“Treatment of the Soul, Healing of the Heart”- Muslim Physicians and their Important Contribution to Mental Health

The Ancient Greeks defined mental disorders as “being possessed and punished by the Gods for wrongdoing and can only be cured by prayer”. Greek physicians and philosophers wrote their theories about the treatment of some mental disorders without practicing. In Judeo-Christian societies, mental illness was often seen as “a divine punishment” and “a divine gift”. Some mental disorders were well known in Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India and China. With the advent of Islam, a revolution emerged in all scientific fields, including psychology, which will later strongly influence the Western modern psychology.

Muslim physicians were interested in all branches of medicine, including psychology. In the early phase of Islamic medicine, psychology was included in general medicine. After that, the Muslim physicians classified it as a separate branch in medicine. From that moment they will call it “‘ilaadj an-nafs” (the treatment of the soul) or “tib al-qalb” (healing of the heart or mental medicine).

Muslim physicians wrote about many mental diseases like anxiety, depression, melancholia, epilepsy, schizophrenia, paranoia, forgetfulness, sexual disorder, persecutory delusions and obsessive-compulsive disorder among other mental diseases. They were the first ones to add ‘psychosomatic disorder’ to the vocabulary of the history of psychology. They also believed that mental illness was caused by chemical imbalances affecting the brain.

In medieval Islam, a person with mental illness was called “madjnun” (foolish). He was not regarded as a persona non grata, an outcast or a scapegoat. According to the Islamic faith, a Muslim must be kind with them and treat them well.

Many hospitals were established during the early Islamic era. The idea was taken from the time of the prophet Muhammad, where the first hospital took place in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah. The first true Islamic hospital was built in the 9th century, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun ar-Rashid in Baghdad. The Muslims called it a “Bimaristan”, a Persian word meaning “the house where sick people were welcomed and cared for by qualified staff”. People with mental disorders were not excluded.

Physicians and nurses had the duty to look after all the patients, regardless of their religion, race, citizenship or gender. A Bimaristan was necessary to support all patients until they were fully recovered. Every Bimaristan contained a garden, a fountain, a lecture hall, a library, a kitchen, a pharmacy and prayer rooms for Muslims and non-Muslims. Recreational materials and musicians were selected to create happiness. Men and women were taken into separate, but equally equipped wards and were accompanied by physicians, nurses and staff from the same sex. The separate wards were further divided into contagious disease, non-contagious disease, eye disease, medicine, surgery and mental disease (isolated by iron bars). A Bimaristan also served as a center for medical exchanges and as a medical school to educate and to train students. For the first time in history, licensing exams were required and only qualified physicians were allowed to practice medicine. Not only for the physical treatments, but also for the mental treatments.

Bimaristan in Damascus

Psychology in Medieval Islam became, after a while, a separate branch of medicine. The first mental hospitals were established in Baghdad, Aleppo, Cordoba, Fes, Kairouan, Cairo and Istanbul. Western travelers who visited the Muslim world in the 12th century described the therapeutic methods the Muslim psychologists used, the relaxing atmosphere and how the Muslims treated their patients in these therapeutic centers. These centers were equipped with all the necessary means to provide the necessary treatment methods and additional facilities in order to complete the treatment process. Muslim clinicians used various treatments, such as the classical forms of psychotherapy, massages, medication made from plants, mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy, Quran-therapy, music therapy, poetry, occupational therapy, bath therapy, aromatherapy, dancing, theater, storytellers, playing different sports and careful attention to diet.

Every patient was assisted by 2 helpers. Patients with insomnia, for example, were placed in special rooms and were accompanied by professional storytellers to help them fall asleep quietly.

During the reign of the Seljuks, and later the Ottomans, many “healing societies” were built around the mosques. They called it the “Takaya”, which lasted for centuries and are very similar to the newly established mental health centers in the USA.

Written by Afifa Thabet

Avatar photo

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.