Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was a 9th century Muslim polymath, whose writings touched on subjects as varied as geography, medicine, philosophy, theology, politics, poetry, ethics, sociology, grammar, literature and astronomy. Born in 849 CE (235 AH) in the Persian village of Shamisitiyan, within the Balkh (from which he gets his name) province, now a part of modern day Afghanistan, he went on to write more than 60 books and manuscripts. Unfortunately, most of the documents authored by him have been lost over the years, with only a minority of his work reaching us in the modern era.
Of the few aspects of his legacy that have reached us, namely his development of the “Balkhi School” of terrestrial mapping, and his work on the Sustenance of the Soul, both show the intellectual prowess of the scholar.
Most of what we know of Al-Balkhi’s life is by the way of one biographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi. Al-Hamawi does not mention much about Al-Balkhi’s childhood, other than his place of birth and that it seems he received his early education from his father. As he grew older, he began studying the scientific and artistic branches of knowledge of the time. In terms of his temperament, he is described as being shy and contemplative.
Badri comments that in modern terminology, he might be described as profoundly introverted. Sustenance for Bodies and Souls (Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus) Al-Balkhi’s most famous work is arguably his text, “Sustenance for Bodies and Souls”. In this monumental manuscript, AlBalkhi first addresses physical health , after which he delves into the area of the soul.
Normalising Psychological Illness and Distress One of the main initial goals for psychologists practicing in the Western world today is often normalising the illness. Even in the most developed (in terms of the material sciences) parts of the world, stigma and shame often accompany psychological illness, aspects of which are still seen as taboo. The process of normalising illness is so important within therapy, because most of us who experience psychological illness deem ourselves to be abnormal, unusual and altogether unnatural. By normalising the illness, a client can begin to stop ascribing to themselves labels such as these. More than a millennium ago, Al-Balkhi was writing to normalise psychological afflictions to his readers.
The First Self-Help Book
Any reader of Al-Balkhi’s work will notice that the language he uses is accessible and easy to understand. This was a result of a conscious decision by Al-Balkhi to make his work understandable to all levels of readers. His most prominent biographer, Al-Hamawi, notes that this distinguished him from his peers, and many other classical scholars who, like many contemporary scholars, were notably verbose. Commenting on this, he wrote: “We have followed an easy abbreviated style that takes the form of simple reminders and guidance and advice”.
Al-Balkhi makes the now widely disseminated and accepted connection between the mind and the body, with the health of each having significant consequences on the other, “when the body becomes ill…it will prevent… learning and other (mental activities), or performing duties in a proper manner. And when the soul is afflicted, the body will lose its natural ability to enjoy pleasure and will find its life becoming distressed and disturbed”. He also recognizes the reality of psychosomatic illness, “psychological pain may lead to bodily illness”.
On obsessive compulsiveness, Al-Balkhi’s descriptive criteria is in harmony with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible of psychiatric and psychological illness. The DSM-V describes obsessions as, “Recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or impulses that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and unwanted, and that in most individuals cause marked anxiety or distress”
This is extremely similar to Al-Balkhi’s descriptions, “Annoying thoughts that are not real. These thoughts prevent enjoying life, and performing daily activities. They affect concentration and interfere with ability to carry out different tasks. Afflicted individuals become preoccupied with fearful thoughts and expect these events at any time”. Al-Balkhi’s text talks of the individual not being able to “use their mental faculties to deal with anything else, and would be too busy with the imagined imminent danger to enjoy any pleasures or to concentrate on what is said to him or to socialize with others. Whenever he tries to let go and socialize, the disturbing thoughts will shoot up to control his mind”.
Readers of the text will readily note, Al-Balkhi strikes a balance between the spiritual and the material that might be said to be uncharacteristic of the time; rather than explaining everything through words such as devil, jinns and sins, he relies instead on psychological language to explain psychological phenomena, without completely disregarding the unseen.
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