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Family Therapy And Muslim Families :  A Solution Focused Approach

Wahida C.Valiante BSW, MSW, OASW

Narni, Rome, June 2003


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    Over the years, family therapy has emerged as a separate and distinct discipline, one practiced very often by those outside the formal fields of psychiatry and psychology -- such as social workers, family therapists, counselors, and others. This diversity of practitioners illustrates well that there is no universal theory of psychotherapy. Many different approaches, techniques and theories seem to produce positive changes and results. Psychotherapy itself has also gone through several changes, from Freuds unconscious and deficit focus to behavioral and cognitive therapies in the here and now. Currently it is moving toward future orientation with a primary focus on individual strengths, knowledge, abilities and the potential for change. The individual is neither stuck in the past, nor the present, but is looking also to the future.

    Based on the writers own clinical experience, and without excluding other family therapy models, this presentation points to striking links between certain Quranic concepts and Solution Focused Therapy, which suggests that the latter may be especially applicable to treating post traumatic stress disorder in members of this particular cultural and religious minority.




-          There are approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.

-          Millions of Muslims live in North America and Europe; 6 to 7 million in the U.S. and 650,000 in Canada  (May 2003 statistics)
The United States has the highest divorce rate worldwide (48.6 percent)
The United Kingdom has the second-highest divorce rate (36 percent)
Muslims in North America have the third-highest divorce rate at 33 percent (source: New York-based Muslim sociologist Ilyas Ba-Yunus)
There are large numbers of Muslim refugees from war-torn nations who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological and physical traumas, rape-induced traumas, and other varieties of serious loss
There is an urgent need for an alternative Family Therapy, practiced from the Islamic perspective


              Study of the Muslim Family:

    There is a paucity of written and researched material by Muslim scholars and scientists on the family, as viewed from historical, socio-cultural, psychological, behavioral, and political perspectives. AbuSulayman (1993) points out that most Muslim scholarship on family and gender relationships is restricted by and confined to the formative years of Islamic law, that is, to the first four centuries or so of Islamic history (roughly from the seventh to the eleventh century).  This is also the period during which Islamic Law (or Sharia) developed, and when Muslim society reached the zenith of its political, social, legal and economic maturity.

    The end of this period marked the culmination of a religious-legal process to which nothing of major moment has since been added. Unfortunately, this is also the period that culminated in stifling any further development of intellectual, social, philosophical and legal thought by Muslim minds in light of the faith's revealed text, the Holy Quran.

    It is important to note that most classical and contemporary Muslim scholars have studied families only from a religious point of view. According to this approach, the family is viewed exclusively from a religious perspective, which is held up as both normative and idealized. This normative view of family, however, presents a version of sociological and ideological reality that is at odds with the actual state of the family (i.e., not what it should be) in most of Muslim society.

    This creates insurmountable difficulties in critically examining the validity of the patriarchal structure, the role and status of women, and the concept of equality in light of current Quranic knowledge and of the Prophet Muhammad's own family practices. For centuries, Muslims all over the world have been superimposing on their faith laws that were developed in response to local cultural, social, political, or legal needs. But many of those cultural and indigenous practices, or legal traditions, have serious implications for the Muslim family in general and Muslim women in particular, who are caught between the opposing worldviews; the Quran and the other

    One of the most compelling arguments against this classical body of Muslim knowledge is that it restricts the worldview of the Quran itself to certain socio-cultural, behavioral, and historical time-space factors. Furthermore, it limits family study to idealized versions instead of existing reality, and avoids seeking solutions to correct the existing situation.

               Brief Solution Focused Therapy:
For most of its history, Psychotherapy has focused on identifying and eliminating the problems presented by individual pathologies and deficiencies. There is, however, an emerging trend or focus shift, from pathology and deficit toward developing personal strengths, competence, capabilities, and resources through therapy. It is a way of thinking that projects visions of what might be, and what should be, thereby helping people in therapy see the potential for change that generates solutions and actions that otherwise might not have materialized.

              Relating Quranic concepts to aspects of Brief Solution Focused Therapy:
    The Quran presents itself as a guide from the One Creator of all things to humanity, through a representative of Allah (Quran 6:165), who is the trustee of free will (Quran 18:20), and who is under moral obligation to change him/herself and society to create a just and morally balanced world (Quran 3:110). The purpose of the Quran is not to be rigid and dogmatic, but to guide humanity to find solutions to heal the whole person -- body, mind and soul -- as part of social reality. It is focused on applying solutions through action, rather than blindly following spiritual precepts alone.

    In the Quran, the individual is defined in a unique way. One is responsible for his/her own actions; But proclaim (to them) this (truth): That every soul delivers itself to ruin by its own act.(Quran 6:70). Personal responsibility is also tied to relationships -- those of kinship, masakin (the needy), orphans, even wayfarers, as well as with one's community, society at large, and ultimately with the world.

     Similarly, an ethical or spiritual action, whether positive or negative, is bound to have an impact on oneself, others, society, community, and the world. Herein lie some ideas that illustrate ready parallels with Solution Focused Psychotherapy, with its concepts of solutions, including: action, free will, the ability to make choices, responsibility for one's own action and behavior, individual responsibility, and the ability to change (jihad) oneself and society. Through constant growth, gender-neutral interconnectedness, small changes, and small goals, human nature is basically healthy and strong, and miracles do happen.


              Emphasis on Individual Behavior and Strengths, Rather than Past History:
    The focus of reform in the Quran is the individual, who is not only an integral part of his/her family, society, community, and the global congregation (or Ummah) of Islam, but is also the recipient of the best physical form and temperament (fitra); Surely, We have created human beings in the best of molds (Quran 95:4). In addition to free will, human beings are also given the faculties of hearing, seeing, feeling, and understanding, in order to make evaluative judgments between right and wrong (Quran 67:23).

    Therefore, personal choice and responsibility for individual behavior is central to Islamic thinking; every soul draws the consequences of its own action.  (Quran 16:111). In fact, there is a constantly renewed opportunity for choice between right and wrong actions, so that past behavior is only relevant insofar as it acts as a strong predictor of current and future behavior. Working with individual strengths and current behavior, with only selective references to the individual's past history, corresponds to the approach of Solution Focused Therapy.

              Emphasis upon Action, Rather than on understanding the Pathology or the Problem:

     Surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition(Quran 13:11). The precedence of action over understanding the background pathology or problem is a central Islamic concept. The Quran states that human beings are created to be representatives (vicegerents) of Allah (Quran 6:165) and are under a moral obligation to continually reflect and reform them selves (Quran 3:110). Thus, according to the Quran, one's successes in this life and in the Hereafter are measured not solely in terms of personal inter-psychic growth, but in terms of personal growth as shown in relationship to others and to God.

    The Quran reminds us that change does not come about by ritualistic pursuits only, since reward and punishment are considered more immediately in relation to one's actions, rather than to one's professed faith. Bearing this in mind, Islam declares action to be a necessary concomitant of faith. In popular terms, Islam always seeks to "walk the talk." Similarly, the approach of Solution Focused Family Therapy is also more concerned with action than with retrospective insight. It aims to change the individual's behavior in order to alter his/her conditions of living rather than their attitudes to it; that is, from saying I do not know what to do, to what can I do to change things?


              Emphasis on the Individual rather than Gender:
    A further point of strong contact between Quranic teachings and Brief Solution Focused Therapy is the notion of individuality; that is, each individual has the ultimate responsibility of helping himself or herself, and therefore carries the personal responsibility of discerning free will and actions, and of seeking solutions and setting goals that will not be impaired because of gender. Above all, solution focused therapists do not assume "deficiency" in their female clients.

    In the Quran, the creation of man and woman out of a single soul (Quran 4:1) does not distinguish between men and women along the lines of traditional male or female attributes. Nor does it divide human nature and divine nature according to gender, or assign any specific cultural functions or roles to either men or women.  In fact, there is no arbitrary pre-ordained eternal system of hierarchy.

    The Quran treats women as individuals in the same manner as it treats men as individuals. This Quranic individuality is distinguished on the basis of Taqwa -- faith, as well as deeds and actions. Therefore, Allah's promised rewards are also distributed to individuals in strictly equal terms, based on merit and not gender. Whether male or female, whoever in faith does a good deed for the sake of Allah will be granted a good life, and rewarded in proportion to the best of what they have accomplished. (Quran16: 97).

              A Small Change is all that is Necessary:

    Allah tells us that, in whatever you are occupied when you recite the Quran, and in any other work you may be doingWe are a witness to your actionsAND even the smallest things that you do, do not go unrecorded (Quran 10: 61). Thus, even a small action can have major impact on the individual self, others, society, and the world. So if Islam is a prescription for internal and external peace, then change comes about -- to paraphrase Edward Lorenz's butterfly effect -- through active application and not benign neglect.

    The solution focused therapists approach is that no matter how complex and difficult the situation, making only a small change in one persons behavior can lead to profound and far-reaching differences in the behavior of all persons involved. This approach applies the same Quranic principle that a small change is all that is necessary.


              Change is Constant:

    The Quran states that change is both constant, and inevitable. You shall surely travel from stage to stage,  (Quran 84:19). Addressing the question of heaven (the Hereafter), it says, We have built Heaven with power. Verily, We are expanding it (Quran 51:47).

    The solution focused therapists foundational understanding that change is inevitable, parallels the Quranic concept that nothing stays still in all of creation, including the diverse situations of humanity.

              Emphasis on Goal Setting:
    It is often said that that the most successful among us are those who set small, attainable goals, and reach them. With consistent application toward these attainable goals, life then becomes a series of positive reinforcements; ultimately, we make it to the end point, the pot of gold as it were. But those who set huge, unrealistic goals are destined for disappointment and failure. Solution Focused Therapys approach to setting attainable goals (specific, concrete, and in behavioral terms) with the full participation of the client, reflects the Quranic world view that there is no divorce between thought and action; the human being can have nothing but what he/she strives for (Quran 53:39).

              Emphasis on Cultural and Racial Neutrality:
As a universal religion, Islam views each individual in exactly the same way, since God created you of a single soul (Quran 4:1), with some characteristics that distinguish oneself from all other humans. Thus it recognizes racial, cultural and religious differences, seeking to preserve them by addressing the psychological and spiritual needs of those living within its sphere. We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the noblest of you in the eyes of Allah is the best of you in 'Taqwa,' faith and action (Quran 49:13).

    Solution Focused Therapy's emphasis on individual behavior for the locus of change, rather than race and culture, is parallel to the Quranic concept of vicegerency, or being representatives of Allah. This implies that all human beings, independent of gender and race, are held accountable for their actions and behavior; the Quran further points out that without these attributes, the human condition cannot change.

              The Miracle Question:

    This is a rather intriguing concept of Solution Focused Therapy, because of its dual connotations -- clinical as well as religious. First, it seeks to set specific and concrete goals through the process of thought and action, both of which are within the control of the individual. Secondly, it seeks to foster a belief in change (through goals and action) that is understood to happen beyond the control of the individual. This parallels the Quranic concept of one God (Tawhid), who has the ultimate power to change human conditions and situations. In other words, miracles do happen, because Allah answers the prayers of those who call upon Him; do not despair of the mercy of GodIndeed God is Most Forgiving, most Merciful (Quran 39:53).


     As our society, Canada's in particular, moves away from the melting-pot ideal and toward that of cultural and religious pluralism, so must psychotherapy and clinical counseling move from a secular assimilationist perspective back to more orthodox ideologies in order to meet the varied needs of multicultural communities. Therefore, clinical assessment should go beyond an analysis of the presenting problem(s) and the identification of individual pathologies, to include the religious, cultural, social and personal experiences of these families. As a result, the emphasis on diagnosis and assessment of families can become holistic, rather than fragmented into body, mind, and social environment.



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