This is the third part of a talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf on approaches to depression and anxiety in Classical Islam. Here he talks about Imam Ghazali and his science of the soul.
Imam Ghazali [in contrast to Abu Zayd al Balkhi] is not a physician. He is a philosopher. He is a theologian. He is a jurist. And in each of those things at the first rank. He wrote the greatest works in all of these fields for 200 years on either side of him. But above all else he was a spiritual master.
The sum total of his of his life’s work is contained in the Ihya Ulum al Din, The Revival of the Knowledge of the Religion, of which it has been said, numerous times by scholars in his time and after, that were all the works of Islam to be lost, including the Qur’an and the books of hadith, and only this work remain, by itself it would be sufficient to renew the religion. It would bring back the religion from the brink.
The Biochemistry of Happiness
Why is that? Because the subject of that work is the human soul. And it is about the human soul attaining a state of felicity. This is most well and most precisely explained in the Persian equivalent. The Ihya is in Arabic. The Persian equivalent, written in a quite different way, is called the Kimiya al Sa‘ada.
Now given that this is a work about the human being and it’s called Kimiya al Sa‘ada, I think a perfectly fair translation for this is The Biochemistry of Happiness. Kimiya is chemistry. Sa‘ada is happiness. And it means ultimate happiness. Abu Zayd al Balkhi mentioned this. He said if the root cause of all mental distress is anxiety, the root cause of all mental health is happiness. That is to say, happiness is not merely the result of good mental health. It is also the cause of good mental health.
Ghazali focused on this point, taking from the philosophical traditions of Islam as well as from the more theological approaches to Islam. Ghazali, especially in the Persian equivalent of his work, focuses on something that always has been, from Greek times, a central theme in philosophy. Now when you ask today, what is the central theme of philosophy? People don’t really know because it’s kind of all gone a bit weird.
Happiness and Care for the Self
If you ask people in the 1700s, the 1800s, during the Enlightenment, what is the central theme of classical psychology? [sic] They would say, Know thyself. But one of the central themes, when you go back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and so forth, one of the central themes of the philosophers of those times was actually not simply know thyself, but take care of thyself; look after thyself.
There was a focus on care of the self. One of the things Ghazali borrowed from that tradition, but which he also found in the tradition of classical Islamic thinking, of which he was of course the foremost representative, is that happiness is something that is to be sought, not only in the Hereafter but in this life as well.
Happiness is not, however, in external things. Happiness is in your internal reaction to those things. As an example of this a student of mine came to me after one of my religious classes and said, I want to talk to you. I want to ask you a question. I said, Yes, what’s the question? I’ve got 15 minutes before the next class starts. She said, I want to ask you about locus of control. I said, Okay. In 15 minutes? She said, Yes.
The Locus of Control
What’s a locus of control? A locus of control is: Where’s your happiness button? That’s what locus of control means. If my happiness button is there. [Places phone in front of him and points.] Then that means my sadness button or my anger button is there. You can come along and go [presses button], and I’ll get sad or anxious or angry or whatever it happens to be.
If my button is here [puts phone close to himself] I can protect it. You can’t come along and press it. This is an internal locus of control. [Phone is close.] That’s an external locus of control. [Phone is further away.] People don’t come and press your buttons unless they’re not very nice. They don’t generally come and press your buttons. What presses your buttons? Circumstances, situations, press your buttons.
I’m driving down here knowing that Sophie and Mark are going to be wondering, Where is this guy? Is he going to do his usual thing and come late? And I hit traffic and I think, Oh my God. What has happened? Now this is a circumstance that is tailor-made to provoke anxiety in me. I know that I am going to have to look at Samina and she’s going to say, How do I get out of this traffic? It’s a circumstance, it’s a situation, that presses the button.
God Is The Root Cause
Why does it press the button? I said to my student: Look. You see this? [Raises phone.] Is this the button or is this the situation? She says, I don’t know. I said, It’s both. The problem with the external locus of control is you don’t realize that this is actually two separate things. There is the event. [Phone cover.] And there’s the reaction to it. [Phone.] These are separate from each other. You can’t control this. [The event.] But you can control this. [The reaction.] Simply put, you can’t stop it raining, but you can carry an umbrella.
Alright. What’s the problem that people who have an external locus of control have? It is that when it’s raining they go outside and they say, Stop raining! Stop! And it doesn’t stop raining. Eventually you get so tired of shouting at the clouds to stop raining that you give up and you say I can’t stop it raining. It’s trying to have control over something you can’t have control over. Why? Because you’ve linked these two things [the event and the reaction] together. They are one and the same.
She said, I did an online survey and I have an external locus of control. How do I deal with it? I said, Separate the emotional reaction from the event. Now what do you do? I said now you need to recognize that this event is not caused by the outside world. It’s caused by God. this is caused by God. It’s not caused by your nosy neighbor. It’s not caused by your troublesome mother-in-law. It’s not caused by the weather or the traffic or anything like that.
It is caused by God. A benevolent God, mind you. A benevolent and all-powerful God. So if you recognize that everything that happens to you in your life comes to you from God, and that God will send you sweetness and bitterness, both of which are there to teach you something about yourself, you can keep this button to yourself.
Surrendering the Locus to God
You can keep that button to yourself and you can control how you press it. What you’ll then find is that there is nothing on the table. The table is the world. There is nothing on this table. There is God and there is you. There’s God and you and everything else is simply an instrument. Once you understand that you have a completely external locus of control because now you actually say, Do you know what God? I’m gonna leave the button to You as well.
That is the beginnings of a religious approach to dealing with the questions that bring about distress, anxiety, and so forth. It is the beginning of an indigenous psychotherapy. A psychotherapy that is founded on the fundamental beliefs that you have. This is something that can be de-theologized. It is something that doesn’t need to necessarily be about your relation to a person or God.
It is a way of looking at how things happen and what things mean when they happen, and what you can learn from it. [It is] the difference between approaching something as a lesson by which you can learn more about yourself, and the alternative, which is that you are a leaf being blown on a wind, being taken wherever the wind leads you.
States, Traits, and Character
Abu Zayd Balkhi distinguishes between fixed human traits and emotional states which come and go. Recognizing at the same time that if you have a particular temperament and a particular state, it can sometimes become chronic, it can become part of your personality. However, he focuses primarily on states.
What Imam Ghazali focuses on is the development of internal character traits. God talks about the soul that will eventually return to Him and He describes that soul as the tranquil soul. (Sura al Fajr 83:27-28) The soul that is at peace with itself, as opposed to a struggling soul, which God describes as self-accusing. (Sura al Qiyama 75:2)
There’s an enormous difference between the emotional states of someone who has internalized external trauma, grief, sadness, and has started to accuse themselves, or to become their own abuser, and a person who has, by whatever means, broken free of that and is left in a state of tranquility.
The Ihya is a 6,000 page book, but that’s what it’s about. It’s about attaining tranquility. I’ll leave it at that. I hope what I’ve done here is give you a little bit of insight into two very different ways of approaching the question of mental distress that are nonetheless things that we would recognize as being valuable and beneficial today.
This talk by Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf was given at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK, Cardiff University, entitled “Approaches to Depression and Anxiety in Classical Islam.” This is not a transcript but an edited post based on the third part of the talk. The first and second parts can be read below.