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Scientists and Scholars of the Islamic Golden Age: al-Balkhi

“Since man’s construction is from both his soul and his body, therefore, human existence cannot be healthy without the ishtibak [interweaving or entangling] of soul and body.” -Abu Zayd al-Balkhi

In my last two articles, I wrote about the father of pediatrics, Al-Razi, and the father of experimental medicine, Ibn Sina. To conclude my series, today I will be writing about Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, the father of cognitive therapy.


Introductory psychology classes often take the time to talk about the history of the field in order to understand where different ideas came from and how they came to be. But every psychology class I have taken has glossed over the Islamic Golden Age in favor of modern, Western scholars, like Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. While these figures are, of course, important to our understanding of history, they were far from the first to suggest the benefits of psychotherapy.


Al-Balkhi (850–934), born in what is now Afghanistan, was one of the most important figures in the history of psychology. Like many ancient scholars, he was a polymath, working in a variety of fields during his lifetime including geography, mathematics, and philosophy.


While mental illness had been written about for many centuries, al-Balkhi was significant in that he described the concept of mental health and well-being. He is most known for his manuscript Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus, or Sustenance for Body and Soul. It was written in accessible, non-scientific language, so that it could be understood by a lay person.


In this work, he wrote that mental illness could have both physiological and psychological origins. He believed that the mind and the body were connected and that they could each make the other one sick. In order to maintain your overall health, al-Balkhi believed that the body and the soul must be in balance with each other, and that taking care of both is essential to maintaining that balance.


Some of Al-Balkhi’s advice included eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of water, maintaining an active social life and sharing your feelings with those close to you, and appreciating beauty in the world. He focused on not just curing disease, but also working on maintaining your mental health the same way you maintain your physical health, by practicing everyday acts of self-care. Al-Balkhi also advocated for the benefits of music therapy, nature therapy, and exercise therapy.


He also believed that it was important to talk about your thoughts and feelings with others. He advocated that people should reflect and understand their own feelings so that, over time, they can reshape their negative thought processes into positive ones. He believed in keeping a “first-aid kit” of healthy thoughts to employ in times of distress. This is, perhaps, the first documentation of what we know today as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.


Image source: The International Institute of Islamic Thought

Al-Balkhi defined four types of mental illness: anxiety, anger, obsession, and depression. He further categorized the latter into depression caused by internal factors (within the body) and external factors (such as environmental or social factors). The idea that depression can have multiple complex causes is something that is still being unraveled by scientists today.


Al-Balkhi also wrote about phobias, defining them as different from fears. His description of phobias is remarkably close to the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V, the text that doctors and researchers use to define mental illnesses today. Al-Balkhi’s description of mental health and mental illness was profoundly ahead of its time.


In all the classes I’ve taken, I have never heard even a mention of Al-Balkhi, Ibn Sina, or Al-Razi. Even when their ideas are discussed, they are attributed to European or American scholars who lived centuries later. It is essential that today’s scientists learn of the work of those who came before us, so that we can understand the cultural and historical context of where ideas grew.


To only teach the history of Western medicine is to leave out a massive and significant portion of history. It not only does a disservice to those who are forgotten, but it does a disservice to students who are learning an underrepresented, Euro-centric version of history. When we tell the history of science, it is essential that we remember whose stories we’re telling, and whose stories are being forgotten.

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