Birds, prayers and how to play the strings of the soul: thoughts about the Islamic reflections on music therapy

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    Birds, prayers and how to play the strings of the soul: thoughts about the Islamic reflections on music therapy

    Hania Hakiel and Beatriz Gomez share reflections on Islamic wisdom regarding music therapy, the history of the use of various music therapies in ancient Islamic societies and what it could mean for modern psychotherapy and meditative practices.

    Music is considered the universal language that transcends nationality, culture, age, and gender. Music – through the sounds of nature, human voice or instruments, with its vibrations and emotional tones – has a definite influence on mental and physical health. Since ancient times, different cultures have acknowledged the important healing role of music in the illness of the body and soul. The ancient Greek civilization is considered a pioneer in this field. For them, music or muisike represented the daughters of Zeus, the greatest Greek god, and was responsible for keeping the harmony and beauty of the world. This tradition had a great influence on the Arabic world, reshaping it by adding religious and spiritual elements.

    Meditative and spiritual aspects of healing

    In the Arabic language, music refers not only to melodies, but also to a beautiful voice reciting al-Quran or chanting the adhan (call for prayer), which has a meditative, soothing impact on the soul. The root of the word is ʾadhina أَذِنَ meaning “to listen, to hear, be informed about”; in other words, to be present and mindful, what we consider a pillar of well being. Being invited to prayer 5 times per day is a beautiful, meditative practice that encourages people to stop the rush of the day and acknowledge their connection to the Divine.

    It may sound surprising, but the prayers are valid therapeutic techniques if performed with awareness of the pronounced words, with paying attention to the movement of the body and sensations coming from it — like the flow of one’s breath, maybe some discomfort in the lower back, heaviness in the chest, the coldness of the ground.  Finding regular times during the day to elicit trust in the holy order of the world and recite a comforting mantra is a prescription you could get from a therapist — but the religions and spiritual traditions of this world have been offering these very healing tools for centuries. In modern Western psychology there is a lot of research being currently dedicated to verifying the impact of prayer and meditation on mental health, including treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While we were writing this article, the psychology sections of the biggest US and British magazines featured headlines regarding the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ discovery of an ancient Indian practice that involves reciting a mantra internally to enter a trance-like state for the successful treatment of PTSD.

    It is ironic how in the so-called West we give value to methods only if they are verified by famous European or US-American universities — once an empirical study has been done on a small group of people.

    Only then, after statistical analysis of the data, do we call something “evidence-based”. You may ask, what about the evidence of hundreds of years of human experience or studies conducted by scholars of all disciplines and traditions over centuries?   Buddhist mindfulness practices only gained respect and fame after  brain scans of Buddhist monks showed that the regions responsible for positive emotions were activated during meditation, and that practicing it for a longer period of time boosted the immune system as well as the plasticity of the brain (increasing its ability to adapt to a changing environment). When listening to Islamic prayers, we can feel their healing and spiritual dimension regardless of our own beliefs. We could argue that years of studies and the accumulated wisdom of individual experiences passed on by the elderly are embodied in traditional sounds and rituals. In this essay, we shine more light on Islamic music and its healing potential as a meditative practice accessible to anyone.

    Historical perspective on music therapy in Islamic traditions

    Among the renowned Islamic scholars, Al-Kindior, known also as Abu Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (801-870M), is the earliest scholar of music as a therapy tool in Islamic culture. He claimed that humans are linked to music through astrological elements. For this reason, he assigned seven notes to the seven planets. He believed that the human body is connected to nature and that during different periods of the year and times of the day, as well as during the different alignments of the planets, the body reacts differently, and is therefore prone to experiencing different emotions. Another scholar, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi or al-Razi (854-932M) claimed that music-therapy is well-suited as therapy for mental suffering like anxiety.  A subsequent scholar, Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Muhammad Farabi, or better known as al-Farabi (872-950M), paid special attention to the type and timing of exposure to music. He noticed that every person works differently, tending to react very individually to types of music, and that our bodies also change throughout the day.

    Traditional Islamic music is based on seven scales and melodic modes better known as makams. There are almost 600 makams known at the moment and this variety implies its vast therapeutic applications. Following al-Farabi’s idea, each makam has special characteristics to be consciously applied in order to achieve the desired therapeutic effect. For example, buzurgmakam was recommended for fear and anxiety treatment and traditionally played after Isya’ (night prayers). Another example is rastmakam, the primary goal of which is to induce joy and happiness. Sebamakam is considered the most triggering in terms of sadness, so its use should be intentional — for example to unfreeze emotions stored deep inside the soul after a traumatic event, or for example when a person is not able to go through the grief process and is emotionally deadened.

    The instruments used in Islamic music also have a connection with the human body. Some of the most popular ones are nay, which symbolises the human psyche and ud, or lute, the king of the instruments. Each of the lute’s strings represents not only one of the elements of the earth: fire, wind, soil or water, but also one of the four seasons of the year, the four quarters of the day or the four stages of life…  in this sense, the combination of different strings results in different sensations and emotions, connecting the body with the universe. The healing power of Arabic music has been medically applied from very early on. In fact, the world’s first psychiatric hospital is believed to have been established in Baghdad, Iraq in 705CE by al-Razi. Mental disorders were then considered medical conditions, and were treated by using methods close to modern psychotherapy and drug treatments. Intentional application of music was well-established in ancient Arabic hospitals already by the 9th century.

    One of the best-known treatment programs consisted of seven musicians and three singers that played three times a week, combined with daily exposure to natural sounds like water fountains in the corridors and birds in the blossom gardens.

    This display aimed to create a natural healing environment where not only music, but also nature played an important therapeutic role. Reading about these early scholars and achievements in psychotherapy through music can be surprising for some modern European doctors. There is a harmful yet prevailing stereotype that Muslim tradition inherently associates mental illness with the actions of demons or bad spirits, and prescribes treatments such as exorcism.

    We discuss these histories not merely because they are interesting; instead, this is intended to suggest that the traditions of Islam have much to offer modern paradigms of medical treatment. We also believe that knowledge of the depth of Islamic teaching challenges prevailing stereotypes and helps restore a feeling of pride and dignity for Muslim patients. Music can be a good point of departure for dialogue about healing processes as a relatively neutral realm, escaping the restrictions of language and the binaries of good/bad that have been normalised and reinforced within patients. As with with every tradition, it is appropriate to also look at Islamic music therapy through the lens of modern times, the present moment and individual uniqueness.

    Adapting ancient wisdom to modern times and human uniqueness

    It feels obvious that sounds that are disharmonious or unpleasant can upset the system. What we define as such depends not on the universal definitions of harmony and beauty, but on individual life stories, associations and each nervous system’s reactions to stimuli. It is important to read every person as a unique book and adapt music to this uniqueness.

    For example, water sounds, which are commonly used in meditation and healing compositions, can trigger traumatic memories and bodily reactions of fear and terror in people who experienced a terrifying journey to Europe on rubber boats. Water is also a common element applied in the tortures that some people experienced before finding asylum in Europe. There is therefore good reason to be careful when using the sounds of sea waves or waterfalls, but again, there is no one general rule on what works safely and what doesn’t. Some people from our community have shared their memories of fountains and birds in Damascus as the most precious and sweetest ones they have from Syria. For them, a nice walk in the park with a stop at the fountain or next to the river where many birds find their nests could be a way to transport these healing contexts into their daily life scenarios. As with every kind of therapy, musical interventions also have to be preceded by in-depth knowledge of the person’s story and reactions. Music can bring us somewhere we are not currently physically located, or help us re-experience something from the past. Hence, it is important to know where we are heading.

    The specific sounds of Arabic instruments can take people home, causing sweet and sad nostalgia. For those who feel that they lost the ability to feel due to exposure to trauma, a deep sadness triggered by the music of the homeland can be a desired state, a sign that they are still alive, able to defrost the feelings and sensations trapped in the body.

    But the sounds of homeland can be also overwhelming. Our Syrian friend, a musician, decided to withdraw from playing and listening to Syrian music for a year in order to heal the wounds. Strong emotions elicited by the music barred him from think about the future and stay present in the moment. After some time he was ready to confront himself and his past by reconnecting with Syrian sounds and finding a home for them in Berlin. He plays now as a professional musician in various Berlin music scenes, metaphorically embodying his new multilayered identity.

    Being able to contain the sounds of home is a peaceful metaphor of acceptance and hope – a way to integrate the past, the present and the future into a coherent life narrative. Connecting to the homeland through music can also be done in a more subtle way. One of the children we work with loves visiting mini-farms in Berlin to listen to noises made by goats. His family in Deir Ezzor province had 300 goats before the Daesh took them all. Even noises from the farm can be ‘music’ that can take a person home — a communication tool that helps in moments of loneliness and desperation.

    These experiences can bring soothing and calming effects both for the body and the soul. They do not represent a rejection of sadness, but rather an integration and acceptance of it. As a consequence, music can be reassuring and associated with identity. Nigel Osborne, a composer and music therapist claims that: ‘Since cultural differences are so often at the heart of conflict, cultural practice needs to be at the heart of conflict resolution as well’. This also applies to conflict that arises when people of varied origins meet in one space as well as to the inner, psychological conflicts experienced by people who migrate and must live among new rules, words, and faces, while trying to reconcile them with those from their cultures of origin. We hope we can turn to the music and meditative practices offered by varied cultures and religions at home, at school, on the streets, at the hospitals, in the psychotherapy rooms, and beyond— to heal the wounds and achieve peace inside and out, between each other and in our bodies and minds.

    Hania Hakiel is a psychologist and psychotherapist who runs the GSBTB Open Art Shelter. Beatriz Gomez is currently doing a joint Masters program in the Psychology of Global Mobility, Inclusion and Diversity in Society and interned at the GSBTB Open Art Shelter. This article was first published in a special mental health edition of the Arabic-German newspaper Eed Be Eed, in partnership with Give Something Back to Berlin. Drawings by Hania Hakiel.


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