Quranic principles and lessons in human psychology

Quran consists of sacred revelations received by Prophet Muhammad in the line of Prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. It is important to note that the verses in these revelations were memorized by the Prophet and his companions as they were revealed thus preserving their authenticity for all time to come. The revelations were directed towards the believing Muslims as well as the Jews and Christians. Quran guides to what is good for mankind. It consists of description of events, stories, parables, guiding principles and lessons on self-management (tadb?r al-nafs) aimed at proper development of the human mind.
Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context, including the science of personality, study of mental processes, and the mental characteristics or attitude of a person or group.
The focus in this article is on concepts and practices intended to prevent mental problems, which is also the primary focus in the Quran. An example of this focus in medicine is prophylaxis, preventive healthcare which consists of measures taken for the purposes of disease prevention. It makes a point that disease and disability are affected by environmental factors, genetic predisposition, disease agents, and lifestyle choices, and are dynamic processes which begin before individuals realize they are affected.
The famous American psychiatrist Tom Rusk states in one of his bestselling book appropriately titled, “Instead of Therapy”, “The only real cure for most psychological difficulties – is best considered an educational rather than a therapeutic enterprise.”
A well-known cognitive therapist, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Aaron Beck states in his book “Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders”, “Psychological problems are not necessarily the product of mysterious, impenetrable forces (as Freud says) but may result from commonplace processes such as faulty learning, making incorrect inferences on the basis of inadequate or incorrect information, and not distinguishing adequately between imagination and reality.”
More than a millennium ago, ninth century polymath Abu Zayd al-Balkhi wrote a book called Masalih al-Abdaan wa al-Anfus commonly translated as “Sustenance of the Soul”. The actual title has the words body and soul. The focus within the book is on the nourishment for the soul or nourishment for the mind.
In the Quran the nature of human mind is introduced through a story about Adam, described here using translation into English of the verses in Arabic.
“When your Lord (God) said to the angels, “I will create a vicegerent on earth” they said, “Will You place therein someone who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we celebrate Your praises and glorify You?” God said, “I know what you do not know” and He taught Adam the names of all things; then he placed them before the angels, and said, “Tell Me the names of these things, if you are right”. They said, “Glory to You! We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. It is you who has all knowledge, the Wise”. God said, “O Adam, tell them their names”, and when he had told them, God said, “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?”And God said to the angels, “Bow down to Adam”. They bowed down, except for Satan. He refused, was arrogant, and was one of the disbelievers. God said, “O Adam, inhabit the Garden, you and your spouse, and eat from it freely as you please, but do not approach this tree, lest you become wrongdoers”. But Satan caused them to slip from it, and caused them to depart the state they were in. God said, “Go down, all with enmity between you and you will have residence on earth, and enjoyment for a while”. Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord turned towards him. He is oft-returning, most Merciful. God said, “Go down all from here, all of you, and if, as is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve”. 2:30-38
What are some lessons to be drawn from this story about the human mind? That a human being is someone beyond angels with the faculty to learn from things in the environment, retain that knowledge in mind, and recall it when prompted as influenced behaviour. This faculty can work for human good while at the same time prone to do wrong. What can a human do to recover from what went wrong? It is through questioning oneself after every action, learning from it and committing not to do that wrong again by self-guidance and other sources, recognizing that our creator is always there to undo our faults and has provided us with all encompassing perfect guidance.
The Quran identifies several key terms for faculties of the human mind and its mental processes. Basic faculties are hearing (sam’, sama’a), vision (basar, baseera), and heart with mind connection (qalb, fu’aad). Quran emphasizes listening to what we hear which includes processing what we hear and gets recorded in our brain accordingly. Likewise, vision is not just what we see but includes processing what we see and gets recorded in our mind accordingly. Heart is considered connected to the mind. Our mind senses what we hear, see, and what we feel in our heart in the form of experience footprints in the brain. Physically our brain has over 80 billion neurons, also known as neural cells. Sensory neurons carry information from the sense organs (such as the ears and eyes) to the brain. Human experiences are recorded as network maps called schemas which grow or shrink depending on dynamics of experiences.
Terms for mental processes and their consequents are remembering (dhikr, tadakkur), thinking (fikr, tafakkur), and deliberation (tadabbur) affecting human psyche known as ego, soul (nafs, ruh) and basic emotions (ihsas) tied to human psyche.
Remembering consists of recalling what is known and finding what can be known. God says “Do remember me, I will remember you” 2:152. What does our remembrance of God mean? It is beyond just mentioning God’s name and expressing gratitude. It means remembering God’s words of guidance widely and frequently to stay on the right path in our life. Prescribed for Muslims are prayers at five different times of the day and night. It is a form of remembrance. Quran states, “Without doubt, in the remembrance of God do hearts find peace” 13:28. What does it mean when God says I will remember you? It means that God will inspire us to do the act rightly when we are on the verge of making decisions affecting our well being. Thinking is the process of using one’s mind to consider or reason about something. Tadabbur means contemplation. It applies to contemplation on Quran verses, their purposes and rulings, not just recitation of verses. It includes whatever we may have heard or seen in the world at large.
A more complete description of Quranic terms related the human mind is contained in the book, “Applying Islamic Principles to Mental Health Care”, edited by Hooman Keshavarzi et al, and published by Taylor & Francis. Contributing authors are psychologists Hooman Keshavarzi, Fahad Khan, consultant Bilal Ali, and Psychiatrist Rania Awaad who is also the Director of the Muslim Mental Health Lab and Wellness Program at Stanford University.
Keeping in view the preceding paragraphs, how do we nurture and nourish the mind for proper development of the nafs, the human psyche or soul? The mind of a child at birth has no preconceived ideas or predetermined goals. It is a clean slate of mental capacities without learned experience. The mind develops as the child hears, sees, and notices happenings in the environment through the family, relatives, friends and the world at large. All experiences enter the mind and get recorded as schemas that will affect behaviour. This process continues throughout our life. The experiences become the basis of human behaviour. Our experiences include the stories we read and knowledge about the world. While we may read for pleasure or relaxation, our mind is affected by how the characters in the story behave.
Guelph University Professor Andrea Breen says “Identity is constructed through stories and the stories we tell about ourselves change throughout our lives, reflecting our family background, culture and relationships. New experiences and people in our lives change our stories. Those stories both communicate who we are but also help construct our own understanding of who we are.”
To develop a healthy mind for our well being and the well being of others, we need to practice continually the mental processes of remembering, thinking, and deliberation described in the preceding paragraphs. We need to nurture and nourish our mind by separating what is good from what is bad. We need to avoid mental turbulences (waswasa) of the feelings of stress, anger, irritation, or frustration that comes from within us and from some people or situations. We should weigh all actions thoughtfully before we act and question them after whether may have erred, in the spirit of what the Quran calls nafs lawwama, a questioning or reproaching soul, for recognizing if we erred then committing to avoid such errors. We should not succumb to what the Quran call nafs ammara, a proud and arrogant soul never allowing the possibility of doing anything wrong. “Soul is certainly prone to evil” 12:53. Our ultimate goal should be what the Quran calls nafs mutma’inna, a soul rightly satisfied with itself, feeling an inner peace. This is achievable through an ever present awareness of the guiding principles for living a life of goodness for oneself and others.