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Unani Medicine: The Six Essential Lifestyle Factors

This article is the second part of Aamirah’s series on Unani Tibb. It goes deeper into the six lifestyle factors that part one, Unani Medicine: Finding a Balance between the Mind, Body and Soul, ended with. To fully grasp what is discussed in this article, Tayyib Society advises you to read part one here.

The six essential lifestyle factors, also known as al-ʾasbaab as-sittah (literally the six causes), are one of the crucial components of Unani Tibb. They are responsible for creating a state of health—or a state of disease—in the human being. Each of the six lifestyle factors needs to be implemented in balance and moderation based on the individual’s temperament, to move them to the ideal state of ʾiʿtidal (balance). They combine how we treat the body and the mind simultaneously. Each one has its own merits, and one of the keys is to define the areas that are our strengths and those that are weaknesses, to focus on improving and regulating them in our lives. Summed up, the six lifestyle factors are: diet and nutrition; air and environment; movement and rest; sleep and wakefulness; mental activity and peace; and retention and elimination.

Diet and Nutrition

This lifestyle factor entails consuming foods that are uniquely beneficial for their identified temperament, ensuring there is a variety of tastes included in the diet—bitter, salty, pungent, to sour— and eating with the correct etiquettes. Knowing which foods are heating and cooling for the body allows the individual to cater their diet to seasonal changes in the external environment as well as internal shifts occurring within the body. It is generally recommended to eat at the same time every day to encourage consistency and routine, and to move away from a grab-and-go lifestyle.1 Cooking home-made meals is preferred, and eating with presence a must. This naturally implies looking into the Islamic guidance of eating and drinking.2

Air and Environment

The air and quality of the environment that a human being surrounds themselves with is deemed an extremely important part of obtaining good quality of life. Factors such as air pollution and access to natural landscapes and fresh air all contribute to that. Most of us live stressful lives in busy and bustling places, and opportunities to rest and relax are rare. Thus making the conscious choice to be in green spaces and quieter places regularly is crucial.

Movement and Rest

Physical activity produces heat in the body while rest creates cooling and moisture. It is about finding a balance between these two. In our age of high-intensity workouts, a fit and active lifestyle is often seen as the archetype. However, based on one’s temperament and the season, various types of movement and rest suit different people in a variety of ways.

The goal is being healthy and active, but what this means for someone with a lot of stagnation versus someone who burns energy rapidly is very different.

Movement and rest must be tailored to the individual according to the Unani Tibb approach. In many cases, we gravitate towards the activities that reinforce our temperament—someone who is choleric (hot and dry in temperament) would enjoy high intensity workouts and runs, but in the summer this would only increase heat in the body. Thus swimming or yoga would be a better regime for this type of person. Changing the way you move throughout the various seasons is therefore incredibly important.

Sleep and Wakefulness

Historically, this lifestyle factor has always belonged to a balance acknowledged within all civilizations. A notable aspect of self-discipline, the time that one rose and retired used to be regular and often matched the rising and setting of the sun. In the Unani Tibb tradition, sleep refers to rest whereas wakefulness points to activity.

Sleep makes the body cold and moist because it directs innate heat inwards while cooling the surface of the body and successfully expelling waste from the skin. Sleep also takes up the digestion of food and converts nutrients into the blood. Excessive sleep can reduce mental faculties and has the capability to produce so-called cold diseases such as pneumonia as waste has not been dispersed through sweat. Wakefulness is the opposite of sleep; it is hot and dry in its temperament. However, when it is excessive it has the ability to disturb the brain and produce too much dryness, thereby impairing digestion as the faculties are demanded to focus on a number of areas at the same time.

So how should we sleep? Our sleep needs to be regular, moderate, and not too long. When there is balance, our sleep is mild, warm, and moistening, and allows the body to complete the stages of digestion.

These ideas, instigated by Ibn Sina, come with some recommendations such as not to sleep with a full or empty stomach, as well as not to sleep for prolonged periods during daytime as it can produce excess cold and stagnant conditions within the body. The individual’s mizaaj (temperament) must be taken into consideration when calculating the length of sleep required for each individual.

Mental Activity and Peace

This lifestyle factor refers to the spiritual state of the human being’s consciousness, clarity, creativity, and coherence.3 Ensuring meditation and a healthy expression of emotions regularly allow for an individual to be more balanced. Reducing stress levels through your engagement with others, and generally practicing kindness with yourself and those around you creates a difference to your overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Retention and Elimination

This is important as it is an indicator of a good health system with regards to the food and drink that is able to be digested by the organs and intestines in the body. It looks at regular passing of stool as a marker of healthy digestion.

So many of today’s issues stem from the gut. As the place where stress and worries are stored, ensuring you are consuming the right things and drinking enough water to eliminate is essential to preventing nervous system complications.

In this way, Unani Tibb encourages regular hydration, but also uses elimination as an indicator for which organs may be slow or sluggish in one’s system. Paying attention to these habits provides an opportunity to rectify them and even to undergo regular detoxification processes to allow the physical body and the digestive system to rest, which is linked to an improvement in clarity of thought in the long term.

The Mind-Body-Soul Connection

In terms of the body-soul connection, Ibn Sina specifically devised the ‘flying man’ experiment, stating a hypothetical situation—if a person was created by God in mid-air but their sight was veiled and their limbs were not touching anything, they would still be aware of their own existence due to the pre-reflective awareness of the self. He makes the case that the soul can also be accessed independently of the senses, simply through self-awareness.4 Through his Fi-n-Nafs [De Anima] (Treatise on the Soul), Ibn Sina affirms the independence of the soul from the body, beside embracing a form of dualism in the body-soul approach.

 He also endorses the idea that the soul can live without the body, as it is distinct in its own right.5 This in turn affected his approach to medicine and treatment of the patient’s body.

Ibn Sina connected the personality types and traits as a tangible way for patient care to be structured and led by the individual. It is primarily down to the approach of great philosophers who outlined and initially defined this body-soul connection and the humoral theory, which in turn led to a long-lasting tradition which emphasises a whole-body connection in medicine, understanding the body, diagnosis, and treatment. Greek civilization peaked early on with its greats—from Hippocrates and Plato to Galen. However, it was the Islamic scientific tradition that really saw the development of scholarship thrive and shift into practice across Islamic lands for hundreds of years.6 This is evidenced in the six lifestyle factors, defining approach to patient care, and exemplified in the model of the darüşşifa7 used across the Islamic world.

The Significance of Unani Tibb Today

Unani Tibb bridges this gap by incorporating a truly holistic approach, one that treats various areas of our lifestyles. It regards the body and symptoms as signals for deeper-rooted issues and imbalances within. The categorisation of individuals and the way of treating patients through assessing their six lifestyle factors offer an opportunity to truly examine ourselves and how we can attain a better quality of life in order to remain healthy physically, mentally, ánd spiritually. In our ‘new age’, we need holistic health rooted in a philosophy and belief system. Unani Tibb provides that.

Literature for Further Reading

  • Hakim M. Salim Khan, An Introduction to Islamic Medicine (Leicester: Mohsin Health, 2009)
  • Laleh Bakhtiar, Avicenna On the Four Humours from the Canon of Medicine Volume 1 (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 2012)
  • Muhammad Al-Akili, Muhammad Ibn Abi Bakr Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyah, Natural Healing with Tibb Medicine: Medicine of the Prophet (Philadelphia: Pearl Publishing House, 1993)

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Sources

  1. John P. Glynn & Rashid Bhikha, “Lifestyle and Its Role in Health”, Tibb Institute, January 2014, http://www.tibb.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Tibb_and_Lifestyle.pdf, accessed February 20, 2021.
  2. Abu Hamid Al Ghazali, transl. Abdal Hakim Murad, On the Manners Relating to Eating, Book XI of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2000).
  3. Unani Medicine World, “The Principles of Treatment (Uṣūl-i ‘Ilāj)”, https://www.unanimedworld.com/usool-e-ilaj, accessed February 20, 2021.
  4. Peter Adamson, “What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem?”, Aeon, September 9, 2016, https://aeon.co/ideas/what-can-avicenna-teach-us-about-the-mind-body-problem, accessed February 20, 2021.
  5. Ilahıyat Tetkikleri Dergisi, Journal of Ilahıyat Researches, ss. 161-184, 2018 (ESCI İndekslerine Giren Dergi), p. 162.
  6. Alparslan Acikgenc, Islamic Scientific Tradition in History (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit IKM, 2014), p. 1-20.
  7. Read more about this in part one of this series.

Aamirah is currently studying for a Diploma in Herbal and Naturopathic Medicine (Unani Tibb). She is a lover of nature and holistic healing, looking for a way to curate change through a relationship with the natural environment. Her days are filled with perusing books on the lookout for new flowers and herbs, and spending weekends outside on walks and exploring nature. She is writing her MA thesis on the connection between Islam and ecology, and is incredibly curious about how modern Muslims can rebuild their relationship with nature. You can follow her work on Instagram. (@wholisticallyrooted)

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