What’s The Matter With Muslims?

Article 3: Inside therapy from a Muslim counsellor

A counselling session. Image: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)
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For Muslims who struggle with their mental health, seeking religious-based therapy from a Muslim counsellor might be the answer.

So what is Islamic counselling?

Sabnum Dharamsi is the co-founder of accredited Islamic Counselling Courses and has a private practice as a therapist and supervisor. She used to be convener for the Islamic counselling module in Cambridge Muslim College’s Diploma.

She explains: “We developed our model, Islamic Counselling, based on the understanding that human beings are spiritual as well as behavioural. In most European models, the focus is cognitive and behavioural and if there is attention to spirituality, it’s as an add-on or even as a pathology. We feel that the deeper teachings of Islam, not the do’s and don’ts, but the teachings about who we are truly and how we find contentment, could be a powerful basis for therapeutic work for Muslims and non-Muslims as well.

“After all, there’s so many different ’selves’ in us, and it’s about what aspects of us we pay attention to, what we develop and care for. Islamic Counselling, according to our model, is about believing in people, in life’s potential, even when we are down. There’s wisdom in those places.”

Also offering Islamic counselling is London-based organisation Inspirited Minds. The faith-based, grassroots mental health charity has a team of 11 counsellors who all speak different languages and provide support to anyone who would benefit from counselling or being signposted to services.

Head of Operations at Inspirited Minds, Meanha Begum, explains: “[At Inspirited Minds], we help people who need information about mental health and people who actively seek support. They call or message us and say, “I need to get counselling” or “I need support”. Our counsellors are all specialised in their own areas and they provide Islamically enlightened counselling and therapy.

“Then, we have our support service. So this is made up of support workers who are sort of the intermediary support when somebody asks for help. So, we either signpost to local services in their area, or we continue with support and refer them to counselling, if that’s what they need.”

Explaining why faith-based therapy is beneficial for Muslims, Meanha continues: “[Islamic counselling] is like a very holistic approach, taking spirituality into account. If your therapist is of the same religion as you, you can actually use faith as an anchor. I think that helps with empathy, as a lot of therapists will have experienced the same or similar cultural and religious issues as the client themselves. So, that level of understanding, compassion and frame of reference enables the client to be fully seen and heard.”

Having Islam play a role in counselling is helpful for many Muslim clients, Meanha suggests.

She adds: “As our recent survey suggested, clients generally respond really, really well. They’re not able to find Islamic counselling in mainstream services. It’s unfortunate, you know, somebody [seeking counselling] will have to wait 18 months just to get a phone call and then, to not be understood, imagine how that must feel. Whereas, they can get support through us within a few weeks, which could potentially be free if they’re financially struggling.

“Islamic counsellors use faith to clarify any misconceptions. A lot of people don’t know what’s religion and what’s culture, which is why it’s important that our therapists are Islamically educated. They can clearly say, ‘you don’t have to worry about this’ or ‘actually, it’s like this’. So Islamic counselling provides that sense of relief.”

With Muslims being a hugely diverse global community, what do their mental health struggles look like across the world?

Afifa Kauser, a Muslim therapist based in Bangalore, India, has been practising for two years. Her in-person practice moved completely online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She sees clients not only from a Muslim background, but of various religious and cultural backgrounds.

Afifa Kauser. Photo credit: Afifa Kauser.

Typically, Afifa sees two to three clients a day for 60-minute sessions, providing them with a non-judgemental, safe space. Specifically, she works with 18–40 year-olds, so mostly with the later millennial and ‘Generation Z’ crowd.

She explains: “What I’ve noticed about the Muslim community is that first and foremost, as Muslims, we are not immune to mental health conditions. We are just as likely or in fact, more vulnerable to going through mental health conditions. What makes mental health different for us is actually being a minority in India. As a minority group, there is always difference to how you can access healthcare and therapy. Most importantly, the population isn’t always aware of mental health services.”

The decisions of policymakers hugely affects the mental health of Indian Muslims, Afifa indicates. In 2019, an act called the Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced by the Indian Parliament, which effectively regulates which Muslims get to stay in the country.

Afifa continues: “2019 was a highly stressful time for everyone in the country. People were out protesting on the roads. I had just begun practising as a therapist. I think what’s different for us as Muslims and our mental health is that it’s not just the internal factors and the biology and stressors. The biggest stressor is the political systems themselves, which are not designed equal for all communities. There’s discrimination and widespread Islamophobia.

“Another interesting thing is internalised Islamophobic beliefs. So, you don’t just have discrimination from other groups, but you’re also discriminating your own self. You’re almost believing what the other groups are saying about you. It’s almost like being stripped of your power because you belong to a certain identity. I think that is something that really is different for the Indian Muslim community. The position you hold in society as a minority and having to deal with Islamophobia and internalised beliefs.”

Afifa Kauser. Photo credit: Afifa Kauser.

How does Afifa incorporate Islam into her therapy sessions?

She concludes: “I don’t bring in Islamic counselling when dealing with non-Muslim clients. I go with traditional mental health models that I’ve been trained for, that talk about your thoughts, feelings, behaviours, emotions and how you need to self regulate. I only use religious counselling with Muslim clients when I feel the need for it. Maybe six out of 10 Muslim clients need a religious aspect when they are seeking therapy. It depends on what each and every client needs. Not everybody needs verses of the Qur’an when they want to hear about healing. With non-Muslim clients, it’s an unbiased place. Therapy is a place for everyone.”

This article is part of a 5-part article series titled ‘What’s The Matter With Muslims?’

Find out more about Islamic Counselling here.

Find out more about Inspirited Minds here or listen to their ‘The Mindful Muslim’ podcast here.

Follow Let’s Talk Healing on Instagram here.

MA Journalism student at The University of Salford, 2020–2021. Aziz Foundation Scholarship Recipient. Aspiring writer. Twitter/Instagram: @saimathewriter