The vital importance of nourishing one’s soul and mind
By Syed Imtiaz Ahmad
The Quran guides humanity to what is good by describing events, stories, parables, guiding principles and lessons on self-management (tadbir al-nafs) aimed at the mind’s proper development.
Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and its functions, especially those that affect behavior in a given context, including the science of personality, the study of mental processes and the mental characteristics or attitude of a person or group.
The focus is on those concepts and practices intended to prevent mental problems, which is also the Quran’s primary focus. An example of this is prophylaxis, preventive health care that consists of measures taken to prevent disease. It makes a point that disease and disability are affected by environmental factors, genetic predisposition, disease agents and lifestyle choices, and are dynamic processes that begin before individuals realize they are affected.
In one of his bestselling books, appropriately titled “Instead of Therapy,” the famous American psychiatrist Tom Rusk states, “The only real cure for most psychological difficulties is best considered an educational rather than a therapeutic enterprise.”
In his “Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders,” the well-known cognitive therapist Aaron Beck (emeritus professor of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania) states that “Psychological problems are not necessarily the product of mysterious, impenetrable forces (as Freud says), but may result from commonplace processes such as faulty learning, making incorrect inferences on the basis of inadequate or incorrect information, and not distinguishing adequately between imagination and reality.”
More than a millennium ago, the polymath Abu Zayd al-Balkhi wrote Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus, commonly translated as “Sustenance of the Soul.” The actual title contains the words “body” and “soul.” The book focuses on nourishment for the soul and the mind.
The Quran introduces the nature of the mind through a story about Adam:
“When your Lord (God) said to the angels, ‘I will create a vicegerent on Earth’ they asked, ‘Will You place therein someone who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we celebrate Your praises and glorify You?’ God replied, ‘I know what you do not know.’ After teaching Adam the names of all things, He placed them before the angels and said, ‘Tell Me the names of these things, if you are right.’ They replied, ‘Glory to You, we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. It is You who has all knowledge, the Wise.’ God said, ‘O Adam, tell them their names.’ After Adam did this, God asked them, ‘Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and Earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?’ God said to the angels, ‘Bow down to Adam.’ They obeyed, all but Satan, who was arrogant and one of the disbelievers. God said, ‘O Adam, inhabit the Garden, you and your spouse, and eat from it freely as you please. But don’t approach this tree, lest you become wrongdoers.’ But Satan caused them to disobey and thereby fall from the state they were in. God said, ‘Go down, all with enmity between you. You will live on Earth and enjoy yourselves for a while.’ Then Adam received words from his Lord, Who turned toward him. He is oft-returning, most Merciful. God said, ‘Go down all from here, all of you, and if, as is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve’ (2:30-38).
One lesson to be drawn from this passage is that human beings are above angels, for they learn from things in the environment, retain that knowledge in their mind and recall it when prompted as influenced behavior. This faculty can work for humanity’s good, even though its members are prone to doing what is wrong. Given this fact, how can a person recover from a wrong deed? This is accomplished by questioning oneself after every action in order to learn from it and then abandon it permanently via self-guidance and other sources, recognizing that our Creator is always there to undo our faults and has provided us with all-encompassing perfect guidance.
The Quran identifies several key terms for the mind’s faculties and its mental processes. Basic faculties are hearing (sam’ and sama’a), vision (basar and baseera), and the heart’s (qalb) connection with the mind (fu’ad). It emphasizes listening to what we hear, which includes both processing it and getting it recorded in our brain accordingly. Likewise, vision is not just seeing, but includes processing what we see and gets recorded in our mind. Our mind senses what we hear and see, and what we feel in the heart in the form of experience are footprints in the brain. Physically, our brain has over 80 billion sensory neurons (neural cells) that carry information from the sense organs (e.g., the ears and eyes) to the brain. Human experiences are recorded as network maps, called “schemas,” which grow or shrink depending on the dynamics of these various experiences.
The terms for mental processes and their consequents are remembering (dhikr and tadhakkur), thinking (fikr and tafakkur) and deliberation (tadabbur), all of which affect the human psyche known as ego, and the soul (nafs and ruh) and basic emotions (ihsas) tied to it.
Remembering consists of recalling what is known and finding what can be known. God says, “Remember Me, and I will remember you” (2:152). Our remembrance of God is more than just mentioning His name and expressing gratitude. In reality, it means the frequent remembrance of His words of guidance in order to stay on the right path. Muslims are told to pray at five specific times per day as a form of remembrance, “Without doubt, in the remembrance of God do hearts find peace” (13:28).
What does it mean when God says, ‘I will remember you’? It means that God will inspire us to act in the correct manner when on the verge of making decisions that affect our well-being. Thinking means to use one’s mind to consider or reason about something. Tadabbur applies to contemplating the Quran’s verses in terms of their purposes and rulings, not just their recitation. It includes whatever we may have heard or seen in the world at large.
A more complete description of Quranic terms related to the mind can be found in Hooman Keshavarzi et al., ed.’s “Applying Islamic Principles to Mental Health Care” (Taylor & Francis, 2020). Contributing authors are psychologists Keshavarzi, Fahad Khan, consultant Bilal Ali, and psychiatrist Rania Awaad (director, the Muslim Mental Health Lab and Wellness Program, Stanford University.
Keeping in view the preceding paragraphs, how do we nurture and nourish the mind for the nafs’ (psyc
he or soul) proper development? A new-born infant’s mind has no preconceived ideas or predetermined goals, for it has not had any chance to acquire learned experiences. In other words, its mind develops as it hears, sees and notices what is going on with its family, relatives, friends and the world at large. All experiences enter its mind and are recorded as schemas that will affect its behavior. During this life-long process, our experiences become the basis of our behavior. Our experiences include the stories we read and knowledge about the world. While we may read for pleasure or relaxation, our mind is affected by how the characters in the story behave.
On July 20, 2015, Andrea Breen (professor, family relations and applied nutrition, Guelph University) said that “Identity is constructed through stories and the stories we tell about ourselves change throughout our lives, reflecting our family background, culture and relationships. New experiences and people in our lives change our stories. Those stories both communicate who we are but also help construct our own understanding of who we are.”
To develop a healthy mind for our own and others’ well-being, we need to keep practicing the mental processes of remembering, thinking and deliberation; to nurture and nourish our mind by separating the good from the bad; and to avoid the mental turbulences (waswasa) brought on by stress, anger, irritation or frustration. We should weigh our actions thoughtfully before doing them and examine them afterwards to see if we might have erred, a Quranic process known as nafs lawwama (a questioning or reproaching soul). We should not succumb to the nafs ammara (a proud and arrogant soul), even though the “Soul is certainly prone to evil” (12:53). Our ultimate goal should be what the Quran calls the nafs mutma’inna (a soul rightly satisfied with itself, feeling an inner peace). We can achieve this by remaining constantly aware of the Quran’s guiding principles for living a life of goodness for oneself and others.
Dr. Syed Imtiaz Ahmad, emeritus professor at Eastern Michigan University, has served as both ISNA’s vice president and president and ISNA Canada’s vice president and president, as well as president of the Computer Science Association of Canada, the Association of Pakistani Scientists and Engineers of North America, the Pakistan Canada Association of the Windsor Islamic Association, as well as chair of ISNA Canada’s School Board.