Islam’s contribution to the field of Psychology


JazakAllah khair for always guiding me with your answers… May Allah SWT bless the whole team of eshaykh. Ameen… and also, please, forgive me if I have ever been disrespectful through my adab.

I am InshaAllah going to study Psychology in my higher studies… I got the guidance to take this field as my career through Istikharah ALHAMDULLILAH and I have always been passionate about this field esp Counselling Psychology so that I can help the Ummah InshaAllah.

And so, I was hoping if you can give me an Islamic insight regarding this field, Islam’s contribution and any significant issues or points I should know in order to fulfill my purpose and not deviate to the wrong path.

JazakAllah Khair!


Wa `alaykum as-Salam wa rahmatullah.

It is not necessary to dwell in this forum upon the fallacies of modern science, nor to explain the rich subtleties of Islamic “psychology.” Concerning modern psychology, it is probably enough to be aware that Cartesian dualism has reduced the human being to the two dimensions of mind and body. What is worse, modern science’s infatuation with technology drives it to pretend that with ever more sophisticated tools, the material workings of the body’s brain will more and more explain the enigma of the mind, which is the domain of modern psychology. Even when psychology allows for the existence of something other than the material, this is understood in terms of a “subconscious” domain somehow below this world. Either way, humanity is thereby deprived of its real identity, an identity that belongs to a spiritual realm superior to this world.

Indeed, even in its simplest formulation, the human being is understood in Islam as being composed of spirit (ruh), soul (nafs) and body. Here great care must be taken, not least because the English words “spirit” and “soul” are so often interchanged. In fact, the Qur’anic words ruh and nafs may alternatively serve to identify Divine realities or various levels within the human soul, depending on the context. Similarly, the word `aql may refer to the spiritual Intellect, or it may signify the “reason” that is the highest faculty within the soul and which serves as the “minister” of the spirit according to Islamic esoterism. It should also be understood that the myriad dimensions of spirit and soul are traditionally “localized” in various areas or organs of the body, and not only the brain.

In keeping with the etymology of the word, psychology is properly only concerned with the soul or nafs, and should never be mistaken for spirituality, which is concerned with the heart and its lata’if. The former pertains to the created world while the latter belongs to the world of Divine command. Still, the science of Sufism must be concerned with both domains, the reason for which the following quote of the shaykh `Abdul-Khaliq al-Shabrawi makes clear:

…Know that this singular Divine “thing” is called, when at its most subtle and imperceptible, the “Most Hidden.” When it descends one degree and becomes denser it is called the “Hidden.” When it descends a second degree and becomes even denser it is called the “Secret of the Secret,” then in the same manner it becomes the “Secret,” then the “Spirit.” Then it becomes the “Heart,” the “Rational Soul,” the “Subtle Human Faculty,” and “Man;” for in this last degree it has four names. When it descends one further degree it becomes “Bestial Man,” or the “Inciting Soul.” Know that the purpose of traveling the Sufi path is to raise this Divine “thing” step by step to its original degree by the use of the treatments and remedies prescribed by the most perfect among men, the spirit of all guides, may God’s blessings and peace be upon him…

Since modern psychology has cut itself off from any degree above the mind, its predicament is obvious, as the Shaykh al-akbar warns in his at-Tadbirat al-ilahiyyah fi islah al-mamlakat al-insaniyyah:

The mind by itself may be lacking. In some circumstances it misses the parts of the whole, thus diminishing the whole. At times it even stops, or it misconstrues. In that case it may try to shake the supporting columns of the religious law, or the foundations of the Unity. But it will be unable even to touch them. What the prophets and saints saw and tell about is what was revealed to their hearts. Thus it lies beyond the realm of mind. The Sufi is the one who knows this, and accepts what they say.

What authority over psychology do its modern authorities really have? They arrogate for themselves the role of guides while mired in base degrees, unaware of any destination. Their “treatments” include drugs of doubtful safety which – for all their clinical effects – cannot address causes, and may only further obscure the path of ascent. You, however, already have an understanding which surpasses theirs; but you and I know very little. Seek support from the true guides, for the well-being of those you counsel, and yourself!

For insight into the workings of the soul, along with the traditional authorities already mentioned, particular attention may be given to Hakim at-Tirmidhi in his Bayan al-farq bayn al-sadr wal-qalb wal-fu`ad wal-lubb (translated by Nicholas Heer as “A Treatise on the Heart”), as well as to the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi masters, especially Shah Waliullah, who brought together many sources within his system. May Allah sanctify all their secrets. Many years ago a murid was offered a business card from the hand of the greatest of these masters, Mawlana Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani – may Allah sanctify his secret. Under his name on the card was the remarkable credential: “International Mental House, Chief Head Doctor;” the address: “between Heaven and Earth.” The following is from one of the Chief Head Doctor’s consultations, in which he compares the degrees of the soul to so many layers of paint:

We have ninety-nine methods to be utilized in the treatment of disturbed people, so when you have incorporated enough of this teaching you will receive inspiration that will guide you to the application of suitable methods…The ego is allergic to “paint-remover;” that is why you, in your position can only hope to remove a particularly unsatisfactory layer and quickly replace it with another. My job is one that encounters serious and terrible resistance from the ego, as I am trying to remove all the paint and lay bare the original “dye of Allah” which pertains to the Divine essence, the original spiritual personality. But the ego wants only that its layers of paint be seen, never removed. Even when people come to see a Sufi Shaykh their egos are hoping to obtain more adornments, but it is our duty to take everything from the hands of the ego, not to adorn it further: to undermine its possessiveness and dissipate acquired characteristics in favor of original ones.

Mahmoud Shelton

About Ustadh Mahmoud Shelton

Mahmoud Shelton studied at the University of Edinburgh before taking a degree in Medieval Studies at Stanford University. Shelton is the author of Alchemy in Middle Earth: The Significance of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, The Balance of George Lucas' Star Wars, and numerous articles. He is also a contributor to The Royal Book of Spiritual Chivalry and The Sufi Science of Self-Realization. Contributions by Mahmoud Shelton * Chivalry of the Night and Day * Alchemy in Middle Earth * contributor, The Royal Book of Spiritual Chivalry
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