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THE ISLAMIC HERITAGE OF MENTAL HEALTH: REWRITING THE NARRATIVE ON THE ORIGINS OF HOLISTIC PSYCHOLOGY

RANIA AWAAD

One aspect of Islam that most people, even Muslims themselves, don’t know enough about is the profound Islamic heritage of mental health treatment. Indeed, holistic mental health care was championed by the very advent of Islam. Please read that sentence twice. 

 

Early Muslim scholars understood from Qur’anic injunctions and Prophetic Hadith that providing respite for the ill and actively searching for cures for all types of illnesses was obligatory upon them—mental illnesses were no exception. As such, seeking out the best ways to treat mental illnesses became a critical part of the Islamic heritage. This was an incredible undertaking where Muslim civilizations really shined. 

 

In fact, in my lab, the Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab at Stanford University, we are working on uncovering the secrets of the bimaristans (English: Maristan), the historical healing centers from the Islamic heritage. Muslims were the first in human history, to our knowledge, to dedicate specialized wards within their hospitals for the medical, non-supernatural treatment of mental illnesses. These Maristans could be found anywhere Islam spread: from Spain to Morocco, from Iraq to Bosnia, from Pakistan to Uzbekistan, and everywhere in between. 

 

This tradition goes back to the Prophet, peace be upon him (PBUH), himself who not only acknowledged and addressed psychological challenges but actually encouraged and taught his followers how to cope with grief, stress, and other emotional difficulties. The Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, also laid the foundations for centuries of research into the science of psychology, which was then furthered by many Muslim scientists and scholars. As such, the importance of mental health is deeply rooted in Islamic values and traditions.

"MUSLIMS WERE THE FIRST IN HUMAN HISTORY, TO OUR KNOWLEDGE, TO DEDICATE SPECIALIZED WARDS WITHIN THEIR HOSPITALS FOR THE MEDICAL, NON-SUPERNATURAL TREATMENT OF MENTAL ILLNESS."

One of the main principles of Islam, maqasid ash-shari’ah, is the preservation and optimization of one’s mental capacity and intellect. This, combined with the saying of Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, “Seek out cures, O servants of Allah, for there is no illness that Allah sent down except he also sent with it its cure!” can be identified as the catalyst for centuries of research conducted by Muslim scholars, physicians, and scientists in the field of mental health. Their primary inspiration: Islam.

 

These Muslim scholars dedicated massive amounts of time and energy to understanding the human psyche and how it functions, as well as searching for cures for its ailments. It was Islam’s holistic approach to human health and well-being that allowed scholars trained in all different disciplines to contribute to the field called “Ilm al-Nafs,” translated as “the study of the self.” 

"THOSE BEING TREATED FOR MENTAL ILLNESS WERE ROUNDED ON BY AN INTERDISCIPLINARY TEAM OF CARETAKERS THAT INCLUDED A PHYSICIAN, NURSE, DIETICIAN, PHARMACIST, RELIGIOUS COUNSELOR, AND SOCIAL WORKER—A TEAM THAT ANY MODERN HOSPITAL WOULD REVEL TO HAVE TODAY. PERHAPS MOST IMPORTANTLY, THIS CARE WAS PROVIDED FREE OF CHARGE FOR ALL."

This field of study became the precursor to the modern field of psychology. Those who contributed to the field were not just physicians, but theologians, philosophers, and teachers of Islamic spirituality together all advanced the field. This interdisciplinary model meant that Islamic psychology was inherently more holistic and expansive as compared to the narrow medicalized model psychology exists as today.

 

Even more powerful evidence of the early Muslim scholars’ firm understanding of the importance of mental illness was the institutions they created. The work they produced wasn’t just theoretical explanations of how the human psyche worked and how to treat it. They translated these theories into robust institutions of healing in the aforementioned Maristans, thus becoming the first in human history to holistically treat mental illness starting as far back as the seventh century. Additionally, Islamic medicine is known for its humane treatment of the ill. Those being treated for mental illnesses were no exception to the receipt of humane treatment in the Maristans. 

"THIS TYPE OF FORESIGHT AND CARE AFFORDED TO THOSE WHO EXPERIENCED MENTAL ILLNESS IN EARLY MUSLIM COMMUNITIES WAS DIRECTLY CORRELATED TO THE ADVENT OF ISLAM."

With flowing fountains, beautiful greenery, sound and music therapy, talk therapy, massage and oils, hydrotherapy, and more, these Maristans provided holistic treatment for mental illness inspired by none other than the advent of Islam. Those being treated for mental illness were rounded on by an interdisciplinary team of caretakers that included a physician, nurse, dietician, pharmacist, religious counselor, and social worker—a team that any modern hospital would revel to have today. Perhaps most importantly, this care was provided free of charge for all—Muslims and non-Muslims—who needed care. Funded by the Zakat and Waqf (endowment) systems of the Muslim lands, these Maristans flourished and healed generations of people in a way we desperately need to return to today.

 

This type of foresight and care afforded to those who experienced mental illness in early Muslim communities was directly correlated to the advent of Islam. Otherwise, Muslim societies would have treated the mentally ill as did their European neighbors in the same time period: burn them at the stake as witches or send them to monasteries to be treated by priests because they believed that mental illnesses were purely spiritual. 

 

The Islamic heritage stands in deep contrast; it is one of foresight, filled with examples of holistic and humane treatment of the mentally ill. It is a legacy that must be rightfully reclaimed. It is high time that we approach this topic with cultural humility and rewrite the Eurocentric narrative of the origins of psychology that does not give proper credit to preceding or parallel civilizations.

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Rania Awaad, MD, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she is the Director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab as well Stanford University's Affiliate Chaplain. She also serves as the Associate Division Chief for Public Mental Health and Population Sciences as well as the Section Co-Chief of Diversity and Cultural Mental Health. In addition, she is a faculty member of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University. She pursued her psychiatric residency training at Stanford where she also completed a postdoctoral clinical research fellowship with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

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