Islam offers not only a theological framework within which we can position ourselves in relation to God, but it also offers a holistic map for how to navigate the human experience on a path of development of the self, or soul. While we may understand and believe that the Qur’an and Sunnah provide all of the guidance we need in life, many do not realize just how much is contained within this deen. With all of the influence of global trends toward secularism and the predominantly secular societies we live in, it can be easy to be persuaded by the assumption of a binary between religion and science. The institution of academia has fought hard to convince the world that the social sciences are in fact sciences rather than philosophical paradigms rooted in epistemology. In turn, the Muslim ummah has collectively bought into this story and forgotten its rich tradition of ‘ilm an-nafs (knowledge of the soul).
When you read about personal and professional development from just about any perspective or approach, the concepts and ideas are rooted in psychology. Modern psychology and its offshoots of personal development and self-help trends offer a lot of pertinent ideas and resources that all people, including the Muslim community, need desperately as societies become increasingly globalized and disconnected from the ancient wisdom that was inherent in more traditional, local communities and holistic lifestyles. But what these strands of pop psychology also bring with them are foundational assumptions about human nature, some of which are not aligned with the values and principles of an Islamic paradigm, which are baked into the cake. Without realizing it and/or without being fully aware of the repercussions of such philosophical and paradigmatic differences we can open ourselves up to hidden, often unintentional misguidance that can lead to a spiritual crisis, or worse, distance from our inner connection to Allah .
While this could be seen as a dilemma of whether to benefit from the good that these personal development resources have to offer and balance the potential pitfalls that they may present the Muslim trying to walk the path of Islam, fortunately, such a dilemma is unnecessary. There exists within the Islamic tradition an entire “science” of the soul or self which is completely aligned with and based upon the Qur’an and Sunnah and which offers practical solutions to everyday struggles faced by people in the modern world. In fact, this science of the soul is so advanced and comprehensive that it stands to offer entirely new insights to the popular field of self-improvement that even non-Muslims can benefit from. This is the legacy of the turath al Islam (path of Islam) as exemplified by our Beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, and is the birthright and heritage of every Muslim. Unfortunately, this knowledge has been all but lost and forgotten in the collective consciousness of today’s ummah. In this article, we want to share a glimpse of this turath and its impact on modern life and self-help.
The inherent psychology within Islam
Our perspective of Islam can often be one dimensional, especially if we have not done our own deep exploration of the teachings within the context of traditional Islamic spiritual education (tarbiyyah). As many followers of a religion, whether accepting that of their parents’ beliefs and rituals or individually choosing to follow the path set out by religious teachings, there is a tendency to see religion as a set of prescriptions that one must follow in order to be in God’s good graces. Religion has become institutionalized to the point that we make edifices out of the religion as a thing in and of itself, rather than understanding it as a path of guidance to follow in order to grow developmentally as a human being. What this can amount to is a relationship to the religion that is more transactional than it is transformational. We do what we have understood we are supposed to do with a belief that certain behaviors and actions or inactions will result in us being in God’s good grace, without necessarily transforming the state of our being or doing any work from the inside out. However, the Qur’an is replete with messages of the need for personal transformation and accountability within our innermost selves, as it says:
“[…] Allah does not change a people until they change what is in themselves” (Qur’an 13: 11)
What does it mean to change what is in oneself, what does that amount to, and how does one do this? These are all questions that could be assumed to be confined within the domain of the field of psychology, and yet the answers are all detailed within the Islamic tradition. What we have come to know as the academic discipline of psychology, a word which literally means the study of the soul, was not traditionally conceptualized as such in Islamic teachings because the study of the soul is embedded within the content of the entire Qur’an and Sunnah. The knowledge of the soul and its development is spread throughout the many branches of knowledge within the Islamic tradition, as there was previously no distinction or separation between the following of the religion and the individual effort to work on oneself in the process of inner transformation. We have become disconnected from the inherently holistic worldview which Islam posits and have adopted a disaggregated way of thinking about life and ourselves to the point that it is now necessary to present the Islamic knowledge of the soul in a condensed form that lends parity to that of modern psychology. Thus while our predecessors may not have needed to use terms such as “psychology” to distinguish such endeavors from other parts of the deen, it now becomes imperative for us to understand and define “Islamic psychology”.
An Islamic perspective of the self
Unlike popular conceptions within modern psychology and the dominant discourse of self-help and self-improvement which identifies the notion of the self as being centralized in the mind and in thought, an Islamic perspective of self includes multiple aspects of the whole being. Cartesian philosophy, which posits the notion of “I think therefore I am” has pervaded contemporary thought to the extent that most conceptions regarding the self within popular psychology are framed around the mind as the central location of human identity. We see this represented graphically in just about any poster or textbook that references psychology being accompanied by a picture of the brain, and by the name of the clinical field being termed “Mental Health”.
Often we see this brain or mind pictured in isolation, seemingly severed from the rest of its body, as similarly there is a tendency to see the body only as a housing for the mind as the core identity of the person. An Islamic perspective, conversely, necessarily posits that the human is a whole, integrated spiritual being which includes the body, mind, heart, and spirit.
Based on the writings and teachings of our learned scholars who have maintained an unbroken chain of transmission in how to interpret the Qur’an and understand the Prophetic tradition, we learn that within the Islamic ontological paradigm the true identity of a person is their soul, which is one integrated spiritual being, including the body. Thus an important distinction in Islamic psychology is that the central identity of the person is the soul, rather than the more narrowly defined notion of the self which is primarily conceived of as the construction of identity-based on personality and memories, which are confined to the temporal world, or dunya. A fundamental aspect of the Islamic conception of the soul is that the starting point in the soul’s journey is not limited to the moment of birth, but includes pre-existence. This goes back to the point of origin of all of the souls when they were created and Allah asked them “Am I not your Lord?” (Qur’an 7: 172). As the Qur’an narrates every single soul that will ever be created was there in that moment and replied: “Indeed we witness” (Qur’an 7: 172).
“And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we witness.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.” (Qur’an 7: 172)
This critical moment in the trajectory of every human soul distinguishes the human identity as a soul that is in a state of witnessing that Allah is One and that they (each human being) are servants of the Lord. In other words, it is within our true nature to be dependent on the One God for subsistence and to recognize that Allah is in control of everything, a very different picture than the self that is in control of its own destiny as many popular narratives go in the self-help industry.
Fitrah: The soul’s true identity
The soul’s trajectory becomes a challenge or a test the minute they enter into the dunya in human form as that innate witnessing of their true nature becomes veiled to them, thus beginning the journey back to this witnessing. As Islam narrates, at the end of the temporary state of human life in the dunya all souls will again be made aware of Allah’s omnipotence as the veil is lifted from us, but what each soul has done in terms of their striving to uncover that witnessing in the time they had in the dunya will determine their relative state in the next life. Thus, an Islamic paradigm of psychology is not limited to this life, as contemporary psychology is, but rather includes both pre-natal and post mortem realities. The concept of fitrah, the innate natural disposition of the human being as this soul from its point of origin as a witness of tawhid (Oneness of God) is crucial to a conception of psychology from an Islamic worldview as it fundamentally defines both the picture of healthy functioning and a mechanism for understanding unhealthy functioning. Thus the definition of what we call mental health and wellbeing is connected to the spiritual state of the person, not just their relative level of comfort or happiness in the dunya.
The optimal state of the person then is to be in alignment with fitrah and to uncover that true nature of witnessing which is constantly being veiled and challenged by multiple factors within this life. When we are in a state of submission to the will of Allah we are in our optimal state of functioning and aligned with our fitrah. However, this is a difficult state to maintain as we have several factors impacting our ability to be in the state of remembrance of that true nature which is necessary to maintain optimal functioning. In addition to the external factors in the dunya that distract us from the remembrance of Allah , there is a constant struggle inside of us that we must engage in that amounts to a battleground in our soul. In order to be better equipped for the battle, it is important that we understand the terrain of the soul and how to navigate it.
The structure of the soul
The soul in its pure state, before being covered and veiled from Allah’s reality, has the spark of the Divine breath that was breathed into us, known as the ruh. The ruh, or spirit, is the pure aspect of the human soul that is always there and which cannot be corrupted or misaligned. It is this pure and good aspect of our soul that allows us to always come back to the witnessing of Allah and provides the human being with a direct connection to Allah . While the ruh cannot be corrupted it most certainly can get covered over to the point that we are unaware and disconnected from this part of our soul. When we came into this world our souls were manifested in a physical form, in our bodies, in which we have the nafs, or lower self- the part of us that is bound to our temporal existence here in the world. This is the same self that most of the contemporary psychology deals with exclusively and is what we tend to be most familiar with, as it is how we experience ourselves in the world. This is the part of our self that likes what it likes, has desires and sways us in one direction or another. While it is not bad in and of itself, it has a tendency to lead us away from our fitrah and into a state of ghafla, or forgetfulness of Allah , because it is the part of ourselves that is oriented to the dunya and lives purely in this realm.
The ruh and the nafs can be conceived of as being two opposite poles of which we are constantly being pulled between in the battleground of our soul. We are spiritual beings having physical experiences here in this life and we are pulled between identifying and living in this seemingly separate reality where we are in control of our actions, through our free will, and our innate nature of knowing that we come from Allah and are dependent on Him for everything. The struggle between these two poles is essentially the manifestation of the paradox of experiencing duality in the temporal world while possessing an innate sense of the reality of Oneness (tawhid). Our work here in this life, and therefore our work in our personal and professional development, is to stay engaged in this struggle to constantly strive toward the remembrance of our fitrah to unlock or uncover our true potential as servants of Allah and the akhira as our end, rather than servants of our nafs and the dunya as our end. The central crux of where this battle takes place and what determines our relative outcome is located in the qalb, or heart, which, in an Islamic paradigm, is the center of the self/soul.
The word qalb in Arabic is a linguistic root that indicates turning one way or another. The word taqalab means “to turn”. So the function of the heart is that it can turn, either toward the ruh, or toward the nafs. The extent to which we are consciously able to turn our hearts toward the ruh and thus toward Allah is determined by several factors that cloud, block or impede our ability to do so. When we have unresolved emotional trauma from our experiences in life, whether real or perceived, it can manifest as blocks in our heart that further veil us from being able to witness Allah and turn to our higher nature. What we would normally conceive of as psychological imbalances are therefore not only cognitive but can be traced down deeper into our hearts, our qalb, where certain experiences have essential knocked us out of alignment with our fitrah and put our system out of balance. In addition to these internal manifestations of forces that pull us away from witnessing Allah and submitting to His tawhid, we also have external factors that are inherent in the dunya reality which distract us and pull us toward our nafs, or lower self, when we are in a state of an-nafs al amarah, or the soul that incites to evil. But here the evil can simply be the evil of forgetting our true nature and being subsumed in the illusion of individuation or self-direction.
Self-development as the development of the soul
The work of self-improvement or personal development is the work of constantly staying engaged in the effort to uncover the blocks on the heart, essentially cleaning the heart, and striving and struggling to stay in remembrance of Allah amidst the distractions and downward pulls of the dunya. One aspect of the structure of our souls that can help us in this struggle is the aql, which can be conceived of as the cognitive function, but which is a more Divinely connected kind of reasoning. In the Islamic model of the soul, the aql is not understood as the central driving aspect of the self but is actually better understood as a function of the qalb. In addition to the normal kind of logical reasoning that we attribute to the mind, the qalb has the ability to perceive and to see things as they are. The form of the word aql that is used in the Qur’an is an active verb y’aqiluna and it is used as a descriptor of a function of the qalb, so that the heart has the ability to perceive. It is in using this ability to perceive that the qalb possesses that we can effectively turn our hearts away from the veils of the dunya which result in a state of ghafla, and turn it toward Allah and the akhira, accessing through the point of Divine connection within us, the ruh.
We experience different qualities or characteristics of our soul depending on our relative position in the battleground of our soul. When we are subsumed by the covering on our heart and are in a state of an-nafs al ammarah, we can manifest character qualities that are destructive, such as anger, jealousy, and envy; these are called the muhlikat, or destroyers. And when we are engaged in the struggle of the jihad an-nafs (struggle of the self), attempting to reign in our lower tendencies toward individuation and self-direction, we are in a state of an-nafs al lawwamah, or the self-reproaching soul, where we take ourselves to account and make an effort to doing the work of turning our hearts. This can involve a process of thadhib al akhlaq, or the refinement of character, where through self-awareness we consciously try to change the muhlikat and attempt to emulate good character traits such as courage and wisdom and justice, called munjiyat, or saviors and were exemplified in the perfected character of the Prophet . These manifestations of muhlikat, or negative character, are signs of where we need to do the work on ourselves in our process of personal development with the goal of aligning with fitrah and evolving to our higher self, or the next best version of our self. When we have moments of success in this process we can experience the soul in a state of peace, which is the an-nafs al mutma’inah, or the soul at rest. While it is rare to fully achieve this state, we can get glimpses of it that keeps us motivated to do the work of striving toward that next best version, having more frequent experiences of the state of the soul in an-nafs al mutma’inah. This is the goal of personal development in an Islamic paradigm and there exists within the Islamic tradition a whole host of tools and guidance in the pursuit of the purification of the heart and soul.
An Islamic model of the soul
The Islamic model of the soul presented here was developed as a result of the input of 18 scholars with expertise in various branches of knowledge within the Islamic tradition, the details of which are reported in Rothman and Coyle’s (2018) report of the research findings. According to this model, the human soul has an innately pure and good nature, fitrah, that comes from and is connected to God but that becomes covered over and forgotten as a natural part of life in the dunya. Throughout its life in the dunya, within the soul, there exists a dynamic interplay of conflicting forces that affect the psychological state of the person and determine relative levels of alignment or misalignment with fitrah (this process is represented by the purple elements in the middle of the model).
The qalb, which is the spiritual center of the person, and where the faculty of intellect is located as the aql, has the potential to turn in either of two directions which shapes the relative, transient outcome of this conflict. It can turn toward the lower impulses of the nafs and become further misaligned with fitrah by the influences of the dunya and shaytan (satan), resulting in increased negative characteristics of the muhlikat and a state of ghafla, (this process is represented by the red elements toward the bottom half of the model). Or it can turn toward the higher, Godly nature of the ruh with the remembrance of Allah and the akhirah (afterlife), resulting in increased positive characteristics of the munjiyat, and come more in alignment with the soul’s state of fitrah (this process is represented by the blue elements toward the top half of the model).
The relative state of the soul in relation to either of these two poles at any one time is articulated in three distinct stages of the soul’s development throughout life in the dunya, namely: an-nafs al ammarah bil su’, an-nafs al lawwama, and an-nafs al mutma’inah. The model posits that the soul has an inherent inclination toward growth and an upward trajectory in relation to this model, due to its primordial nature of knowing God, and that the Islamic tradition, as guided by the Qur’an and Sunnah, encourages and maps out a path for the human being to pursue this trajectory. This is demonstrated in the description of processes along the path that act as mechanisms for exerting effort in the dynamic interplay within the soul as it struggles between the two opposing forces, namely; jihad an-nafs, tahdhib al-akhlaq, and tazkiyat an-nafs.
Implications for Personal and Professional Development
If we locate our identity within our soul rather than just our self, or the persona that we project in our life, we have the opportunity to take personal transformation to a whole new level. Breaking through the barriers and limitations of our mind and mental worlds is often a critical and necessary step in unlocking our potential and getting to that next best version of our self. However, there are still limitations to our growth if we only conceive of and interact with the cognitive aspect. As the Islamic model posits, the cognitive aspect is one part of a whole, and by recognizing and opening to a more holistic vision of the self, that of the soul, we can access our deeper inner reality and grow in a more profound way.
By adopting an approach to personal development that is informed and guided by the Islamic model of the soul, we have an opportunity to unlock the secrets of the meaning of life and integrate our religious belief system and worldview with our daily life struggle. In fact, this is the necessary pathway to both deepening our understanding of and relationship to Islam and truly advancing our psychospiritual development. This involves not only reorienting our approach to the deen of Islam to be that of a path of self-development but reorienting our notion of self to be one that is centered in the heart.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “there is a piece of flesh in the body and when it is sound the whole body is sound and when it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt and indeed that is the heart”[Sahih Al-Bukhari]
While this certainly has implications for physical health and the physical organ of the heart, our learned scholars teach us that the main intention in this statement was in explaining the nature of our spiritual heart as the center of the human being. The Qur’an tells us that our hearts have the ability to reason and perceive and it is only when the heart is polished that a person can truly see things “as they are”. And yet we rarely operate from a place that is centered in the heart in our orientation to our life in the dunya. We suffer from the nature of the plight of the human being in this life which is that we perceive ourselves as self-directed, individual units who are in control of our own destiny.
How can we possibly work toward achievement and productivity in our lives if we believe that we are not in control? This is the fundamental dilemma that philosophers and critics of religion have debated, and is the same paradox that many Muslims often do not find satisfactory answers to. How do we balance our free will and self-determination with a belief in qadr (destiny)? Self-help guidance often says that we need to have an internal locus of control in order to master our self and take control of our personal development. And yet deeply embedded within the Islamic paradigm and the worldview of a Muslim is that we have an external locus of control, that Allah is the One who is ultimately in control of our outcome. The secret to success in this endeavor of development as a Muslim is to embrace both of these realities, rather than choosing one, it is to embrace the paradox, by which we can witness tawhid (Oneness of Allah).