The legendary Physician who pioneered Mental Health during the Ninth Century

Abu Zayd Ahmad ibn Sahl al-Balkhi, also known as Al-Balkhi, was a ninth-century Muslim physician who revolutionised how people viewed mental health. Considered way ahead of his time, al-Balkhi very much focused on holistic healing by combining physical and mental health to reach complete wellbeing. 

Referred to as an encyclopaedic genius by Malik Badri, Al-Balkhi was a polymath who was well-versed in many diverse fields. From mathematics, medicine, literature and geography. Al-Balkhi found a profound way to make knowledge from diverse fields work with one another. 

Whilst he was the author of more than sixty books on a range of topics, regrettably not much remains for us to see as they have either been lost or are placed in inaccessible libraries. 

This is also the case when it comes to his biography, though anything we know about him comes from the reputable biographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi.

Al-Balkhi was born in modern-day Afghanistan in the year 235 AH (849 CE). Engaged in the pursuit of knowledge from a young age, al-Balkhi set out to reside in Baghdad for eight years in search of both secular and religious knowledge. 

Whilst not many of his works remain for us to see today, one of his works was found preserved in the Aya Sofia Library in Istanbul. Entitled Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus (Sustenance for Bodies and Souls), this work was regarded by many scholars to be his only manuscript on the topic of Mental Health and Psychological Medicine. 

But why was a Ninth-Century Polymath writing about Mental Health? 

Well, for starters, it seems that Al-Balkhi saw mental health and psychological medicine as a universal and timeless concern. Wherever you may be in the timeline of humanity, you will undoubtedly will be faced with psychological ailments. This is the exact reason why Al-Balkhi provided remarkable insights on stress, depression, anxiety, fear, phobic and obsessive-compulsive disorder. What’s more, he provided treatment for them by suggesting cognitive behaviour therapy as far back as the ninth century. However, for Al-Balkhi, there were two other dimensions which were crucial parts of the treatment process; the soul and the worship of Allah. 

For Al-Balkhi, he saw a problem and set out to provide a solution. For years before his time, these disorders were left undiagnosed and for the large part, untreated. Well before Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a ninth-century Muslim physician from Afghanistan profoundly discussed many of the mental health disorders we are still dealing with today. 

Main Image – Mihai Surdu, unsplash.

Juber Ahmed

Juber Ahmed is our Digital Editor and travel enthusiast with a keen interest in Islamic history and heritage. He travels with his wife to various places around the world and writes about his experiences.   Juber's favourite Quote... "The World Is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only One Page" [Saint Augustine]

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