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This Muslim Introduced Concept of Mental Health in 9th Century

In the text he also strongly advocates for discussing one’s issues with a trusted friend or confidant. While Al-Balkhi does entertain the idea that obsessive thoughts can in part be caused by the devil, he spends all of the text focused on “earthly” solutions.

Crucially, Al-Balkhi argues that even if the cause of obsessive thoughts is the devil, the symptoms should be fought by cognitive strategies.

Accuracy of Descriptions

Depression was known, and wrote about, by the Greeks well before Al-Balkhi’s time. What is impressive about Al-Balkhi’s descriptions is that he seems to be the first writer to distinguish between depression that is caused by environmental or circumstantial factors, and depression that is a result of internal bio-chemical factors, or what might contemporarily be called, organic depression.

On obsessive compulsiveness, Al-Balkhi’s descriptive criteria are in harmony with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible of psychiatric and psychological illness.

The DSM-V describes obsessions as, “Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress”.

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This is extremely similar to Al-Balkhi’s descriptions: “Annoying thoughts that are not real. These thoughts prevent enjoying life, and performing daily activities. They affect concentration and interfere with ability to carry out different tasks. Afflicted individuals become preoccupied with fearful thoughts and expect these events at any time”.

There is also stark commonality between the two texts in describing the afflicted individual’s attempts to suppress the unwanted obsessions; the DSM-V mentioning their attempts to, “ignore or suppress such thoughts, urges or images”.

Al-Balkhi’s text talks of the individual not being able to “use their mental faculties to deal with anything else, and would be too busy with the imagined imminent danger to enjoy any pleasures or to concentrate on what is said to him or to socialize with others. Whenever he tries to let go and socialize, the disturbing thoughts will shoot up to control his mind”.


Al-Balkhi’s work is undoubtedly centuries (if not a whole millennium) ahead of its time. From differentiating between types of depression, to acknowledging the inheritability of proneness to obsessive thinking, Al-Balkhi proves himself to have had an impressively discerning eye for the psychological.

Readers of the text will readily note Al-Balkhi strikes a balance between the spiritual and the material that might be said to be uncharacteristic of the time; rather than explaining everything through words such as devil, jinn and sins, he relies instead on psychological language to explain psychological phenomena, without completely disregarding the unseen.

This balance seems to elude contemporary psychologists who have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water in their attempt to achieve scientific rigor, while completely dismissing spiritual and immaterial matters.

While Al-Balkhi’s work does contain some words and ideas that are likely to be problematic to the contemporary reader, it is important to read the text with its context in mind.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Al-Balkhi’s work, for both the psychologically minded and non-psychologically minded contemporary Muslim, is the marriage his work embodies between the religious sciences and what we might now call the secular sciences.

By striving for a mastery of both, he produced content that harmonizes the two; something that many today say is impossible due to the false dichotomy between religion and science.

This article was first published on Mvslim.com

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About Tamim Mobayad
Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.