Towards Islamic Psychology

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By Salma Yaqoob



As a Muslim woman, born, brought up and educated in England, I have sometimes experienced some discomfort in practicing Western psychology as a psychotherapist. Many times I see patients who I believe would benefit from a more holistic approach, taking into account their spiritual needs as well as their emotional and physical needs, but it is as if there is a taboo in mixing faith with treatment – it is not “acceptable” or considered “professional”. In our training as psychologists, spirituality is hardly even mentioned, and if it is, it is done so usually in a very negative way. I was interested in analysing why there was this split in psychology and religion, why in the West it is that any integration of the two is viewed with suspicion. Through a little research and reflection it became apparent that this split in psychology and religion actually reflects the split between science and religion in the West. Indeed the schism between science and religion is the defining characteristic of Western thought, leading to a separation of sacred and secular discourses.

The Split between Western Science and Religion

The reasons for this actually lie in the Renaissance period of Western history many centuries ago when the church was seen to be an obstacle to scientific advancement. The ideas of philosophers and scientists were banned from publication and discussion; e.g. Galileo who observed through the then new invention of the telescope that the earth moves around the sun and the sun does not move around the earth, as thought at the time, was labeled a heretic by the church and placed under house arrest. His views were considered contradictory to Christian teaching. Bruno who publicly stated such ideas was interrogated by the Inquisition and then punished by burning to death at the stake.

The result of this repression and persecution by religious authorities was a split between science and church. But ultimately, science was victorious over the church because the evidence of its rational observation and experimentation just became too compelling. As a consequence, all religion became associated with being backward, superstitious, and regressive, and so secularism – which was a rejection of religion – became associated with being rational, liberated and progressive. Even hundreds of years after the conflict between church and science, the effect on the Western psyche is still very apparent. This is why the secular discourse still remains the only acceptable discourse. It is important to give this historical perspective as it helps us to understand why it is so difficult to bring any religious or spiritual meaning to science nowadays (and of course to my particular field of psychology).

This conference is special not just because it is “ Women in science” but “Muslim” women in science. It is important that we celebrate this identity proudly. There is no contradiction in being Muslim and pursuing science.

Islam and Science

There has never been a split/ schism in the Islamic tradition, between religion and science as in the West. Indeed Islamic civilisation began to flourish in the 8th century A.D. The Persian and Roman civilisations were in decline and Europe was still in the dark ages. Interestingly it was not until the Renaissance (around the 15th century) that Western scholars had access to the Arabic material, which was then taught at Universities several centuries after the original work had been carried out. Many principles of modern scientific method had already been established by Muslims. For example, the employment of doubt, by Al- Ghazzali, as a prelude to reaching certain knowledge; the founding of the philosophy of history by Ibn Khaldun; medical and surgical advances which formed the basis of medical study in Western institutions for several centuries- contributions of Razi (called Rhazes in the west), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Abul-Qasim (Abucassis), the mathematical concepts of algebra, zero, ciphenas espoused by the likes of al- Khayyam, and al- Birund. You name it, Muslim scholars made some contribution. It is significant that the West rarely acknowledges the great debt it owes Islamic scholarship – in English schools for example, we are taught about Roman civilisation/ Ancient Egypt, but never the Islamic civilisation and contributions to knowledge. The first Universities and Hospitals (both open to men and women, it should be noted e.g. Qarawiyyin University here in Fez) were constructed during this time, centuries ahead of the first such institutions in the West. Science and religion were seen as complementary and not contradictory. Indeed the scientists considered it their religious duty to pursue such knowledge. It is interesting to note that the first words revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) pertained to the importance of knowledge: not just for a small elite but for all people.

“Read in the Name of your Lord, Who created. Creates man from a clot. Read, and your Lord is the Most Bounteous. Who teaches by the pen. Teaches man that which he knew not.” (Quran, 96: 1-5)

It was with the demise of the Islamic civilization that Muslims lost their lead in science. However, we should not just look sentimentally to past glories but into a determined vision for the future. If we take hold once again of our great Islamic legacy there is no reason why we cannot regain our position in the forefront of science instead of lagging behind in the manner we are doing today. We are transferring technology from the West now, when the West used to transfer technology and knowledge from the East. Let us move from the backseat to the driver’s seat.

Types of Knowledge

According to the Islamic perspective, knowledge is of two types: “revealed” Divine knowledge and material knowledge. Divine knowledge is intuitive, subjectively experienced and leads to a transformation in the individual. Material knowledge is what is generally considered to be “objective” and is experienced more as a process of accumulating information. There is a difference in transformation and information. For example, in today’s Universities information is collected in the head but one can walk in and out of University with the only difference being a change in age and perceived status but not as a human being. Divine knowledge and material knowledge though are not necessarily contradictory. They reflect the co-existence of the two different (but not opposing) dimensions: the spiritual dimension and the physical dimension. 2.

Islam and Notions of the Self

It is interesting to note that the Human Being is considered to be the meeting point of these two different dimensions. The arabic word for such a meeting point is barzakh – interspace: SPIRITUAL + ————–( (BARZAKH) PHYSICAL

Figure 1.

In the light of this Islamic perspective, any efforts to gain an understanding of the self require a study of the spiritual aspect of the self. Knowledge of the self, and what it means to be human, in modern times however is not so much the domain of religion as the domain of the field of psychology. In todays’ secular age, the field of psychology is in a way the new theology, and therapists and psychologists are the priests of this age. The irony is that the word “psychology” is based on the Greek word psyche, meaning “soul”, or, “spirit”. Psychology therefore means study of the soul. However it is now anything but, and indeed the idea of a soul or spiritual nature is not even acknowledged in mainstream psychology. As I discussed earlier this attitude of rejecting the spiritual can be traced to the implicit assumptions of Western psychology rooted in secularism – which arose out of a negation of religion or spiritual experience. Instead, within Western psychology, a fragmented view of man is presented. In trying to gain a deeper understanding of human nature, Western psychological theories have tended to focus only on one aspect of the self, e.g. pyschoanalysis focuses on the unconscious, cognitive psychology focuses on thoughts, and behavioural psychology focuses on behaviour. No doubt, important insights have been gained, yet no model is truly comprehensive in itself. I believe most Western psychotherapies are limited at both ends of the spectrum – they ignore individual spirituality, and they ignore the effects of socio-political factors on the lives of the clients. Fundamental questions relating to man’s existence e.g. ( Where have we come from? ( What is our purpose in life? ( What happens after we die? cannot be addressed even by the more sophisticated approaches in mainstream psychology. So really how much knowledge of the self do they have, and how deep is their understanding of human psychology? Even very ‘new’ more integrated therapies which try to include more than one aspect of the self are limited, as they too ignore a dimension of the self which many people regard as central to being human – the spiritual dimension.

On the other hand all Muslims should be excellent psychologists. Our whole life is based on knowing the answers to these basic questions. Wherever you go, from remote villages to modern cities, practising Muslims will be able to tell that we are on a journey: Before we were born we were with Allah, and all souls bore witness that Allah is their Lord ( 7:172) Our purpose in this life is to worship Allah (51:56) After death we will be raised up and according to our deeds in this lifetime we will be rewarded or punished (101:5-8).

Importance of Developing Islamic Psychology

From an Islamic perspective, any truly comprehensive psychology can only develop out of a very different set of assumptions. In effect a different paradigm of knowledge is required, so that a genuine ‘study of the soul’ can take place and a ‘genuine psychology’, (remember the word psychology means study of the soul), which addresses all aspects of the self can emerge. This is why I believe that it is very important that Muslims define and develop Islamic psychology based on the Quran, which Muslims regard as the most reliable source of knowledge possible, as it is from Allah who created us and therefore knows absolutely everything about us. Other knowledge may give us ‘glimpses’ of truths about ourselves as researchers continually ‘discover’ what Allah has created. However, human theories remain limited as they lack the overall picture: they have a very narrow context. For no matter how ‘intelligent’ scientists are, they will always be limited and fallible and subject to the time and culture they live in. And while they might try to address details of specific problems, they do not have answers for the most basic of questions people face regarding the meaning and purpose of life.

I have proposed a model of the self, outlining different aspects of the self, together with the differing influences of the self (both internal and external). I have attempted to show how insights from modern knowledge can be integrated into notions of the self, based on Islamic principles, so that a creative synthesis may be possible of the two different bodies of knowledge. This model also indicates implications for the therapeutic interventions. Cognitive, behavioural, affective aspects of the self are acknowledged, as is the validity of drawing on techniques (as opposed to overall rationale or implicit metaphysics) of various Western psychological approaches. It emphasises the unification of the different aspects of the self via the spiritual aspect. In this model spirituality underlies and has the capacity to influence all aspects of the self. The aim and method of Islamic psychology, then, is not fragmentation but unification – acknowledging and returning man to his original state of wholeness.

From an Islamic point of view, human beings are not simply physical beings – complex animals. They have another dimension to them, their spirituality, which links them to God. In the Quranic account of creation, following the breathing of God’s spirit into Adam, God commanded the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam, “ and We told the angels , ‘Prostrate to Adam’ and they prostrated” (Quran 7:11). The angels were in effect prostrating before the Divine mystery within Adam, and acknowledging that he was God’s representative – Khalifa in Arabic – a station which even they as sinless beings had not been accorded.

Concept of Fitra

An important concept relating to the concept of human nature from an Islamic perspective is fitra. Fitra refers to the primordial state of man- his natural condition and disposition. The optimistic view of human nature is rooted in this concept. Islam posits that the natural state of man is a positive and ‘good’ state – one in submission to God. This is related to the idea that all souls made a pledge with God before earthly existence, acknowledging Him as their Lord (Quran, 7:172). Even before we were born, or were conceived, our souls met with Allah. The spiritual aspect of every human has therefore already experienced the Divine. The defining experience of man in the Islamic perspective then, is not his physical aspect, but his spiritual aspect. This spiritual aspect of man is what the Quran, along with all spiritual traditions, appeals to. If early childhood experiences are considered to impact strongly on an individual’s life (even if only unconsciously) as suggested by Freud, the impact of such an experience going back to a time even earlier, of course would be fundamental. According to an Islamic point of view this explains the instinct in all individuals for right and wrong, (although in some it may be buried more deeply than others).

Spiritual or religious experience is therefore more a form of recognition than discovery. This is exemplified in the Quran in Chapter 7, verse157:

“He the Prophet enjoins on them that which they themselves sense as right, and forbids them that which they themselves sense as wrong.”

The religious emphasis is thus more on the inner experience than an externally imposed experience……….a part of us already knows the truth. Due to the initial experience of union with God, a part of the individual seeks that union again. This quest is often begun with a search for the meaning of life. According to the Quran, the eternal aspect of each individual, the soul, is on a journey and passes through various stages in life. The end point of this journey though, as was the beginning, is God.

In Quran 6:94 we are told:

“And now you have returned to Us alone, as We created you at first, leaving behind all that we bestowed on you.”

The Quran is the basis of any Islamic perspective. 3.

Islamic Perspective of Journey of Self

Souls with Allah

In womb

Earthly life


Everlasting life

Figure 3.

Journey of Self

It is clear to us when we view our lives from this perspective, our time here on earth is actually only a small part of our ultimate destiny. The Prophet (pbuh) described this life as a mere drop of water as compared to a whole ocean. Yet, most of us focus the majority of our energy and time on things related only to this life – whether it be our education, our jobs, aiming to reach a certain status, having big bank accounts, wearing the right clothes etc… we rarely step back and think where we have come from, and ultimately where we are all going to. For one thing that every single person on this planet shares in common whether they are rich or poor, white or black, from a high or low class, is that each moment brings us all closer to our death. The death we experience, however, is only physical. Within each and every human is a part of them which is beyond this. It is amazing to reflect that all of us contain infinity within us, within our souls. This is the real us. The part that is not destroyed. How we look after this part of us determines our state in this world and in the hereafter. It is a very simple reality but often forgotten. It is up to each of us to focus on and do our utmost to develop this inner, spiritual aspect of ourselves. Just as people recognise the need to do regular exercise to keep our bodies fit and toned we need to exercise our inner senses. Simple physical neglect we know leads to slackness in our body and ultimately disease. In the same way neglect of our inner selves leads to slackness and disease. Inner diseases include things like arrogance, selfishness, greed, impatience etc. …..all these affect our inner hearts, they are like layers of “dirt” which can lead to us becoming blind inside. Sometimes when people become tuned into their inner hearts they say “my eyes opened” and they wish that others could ‘see’ what they could and regret not seeing it sooner. Obviously there was nothing wrong with their eyesight, it was their inner heart which had been blind. In the simple diagram above, lies the distinct approach that Islam has to the aims and objectives of human beings.

Islam has it’s own definition of ‘progress’ – encompassing both spiritual progress of man – affecting his psychological and social state, and material progress – the harnessing of resources and skills development, which is also very much encouraged in Islam. The important thing to remember here is that for the last few centuries the Western definition of ‘progress’ has really only related to material, technical progress. It is only now being acknowledged, even within Western academic and scientific circles that the West has paid a heavy price in social terms for this material success. It has been learning in a slow and painful manner that material progress in itself cannot ensure social progress. It may help alleviate certain problems but not solve them completely. And if not pursued in a cautious and conscious manner, the rise in technology itself can be a source of social problems. As a psychotherapist I have to deal first hand with the many social and psychological problems people experience in England, which is considered among the most developed and ‘progressive’ countries in the world. Social cohesion has been eroded and the family unit has disintegrated. Cases of anxiety and depression have increased at alarming rates. The irony is that I am actually being approached by mainstream psychology services in England to provide ‘spiritual therapy’ even within the National Health Service. This shows the limitations of the standard psychological therapies: they are simply not adequate in dealing with the severe problems society is facing. However, my message is not that we should not progress materially – of course we should – people have a right to good living standards. Only that we see before us the results of a scientific experiment on the part of the West. It would be unwise to not learn from the results of this – otherwise history would simply repeat itself in the developing countries. Let us take the best and beneficial aspects of Western technology, but from the basis of a firm Islamic foundation and perspective. In this way we should avoid repetition of some of the West’s mistakes of material progress at the expense of social progress. There is no reason why we cannot have the best of both.

Concept of Nafs

Of particular interest in the model of the self is the concept of ‘Nafs’ – the Arabic word used in the Qur’an and translated as ‘self’ or ‘soul’. Due to the different possible states of the self, different types of ‘Nafs’ have been described in the Quran. From the Islamic point of view Nafs can be good or evil as it can be pulled toward higher potentials of the self or lower potentials of the self (Quran, 95:14-16). Earthly existence is about choice – which way will we go? Again the idea of the journey of the self is important. We are capable of choosing various paths – some which are consistent with Islamic aim in life – Union with the creator, and others which are not. The point is that the self is always in a dynamic flux – the same person experiences different states within themselves at different times. Three important states of the self mentioned in the Quran include:

Nafs Ammara (the commanding or lower self) Quran 12:53. This self is prone to the lower aspects of the self, representing the negative drives in man. It can be viewed as analogous to the Freudian concept of ‘id’ e.g ‘I want to do it now… I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.’

Nafs Lawwama (The self reproaching self) Quran 75:2 This state corresponds to the self when it becomes aware of wrong- doing and feels remorse. A parallel between the Freudian concept of ‘superego’ and nafs lawwama may be drawn. The feeling of “I shouldn’t have done that” or “why did I do that – I wish I hadn’t…” 3.

Nafs Mutmainnah (The peaceful self) Quran 89:27-28 This is the state of inner peace and happiness, when you feel satisfied and content in yourself. This is the state that we are aiming to achieve. In order to achieve the state of tranquility and peace one has to activate the remorseful self (e.g. through sincere repentance) and control the lower commanding self (through self discipline). 3.

Importance of Balance and Boundaries in Islam

The idea of balancing the different aspects of the self – physical and spiritual – is very important in Islam. One should not go to the extreme of emphasising one aspect of the self at the expense of the other. Exhortation to seek a balance in satisfying both body and soul is found in the Quran: “But seek the abode of the hereafter in that which Allah has given you and neglect not your portion of the world, and be kind even as God has been kind to you and seek not corruption in the Earth…..” (Quran 28:77) We can place Islam’s attitude to physical appetites on a continuum where it lies in between the extremes of suppression and overindulgence:



Figure 4.

Continuum of Attitudes to Physical Instincts

The extremity of suppression is condemned:

“who has forbidden the beautiful and good things which God has bestowed?” (Quran 7:32).

For example, the relationship of attraction between men and women is sanctified, not viewed as a moral compromise, but a blessing, elevated to the rank of the signs of God himself:

“And among his signs is this, that He created for you spouses from among yourselves, that you may find repose in them, and He has put between you love and mercy. Verily in that are indeed signs for people who reflect.” (Quran 30:21)

Also “God has created for your enjoyment everything on earth” (Quran 2:29)

In Islam physical aspects of man are not only legitimated, but man is encouraged to enjoy them. In the light of this, the secular, eg Freud’s view of religion as repressive of natural instincts is clearly not universally applicable. The extremity of over indulgence however is also warned against:

“…..eat and drink without excess, for God loves not those given to excess” (Quran 7:31).

In this way boundaries are set up to ensure moderation. Removal of boundaries and unlimited indulgence may appear attractive at first. However they inevitably lead to an imbalance, the result being an unhealthy state as opposed to a healthy and fulfilled one. 5.

Self Development

The notion of balance in Islam has implications for the important area of self development. Western psychology conceptualises self indulgence as removal of moral restrictions on people so that they are not ‘repressed’. According to Freud religious belief is a pathological symptom and sign of arrested development leading to neurosis. In this way the removal or ‘transgression’ of those boundaries limiting free expression of physical drives is encouraged. However no real notion of a ‘healthy’ ideal is suggested. This Freudian approach to mental health of ‘absence of pathology’ is reflected within the tradition of western medicine as a whole. This can be seen to be a rather limiting approach, however. A model at best aimed at ‘absence of disease’ offers no contribution to the important area of self development, as it is unable to define positive mental health. The Islamic model however, would advocate seeking to establish an equilibrium within the physical aspects, so that they are neither denied nor over indulged. The notion of moderation in the Islamic perspective is very much related to concepts of ideal states, balance, adopting the middle way and justice in Islam:

“Thus we have appointed you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses for mankind.” (Quran 2:413).

Indeed, the arabic word ‘Wasata’ in the Quran, translated here as ‘middle’ has been translated in differing English translations as ‘just and best’ (Hilali and Khan) and ‘golden mean’ (Maududi’s commentary translated by Akbar). In this way one word conveys many interrelated concepts. Justice is the consequence of following the middle way, and it is one of the main characteristics of the middle way. Adoption of the ‘middle way’ in the Islamic perspective, is thus both a means and aim of self -development and fulfillment. By taking the middle path we will achieve the ideal state and the ideal state itself is the ‘middle’ or balanced state. In this way, boundaries (determined by God) are not viewed as simply limiting the human self, but as providing parameters within which ultimate inner balance and development can take place. As Muslims we can appreciate the perfection in the balance and limits Allah has placed in creation. If the earth was even slightly closer to the sun, everything would be burnt, and if the earth was even slightly further from the sun, it would be too cold to sustain life. But where Allah has placed it is just right for living things to grow. It is amazing when we discover the beauty, the intricacy and harmony that Allah has placed in the natural system – from cosmology to biology to physics. In the same way the beliefs and practices of Islam provide people with the perfect balance. Islam provides the perfect context for optimum growth and development as it is from Allah who has placed such beauty and order in everything else. He has placed it within us, in our Fitra. When we go beyond the correct limits, we commit an injustice, and ultimately it is an injustice to ourselves – we only betray ourselves in the end:

“O Mankind ! Your rebellion is only against yourselves!…..” (Quran 10:23). But because we have free will we can choose not to live in this perfect balance within ourselves and with the rest of creation.


The Islamic approach to the self, I have outlined above, can be summarised in two basic points. Striving for self for unification with the Divine, and Striving for self for equilibrium within physical instincts. Both spiritual and physical possibilities are thus optimised.

Figure 5

(Heaven) Spiritual Aim is Dimension UNIFICATION

(Earth) Physical Dimension Aim is EQUILIBRIUM


I cannot stress enough the importance of developing Islamic psychology – because psychological assumptions about the nature of the self and what it means to be human -underlie not only psychological therapies but the approach of governments to social welfare and education. In this way psychological models actually shape the agendas and priorities eg those of important policy makers, thereby influencing whole nations. For example, the national education policy in England for school curricula stipulates that the three core subjects of Maths, English, and Science must be taught. None of these subjects incorporate ideas of self development and inner growth in the pupils. A whole generation of children are therefore being shaped by fragmented education which allows them to be technically skilled but does not allow them to explore their potential as whole people. To conclude, for too long the Islamic contribution to knowledge of the self and its application/ implications for positive mental health development has not been recognised or explored fully. I believe that the science of the self is the foundation of all sciences. As the Prophet (saw) said: “He who knows himself knows Allah”. The word ‘science’ is based on the Greek word meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘to know’. And the simple truth is that Allah is not only the Ultimate Reality but the source of all knowledge. I think it is time that we woke up to our valuable heritage and carried the baton of Islamic knowledge from the past, forward into the future. In the field of psychology two steps are required for this – theory development and practical application. We need to consciously develop a new field of study – Islamic Psychology – involving theoretical integration of Islamic notions of the self with current western models of psychology. This theoretical framework should be applied in developing a practical “Islamic Counselling” approach with its own distinct processes and techniques. I am confident that such research will benefit not only Muslims but all people – Islam came as a mercy to the whole of mankind. As Muslim scientists and practitioners we need to be pro-active, not reactive. We must sow the seeds now for a firm foundation and InshaAllah they will flourish, even if not in our own lifetime but in future generations.

Suggested Islamic Model of Self Showing Influences on Balance of Personality

Salma Yaqoob


NAFS Negative and positive drives within self Lower Self to Higher Self 1.nafs ammara 2.nafs lawwama 3.nafs mutmainna


Task in relation to this: Identify diseases of the heart Resources: QURAN, HADITH, DHIKR, MUSLIM THERAPEUTIC TRADITIONS that address 1,2,and 3 in differing ways.


Task: Challenge maladaptive thoughts



Task: Challenge maladaptive learned habits



Task: explore feelings/ identify unresolved tensions



Including Family, Significant others, political factors etc.

Aim of therapy:

To achieve harmony within self by optimally balancing the various aspects of the self through awareness of differing influences, leading to peace within and without (a state of Islam).

Presented at International Conference on ‘Muslim Women in Science : A Better Future’ Fez, Morocco, 22-24 March 2000 ; Organised by The Royal Academy of Science International Trust (RASIT) and The Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO). 1.


Towards Islamic Psychology , 4.4 out of 5 based on 23 ratings



  1. Assalam Sis Salma, this is a masterpiece, May Allah reward u.

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    Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
  2. Salam Sister Salma, Wonderful article explaining the divine & material knowledge. As a student currently studying in university, i can really appreciate the difference. As you said rightly, “Let us take the best and beneficial aspects of Western technology, but from the basis of a firm Islamic foundation and perspective”. Barkallah feik ( i ask Allah to give you Jannah)

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  3. very nice article,through this article we can diffrenciate between islam and material world.

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  4. superb! its is so relieving to read something that uncomplicates the complications caused by media and secular education.

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    Rating: +2 (from 2 votes)
  5. Dear Doctor,
    It is nice to read and understand the difference between Western Science and Islamic Psychology. Basically, I am planning to study a short course ( like : Diploma in Counselling ). Would you please guide me that how can I enter in to this course?. Since I am 57 years old and high School studies, am not able to apply directly to the Universities.
    Please help me.

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  6. Mashallah it is informative article. this was forwarded to me by a fellow non-Muslim after she had asked me ‘psychology in Islam’, and I failed to deliver a good answer. she sought help from the Internet(Al-hamdu-lillah) and found yours and she shared with me.
    Many questions asked by non-Muslims from the Western world need people like you, so please continue writing more articles and even books.
    May Allah bless your work.

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  7. Salam Doctor Salma;
    I’m a newly arrived student of clinical psychology at tehran university,I’m so intrested in studying, establishing and reexamining islamic psychology but I can’t make my way through different sources I encounter whether in western psychology or in islamic one.would you help me if I have to began with divine knowledge or material knowledge ? cause whole courses in university are based on material knowledge and mostly biological approach .studying divine knowledge requires training in another discipline known as” feghh va akhlaghe eslami” what should I do?

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  8. AA Recently I have developed a keen interest in Quranic Psychology and this excellent article has shed light on the basics. Could you recommend further reading please. Jazakillah.

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