In the mid-eighth century, Baghdad became home to what would ultimately become one of the greatest sustained movements of translation in the history of man. Above everything else, it was an exchange of ideas and the clash of intellectual empires. The question of whether Islam provided a suitable philosophical alternative in face of the ancient Greek doctrines became the question on everyone’s mind.
The original scholars of Islam were averse to any form of participation within the discourse. They held it repulsive that Islam should find itself diluted with the independent intellectual efforts of man. They restrained from even commenting on the issue, attaching badges of deviancy on those who dared otherwise.
But soon the language of culture changed. The elite were being educated within the Greek and Hellenistic traditions. No longer were the teachers of the caliphs Islamic scholars and saints, they were Christian and Jewish philosophers who’d bought the pagan philosophical traditions wholesale and subjugated central doctrines of their own faiths in order to adapt to the language and confines of the latter.
What would transpire soon thereafter was the birth of the Kalam tradition - where scholars could no longer ignore this growing menace afflicting their people and instead, they began tackling it head-on. They started speaking its language, conversing on its paradigms. They integrated the Islamic spirit within the philosophical vernacular.
Early efforts in response to these foreign methods of inquiry were unsuccessful. In attempting to properly challenge pagan sentiments, they forfeited their own Islamic values at times, much as the People of the Book had done before them. They would become the numerous heterodox movements reviled throughout history. But their attempts gave birth to what would eventually become the orthodox movement’s sustained response to said philosophies. These latter renditions of the faith reflected the superiority of orthodox values within the language of the philosophers.
What Islamic scholastic contributions in philosophy would then provide to the original works of the philosophers (on top of commentaries on pre-existing literature) was nothing short of absolute brilliance. The works of prominent Islamic philosophers ultimately gave shape to the logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and more of those to come after them. They would become the primary source of influence in the birth of numerous philosophical traditions during the European Renaissance whose principles continue to shape Western society today.
We find ourselves - within the broader macrocosm - at similar crossroads once again. More specifically, with the advent of modern medicine and the soft sciences (incorporating both the natural and human aspects) seeking to interpret human behavior such as psychology, and sociology, we find ourselves having to address new developments within the roots and extensions of the philosophical branch that deals with ethics.
While ideas such as logical positivism - which served as one of the numerous primary factors in driving the development of these soft sciences - ultimately failed, their dust still lingers in how one approaches the application of these subjects. Their subsequent influence on the broader discourse of Western ethics and the progression of its moral principles has a great impact on modern approaches to secular counseling.
More specifically, one can’t help but notice the adverse effects of the application of such secular sciences when employed in treating the modern human psyche on which various ethical paradigms are sustained. But before one proceeds to that discussion, some positives derived from these sciences need to be affirmed.
Certainly, the study of psychology has produced countless benefits. This can especially be observed within the workplace that otherwise treated its laborers as mules (see the Industrial Revolution) - conversely lowering their productive output. What would seem contradictory to rudimentary mathematics, less time equating greater productivity, was ultimately proven true in various scenarios that left little room to doubt the value of positive mental health on total work output and quality of production.
Other works in modern medicine - studying chemicals, neural pathways, and their effects on the brain - have also undoubtedly proven valuable in addressing many diseases otherwise thought incurable in the past.
Islam didn’t come to remove the good within people. It merely sought to envelop them within the blanket of the greater design, culling only its corrupt ends. That which didn’t fit the mold and would ultimately prove harmful for the constituents on whom it would be applied.
The early onset of these studies in shaping the broader ethics of this society was met with much disdain from the Muslim community. Early scholarship in the prior decades would challenge these scientific developments, mocking their epistemic value and instead regurgitating spiritual incantations devoid of sincerity, often unable to speak the language of those who were rooted in the modern materialistic approach to life.
The contemporary response, on the other hand, much as the historical past heterodox reactions, goes to the other extreme. It inadvertently lauds modern science beyond its innate virtue, extolling its praises without noticing the many flaws that subsist within the secular framework when applied to ethics. The efforts to excise faith from our human function is an indubitable path towards failure.
And that’s where many of the flaws of modern counseling rooted in medicine, psychology, and the broader study of ethics lie. It’s not that they don’t offer significant points of benefit, rather they divorce the divine virtues instilled within the innate nature of man that seeks to rectify his or her state, instead treating them like computers with equations waiting to be properly coded. While certainly, that is a component of the broader solution - when employed alone, it merely serves as temporary masks for symptoms. In the absence of more holistic treatments, the true cause of the problem continues festering, growing beyond the point of no return.
For those influenced by the pure secularisation of spirituality today, unfortunately, they find themselves floating from one ditch to another - seeking stars in the dirt. In the best-case scenario, they look up to find faith that takes them out of the ditch and towards a positive path to recovery. Most, however, find themselves addicted to one pill after another prescribed by hapless therapists whose fundamental work belies the central role of spirituality on which healing is brought to life. Led down the rabbit hole of drug cocktails, such individuals find not only their mental health in ruins but their physical health as well.
The various secular biases that shape this methodology and its detrimental approaches to healing cannot be ignored. The prescription of medication is often based around studies unethically manipulated by the pharmaceutical industry - whose primary interests lie in the attachment of patients to their drugs in order to maximize profits. With the modern judicial system, physicians and licensed therapists often fear deviating from pre-molded solutions that rarely address the specific needs of the patient, often working in a standardized manner that seeks to avoid liability above all else.
And ultimately, one can’t help but observe the adoption of contradictory, alternating values (that belie earlier principles of objectivism) within these sciences as influenced through culture and public pressure fueled by lobbying and specific interests. Where inferences in previous research studies were once considered undeniable facts, social influences determine the success of modern publications, forcing them into specifications only deemed acceptable once applauded by the contemporary status quo.
Even when licensed therapists and other medical professionals seek to address the issues they find problematic, the solutions provided often inculcate ethics shaped by secular logical positivism or desire-based ideals which run in contrast to faith-based values important in the true development of people and societies.
Examples of this remain abound. In relationships, for example, licensed counselors may not understand the religious value of gender separation when addressing issues of doubt and trust between couples. In individual problems, most times such individuals won’t address the spiritual shortcomings often lying at the root of problems like depression, instead diagnosing it as nothing more than mere biological inconsistencies that need to be addressed with ever-increasing doses of medication.
As it pertains specifically to ethics, false modern notions of the innate virtues that lie in “the pursuit of happiness” are quite prevalent within the modern discourse on the subject. This same philosophical outlook mimics the ancient flawed Epicurean principle of pleasure, thoroughly refuted by numerous contending intellectual traditions of the time. The Islamic ethical outlook goes a step further, providing broader spiritual explanations for what constitutes true pleasure, differentiating between coincidental happiness and enduring contentment. The challenge remains in being able to address these philosophical dilemmas in language consumable to the modern audience.
The Islamic response to the philosophical movements of the past found two extremes before ultimately settling into the path of moderation. In the field of ethics specifically, the Islamic methodology sought to embrace the belief in Allah alone and subservience to His commands at the root of what would define moral behavior. The Sunnah would additionally integrate noble behaviors predominant in pre-Islamic Arabia (as well as other cultures) while cleansing them of their ignorance. It would also answer the many queries on the heart and soul presented by those of foreign disposition within the already present discourse of ethics in the surrounding cultures of the time.
Along with the development of the other sciences, and in a language identifiable to experts in the field, this process of identifying and articulating moral values of the faith in systematic fashion would come to constitute Islamic ethics. Subsequently, scholars throughout history would compose works on the subject, along with their other jurisprudential and spiritual writings. They would even tackle more nuanced topics within the subject such as the discernment of good and evil among rational minds without recourse to revelation, including it in principle works of orthodox creed.
Today, the study of ethics (through its amalgamation with modern medicine and the soft sciences) provides a need for the integration of a holistic spiritual response that incorporates these updates into its methodology and language of output while maintaining the true, superior spirit of the divine message. It needs to be one that understands the unique challenges faced by Muslims living as minorities in the modern world, and it needs to employ the positive aspects of modern counseling techniques in bringing resolutions to the myriad ailments afflicting our communities.
The Imam’s office at every mosque is an open door for the spiritually sick. While prevalent thought within faith-based communities still renders counseling and therapy unnecessary, or worse, glances at it with stigmatic lenses - the office of the Imam, serving in a similar therapeutic capacity, remains sacrosanct. One is often praised and encouraged when visiting the mosque regularly and - as a result - this provides a great opportunity for those in the pastoral role to provide holistic solutions to the suffering who otherwise would remain bereft of any proper treatment.
It’s the responsibility of those qualified within the religious sciences to engage with modern counseling without acquiescing to their aberrations (the reasons for which include, but are not limited to, the widespread inferiority complex present within such circles towards materialism and modern science). The challenge lies in seeking to imbue the positive aspects of what these sciences produce with the overarching values of our faith that remain at the core of any solutions that have proven longevity.
Fearing to engage with these sciences leaves the religious clergy unable to adapt and grow their response, ultimately finding themselves sidelined in another important capacity of engagement with their community, but engagement without the broader spirit of inculcating faith as the only viable solution renders these efforts just as impotent as the secular ones.
Ultimately, the Islamic response needs development in order to remain relevant, speaking to its contemporary audience. If integrated properly (with the positive aspects of modern medicine and the soft sciences), it can continue to provide solutions that are rooted in the orthodox, proven methodology for true healing with innovative new techniques that will help mitigate the pains of growth and development along the way.
We find ourselves in an age of unparalleled selfishness. The root of many mental health concerns and modern ethical quandaries can be traced back to an egocentric, often hedonistic lifestyle deprived of faith and true virtue. The vocabulary employed to distract from this reality can only be overcome through tools that concurrently speak in its language, even as the solution - refocusing one’s gaze to the Almighty and finding purpose in His worship - remains timeless.
And Allah knows best.
This is a guest article contributed by Ustadh Muzzammil Ahmed who is a graduate of Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama and is currently teaching Islamic Studies in America.
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