Counselling is not for people with faith. It’s a pretty strong statement and an assumption that is implicit among many religions. I have grown up with an internalised belief that where faith is present, counselling has no place. I believe this notion is an outcome of the stigmatisation associated with mental health issues cross culturally, in particular with people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.1 My religion recognises mental health issues and encourages treatment through spiritually informed practices and medical interventions. So what is it about my faith that places it at precedence?
Islam has always played an integral part in my life. From the moment I rise, to the moment I end my day, faith-based rituals are a huge part of my daily routine. Spiritual meditation, prayers and the remembrance of God are essential to my self-care regime. I perceive faith as a beacon of hope, comfort and guidance that has helped me navigate life’s most challenging experiences. I feel this is largely due to Islamic theology honouring and empowering my position as a Muslim female, where my Bangladeshi heritage – which is still very much overshadowed by patriarchal values – has not. In my experience, I recognise and value spiritual counsel, which offers comfort through spiritual solace. I can certainly say that, without Islamic counsel, I probably wouldn’t be as together as I am now.
So why did I train as a counsellor? Perhaps what really pushed me was the desire for a change of mindset. From adolescence, my interest in psychotherapeutic practices developed from elders implicitly expressing this article’s opening statement – ‘counselling is not for people with faith’ – and that planted a seed. Understandably for them, spiritual counselling may have been regarded as a safer and reassuring alternative to therapeutic counselling, most likely conducted by someone white and middle-class, unable to grasp and accommodate an approach that sensitively considered South Asian culture and religious perspectives.
Therapist as ‘other’
Entering counsellor training coincided with a difficult period in my life. The training’s mandatory requirement of personal therapy meant that I had to find a therapist, and there was something quite novel about experiencing both spiritual counsel and therapy simultaneously, yet separately. I realise now that, had it not been for my training, I would most likely have relied solely on the familiarity of spiritual counsel. Entering completely new territory, I pushed myself further by choosing a white therapist, recommended by a friend, who also originated from a Muslim-British Bangladeshi background. If a white therapist was good enough for them, then surely they would be good enough for me too. Opening up to someone who originates from a different faith and cultural background to my own has felt somewhat alien. I can understand that, for many, an unfamiliar ‘other’ offers a refreshing and liberating experience. Admittedly, I have contemplated the perceived benefits of a shared faith-cultural therapeutic dyad – a therapist who ‘gets’ the complexities I present.
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For my therapist to fully understand me, I have needed to explain certain religious and cultural concepts, which at times has made the sessions feel bitty. Explaining isn’t necessarily an issue, but other constraints are: I don’t want to spend valuable time, not to mention money, ‘educating’ my therapist about the difference between Islamic principles and cultural ideology. I have wondered about my therapist’s impressions and the negative stereotypes I might unintentionally reinforce – worries I would not necessarily think about with someone with an informed understanding of my particular cultural and religious circumstances. We are now entering the second year of working together. I have felt safe enough to correct my therapist’s few assumptive interventions. I appreciate that they seek to understand me, and their perspective as ‘other’ has offered something valuable to the therapy.
Client as ‘other’
I am a visibly identifiable South Asian Muslim counsellor who wears a hijab (Muslim female veil). My trainee clinical work has raised some interesting points in working with difference with non-Muslim clients. I recall a time when a Year 3 white client placed a toy otoscope to my ear. I was unsure about what exactly they were looking for as my hijab covered my ears. When I asked them how it looked, they replied in a very matter of fact way, ‘it’s clogged’. I wonder now what this communicated about their sense of whether our differences influenced my capacity to ‘hear’ them. A young black client playfully yet directly tugged at my hijab. I realise now that these actions carried a message that my non-Muslim clients wanted to explore, yet I left unexamined due to lack of experience or acknowledgement about our differences.
Despite the shift in counselling training organisations towards creating opportunities to address cultural competence, Western and Eurocentric theory and practice still dominate.2 My clinical work has highlighted that more work is required for counsellors to work with difference and cultural sensitivity, especially where there is a cross-cultural therapeutic dyad.3
Bridging the gap
My desire to change the narrative around the suitability of counselling and psychotherapy for people of faith, became a point of research during my training. In a way, I wanted God’s approval. I stumbled across the work of Professor Rasjid Skinner, an expert in Islamic approaches to psychology and psychotherapy. I learned about Islam’s contribution to the treatment and theory of mental illness by the 11th century4 and began to recognise counselling and religion as co-existing philosophies. Most of my learning arose from my counselling practice, while much of the emotional work happened in personal therapy. Within both these contexts, I began applying Islamic theology to my thinking, which aided both my personal and professional growth.
In my further attempts to bridge Islamic and integrative psychotherapeutic principles, I found that existential humanistically derived Islamic moral values complemented BACP’s Ethical Framework5 and my facilitative approach in applying Carl Rogers’ conditions of warmth, unconditional positive regard (UPR), empathy, acceptance and authenticity.6 My training with Place2Be highlighted self-awareness as one of three key principles fundamental to its approach.7 Cultivating intrapsychic self-examination (ie self-awareness) and the courage to ‘be’ is consistent with Islamic philosophy. Key to leading an Islamic-adherent lifestyle includes practising and developing self-reflection and introspection.8 This finding spurred on the creation of a faith-based gratitude journaling concept – ‘Taqdeer’9 – which denotes ‘appreciation’ in Arabic. Taqdeer combines what we know about the positive effects of cultivating gratitude, backed by Islamic principles, while also developing psychological mindedness.
Tawakkul – trust in
During clinical training, my internal objective-driven teacher, as well as my need for certainty, presented the not-knowing aspect, commonly experienced in therapeutic work, as incredibly challenging. I vividly recall feeling lost and despondent upon sensing an aimlessness in the work. Staying with the client’s slow pace felt hard. It was a reminder that my effectiveness as a counsellor resided with trusting the process and staying with the unknown. Paradoxically, this brought to my awareness the difficulties I’d experienced in grappling with the Islamic principle ‘ Tawakkul ’, Arabic for ‘trust in’. To trust in Allah (God) similarly entails trusting His process. Tawakkul is essentially about trusting that God has ultimate control. When faced with difficult life events, I have struggled to observe this ethic and instead have tried to find some other explanation. When faced with the reality that my work as a counsellor also relied upon my being able to trust in an unseen process and stay with the unknown, I came to appreciate the power of Tawakkul, and identify another connection between psychotherapeutic and Islamic thinking. Integrating Tawakkul into my work has been one of the most unexpected surprises. Not only has this application strengthened my engagement with clients, but it has also enabled me to persevere with a ‘to trust in’ mindset when dealing with life’s happenings.
Thinking about the benefit of a counsellor’s experience, I agree with Nick Luxmoore’s observation that ‘we need our counsellors to be experienced people – not innocents, not people who’ve led sheltered lives’.10 Although Luxmoore refers to this in the context of the counsellor offering wisdom based on their experiences, I believe there lies a wisdom in the ways in which my personal experiences have taught me about my vulnerability before God. In turn, the wisdom gained from reflecting on these experiences has further shaped my counselling approach. My ability to employ empathy stems from being mindful to accept the vulnerability of my clients.
Referring again to Tawakkul, the ethic is commonly associated with the Islamic proverbial phrase, ‘Trust in Allah, but tie your camel’,11 which signifies that we have personal responsibility alongside faith. We know that the effectiveness of counselling largely resides with the extent to which clients are willing to participate. Have they entered therapy willingly and are they open to change? In other words, are they willing to ‘tie their camel’? I recall a session with a Year 6 client in which they expressed their vulnerability by consistently testing my commitment to them. They pushed the boundaries when sessions neared the end. They demonstrated a push-pull style of relating and made significant attempts to put me down. Regardless, I showed up every week and I grew to trust in their process. Likewise, their fragility and efforts to navigate our work conveyed that they too had ‘tied the camel’. Thinking about the communication in this way, not only deepened my empathy but also drew my attention to what was happening within the therapeutic process.
Murqabah – presence
Another unexpected joy that arose from my training was when I began to feel much less daunted by attending to clients where silence dominated the sessions. I suspect this had much to do with an unconscious integration of ‘murqabah’ in my therapeutic approach. Within the Islamic context, silence is related to the virtue murqabah, denoting ‘presence’ in Arabic.12 The murqabah I cultivate in my daily prayers is not too dissimilar to the presence that is required of me to stay with the client’s process. The murqabah that I had grown accustomed to through worship provided a further grounding technique within the therapeutic space. This, combined with what we know about the potential of working non-verbally, helped me to stay with the here and now.
The onward journey
Embarking on personal therapy enabled me to experience a connection through the therapeutic alliance. This, together with the opportunity to explore my own story and make sense of it, is the ‘something more’ which I believe spiritual counsel lacks. Spiritual counsel will always remain important to me. I feel incredibly grateful to have drawn on two processes that have ultimately shaped my continuing growth in different ways. I am confident that with the greater availability of religious and culturally aware psychological services and the rise of religious scholars drawing on psychotherapeutic principles within their work, there will be greater focus on holistic treatments and a greater acceptability of the benefits of counselling within the BAME Islamic community. My journey to integrate psychotherapeutic and Islamic thinking into my life and practice has only just begun. I carry on with a sense of hope that religious teachings and concepts can be seen within the Islamic community as something that can enhance and empower mental health and wellbeing, rather than being innately at odds with science and progress in all its forms.
1 Memon A, Taylor K, Mohebati LM et al. Perceived barriers to accessing mental health services among black and minority ethnic (BME) communities: a qualitative study in Southeast England. BMJ Open; 2016. https://10.1136/ bmjopen-2016-012337 (accessed 20 September 2019).
2 Cooper, N, Swain-Cowper K. Becoming an integrative practitioner. The handbook of counselling children and young people (2nd edition). London: Sage; 2017.
3 Fernando S. Psychotherapy in the context of race and culture: an inter-cultural therapeutic approach. In: Fernando S, Keating F (eds). Mental health in a multi-ethnic society: a multidisciplinary handbook. Chapter 11. Sussex: Routledge; 2008.
4 Skinner R. An Islamic approach to psychology and mental health [Online.] Mental Health, Religion and Culture 2010. https://doi.org/10.1080 /13674676.2010.488441 (accessed 13 November 2017).
5 BACP. Ethical framework for good practice in counselling and psychotherapy. Lutterworth: BACP; 2018.
6 Rogers CR. A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; 1980.
7 Wilson P. The Place2Be therapeutic approach: full statement. London: Place2Be; 2012.
8 Keshavarzi H, Haque A. Outlining a psychotherapy model for enhancing Muslim mental health within an Islamic context. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2013. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2012. 712000 (accessed 12 December 2018).
9 www.taqdeer.life (accessed 1 August 2017).
10 Luxmoore N. The place of wisdom in counselling with young children. BACP Children, Young People and Families 2019; March: 20–29.
11 Edward-Moad, O. Tying Your camel: an Islamic perspective on methodological naturalism. US: Yaqeen Institute; 2018. https:// yaqeeninstitute.org/omar-edwardmoad/tying-your-camel-an-islamicperspective-on-methodologicalnaturalism/#.XYi_8_BKi70 (accessed 20 September 2019).
12 Parrott, J. How to be a mindful Muslim: an exercise in Islamic meditation. US: Yaqeen Institute; 2017. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/ justin-parrott/how-to-be-a-mindfulmuslim-an-exercise-in-islamicmeditation/#.XRyowi2Q2t8 (accessed 9 March 2018).