"The different sorts of madness are innumerable." ~ Avicenna (Ibn Sina)
All of what is now-adays called modern medicine would not exist without the ground-work of Islamic scholars and scientists. This also true for mental health assessments, treatments and ongoing care. Beyond the common stereotype that Muslims are superstitious and believe that mental health problems are caused by Jinn (spirits made of smokeless fire), stands a well documented history of Islamic scholars and medical practisioners assessing illnesses, diagnosing them through identifying common symptoms and finding individual treatments and cures for patients.
"While not denying the existence of the supernatural and Jinn, Avicenna thought to frame it in the context of humoral physiology and thus made clear, that mental illness could be treated with natural remedies."
Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980 – 1037) dismissed the belief that Jinn cause melancholia and mania in his Canon of Medicine (al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb), saying "if it were caused by Jinn, it happens by changing the temperament to black bile, for melancholia's dominance of black bile. Thus, the cause for that black bile may be Jinn or something else". Avicenna took an open position on Jinn as causes of mental illness - while not denying the existence of the supernatural and Jinn, Avicenna thought to frame it in the context of humoral physiology and thus made clear, that mental illness could be treated with natural remedies. Avicenna's Canon of Medicine came to be viewed as the most authorative text on the subject, and Avicenna made efforts to identify categories of mental illness through clusters of sympoms. He discussed forgetfulness, lethargy, epilepisia, mania and melancholia. Under each of these categories he recognized different sub-categories, for example rabies was viewed as a form of mania, while lycanthrophy (a condition in which the patient walks around like a rooster and cries like a dog and walks around graveyards at night) was viewed as a form of melancholia. He also identified the symptoms of manic depressive psychosis, after noting that periods of acute illness, manic or depressive, were generally punctuated by relatively symptom-free intervals where the patient was able to function normally.
"Islamic physicans mostly prescribed a careful adjustment of the diet and daily regime as it might also be applied to physical ailments."
Considering mental illness as an imbalance of the humors (after the Greek physican Galen), Islamic physicans mostly prescribed a careful adjustment of the diet and daily regime as it might also be applied to physical ailments. Various drugs were prescribed for the "majnun" (Persian for "mad people"), as well as bloodletting. Bathing with scented oils was also prescribed, as well as massages. In medieval Islamic society the very first hospitals were opened for the specific purpose to treat the insane. These specialist Bimaristans were described by European travelers, who wrote on their wonder at the care and kindness shown to lunatics. In 872, Ahmad ibn Tulun built a hospital in Cairo that provided care to the insane which included music therapy. In most cases, the families provided the care, resorting to the aid of physicans for medical advise and prescriptions.
"My personal view is that a spiritual understanding and path such as provided by Islam can aid to cure madness. Almost all forms of mental illness are indeed a form of possession (a possession with "mad" ideas), and physical remedies can aid recovery and stabilize a patient but they will not get to the root of the problem."
Looking at the vast history of Islamic culture and science and it's ground breaking and sensitive work to aid those who suffer from mental instabilities and illnesses, I wonder about "research projects" such as by Dr. Jan Dirk Blom, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Groningen, Holland.
"To get a better idea of how commonly Muslim psychiatric patients consider jinn in the course of their diseases, the researchers looked into the scientific literature. They found 105 articles about jinn and their relationship with mental disorders, including 47 case reports. About 66 percent of those reports included a medical diagnosis. Nearly half of the cases involved a person with schizophrenia or a related disorder, while the rest of the patients had mood disorders, epilepsy or obsessive-compulsive disorder."
While it is true that Muslims believe in Allah and the unseen powers, Muslims do not per se believe in Jinn possessions, and underneath such "research" as conducted by Blom are lurking common assumptions made by Western societies and medical practisioners about Muslims and Islamic culture as being "primitiv", "superstitious" and "backward". My personal view is that a spiritual understanding and path such as provided by Islam can aid to cure madness. Almost all forms of mental illness are indeed a form of possession (a possession with "mad" ideas), and physical remedies can aid recovery and stabilize a patient but they will not get to the root of the problem.
In the next chapter of this series I will talk about modern day treatments by Hakims (traditional Muslim healers) and psychiatric doctors in cases that involve what is commonly known as psychosis. Please subscribe to the newsletter for updates.