Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – An Islamic Perspective

Motivation is an inner driving force that compels us to behave in a certain way. Basically, it’s what spurs us on to do what we do. There are many theories concerning the topic of human motivation, one of them being ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs’. Maslow categorised our needs as humans into five levels and arranged them into a hierarchy. The most primary needs are at the bottom of the hierarchy followed by those not as fundamental. He argues that the lower needs must be fulfilled before moving on to satisfy the higher ones. The hierarchy is as follows:

The first level is our need for food, drink, sex and so on. It is our primary need for survival. The second is the need to have a sense of security and safety, with regards to our self, our property and so on. The third deals with our need for a sense of belonging within a group, our need for love and affection from others. The fourth is concerned with our need to be confident and have high self-esteem; to have a sense of power and control. And the fifth and final level relates to self-actualisation – our need to realise our full potential and abilities.

So when we get hungry, for example, there is a deficiency in the first level. This would then motivate us to behave in a particular way in order to satisfy that desire, for example, by going and making a sandwich and eating it. We then return to a state of equilibrium or rest. The same basic idea applies to all the other levels. This is how the hierarchy of needs influences our behaviour and motivation. This process is summarised in the following diagram:

The main disagreement I have with the above theory is what I see as its lack of addressing the issue of religion in motivating human behaviour. One might say that this is included in the third level; that religion gives us a sense of belonging to a church, mosque and so on. But to me, religion is much, much more than just that. It could be related to the fifth level, self-actualisation. I must admit that I really don’t have a proper conception of what self-actualisation is, so I can’t really comment on this. But Maslow states that only a tiny fraction of the human population actually achieve self-actualisation, so I don’t think it can really be included here, since it plays a part in most people’s lives.

I believe that we as humans have both a physical aspect to our nature, as well as a spiritual one; we are at the same time both physical and spiritual beings. Our physical self is the base, animal self that thrives on our desires for food, sex, self-esteem and so on (hereafter referred to as the nafs). All the needs mentioned in the above hierarchy are related to this nafs. But our spiritual self also motivates us to behave in a particular way. And this is the thing – the drives of the soul are often in direct opposition and contradiction to the drives of the nafs. They are in a constant state of struggle, each aspect always struggling to be the dominant one. To engage in this struggle, in order that the soul should gain ascendancy over the physical self, is what is known as jihad al-nafs [1](striving or struggling against the animal self).

So as Muslims we would fast, willingly and voluntarily giving up all food, drink and sex, from sunrise to sunset. This behaviour is opposite to what Maslow’s theory states – that if we are hungry we would act to satisfy that hunger. Since hunger and thirst are part of the primary needs, suppressing them serves as one of the most powerful ways of allowing the spiritual self to become dominant. The same applies to waking up at night in order to pray, since sleep is one of the fundamental needs. Generally we would always act to ensure our safety. The soul does not oppose the nafs in this regard. But at times, this would be set aside. For example, when there is a need to engage in war we would willingly place ourselves in danger. The need for a sense of belonging: it is true that the religion does satisfy this need, but at times this is not so. Sometimes people face a lot of persecution, isolation and suffering for adhering to the religion, for example, those women who wear the full face-veil in certain secular countries. Despite all this, they would still hold fast to the religion, even though it would mean them not having a sense of acceptance among their community or peers. The fourth one is a tricky one because to have a sense of good self-esteem isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I believe that there is a fine line between between confidence, and pride and arrogance, which are reprehensible traits. That is why the pious people advocate that we should not have a sense of attachment or pride in the good things that we do; instead we should attribute all such good to God, not ourselves. This serves as degradation and humiliation for the nafs. Like I said, I don’t really fully understand self-actualisation so won’t comment on that one. These are just a few examples to illustrate how the spiritual self motivates us to behave in ways that are in opposition to the animal self.

If we now refer back to the diagram of the cycle of behaviour, we can see that the aim of struggling against the nafs is to break free from this cycle. My view is that the needs mentioned there are not always needs, but rather desires. When I’m hungry, I desire food. It only really becomes a need once I reach the point of starvation. So the dictates of the religion are there to liberate us from being a slave to our desires. Rather than us always behaving in a way dictated to us by our desires, instead we control them. We are in control of our desires; our desires do not control us. This does not mean that they are suppressed entirely. The religion is one of balance and moderation: we fast and at times we break fast; we stand up for prayer at night and we sleep as well; and we marry women. So our desires are fulfilled in a balanced and moderate manner.

Maslow’s hierarchy spells out the needs that drive the behaviour of the physical self. So what are the needs that drive the spiritual self? I believe that it is the need to know God. This knowing is not merely theoretical knowledge that is gained from studying books. It includes that, but goes beyond that as well. It is a knowing of realisation and experience, i.e. that through acts of worship and through doing the things that have been prescribed for us to do, the veils between us and Him are lifted and we draw closer to Him.

Our relationship with God also plays a role. There are three main emotions that play a part here: fear, hope and love. These are not arranged according to any particular hierarchy. Instead, it can be likened to that of a bird: its two wings are hope and fear, and its body is love. If the two wings are not in balance and proportion the bird will fall and die. We fear that He will be displeased with us, and we also fear His Punishment (i.e. the Hellfire). We hope that He will be pleased with us, and we also hope for His Reward (i.e. Paradise). The two things mentioned in each case are linked, but they are not one and the same thing. The aspect of fear motivates us to abstain from sinful behaviour and the aspect of hope drives us to engage in doing good deeds. As to the aspect of love, that is for the lovers of God to speak about.


[1] Yes, jihad. The translation of jihad as ‘holy war’ is incorrect.

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7 Responses to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – An Islamic Perspective

  1. I’ve just learnt about Maslow’s last night. I want to learn more about it. May Allah reward you well.

    — Grateful Peace

  2. Habibah says:

    A good read – Nice to have an Islamic perpective – Jazakallah!

  3. the middle road says:

    For those who can’t be bothered to read that much text, click here. 🙂

  4. hala says:

    woooow I really enjoyed reading this. God bless you.. you really made an amazing points. it is nice to read an islamic perspective in the field of psychology. Well done😉

  5. Saalihah says:

    Assalamu’Alaykum,

    Really good read – Jazakallahukair!

    Think you’ll enjoy ‘7 Steps to Moral Intelligence’ based on Imam Ghazzali’s teachings:…http://idawah.co.uk/invitation-magazine/bookstore/7-steps-to-moral-intelligence/ – have a read if you can get your hands on a copy Inshaa’Allah.

  6. M says:

    Dear brother, Al salam alykum

    I enjoyed reading this as well, and with all do respect i disagree with you in this statement:
    “The main disagreement I have with the above theory is what I see as its lack of addressing the issue of religion in motivating human behaviour”
    i might be wrong, but what i think is that the Religion comes in the Belonging part. Also
    “as Muslims we would fast, willingly and voluntarily giving up all food, drink and sex, from sunrise to sunset.”
    This would be explained by saying that we as Muslims are so committed to our religion we are willing to give up some of our basic needs for A PERIOD OF TIME, and the point of Fasting as far as i know is to feel with the poor and needy, and we only fast from down til sunset, i would say if your suggestion is right this means we should give it up for ever not just a period of time.

    Thank you

  7. monifloutfy says:

    Very interesting …great presentation and thought.

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