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Thursday, November 26, 2020
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DiversityTips & Training

Religion, spirituality & counselling: A Muslim graduate student’s view

As a current student in a social-justice-oriented master’s program, I am exploring an area related to the integration of spirituality and religion within counselling practice. Why is this even important to me? What do spirituality and/or religion refer to here? And why is this relevant within the field of counselling?

First, it is important for me to situate myself within a context, as my identity as a Canadian-born and visibly Muslim woman of colour deeply influences my experiences and perspectives, especially regarding the integration of religion/spirituality into counselling. My Islamic faith plays a salient role in my day-to-day life, as well as in the major decisions I make, including my decision to pursue a career in counselling psychology. I feel that my purpose is to be in the service of others, and to use my privileges to uplift others; however, I am aware that the way this actualizes in my role as a psychologist must constantly be reassessed.

Further, I recognize the limitations in my knowledge, which includes the limited insight I have about the lives and experiences of others. As much as I believe that human beings are far more alike than they are different, I recognize that each individual’s differences play a crucial role in the way they conceptualize their problems and what they find helpful or not helpful. For instance, to some, spirituality may serve as a positive coping method which involves support from God or a higher power, or rituals that facilitate life transitions and transform stressful situations into meaningful experiences. However, for others, their spirituality may be connected to feelings of shame, guilt or conflict (APA, 2013).

“I feel that my purpose is to be in the service of others, and to use my privileges to uplift others.”

A critically conscious approach

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that just as there have been historical instances where science was used to marginalize people, religion was and is also used to perpetuate and justify injustices. This is not an attack on religion; however, this reflects our obligation to be critically conscious individuals, professionals, and even believers of a faith. I have been taught this same responsibility from religious leaders within my own community and the teachings of our Holy Quran, in which it is highlighted that God wants us to reflect on matters around us, to uphold justice, and to be purposeful and merciful in our dealings with others. This is consistent with the objectives highlighted in the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, which includes challenging the dominant discourses that privilege some and oppress others, and being aware of our role within the system and ensuring we are not perpetuating injustices (CPA, 2017). This involves questioning the ways in which our profession can contribute to marginalizing people if we do not implement cultural and social justice considerations.

Differentiating spirituality and religion

The terms spirituality and religion have historically been used interchangeably in psychological research, but more recently, they have begun to be conceptualized as distinct yet overlapping constructs (Schlehofer et al., 2008; Vietan et al., 2013). Religion often refers to “affiliation with an organization that is guided by shared beliefs and practices,” whereas spirituality refers to “an individual’s internal sense of connection to, or search for, the sacred” (Vietan et al., 2013; p. 8).

For some, spirituality is a broad term that includes but is not limited to religion, whereas religion may encompass spirituality for others; some people’s spirituality is informed by participation in organized religion, whereas others describe themselves as spiritual but not religious (Gall et al., 2011; Koenig, 2009; Vietan et al., 2013). Islamic faith is considered by many to be a lifestyle, which reflects the embedded nature of faith into one’s daily life and the inseparable nature of religion and spirituality. These varying definitions add to the complexity of understanding Muslim clients, as the degree to which one considers themselves “religious” or “spiritual,” or how these intertwine, may vary from individual to individual.

Read more about Walaa Taha’s research on CERIC’s GSEP (Graduate Student Engagement Program) Corner.

Increasingly, understandings of spirituality and religion have been viewed as a multicultural competency within the field of psychology. It is important to understand the dual nature of spirituality and religion to best serve clients whose concerns or ways of coping may intersect with these areas (APA, 2013). Furthermore, multicultural and social justice competencies (Ratts et al., 2016) highlight the importance of being aware of one’s own cultural identity and recognizing that assumptions are not conducive to ethical practice. Such considerations resonated with me, as I can imagine that it would be easy to assume that Middle Eastern Muslim women that were born in Canada may have similar experiences to me; however, a single difference relating to disability, socio-economic status and/or sexual orientation, among various other possibilities, can completely change the way one experiences life. Hence why it is integral to consider the intersectionality of identities, which also involves considering the systemic barriers and oppression that may be intertwined with an individual’s possession of one or more marginalized identities.

Overall, I believe a counsellor’s capacity and possession of competency and comfort in addressing the culture of clients, especially somewhat difficult topics like religion/spirituality, is essential. In my case as a future Muslim psychologist, it is critical to be aware of my own biases and assumptions, and to not project my beliefs and worldviews unto others. For Muslim clients working with non-Muslim counsellors, it is critical that they feel comfortable to address such cultural aspects if need be, which is directly tied to the counsellor’s ability to provide an open space and the counsellor’s adoption of cultural humility (i.e., acknowledging oneself as a learner when it comes to understanding another’s experience).


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Walaa Taha Author
Walaa Taha is currently a graduate student at the University of Calgary, pursuing a MSc in Counselling Psychology. Her interests include counsellor education and training, with a focus on multicultural counselling competencies, and the intersection of Islamic psychology and Muslim mental health.
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Walaa Taha Author
Walaa Taha is currently a graduate student at the University of Calgary, pursuing a MSc in Counselling Psychology. Her interests include counsellor education and training, with a focus on multicultural counselling competencies, and the intersection of Islamic psychology and Muslim mental health.
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