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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.

 


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.

 


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 Human Condition and the Sira – Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf

This is the first part of a talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf on approaches to depression and anxiety in Classical Islam. Here he speaks on the holistic view of Islamic psychology.

I am going to be talking about the issue of depression and anxiety in classical Islam. My focus is on some of the ways in which depression and anxiety were tackled in the classical Muslim civilization. Primarily I will talk about two theorists who approached this issue in rather different ways. Both of them were actual polymaths. One of them lived in the ninth century, which is around the time of Charlemagne from a perspective of European history. The other one lived in the 11th century. He was born in 1066, which is the only year in history that any of us know anything about.

I want you to bear this in mind. We are talking about people who lived nearly a thousand years ago. Both of them have things to say about depression, about anxiety, and more broadly about the human condition. Because cultures vary and they vary vastly, lots of things are relative, but the human condition isn’t. The human condition is the same no matter who you are and where you go.

A Lovely Tale

There is a lovely tale about Shah Bahauddin Naqshband, the great Sufi spiritual master. It is said that some merchants came to see him for advice. They sat around waiting for their turn quite patiently, but he was busy with this, busy with that. Days go by and they’re not getting a chance to come and ask their questions.

Eventually they say, “Oh, you know the the shaykh is obviously very busy. We’ll go.” They get up to leave and the shaykh says: “Oh, where are you going? Come here.” One of them said, Shaykh, you’re obviously really busy. We’ll come back some other time.” The shaykh said, “No. The answer to your question is this. The answer to your question is this. The answer to your question is this. The answer your question is this.”

And they of course are flabbergasted as always happens in these stories. They are flabbergasted and amazed and astounded. And they said, “How did you know? Did you read our minds?” He said, “No. Every human is created from Adam. Adam was created from dust. We all come from the same source. We’ve all got the same issues, the same problems, and the same ways of dealing with them.” And there is a universality that underlies the issue of mental health, mental illness, and mental well-being, notwithstanding the many ways in which they manifest in different cultures.

A Wise Physician

I remember an old doctor, a teacher of mine. The old Indian ladies loved him and we didn’t know why. We all used to sometimes have clinics in South Africa in the middle of nowhere. You’d have 100 patients in the clinic and they’d all come out smiling. They’d love this guy. We asked him, “What do you do?” And he says, “Well, these ladies they all come to me and you know some of them have pains in their bones, and some of them have a heart problem, some of them have this, that, or the other. I give them all the same thing.”

I said “What?” He said, “I give them an antidepressant.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because that’s what the problem is.” And that’s when I learned what somatizing is. In that particular community you deal with emotional distress by converting it into physical distress, because that’s acceptable. It’s acceptable to have a pain in the elbow and a pain in the back and a headache. It isn’t acceptable to say, I am sad and I don‘t know why.

The Tradition and Its Sources

Both scholars come from the Islamic tradition. The Islamic tradition is a very rich intellectual, spiritual, and cultural tradition, with many many fluorescences and many manifestations over the centuries. All of it however derives its root from one source and that source is the scripture. and I want to talk very briefly at the beginning about scripture, because the Islamic Scripture, the Qur’an is actually quite a difficult book to read. It’s difficult because it doesn’t read like you expect a book to read. It reads like what it is, which is a series of messages.

Now there is a thematic unity to it, but you don’t get an “In the beginning” at the beginning of the book and “Here’s how it will all end” at the end of the book. It is written in a circular structure. The other version of Scripture which is the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, that consists of his ways, his dealings, his guidance, his acts, and so forth.

These are also difficult to navigate if you’re not used to it, because they are so scattershot in the sense that you have snapshots and photographs from the life of the Prophet Muhammad. And his guidance is often denuded of their context. So you have lots of sayings, but you don’t know what it was about unless you actually study it. What you get is quite a fragmentary approach. This is if you navigate this without having the benefit of a teacher.

These two things, however, come together, and where they do and you start to see coherence and a theme is actually in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In the sea of what is called the Sira. This is where all this guidance and the scripture comes into context. It is in the life history of the Prophet Muhammad, about which we know a great deal, that you really start to see the human condition manifesting.

Not only in his own case. Not only in the case of his Companions. But in the case of those who opposed him also. In the case of those who just happened to be there. There are descriptions. Vivid descriptions like you would find in the Old Testament actually.

Conceptions and Misconceptions

I was in a retreat for faith leaders. It was about models of leadership. And one of the things we did is read the scriptures. The passage from the Old Testament was fascinating because it was Moses complaining to God about the Israelites, and it was all: “God why have you troubled me with these people? Am I their mother that I have to suckle them to my breast? When are they going to grow up?” It was exactly that tone. And I kind of sat there thinking, I know that Moses. That’s the Muslim Moses.

Then you got the Christian version of Jesus. It was the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is very calm and full of wisdom. And you just think, I know that Jesus, too. Then I came to the one about the Prophet Mohammed, and I said to the people that I was talking to that I know the Moses, I recognized that Moses from my own scriptures. I recognized that Jesus. The great tragedy is that you don’t recognize the Prophet Mohammed. You don’t have any sort of conception of who he was. You don’t have an image in your head about who he was.

What that has led to in the world is the projection of Muslims onto the Prophet Mohammed. I remember when there was the whole stuff about the cartoons. I think this is an important point because of what I was saying about universality. I remember when there was this the big fuss about the drawings the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and I saw some of those cartoons. I said, Well, they’re basically drawing mawlanas like you might do when I was in madrasah. You know, after school, I might doodle a picture of the mawlana in the book and it would look exactly the same.

Projections of Empty Forms

All that’s happening is a projection. And I think for us to understand one another we have to get beneath some of the rhetoric and also some of the formalisms to the real characters underneath. It is really the human that we connect to. That’s the same sort of thing I see when I deal with patients with mental health difficulties. What I see is a temptation for staff, for clinicians, for family members, for carers, to see the person as their diagnosis as opposed to seeing them for who they are. Once you see the person as themselves it changes your entire outcome.

What we see in Scripture are very vivid descriptions of grief, of anxiety or fear, of bereavement, of joy. Many of them from the Prophet Muhammad himself. I will mention one thing that he said and he said this at the age of 62, one year before he himself passed away. 18 months beforehand he became a new father. His baby who was called Ibrahim Abraham was about 18 months old when he was struck down by a sudden illness and died. The whole city goes into mourning.

Now, this is a prophet who whose whole mission, whose whole temperament, whose whole outlook is about focusing people on what comes after death. Don’t just think about this world, think about the next world. It’s not a neglect of this world. It is a focus on what matters to your soul. What is his reaction? There are two narrations.

The Prophet on Grief and Loss

The first is that his daughter sends a message to him saying, “Please come. Your grandson is dying.” And he says to her, “Be patient. Be patient.” Be patient. Trust in Allah. Again she comes to him. She says, “Your grandchild, the child is very sick. Please come.” And he says, “Be patient.” And then the third time she comes, he gets up and he goes with his Companions. And it is these Companions who narrate this.

He goes to the house. He sits down with his daughter. He takes his baby grandchild, days old, in his arms. The child looks at him, and he looks at the child. Then the child expires in his arms. And the Companions who are with him, report that his the tears streamed down his face to such an extent that his thick beard became wet with with tears. They said, “O Prophet, what is this? You were the one saying be patient.” And he said, This is not impatience. This is compassion. And God puts it into the heart of whomever He wishes.”

When his own son passed away. When he buried his son. This is a 62 year old man burying his child. The sixth out of seven of his children that he has buried. He was left with one surviving child and that child – he knew because he told her – would pass away six months after him. This is the beloved of Allah. A prophet of Allah. He buries his child and again his Companions see that he is weeping. They say to him, “O Messenger of Allah, what is this? And he said, “The heart grieves, the eyes weep. But we don’t say anything that will not be pleasing to our Lord.”

The Human Condition and Its Expression

What we take from this is the following. In terms of bereavement, in terms of sadness and depression, there are three components to it. There is a physical component: a physical manifestation of it. There is an emotional component to it. And then there is a cognitive component to it. There’s a way that you think about what has happened to you.

The way you manifest your thoughts is with your tongue. What the Prophet is actually saying here, that he corroborated elsewhere in a less dramatic way shall we say, is that it is beneficial to physically manifest sadness. It is part of being human that you feel those emotions. However, how you think about what is happening to you is critical in how you process the grief. The cognitive approach that you take to de-stress is critical.

 


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 first part of the talk.


Discussing Intimate Details in Therapy Sessions

Answered by Sidi Wasim Shiliwala

Question: As a psychologist I am privy to a lot of personal and private information in sessions with clients, this occasionally places me in situations where people (i.e. who are not my clients but know my profession) open up to me and seek advice.

1) Is it permissible for me to find out about my client’s private/intimate life if it will assist in the therapy?

2) If someone who is not my client has called for general advice on a situation which involves sharing private information about a specific person/place, is this classified as a form of backbiting?

Answer: Walaikum As-salaam wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu,

May Allah reward you for your service in counseling others!

Discussing Private Matters for the Sake of Therapy

1. Is it permissible for me to find out about my client’s private/intimate life if it will assist in the therapy?

Although it is usually discouraged to discuss the details of one’s personal life, this discouragement is lifted when such discussion has a clear benefit. This falls under the general rules of speaking outlined by the Prophet (peace be upon him) when he said: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak [that which is] good or be silent” [Sahih Bukhari].

Since disclosing intimate details is an important part of therapy, then the benefit from such disclosure makes it permissible and in fact encouraged if it can improve the patient’s health. Of course, this permissibility is limited to that which is beneficial: you should only pry into your patient’s private life to the extent needed for the therapy.

Is Disclosing Private Information About Others a Form of Backbiting?

2) If someone who is not my client has called for general advice on a situation which involves sharing private information about a specific person/place, is this classified as a form of backbiting?

Backbiting, as defined by the Prophet (peace be upon him), is to “say something about your brother [or sister] that he [or she] would dislike” [Sahih Muslim]. Muslim scholars ruled backbiting to be haraam except when there is a clear benefit sanctioned by the shari`ah, such as when one is demanding their rights in court, consulting others about a potential spouse or business partner, and similar situations [Nahlawi, Durar al-Mubaha].

Therefore, the sharing of private information depends on this rule of necessity and benefit. You must ask yourself: Is there a clear and beneficial purpose in disclosing this information? Is there any benefit in speaking about this specific person and what he/she did, or can I keep the person anonymous and speak in generalities?

Use your own professional judgment in deciding what is necessary and what is not, keeping in mind that the health of your patients is of utmost importance.

The Need to Speak About Personal Issues

As a closing remark, I want to emphasize the need for Muslims to have an outlet to discuss their personal issues. Mental and emotional health are often neglected in our communities, thereby causing great harm to many individuals and their families.

Alarmingly, many Muslims think that Islam sanctions such neglect. Rather, what Islam teaches us is that all problems, even those of an intimate and personal nature, can and should be discussed, but in an appropriate setting. The Prophet (peace be upon him) famously praised the women of the Ansar for asking him detailed personal questions and not letting shyness prevent them from learning the details of their religion [Sahih Bukhari].

It is therefore important for professionals like yourself to offer your invaluable services to your local Muslim community. Speaking about private matters might not be appropriate in a public setting, but it is absolutely necessary when counsel is sought. May Allah reward you for your efforts!

Jazakum Allahu Khairan,
-Wasim

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani

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Getting Therapy for Irreligious Thoughts

Answered by Shaykh Faraz A. Khan

Question: I have recently started therapy for my ocd and self esteem/anxiety issues. These things have been affecting me greatly and through therapy etc i hope to get better soon.

One of my ocd behaviors is to do with getting persistent intrusive thoughts which are of a religious nature. These thoughts tend to be blasphemous type of thoughts and they truly disgust me and lead me to be very sad/stressed.

I am at a point where i really need the therapy so i can function and enjoy my life, but i greatly fear getting sin when it comes to dealing with thoughts of a religious nature or blasphemous nature.

1) I wanted to ask you if it would be allowed from a religious perspective for me to continue with my therapy so that i can get better. Would i be allowed to take part in therapeutic exercises and techniques, which may for example involve me writing down these horrible and blasphemous thoughts (in the exact way they appear in my head) or to let them rest in my mind and not say or do anything in response to them?

2) Would i be allowed to implement the techniques and strategies i am taught day to day when it involves religious thoughts e.g. regarding religious figures and God etc.
I fear so much for the sin i would get for actively allowing these thoughts to be in my head/writing them etc, but I feel like I need therapy to function in day to day life.  Please help.

Answer: Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah,

I pray this finds you in the best of health states.

This would be permissible in your situation. Writing down such things is actually prescribed by spiritual guides as a means of ridding oneself from them. And keeping them in your mind is fine if it is part of your therapy, since you by no means accept them in your heart.

Your disgust and hatred for these thoughts is a sign that you are a true believer, by Allah’s grace. Show gratitude to Him for your faith and the fact that you hate such thoughts. The devil doesn’t bother whispering such notions to people of no faith, but rather goes after the people of true faith.

Some of the Companions once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “We find within ourselves such notions that overwhelm any of us from speaking about it.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked: “Do you also experience it?” The Companions replied, “Yes.” The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied “That is real faith.” [Sahih Muslim]

That is, the fact that you deem it abominable and blasphemous, and that you fear it and fear vocalizing (or writing) it — let alone believing in it — is a sign of your absolute true faith (iman) and that you are free of doubts. [Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim]

Take the therapy as prescribed by your doctor, and give no weight or importance to the thoughts, as their source is an accursed creature of no weight or importance.

Also, try to renew your wudu often and be in a pure state, and incorporate a daily routine of dhikr, Qur’an, and salutations upon the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Good company is also essential.

And Allah knows best.
wassalam
Faraz A. Khan

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani