Abu Zayd Al Balkhi: The 9th Century Psychologist Centuries Ahead of His Time

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi was a 9th century Muslim polymath, whose writings touched on subjects as varied as geography, medicine, philosophy, theology, politics, poetry, ethics, sociology, grammar, literature and astronomy. Born in 849 CE (235 AH) in the Persian village of Shamisitiyan, within the Balkh (from which he gets his name) province, now a part of modern day Afghanistan, he went on to write more than 60 books and manuscripts. Unfortunately, most of the documents authors by him have been lost over the years, with only a minority of his work reaching us in the modern era. Of the few aspects of his legacy that have reached us, namely his development of the “Balkhi School” of terrestrial mapping, and his work on the Sustenance of the Soul, both show the intellectual prowess of the scholar. We can only wonder what other valuable studies were lost in the loss of his works. In his Fihrist, Ibn Al-Nadim attributes several works to Al-Balkhi including the Excellency of Mathematics, on Certitude in Astrology, and Figures of the Climates.

Most of what we know of Al-Balkhi’s life is by the way of one biographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi. Al-Hamawi does not mention much about Al-Balkhi’s childhood, other than his place of birth and that it seems he received his early education from his father. As he grew older, he began studying the scientific and artistic branches of knowledge of the time. In terms of his temperament, he is described as being shy and contemplative. Badri comments that in modern terminology, he might be described as profoundly introverted.

Sustenance for Bodies and Souls (Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus)

Al-Balkhi’s most famous work is arguably his text, Sustenance for Bodies and Souls. In this monumental manuscript, Al-Balkhi first addresses physical health (…for Bodies), after which he delves into the area of the soul. It is worth noting here that to the secular mind, the soul might be likened to the psyche, bringing with it a person’s psychological state. It is the second section of this work that is receiving huge interest in the contemporary world for several reasons, primarily due to the work’s insightfulness in the field of psychology.

The work is divided into 8 chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the soul or the self. There are many aspects of the text that make it extremely impressive to the contemporary reader.

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