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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 13    Issue 12   01 - 28 February 2019

Review Essay

Contemplation and Meditation in Islamic Perspective

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Contemplation: An Islamic Psychospiritual Study. By Malik Badri. 136pp. International Institute of Islamic Thought, Herndon, USA, 2010

Humans are differentiated from animals on account of certain distinctive or species-specific biological, neurophysiological, social, cultural and psychological features and characteristics. Certain areas of the human brain such as speech, control of hands, foresight and planning are highly complex and developed. Man’s capacity for symbolic communication or speech is located in the left hemisphere of the brain, in two connected areas: one area is close to the hearing centre, and the other lies forward and higher, in the frontal lobes. The human brain is wired to learn language. Only man can oppose his thumb precisely to the forefinger, which is a unique human ability. This ability has greatly facilitated writing, tool making and the development of arts and crafts. The organization of experience is very far-sighted in man, which is located in the frontal lobes and the prefrontal lobes. The frontal lobes enable us to think of actions in the future and wait for a reward. The ability to plan actions for which the reward is a long way off is a central gift that the human brain has and to which there is no match in animal brains. Self-awareness and self-reflection are among the most distinctive characteristics of man, which differentiate humans from all species of animals. Some species of animals may possess a rudimentary awareness of themselves, but man’s self-consciousness has an altogether different character, is highly differentiated and has no parallel in animals. Self-consciousness enables man to transcend the physical environment of which he is a part. It makes possible the creation of a richly textured world of symbols, meaning and ideals, which overrides man’s biological needs. Man has been endowed with a capacity for reason, imagination and moral choice, which sets him apart from the rest of nature. In 2014 scientists identified an area of the human brain, unique to Homo sapiens, which is located in the Ventrolateral Frontal Cortex. This area is involved in some of the highest forms of cognition, language and conscience.

Focused Observation, Reflection and Contemplation

The Quran repeatedly urges Muslims to observe and reflect over the ‘Signs of Allah’ (Ayat Allah) that are writ large in the universe and in the human psyche. These signs are found in the heavens and the earth (3:190; 10:6, 101; 12:105; 41:37;), in the alternation of days and nights (17:12; 36:37; 170:12), in the clouds (2:164), in the change of the winds (45:5), in the ships that sail through the oceans (42:32), in the creation and behavior of animals, birds and insects (16:69; 88:17), in the creation of human beings (5:86; 30:20; 45:4), in the human psyche 98:30; 41:53; 21:51; 30:8), in the variations in languages and skin colours (30:22), in ancient peoples and civilizations and historical events (2:219; 12:7; 18:9; 24:10; 37:15).

Multiple Dimensions of Focused Observation and Contemplation

The Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) is reported to have said about the Quran: “Scholars will never be satiated with its study and its wonders will never cease.” The Quran is a vast, unfathomable ocean of knowledge, meaning and profound wisdom. The Quran urges Muslims to ponder over its verses (4:82; 38:29; 47:24). The words tafakkur and tadabbur (reflection, contemplation and meditation), which are repeatedly mentioned in their various derivatives in the Quran, are imbued with an unmeasurable depth of meaning and significance and have immense cognitive, behavioural, scientific, medical, psychological, moral, social, spiritual and therapeutic importance. The following provides a brief explication of what has been said in the foregoing.

Scientific Dimensions

Keen, focused and purposive observation, analysis and reflection are the key elements of the scientific method. It is significant to note that many scientific discoveries, inventions and innovations by Muslim scientists in the early centuries of the Islamic era were inspired by the verses of the Holy Quran. An eminent German scientist E. H. F. Meyer has perceptively observed that “the Quran has been the mother of all sciences among Muslims.”


The Quran says: “He makes you in the wombs of your mothers in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness” (39:6). Professor Keith Moore, professor of anatomy at the University of Toronto, Canada, points out that the fact that the development of the human embryo takes place in stages was not known and discussed until the 15th century. The first known illustration of a foetus in the uterus was drawn by the famous Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci. The different stages of the development of the embryo can be seen only through a microscope. After the microscope was invented in the 17th century by Leeuwenhoek, descriptions were made of the early stages of the chic embryo. The stage-wise description of the human embryo was presented only in 1941.

According to Professor Moore, the three veils of darkness mentioned in the Quran may refer to: (i) the anterior abdominal wall (ii) the uterine wall, and (iii) the amniochorionic membrane.

The Quran says: Verily, We created man from a drop of mingled sperm (76:2). This refers to the mixture of a small quantity of sperms with the oocyte and its associated follicular fluid. The mixture of the ovum and the sperm becomes the zygote or primordium of the embryo. It was not until the 18th century that Spallanzani demonstrated experimentally that both male and female sexual fluids are necessary for the development of the embryo. The Quran referred to this fact more than fourteen centuries ago.

The Quran says: Then We made the sperm into a leech-like substance; then of that substance We made a chewed-like lump; then We made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh (23:13). Microscopic examination confirms that a 24-day old human embryo looks like a leech. In the fourth week it begins to look like a chewed substance. The chewed appearance results from the somites which resemble teeth marks. When Professor Moore read about this description, he obtained a picture of a leech and discovered, to his amazement, that there was a remarkable similarity between a 24-day old human embryo and a leech. He subsequently included both the pictures in his widely-read textbook Clinical Embryology. When Professor Moore was asked how he would interpret this description of the human embryo in the Quran, he remarked: It could only have been divinely revealed.

The Quran says: And He gave you hearing and sight and feeling and understanding (32:9). Professor Moore points out that modern embryology confirms this sequence of the development of different sense organs. The primordial of the internal ears appears before the beginning of the eyes, and the brain the site of understanding differentiates last.

Animal Behaviour

The Quran urges Muslims to observe and reflect over the behavior of animals, insects and birds and offers some amazing information about it, which came to be confirmed only in the 20th century. The Quran says: And thy Lord inspired the bee, saying: choose thou habitations in the hills and in the trees and in people’s habitations (16:68). A German biologist Karl von Frisch carefully observed and recorded the dance communication of the honeybee in the 1940s, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The results of his researches were published in his books The Dancing Bees (1954) and The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees (1967). It is estimated that the brain of a honeybee, which weighs only ten milligrams, is superior by about seven orders of magnitude the most efficient of today’s computers. The frequency range of the sounds a bee can detect extends well beyond the threshold of human hearing. Both sound and dance are required to communicate information about the location of food.

Scout bees, when they have found a rich source of nectar, return with the pollen or nectar to the hive and communicate accurately the location of the source by dancing in the dark hive on the vertical combs. The dancer emits sound signals that help the dance followers determine where the dancer is and how she is moving, which in turn offers them critical information regarding the direction and distance to the feeding site. The followers emit sounds that vibrate the comb. It is interesting to note that, in the verse quoted above, the command is given to the bee in the feminine imperative form. It was discovered only a few decades ago that only a female bee finds a new dwelling.

The Quran says: “There is no animal on earth, no bird which flies on wings, that (does not belong to) collectivities like yours (6:38). The idea of collectivities or societies among animal species entails a form of social organization, coordination of activities and patterns of behavior, and a system of communication. It was only during the latter half of the 20th century that researches in ethology, sociobiology and experimental psychology confirmed the existence of animal societies. Affectional bonds in rhesus monkeys, for example, are created and sustained by the operation of five basic affectional systems involving the maternal system, the infant-mother system, the peer system, the heterosexual system and the paternal or adult male system. 1

Many mammals and bird species have complex societies. Baboons, for example, typically live in groups of 40-50 members. Antelopes live in groups of several thousand members. Likewise, Old World monkeys, gorillas and elephants live in groups and collectivities. In many cases, these groupings resemble social networks among humans. For example, when two individuals of the same family of elephants meet after a temporary separation, they commonly engage in an intense and often noisy greeting ceremony. 2 Some ethologists have described such groupings as constituting local communities. 3

Some of the most pioneering and highly important studies in animal behaviour in the wild have been carried out by the celebrated British ethologist and primatologist, Jane Goodall. She studied chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanganyika, East Africa, for nearly 45 years. On the basis of her intimate and carefully recorded observations of chimpanzee behaviour, she came to the conclusion that they have distinct personalities, emotions and minds. She showed that there exist affectionate bonds between chimpanzees, particularly between mothers and offspring and maternal siblings. These bonds often persist throughout life. Goodall convincingly showed that chimpanzees show emotions, which are strikingly similar to what we label as happy, angry and depressed. Much of their non-verbal communication -- facial expressions, gestures, hand movements -- are similar to those of humans. She showed that, like human children, chimpanzee young ones experience and display joy and grief.

Some ethologists have carried out systematic studies of the behaviour of elephants in the wild and have been struck by the amazing communication system that exists in them. Elephants communicate with each other through hundreds of distinct signals, gestures, movements and sounds. They send signals to each other that may travel as far as five miles. They communicate via sound waves that are below the threshold of human hearing. Large groups of female elephants use these infrasonic sounds to alert each other to danger and to give directions as they migrate from one place to another. Elephants live in matriarchal groups in which social bonds are deep and enduring. When they reunite, they engage in a greeting celebration, flapping their ears and spinning about and emitting a sound described by ethologists as “greeting rumble.” Elephants experience and show grief when social bonds are snapped due to separation or death. They have been observed to show concern and compassion when they encounter another elephant who is in distress or when another elephant has died.

Wolves, like chimpanzees and elephants, not only experience joy and happiness as well as other emotions but also express them in their gestures and movements. When they reunite, they display their happiness by licking one another’s muzzles and wagging their tales loosely to and fro in a circle, whining and jumping about. Dian Fossey made a long-term study of the behaviour and communication system of gorillas in the wild. She found that gorillas have a vocabulary of nearly a hundred different sounds, gestures and facial expressions. Their vocalizations range from low guttural contact grunts to alarming barks and screams. Gorillas live in the most stable social groups of all the great apes and are known to experience and show a range of emotions, including happiness, grief and anger.

Primates often display behaviour that has a striking resemblance with human behaviour. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania report that baboons generally move about in groups and form close and enduring bonds with one another. Furthermore, these bonds help them in coping with stressful situations. 4

Neurophysiological Dimensions

The human brain, a highly complex organ, has some 86 billion neurons, which are connected to each other in trillions of ways. The neurons and their interconnections – called cynaptic connections -- are activated by the process of thinking and interaction with the environment. Recent researches in neurophysiology suggest that the brain appears to add billions of new cells as children and adolescents interact with their environment. Active, self-conscious and focused reflection and contemplation, which is emphasized by the Quran, plays a highly important role in keeping the neurons in an activated form.

The normal aging process is associated with some mild cognitive losses and slowing of physical and mental functions, especially memory. However, cognitive decline is neither inevitable nor universal. They may be activated or deactivated through the kind of mental activities we choose to follow. People who lead a physically, mentally and socially active life may not experience serious cognitive decline in old age. Furthermore, cognitive decline may be arrested or reduced by regular physical activity or exercise, memorising passages, self-conscious thinking and creative work. Regular physical activity –and daily prayers involve regular physical activity -- causes the release of proteins that facilitate and accelerate connections between neurons and the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory. Memorising the verses of the Quran and the prayers that are taught by the Prophet is a form of brain exercise that keeps the brain activated and protects it against cognitive decline.

Psychological, Psychotherapeutic and Health Dimensions

The Quran urges Muslims to reflect over the complexity of the human self (41:53) and, at the same time, offers a realistic and balanced view of human nature. The Islamic perspective on human nature is marked by four distinct features. In the first place, Islam offers an ennobling view of human nature. Man, according to the Islamic view, has been created in the best of moulds, designated as God’s vicegerent on earth and given dominion over all that is in the universe (Quran 2: 30; 6: 165; 14: 32-33; 45:13). Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a self-conscious being who has been created by God Almighty with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. All human beings have descended from Adam, the primordial man, and are therefore equal in God’s sight.

The equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of birth, class or caste, is one of the cardinal tenets of the Islamic faith. According to the Islamic view, all humans have been created from a single primordial pair and are therefore equal (49:13). The Prophet categorically declared in his Farewell Pilgrimage: “O people! Verily your Lord is One and your father is one. All of you have descended from Adam, and Adam was (created) from dust. The most honoured in the sight of God is the one who fears Him the most. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, except in respect of piety”.

Secondly, human nature is characterised by a certain duality. On the one hand, man has been created from clay, a lowly substance (Quran 23:12; 32:7). On the other hand, God has breathed His soul into him (Quran 15:29). Thus, man possesses two rather contradictory potentialities: sublime and divine-like, on the one hand, and base and demonic, on the other (Quran 14:34; 17: 100; 43:15; 70:19; 95:4-5; 100:6). The polarity of human nature is symbolized in the story of Abel and Cain (Quran 5: 27-31). Man tends to be impatient and greedy (Quran 70:19). Furthermore, he has a tendency to be ungrateful, niggardly and contentious. He is prone to acting in an unjust manner and often surrenders to his desires (Quran 45:23).

Interestingly, one can find an echo of duality of human nature, as reflected in the Islamic tradition, in the observation of an eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal (d.1662): “It is dangerous to show man too clearly how much he resembles the beast without at the same time showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very profitable to show him both.” Carl Jung (d. 1961) held that some of our unconscious motives are indeed dark and frightening, while others can serve as wellsprings of creativity. Gordon Allport (d. 1967) maintained that all humans possess deeply rooted selfish tendencies, together with the inherent potential to outgrow and overcome them.

Thirdly, Islam eschews a deterministic view of human nature. It takes due cognizance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity for reasoning and moral choice (76: 3; 90: 8-10; 8:53; 15:29). The Quran says: “We did indeed offer the trust (amanah) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains but, being afraid, they refused to take it up; but man took it up…. ..” (Quran 33:72). The commentators of the Quran point out that the word trust (amanah) refers to the capacity for reasoning, self-reflection and moral choice. Islam strikes a balance between submission to God’s will and human agency. The Quran also says that man has been uniquely endowed with the capacity for symbolic communication or language (90:9).

Fourthly, Islam recognizes the role of the social environment and education in unfolding, as well as in stifling, human potentialities. The Prophet is reported to have said: “There is no infant who is not born in a state of nature, but his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian.” He is also reported to have said: “A man follows the ways of his friend. Therefore, you should be watchful about the person you befriend.” Islam also suggests an ethical code to facilitate the flowering of man’s benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive tendencies in his nature.

The Quran refers to three key dimensions of the human self: (i) nafs ammarah, which acts as the instigator of evil and viciousness (ii) nafs lawwamah, which represents the conscience that castigates man for his waywardness (iii) nafs mutmainnah, which enshrines a state of inner peace and tranquility. The notion of divine vicegerency not only bestows an exalted status on man but also entails certain obligations. As God’s vicegerent on earth, man is responsible to Him for all his actions and deeds. The Prophet is reported to have said: “All of you are (like) shepherds; and all of you are accountable for your sheep”. Man has a moral responsibility to safeguard God’s bounties, including the planet’s resources and its biodiversity.

The Islamic conception of human nature offers a corrective to the romantic, cynical and reductionistic views and emphasizes that though both good and evil are embedded in the structure of the human psyche, man has the innate capacity and freedom to overcome his frailties and to actualize his benign potentialities. It focuses on the unfolding and development of the moral person. 5

The emergence of certain new health-related disciplines, such as psychoneuroimmunology, behavioural neurology, biofeedback and behavioural medicine, has reinforced the rethinking about the limitations of the biomedical model. Neuroendocrinology and psychoneuroimmunology deal with the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems, particularly with the complex ways in which the human brain modulates the functioning of the immune system. Biofeedback aims at exercising voluntary control over processes that are supposed to be automatic and self-regulatory in nature, such as heart rate and blood pressure. Behavioural medicine and cognitive therapy emphasize that one’s perception and appraisal of a situation, which is influenced by one’s beliefs, values and convictions, has an important bearing on health and illness.

Some amount of stress is unavoidable and is in fact beneficial in certain situations. But an excess of anxiety, tension and depression takes a heavy toll of one’s health, peace of mind and inter-personal relationships. Growing medical evidence suggests that stress has a critical bearing on a wide range of illnesses, including coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, allergies, skin diseases, fatigue, insomnia, and gastro-intestinal problems. Cardiologists speak of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or broken-heart syndrome, caused by the death of a spouse, financial worries or some other traumatic experience, which severely weakens and damages the heart and makes it look like a traditional Japanese pot called a Takotsubo, which has a narrow neck and a wide bottom. Stress has long been associated with ulcer. It also suppresses the reproductive system. It is estimated that nearly half of the ten causes of disability worldwide are psychogenic and are linked to stress.

Stress weakens the immune system by switching off white blood cells which fight disease. Stressful situations and stimuli -- called stressors -- accelerate the secretion of a hormone, cortisol, which makes one susceptible to infectious and other kinds of disease. Stress causes loss of appetite and sleep, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure and loss of libido. Stress in the work environment—job stress, night shifts, unpleasant relations with colleagues—engender negative emotions such as resentment, anger, hostility, anxiety and depression, which lead to the release of stress hormones. Studies suggest that stress in the work place is a major factor in the development of heart disease and diabetes. Stress causes blood pressure to rise and sustained high blood pressure leads to the thickening and stiffening of the artery wall, which reduces blood flow and thereby contributes to hypertension.

Depression is becoming increasingly common in large parts of the world. In the US, nearly 4 percent of the population suffer from major depression, with a lifetime risk of 5 to 10 percent for men and 20 to 25 percent for women. A study sponsored by the World Bank and the World Health Organization on the Global Burden of Disease and Injury estimates that 15 percent of men and 25 percent of women across the world suffer from depression. It also predicts that unipolar disorder will be the second largest cause of disability and death worldwide by the year 2020. Cognitive symptoms of depression include diminished interest in work and other activities, feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt and difficulty in concentration. Acute or clinical depression is often manifested in fatigue, insomnia, significant weight loss and restlessness. Depression always causes significant morbidity. The pathogenesis of depression depends on several factors, including genetic predisposition, physical illness and psychosocial factors such as stress, alcoholism and drug abuse.

Dr Sandeep Jauhar, a US-based cardiologist, in his book Heart: A History (2018), suggests that the field of cardiology needs to devote more attention to the emotional factors that can influence heart disease, like unhappy relationships, loneliness, poverty, income inequality and stress at the work place. Several studies show that people who feel lonely or socially isolated or are cut off from their traditional moorings are more prone to heart attacks and strokes. Studies on Japanese immigrants to America found that their heart disease risk multiplies. But those who retain their traditional Japanese culture and strong social bonds are protected. Their heart disease rates do not rise. He says that emotional stress is a key modifiable risk factor for heart disease and emphasizes that cardiologists need to have a deeper understanding of the intersections between the biological heart and the emotional heart. 6

Remembrance of Allah, listening to the recitation of the verses of the Quran by a trained qari and meditation can have a soothing, comforting effect on the heart and the mind. Studies carried out by Muslim physicians show that listening to the recitation of the Quran has immune-enhancing effects. Islam emphasizes fellow-feeling, sharing and community bonds and discourages social isolation. This has a positive effect on physical and psychological health and wellbeing.

Sociological Dimensions

As mentioned in the foregoing, the Quran urges Muslims to ponder over the verses of the Quran. One of the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith is the unity and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of race, skin colour, lineage or class. The Quran says that all humans have been created from a single primordial pair and are therefore equal (49:13). The Quran recognizes the variations in skin colour, ethnicity and languages in human societies (30:22; 49:13) but emphasizes that these distinctions are meant to serve the purpose of identification. It states that the only criterion of nobility and honour is piety.

The Quran says: “And among His signs is this that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put love and mercy between your (hearts), surely in that are signs for those who reflect” (30:21). It may be pointed out that life-long pairing and bonding is rare in animals. In mammals, it occurs only in 3-9 per cent. The intensity of bonding in humans and between husband and wife (who may not be related to each other by blood ties) has no parallel in animals.

History, Historical Geography and Archaeology

The Quran refers to certain features, which are characteristic of advanced societies and civilizations. These features differentiate human societies from collectivities of animals as well as from the life of primitive and tribal communities. These features include iron smelting (18:96), weaving (16:92), stitching and tailoring (7:22), carpentry (11:37), trade and commerce (106:2), cultivation (3:14), sculpture (7:148), glasswork (27:44), baking (12:36), architecture (7:74), and domestication of plants and animals (6:141; 16:8). The Quran also mentions the harnessing of natural resources (45:13), the art of writing (96:4), which is one of the most distinctive features of civilization, and writing materials, such as parchment, pen and ink (52:3; 6:7; 68:1; 18:109).

The Quran mentions several ancient cultures and civilizations and historical events and urges Muslims to observe and explore the ruins of the settlements of earlier peoples. Some of these people were wiped out from the face of the earth due to their intransigence and defiance of divine message brought by the prophets.

Malik Badri

Malik Badri, an internationally renowned Sudanese-born Muslim psychologist and psychotherapist, is one of the few contemporary Muslim scholars who have made a serious attempt at the restructuring of the human and social sciences in an Islamic framework. Badri was born in Rufaa, a small town in northern Sudan, in 1932. After receiving his bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the American University in Beirut, Badri travelled to the UK, where he obtained a doctorate in psychology from the University of Leicester in 1961. He also obtained a postgraduate certificate in clinical psychology from the Academic Department of Psychiatry of Middlesex Hospital at London University’s Medical School in 1966.

Badri has had a long career in teaching and professional psychotherapy at several universities and hospitals in Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain, Morocco, Lebanon and Malaysia. In 1977 he was elected a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and in 1989 the Society conferred on him the title of Chartered Psychologist. He was appointed a member of the committee on Traditional Medical Practices of the World Health Organisation. Badri was a Distinguished Professor at Ahfad University in Sudan and at present holds the prestigious Ibn Khaldun Chair at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Three distinctive aspects of Badri’s contributions to the reorientation and restructuring of psychology and psychotherapy in an Islamic perspective are note-worthy. First, he has documented and highlighted the original and pioneering contributions of Muslim scholars, thinkers and physicians in the Golden Age of Islamic Science (from the 8th to the 16th century) to the advancement of psychology and psychotherapy and has shown that they were forerunners of some of the central ideas and therapeutic techniques in psychology and psychotherapy.

Badri translated, with annotations and extended notes, the work of a ninth century Muslim physician and psychologist, Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, Al-masalih al-abdan wal-anfus, into English, which was published as Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behaviour Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician, in 2013. Abu Zayd Ahmad ibn Sahl al-Balkhi (850-934) was a Persian polymath who wrote extensively on mathematics, geography, astrology, medicine and philosophy. In Sustenance of the Soul, al-Balkhi dwelt at length on the close linkage and interplay between the mind and the body and emphasized that maintaining a balance between the mind and the body is a prerequisite of good health. He drew a distinction between physical and mental or psychological illnesses and noted the individual differences in the aetiology and treatment of psychosomatic disorders. He was the first physician in the history of medicine to draw a distinction between psychosis and neurosis. Al-Balkhi made an original and pioneering contribution to what came to be known as cognitive behavioural therapy more than a thousand years later. He emphasized the effectiveness of cognitive therapy for the treatment of psychosomatic disorders and dysfunctional behaviour. The idea of ‘reciprocal inhibition,’ which was introduced in psychotherapy by Joseph Wolpe in 1969, was anticipated more than a thousand years ago by al-Balkhi. Badri describes al-Balkhi’s psychotherapeutic approach as ‘rational cognitive therapy.’

Badri On Contemplation

Malik Badri examines the significance of contemplation, which he regards as one of the most exalted forms of worship in Islam, against the backdrop of modern psychology. He points out that behaviourism, classical psychoanalysis and neuropsychiatry, which have been the dominant conceptual paradigms in Western psychology until recently, take a reductionistic and deterministic view of the human psyche. Scientific and medical models in psychology, according to Badri, present a constricted and emasculated image of human nature. From around the middle of the 20th century, a growing number of psychologists began to focus attention on the structure of human consciousness, thinking and other cognitive processes. Badri then dwells on the debate on the linkage between the mind and the body. Some psychologists, who focus on the neurophysiological structure of the human brain, argue that the process of thinking as well as human behaviour can and should be explained in terms of the physiological, chemical and neurological processes that go on in the brain. On the other hand, some eminent scientists, such as John Eccles, believe that the brain and the mind are not the same but distinct entities and that the mind exercises significant control on the process of thinking and on human behavior. John Eccles spoke of a self-conscious mind.

Noam Chomsky’s massive and devastating critique of behaviourism and empiricism paved the way for the emergence of what came to be known as the “cognitive revolution.” Cognitive psychology, which is an offshoot of this paradigm shift, focuses on mental processes such as consciousness, perception, language use, memory, thinking, imagination and creativity. It rejects the behaviourist view that human behavior is entirely a product of external and environmental stimuli and emphasizes that human actions are invariably motivated by an internal cognitive activity. This cognitive activity is an intrinsic part of the human mind and is continuously at play. Cognitive psychology convincingly argues that people’s conscious thinking and internal cognitive activity is the mainspring of beliefs, attitudes, values and feelings.

Badri says that Muslim scholars of earlier centuries were fully aware of the fact that thinking and other cognitive processes have a significant bearing on attitudes, feelings and behaviour. Ibn al-Qayyim, for example, in his book Al-Fawaid, says that a person’s actions are the outcome of an inner thought, a concealed speech or reflection or an internal dialogue (khawatir). He draws a distinction between positive and negative thoughts. Both kinds of thought, according to him, are embedded in the structure of human consciousness. At the same time, man has the capacity and freedom to turn positive thoughts into actions and to prevent negative thoughts from finding expression in actions. Imam al-Ghazali made a significant contribution to an explication of the linkage between thought and action. In his magnum opus Ihya Ulum al-Din, he says that a Muslim who desires to cultivate good behavior must first critically reflect on and modify his thoughts and self-image and then try to restructure his thinking. Contemplation facilitates this process of critical self-appraisal and self-realisation.

Badri argues that the Islamic concept of contemplation and meditation differs from other forms and techniques of meditation that are found in Asian religious and spiritual traditions in that it emphasizes the cognitive and rational dimensions of meditation. In Islamic view, contemplation is not just a means to bring about an altered state of consciousness but a means whereby one gains a meaningful, deeper understanding of God and His majesty.

Badri outlines four interrelated stages of Islamic contemplation. The first stage is reached when “knowledge of the contemplated object comes through direct sensory perception via sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – or indirectly, as in the case of imagination. One reaches the second stage of contemplation when he takes a closer look at the specific qualities and aesthetic features of these objects. The third stage arrives when the meditator crosses the boundary between the created object of contemplation and its Creator. This brings about a recognition of the omnipotence and majesty of the Creator and a feeling of awe and submission. Finally, these three stages culminate in the fourth and final stage, when regular contemplation becomes a deeply ingrained spiritual habit.

Several studies suggest that beliefs and convictions have a significant bearing on behavior as well as on physical and psychological wellbeing. Badri cites a study carried out by S. Wolf, which showed that a person’s beliefs could even reverse the adverse effects of drugs.

The Quran says: “Those who believe and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah; for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah hearts find comfort and contentedness” (13:28). In Islamic view, reflection, meditation and remembrance of Allah are closely intertwined and are an important feature of Islamic prayers. Listening to the recitation of the verses of the Quran by the Imam in the congregational prayers induces a feeling of tranquility and calm in the worshippers. At the end of the daily prayers, Muslims devote sometime to a silent invocation of certain verses and words, which were taught by the Prophet, in praise of Allah. This has a comforting, soothing effect on the mind.

Badri cites a highly important study carried out by Dr Ahmed Elkadi at Akbar Clinic in Florida, USA, which showed that when Muslims listen to the recitation of the verses of the Holy Quran by a trained qari, even if their mother tongue is not Arabic and they cannot fully understand the meaning of these verses, they experience significant neurophysiological changes that signify feelings of inner peace and tranquility and relief from stress and anxiety. These feelings enhance one’s immunity against disease.

This is indeed a thought-provoking book that makes a significant contribution to the restructuring of psychology and psychotherapy in an Islamic framework. It also suggests ways in which psychology could profitably be released from the shackles of scientistic and reductionistic models that have dominated the discipline for a very long time and embrace an expansive and humanistic approach to the study of the human psyche.


1. W. H. Thorpe: Animal Nature and Human Nature. London, 1974, pp. 243-45

2. R. Hinde, ed. Primate Social Relationships. Oxford, 1983; R. I. M. Dunbar: Primate Social Systems. London, 1988

3. A. R. Momin: Introduction to Sociology: An Islamic Perspective. New Delhi, 2017, pp. 23-25

4. Momin, op. cit. pp. 33-35; A. R. Momin, ‘Homo Islamicus: Human Nature in Islamic Perspective’ The IOS Minaret (http://iosminaret.org/vol-4/issue13/Human-Nature-in-Islam.php)

5. The New York Times, 30 October 2018

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