Interested in becoming a therapist or advocate for social justice in the Muslim community? A degree in social work might be right for you.
The majority of mental health providers in the United States have a degree in social work. This means that a psychotherapist or counselor is more likely trained as such rather than as a doctoral level psychologist or psychiatrist. Elsewhere in the human services, an advanced degree in social work is a coveted standard. These facts are important to note as the Muslim community has increasing interest in mental health and social welfare services that are culturally responsive to their needs. This article encourages Muslims and those interested in serving the Muslim community to pursue social work degrees given its precedence in mental health services and social welfare, to learn of social work’s powerful approach as an intellectual discipline and profession, and to contribute to the discipline’s body of knowledge so that it may better respond to the needs of Muslims. This article will also touch upon some critical aspects to consider in negotiating the values and worldviews between Islam and professional social work.
What is social work as a profession?
When most people think about “social work,” they may loosely define it as any act of volunteering or a job where a person is helping other people. In reality, social work is an academic discipline that includes a Code of Ethics, research and established body of knowledge, and it is a profession that requires licensing in the United States, Canada, UK, and elsewhere. People who earn a graduate degree in social work (often referred to as a MSW, or Master of Social Work) pursue careers as psychotherapists/counselors, child welfare workers, case managers, policymakers and analysts, and more. Given that its general scope is in the field of “helping professions,” social justice, and social welfare, it allows a wide range of opportunity for one’s career.
Below are some structural aspects of social work which makes it a helping profession, as opposed to a broad way of volunteering, and using an actual case to see how it is applied.
The Code of Ethics
The Code of Ethics is a foundational document that, among other things, protects the rights, dignity, and privacy of social work recipients. It also asserts the recognition of cultural and racial diversity, and relevant to Muslims, the respect of religious diversity. It is a guideline for the social work profession. While well-intended people enjoy helping others, they may not be cognizant of social boundaries and privacy, nor consider the full implication and outcome of their actions regardless of intent. The Code of Ethics is not there to hinder such efforts, but to improve the quality of the way in which we help, and to remind people that there are always boundaries to one’s helping efforts.
There was a situation, for example, where I worked with a self-driven community advocate who represented herself as a case manager (although she had no formal training nor was she affiliated with any organization) helping a victim of domestic violence in the Muslim community. The community advocate, Amina, was motivated, compassionate, and high spirited. I learned, however, that before receiving approval from Sana, who was the victim, Amina gave her information to a community member named Bashir volunteering to help. Some reading this may believe that it is common sense to ask for prior approval before sharing someone’s personal information, but it does occur often. The Code of Ethics, if Amina had known about it and used it, would have prevented this privacy violation.
Licensing and government regulation
In the US, UK, Canada, and elsewhere, social workers are required to become licensed. In the US, the licensing boards are administered by each state. Licensing boards allow people to practice as a mental health provider and related roles, and it is there to protect a client should they have any grievances. Continuing to use the example above, Amina was not aware that Sana was hiding from her husband. Bashir really wanted to help, but like Amina, he did not think about Sana’s privacy and decided to tell his family about Sana’s situation and where she was staying. Sana’s story continued to spread throughout the community and it eventually reached her husband.
In trying to help Sana, Amina and Bashir had now put her in greater danger. Fortunately, Sana was able to find another place to stay before her husband found her. But she was very upset that the local community knew about her situation, that she was put into physical danger, and she lost trust in Amina. Sana informed a social welfare representative that worked for the city. The social welfare representative, in turn, referred Sana to a professional social worker working at a women’s shelter and reported Amina to the state licensing board.
Even though Amina was not licensed and represented herself as a volunteer, she was nevertheless reported and her actions were kept in government record. She was not formally reprimanded but at this point, her reputation as a community advocate was tarnished. A license does not guarantee that a professional social worker would not fall into the same error, but it is a greater guarantor because every licensed social worker is required to have formal social work training. They would have made privacy paramount and appropriately communicated with Sana with every action taken on her behalf. In social work, communication is thoughtful, where one assumes that every statement—however small or big—has impact.
Counseling skills and communication techniques
Most people would agree that it is frustrating when they ask for help and want someone to listen, and receive a response such as, “Other people have lives harder than yours. You shouldn’t worry.” It provides an opinion, but no thoughtful direction nor concrete procedure toward a solution. This is an example of an unhelpful counseling response, and why counseling skills have developed into a large body of knowledge and practice. Counseling is a process in which a person is assisted with problem solving, and develops greater self-understanding. The ideal is that the person not only overcome the presenting problem, but that they also develop coping and problem solving skills that they can use in the future.
In Sana’s case, a professional social worker would have used counseling skills to help Sana deal with fear and trauma, to develop confidence, and a clear, practical strategy to avoid falling into another domestically violent situation. This takes building an ongoing relationship between the professional social worker and Sana, and learning more about her psychological state, as well as addressing her socioeconomic circumstance. Does she have a job to support herself? Does she have reliable family and friends? Does she have a stable place to live? How can these needs be fulfilled? This is where social work differs from the traditional practice of psychology or psychiatry, which was largely concerned with the inner workings of the mind. Social work, while a discipline in itself, is informed by sociology, psychology, and anthropology. Professional social workers learn to see people in a holistic manner by using an ecological approach along with techniques from treatment modalities such as motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychodynamic therapy.
Anyone can provide encouraging and soothing words, and volunteer to help others, and I would encourage non-professionals to continue to do so. But when a situation becomes very complex such as Sana’s case where a life is in immediate danger, a professional social worker is able to help more effectively.
Critical considerations in Islam and professional social work
Social work is a value based profession; that is, there are philosophical underpinnings and specific worldviews that by and large shape the profession. Professional social work has been informed by, among other things, utilitarianism, social liberalism and progressivism, virtue ethics, and feminism. Given that social work first developed as a profession in the US and Western Europe, it also has roots in Judeo-Christian beliefs that emphasize particular care for the poor and vulnerable. This means that there are professional social work values aligned with a traditional Islamic perspective, yet there are also social work values and beliefs that Muslims may need to evaluate and negotiate according to their faith. Negotiation of social work values and beliefs are common among all professional social workers, regardless of their religious affiliation, and it is a constant, lifetime process.
Professional social work and alignment with Islamic tradition
Islam clearly has a history and commitment to social welfare with the institution of zakat and sadaqa. Most notably, there are Quranic verses and ahadith that emphasizes caring for the poor, elderly, women in distress, and orphans. Even in the matter of privacy and the way in which people share information and communicate, Islamic tradition encourages people to be mindful of what they say and how they say things. For example, Islamic tradition discourages gossiping, to respect peoples’ privacy, and to provide encouraging and kind words to others. This is clearly in alignment with the foundation of social work counseling and communication techniques. Furthermore, Islam encourages people to remain positive and hopeful in the most difficult circumstances, which explains why Muslims have a common adage of “alhamdullilah (praise God) for everything.” In social work this reflects taking a strengths-based approach and it is a hallmark value in the profession. Professional social work can help Muslims better craft their actions to reflect such as an attitude.
Values and beliefs in negotiation
One of the most challenging issues in social work, with Muslims as well as in Christian and Jewish communities, is human sexuality. Among the Abrahamic faiths, homosexual behavior and sexual relationships outside of marriage are traditionally viewed as sinful. Although Muslims are an emerging population in professional social work in the US, Christian and Jewish social workers have themselves wrestled with these issues for some time, producing a body of knowledge and ongoing dialogue which may be helpful to Muslims. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the largest professional body of its kind in the United States, maintains the Code of Ethics and guides the direction of the profession. The NASW does not view homosexual behavior and sexual relationships outside of marriage as a sin nor social dysfunction. Thus, issues of sexuality remain a tension in the profession and it shapes the way in which a professional social worker will approach sexuality issues. Regardless of religious beliefs, professional social workers are expected to treat clients who present sexuality concerns with dignity, respect, confidentiality, and a safe space.
Another significant point of negotiation and an area needing further exploration is when social problems and mental health issues are also presented as spiritual issues. A person, for example, may believe that their unwanted behaviors— such as talking to oneself and having seemingly uncontrollable anger—is affliction brought upon by jinn (supernatural beings who are not always thought as being mischievous). From a clinical social work assessment, however, it may be diagnosed as schizophrenia or behavior being triggered by trauma. From my observation and experience, there is a need for greater understanding in the Muslim community and improving treatment when affliction is presented as such. Medical anthropology and psychological anthropology, given the breadth and scope with which anthropology has explored culture and health, could greatly inform this matter and improve practice in social work. Proactive dialogue should continue between Islamic religious scholarship and social work research, and emerging social work students should be encouraged to study both.
In the United States and around the world, it is clear that Muslims are working diligently toward social justice and acting in compassion. There are numerous not-for-profit organizations and charities in emergence, and in mosques across the country, Muslims are taking initiative in creating workshops and events addressing mental health issues, anti-violence, marriage and family issues, refugees, and anti-poverty. If you have a passion to help others, for Muslims and their neighbors, consider pursuing an education in social work. It could be the right place for you.
To find an accredited program offering bachelor’s and master’s level social work degrees, please visit the Accredited Program directory at the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE): http://www.cswe.org/17491.aspx
Additional resources to learn more about Muslims, social welfare, mental health and social work:
– The Institute of Muslim Mental Health: http://www.muslimmentalhealth.
– American Muslim Health Professionals: http://www.amhp.us/
*The names used in this article are alias’.
Charles Chear is faculty and Assistant Director of Student Affairs at Rutgers University School of Social Work.
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