In the current dominant worldview of intellectual supremacy (exhibited by its over- or sole-reliance), there has been a severely diminishing place for spiritual or religious elements in dogmatic science and, therefore, playing little to no role in addressing mental health issues.
Contemporary psychology provides plenty of suggestions on mental health issues prevention or minimisation such as exercise, relaxation techniques, good diet, getting enough sleep and avoiding stressors. Management and treatment include counselling, cognitive behavioural changes, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, psychotherapies, drugs and medications.
The spiritual perspective doesn’t discard the physiological component of mental health, but the reverse cannot be said for mainstream psychology that is based on a secular approach. As a contrasting example, Islam recognises that man consists of several interconnected dimensions: the spirit, the qalb (the spiritual “heart”, the seat of the soul or the spiritual centre), the intellect/mind (which is a faculty of the qalb, or the qalb’s seat of understanding and reason), and the physical self (biology, and its basic animal instincts and needs). These dimensions have a hierarchy (listed sequentially above from highest to lowest) of influence on the man, but it can be in both directions.
Thus, there is a higher dimension of the human being, impacting the mental state and vice versa. As pointed out by Dr Mostafa Al Badawi, consultant psychiatrist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the change to a whole-hearted acceptance and understanding and practice of Islam and its teachings is followed with a “cognitive restructuring and the emotional correlates”.
Professor Kamal Hassan mentioned in his talk entitled “Contemporary Psychological Disorders and the Spiritual Therapy from the Qur’an and the Sunnah” that God’s comprehensive guidance provides clear answers that cannot be provided through human reasoning alone. These fundamental questions regarding human existence impact how we respond to the stressors of life.
Key questions include: What is the true purpose and meaning of human existence? What is the ultimate destiny of mankind? What is the meaning and purpose of the universe and the life of this transitory world? What are the true measurements of success and failure, gain and loss, happiness and misery? What are the correct means of achieving true happiness and of averting true misery and failure in this world, and in the Hereafter?
Restructuring of the cognitive faculty
A complete understanding and conviction of the answers to these questions will result in the restructuring of the cognitive faculty, transforming his or her entire world view which translates into vastly different (and correct) responses to both good and bad worldly events.
Of course, biology, genetics, impacts of psychological trauma or damage (physical, chemical etc.) on the physiological aspect of the mind plays a role in mental health and, if so, the holistic psycho-spiritual approach doesn’t reject what is prescribed in mainstream psychiatric treatments, so long as it doesn’t harm the body and mind further.
It is ironic that the over reliance of the intellect in searching for answers to improve the human condition (in mainstream sources) results in the almost exclusive focus on outward and peripheral forms of changes, instead of the fortification of this internal dimension which humans rely solely upon. This is akin to trying to set up the best national security infrastructures, yet forgetting to install basic home security.
For example, if we refer to the white paper “Building Back Broader: Policy Pathways for an Economic Transformation” by the World Economic Forum (WEF), it recognises the need for new models that actually solve societal problems, and the importance of fairer distribution of economic value between workers and companies, and across all socio-economical, geographical, and national divides.
Although it is true that we need vast changes in economic systems and governing principles, these are still an outward approach. Not to mention that such changes require time for collective evolution and may go through several iterations (through socio-economic changes, civil unrest, geopolitical crisis and even war) before settling down. People will always need something at the individual level; now more so than ever. This psycho-spiritual shield is the last bastion of defence against the vast uncertainties and unlimited external stressors.
The WEF document provided a matrix of likelihood of world major events and its level of impacts, which can act as rough guidance on where we need to prioritise out efforts, in order to avoid those catastrophic trajectories. However, WEF also included risk events categorised under “unknown likelihood” and “unknown impacts” which WEF dubbed as “frontier risks”. The list makes up more than half of the events on the table, which includes bio-weapons, human-engineered pandemic, data theft, AI superintelligence, genetic engineering and many more. The list is, of course, non-exhaustive but it’s clearly limited to our imagination.
Age of uncertainty
The age of uncertainty resonates with what Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Niall Ferguson, mentioned in Bloomberg, that “the next global disaster is already on its way” and that “we simply cannot know which of all the possible future disasters will strike and when. All we can do is learn from history how to construct social and political structures that are at least resilient and, at best, anti-fragile; how to avoid the descent into self-flagellating chaos that so often characterises societies overwhelmed by disaster; and how to resist the siren voices who propose totalitarian rule or global government as necessary for the protection of our hapless species and our vulnerable world”.
Continuous levels of high uncertainties, when coupled with a limited and feeble human mind (yet still hopelessly reliant on reason alone), is doomed to coalesce into the myriad forms of mental and emotional crisis manifesting as confusion, anger, severe anxiety, chronic depression, and even insanity.
Both Ferguson and the WEF document acknowledges that we need new “constructs”, “structures”, “systems” and “models” – all external changes with none touching on the fortification of the self to weather current and future storms. It is unthinkable that future paradigm shifts ignore this crucial component of individual well-being (collectively contributing to societal well-being) given the fact that we can never address all parameters that could be contributors to potential future disasters.
Therefore, it is ultimately how these external calamities translate into our own thoughts (and our corresponding actions) that will determine whether our minds will see these as ease or difficulties.
As mentioned by famous motivation speaker and writer Yasmin Mogahed, “The measure of ease or difficulty in hardship is on a different scale – an unseen scale”. Using the scientific analogy, this means there’s no “standard curve” to assign levels of events to a certain universal measurement level of hardship or ease. This is aligned with the fact that people have different circumstances, face different trials, and have different capabilities to process external stressors and undergo tribulations.
In Islam, this differences in abilities and, therefore, perception/measurement of personal experience (which is the only thing that matters on the individual level) extends itself to the only true source of hardship and ease. Yasmin Mogahed mentioned this perfectly when she states “The ease or level of difficulty is based only on the level of Divine help. Nothing, nothing is easy, unless God makes it easy on me. Not a traffic jam. Not a paper cut. And nothing is hard if Allah makes it easy on me. Not illness, not death, not being thrown into fire, or tortured by a tyrant.”
Fortification against mental stressors
Differences in human abilities and final personal perception of a certain experience of ease or hardship (due to individual differences arising from the totality of cognitive “wiring” rooted in genetics, life experiences and levels of Divine help), are some of the mechanisms ensuring that life - despite outward appearances of ease or catastrophes (both natural and man-made) which we use to judge another person’s state - is fair. As pointed out by Dr Mostafa Al-Badawi, God is Absolute and all else is relative and entirely dependent upon Him. So how can life be unfair, when one of God’s names (and therefore His attribute) is Al-‘Adl (The Utterly Just)?
As the body needs exercise and nourishment to withstand physiological challenges (and greatly assist in alleviating mental distress), so too does the mind need practice, understanding, reminders, and enlightenment to be fortified against continuous a barrage of mental stressors. Reason and intellect alone are too narrow and limited to comprehend the vast Truth of reality, made worse by human’s sole-reliance of the mind to process difficult and unpredictable (yet temporal) worldly events.
Experts in the field on medical science, psychology and counselling, particularly those who subscribe to religious teachings, should harmonise psycho-spiritual components from the authoritative sources alongside contemporary scientific knowledge in order to develop an integrated approach to prevent and overcome various mental health issues plaguing the society today. This is the paradigm shift towards holistic mental resilience, which is a crucial yet increasingly forgotten part of improving the human condition.
Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.