As part of my doctoral dissertation research, I had to go back and find out if and how Islam made any contributions to the field of psychology.
In fact,Islam has received sparse attention for its contributions in the field of psychology, even though one of the first known texts on the interpretation of dreams was done by a Muslim from Basra, Muhammad Ibn Seerin (d. circa 729), whose work on dream interpretation appeared in a text published a few years after his death. Peter Adamson, in his detailed analysis on the thought of al-Kindi (d. 860), identifies the renowned philosopher as one of the first Muslim thinkers to reflect on the faculty of imagination: “Al-Kindi explores imagination most deeply in a treatise devoted to the phenomenon of prophetic dreams, entitled On Sleep and Dream.” (2007 p. 135). Adamson also notes “that al-Kindi consistently speaks of humans as possessing a power of “choice (ikhtiyar)” and “volition (irada).” But it would be too quick to conclude from this that that he makes human actions exempt from celestial causation. Perhaps the stars causally determine the choices we make, even though we are still choosing in a meaningful sense.” (p. 200).
Majid Fakhry writes that Al-Farabi (d. circa 950) attempted to explain phenomena “such as dreams, prognostication (kahanah), vision (ru’ya) and the prophetic office (nubuwwah), which is for him the highest stage attainable by humankind, through the use of the imaginative faculty.” (2002, pp. 90-91). Al-Farabi explored the topic where al-Kindi left off.
Lenn Goodman (2006), in his updated biography on Ibn Sina (d.1037) the physician renowned in the West as Avicenna, for his Canon on Medicine, explains Ibn Sina’s treatise on the substance of the soul. Ibn Sina was also one who viewed the brain as the seat of cognition and perception. Ebrahim Moosa’s biography (2005) of Al-Ghazali (d.1111), recounts that the famous theologian acknowledged the brain as an organ of sensory perception but identified the intellect as the critical faculty for the perception of inner reality. “Ghazali pointed out that the intellect is actually more intimately related to the heart than to the brain.”(2005, p. 225). Al-Tirmidhi (d.912) had much earlier identified the heart, and its inner four stations, as the most important human organ, as described by Robert Frager in “Heart, Self & Soul”(1999). Fakhry (2001) in his biography of Ibn Rushd (d.1198), known in the West as Averroes, recounts that the physician and jurist, expounded on a theory of knowledge, the faculties of the soul including memory and recollection, and the faculty of imagination.
According to Pormann & Savage-Smith in “Medieval Islamic Medicine,” the first hospitals were built in Baghdad in the 10th Century and “the care for the insane in hospitals was unprecedented and an important part of even the earliest Islamic hospitals.” (2007, p. 101). Michael Dols in his classic text: “Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society” suggests that “the earliest evidence for the institutional care of the insane is the report that mentions the mentally disturbed patients in the hospital that was founded in al-Qatai, which was in the south-western quarter of present-day Cairo, by Ahmad ibn Tulun, the Abbasid governor of Egypt, in AD 872-3” (1992, p. 117). According to Dols, Al-Kindi opined that “homosexuality was not unnatural because it was practiced by animals” (1992. p. 98) and realized the therapeutic value of music: “Concerning its therapeutic value, al-Kindi integrated music thoroughly with the humoral theory: all notes, melodies, and rhythms had a humoral value.”(p. 169).
The first work on psychopathology was written by al-Tabari (d. 870), who, according to Dols, “used the tripartite division of the brain to locate psychic disorders” (p. 91). Dols reports that “Islamic physicians followed Galen in attributing a wide range of conditions to the malfunctioning of the brain.” (p. 91). Al-Razi (d. 925), the great Baghdad clinician, known as Rhazes, described symptoms and treatments for mental disorders especially melancholia. Pormann & Savage-Smith explain that in his “treatise On Spiritual Medicine”, Al-Razi makes the “case for the pursuit of pure knowledge and avoidance of the ‘afflictions of the soul’.” (2007, p. 48).
Finally, two great Sufis contributed to our understanding of Imaginal psychology through their notion of ‘alam al-mithal’ the imaginal realms. Suhrawardi (executed in 1191), the Persian theosopher, whose experiences of suprasensory reality are recounted in his Book of Conversations, inspired Henri Corbin’s posthumously published essay entitled “Mundus Imaginalis” in “Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam” (1995), and Ibn al-Arabi, (d. 1240) the inspired Andalusian Sufi Master personally experienced and wrote profusely about the world of imagination and its imaginal realms, as described by William Chittick in “Imaginal Worlds.” (1994).
The term psychology may not have been used by these Muslims of the past but the work of knowledge of the self and its regressive instincts and the knowledge of the refinement of the human soul have received consistent and steady attention since the birth of Islam to the present day. However, the notion that Islam has, or could have, its own psychology, per se, has not been a part of mainstream tradition. With the exception of the Sufis who pursued the mystical dimension of Islam and its alchemical transformations of the soul, resulting in the emergence of a Sufi psychology, no other corpus of a contemporary psychology of Islam exists.
In stark contrast, over the past one hundred years, in the Western tradition of the psychology of religion, the most prominent thinkers from William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung to Abraham Maslow, Roberto Assagioli and Eric Fromm, from Murray Stein to Edward Edinger and others, have all engaged in diverse psychological inquiries within the context of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. The same cannot be said of the psychology of religion as it pertains to Islam, either by Western thinkers or by Muslim intellectuals and physicians.
In evolving a contemporary psychology of Islam, any reliance on or influence from non-Muslim sources may, in certain important quarters, be considered objectionable or unacceptable to many Muslims. However, to suggest that the psychology of religion, as a Western epistemology, has nothing to add to the understanding of contemporary Islam merely limits the faith to a myopic perspective both for practitioners of Islam and for Muslim practitioners of modern psychology. This myopia also limits access to those who seek to appreciate not only the rich spiritual heritage of Islam but also its relevance and potential universal application to the well-being of humanity. Moreover, to suggest that Islam lacks the capacity to embrace Western knowledge systems debases the original message of Islam. The Qur'an and the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) have always claimed that it was to be a universal message for humankind. The Prophet himself exhorted the faithful to seek knowledge even in China. An entire civilization evolved, expanded and flourished because Islam was once an open epistemological system.