Islamic mindfulness. Better than Calm, Headspace and the Rest?

If so, how is it better for us?

  • Well, it is more appropriate for our spiritual needs.
  • It is geared towards a whole level of understanding of the self, including and above above any secular concepts of wellbeing.
  • It serves the Muslim reality that there is little or no distinction between spiritual and psychological wellbeing.
  • It has a tradition that goes back right to the Prophet.
  • It is encoded right into our daily life. There is no real need to add in specific external practices once you understand where to adjust your normal routines to the mindful purpose.

Let me explain why I am writing this. So, at the moment, I’m preoccupied with finishing the app. As usual, it combines Islamic psychology with medical evidence to make something simple, evidence-based, and effective. It is directly informed by knowledge of neuroscience and Islamic psychology. It has more than 60 different modules, including quizzes, techniques and interactive exercises.

It is comprehensive, including videos, audio and interactive quests around all parts of wellbeing, but at least 7 modules will look at mindfulness and meditation though an Islamic lens. One cannot ignore all the buzz about mindfulness and meditation that is fluttering about these days, and the evidence for them in mental health and wellbeing is certainly compelling. So what does Islam have to say? Well, first let’s examine if it has got something more to say than what is already ‘out there’.

As good and successful as things like the apps Calm and Headspace are, they are consumer goods for secular society. They secularise and appropriate some Eastern tradition or another, combining it with some decent scientific justification, in the hope of helping their users. They’re much the same in their excellence: a blissful oblivion involving soft visualisations, meditations, and (slightly smug) voiceovers. I certainly don’t pick on them specifically for any reason. They are well known enough not to care. What they do, works, for their market. They are ultimately bringing some goodness into the world. But as my article on ‘Evidence for Iman in the Brain’ shows, true wellbeing in people of faith is much deeper and more resilient than any secular mindset could achieve. This is borne out by hard evidence.

In my last book Tayyib, I talked about the Islamic approach to weight control and nutrition. I wrote it because Tayyib is head and shoulders above the many books and media about dieting, intermittent fasting and so on. Tayyib is connected to a level of spirituality that is on a wholly higher plane. Here’s an audio chapter from the book if you want to know more.

In the same way, Islamic mindfulness and meditation are a whole step upwards from secular, consumer-level methods.

Above the sciences

Islamic mindfulness, whether in salat, dhikr or any other informal practice, is considered above the scientific quest for knowledge as such. Science is considered a servant of the soul, just as much as the Intellect is considered a servant of the Heart in the Muslim model of the mind.

On the way of love, intellect is like the donkey that carries books (Sura 62:5); it is a lame ass, whereas love is like the winged buraq that brought Muhammad into the presence of God.

Islamic medical practice makes no distinction between the psychological and the spiritual. This is why so many Muslims find it hard to engage with secular types of treatment, including mindfulness, especially if the practice has overtones of influence from other religions.

An overview of traditional Islamic medicine roots

Credit [3]

In her book describing the mystical traditions of Islamic scholars, Annemarie Schimmel [1] described some of the important foundations of mindfulness and meditation in the Islamic way. I have referred to it and other notable works for the reader here, but the modules in the app will be purely practice based, undistracted and purified, focused on getting the maximum benefit with straightforward method.

The practice of Islamic mindfulness and meditation.

Salah and dhikr

In daily life, we have two methods which are perfect opportunities for mindfulness.

Salat is the second pillar of Islam.‘forms the starting point for the way of purification’’

The root word for Salat is Tasil which means ‘Contact’. It is a process of connection with a higher plane altogether. In fact, salah in its original and finest form is in fact a highly meditative process. Scholars talk about how one must control the breath specifically when reading the surahs in the Quran, and how one must visualise being in front of God directly. I describe these ideas in some basic detail in my YT series, but the app will explore the nitty gritty more deeply. Click on the picture below for the first of three YT clips I made about mindful salah.

The positions of salah are in reality positions that aid kinaesthetic memory and symbolise the different depths of awareness and connection to God. So we will examine those in the app, allowing the user to make Salah so much more than mechanistic practice. It will literally become addictive, as it was for so many deeply pious scholars in the past, who needed ‘counters’ and assistance besides them so as to not lose themselves in which rakat (unit) of prayer they were in.

The word Dhikr means remembrance in the mind and soul, the opposite of mindlessness. This is literally the same as mindfulness.

Whoever remembers Me in his heart, I remember him in My heart, and whoever remembers Me to an assembly, I remember him to an assembly better than his own.

HADITH QUDSI

Dhikr IS divine remembrance. Similar to meditation, Dhikr is the process of “listening within, the activation of a presence capable of witnessing inner and outer events without becoming absorbed in them“.

So it is clear that we will look at salah in the app, and we will look at dhikr too. But what else?

Breathing.

In the Quran God describes man as being literally given life by God’s breath. Breathing control is therefore deeply explored in Islam, as it is in modern mindfulness too.

Breath is responsible for conveying the divine quality from the heart to the various centres of the mind, body, and soul. Its connections neuroscientifically are obvious: the polyvagal and autonomic connections from the root of the brain are intimately bound up with states of arousal in human beings, dictating restfulness, pulse, and even sleep and wakefulness. Breathing properly is therefore a back door to calmness and balance.

Hakim Chishti [2] talks about the first chapter, surah fatiha, being read in a pattern of breathing that helped the reader to introject meanings, from one to 7 breaths. So we will examine types of breathing and ways to invoke the same deep restfulness from breathing as those scholars did, with the added benefit of scientific comment.

Presence in time

The true believer has been written about as e gives himself completely to the moment and receives what God sends down to him without reflecting about present, past, and future.

At the highest level of experience it may be said:

The believer is “son of the Moment” . . .The believer is submerged in the Light of the Majestic,not the son of anything, and free from “times” and “states.”

Al Arabi

Other features of Islamic mindfulness are similar to what is described in the secular model, but again, they exist with a fourth dimension- a spiritual plane which for the Muslim is essential. Here I describe how this happens.

  • Practice, not knowledge, beyond mere learning. Neuropsychologically, this is procedural memory, not rote or crystallise factual memory. The Prophet himself was illiterate, and scholars remark that this was deliberate: his understanding of God was pure, based entirely on perception of lived reality, not theory or schemata.
  • Necessity of Self awareness as part of faith as the Hadith “man carafa nafsahu faqad arafa rabbahu,” “who knows himself knows his Lord,” demonstrates.
  • Taming of the baser instincts and emotions. Namely the Nafs. Scholars talk about the ‘jihad-ul-Nafs’- the struggle to tolerate, use and discipline the self, in order for one’s better judgement- the Heart- to express one’s finer self. The lower faculties are not to be killed, but trained so that even they may serve on the way to God. A story told about the Prophet Muhammad expresses this faith. When asked how his nafs behaved, he answered: ‘My nafs, my shaytan, has become a Muslim- it does whatever I order it”- meaning it has been tamed.
  • Deep Observation. Of the self and one’s thoughts. The Sufi meditative tradition of Muraqabah literally means ‘Observation’. I talk about Muraqabah in an earlier blog article.
  • More Committed Acceptance. Of oneself and of reality, not the urgent consumer-like wish to changer things. Acceptance of suffering and misfortune were, in fact, almost prized as signs and opportunities for spiritual deepening. There was no value placed on success above that of misfortune.
  • A more refined understanding of Gratitude. Gratitude is at a whole deeper level than just being thankful. Gratitude has a destination- God himself. A benefactor with wilful device. Much easier to believe in than a mathematically random universe, especially for children and those who have deep spiritual rifts with a concrete yearning. In happens on 3 levels: Gratitude for the gift of opportunity, gratitude for not being given things, and gratitude for the capacity to be grateful.

But enough. I hope this rambling gives an idea of what goes on behind the scenes of the very short, somewhat instructive chapters in my books, and the soon to be launched app. It is a difficult process to tame all the mass of information down, but as a scientist I find it helps my brain feel sharp. As a Muslim, it helps my soul feel restful.

[1] Schimmel A. Mystical Dimensions of Islam 1975

[2] Hakim Chishti. The Book of Healing. 1991

[3] Al-Rawi and Fetters Traditional Arabic and Islamic Medicine. A conceptual Model for clinicians and researchers. Global Journal of health Science, V4 N3, 2012

Post script: The app

I’m working with the developers to create something that is warm, interactive, and gives you a true sense of a journey forward. My motives are to help Muslims and people of faith to thrive. This is of course partly selfish: it would nice for this sinner to have a few marks in the good books with the Almighty. The app will be free from adverts, and free to download. There will be the option to donate, and a premium section for a very small cost. The money from these bits will help pay for the app’s maintenance and extras will go towards making the app free for those in countries without the high incomes enjoyed elsewhere. It’s been a long journey but we are nearly there, alhamdulillah.

In the app, you check in by answering a simple set of questions which measure elements of your own wellbeing. From this, you get a pretty, easily read graphic in the form of a star which tells you how you are doing, focussing on your strengths. The app then suggests which modules may help you further. There are more than 50 modules to choose from, all varying in their content. Health, relationships, spirituality, confidence and so on. There are quizzes, quests, exercises which hop into your calendar and remind you when they are next due, a journal and well-o-meter that chart how you are growing with time, and so on.

It’s funded entirely by me and what little donations we are steadily getting, and the book sales. Get the books – see my page, or donate at our Gofundme thingy. But don’t give anything if you don’t feel like it. I accept fate so happily these days, it is slightly disorientating.

Have a peaceful day.

Published by Dr TK Harris

I write about Islamic psychology and neuroscience applied to modern medicine. I address common and uncommon mental health issues on my blog here, and on my youtube and instagram sites. I qualified in medicine and trained in Oxford in psychiatry, going to the highest level in clinical practice. I now focus fully on public work. My mission is to help as many people as possible access cheap or free help for mental health in Islam.

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