What does it mean to be an Islamic Psychotherapist?

What is the difference between Islamic Psychotherapy or Counselling? what is the difference between a  Muslim counsellor or psychotherapist and a Sheikh of Tazkiyah? This article aims to explore.

There are many interpretations to what Islamic counselling, psychology and psychotherapy is;

  • An Islamic approach to counselling and/or self-development
  • Adapted Western counselling modalities for use with Muslim clients
  • An appreciation of similarities and differences in Islamic philosophies and Western Psychology.

A general web search of services which offer Islamic counselling and psychotherapy can look the same but often there can be differences. It is generally considered that Islamic counselling and psychotherapy is still in early development with emerging academic research supporting its growth (Cardo, 2014).

Is there a standalone Islamic Counselling/psychotherapy model purely based on Islamic teachings? For an answer to this we would be required to refer to the holy book the Qu’ran and the prophetic practices and teachings within the Hadiths of its gradual application of revelation. We find it is not clearly identifiable upon first glance, there is no surah titled ‘the Islamic counselling method’.  So how would we define the process of teaching, training and practising as an Islamic Counsellor or Psychotherapist?

Over the years I have grappled with the subject within training and practice which led me to where I am now, a PhD candidate researching the subject.   My intentions are to understand what an Islamic approach to counselling and/or psychotherapy is from a Quranic perspective. So far my research and experiences have led me to practice an ‘Islamic inspired approach to psychotherapy ‘ and practice what I term ‘The IQ Method’.

So far in my journey, and this is by no means a definitive truth, building knowledge and practising as an Islamic psychotherapist means mastery (or towards mastery)  of both the Islamic sciences of Tazkiyah (purification of the soul)  and have a psychotherapeutic training background and qualification. I use the term ‘inspired’ to define a trainee status towards mastery and that my practice is grounded by an intention to serve Allah. Essentially my ethics of practice are governed by the Sharia and as I integrate Islam and a form of Psychotherapy (in my case Transactional Analysis) I also acknowledge professional codes of practice such as guided by the BACP and UKATA. This means my primarily my  intention is to practise as a psychotherapist with Tawakul (trust in Allah) and Taqwa (Allah consciousness) and with the Quran as my primary modality and TA as a secondary.  Is this different than other approaches to counselling and psychotherapy? I suppose the main difference for me is that autonomy (the aim in an Islamic inspired approach to Psychotherapy) means;  ‘La illahha illallah’ (there is only One God, Allah).  Western forms of counselling and psychotherapy will not generally consider Allah as the overall healer in the process nor the Quran as a methodology.

In my  Islamic Inspired approach I ground my intentions before I see a client with bismillah rahmanir rahim (In the name of Allah the most merciful, the most beneficent). I  make a dua before the sessions and often I pray with clients if prayer is due. I do not begin by quoting or discussing Qur’anic ayah or hadith , this is something that appears gradually as we meet and as the relationship between therapist and client strengthens. There are times when there is a need to discuss ayah/hadith which relates to their particular struggle or aim. Referring to the Quran and Hadith can bring comfort, it can also be challenging. I am passionate about connecting with the Quran in a gradual way, reflection upon it with Taddabur ie; personal refection both in Tanzil and Tawil (with outer and inner meaning). I adhere to this practice myself,  daily if I am able too and when the time is right and the client is open to the experience, I will  encourage my clients to connect with Allah through their own research and reflections with the Quranic ayat. This step relies mostly on when they are accepting of the Quran and its message. Psychotherapy can then help us understand why? what are the blocks in their relationship with Allah and his Guidance? I encourage reflection and journaling their experiences of each destiny as it appears, that could be in there relationships, current situations, past experiences. We reflect upon these destinies through the lens of Allahs guidance, the Quran and the lessons taken from the Seerah (Prophetic biography).  I refer to this as “THE IQ Method”, drawn from the lessons within the first revealed ayat of surah Alaq to Read (Iqra) and reflect upon the destinies of creation  (ie the client) and Creator (Qalam). “The IQ methodie Iqra and Qalam,  encourages us to  look at  how your practice and understanding of Quran and an Islamic way of life impacts and moves your everyday and encourages the client to seek guidance and healing (Tazkiyah) from Allah, retrospectively and directly with His guidance (Quran).

The IQ method emerged from my lessons over the years with a sheikh of Tazkiyah, Sheikh Abu Nahla al Wazani (Noesis Institute) of whom I am deeply thankful of his continued guidance, time and patience on my journey attempting to understand Tazkiyah, of which I am aware I am only scratching the surface of this subject.  The term ‘the IQ method’ is my way of summarising what I have so far learnt from the ayat of Surah Alaq and forms a basic structure for my work as an Islamic inspired psychotherapist and my own personal Tazkiyah journey.  It is no way meant to replace or update the traditional methods and sciences of application of Tazkiyah of which the West is only beginning to know.   I personally find this a useful method and summary for my own self and also with clients. My background in Islamic studies is mostly self taught via online learning and attending seminars and courses. Over the last few years I am in more formal  attendance of Islamic studies classes where  the teachers class us as  students of knowledge. The subjects we cover are;  Fiqh (law), Seerah (Prophetic Biography), Aqeedah (Belief), Hadith (Prophetic teaching/narration), Tafsir (Scholors interpretation of Quran). My specialist interest is in the sciences of Takiyat un Nafs (purification of the Soul). I learn by attending courses, seeking scholarly advise and guidance and practising  application of what I learn, however I have no formal ‘Ijazah’ (permission to teach), that I am told will only come through learning Arabic and obtaining a formal Shariah qualification, inshallah. I therefore recommend to my clients to obtain knowledge of fiqh/shariah/aqeedah/hadith from scholars in their specialist fields and also their personal interpretations of Quran in their reflections be guided by Tafsir (Scholarly interpretations).

I consider Psychotherapy as a Nasihah (an advising  within an Islamic context). The aim of an Islamic therapist would be to practice as closely to the character, manners,  words, and care of the Prophet swws. To qualify to this level is high attainment , to emulate or aim to follow in the footsteps of such an inspirational being would require a person to tend to their own spiritual development.  Such status and attributes in a person would require one to have thorough knowledge of the Quran and Hadith and be an active applicant of the Quran and Sunnah in all aspects of life. The closest I consider to be at such a high level of mastery would be a scholar who is a specialist in  Shariah , has a high knowledge of Quran and Hadith and arabic and most essentially Tazkiyah (purification of the heart). A Master of many sciences but one who has taken time to purify their own hearts with the knowledge of Islam which they have learnt and applied.  Sadly we hear of ‘Imams’ and ‘Sheikhs’ who either fail to practice what they preach or are lacking in awareness of their own Nafs (inner self and character). Spiritual abuse is a talked about issue in Muslim communities, we hear of so called Ruqis or Sheikhs  bullying or attempting to control students, taking away from the whole concept  of Godly reliance (Tawwakul). The student becomes a follower of the Sheikh rather than Allah, and often ‘in awe’ of the special spiritual status of the Sheikh, categorising them as an intermediary between themselves and Allah. No doubt a master Sheikh and Scholar can have a high spiritual status and respecting the student teacher relationship is a way of scholarship, however abuse of this status can fall into the practice of minor shirk (idolatry) and narcissism.

An Islamic therapist is one that will support others to be the best they can be both spiritually , psychologically, in manners, in knowledge and wisdom, one who relies on Allah as ultimate healer and guide and encourages the client/student to use the Quran as its primary Sheikh, with its unique wisdom and guidance. Al Ghazali, the great Muslim scholar advised us if we do not have a Sheikh then seek advise from your brother/sister, failing this, seek advise from your enemy (they will be glad to teach you your faults). I would like us to aim to place an Islamic psychotherapist at the same level of a Sheikh, however in reality at least be a true brother or sister as in the example set by the Sahabah (companions of the Prophet).

As Muslim therapist in whichever capacity we train and practice, whether that is counselling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, life coaching etc, we as Muslims should aim towards being the best we can be drawing upon the  example of our beloved Prophet swws.  I believe personal therapy and the practice of Tazkiyah for the therapist is essential and inline with the message of the Quran (91;9).

“Indeed he succeeds who purifies his own self…”

(Qu’ran 91:9)

How can we show truth if we do not understand nor demonstrate it ourselves? An Islamic psychotherapist is like the Dawee (propagator of truth) who is required to  engage in Aql (intellect), Reason (self knowledge/intuition/education), Hikma (wisdom) and Ilm, knowledge of Shariah and Adab (Islamic manners) all essential components to offering Nasihah (advising).

Essentially an Islamic psychotherapist has a responsibility to obtain knowledge from multiple sciences, Islam and Psychological therapies. There aim should be to a master of multiple disciplines or at least be on the path towards mastery such as in; Psychotherapy, Psychology, Quran, Hadith, Arabic etc. As such they will seek knowledge, guidance and change through the Quran as well as the psychological theory they have trained in, as an additional source to Quran. Their essential aim is to be persons of the Book, Rabbani’s, Godly men and women who aim to learn, apply and teach Tawhid.

Author; Georgina Cardo 2019

Disclaimer – ‘I write this as a student on the path of knowledge, not as a scholar or expert. Some of what I relate has come from sheikhs, scholars and teachers, some from experience, but I am aware that other researchers, practitioners and scholars may differ in definition of what Islamic counselling  and Islamic counselling is. I am no way defining it as an exact understanding. I am a researcher and as I learn I’m sure my understating will fine tune or be corrected, but for now this is my brief understanding. The IQ Method is part of Doctorate research  with Metanoia Institute and Middlesex University.