Imam Abu Zayd al-Balkhi and Mental Health

Imam Abu Zayd al-Balkhi lived in modern day Afghanistan and died in 934C.E. He was a polymath who had studied and mastered many different fields of learning. One of the many fields that he wrote in is what we now call Mental Health. In his work Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus, the end of which has been translated to Sustenance of the Soul, he addressed physical and mental health and describes some disorders that are commonly recognized and treated today. He discusses phobias, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression, among other things.

This work is significant not only because it preceded modern conversations on these topics by centuries, but also because it is a reminder to modern Muslims as to the recognition of mental health and its treatment from early Muslim sources. In his discussions, he often refers to these issues as ailments of the soul because there is an understanding that in our tradition the realm of mental health and spiritual health often overlaps. He discusses various cognitive behavioral treatments and even mentions the idea of treating certain types of depression through the use of herbs.

Here I want to specifically share a selection from his work that highlights the importance of seeking counseling and how it can be beneficial for one’s well-being. It is still common in the Muslim community for people to consider counseling taboo and something that is unnecessary, that people can take of such things themselves. He even refers to that as well, mentioning that there is merit to one’s individual effort to adjust their thought patterns, but that talking to others can actually be even more helpful.

In these passages he is talking about internal and external methods for combatting their psychological symptoms and says the following in Chapter 3 of the text:

“One suffering from psychological disturbance can fight his symptoms internally by developing within the soul thoughts (of an opposite nature to the ones that sustain the problem) that neutralize the symptoms and desensitize their provocation. Externally, one can listen to the advice of another whose (therapeutic) discussion (or counseling) would calm the agitated soul and treat its abnormality.”

And also,

“That is, the benefit one obtains externally from advice and counseling is more useful than a person’s internal attempt (at treatment) through generating his own therapeutic thoughts. This is due to two reasons. First, man in general accepts from others what he does not accept from himself. His reasoning and thought are intermixed with his passions, each implicated by the other. Second, one suffering painful psychological symptoms is so occupied and overpowered by them that he cannot clearly think how to overcome them.”