Counseling: Seeking Advice and Problem Solving
Whenever we go to a community to offer a seminar, we offer counseling the following day for community members. When the availability of counseling is announced, there are always a number of individuals in the audience who “wear their emotions on their sleeve.” Their faces show an immediate interest and then look disheartened, like they are struggling with their thoughts. We imagine that they are in conflict about using the opportunity to consult with a Muslim counselor. “Should I….shouldn’t I?” So when editor of the Message magazine requested us to write an article on counseling because many Muslims are confused about it and hesitant to use it as a resource, we were thrilled. We would hope that this short article might help clear up confusion and answer questions that many have about counseling, as all of us have problems and issues and sometimes need help in addressing them.
In fact, every year, one in five adults in the United States experiences a mental or emotional problem that they are unable to cope with and resolve it themselves. It is not surprising given the complex and fast-paced world we are living in.
The following three cases are common examples of problems that warrant help from a counselor (names and details have been changed to protect privacy).
Rana was severely depressed when she went for her first counseling session. She felt hopeless about her marriage. She stated that her husband, Omar, was a good provider but complained that he was emotionally dry and unaffectionate. She said that he always had to be “doing something, listening to something, watching something,” never able to just sit and talk quietly or take a walk, or just be with her without some sort of diversion. When Omar came for a session and this issue was discussed, he was confident about his definition of love. To him love meant providing food, shelter, and clothing, being sexually intimate with one’s spouse, and having kids. He protested his wife’s definition of love as being too “touchy-feely and childish.” When Rana asked him to read a book about marriage in Islam, he refused. He considered himself “knowledgeable enough” and considered her request as being demanding. Omar pushed Rana away each time she tried to find or create compatibility in their vision of love and marriage. This made her feel unwanted and disregarded as a woman and a wife.
Sarah was a young woman who came for counseling due to obsessive thoughts. She would list in her mind what she had to do each day, over and over again. She felt that this problem was ruining her life as she found it difficult to focus while at her college classes and felt anxious most of the time. She never participated in class and avoided close friendships as she didn’t want anyone to find out about her problem. She did not know where this problem came from or how to deal with it. The more she tried to just stop the listing habit, the stronger it seemed to become. She was miserable and desperate to find relief and live her life without the obsessiveness and the anxiety.
Ali and Heba sought counseling because both of them felt miserable and sad. The love and enjoyment they had experienced when they first married had seemed to somehow gradually fade away. Ali complained that he felt a lot of resentment toward Heba and that she got angry with him often. Heba stated that her anger was due to Ali blaming her often for things that she felt were a result of his own disorganization and mismanagement of his time. They discussed in their counseling session the example of Ali promising to drive Heba to a halaqa (study circle) on a particular day and at a specified time. Ali would wait until the very last minute to leave, conveying in many small ways to Heba that she was inconveniencing him and preventing him from taking care of things like making phone calls or catching up on replying to his emails. This dynamic of Ali blaming Heba and Heba getting angry often had started to dominate their relationship.
What do the individuals in the three stories have in common? They all are practicing Muslims. They all have personal and/or relationship challenges. They all suffer from an inability to cope with those challenges. And finally, they all are examples of individuals or couples who initially refused to consider counseling when suggested by a spouse, relative, or friend.
What if they had known that counseling is a way to address issues and increase healthy and effective coping with the many challenges in life? What if they had known that through the counseling experience one can foster capacities and resources necessary to find personal fulfillment and greater satisfaction in relationships? What if they had known that through counseling they could better align with reality their view of themselves and other people? What if they had known that through counseling they could strengthen their relationship with Allah SWT?
A Stigma or A Commendable Action?
The individuals in the stories did not realize that the above benefits were available to them through counseling, and more fundamentally, they viewed counseling as a stigma. They thought that seeking counseling was something to be ashamed of, like it would tarnish their reputation and stereotype them as mentally ill or personally dysfunctional/deficient or Islamically weak. In addition, Muslims traditionally have been discouraged from disclosing personal or family difficulties to anyone outside the family. Feeling that counseling is a violation of family confidentiality contributes to seeing it as a stigma. This view of counseling is very common in our Muslim communities. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Again and again the situation plays out that once an individual or couple becomes persuaded that counseling might help them, and takes the initial step to seek counseling, a world of self-discovery opens up to them. Personal and spiritual growth, greater happiness, and increasing relationship satisfaction all become exciting potentials. They come to realize that seeking counseling is an indication that they are resolute in their determination to succeed in this life and in the life to come.
A number of misunderstandings cause the initial confusion about counseling and lead to the perception that seeking counseling is a stigma:
- Lack of Islamic knowledge or a distorted and narrow understanding of Islam. Some Muslims say that there is no need for counseling because Qur’an and sunnah have all the answers/solutions. Yes, Qur’an and sunnah are perfect sources of all the answers and solutions. It is us human beings that are imperfect in our knowledge, understanding, and application of the knowledge and wisdom available to us.
- Lack of knowledge with regard to the difference between psychotherapy and counseling. Psychotherapy focuses on analysis of the psyche to create insight into chronic and/or severe problems, understand the past and its impact on the present, and is generally a long term treatment. Counseling on other hand is typically shorter term and focuses primarily on behavior, is very solution-oriented, and helps clients assume full responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Lack of knowledge about the abundance of Islamic teachings that guide Muslims to seek help whenever there is a need.
Seeking Advice and Islamic Teachings
The prophets who Allah SWT has sent to humankind throughout history came to guide, advise, and help their followers. Qur’an states that prophet Hud said, “…and I am a trustworthy adviser to you.” (Qur’an 7:68). In another verse about prophet Nuh, he says to the people “I but fulfill towards you the duties of my Lord’s mission; sincere is my advice to you…” (Qur’an 7:62).
There many ahadeeth of the prophet Muhammad SAW emphasizing the importance of giving and receiving advice. The Prophet SAW said, “The deen (religion) is sound advice….” (Muslim) This is a strong statement. The religion as a whole is being equated with the giving and receiving of sound advice. Jareer Bin Abdul-Allah RAA stated that “I have pledged allegiance to the messenger of Allah to establish prayer, pay charity, and advise every Muslim” (Bukhari and Muslim)
In fact, “counselor” means “advisor.” A counselor is an individual who facilitates the solving of problems, the resolving of conflicts and issues, and the capacity to change. Islam is a way of life that prescribes self-transformation. This is the changing of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors for the better so as to achieve certain states – pure and sound heart, richness of self, tranquility and freedom of the soul – all endeavoring to earn the pleasure of Allah SWT. By extension, these states of the self/soul engender well-being for the individual and “protect” his/her relationships. The Prophet (SAW) said, “Listen, may I tell you something more important in degree than prayer (salah), fasting (sawm) and charity (sadaqah)?” The companions requested him to do so. He said, “To keep the mutual relationship on the right footing, because defect in the relationship shaves a thing clean.” Abu Isa said this is a sound (sahih) hadeeth and it is related that he (SAW) said, “It shaves a thing clean and I do not mean that it shaves the hair, but it shaves the religion (deen).” (Al-Tirmidhi)
It is truly remarkable that guarding and protecting our relationships is in no way less important in degree than prayer (salah), fasting (sawm) and charity (sadaqah). We know just how important prayer, fasting, and charity are, and this hadeeth is not lessening their significance in any way, but rather pointing to how essential relationships are. The fact that a defect in the relationship wipes out one’s religion (deen) indicates the tremendous impact our relationships have on us and those we are involved with. A miserable marriage relationship, for example, can result in depression, hopelessness, resentment, and other negative states of mind. A dysfunctional and unhappy family life can gradually erode family members’ practice of Islam. The openness to change and the willingness to grow intellectually, emotionally, morally, and spiritually is essential if one’s relationships are to be guarded and protected.
The capacity to know ourselves honestly, requires us to observe the inner dimensions of self in order to realize what is working well for us and what could be more productive, effective, and life-enhancing. Changing maladaptive traits and habits for the better is all about becoming self-accepting, optimally functioning in daily life, and engaging in our relationships in a way that benefits us and those we interact with.
Allah SWT says, “Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves…” (Qur’an 13:11) When a Muslim seeks counseling, it can be seen as an integral part of his or her striving for personal growth and spiritual development.
Goals of Islamic Counseling
Living an active, healthy life by instituting balance and avoiding extremes
“It is Allah Who has sent down the Book in truth, and the balance….” (Qur’an 42:17) In fact, maturity is a balancing of all things in one’s life, and following a middle course between extremes. Muslims are called “ummat-al-wasat,” community of the middle way. For example, the middle way is being generous rather than stingy or extravagant, the two opposing extremes; or being humble rather than self-abasing or self-glorifying; or being nurturing to one’s children rather than withholding and harsh or overly indulgent and permissive. With balance and moderation we can find the greatest enjoyment in our daily lives.
Abu Hurairah reported that the prophet SAW said “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to excellence and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings, afternoon and during the last hours of the nights.” (Bukhari)
In the story of Ali and Heba above, counseling provided the opportunity for Ali to learn to better manage his time. This allowed Ali to be more balanced in taking care of his own affairs while still honoring the needs of his wife and putting those needs high up on his priority list. Heba learned anger management techniques and they both worked on communication styles that supported them feeling like allies rather than adversaries.
Feeling empowered in daily living and dedicated to striving to reach one’s greatest potential as a human being and as a believer
The Qur’an says, “…man can have nothing but what he strives for.” (Qur’an 53:39) Prophet Muhammad SAW said, “Allah loves it when any one of you acts, so let him perfect it.” (Al-Bayhaqi in Shoua’ab al-Eman)
Sarah, in the above story, learned how to handle her anxiety by practicing relaxation skills and a negative-thought stopping technique, instituting an exercise routine, and with the help of the counselor, facing the things that triggered her obsessive listing habit. It took time and a lot of perseverance on Sarah’s part, but ultimately she felt that counseling literally changed her life. She felt empowered to pursue her goals and knew that she could achieve them with determination.
Dealing effectively with outward aspects of living such as decision-making or financial planning and also with inward aspects such as being self-aware, reflective, and honest with oneself
In order to be contemplative/reflective (allowing for self-scrutiny in order to grow and change and improve) one must be willing to enter the silence. Yet most people have little experience with the world of silence. It is an unknown and frightening realm for many people. In the silence the agitations in our hearts become audible and demand attention. Whatever pain, resentment, fear, anger, insecurity, or guilt that we are trying to avoid – all of these rise to the surface of our consciousness in the silence. But there are vast realms of wisdom found in practicing silence. Waheebibn Al-Ward said, “We were told that wisdom has ten parts and nine of them are in silence.” (Ihia’aUluum Al-Deen, Al-Ghazali). Prophet Muhammad SAW said: “Indeed silence is wisdom but very few practice it.” (Al-Bayhaqi and IbnHibban)
Omar, in the above story, learned through counseling to value Rana’s vision of marriage and intimacy. When she requested him to be open minded and consider new perspectives, rather than just reacting to her with verbal insults or by tuning her out, he practiced listening in complete silence. What persuaded him was learning about how the Prophet SAW was the greatest listener, and that the Prophet’s companion, Anas (RAA) said, “Part and parcel of marooah is for a brother (or sister) to listen silently to his brother (or sister) when they speak.” (Al-Tareekh by Al-Khateeb) Marooah is a comprehensive word in Arabic, which includes intelligence, power, bravery, generosity and honor.
Counseling helped Omar to enlarge his self-concept and to cultivate greater self-awareness. He began to realize that his manliness was not threatened by the things of gentleness, kindness, and compassionate caring.
Living with contentment, joy, and an optimistic view of life
Many human beings think that acquiring wealth and the luxuries it can buy will make them happy. Prophet Muhammad SAW said, “Wealth does not come from an abundance of things. True wealth comes from a contented mind.” (Bukhari and Muslim) The Prophet SAW also said, “True richness is the richness of the self.” (Bukhari)
Through counseling, the individuals in the stories above came to a greater understanding that happiness is not a mood. It is more a spiritual approach to life. It is a chosen and practiced mindset that facilitates, feeds, enhances feelings of positive and enjoyable well-being. True happiness does not come with what one has acquired – whether possessions, or prestige, or power – it comes with what one has actualized in the self or soul.
Feeling the deep conviction that life has meaning and purpose
Many individuals seek counseling because they feel that their life is meaningless and this leaves them depleted of vital energy and the ability to function productively on a daily basis. A Muslim has the benefit of eman to provide the foundation for a life filled with meaning and purpose. The Qur’an says, “Those who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the creation in the heavens and the earth; (Saying) ‘Our Lord! You have not created this without meaning and purpose…’ ” (Qur’an 3:191)
Building healthy and happy relationships in family, community, and ummah; and realizing that sound relationships protect one’s practice of Islam
The Prophet SAW said, “Listen, may I tell you something more important in degree than prayer (salah), fasting (sawm) and charity (sadaqah)?” The companions requested him to do so. He said, “To keep the mutual relationship on the right footing, because defect in the relationship shaves a thing clean.” Abu Esa said this is a sound (sahih) hadeeth and it is related that he (SAW) said, “It shaves the thing clean and I do not mean that it shaves the hair, but it shaves the religion (deen).”
This hadeeth does not mean that salah, sawm and sadaqah are not essential to one’s faith. To the contrary, it is their centrality to our belief and our practice of Islam that makes guarding relationships exceptionally important. Think about it – a dysfunctional relationship that is filled with resentment, fear or misery – such a distressing relationship gradually wears away at the strength and depth of eman. Energy and time consumed in conflict, crises, passive-aggressive behavior, and bitterness is energy and time not devoted to one’s spiritual and religious practice and growth. Hateful thoughts and feelings are poison to one’s eman and deen. It may even cause people to stop praying, fasting or practicing Islam all together because they are consumed by conflict and misery.
Strengthening adaptive behaviors and overcoming maladaptive behaviors
Self-discipline is a capacity to behave in ways that serve our intentions and goals. It is the only path to optimal health, happiness, and success. Indulgence in impulsive or habitual behaviors and attitudes that are destructive, disregards the principle of cause and effect. Realizing that an action has consequences, either positive or negative, and that we can make a choice at each and every moment of our daily lives, is the first step toward self-governance. Controlling impulses and whims is a profound ability that can be learned at any age, and can be strengthened anytime one makes an intention to further develop this capacity
All of the individuals in the stories above successfully utilized the resource of counseling to resolve their issues. They all ultimately felt that they had taken charge of their lives in a purposeful way. Each one enlarged and extended his/her view of relationships and the importance of doing whatever needs to be done to guard and enhance the relationship with self, relationships with other people, and relationship with Allah SWT. Each one committed to the principle of life-long learning in order to achieve optimal functioning in their daily lives. By acquiring greater self-awareness, cultivating self-discipline, and knowing himself or herself in a deeper and more honest way, each one came to realize that he/she was on the path to drawing nearer to Allah SWT. As Imam Yahia Mua’az Al-Razy said, “Whoever knows himself, indeed he knows his Lord.”
Back to Basics
Of course the basic goal of counseling is to help individuals solve their human problems. Human beings have all sorts of issues and counseling is one of many ways to address these issues. Depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, as well as parenting and parent-child challenges, cross-cultural issues, ADD, bipolar disorder, issues of abuse, harmful habits and addictions, in-law issues – all of these are commonly addressed in counseling. In addition, however, there are many practical skills that one can learn through counseling such as:
- how to discipline the thoughts
- how to practice active and empathic listening
- how to practice silence and reflection/contemplation
- how to practice the “pause” before responding so as not to be reactive and heedless of consequences
- how to be self-examining in order to observe and recognize one’s own distorted thinking or perceptions as well as one’s maladaptive behaviors
- how to overcome an anger issue
- how to eliminate a habit of blaming
- how to resolve resentments
- how to deal with conflicts in a healthy, productive way
It is interesting that oftentimes when an individual starts incorporating these new skills into his/her daily habits of living, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are ameliorated. Significantly, studies show that positive change and personal growth continue to develop beyond the conclusion of counseling. In studies, follow-up assessments were conducted up to three years after counseling ended. This suggests that through counseling, clients were provided with tools that allowed them to feel better, function more effectively, reduce physical and/or emotional symptoms, and cope better with life’s challenges. And these benefits continued well beyond the termination of the counseling experience.
An Excellent Proactive Measure to Take in Preparing for Marriage
The divorce rate is increasing dramatically among Muslims today compared to even five years ago. Studies show that satisfaction and success in marriage correlates to the degree of education a couple has acquired with regard to marriage, relationships, and parenting. Islamic teachings staunchly support being proactive and preventing problems before they arise. Therefore it is highly recommended for Muslims who are planning marriage to get some training in areas such as healthy and effective communication, problem-solving, knowing the Islamic rights and responsibilities of both spouses, artful conflict resolution, financial planning, and learning how to set marriage and parental goals.
Pre-marital coaching/counseling, on average, takes 6-8 sessions. However, each couple brings unique challenges as well as resources to the premarital counseling experience. Levels of motivation and self-discipline are variable according to the individuals involved. The number of sessions is determined by the couple themselves. If they do some reading on their own and practice the techniques and exercises they learn, a fewer number of sessions is needed. If there are psychological challenges such as anger, anxiety, irrational fear, or one or both individuals comes from a dysfunctional family of origin, additional sessions may be required to address the issues.
The most important factor, not only in how many sessions are needed, but also in the overall success of the premarital training, is whether the individuals/couples are motivated, willing to listen with the intention to be responsive and adaptable, open to learning, and committed to applying what they have learned to their relationship and to their daily living.
Where to Find a Muslim Counselor?
One problem that Muslims encounter living in the West, is that at this time there are not that many qualified Muslim counselors. Going to a non-Muslim counselor is not ideal since they will most likely be unfamiliar with the tenets of Islam. Religious and cultural traditions are interwoven into the fabric of the challenges and problems that individuals or couples face. The solutions offered may not accord with the teachings of Islam and, in addition, will not have the divine principles to draw on. However, if there is no Muslim counselor available in a particular area and it is matter of urgency, it is acceptable to seek counseling from a non-Muslim. One who is familiar with the Islamic tradition and Muslim culture would be best. Indeed, there are some non-Muslim counselors who are very aware of and respectful of cultural differences and effective in counseling Muslims. The internet is also a great resource for finding a Muslim counselor even if he/she is not local. It just might take some research and persistence to find the right individual. Below are some options:
- MCA Bay Area Counseling Services – San Francisco, California, in person or by phone
- Sakinah Muslim Counseling Services – UK
- IslamOnline Cyber Counselor – Online Advice/Q&A
- LivingEman.com – Islamic counseling by phone
- Center for Islamic Counseling & Guidance- Jonesboro, Georgia
- Muslim Family Services (ICNA Relief) – Detroit, Michigan
Choosing a Counselor
The ideal counselor is a Muslim who utilizes both Islamic teachings and western counseling approaches. Within the framework of an Islamic model of counseling, an eclectic approach draws on both sources and provides entryway into a deeper understanding of the self. Do not be afraid to ask the counselor if he/she utilizes Islamic as well as western modalities. Do not hesitate to ask whether they provide practical techniques in addition to discussion (often referred to as “talk therapy”). It is certainly beneficial to gain greater insight into one’s issues and problems; however, it is just as essential to acquire and practice new skills and techniques related to the resolving of those issues.
Rapport is the foundation that a successful counseling experience is built on. Feeling comfortable with and trusting the counselor is imperative. Research shows that liking one’s counselor and feeling that he/she genuinely listens and empathizes with one’s issues is as significant to the successful outcome of the counseling as the therapist’s experience or training. It is unprofessional and inappropriate for a counselor to ever come across as judgmental, or that they are trying to impose any belief, perspective, or action on the client. Never should they blame or find fault with a client.
How Many Sessions Are Typically Needed?
As stated above with regard to pre-marital counseling, there is no standard answer to this question. A client brings his or her own level of motivation and self-discipline to the process. The need for one session or an ongoing number of sessions is determined by the client him/herself. Ultimately, the duration of counseling depends on the severity of the problem, as well as the commitment, seriousness, and perseverance of the client to work toward articulated goals. The counseling experience is a collaboration between the counselor and the client. Nonetheless, the client has the ultimate say in determining goals and the duration of the counseling.
For example, an individual who starts counseling to learn coping skills and eagerly learns and practices with the tools and techniques he/she acquires during the counseling sessions, may feel they have accomplished what they intended to accomplish in two sessions. Another individual may come to counseling looking to address a number of issues including depression and food addiction. They may do one session per week for eight weeks to accomplish their goals. A final example is a couple who comes to counseling because they are on the verge of divorce. They feel the need for two sessions a week at the beginning to stabilize their situation and feel that they are out of danger. Then they do one session a week for three months until their relationship is significantly improved and they have acquired the knowledge and tools necessary to proceed on their own in a healthy and productive way. In conclusion, the counseling process can take a one session or an ongoing number of weekly sessions.
Promise of Happiness and Success
The development and enriching of the self/soul is a work in progress for each of us. Through many different means the aspects of self can be inventoried, tuned, and tested to make sure they are functional and sound. This includes examining one’s thoughts, feelings, attitudes, motives, and behaviors. Going through this process is a lifelong endeavor. It is a process of healing all that is fragmented, impaired, dysfunctional, or wounded within the soul. It is the way toward wholeness and happiness, a return to the fitrah, the pristine human nature that each human is born with. As Muslims, we are promised happiness and success in this life and in the life to come. It is our choice to pursue that blessed state or not. For those who choose a dedicated life (the journey of self-transformation), counseling can be a valuable resource to facilitate that striving and the attainment of its fruits.
By Leslie Schaffer and Kamal Shaarawy
About the author
Leslie Schaffer embraced Islam in 1979. She and Br.Kamal Shaarawy provide counseling for Muslim individuals, couples, and families. A full collection of their writings can be found on SalaamHearts.com