Rescue from Destruction: The Science of the Soul
Updated: Aug 18
Last night I tuned into a presentation hosted by Mizan Avenue. The talk was delivered by Dr. Abdallah Rothman, Principal of the Cambridge Muslim College and Co-founder of the International Association of Islamic Psychology.
The talk was an introductory level presentation on Soul Development, beginning with an introduction to the key terms in Islamic psychology (including a discussion on the problematics of ‘Islamic’ as an adjective), followed by a discussion on care of the soul, based mainly on the works of renowned mystic (amongst many other prestigious standings), Abu Hamid al-Ghazaali.
The talk was well organised (hats off to Asma and team), informative and well presented. It even started exactly at the time advertised, critically undermining our principal contribution to modern society, our beloved Muslim Standard Time™.
The link for the talk can be found here, and I would recommend giving it a watch.
I was asked to provide some thoughts on the talk, so below is a summary of soul development that I took from the talk, and I’m putting together some more detailed commentary and thoughts to follow soon hopefully.
As a demonstration of the model in question, the session was brought to a close with an inclusive and intimate demonstration of an example of caring for the soul: a short group meditation fixating on the name Allah.
Care of the Soul
The science of the soul (‘ilm al-nafs) is, unlike the name suggests to us moderns, not
an intellectual inquiry into the soul. The Islamic scientific method is not a representation of a subject (the soul in this case), but the instructive praxis of that subject, i.e. a ‘how to’. In this case, an instructional science on how to care for the soul.
The science of the soul is a well-established discipline within the traditions of Islamic societies, originally established in Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s, Sustenance for Bodies and Souls (Masaalih al-Abdan wan Nufus), and later expounded by al-Ghazaali, who detailed the process of the disciplining (riyadah) and training (tarbiya) of the soul in detail.
Science of the soul is an indigenous Muslim approach to psychology and healing, based on an Islamic understanding of human nature and our position in the order of things. Dr. Rothman critiqued the prevalent reduction of psychology to a predominantly mental exercise, evidenced in the language of ‘mental health’ and the regular imagery of the brain as the locus of wellness, amongst other examples. This critique is also being made internally within these disciplines themselves, with an increased emphasis on the body as the deeper site of traumatic experiences and a subsequent turn towards somatic therapies, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), as a more effective pathway towards holistic healing and wellness.
A welcome turn, though the discipline is still some way off taking up the soul itself as a serious site of instruction.
Interestingly, the common understanding of the body being the vehicle of the soul was challenged in preference of a conceptualisation of the body as the material manifestation (or illumination) of the soul, summarised well by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."
The Human Composition
The essence of the science of the soul and its key distinction from competing models is its conceptualisation of the human. In this sense, it is a science of humanities before it is a ‘medical’ science (the broader point of course is that this distinction is unhelpful). The claim made about the human, contentious today (thank you Descartes!) but a longstanding normative Islamic position, is that consciousness is not a matter of the mind, but a matter of the heart; a claim drawn from the famous prophetic saying:
“Verily in the body is a piece of flesh which, if sound, renders the entire body sound, and if spoiled, renders the entire body spoiled. Surely, it is the heart.”
In this understanding, the human is made up of four elements, the composition of which make us whole:
- Self (nafs)
- Mind (aql)
- Heart (qalb)
- Soul (ruh)
Presented below as an iceberg, these four elements function at different depths, with the experience of the self being above surface level, and the spiritual being the most deeply immersed experiential state.
The Iceberg Model of Islamic Psychotherapy (Rothman & Coyle, 2020). Each of these four elements that make up the human require energy to be directed towards them in order for the human to reach a state of equilibrium, which is where we experience peace. The heart plays a key role in this science of the soul because it functions as the regulator for the whole composition, i.e. it regulates the human. The heart in this model is at the centre of our selfhood, meaning that if it’s spoiled (as in the quote above), it will spoil the entire body, even if the body itself has been kept clean.
A spoiled heart is ultimately evidence of an imbalance in our composition.
The Human Condition
In addition to the diagram of the human composition, Dr. Rothman presented a quite interesting diagrammatic representation of the human condition, designed by himself and Professor Adrian Coyle. The cycle of the soul is something that interests me greatly, so I’ll be engaging with this diagram in the commentary to come, but for now it’s presented as self-explanatory (though I’ve added my own translations of the Arabic terms below):
Akhirah: commonly translated as Hereafter, it basically means the experience beyond the self, or, the sublime state.
Fitrah: State of surrender.
Nafs al Mutmainah: The Tranquil Self.
Munjiyat: Experiences of rescue from destruction.
Nafs al Lawwamah: The Reproachful Self.
Tahdhib al-Akhlaq: Refinement of character.
Ghafla: State of heedlessness.
Nafs al-Amara bil su: The Ill-Commanding Self.
Muhlikat: Experiences of abandonment to destruction.
Dunya: Commonly translated as World, it basically means the experience before the self, or, the lowly state.
Care of the Self
The second half of the presentation focused on an introduction to the importance and practice of self-care from the Islamic tradition. Emphasis was particularly placed on the importance of self-care during the COVID pandemic, where many are having to confront themselves for possibly the first time. This can be a daunting prospect. In addition, the spread of a deadly virus, coupled with restrictions on movement, amplify anxieties and stresses and require attention. A recent Gallup survey, for example, found that “experiences of stress, worry, sadness and anger all set new records” in 2020.
The promise of the science of the soul is that tranquility and bliss are not essential traits but cultivated experiences, i.e. with the right praxis, anybody can experience elevated tranquility during even a tumultuous situation, while the absence of the right praxis inevitably produces an experience of debased illness during even a serene situation. In other words, the current pandemic doesn’t have to be experienced as stressful and painful, our commitment (or lack thereof) to a practice of self-care determines how we experience it and other afflictions.
Self Care Model
The Islamic self-care model is based on four key practices:
1) Self-awareness (inkishaaf)
2) Self introspection (muhasabah)
3) Refinement of character (tadhib al-Akhlaq)
4) Purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-Nafs)
These four essential practices correspond to the composition of the human:
Self-awareness (inkishaaf) is a training of the human component of the self (nafs), mindful introspection (muhasabah) is a training of the human component of the mind (aql), refinement of character (tahdhib al-Akhlaq) is a training of the human component of the heart (qalb) and spiritual purification (tazkiyat al-Nafs) is a training of the human component of the soul (ruh).
Each of these is a set of training resources akin to a discipline, not a singular act (e.g. purification of the soul can consist of prayer, remembrance, incantation and many others).
Collectively, these exercises provide a holistic training regimen for the entire human, consistently rescuing them from experiencing abandonment to destruction in a lowly state of egotistical illness in heedlessness, and returning them to experiencing rescue from destruction in a spiritual state of tranquility in surrender.
What is Islam?
The aim of the science of the soul, then, is to restore the human to its original (pre-human) state of equilibrium, achieved through the above four practices. This state of equilibrium was experienced by each of us in our pre-human form in an experience without time or place (known as the Primoradial Covenant), with God declaring to all creation, ‘Am I not your lord?’ (alastu bi rabikum), and each of us bearing witness to this truth and thereby eternalising the essential state of divine connectedness that we are consistently called to 'remember' and return to (tawbah).
The essential trait of the human is to forget, and the science of the soul is a praxis of remembering. This is Islam in a nutshell.