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Can we Apply Western Psychology to Muslim Populations?

Syeda Tatheer Zahra Shamsi


When we think about applying traditional western   psychology to Islamic populations, we immediately encounter difficulties, ideological as well as practical difficulties. Its not always possible to transfer these psychological notions to groups for whom the theories proposed dont fit neatly within the framework they have been brought up in. We recognize that its very important for Muslim groups to have forums which will encourage  individuals to express their problems and which will allow them to be comfortable, as their needs arent always catered for by the health services or social services here. And this often inhibits many from coming forward for psychological services. In fact there are a number of reasons for people covering up or attempting to hide psychological problems, or the emotional distress theyre experiencing. Unfortunately in the age where counseling services are so effectively used in western countries, all across Europe and North America, its still considered taboo in our communities to access these services.

 This issue of services not catering for our needs is now becoming widely recognized. And the good news is that there are many centers which are becoming established here in a multi-ethnic community because of equal opportunities policies and because of cross-cultural research; research with different cultures is showing that what may be an effective form of treatment for people from one culture may not be beneficial for people from another culture because a lot of the issues may not be relevant. The positive outcome here is that there is an increase in research to show us that peoples constructs, the ways in which they view the world, are different and cant always be generalized. Just to give an example, there have been studies carried out with black African individuals who were diagnosed with a psychiatric ill-ness,

schizophrenia; but when this same group of people was assessed by psychologists and psychiatrists from their own culture, they discovered that the behavior they were exhibiting which led to this diagnosis, was considered perfectly acceptable in their own cultures. So the con-sequence of such a diagnosis of course is that they would be receiving psychotropic medication,  drugs for the treatment of mental disorders which they didnt have, which have no organic basis. And this had in fact been found to be happening, a lot of research has uncovered this sort of practice.

So as a consequence of these sorts of difficulties, many centers and organizations have arisen which are dealing with specific areas, such as bereavement, or care for the elderly, marital problems and many others. But theyre often isolated and working alone; and theyve usually come about in response to cultural and lingual needs of particular communities, such as the Afro-Caribbean community,

or the Asian community for example, which are considered homogenous groups so theyve been put together on the basis of their ethnic back-grounds.But theyre not necessarily fulfilling the requirements of our faith, so its not an ideal situation.

We can very briefly look at the psychological framework within which western practitioners are working. We know that psychology is basically considered to be the study of the human mind and behavior.

Its a broad discipline which not only relates to how psychology is commonly portrayed in the media - as dealing with mental illness - but covers all sorts of other issues relating to human development, such as learning, and human distress,  relationships, marital issues, the upbringing of children. Although its a relatively new western science, psychology has firmly established itself as a discipline with rigorous scientific, empirical support. Ironically, the literary definition of the word psychology, the origin of the word is, the discourse or the study of the soul or the spirit.

Psychology is regarded as a natural science, involving the study of the laws of nature, of human spirituality, but is this really the case?

Problems with Western Psychology

Someone who has questioned this very fiercely and has attacked the very basis of western psychology is Dr Malik Badri  he is an experienced  Muslim psychotherapist and professor of psychology from Sudan. The following quote of his illustrates his views: They will claim (hes talking here about western  psychologists) that their theories about human behavior are based purely on empirical, unbiased observation. They will even claim to take a neutral stand with respect to the existence of God and the place of religion and to apply an objective non-biased scientific approach in studying spiritual  . 

Clearly when were talking about nature, about the nature of man, we cant take him and study man, his  problems, his needs, as a distinct entity, removed from his Creator. The great alim Syed Mujtaba Musawi Lari has done a lot of work in this area and he emphasizes that man has spiritual needs in the same way that he has physical needs, and we need to consider them. Faith provides an individual with strength against despair and hopelessness. If we consider the example of depression, its a debilitating illness, and the majority of us would have experienced depression at some stage. But there are different types, and it can also be considered to be on a continuum with varying degrees of severity. In the most severe cases the ultimate end would be suicide or a suicidal attempt.

Imam Jaffer al-Sadiq (AS) has said that a true believer can never commit suicide.

We all experience psychological difficulties, but our faith provides us with a motivating force to help overcome them. Thats not to say that hoping and wishing that the situation will change is enough, we really need to take positive action too. Often we also need professional assistance. Its essential especially with individuals diagnosed with serious clinical conditions, that they continue to receive professional help. For us there isnt a dichotomy between faith - our religious convictions - and scientific study and scientific advance. This is where we as Muslims diverted from the traditional Judea Christian notions of faith. For a Muslim, knowledge and science reinforce faith rather than oppose it. The result of this belief was the golden age of science and faith in Islamic civilization, in which science and knowledge made huge advances by Muslims reaffirming their belief through scientific discovery. In contrast,

 Psychology is regarded as a natural science, involving the study of the laws of nature, of human spirituality, but is this really the case ?

 by Muslim thinkers throughout history.

Psychological Practice for Muslim Psychologists

So coming back to the dilemma of the Muslim psychologist, can we effectively continue to use the principles of psychology in the treatment of our Muslim patients, given that psychological principles are based upon western research and ideals? How applicable is psychology to us? Well there are many schools of thought in psychology, many ways of explaining human behavior. Theyre not all couched within an atheistic, materialistic frame-work; we can briefly look at an example: the humanistic school of thought is a fairly modern movement in psychology which started to emerge in the 1950s and 60s the humanistic model features quite prominently now in psychotherapeutic intervention, its quite commonly used. 

The humanistic school focuses on a positive concept of human nature, and emphasizes the individuals uniqueness. Humanistic psychologists take account of the individuals self and subjective inner experiences, such as the concepts of values, faith and self-direction. 

And this is where it differs from other, more traditional schools of thought which are based on the belief that human beings are really the same and that their behaviour is determined, pre-determined by certain forces beyond their control. The humanistic view, just as its name suggests, looks at the person as an individual, as a human being; what is it that motivates this person, what are the things that makes this person unique? They take account of the  individuals personal goals, and their aims for achievement. And in this respect, the humanistic psychologists are the closest to encompassing the religious dimension--to working with the spiritual aspect of the person as well.

 As were growing in a multicultural society, were seeing a synthesis, this combining, of theories, to try to arrive at the most suitable model which will be relevant for most people from different backgrounds although again the situation isnt ideal because the paradigm or the framework within which were working isnt Islamic.  

So I was really fortunate when I had the opportunity while I was in Iran to interview one of Irans leading psychologists Dr Parveen Debajnia, as I was interested in psychological practice in a country completely guided by Islamic principles. She was very proud of the modern teaching and research facilities that they had in the new university hospital in Qom and she discussed the therapeutic intervention, how they worked with patients, and advances theyd made based on scientific research within an Islamic framework.

And youll find many examples of the type Dr Debajnia discussed with me in the practice of Malik Badri in Lebanon, in Sudan and in Saudi Arabia. Just to illustrate, he gives an example of one of his female patients who had been admitted for anxiety and depression, and she was experiencing phobias displaying undue, irrational fears. She had been seen by other psychologists in the hospital but she wasnt responding to any of the types therapy that they was using nothing was effective.

 When Malik Badri began working with her he began reciting a relevant verse of the Quran, she immediately responded and broke down in tears this led to the discovery of a lot of other problems which she had been hiding, she confessed to them straight away and this was what had been hindering her recovery before, as the previous psychologists werent aware of these other really important underlying factors. So when these came to the fore Malik Badri was able to work on these issues effectively using traditional psychotherapeutic techniques, behavioural methods. And Alham-dulillah this patient made a very dramatic improvement. When he told his colleague how he had successfully treated her, he expressed his amazement and said, Ive kept a copy of the Holy Quran in my office for the last three years and it never once occurred to me to bring it down from the bookshelf and use it as part of my therapy.

So there weve got an inspirational example of how Islamic teachings can guide us in our scientific practice; and there are many other such examples.

 Weve seen then in a very small way how Muslims are able to benefi t from modern psychology. Western psychological techniques are not always reconcilable with Islamic ideology as they have evolved traditionally emphasizing sound scientific practice without much regard for consideration of faith. However, by employing empirical research findings in the light of Islamic teachings there is strong evidence that Muslim psychologists can restore spiritual vigor to the essentially materialistic western psychology.  


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