Stanford expert challenging Eurocentric narrative of psychology finds inspiration in Türkiye

Stanford expert challenging Eurocentric narrative of psychology finds inspiration in Türkiye

Senior psychiatrist has traveled across Türkiye to explore holistic mental health therapies used here for centuries

By Handan Kazanci

ISTANBUL (AA) – For centuries, human psychology has been a focal point in the field of medicine. The greatest minds have delved into its depths, driven by the singular aim of unlocking the secrets of what remains the most complex aspect of humans and their humanity.

Rania Awaad, a senior psychiatrist from Stanford University in the US, is on a similar journey, just with a slightly different objective: challenging what she calls the Eurocentric narrative of psychology perpetuated throughout modern history.

That has brought her to Türkiye, where Awaad and her team are retracing the history of mental health care at historic institutions known as Dar us-Shifa, many of which date back centuries to the Ottoman or Seljuk eras.

“This concept is very important because these are institutions that are part of, and inspired by, Islamic tradition,” Awaad, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, told Anadolu.

“They weren’t just merely hospitals. They were also institutions of healing.”

The reason why she decided to focus on these institutions is because of their holistic approach on all “senses of human beings,” explained the 42-year-old Cairo-born American, who is the director of the Stanford Muslim Mental Health and Islamic Psychology Lab.

She also runs a non-profit organization called Maristan, which she said is a concept similar to the Dar us-Shifa.

“Also the concept of healing the soul, the nefs, which is something kind of missing, I would say, in modern psychology today,” she said, referring to the Arabic word used in the Muslim holy book Quran, which also translates as the self or one’s true self.


- Origins of the concept

Awaad said she is working on a book that will explore “what was the concept that inspired these healing institutions and specifically how they heal mental illness.”

Her book is expected to be published next year by prominent publishing house Routledge.

According to Awaad, Dar us-Shifas brought about a major shift in mental health care.

“Hospitals, prior to the Islamic civilizations, may have had people who are mentally ill in them,” she said.

“But once you have the Islamic civilization come, there’s a real emphasis on … the preservation of the intellect, preserving the aqil (intellect in Arabic), and so there was a strong emphasis on making sure that those who were ill were treated.”

Awaad was in Türkiye’s northwestern Edirne province last year to visit a Dar us-Shifa which has been turned into a museum focused on the history of health care.

That inspired her to take a road trip through Türkiye with her team this year, which she has also been sharing with her over 126,000 followers on Instagram.

“We started in Bursa … (and) ended up in Kayseri, which was very beautiful, very helpful to see what happened to the Dar us-Shifas. From there we were able to go to Sivas, then to Amasya,” she said.

Awaad and her team visited Dar us-Shifas in Istanbul last Friday, some of which are open to the public, while they got special permission for the others.


- ‘Integrated sense of healing’

The Dar us-Shifas had an approach to healing that took all aspects into account, from clean eating to medicine and fresh air, all of which was to “heal the soul completely,” according to Awaad.

One of the most interesting things we found was “this very integrated sense of healing,” she said.

“They were using water therapy in most of these Dar us-Shifas, not just the fountain, but the concept of the kind of sound you would hear from the water. They were actually treating them in the water for healing and the hamam that was usually attached to it,” she said.

“Also sound therapy, the use of the ‘makam,’ or the tones. If somebody was very depressed, they would play a tone that would bring them up. If somebody was very anxious, they would play a tone that would calm them down. This is a beautiful concept of integrating all the different senses of healing.”

From her travels in Türkiye, Awaad said she came to understand that “a lot of these Dar us-Shifas actually continued to be used as hospitals until the early 1900s,” contrary to the previous research she came across.

Other researchers purported that “they were neglected and modern medicine was replacing them, but actually we found it being used even in parallel with modern medicine,” she explained.

Awaad said the history of psychology is written from a very Eurocentric view.

“It essentially says a lot of psychology started in Europe, and all of the writing or discoveries of mental illnesses were by Europeans,” she said.

“But actually, some of the research I myself have done … and other the publications have shown that so many of these diseases or illnesses like … OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) … was a millennium before the Europeans,” she added.

In the US, she said, many people feel “disconnected from psychology today.”

“The Islamic civilization had a beautiful heritage of healing,” said Awaad.

“You see this in the beauty of Dar us-Shifas and it needs to be brought back in order to heal people all around us. This is my interest in changing the narrative or rewriting the narrative of psychology, and I’m also making it relatable for Muslims around us.”

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