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abu zayd al balkhi

 5 Facts about Abu Zayd al Balkhi, the Muslim psychologist who was the first to diagnose mental illness.

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Abu Zayd al Balkhi, the Persian psychologist of 9th Century.

Abu Zayd al Balkhi is believed to have been the first to diagnose that mental illness can have psychological and physiological causes.

Abu Zayd al Balkhi was born in 850 CE in Shamistiyan, in the province of Balkh, Greater Khorasan, he was a disciple of al-Kindi.

1. Abu Zayd al Balkhi was the first to typify four types of emotional disorders:

The four types of emotional disorders :

  1. fear and anxiety
  2. anger and aggression
  3. sadness and depression, and
  4. obsessions.

2. Abu Zayd al Balkhi introduced the concepts of mental health and “mental hygiene” in Islamic Psychology.

Abu Zayd al Balkhi often related it to spiritual health. In his Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus (Sustenance for Body and Soul), he was the first to successfully discuss diseases related to both the body and the soul. He used the term al-Tibb al-Ruhani to describe spiritual and psychological health, and the term Tibb al-Qalb to describe mental medicine.

He criticised many medical doctors in his time for placing too much emphasis on physical illnesses and neglecting the psychological or mental illnesses of patients, and argued that “since man’s construction is from both his soul and his body, therefore, human existence cannot be healthy without the ishtibak [interweaving or entangling] of soul and body.”

He further argued that “if the body gets sick, the nafs [psyche] loses much of its cognitive and comprehensive ability and fails to enjoy the desirous aspects of life” and that “if the nafs gets sick, the body may also find no joy in life and may eventually develop a physical illness.” Al-Balkhi traced back his ideas on mental health to verses of the Qur’an and hadiths

“In their hearts is a disease.”

 Qur’an 2:10


“Truly, in the body there is a morsel of flesh, and when it is corrupt the body is corrupt, and when it is sound the body is sound. Truly, it is the qalb [heart].”

 Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Iman


“Verily Allah does not consider your appearances or your wealth in (appraising you) but He considers your hearts and your deeds.”

Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, no. 8707
abu zayd al balkhi

3. Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was the first to differentiate between neurosis and psychosis

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was the first to classify neurotic disorders and pioneer cognitive therapy in order to treat each of these classified disorders.

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was a pioneer of psychotherapy, psychophysiology and psychosomatic medicine. He recognised that the body and the soul can be healthy or sick, or “balanced or imbalanced”, and that mental illness can have both psychological and/or physiological causes.

4 Abu Zayd al-Balkhi addressed Phobia in 9th century with technique of riyadat al nafs

initially wrote about phobia in the 9th century, calling it Fazaa’.Al-Balkhi details the disorder as an extreme type of fear that results in the anxiety levels of a person spiking due to increasing the depth of blood in the body. This causes the person to become shaky and disoriented, preventing them from making decisions in a timely manner. Rather than taking medicine or proceeding with blood letting, which were common methods to help an individual, he suggested gradual exposure to the object or situation that caused the fear. This technique was known as reyadat al-nafs.

5. Recommended Book by Abu Zayd al-Balkhi :

book by abu zayd al-balkhi :

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behavior Therapy of A Ninth Century Physician (Amazon)

In this book,

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s explains symptoms and treatments giving advice on preventive measures and how to return the body and soul to their natural healthy state. In doing so he displays a keen understanding of the human condition and the medical nature of the human emotional state.

It is an astonishing feat given that many of the conditions he discusses were left largely unknown and untreated for centuries before being clinically defined as such, only as relatively recently as the 20th century. A genius, his insights on human psychopathology as well as diagnoses of psychological ailments including stress, depression, fear and anxiety, phobic and obsessive-compulsive disorders, together with their treatment by cognitive behaviour therapy, relate to us in every way and are in sync with modern psychology. Importantly, they also incorporate a greater dimension to include the soul and the worship of God.

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