How can we study an unobservable phenomenon such as soul in a discipline as ’scientific’ as biological psychology? The truth is: In most ’scientific’ disciplines, there will always be unobservable and mystery elements (e.g. chance vs. divine creation, random vs. divine intervention). In physic, we study unobservable phenomena such as air, atom, energy, momentum, and electricity. In chemistry, we study molecules, gas, and ion. In biology, we study solar energy and neural impulse. And even in psychology, who pride itself of being a ’science’, now study ‘unobservable’ phenomenon called mental/cognitive processes.
So, what is soul actually? The soul (nafs), spirit (ruh), heart (qalb), and mind (`aql) have been used either interchangeably or for different but interrelated concepts (Al-Attas, 1990). This posting will only focus on the mind (since its close relation with the brain) and the heart (since early Muslim scholars had emphasised its connection with the brain (e.g. Ibn al-Qayyim).
The Qur’an and Hadith have indicated the role played by the (spiritual) heart in relation to behaviour and cognition. Some Qur’anic verses mentioned that the heart is involved in conceptualisation or understanding (7: 179, 63: 3). In addition, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his famous hadith said that: “Inside the body, there is a ‘mudghah’(piece of flesh). If it is in a good condition, then the rest of the body will be in a good condition. If it is in a bad condition, then the rest the body will be in a bad condition. Indeed, it is the ‘qalb’” (narrated by Bukhari & Muslim). This raises the question whether the heart, from the perspective of biological psychology, has a role in producing behaviour and mental processes.
Pearce (as cited in Badri, 2000) in his book “Evolution’s End” had found that there are neurotransmitters (which commonly found in the brain and the rest of the nervous system) in the heart! According to Pearce, the heart controls and governs the brain action through hormonal, transmitter, and possibly finer quantum-energies of communication. Quite similar to Al-Ghazali’s (an early Muslim scholar) idea in the book “Al-Ihya’”, he believed that the spiritual heart influences the physical heart, which influences the brain, and eventually influences cognitive behaviour. Isn’t that amazing. This gives opportunity for Muslim biological psychology to conduct further research to highlight the role of the heart in psychology. But why is it always have to be the western secular scientists that found out something that later were actually found first by our early Muslims scholars? It should be us Muslims who are confident and critical enough to revive what early Muslims scholars had said using modern scientific methods guided by the Qur’an and Sunnah!
Another term used in the Qur’an and Hadith that indicate the role of mind (as in spiritual mind, not as in mental processes) which obviously relates to the function of the brain and cognitive activities. Can modern biological psychology provide evidence on the existence and the role of the mind in producing behaviour and mental processes?
Eccles (as cited in Badri, 2000), a Nobel-prize winner had detailed out a study that he has conducted related to this. When a subject is electrically stimulated in the motor area of the cerebral cortex, his arm jerked. When the subject was told not to move his arm, and the stimulation was repeated, he tried to stop the movement of that arm with his other arm. The question is “what governed the other arm?” Eccles concluded that the brain moved one arm, but the “mind” moved the other arm to stop the first arm from moving. This shows that, although Muslim psychologists should still believe that brain is involved in specific motor control, they should also believe that it is the`aql (which is a spiritual unseen entity) that really govern our whole body. And although this research is not enough to describe the nature of the `aql in details (which is not the aim of Islamic psychology nor it is the aim of Islamic theology), it is enough to show that `aql (a spiritual entity) exists and has an influence on our behaviour and mental processes (without forgetting that it is Allah who decides everything).
See, you don’t need to study the mind/`aql (or other spiritual entitites) using scientifi methods. What you need is to use scientific methods to show that there are something else there besides what we see (e.g. soul, Allah’s divine intervention) that are influencing our behaviours and mental processes. How can we accept the concept of ‘functioning’ television or radio without accepting the unobservable/mysterious concepts of electricity and radiowave? To sum up, by accepting the existence of soul and its influence on brain and behaviour, we will become better `abids and khalifahs even while studying biological psychology!