Islamic Perspective of Counseling
By: Imam Magid
The Muslim community in the United States faces a great deal of social challenges brought about by forces from the mainstream society. The forces of the media; the presence of guns, alcohol, and drugs; the proliferation of adultery and fornication; and, the atmosphere of a society lacking guidance all contribute to the challenges faced by our communities. These outside forces have exaggerated all the simple tasks of creating families, raising children, and supporting our friends and neighbors. God has given us tools to solve our community problems, by using the Quran and Sunnah. In addition, Islamic counseling emphasizes spiritual solutions, based on love and fear of Allah and the duty to fulfill our responsibility as the servants of Allah on this earth.
Islamic counseling is offered for marriage and family issues, for mental health cases, and for religious guidance. The principles of Islamic counseling are the following: confidentiality, trust, respect, recognizing the difference between arbitration and counseling, loving what is good for other people, making peace between people, concern about Muslim affairs, good listening habits, understanding others' cultures, the partnership between Imams and professionals, awareness of the law of the land, and the ultimate goal of connecting people with Allah and offering spiritual solutions to them. Prophet Muhammad is our model and example in showing compassion about others' concerns. It was reported that Prophet Muhammad was a good listener. Allah has described his patience in listening to others in the Holy Quran.
And say, "He is (all) ear." Say, "He listens to what is best for you: he believes in Allah, has faith in the Believers, and is a Mercy to those of you who believe." Surah Tawbah, Ayah 61
Allah has indeed heard (and accepted) the statement of the woman who pleads with thee concerning her husband and carries her complaint (in prayer) to Allah: And Allah (always) hears the arguments between both sides among you: for Allah hears and sees (all things). Surah Mujadilah, Ayah 1
Quran reminds us that in any form of counseling, or private talks, Allah is present and hears what we are saying. (58:7) Quran also teaches us that the private talk in our counseling is to help others to be righteous and to be obedient to Allah. (58:9) Any effort that we make in bringing people together is considered sadaqah, and Allah will reward us for it.
One of the most important types of counseling is marriage counseling. This is my personal area of expertise at the ADAMS Center. Marriage counseling has three main areas including before marriage, post marriage, and family counseling during marriage. This paper will concentrate on marriage counseling and premarital counseling.
Premarital counseling is a preventive measure to help people understand marital relationships, the responsibility that comes with it, and their expectations of one another. Premarital counseling is being done in two methods. One is educational, such as teaching courses for groups of single brothers and sisters. These participants do not need to be engaged to each other, it is simply a tool for marriage education. Although a course could be conducted for engaged couples as a structured support group with an educational component. The second type of program is to have premarital counseling sessions with the couple and the counselor. This is more private, and more specific to address the concerns of only the future married couple.
The imams and the counselors have to have in mind that there are certain elements in any relationship that can make it unique from others. In intercultural marriages the counselor needs to help the couple recognize and plan for their cultural differences and similarities. In marriages in which either the husband or the wife, or both, have been previously married, the counselor needs to help the couple address concerns from the first marriage and assist them in building this new marriage. Those issues are compounded if children are involved from the first marriages. Interfaith marriages require additional effort from the counselor to help the couple plan for raising children, religious expectations, and other concerns from such a relationship. A successful counselor will keep these and other unique concerns present during the counseling sessions.
Some people don't realize the importance of premarital counseling until problems arise after their marriage. Therefore, my advice to the parents, to the imams, counselors, and chaplains in the universities, and high school teachers in Islamic schools is to talk about these issues of marriages, teach courses on marriage, and propose pre-marital counseling when they are considering marriage.
What are the issues that imams and the counselors should bring in premarital counseling? The first issues that should be brought up include understanding important concepts: marriage, religion, and the role of man and woman.
The second issue is about communication, this is the most significant issue in marital relations. Counselors discuss effective communications, effective listening, and feedback. One might also give them a scenario of miscommunications and methods of coping with them.
The third area is the area of abuse. We ask the couple to define abuse and to discuss different types of abuse: verbal, physical, and emotional. We can refer them to the work that ISNA produced in the Domestic Violence Conference.
The fourth area is the area of raising children, and parenting styles. If they don't have children, the counselor should discuss with them what it means to be a parent and the changes that occur in their life when they have children. If there are children from previous relationships, the counselor should discuss the concept of step parenting and their relationship with the biological parents. I advise couples to read the book Parenting in the West, or other similar books that may help in that regard.
The fifth area is about financial planning. This is a very important area because people enter the marriage relationship without anticipating the financial stress of maintaining a household. They may learn budgeting, saving, and planning for retirement. The counselor should refer the couple to a professional financial planner, or a good text to help them prepare on their own.
The sixth area includes a discussion on the roles of extended family. The counselor should initiate conversations between the couple and their parents and their families. Having in mind that many marriages fail in the Muslim community because of the interference of in-laws in the marriage life of the new couple. The counselor helps them to set-up boundaries and to encourage their parents to be a safety net for their children, rather than being a negative interference.
The seventh area is decision-making. The counselors help both the woman and the man understand how they make decisions in their own life, before they are married. Then bring them to an understanding of how that will change, or improve, when they become a couple. Stress on the use of consultation and mutual understanding of the couples' decisions.
The physical relationship of a marriage should be included in the course of pre-marital counseling. The woman should meet with a female counselor, and the man should meet with a male counselor. These sessions are meant to help the couple to be prepared mentally and psychologically to understand the intimate physical relationship of a marriage. Couples can read books in this area, such as Matrimonial Education, by Dr. Ahmed Saker or the Muslim Marriage Guide, by Ruqayah Maqusood.
Lastly, the couple needs to focus on conflict resolution. The counselor should teach the couples how to resolve conflicts, what constitutes conflicts, and the Islamic approach to solving conflicts. I encourage the imams and counselors to attend the conference by ISNA in this field, which is a very helpful tool that can be used in counseling.
Regarding premarital counseling, these are some important areas that imams and counselors should bring to their sessions. Also, there is a suggested list of questions that I give to my couples to complete at home. It includes a variety of questions that cover many topics concerning marriage, for single, divorced, and widowed men and women seeking marriage. There are questions for inter-cultural couples and inter-faith couples. The imams or counselors should suggest appropriate questions for the couple that they are counseling.
The field of marital counseling is slightly different from that of premarital counseling. Obviously, the couple is already married and children may or may not already be involved. My advice to the counselors is to be a good listener to both parties, discuss all issues of concern, and make the parties comfortable in expressing themselves. Confidentiality should be a key for trust between the counselor and the married couple. The imam or counselor should be ready to make professional referrals for issues of mental illness, addictions (drugs or alcohol), or those in need of anger management.
In the case of divorce, imams and counselors should come to understand the Islamic law as well as the law of the land. If the imam or counselor is not an expert in either Islamic law or the law of the land, they should refer the couple to someone who is. There may be a need for counseling, mediation, and arbitration in may cases of divorce. Post-divorce counseling should include discussions of children and relationships between the former husband and wife.
In conclusion, I hope that I have touched on the most important areas between premarital and marital counseling. As the need of this service increases in our communities, our imams and counselors need more training in different methods of counseling as well as Islamic methods of counseling. The best way to go about this, is to talk about these issues in our khutbahs, our school curricula, and in our study halaqahs. We ask Allah, the Exalted, to make our community a model community, and to make our families stronger and more stable.