Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was a 9th century Muslim polymath, whose writings touched on subjects as varied as geography, medicine, philosophy, theology, politics, poetry, ethics, sociology, grammar, literature, and astronomy.
Born in 849 CE (235 AH) in the Persian village of Shamisitiyan, within the Balkh (from which he gets his name) province, now a part of modern day Afghanistan, he went on to write more than 60 books and manuscripts.
Unfortunately, most of the documents authored by him have been lost over the years, with only a minority of his work reaching us in the modern era.
Of the few aspects of his legacy that have reached us, namely his development of the “Balkhi School” of terrestrial mapping, and his work on the “Sustenance of the Soul”, both show the intellectual prowess of the scholar.
Al-Balkhi received his early education from his father, and as he grew older, he began studying the scientific and artistic branches of knowledge of the time.
In terms of his temperament, he is described as being shy and contemplative.
Sustenance for Bodies and Souls
Al-Balkhi’s most famous work is arguably his text, Sustenance for Bodies and Souls (Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus).
In this monumental manuscript, Al-Balkhi first addresses physical health, after which he delves into the area of the soul.
It is worth noting here that to the secular mind, the soul might be likened to the psyche, bringing with it a person’s psychological state.
It is the second section of this work that is receiving huge interest in the contemporary world for several reasons, primarily due to the work’s insightfulness in the field of psychology.
If the Nafs (psyche) gets sick, the body may also find no joy in life with development of physical illness.
Normalizing Psychological Illness and Distress
One of the main initial goals for psychologists practicing in the Western world today is often “normalizing” the illness.
Even in the most developed (in terms of the material sciences) parts of the world, stigma and shame often accompany psychological illness, aspects of which are still seen as taboo.
Many parts of the Muslim world contain much more deeply entrenched stigmas and taboos in this realm; psychological illness can also be seen as a shameful thing, brought down upon a family as a punishment for their sins or resulting from a weakness of faith.
By normalizing the illness, a client can begin to stop ascribing to themselves labels such as these. More than a millennium ago, Al-Balkhi was trying to normalize psychological afflictions for his readers.
The process of normalizing illness is so important within therapy because most of us who experience psychological illness deem ourselves to be abnormal, unusual, and altogether unnatural.
“When the body becomes ill, it will prevent learning (and other mental activities), or performing duties in a proper manner. And when the soul is afflicted the body will lose its natural ability to enjoy pleasure and will find its life becoming distressed and disturbed”.
Al-Balkhi makes the now widely disseminated and accepted connection between the mind and the body, with the health of each having significant consequences on the other,
He also recognizes the reality of psychosomatic illness: “…psychological pain may lead to bodily illness.”
This recognition, which is also later discussed in the works of Persian physician Haly Abbas, did not enter the consciousness of western psychologists until Freud began exploring the idea nearly a millennium later.
Cognitive Solutions and Cognitive Therapy
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Al-Balkhi’s method is his use of an early, pioneering form of cognitive therapy.
When reaching out to the anxious or fearful reader, Al-Balkhi advocates the use of positive self-talk that is aimed at soothing an individual’s mindset and gaining an upper hand over one’s fear.
Throughout the text, he advocates for the use of talking therapy, which is employed to modify an individual’s thoughts, and so consequently leading to the desired improvements in their behavior.
His prescribed treatment of depression echoes the ideas of psychotherapy:
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describes using “gentle encouraging talk that brings back some happiness,” while he also advocates for music therapy, and other activities that might warm a person’s psychological state.