Evaluation of the Main Approaches to Understanding the Nature of Human Beings in Contemporary Psychology and in the Islamic Heritage

Evaluation of the Main Approaches to Understanding the Nature of

Human Beings in Contemporary Psychology and in the Islamic Heritage


Abdur Rasjid Skinner*



I understand the term contemporary psychology as that psychology that has developed in the "Western World”, which has become mainstream in the English-speaking world, and which has achieved a global ascendancy. I will use the word psychology to refer to the inner faculties of man -mind in the wider sense. This is closer I think to the original Greek meaning (the study of soul or breathing or animating spirit). Ilm ul Nafs is probably a good translation in Arabic. I will not be using the term psychology only in the limited definition, given to it by some Western psychologists, as only the study of behaviour.


An Islamic Approach to Psychology

In my view, which I take to be in accord with mainstream Islamic thought, the understanding of the human self (thus psychology) derives from two basic sources:

1) Revelation -mainly Quran and Sunnah.

2) Rightly guided observation and reasoning, which includes the evaluation of material from non-Muslim sources.

The Quran uses many terms to describe the inner faculties and inner movements (dynamics) in Man. For example, -Qalb, Fuad, Lubb, Aql, Nafs (in variation senses) Fitra, Ruh, Kuffr.

The full range and subtlety of meaning in these terms is well beyond my own understanding, but they can be (and have been by classical Islamic scholars), used to give a basic model of the self.

I accept the point made by Dr Yasin that Qualb, Aql, Nafs, Lub, Fuad (and Ruh) can all be put in one category -as constituting the animating spirit (psyche in its original sense) that exercises control of the body and biological instincts; and in effect, defines the Human Being. However, in psychological practice, it is useful to make some differentiation between the parts/attributes of these aspects of the Inner Self. In particular, making a distinction between Aql and a deeper Inner Centre (for which terms such as Qalb, Fuad, Lub, Ruh have traditionally been used) -which receives inspiration, experiences and understands (has gnosis) of reality, and accesses inherent knowledge and dispositions (related to Fitra). I agree with Dr Yasin that Aql, in effect, articulates what is received/experienced/understood in the Inner Centre, but Aql also has operations to do with the external world (Al Ghazali's first three levels of Aql) and at these levels is subject to direct external influences (in the way the Inner Centre does not) and requires the organ of the brain to operate effectively, -whereas the Inner Centre/Qalb does not.

I take account of Dr Yasin's view that Ahmed Al Ghazali's views cannot be relied upon. However, I remain of the opinion that Al Ghazali and other scholars, coming from a broadly tassawuf tradition have relevance to psychology. That is because they have been concerned with the Inner Self and have produced models from their observations, which, in my experience are useful in practice. I note that Prof. Badri and Dr Ramadan are sympathetic to this position.

The basic model I derive from classical sources includes:

  • 1) An inner centre (for which following Al Ghazali, I would use the term Qalb) which is open to inspiration and connectedness to Allah (S.W.A), which holds the memory of witnessing to Tawheed; that has the sense of Fitra; that has an inherent disposition (lubb) to understand the reality of things; that connects to Aql (AI Ghazali’s 4th level of Aql) which allows articulation of inner inspiration and instincts and the right guiding of intellect, -so that it does not produce reasoning 'like sorcery'[1].
  • 2) An intellectual/ cognitive faculty (Aql), which observes, reasons, articulates. In particular, it is that which articulates the received knowledge of the innermost self (Qalb) which, through reason, assists in the control of the biological energies of the Self, and makes sense of, and guides action in the external world I would see in the root meaning of Aql (a shackle) to a capacity to not only constrain the animal biological energies of the Self, but also the Qalb.
  • 3) The’ animal’ instinctive energies (Nafs, Nafs Ammara, huwa in Al Ghazali’s usage) which provide the energies for managing our life on earth.
  • 4) The physical body.


Understanding of Causation

In my opinion, when coming to a formulation/understanding of a psychological condition, it is Islamically important to consider Primary Causation (Allah S.W.A and thus the purpose of the condition) as well as Secondary Causation (the chain of Allah's S.W.A agents that directly cause the condition. The difference between the two levels of causation are well illustrated by Imam Al-Ghazali in the “Alchemy of Happiness”[2].


Some Dynamic Principles

  • 1) The natural (Fitra) disposition within the self, to return to the primordial connectedness to Allah (S.W.A) -a nostalgia for the original witnessing of the reality and awareness of Allah (S.W.A) expressed in, mostly, as a movement between consciousness being in the Qalb, and state of distraction in the huwa and the outer operations of Aql.
  • 2) An extended concept of Fitra which, in its wider sense, is in my view a cardinal and distinctive concept in an Islamic understanding of psychology. I am much encouraged by Dr Yasin's support of this view and his scholarly elaboration on the concept of Fitra; in particular, that my understanding of Fitra as dynamic disposition (as well as a state of being) is supported by the interpretation of Ibn Attia. It leads to the understanding that there is a disposition within the human being of how to function in the best way, (e.g. how to function as a man and a woman). That such fitri functioning is in harmony with the natural environment and the Shariah and should be in harmony within the social environment. With this understanding, it is easy to see clinically, how some mental and physical illnesses have arisen from a person not following their Fitra, or from them trying to follow it in a social or intellectual environment, which is not in accord with Fitra. One aspect of the latter problem is when Fiqh is not in alignment with Fitra. I fully endorse the observations made by Dr Rabia Malik that the need for love is a fundamental aspect of Fitra. I have noticed over the years I have been in professional practice that the mental conditions presented to me (other than those with a clear biological cause) have become more complex, in relation to the increased difficulty of living a Fitri life in Britain. Understanding and treating such conditions is difficult, in my experience, without some Islamic understanding of Fitra – particularly in defining what constitutes a healthy self and thus the goal of therapy. Muslim countries presumably function in a more fitri way. I would expect, in consequence, that the psychological disorders presenting are less complex and the treatment techniques can be simpler, -requiring less knowledge of the deeper dynamics of the Self.
  • 3) The importance of tauba (remorse) as a key factor in the movement within the self between Qalb and Huwa. I incline to the interpretation of Nafs Lawwama as 'the self in a state of active tauba, and which is to be distinguished from a state of clinical depression.
  • I fully accept Dr Yasin's point that a state of clinical depression is completely different from a state of Tauba, which is a state of spiritual mental health, not a state of illness.
  • 4) From the hadith that each person has a shataan, or Jinn within them, that there is a force which pushes the self to bad action, and that acts against the disposition to return to the Qalb and a state of connectedness with Allah (S.W.A.).
  • 5) The self can dissociate from cover up, (kuffr) the awareness of the reality of Allah (S.W.A) which can also be seen as a dissociation from the other attributes of the heart(e.g. the inherent sense of right and wrong, and, more generally, from Fitra).
  • 6) This ability of the self to deliberately dissociate from the inherent knowledge of what is good, is very different from the veiling of some self-knowledge/memory which is from the mercy of Allah S.W.A.
  • 7) Islam is an embodied religion and there is an understanding that there is a relationship between the body and mental state[3].
  • This understanding gives a different perspective on the diagnosis of psycho-somatic symptoms from those pertaining in mainstream “western” psychology and direct to a wider range of physical therapeutic interventions for dysfunctional mental states – including the use of a Sunnah, sports and diet.
  • 8) There is a recognition that external "super-natural” forces can operate on mental state -as in the effect of black magic, of Evil Eye, of the touch of Djinn and more arguably, possession by Djinn.


Contemporary Western Psychology

Western contemporary psychology contains within it a variety of different traditions, each with a multitude of derivatives. I shall follow a fairly conventional categorization of these traditions into three main schools-but will add a fourth, 'Mindfulness’, which, though it derives from Buddhist tradition, has now inserted itself into mainstream Western Psychology and "gone global".


The Psycho-analytic School

This describes strictly the theory and treatment method of Sigmund Freud and his followers - almost all dynamic psychotherapy in the Western world is rooted in Freudian thought – other than that of the Jungian school.

Freud formed his therapy from his observation of his patients in late 19th century Vienna, -all with neurotic conditions, almost all fee-paying middle class and mostly women.

Freud's understanding of the Self, very simply put, is that there is an Ego, which is conscious and rational, and an instinctual energy, which is essentially sexual -all other instinctual energies, such as aggression, derive from the sexual urge.

Most of the Self is unconscious and has two parts, - the Super Ego and the Id. The Id is the home of the sexual energy (Libido) which is kept in check by the unconscious conscience (the Super Ego) that operates by inducing guilt. This process happens unconsciously.

The Super Ego is formed solely from social conditioning, mainly within the family and in childhood. Thoughts and actions that cause guilt are liable to be repressed, (pushed out of consciousness) and locked into the Id, where, however, charged by the Id energy they continue to knock on the back door of consciousness causing further guilt and repression (or other defense mechanisms) -Neurosis arises from the anxiety, guilt, depression caused by overmuch suppression of sexual energy and/or repressed guilty, hidden thoughts.

Freud’s treatment aimed at reducing the pressure in the Id by helping the patients' Ego become more aware of what was in their unconscious (both Id and Super Ego) and making adjustments-a bit like an engineer reducing the pressure in an overheated boiler. In the process of increasing ego awareness, the interpretation of dreams, all of which in Freud’s view are Id driven, is important.

A particular source of guilt and a foundation of neuroses, that Freud insisted was universal, is a young child's desire to have sex with the opposite sex parent (leading to the Oedipus Complex in men and the Electra Complex in women).

Freud was of Jewish origin but an Atheist. He regarded all religious belief to be infantile and claims of spiritual experience to be delusional.

At least by the 1930s, and the publication of the essay Moses and the Rise of Monotheism[4], Freud had a social/political agenda for psychoanalysis. He saw anti-Semitism as the result of Christians having over-repressed ids because of their religion. This produced anger but this could not be directed against Christianity because of the guilt it would cause. It was therefore discharged against the people from whom Christianity developed -viz the Jews. Freud therefore promoted psychoanalysis in the Christian world as a way of reducing anti-Semitism.

A view was expressed at the symposium that Freudian psychoanalysis is no longer a significant force in the mental health world. It is true that classical psychoanalytic treatment is now relatively rare (partly because of its expense), and that Freudian psychology has ceased to be the dominating theory in American psychiatry and clinical psychology since the 1980s. However, Freudian theory still underpins most schools of psychotherapy in the West. If anything, it is growing in importance in the UK, and, strangely, it remains a dominant theory in France, from where, I understand, it is seeping into North Africa.


Comparison of Psychoanalysis with the Islamic Approach

  • 1) Freud's approach is essentially concerned with the lower self (Huwa) and some functions of Aql, in Islamic terms. However, his theory (and therapeutic practice) are highly culture bound, -based on observations of a very specific cultural group at a particular period. In some ways, insofar as his theory has some basis in reality, it largely reflects the psychological effects of living in a very “non-fitri” society; though in my experience, his understanding of defence mechanisms (such as repression) captures something that may be universal.

A serious error, in my view, is Freud's dogmatic assertion that his basic theory had universal applicability.

  • 2) Some observations of the dynamics of the Huwa, including the observation that instinctual energies can impel the Self in the ways of which the person is unconscious, also probably has wide applicability.

Freud's view of the unconscious is more fully discussed below.

  • 3) A major difference in Freud's theory, with respect to an Islamic view of the Self, is the absence of any recognition of a spiritual centre. Indeed, Freud goes further in denying the possible reality of such a centre. There is thus no recognition of the dynamic effect of the Qalb on the total Self. A specific effect of this is that Freudians take no account of different levels of dreams.
  • 4) Freud has no understanding of Fitra

His view is that the sense of right and wrong is entirely the result of social conditioning. In my opinion, this view has had a corrosive effect on moral thinking in the “West” and has done much to undermine traditional Christian values -which would seem to have been one of Freud’s intentions.


The Cognitive Behavioural School

Behaviourism as a school of western psychology begins with Pavlov in Russia, and Watson in the U.S., in the early years of the 20th century.

It concerns itself with what is observable i.e. behaviour, rather than internal process of thought and feelings, and the laws that govern that behaviour. Substantially, these are the responses to rewards and punishments.

Watson in particular maintained there was no qualitative difference between humans and animals; instincts and environmental conditioning (learning) determined the behaviour of both.

From focusing on outward behaviour rather than internal psychological process, behavioural psychology developed theory and applications, as in behavioural therapy, through controlled experiments, producing objective data with a presumption that this date was of universal applicability.

As behaviourism appeared to make psychology an objective science, it dominated academic departments of psychology in the U.S. and Britain into the 1960s. Its applications had, however, obvious limitations, -depression and complex trauma problems, for example, do not admit to simple behaviour therapy.

From the 1940s, onwards cognition as a significant factor in human behaviour becomes increasingly addressed.

Cognitive therapy developed to correct the maladaptive thinking seem to be a factor in mental illness and dysfunctional behaviour.

There are numerous theories and models within the cognitive psychology (too many to address in this paper) and a vast corpus of research findings which gives some objective evidence for the efficacy of these models.

The evidence base for both behavioural and cognitive therapies, and their compatibility, has led to the two approaches typically being used in combination, -as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (C.B.T.).


Comparison of cognitive behavioural psychology with the Islamic approach to psychology

There is no fundamental incompatibility between Cognitive Behavioural Psychology and an Islamic approach to psychology in my view. In effect behaviourism can be seen as concerned with some of the rules that govern the behaviour of the animal self (Huwa), and Muslim scholars have always accepted that Aql (as reasoning) has a controlling influence on mental state.

Al-Kindi and Al-Balkhi both addressed the role of cognition in depression. Al-Ghazali gave an example of treating a case of O.C.D with a cognitive therapy and treating a case of anxiety with a behavioural method. (a superior version of Wolpe’s Reciprocal Inhibition Method).

(2) The corpus of Western Cognitive Psychology is however “culture bound" in its detail. Ways of thinking are to some degree culturally influenced, and almost all C.B.T. studies are conducted with Western samples (typically U.S psychology undergraduates). C.B.T methods of treatment are therefore best “culturally adapted'' for Muslims -even those living in the West.

(3) The bigger problem however is the partiality of C.B.T. Like psychoanalysis, it completely ignores any spiritual centre in the Self, it is ignorant of spiritual dynamics, and makes no recognition (except possibly the Fitra of the animal energies) of Fitra.

This incompleteness is not a problem if one is working within an Islamic model-one can pick out what is useful from the western C.B.T. literature and fit it in to an Islamic way of working. The problems arise if all one has is a Western C.B.T. model. One danger is that the incompleteness of C.B.T. psychology can lead to disastrous errors in diagnosis and treatment; for example, the C.B.T. model does not distinguish between a low mood related to being in a state of Tauba, (which is essentially a condition arising from the Qalb for which C.B.T. is not appropriate), and a low mood resulting from negative thinking for which C.B.T. is appropriate.

A possibly greater problem is that having only a C.B.T. model of the Self can have the effect of diverting attention away from the spiritual part of the Self. There is a view[5] that some of the movers of experimental behavioural cognitive psychology had an agenda, like Freud, to influence society away from a religious/spiritual interpretation of Self, to one that was more 'rational’, -essentially following in the tradition of the French Revolution.


Jung and Humanistic Psychology

Though often put into the psychoanalytic camp, because he worked with Freud in his early days, Jung developed a radically different understanding of the Self, to Freud.

Jung believed in God, and spirituality was central to his understanding of the Self.

He accepted there was an "animal" instinctive aspect to the Self that normally operated outside consciousness and that people repressed things into unconsciousness. Unlike Freud, however, Jung did not think the animal aspect of the self was just sexual and what was repressed or disassociated from included good parts of the self-such as the power to love, which the person's family/social environment had not allowed to be developed.

Jung said also, that there was a deeper part of the self that was a source of true guidance that expressed itself in dreams of a special sort and which contained a disposition to recognize spiritual truths and to move the self to a state of recognizing the connection with God (the imago dei) and to develop the self as a preparation for death.

Jung related his observation of human psychology back to religious sources including Islam, (his commentary a story of the fish in Surah Al Kahf is particularly interesting), but also to the Eastern religions.

Jungian Psychology has, in effect, the concept of an inner spiritual centre to the Self, and a concept of Fitra, as well as the instinctual animal part of the Self, and intellect.

Jungian therapy aims to put in order the lower parts of the Self, (the instinctual animal self and the intellect) and then to bring the patient back in harmony, with their own Fitra so that they can then make contact with their inner spiritual self and receive their own guidance from that source. Jungian psychology is generally seen as the closest western approach to an Islamic understanding of Psychology.

Jung however is marginal to mainstream contemporary Western Psychology especially outside of middle Europe; it is certainly not part of the Western psychology package being exported around the world.

Jungian psychology has however been an influence in Humanistic Psychology. Humanistic Psychology begins as a movement in the early 1950s with Carl Rogers. Rogers was psychoanalytically trained but acknowledged his debt to Jung in his first major publication. Humanistic psychology may be seen as simplified Jungian Psychology.

In common with Jung there is a fundamental belief that a person has their own source of guidance, that the therapist is there to help the client clarify this guidance, that there is a disposition within self for growth. The main application of the Humanistic Psychology is in 'Person Centred Counselling' that has become popular in the U.S. and the U.K.; but Rogers' view of Psychology has also influenced education theory, particularly in primary schools.


Comparison of Jungian Humanistic Psychology with the Islamic approach

  • (1) In my view Jungian Psychology comes closest to the Islamic understanding of the Self, but I do not think that Jung adds much. I find it helpful when dealing with a non-Muslim patient, to translate Islamic concepts into Jungian vocabulary.
  • (2) Person Centred Counselling, however, though substantially aligned with Jungian thinking, has, from an Islamic perspective, a dangerous weakness. Jung’s view was that though every person had the capacity to receive their own internal guidance this could only be reliably accessed when disturbances and imbalances in other parts of the self had been settled. This point is not emphasized in personal centred counselling. The risk is therefore that the "decision" the counsellor helps clarify with the client is not from the Qalb but from the Nafs Ammara with, sometimes, disastrous consequences. This danger is averted if the therapy is constrained by Shariah.
  • (3) Person Centered counselling, with its emphasis on the Individual, is, in my view, quite a culture bound therapy; and its theory fits in with anti-traditional values liberal left agenda. It can easily be used to 'liberate' clients from the restraints of religious belief.
  • (4) Some of its principles, such as the importance of the therapist’s personal qualities in healing, fits with the general view of Muslim therapists in the U.K.



"Mindfulness" is a movement in western psychology that derives from Buddhist meditation practice, and implicitly a Buddhist understanding of the Self and of spirituality. An American Psychologist, Jon Kabat Zinn from the 1970s, has popularized it. Kabat -Zinn is of Jewish background but has an affinity with, and may have converted to, Buddhism.

Mindfulness has become hugely popular in U.S and British Psychology and I believe is being exported to Muslim countries. Its entry into mainstream psychology has been facilitated by an "evidence base"-research showing it to effective, which is believed to have been financed by the Dalai Lama. Mindfulness essentially consists of techniques to bring you in to the present moment, to make you more aware of thoughts and feelings and thus to quieting them or focus them. It is about cognitive and emotional control.

The techniques vary from very simple short exercises-like listening intensely to a bell ringing-to fully-fledged Buddhist meditation.

Mindfulness has now firmly attached itself to CBT as a method of helping control thought, it is also being used to improve business efficiency and for general self-improvement.


Comparison between Mindfulness and an Islamic Approach

  • (1) I find Mindfulness a complex subject, and I think I agrees substantially with Doctor Yasin's analysis of the issues.
  • (2) My understanding of mainstream Buddhist (and some Hindu) views of the Self is that the Self is closed and self-contained. It is not open to inspiration from Allah (S.W.A.), spiritual development is seen solely as a matter of self-work through meditation and other disciplines, with the aim of producing an inner state of emptiness and complete detachment from the world
  • (3) This seems to be the opposite of an Islamic (and Ahle-el-Kitab) understanding of spirituality where the aim is to be open and submitted in the inspiration/guidance that comes from Allah (S.W.A.), (not focused on spiritual techniques), and where the effect is movement within the Self, and does not involve detachment from the world.
  • (4) I think there is a risk that "mindfulness" or meditation (control of mind by the mind) locks one into the outer faculties of Aql and creates a dissociation from Qalb.
  • (5) The issue as it seems to me, is whether mindfulness techniques simply quieten emotions and mind so that consciousness is more easily centred in the Qalb and connected to Allah (S.W.A.); or it leads to a dissociation from Qalb.
  • (6) On the other hand, it is not in my view contrary to Islam to use techniques to regulate turbulent animal forces/emotion or rushing thoughts, so that these elements of the self-go about their proper business and it is easier to access the Qalb. This Islamic perspective might be better described as 'heartfulness'.
  • (7) I do take the view that there is a risk of the Muslim world taking on possibly spiritually toxic Buddhist practices that have been camouflaged within "scientific psychology”. I suggest this topic is maybe matter for a separate symposium leading to a clear Fatwa on the issue.

Sub-question: What are the limits to the moral responsibility of man for his/her actions from the perspective of contemporary psychology and the Islamic heritage?

This is a huge question as it touches on the issue of free will. B. F Skinner famously said there was no such thing as free will, and his view is consistent with a behaviourist philosophy, -that man is qualitatively the same as the animals with behaviour solely determined by conditioned learning and instinctual drives. It is however possible to be a behaviourist psychologist and accept there are parts to Man that fall out of the remit of behaviourism.

Since the late 19th century, 'western' psychology has not concerned itself with the issue of free will, -leaving it to philosophy and theology. The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology does not mention it as a subject[6]. Cognitive, psychodynamic and humanistic psychology all assume free will, though they may differ about the degree to which it operates.

Muslims, on the other hand are discouraged by at least one Hadith, from spending much thought on the issue of free will. I will therefore confine myself to discussing the practical legal concept of 'Capacity', i.e. whether in law an individual has the capacity to undertake an action, e.g. commit a crime, write a will, and contract a marriage. Islamic psychology, and western psychology in the main, share the view that man is capable of making conscious rational decisions, but that also there are irrational forces which can exert an impelling influence on behaviour, e.g. impulses from the unconscious dynamic between Id and Ego, conditioned learnt responses, instinctual impulses, satanic influences, Jinn. In addition, the ability to exercise rational control over these forces, and the ability in general to make rational decisions, varies between people. Both English common law (which was based on Shariah law operating in Sicily and Muslim Spain in the 12th century), and Islamic law have both, from their beginning, accepted that with some people, at some times, the weakness of intellect and/or the abnormal strength of irrational energies within the self, make the person not responsible for their actions. i.e. they are deemed to lack capacity.

In English law, over time there has developed an increasing refinement in the legal criterion to be used to judge whenever a person has capacity to be responsible for an action. The court then relies on expert opinion, mostly of a psychological nature, to determine whether these criteria are met. A very simple example is the score of an I.Q. test to help establish whether a person was likely to not understand that an action was a crime.

I am informed that Shariah courts, though having to decide on the same issue of capacity, as English courts, have not developed the same consistency, and sophistication in defining it, and are not relying on psychological expertise in making decisions. If this is so, this is clearly an area of Fiqh that would need development.

Sub-question: What is the role of the unseen in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy?

By 'unseen’, I take to mean those faculties, operations, and dynamics with the self which are normally hidden from consciousness. I shall consider this in relationships to psychoanalysis in the strict sense (Freud’s system) and the psychotherapy, which has derived from this. Jung's view of the unconscious is more complex than Freud has and, in my view, (and that of others) comes much closer to an Islamic understanding of the unconscious self. The psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious, put relatively simply, is that, there is an instinctual energized part of the self (the libido) which is partly kept out of awareness in the Id. These energies are constrained by another unconscious part of the self (the super-ego) which is a sort of conscience with a sense of right and wrong created solely by family/social conditioning. Thoughts that arise that conflict with the super-ego are pushed down by the unconscious Id where they become energized with libido and create a pressure within the self-producing feelings of anxiety.

Experiences and actions in real life that have caused guilt or pain can also be repressed into the Id. The dim awareness that there are painful, shameful, things down below consciousness that are energized to come out like a 'jack in the box', influences behaviour in apparently irrational ways and creates a tension that causes neuroses.

The Islamic understanding of the unconscious self is much more complex, there is a recognition of an instinctual 'animal' self (Huwa), that operates according to its own Fitra largely out of consciousness; that this part of the Self can be unnaturally restrained (by say the conditioning effect of an unnatural upbringing or by following a Fiqh which is out of alignment with Fitra), and that this can cause psychological and physical problems.

There is recognition that a person can repress/disassociate from the recognition of wrong actions and that this causes a constriction of the Qalb (a type of Kufr in the sense of hiding something from consciousness).

Thus far there are some parallels between an Islamic understanding of the unconscious and the Freudian, however there is also, in Islam, the understanding that when a wrong action/sin is repented, and that repentance is accepted, the sin no longer exists, -it is wiped out.

There is also the view that in his mercy, Allah (S.W.A.) hides things that would be painful for us to bring into awareness. There is further understanding of processes emanating from the inner heart (Qalb), that are mostly hidden from consciousness but which are quite separate from processes that apply to the animal instinctual self, for example the impulse to 'return' to God consciousness, and the inherent sense of what is right and wrong.

There is an understanding that each person has a Shaytaan inside them and there is therefore an unconscious propensity to impulses to evil. There is an understanding that extraneous forces (black magic, evil eye) can operate on a person to influence his or her actions/feelings in ways of which they are unaware.

The different ways in which Islam and psychoanalysis understand the unconscious has important implications for therapy.

The Freudian view (substantially shared by Rogers and the post-Jungian humanistic school) is that the more of the unconscious that comes into awareness, the better the therapy is.


An Islamic understanding is much more nuanced

Helping the client to break through deliberate disassociation from bad thoughts and actions to bring these into awareness to produce a state of Tauba (remorse) is, in my experience, powerfully therapeutic. But it would be Islamically improper, and psychologically damaging, to force into consciousness matters that Allah (S.W.A.), in his mercy, has extinguished or hidden from awareness, (such as, repented sin, our multitude of imperfections, and some painful memories).

It seems to me an Islamically proper therapeutic aim to bring into consciousness the ways in which the Shaytaan within operates, and to bring awareness of problems in the way the animal self is operating, and the way unconscious thought processes are creating difficulties in life.

In general, however, the Islamic view is that it is improper to probe into the private life of a person-unless there is a specific reason to do so. Though awareness of something might be important for the patients' healing, it is a matter of judgement where these things should be told to the therapist, -whereas in psychoanalysis the patient is encouraged to reveal everything to the analyst.

Both in Islamic tradition and in psychoanalysis, dreams are seen as important in bringing things that have been hidden into awareness but Freud, unlike the Islamic tradition and Jung, made no distinction between true dreams of guidance and other types of dreams.

ln my view though, psychoanalysis shares with Islamic psychology some insights into the nature of the unconscious, the incompleteness of Freud’s understanding of the Self makes Freudian based psychotherapy a potentially dangerous procedure.

There was some discussion at the symposium on a different perspective on the 'Unseen' and mental state, namely the action of Evil Eye, Black Magic and Jinn -particularly with regard to possession.

I referred above to the mainstream Muslim view that Evil Eye, Black Magic and Jinn can all have a negative effect on mental state. I accept the views put forward by Dr Yasin and Shaykh Yassir in his public lecture, that the canonical references to Evil Eye and Black Magic can be interpreted to suggest these forces are relatively weak. Moreover, the canonical support for the possibility of Jinn possession (taking over the body and/or mind of a human being without their consent) is weak. However, I found convincing Prof. Badris' personal account of witnessing a possession in Ethiopia, which concurs with other accounts I have heard.

I agree with Prof. Badri that it is best to keep an open mind about the possibility of Jinn possession, particularly when the person wishes to be possessed. I am more concerned about the possibility of Jinn influence on mental state with or without the agency of black magic. I have witnessed two cases where dysfunctional mental state was accompanied by objective occult phenomena. On one occasion, temporary paranoia correlating with sudden drops in room temperature; on another, irrational anger, with others, and myself hearing strange noises coming out of thin air. In both cases, I suspected there was an underlying disposition to the symptoms that emerged.

However, in the great majority of the cases I have seen in which the client thinks they are subject to Jinn and/or Black Magic influence, the symptoms can be sufficiently diagnosed and treated in psychological terms. The widespread belief in abnormal mental states being caused by Jinn is, nonetheless, a psychological fact that has to be dealt with whether the belief, in any individual case, is true or false.

The belief, even if false, can have positive effects. The American anthropologist, Nancy Waxler[7] showed in an early but sound study that where possession beliefs prevailed in a culture, the prognosis for, tightly defined, schizophrenia was markedly better. Possession beliefs also permit a type of hysteria in which otherwise suppresses emotion can be expressed in a socially acceptable way.

The positive effects of possession and related beliefs on mental health needs to be borne in mind when considering the negative effects; as described by Shaykh Yassir in his public lecture -such as the avoidance of responsibility for action and a failure to seek effective treatment for psychological and neurological) illness[8].

No western psychological theory as far as I am aware, admits to there being any objective reality to Jinn possession and black magic, though Jung thought such accounts were psychologically meaningful[9]. There is still a risk, in my experience, those professional psychiatrists and psychologists will regard such accounts as symptoms of psychosis. Therefore, there is an understandable reluctance in communities where possession beliefs are common, for mental illness sufferers to engage with psychological treatment.

In my view, a proper Islamic approach to psychological diagnosis and treatment, accepts that it is possible that Jinn and other occult forces can affect mental state and that the public are aware that their beliefs and experiences will be taken seriously. In addition, where the belief is thought to be false, that the approach to dealing with the belief is nuanced so that any possible positive effect from the belief is not lost.


What is the significance of the research in the objective of psychology and the objectives Shariah in the formulation of a new approach in psychology?

Following discussions with C.I.L.E., my understanding of this question is: “What are the goals of psychology and the goals of Shariah and how can these be formulated in a fresh approach to psychology?”

The goals of Shariah have been early established in Islamic Jurisprudence (Usool-ul-Fiqh) as the protection of religion (din), the protection of human life (nafs), the protection of reason/intellectual capacity (aql), the protection of property (mal) and the protection of progeny (nasl).

I am inclined to extend the understanding of protection of aql and nasl beyond that of some traditional interpretation, to include the consideration of psychological influences from, for instance, education and the media.

It is clear that the overriding objective of the Shariah is the welfare of humankind.

On the other hand, psychology is simply the study of the Psyche (in effect the human self). It is, in itself, morally neutral. Psychology within an Islamic tradition by definition has to comply, in its applications, to the goals of the Shariah. Therefore, it should only be used for the benefit of humankind, from an understanding of the self-deriving from Islamic sources. The overwhelming global applications of psychology are, however, unrestrained and uninformed by the Islamic Shariah or anything similar.

The goals, therefore, of most psychology are simply those of the person applying the knowledge-for good or bad. My own view is that more psychology is used to the detriment of humankind than for the benefit. It would seem that more money is spent on 'dark psychology' than on obviously beneficial psychology. I am informed, for instance, that the U.S. Government's 'Psy-Ops' (psychological warfare) organisation has a budget equivalent to the entire British defence budget. It is assumed that the Russian and other governments have their own 'psy-ops' organisations.

An awareness that psychologies have been involved in devising methods of torture has at least raised debate in the American Psychological Association. There has not been the same debate in the UK. However, it is widely known that psychological research was being used to refine interrogation techniques (later outlawed as torture by the European Court) at least as far back as the 1970s.

The use of psychological knowledge to induce terror as an instrument of war or to control civil populations can be inferred (for example in the use of apparent randomness in the execution of atrocities-which is known to have worse traumatic effects on societies than consistent anticipated atrocities, and was applied systematically by the Serbs in the early stages of the Bosnian War). About this, I had a discussion with Charles Figley (the originator of the term P.T.S.D.) His view was that the Russians in this strategy had trained the Serbs.

One of the first applications of Western scientific psychology was in sales promotion. Watson, the early American behaviourist, when forced to leave his academic position in the 1920s, joined an advertising agency and was responsible for, the now iconic Pears soap advert. Now, at least in the West, psychological research to induce buying behaviour is applied in almost every aspect of marketing, e.g. in the design of packaging, the use of lighting and colour (all fast food networks use colour schemes in the red/yellow spectrum as people eat faster in environments dominated by these colours) and in the use of specific scents in different parts of a supermarket.

Psychological research applied to influencing public opinion is being used with increasing sophistication (at least in the U.S. and the U.K.), in election campaigns and perhaps more generally. The vulnerability of democracies to manipulation from applied psychology was, as far as I am aware, first described by John Buchan in his 1922 novel The Three Hostages (Buchan was a member of the First World War government and went on to become a Conservative M.P. and then Governor General of Canada).

Reference has already been made to the possible anti-religion agendas behind the promotion of certain Western models of psychology.

The application of psychological research to warfare, the interrogation of prisoners or to the influence unconsciously the minds of people to suit the purposes of retailers or political parties, are, it seems to me, ethically debateable. Nevertheless, from an Islamic perspective the debate needs to be informed by references to the 'goals of Shariah'.

In my view, an Islamic understanding of psychology, and Shariah should be strongly linked through the concept of Fitra. Islam defines itself as the Deen-ul-Fitra. Allah (S.W.A.) has created man with Fitra, a natural disposition, and he has created a Shariah that absolutely suits this Fitra. It is therefore important that the Shariah informs psychology, and that an Islamically based psychology is informing Fiqh. It is in my view especially important to keep society functioning according to Shariah, and therefore in accord with the Fitra of Man. In my observation, a major factor in mental illness is the twisting that occurs within the self when a person cannot live according to their Fitra because their thinking or the society itself is out of balance with what is natural for human beings. A particular instance of this is when a Muslim follows faulty Fiqh.

For example:

  • 1) A patient in the U.K. presented with what appeared to be Catatonic Schizophrenia -almost physically immobile, almost mute. With some difficulty, the cause was found to be a 'fiqh' opinion received from his Imam -that thinking about divorcing his wife, constituted the action. He had thought about divorcing his wife and now believed he had done so in fact but loved his wife and did not know how to tell her he had divorced her. Unable to resolve the conflict between what he believed to be the Shariah and his sense of Fitra -he psychologically shut down; he froze physically and mentally.

A strongly put more reliable opinion on what constitutes a Talaq brought him back to normal.

This is, of course, an extreme example but I could give a multitude of examples of psychological problems arising in Muslims because opinions in Fiqh are off kilter with Fitrah, often because of changing social and economic conditions in society.

  • 2) There is overwhelming evidence that putting children into institutional nursery care before the age of around 4 years, causes distress to the child and has long term negative consequences, including an up to 10-point permanent drop in I.Q. This practice is, in my view, contrary to Fitra, but is now the norm in the U.K. -to allow mothers to go to work, in a social environment where extended family support has almost disappeared. The practice is growing in the U.K., including among Muslims.

The practice is likely to spread into the traditional Dar-ul-Islam.

If the Ulema were emboldened to give fatwa on physical health issues – on medical advice, it would seem to me proper that they also consider giving rulings on practices, which are psychologically damaging. However, for this there needs to be access to reliable Islamically centred psychological expertise.

My view, therefore, on the formulation of a new approach in psychology is that:

  • 1) There needs to be developed and promoted, a psychology based on an Islamic understanding of the Self.
  • 2) That this psychology operates within ethical guidelines that derive from the 'goals' of the Shariah -which means, not just that psychologists operate as individuals within their own Shariah compliant codes of practice, but that they evaluate the effects of the application of psychological theory and research within society.
  • 3) That Ulema take account of 'Islamic' psychological opinion when delivering opinion in pursuit of the 'goals' of Shariah.


Concluding Remarks

  • 1) All western psychology is to at least some extent, inevitably, "culture bound” -because it has developed within specific western traditions of philosophy and its findings are based mostly on observations of 'western subjects’.
  • 2) Compared to the Islamic understanding of the self, all mainstream schools of Western psychology, are incomplete: in particular, none take into account the spiritual heart of the Self and the effect this has on psychology, nor the restraints imposed by a divinely given Shariah.
  • 3) As Malik Badri[10] pointed out 40 years ago, deficiencies in global Western psychology make it a serious danger to the Muslim world, because psychology itself changes psychology, -that is, prevalent models of psychology enter the folk culture and change the way people think about themselves and how they function. Leading figures in Western psychology have realized this. It has been argued that early figures in experimental psychology had a conscious agenda to promote this psychology as a means to eradicate the religious ways of understanding the nature of man and replace these with a 'rational' understanding. Freud had a clear agenda to promote psychoanalysis as a way of reducing the oppression, in his view, of the Christian super-ego. The Dalai Lama is currently promoting Buddhist meditation, into mainstream psychology.
  • 4) Despite the need to be guarded about Western psychology there are, as again Malik Badri pointed out 40 years ago, universals that can be filtered out, and used within an Islamic model (or models), Just as early Muslim scholars were able to safely filter what was wholesome from Greek and other pagan sources. Nevertheless, this requires, of course, that Muslims have an Islamic model to start with, and that they properly understand what is coming to them from non-Muslim cultures.

* Prof. Dr. Abdur Rasjid Skinner is a consultant clinical psychologist based in the UK. He presented this paper in CILE seminar on “Islamic Ethics and Psychology” which took place in Doha on November 22-24, 2014.



[1] See Gianotti, M. B. (2001). Al-Ghazali's Unspeakable Doctrine of the Soul. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

[2] Al-Ghazali, H. (2007). The Alchemy of Happiness. (trans. C. Field). Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust.

[3] For an elaborated view, see Mahmoud, S. (2012). The Paradigmatic Nature of the Ritual Prayer in Ibn Arabi. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Cambridge (unpublished).

[4] Freud, S. (1939). Moses and Monotheism (trans. K. Jones). New York: Knopf.

[5]  Rose, N. (1996). Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Coleman, A. M. (2009). (3rd Ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Waxler, N. E. (1974). Culture and Mental Health. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 158, 6.

[8] See Khalifa, N. & Hardie, T. (2005). Possession and Jinn. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 98(8), 351–353.

[9] For instance, Jung, C. (1958). Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth. In R.F.C. Hull (Ed), Civilization in Transition, Collected Works, 10. (1964).

[10] Badri, M. (1979). The Dilemma of the Muslim Psychologist. London: MWH London.


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