the button to You as well.

That is the beginnings of a religious approach to dealing with the questions that bring about distress, anxiety, and so forth. It is the beginning of an indigenous psychotherapy. A psychotherapy that is founded on the fundamental beliefs that you have. This is something that can be de-theologized. It is something that doesn’t need to necessarily be about your relation to a person or God.

It is a way of looking at how things happen and what things mean when they happen, and what you can learn from it. [It is] the difference between approaching something as a lesson by which you can learn more about yourself, and the alternative, which is that you are a leaf being blown on a wind, being taken wherever the wind leads you.

States, Traits, and Character

Abu Zayd Balkhi distinguishes between fixed human traits and emotional states which come and go. Recognizing at the same time that if you have a particular temperament and a particular state, it can sometimes become chronic, it can become part of your personality. However, he focuses primarily on states.

What Imam Ghazali focuses on is the development of internal character traits. God talks about the soul that will eventually return to Him and He describes that soul as the tranquil soul. (Sura al Fajr 83:27-28) The soul that is at peace with itself, as opposed to a struggling soul, which God describes as self-accusing. (Sura al Qiyama 75:2)

There’s an enormous difference between the emotional states of someone who has internalized external trauma, grief, sadness, and has started to accuse themselves, or to become their own abuser, and a person who has, by whatever means, broken free of that and is left in a state of tranquility.

The Ihya is a 6,000 page book, but that’s what it’s about. It’s about attaining tranquility. I’ll leave it at that. I hope what I’ve done here is give you a little bit of insight into two very different ways of approaching the question of mental distress that are nonetheless things that we would recognize as being valuable and beneficial today.

Photo by Charl van Rooy on Unsplash

This talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf was given at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University, entitled “Approaches to Depression and Anxiety in Classical Islam.” This is not a transcript but an edited post based on the third part of the talk. The first and second parts can be read below.


Abu Zayd Balkhi on Depression – Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf

This is the second part of a talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf on approaches to depression and anxiety in Classical Islam. Here he presents the author and physician Abu Zayd Balkhi.

I want to move on to a couple of these therapists. I say therapists. That’s a Freudian slip. The first of them is called Abu Zayd Balkhi. He was a ninth century physician, so he was a doctor. He was from Afghanistan but spent most of his life in Baghdad, which was the center of the Muslim world at the time. The second is very famous: Imam Ghazali, the great Reviver of Islam, who is called the Proof of Islam.

They took different approaches to the question of mental health. I will more on Abu Zayd Balkhi because he is by far less well known, and yet what he had to say, I kid you not, it reads like a manual of psychology. Remember, we are talking about somebody who is writing 1,200 years ago, when the styles were very very different. If you read it, it is astonishing.

There was a paper published on this particular work. When it went to peer review they said: “We’re not going to approve this. We don’t believe it is genuine, because this is not written like 9th century manuscripts are written.” The reviewers then did about three or four years of background research to determine its veracity. Then they wrote back eventually to the people that wrote this paper and said: “You do realize we are going to have to rewrite the history of psychology?”

Abu Zayd Balkhi

So who is Abu Zayd? He is a polymath as many of these people were. He wrote on a whole number of different topics – religious and so forth. Primarily, however, he was a physician. His great work is called Mas’alah al Abdan wa al Anfus, which means: The ways of bringing about restoration of the body and the soul. He is unique among writers of that time.

There were many great works on medicine produced around that period, but he is unique among them in that he had a separate chapter at the end of the book specifically for psychological illnesses. And the way he approached those psychological illnesses was first to acknowledge their existence. To acknowledge that they were very important. And to bemoan the fact that many physicians of his period felt that these things did not exist. And that if they did they were just extensions of physical illnesses.

He said no this is a real thing and it needs to be tackled. One of the things I really got from reading his work was the seriousness with which he treats especially depression. He says that this is a really horrible illness. He distinguishes very clearly, very lucidly, between sadness, which he calls huzn in Arabic, and depression, which he calls jaza‘. Jaza‘ has the sense of being cut open, of being cut off from things, of pain, and of being unable to endure something.

Defining Depression

That is the basic meaning of the word in Arabic, and he coins what in his time was a neologism for what we would now consider to be depression. Something that goes way beyond what you would expect a person who is experiencing sadness to suffer. He also distinguishes firstly in very brief form, four types of mental distress. He says there is mental distress that relates to sadness; mental distress that relates to anger; mental distress that relates to anxiety; and mental distress that relates to obsessions, or obsessive misgivings.

Within each of those categories there is a normal variant and a pathological variant. They exist on a spectrum, but at some point on the spectrum it becomes pathological. There is a way in which you approach the normal variation and a different way in which you approach the pathological variation. They require different types of treatment.

Where depression specifically was concerned he is, I think, the first person in history to distinguish between endogenous depression and reactive depression. And again he does this very, very lucidly. He said there are two types of depression. One that has a clear cause, a clear precursor: some stressor has occurred, which has caused the person to feel like this. That needs a particular type of treatment.

Supportive Therapy and Treatment

There is another, however, where there is no apparent cause. This, he says, is down to an impurity of the blood or an upset of the humors, and what it requires is “supportive psychotherapy.” His words are “to talk to someone wise and loving who can give you comfort and allow you to put things in perspective.” That is supportive psychotherapy which he distinguishes from actual psychotherapy.

Very interestingly he said the other thing that helps with this is music therapy, i.e. singing. Get the person to sing the songs they know. Songs that remind them of happier times. This is very effective. However, the primary treatment for endogenous depression, he says, is medication.

Reactive depression on the other hand requires particular forms of psychotherapy. He mentions a number of different types that we today would recognize as cognitive behavioral therapy; rational emotive therapy; reciprocal inhibition; and interpersonal therapy.

Remember, these are things that have come about in the 20th century. He is describing them in the ninth century and he describes them very cogently. As I say, it is like reading a manual written in the 20th century.

The Root of Mental Illness

He also acknowledges the root of all mental distress. He said the root of mental distress is concern about the future, which he calls anxiety. He distinguishes anxiety from what he calls terror. When he describes the symptoms of terror, he’s describing a panic attack. He says this is different from anxiety. Anxiety comes from three sources. One is internal, one is situational, and one is about your history. That is to say biological, psychological, and social.

These manifest in the disorders of which he he mentions four. He doesn’t actually talk about psychosis at all. What we would now call a manic state. I don’t know why that is. I think that and the only person that I know of in in classical Islam who mentioned what we would now consider symptoms of psychosis like hallucinations and so forth was Ibn Sina who considered them to be neurological disorders.

Abu Zayd Balkhi has this fantastic approach. One of the amazing things he does is at the beginning of his work he talks about the importance of mental health. The second chapter of his work is about mental hygiene. What he says is that everyone is going to suffer with mental distress at some point or other in their life. Some people will experience minor symptoms, some people will experience major symptoms.

There are things to do with your temperament or your upbringing and so forth that might make you vulnerable to experiencing a major episode. But everyone will experience them to some degree or another and therefore there are certain things that everybody should be doing to preserve their mental health. What he describes is what we would today, in 2017-2018, call mental health first aid.

Mental Health First Aid

This is a very, vey new concept. The idea of steps you can take yourself, that your neighbors can take, your friends can take, to help to ward off a mental health crisis, or to bring immediate relief to you in a mental health crisis. Then he also talks about preventative medicine. He says that there are certain things that we need to all be doing. One of which is effectively banking good thoughts or banking positive cognitions.

He said all mental distress ultimately comes down to negative cognitions. When you have negative cognitions you need to be able to combat them with positive cognitions. But you can’t have positive cognitions when you are in the midst of a mental health crisis. So what do is you bank them when you are calm. When everything is good in your life, think about those good things.

Remind yourself constantly about the good things, so that when you then have a negative cognition that may trigger a mental health problem, you can immediately combat it with a positive cognition. He talks about a lot about independence. About not becoming dependent on counselors, but at the same time accessing expert opinion, expert advice, and expert treatment.

Internal and External Therapy

He talks about the internal and the external. Internal therapy is what you can do yourself. External therapy is what is needs to be done for you by a practitioner: someone who is wise. Someone who is an expert, who has had dealings with this in the past. Someone who you trust and respect. That is to say, someone with whom you have a therapeutic relationship.

He says that this is because one of the first things to go when you become mentally ill is your sense of perspective and your insight. Often you will find that people do not recognize how unwell they are. That is where you need someone.

What you need is somebody who can who can intervene, but in order for them to intervene, there has to be a pre-existing relationship or there has to be an acknowledgment by that person that this is an expert. They know what they’re talking about. I really should listen to them. It shouldn’t be a family member. It needs to be – he doesn’t use the word as there was no such thing in that time – but a professional.

He ends with his discussion of depression. How serious a problem this is and how important it is that people really get a handle on it and understand it. And how a person presents in the throes of a depression. They will not look like themselves. You will look at them and sometimes, he says, they will even appear to act like a madman. You won’t recognize them. What is critical to understand is that there is a person underneath that. And we need to bring that person back. You need to work with that person to bring them back again.

Hope and Spirituality

He ends there for a very hopeful note. And hope should be the stock-in-trade of mental health practitioners. If we can’t give hope then we are not going to get very far no matter what drugs, no matter what therapy, that person goes for. Abu Zayd talks about the worst symptom of depression being helplessness and hopelessness, because once you lose hope you feel helpless.

He also mentions but doesn’t focus too much on the spiritual aspect of these conditions. You can see from everything that I’ve said so far that Abu Zayd Balkhi is approaching the question of mental illness or the question of mental distress like a physician. His focus is on symptoms, models, treatments, and so forth.

But he says that one of his points is that it is important for you internally to do this but also for the therapist to reinforce that things are really bad at the moment; things are really terrible at the moment; something really horrible has happened to you; but you’re not meant for this world. You’re meant for the Hereafter.

Seen from Eternity

Focus on that put things into that eternal perspective. When you put things in an eternal perspective they look very very different. He thereby puts into context something very important which is the notion of pathological spirituality. That is to say or think: “Bad things are happening to me because God is angry with me.” I see this quite often actually.

The idea that this is happening to me because God hates me; my child died because God hates me; or because I’ve done something wrong; this is a punishment for sins. To which the response is: So how come God did the same thing to the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him, who was sinless? Whom he loved.

Now if you reframe it as a test, as a trial, as an as an education, as a lesson to learn something about yourself, it is in adversity that we dig deep within ourselves and find a hidden strength that we did not know that we had. Abu Zayd Balkhi he leaves it at that but that theme is then taken up by Imam Ghazali.

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

This talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf was given at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University, entitled “Approaches to Depression and Anxiety in Classical Islam.” This is not a transcript but an edited post based on the second part of the talk. The first part can be read here.


"The Revival of Faith Against Intolerance", Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

“What we have to understand is that our history is rich and beautiful, and it took on so many different colors. There’s not such a thing as an ‘Islamic Civilization’; there are Islamic Civilizations – plural.”
Dr Umar Faruq AbdAllah - Revival Faith

Revival of Faith – The Great Legacy of Giants

Listen to Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah contextualizes the revival of Islam in difficult, hateful times. Through the stories of giants like Shaykh Abdul-Qadir al Jilani and Imam Abu Hamid al Ghazali, he explains the great legacy that modern Muslims are inheriting, and our role in restoring the true Islamic tradition.
Recorded at SeekersHub Toronto – join us in person or on Livestream from anywhere in the world.

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