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Compatibility of Modern Psychology and Muslims
Mar 1, 2012

"Surely God changes not the conditions of a people, unless they change what is with their selves." Qur'an (13:11)

In the twentieth century, like other religious communities around the world, Muslims had to come to a resolution regarding the compatibility of their religion with science. Today, at least at the fundamental level, this is not an issue, however, the same pattern of questioning is extended to the use of the products of science: is it permissible to donate one's organs? Under what conditions is abortion permissible? Can a person perform daily prayers (salaat) while onboard vehicles? etc. Along the same line of thought, psychology is under scrutiny in terms of its use for understanding mechanisms of cognition and behaviors, character education and methods of therapy.

Putting Islam and psychology into a perspective

Islam aims at the prosperity of humanity both in this world and in the next. As its prerequisite, Islam requires a conscious and willful submission from its followers. In this brief description, the key words are conscience and will. Without a healthy conscience and free will, human beings can neither be responsible for their actions nor submit to Islam. Therefore, at the fundamental level, Islam calls for action in order to foster the development and exercise of conscience and free will.

Psychology is a discipline that is intended to understand behaviors. It is the study of not only the problematic ones but also the everyday behaviors such as how we remember or forget, learn a language, make selections, or adjust to a society. In this sense, a healthy psychology means a soul in good health that can exercise its free will and associate their actions with their conscience.

The two previous paragraphs imply that essentially psychology is a useful body of knowledge for practicing Islam. With this perspective, there should be no conflicts or compatibility issues between Muslims and psychology. Furthermore, due to their religion that promises to satisfy all faculties of human existence, Muslims should have a completely healthy psychology. Now, let's think about the Muslim world with this idea in mind.

Journey to ground zero

While reading the cases below, imagine yourself in similar situations. While reading we have to bear in mind that many of these cases are not exclusive to Muslim societies, and their reasons have diverse economic, political, and socio-cultural dimensions (please read footnote 1 for more explanation):

- The near past of the contemporary Muslim world contains wars and sectarian conflicts. There are children in those places whose parents, siblings or friends are dying in the clashes. There are consequences of these traumatic events in the development of their psychology.

- In other places, there are Muslims who feel an obligation to hide their religious practices in order not to be an outcast from the society. The children and the adolescents in such atmospheres are likely to develop a feeling of guilt or inferiority.

- In some parts of the Muslim geography, there are girls who are forced to marry someone that they did not want to, or forced to marry an old man. They struggle for emotional survival, and in the meantime, they try to raise their children. There are many suicidal cases among them, and their yearning for revenge is transmitted to their children.

- There are children who barely hear words of appreciation from their fathers, or have almost no one-on-one time with them. There are children who rarely see their mother being treated respectfully by their father. Such children are likely to establish families in which they use their children as race horses to achieve certain goals in life, and in which the wife is treated very much like a loyal servant.

Due to these unfavorable situations, some Muslims who were victims of these situations face various psychological challenges, which can lead to real problems. These problems are not necessarily acute schizophrenia or paranoia, but more subtle things that penetrate the individual and social life thoroughly, such as excessive self-assertion or self-annihilation, negligence in parenthood, malpractices in the family life, gourmandism, back-biting, obsession and compulsion. In such conditions, people have more difficulty in exercising their free will towards what is taught in Islam; because they develop several psychological immune responses for protection. Hence, their free will is no longer as free as they think.

Atop the ivory tower

One of the premises of science is that the gained knowledge must be objective, i.e. independent of the person. In fact, when we consider the human behavior at a broad level, it is possible to reach some universal rules as well. However, the rise of the social sciences in the past century and the consequent accumulation of knowledge severely challenged the premise of objectivity in the humanities. Innate variations in perceptions of the same phenomenon, diversity in the ideals for humanity, various interpretations of the meaning of life are only a few among many reasons that rendered social sciences rather subjective. Being one of the social sciences, psychology is no exception to this subjectivity. As such, the meaning and applications of psychology in different communities exhibit distinct properties.

Modern psychology as a branch of science has been mainly developed by Western scholars. In doing so, they based their statistical works on their own communities. Thus, the observations and conclusions made by them were reflective of Western societies. At a first glance, one can say that humanity shares a lot in their innate character, and so this knowledge base is useful for everyone. True, but when it comes to building characters, one needs to define an ideal and come up with ways to achieve that ideal, given the conditions of the society. The differences in the definition of an ideal bring an essential subjectivity to the table. Aside from this, the difference of the settings in each society necessitates a special focus and a deeper understanding for each and every group of people.

Richard Nisbett, one of the most cited social psychologists, confesses that as a built-up science over the years, psychology was wrong in assuming human cognition to be the same everywhere. He says that these differences are even scientifically measurable. According to Nisbett's studies, the world is more complex to Easterners than to Westerners, and everything is considered "in relation to one another in no simple and deterministic way." Therefore, harmony is almost everything in the East. If something is considered as a breaker of "the harmony," it tends to be refused even if blind conservatism would be the result. In the West however, self sufficiency is valued over dependency and individuality is preferred over conformity. So, psychological treatments that aim to help people become "their best" and "shine their egos" are misfit to the Eastern social context. This is only one example showing that the studies in the Western world do not entirely represent the Eastern world. Still, the rest of the world is copying what the Western world finds in the psychological studies, even though it is known that the dress does not fit the rest.

Another issue with the modern psychology is the position of faith and religion. To modern psychology, religion is nothing more than statistics that say, "Religious practices can be good for recovering from mental and bodily problems, and an adherence to a faith enhances the protection against certain troubles" or, "religious disciplines may lead to psychological complications." Along the same lines, God is either a concept that is out of concern or is no more than a product of our brain. The entire body of spiritual development for that matter, e.g. Sufi practices, is nothing more than a beneficial cultural activity. A vast majority of psychologists would diagnose with schizophrenia a person who is experiencing some spiritual perceptual aspects, which are not counted as hallucination in Muslim society. Thus, although modern psychology may respect a patient's beliefs in God, angels, afterlife, etc., it would not necessarily be able to suggest a cure that can resonate within a Muslim mind.

Focusing on errors

As a consequence of the aforementioned elements of psychology that are not compatible with Muslims, some Muslims make erroneous assumptions about psychology, often triggered by a motive to take pride in their religion.

For example, many Muslims would know Freud only due to his obsession with sexuality as the underlying motive for all human activity. Another erroneous example is towards behaviorism, which establishes deterministic action-reaction patterns of behavior; thus denial of the free will.

A final example to this matter is the emphasis on ego expression and its use in the motivation of the individual. As a daily life application of psychology, self-improvement techniques have been developed and are exported to Muslim societies. These techniques are originating from scientific research mixed with ancient mysticism. One can admit that there is useful information in those sources, but they have been interpreted and organized in such a way as to address the Western individual. And what is more, the picture of ego favored in the resultant teachings is clearly not justifiable with the truths of Islam.

The above examples do not necessarily represent all schools of psychology or the situation of all Muslims or psychologists. However, these are enough materials for the uneducated minds to shun psychology.

Stabilizing on Islam, the middle path

Despite the unfortunate picture drawn above, it is possible that the body of knowledge within psychology can be useful for Muslims. For this, one needs a pragmatic perspective gained through the Qur'an and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him; the sources uncontaminated by cultural interference.

In the context of Islam and Muslims, something that is not a perfect-fit for the norms of some Muslim communities or contradicts them, can be acceptable in Islam (e.g., coexistence and cooperation of Muslims and non-Muslims). Conversely, something that is accepted and appreciated by some Muslim communities can be unjustifiable in Islam (e.g., status of women in social life). Given that guidance and counseling activities are adjusted according to the cultural norms, such activities unaided by the Qur'an and the practice of the Prophet are only likely to sustain the status-quo, without necessarily improving the state of the people in an Islamic manner. With the help of those two sources however, guidance and counseling activities can step outside the cultural norms and provide an improvement in an Islamic spirit.

For example, take the internal conflicts between different groups in a society. In original Islamic understanding, "unity within multiplicity" is taken as a basis in society. This understanding requires diversity under unity, or discrepancy in a harmonious way. Briefly, unity within multiplicity leads to "both/and" thinking style, instead of "either/or." Therefore, claiming to be members of the final and universal religion, Muslims must be able to accommodate the variances among people instead of leveling them off completely under the banner of "unity."

The same view leads to embracing the methods of psychology that agree with or serve Islamic ideals. For example, how many people would know Freud as the person who established a psychoanalytic theory in which the importance of childhood memories is emphasized? More importantly, who would know that he proposed a dynamic understanding for the subconscious? The analysis of childhood memories and tracking how they evolved in the subconscious throughout the life of the individual are things that are not in contradiction with the teachings of Islam. What is more, they can be key concepts for the Muslim world to remove their non-Islamic habits.

Similarly, it is well-known that both the Qur'an and the practice of the Prophet recommend rewarding laudable behavior to strengthen it and punishing evil action to curtail it. Behaviorism, thus gives hope to Muslims to change towards what is right using the right methods when they believe hopelessly that there is no way to become a good person after all wrongdoings. Therefore, conditioning-related phenomena, hence behaviorist methods in this sense, can be of importance within the Islamic educational framework.

Achieving the "perfect human"

Once the issues mentioned in this article are addressed, the psychological methods could be well-suited complements for becoming perfect Muslims. Then, issues like conflict resolution, social justice and poverty are going to be much easier to address. Self-improvement and personality development techniques are going to become a different way of servanthood through reliance on God and destiny. Above all however, for the realization of such goals, Muslims need to be educated about psychology in an Islamic spirit and need to use their free will to change themselves as necessary.

Sumeyra Tosun is a forensic psychologist and graduate student at Texas A&M University. Seth Mette is a postdoctoral fellow at West Virginia University.