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What is the “normal”?

In our ever-changing world, nothing remains the same. What is normal today may not be so tomorrow. Hence, what is the “normal”? This commentary is meant to provide some thoughts on the normal from the Islamic traditional view and modern psychology.  

 

The “normal” in the Islamic tradition

In the Islamic tradition, the nafs (soul/self) results when God “breathes of His Spirit into man.” This is God’s greatest gift to man—the divine gift of life and consciousness or of a soul. The nafs, in that moment of creation, is man’s original nature, also known as fitra. This is his normal or natural nature. And, that natural nature knows itself and its Creator. It is the standard/norm according to which God created man. The nafs is in-between, wavering between the spirit and body.

In this traditional view, man is a sacred being. But this view of what is normal is not the view of the masses because they have lost touch with their fitra or the perfection mirrored within themselves. As the typical and commonplace have been conflated, normalcy then is no longer measured by an inner sense of norm that is universal, but projected outwards in the universality of consensus, with the average becoming the norm. In contemporary societies, this practice is accepted for knowledge no longer has its mooring in the metaphysical. Over time, this is what is acknowledged as the “normal.” But, this external criterion of normalcy is problematic—it is contrived and dependent on many outside influences. Thus, the real quest of normalcy—the aim for transcendence or perfection—is lost.

We live in a world of modernism, but modernism denies the transcendence. Thus, this “new normal” (or “ab-normal”) will always be subjected to the whims and fancies of time. Modernism, in severing man from his Centre has given rise to disorder within himself and consequently in his outward self (Lakhani, 2006). Without a Centre no person can remain normal. To compensate, the self/ego takes over. But the ego cannot be the Centre because it lies only within the psyche and thus cannot transcend itself. Its reality is only at the psycho-physical.

 

The “normal” in psychology

So what does this mean for psychology? To respond, we need to go back to the ancient Greeks’ depiction of man. Man, in their understanding, consists of the spirit/pneuma, psyche and body/soma. Similar tripartite divisions also exist in other traditional psychologies. Often, psyche and body are considered as the lesser “self.” In this case, man is seen to comprise of two selves; an inner self or sacred core that is his very being, and an outer psycho–physical personality. Because of its constantly changing character, this outer aspect of man is conceived to be unstable, and is often described as multiple. This is the self that is the focus of psychological endeavor and of much clinical work.

The two selves, the lesser unstable self with its fleeting desires, and the higher self, seldom see eye-to-eye. Thus, man is always in conflict with himself; unless he is able to properly order these two selves with the higher governing the lower. That is why some forms of mental illness is also seen as a “dis-order;” they are perceived to have deviated from the normal or proper order.

Modernism, a culmination of the earlier Renaissance and Enlightenment movements aimed to liberate man from the shackles of convention. Galileo and Descartes were two instrumental figures during this period. What Galileo did for natural philosophy Descartes likewise for man—the Cartesian mind-body dualism. It is this principle that has influenced the psychoanalytic concept of the self. Kirshner’s (1991) article on the concept of the self in psychoanalytic theory retraces the paths taken by Western philosophy beginning with Hume and Descartes, and the problems that issue from a rejection of the transcendent spirit and the acknowledgment that man is constituted only of this lesser self. In reducing man from spirit to mind, mind to brain, and brain to anatomical structures, thinking/res cogitans, i.e., what defines man, becomes merely a “neuro–chemical” process, or as Wilson (1978) puts it, “…an epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain” (p. 195).

Currently in psychology, the soul no longer has a place. Its descendent, the self, however is ever-present. But, this self is an entity that lacks unity. Though there are multiple theories of the self, it remains highly elusive.

 

To return to the normal

This is our human task, to return to the normal. In the traditional Islamic view and other religious psychologies/traditions, this involves aligning the lower self to the spirit so that there is order within, which then results in transforming the man in his outward character. According to Nasr, if modern psychology remains only at the level of the psyche with nothing higher than this individual self, then “…there cannot but be the highest degree of conflict between limited egos which would claim for themselves absolute rights, usually in conflict with the claims of other egos—rights which belong to the Self alone...” (1993, p.20).

Therefore, to be relevant, psychology must bring back the transcendent, the spiritual heart experience, and cannot be dependent on only the mental experience. In other words, to remember that spark that God breathe into Adam which is imprinted onto his heart—that makes us human in the highest sense of the word. It is also what makes the angels prostrate before Adam—the ruh of God in us. Thus, we set over lives according to the norms of God, not that of man.

 

References

Kirshner, L. (1991). The concept of the self in psychoanalytic theory and its philosophical foundations. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39(1), 157-182.

Lakhani, M. A. (2006). Editorial: What is normal? Sacred Web, 17, 7-15.

Nasr, S. H. (1993). The need for a sacred science. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1978). On human nature. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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Ibn Haldun University Psychology Department.