Al Balkhi's Contribution in the Contemporary Field of Psychology
By Aamna Binte Imran

A Man Years Ahead of His Time - by Aamna Imran

Published in: History, Science, Health
Date: 20 / 04 / 19

With a new earthquake of knowledge and a dawn of civilization to commence, early Muslim scholars indulged themselves into the profound study of the Quran to unravel the mysteries of the world and hence, miracles of the Quran. With their belief already consolidated in the Quran and their scholarly character, those early Muslim polymaths discovered the laws that governs all the entities that exist. This led to mind boggling research and manuscripts that shook the world of knowledge and wisdom. Some delved into Quran for exploration of the sciences of physics, mathematics, literature, sociology, astrology, pediatrics, and for some in psychology.

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was one such man. A 9th century Muslim polymath, whose writings touched on subjects as varied as geography, medicine, philosophy, theology, politics, poetry, ethics, sociology, grammar, literature and astronomy, he was one of the earliest psychologist in the field of science. He was born in Balkh (where he got his name from) province which is now a part of modern day Afghanistan.

Along with his monumental discoveries like his development of ''Al Balkhi" school of terrestrial mapping, figures of climate, excellency in mathematics, certitude in astrology, Al Balkhi's work in psychology has been groundbreaking as well.

It is, however, important to note that what is defined as ‘psyche’ in modern age is called ‘nafs’ in Islamic terminology. Nafs, in contrariety, is a more comprehensive term than psyche. Psyche is the totality of human mind, conscious, subconscious and unconscious; Nafs is a sum of body, qalb, aql, emotions, thoughts and are deeply interconnected with each other.

A Pioneer

Al-Balkhi was one of the first people to talk about mental health and mental illness. He criticized those doctors and physicians who would put an emphasis only on the physical body and health and paved a way for people to have an outlook on another dimension of health. He argued, “Since the man’s construction is from both body and soul, therefore, human existence cannot be healthy without ishtibak (interweaving) of soul and body.’’

Mind-Body Connection

The first ever self-help, mental health book, called ''Sustenance for Bodies and the Soul" was written by him, in which he successfully discusses the mind-body relation discovered by him which has been only confirmed by modern science not too long ago. Mind-body connection means that the health of former affects that of the latter and both are correlative. He stated that balance between mind and body is required, and imbalance between both can cause sickness. He writes in his book, “when the body becomes ill…it will prevent…learning and other (mental activities), or performing duties in a proper manner. And when the soul is afflicted the body will lose its natural ability to enjoy pleasure and will find its life becoming distressed and disturbed”.

In another text, Al-Balkhi fascinatingly argues about mind-body connection that if the nafs is not healthy, it loses its cognitive and comprehensive ability and it eventually affects the physical body, sprouting physical diseases. Probably, Al-Balkhi learnt this from the argument of the Quran, ''He has succeeded who purifies the soul, and he has failed who corrupts the soul.'' Surah Ash-Shams 91:9-10

The foundation of his discoveries can also be traced back to the Quranic notion, where the reality of qalb is being conferred, ‘In their hearts is a disease.’

Pioneer of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine

Modern day students of Psychology have been told that it was Sigmund Freud who founded the psychotherapy but that is not what history tells us. Balkhi’s works have challenged a few people to think again and realize that it was he who pioneered the work of psychotherapy and introduced the concepts like psychosomatic illness (i.e psychological pain may lead to physical illness).

Wait, there’s more!

He discovered the causes and roots of various mental illnesses and was the first person ever to differentiate between neurosis (a person who is mentally unhealthy but can recognize reality) and psychosis (extremities like hallucination, schizophrenia). He classified neurosis into four emotional disorder.

1. Fear and anxiety
2. Anger and aggression
3. Sadness and depression
4. Obsession

He further classified depression into three types

1. Normal depression (huzn)
2. Endogenous depression (originating from within body)
3. Clinical depression ( originating from outside body)


Phobias have been mentioned in ancient manuscripts but did not appear as a separate clinical phenomenon. Al Balkhi took an innovative step in defining phobias as a separate entity in his book. He was one of the first to cluster psychological and physical symptoms of phobia under one category of ‘al-Fazaa’ and outlined a specific management plan.

The technique called reciprocal inhibition is used treating phobias, where a state incompatible with anxiety (such as anger or relaxation) is evoked at the same time as an anxiety-provoking stimulus is presented. A new response to the stimulus is thereby learned. This technique was reintroduced a thousand years later by Joseph Wolpe in 1969.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In his book, ‘Sustenance for Body and Souls’, he introduced a method to resolve all cognitive problems by introducing a method of Cognitive Method. (Wait, did you think it was Aaron T. Beck and Albert Ellis?)

Al Balkhi focused on how to eliminate emotional disorders by simply concentrating on changing one’s inner thinking and irrational beliefs.

Al-Balkhi used four therapeutic techniques:

1. Relaxation - client aware of his problems.

2. Reciprocal Inhibition - the same graded technique used in systematic desensitization ( i.e. unlearning the learned response, and the best example of this technique can be stipulated in the way Allah would send revelations to help Muslims ‘unlearn’ drinking alcohol).

3. Rational Cognitive Therapy - changing cognition and beliefs.

4. Psycho-spiritual Cognitive Approach.

Al-Balkhi, therefore, proves again and again to be a man years ahead of his time. From introducing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, giving phobia a clinical perspective, distinguishing the types of depression. The most important thing to be considered here is that Al-Balkhi did not made such discoveries out of his own premises. His discoveries are purely derived from Quran, because that is exactly what the Quran has taught us. This is why it was so instrumental in leading to a new civilization - An Islamic Golden Age

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