Understanding Human Behaviour through Islam and Western Psychology

By Numerah Bazme

To compare and contrast between two aspects is to find similarities and differences among them. In this article, western psychology and the Islamic perspective are compared to understand the differences between the two ideologies. This article discusses three essential concepts: Human Nature, Human Motivation, and Free Will vs. Determinism in the light of behaviorism, a psychological approach.

Behaviorism (founded by John Watson) is defined as a psychological viewpoint which stresses on scientific and objective methods of investigation. A behaviorist’s approach revolves around stimulus-response behaviors that are all taken by the environment. 

Human Nature

To begin with, behaviorists claim that human nature is merely limited to human behavior. Watson rejected the notion that human nature consists of innate character, talent and temperament and that an infant’s decisions (as they grow up) and nature revolves around one’s guardian.  

Human nature in Islam is explained in a very distinct way and the origin of human being plays an important role here. Human beings are given a sense of responsibility and individuality from their beginning as Allah ordered the angels to bow down in respect to Adam A.S. Contradictory to behaviorism, human beings are considered valuable with regards to their innate ability to comprehend, reflect and worship their Creator, Allah SWT.  

The concept of Fitrah in Islam also serves the purpose to explain human nature. Unlike behaviorism, fitrah refers to an in-built compass in human beings that leads them to acknowledge the true oneness of Allah and His existence.  

Human Motivation

Motivation is defined as the purpose behind a behavior and particularly something achieved in a certain way. The topic of motivation has interested humanity since ages from a variety of fields. Behaviorists believe that motivation is obtained externally, not innately. It is a learned experience which can be increased or decreased by external factors. Natural factors such as emotions are not totally ignored by behaviorists but their acceptance is limited to fear, anger and happiness. 

With regards to humans being good or bad, they adopt a neutral stand, stating that good or bad behaviors are learned through environment and social learning. Another motive that drives behavior is offering incentives. Incentives are external elements around a person that convince them to behave in a certain pattern in order to gain those incentives. Students study, for example, to get a certificate which encourages them to invest more time/effort in their studies. Similarly, incentives also repel individuals and persuade them to avoid certain results. Students may not just study for a certificate but also to avoid bad grades or embarrassment.  

However, human motivation in Islam comprises of both internal and external components. In Islamic psychology, human motivation is linked with worship. Allah (SWT) says:

And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me

(Surah Adh-Dhariyat, 51:56).

Thus, from an Islamic viewpoint, worship of Allah is considered to be the origin of motivation for all human activities. Believers are promised abundant rewards for their good deeds and to achieve that, they work towards perfection and virtue in all their dealings whether worldly or religious. 

Intention behind any act plays a vital role in a believer’s life such that anything they want to attain should be done to please Allah. Fearing Allah and avoiding forbidden deeds leads to behavior that makes a believer feel pleasant in return. Similar to behaviorism, rewards and punishment compose the Islamic system and many rewards and punishments mentioned in the Quran are delayed, not immediate. This concept is also known as delayed gratification in modern terms. As mentioned above, rewards are promised for good doers and punishment for disbelief and immoral behavior. Many ayaat, in the Qur’an and narrations of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) about paradise and hellfire, reflect this vividly. 

Even if behaviorism did not completely reject the spiritual aspect of human lives, it relies entirely on scientific notion and unlike the Islamic model, does not include the human soul as an essential part of human nature and motivation. 

Free Will vs. Determinism 

Free will is the power of a human being to choose between a variety of options without any restriction in their choice. Any action, moral or immoral, praiseworthy or sinful is completely up to an individual whereas determinism states that all these choices are determined by already existing forces. 

Concerning behaviorism, behavior is a result of external forces which means it is determined. At times, it is activated as a reaction to an external stimulus or it is voluntarily performed by a person. In essence, behavior is a reaction and is opposite of free will. 

The Islamic perspective on free will is different. There are several ayaat in the Quran that indicate human beings are given free will (limited and not absolute) by Allah and that they can choose their actions and belief system. This free will is considered an honor on humans which sets them apart from other creations of Allah SWT. 

Allah has granted humans the authority to think and reason which is essential for accountability because they would not be held accountable if they did not have the capacity to differentiate between good and evil. This would be considered unjust and Allah is never unjust. Another concept entwined with free will and accountability is divine decree. Islam narrates that human beings shall not be held accountable to that which is decreed, rather to the choices they make. To sum up, the general concept is that divine decree is not to be used as an excuse for what people do, rather what is beyond their capability is attributed to divine decree. 

The intellectual concepts bestowed upon us by Islam offer a comprehensive explanation of human psychology and behavior. When compared with behaviorism, it is clear that the Islamic perspective on human psychology offers a far more comprehensive study into human behavior. 

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