Social Work Volume 50, Number 2 April 2005
CCC Code: 0037-8046/05 $3.00 ©2005 National Association of Social Workers
Social Work and the H ouse of Islam:
Orienting P ractitioners to the B eliefs and
Values of Muslims in the United States
David R. Hodge
Despite the media attention focused on the Islamic community after the terrorist attacks on
the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Muslims remain one of the most
misunderstood populations in the United States. Few articles have appeared in the social work
literature orienting practitioners to the Islamic community, and much of the mainstream
media coverage misrepresents the population. This article reviews the basic beliefs, practices,
and values that commonly characterize, or inform, the House of Islam in the United States.
The organizations that embody and sustain the Muslim communities that constitute the
House of Islam are profiled, and areas of possible value conflicts are examined. The article
concludes by offering suggestions for integrating the article’s themes into practice settings.
Particular attention is given to enhancing cultural competence and to suggestions for spiritual
assessment and interventions.
KEY WORDS: cultural diversity; Islam; Muslims; religion; spirituality
s a consequence of immigration, conver-
sion, and comparatively high birth rates, the
Muslim population in the United States is
growing rapidly (Melton, 1999; Smith, 1999). Esti-
mates of the number of Muslims in the nation range
from one (Kosmin & Lachman, 1993) to 11 million
(Haddad, 1997), with most authorities suggesting a
population of 4 to 6 million (Ahmed, 1995; Denny,
1995; Eickelman, 1998; Richards & Bergin, 1997;
Smith). Although the Muslim community approxi-
mates the size of the Jewish population (Richards
& Bergin), relatively few articles have appeared in
the social work literature on this group (Canda &
Having a basic cognizance of the tenets of the
Islamic worldview may be especially important in
the eyes of Muslims. Kelly and colleagues (1996)
found that 86 percent of Muslim respondents con-
sidered it important that counselors understand Is-
lamic values. Because of the distinct nature of the
Islamic value system, at least a cursory knowledge
of the Islamic cosmology is required for effective
practice with Muslims (Mahmoud, 1996), a fact
implicitly recognized by the NASW Code of Ethics
(NASW, 2000, Section 1.05(c)), which stipulates
that workers should attempt to procure compe-
tence in the area of religious diversity.
This article provides a concise overview of the
beliefs, practices, and values that are likely to be
salient in the lives of Muslims along with the orga-
nizations that sustain them in the United States.
Islam is not so much a belief system as a way of life
that unifies metaphysical and materialistic dimen-
sions (Izetbegovic, 1993). The word Islam means
submission, specifically submission to Allah, the
supreme and only God. Individuals who practice
this submission are called Muslims. Out of grati-
tude for Allah’s goodness and compassion, Muslims
seek to follow the straight path of God’s precepts,
the shari’a, which governs all aspects of life (Waines,
1995). In essence, Islam provides adherents with a
discrete meta-narrative, a grand totalizing story that
provides a unique lens through which to under-
Both terms, Islam and Muslim, appear repeat-
edly in the Quran, making Islam the only world
163Hodge / Social Work and the House of Islam: Orienting Practitioners to the Beliefs and Values of Muslims in the United States
religion to have a built-in name from its inaugura-
tion (Eickelman, 1998). The Quran is understood
to be the Word of God revealed to the Prophet
Muhammad (570/80–632), the “Messenger of
God,” the honored founder of Islam. The Quran is
believed to be God’s revelation to humankind. Al-
though the Quran states that Allah communicated
with prophets recognized by Jews and Christians,
both considered “People of the Book,” the Quran
is God’s final, immutable revelation, and conse-
quently, the primary source of shari’a (Renard,
Significantly, Muslims chose to date their his-
tory not from their founder’s birth or death or from
his reception of the revelation of the Quran, but
from the creation of the Islamic community, or
ummah (Esposito, 1988). Since the time of the
Prophet Muhammad, the Islamic community, the
House of Islam, has spread throughout the world,
encompassing approximately 1 billion people
(Husain, 1998; Waines, 1995), nearly half of whom
live in South and Southeast Asia (Eickelman,
Within the House of Islam, there are two signifi-
cant streams: Sunni and Shiite. Sunnis are approxi-
mately 90 percent of Muslims worldwide; Shiites
form the remaining 10 percent and are the over-
whelming majority in Iran and, to a lesser extent,
Iraq (Eickelman, 1998). Renard (1998) suggested
that a helpful comparison can be made between
Protestantism and Sunni Islam and Roman Catholi-
cism and Shiite Islam. In Sunni Islam, as in the Prot-
estant faith, there is an emphasis on a direct rela-
tionship between the believer and God unmediated
by external authority structures. Conversely, with
parallels to Roman Catholicism, Shiite Islam has a
hierarchical authority structure of legal scholars,
based on the consensus of the Shiite community,
who hold an added responsibility for interpreting
the Word of God for the faithful (Mottahedeh,
Sufism, the mystical expression of Islam, is found
among both Sunnis and Shiites, although more
commonly among the former (Mottahedeh, 1985).
While affirming the importance of the exoteric,
outward dimension of faith embodied in the shari’a,
Sufis believe in the necessity of a spiritual path that
emphasizes the esoteric, inner dimension (Waines,
1995). Sufism, with its emphasis on the lived expe-
rience of an internal unifying encounter with the
divine, has been a prominent factor in attracting
Western, primarily European American, converts
to Islam (Haddad, 1997; Kose, 1996).
MUSLIMS IN THE UNITED STATES
Approximately 80 percent of Muslims in the United
States are Sunnis (Smith, 1999). Although most
major cities have Muslim populations, the largest
concentrations are in New York City, Los Angeles,
Chicago, Houston, Boston, and the Detroit–Toledo
corridor (Denny, 1995; Haddad & Smith, 1995;
Smith, 1999; Stone, 1991). Shiites, who constitute
the remaining 20 percent, form significant com-
munities in New York, Detroit, Washington, Los
Angeles, and Chicago (Haddad & Smith, 1995;
Williams, 1997). Whereas almost every state has a
Muslim population of some size, there is particu-
larly heavy concentration in California and New
York, with roughly a quarter of Muslims living in
the former state and a fifth living in the latter
(Kosmin & Lachman, 1993).
Approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of
Muslims in the United States are African Ameri-
cans, making African Americans the largest single
cultural group in the Islamic community (Richards
& Bergin, 1997; Smith, 1999). Although the Na-
tion of Islam, headed by the charismatic Louis
Farrakhan, is often portrayed in the media as rep-
resentative of black Muslims, it speaks for only a
small portion of African American Muslims. The
Nation of Islam is widely considered by other
Muslims to be outside the bounds of mainstream
Islam and has an estimated membership of 10,000
(Melton, 1999) to 50,000 (Blank, 1998). Almost all
African American Muslims are mainstream Sunnis
(Melton, 1999; Smith).
Excluding African Americans, it is estimated that
some 75 percent of adult Muslims in the United
States are foreign born (Haddad, 1997). Changes in
immigration policies in the 1960s placed an em-
phasis on the needs of the labor market, resulting in
a substantial increase in immigration. Although re-
cent immigrants originate from diverse regions
around the globe (Nyang, 1999), most have come
from Middle East/North Africa and South/South-
east Asia, where Muslims predominate (Denny,
Goldwasser’s (1998) research suggests that class
status is an important variable in religious practice
among immigrants. Generally, most recent arrivals
are well educated and financially secure (Denny,
1995). Largely middle-class, these individuals have
Social Work Volume 50, Number 2 April 2005
the economic resources to maintain the necessary
distance from the dominant secular culture to prac-
tice, and pass on, their faith. Conversely, there are
also significant numbers of disadvantaged Muslims
who immigrated because of political unrest in their
country of origin. These individuals, due to eco-
nomic stressors such as having to work two jobs,
face pressure to abandon significant dimensions of
their faith (Goldwasser).
Kosmin and Lachman’s (1993) national survey
of religious groups revealed the generally middle-
class status of Muslims in the United States. Among
30 religious groups, Muslims ranked 20th in me-
dian household income, ahead of both Seventh-
Day Adventists and Baptists. Just over 30 percent
are college graduates, placing them 13th of 30.
When broken down by race, white Muslims are
more likely to have graduated from college than
any other religious group. Fifty-eight percent of
Muslims over age 25 have graduated from college,
roughly three times the national average for all
white Americans. Whereas only 23 percent of black
Muslims are college graduates, this level of educa-
tional achievement is significantly above the 15
percent mean for other black Americans. Williams
(1997) estimated that, per capita, the Islamic com-
munity in the United States may be the best-edu-
cated group in the world, at least from a Western
ISLAM—A CONTESTED CONSTRUCT
Among individuals who self-identify as Muslims, a
variety of beliefs and values are evident (Mernissi,
1996; Qutb, 1990). Although there is extensive
agreement that the shari’a should govern all facets
of conduct, how the Word of God, embodied in the
Quran, is manifested in a given setting varies widely,
being dependent on contextual variables related to
culture, political realities, issues of interpretation,
and so forth. The practices that exemplify a “true
Muslim” are contested throughout the Islamic world
For instance, culture may be far more salient than
specific Islamic beliefs for many Muslims or may
alter substantially mainstream understandings of the
shari’a (Eickelman, 1998). Considering that Mus-
lims in the United States originate from more than
60 nations, and an even greater number of local
cultural contexts, it becomes clear that individuals
who self-identify as Muslims may exhibit a variety
of beliefs and practices (Williams, 1998).
Consequently, workers should be aware that no
particular set of beliefs and values exists that is rep-
resentative of all Muslims. Individuals who self-iden-
tify as Muslim may not affirm a number of the
beliefs and values delineated in the following sec-
tions. Put differently, the Islamic community is made
up of many smaller Muslim communities, each with
its own distinct characteristics. Therefore, the fol-
lowing outline should be viewed as a malleable tem-
plate that provides practitioners with a starting point
for engaging Muslim clients.
THE FIVE PILLARS
It is important to acknowledge that a number of
commonalties exist that are widely held among
Muslims. The most significant are the “five pillars”
of faith derived from the shari’a. It is generally agreed
that these practices, and the beliefs that underlie
them, constitute a common core of a wider reality
The Declaration of Faith, shahadah—there is no
god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger—
is the most fundamental doctrine in the Islamic
faith (El Azayem & Hedayat-Diba, 1994). It testi-
fies to the absolute, singular theism of Islam and
the primary role of Muhammad as Allah’s last
prophet (Esposito, 1988). Its profession is also the
vehicle for entering into the worldwide Islamic
community. Thus, its declaration reminds Muslims
that they are part of a global community of believ-
ers—the House of Islam—under the care of an
omnipotent God who is compassionate, merciful,
and personally involved with His creation.
The performance of ritual prayers, salat, in which
the individual faces Mecca, the holy city of Islam, is
the second pillar of faith. Prayer is understood to be
a holistic practice that encompasses body, mind, and
emotions. Prayers are performed five times through-
out the day and reinforce the concept that daily life
and faith are continuously intertwined (El Azayem
& Hedayat-Diba, 1994). Symbolic physical cleans-
ing precedes prayer. The uniformity of practice
embodied in the ritual observance symbolizes the
equality of humankind before God for many Mus-
lims (Eickelman, 1998).
Almsgiving, zakat, for those who have the re-
sources to give, is the third pillar. A percentage, usu-
ally 2.5 percent, of accumulated wealth and assets
is given to the community to redress economic
inequalities and promote the general welfare
(Husain, 1998). The term “zakat” comes from a root
165Hodge / Social Work and the House of Islam: Orienting Practitioners to the Beliefs and Values of Muslims in the United States
meaning “to purify oneself,” in this case from the
delusion of personal ownership and resulting ma-
terialism, given that all things belong to God
(Renard, 1998). As an act of worship and service,
the zakat instills a sense of thanksgiving to God
for His goodness and a sense of community iden-
tity and responsibility (Esposito, 1988).
The fourth pillar is the yearly fast, sawm, held
during the month of Ramadan. During this time,
able-bodied adults abstain from eating, drinking,
smoking, and sexual activity, from sunrise to sunset,
for the purpose of engaging in spiritual renewal
(Eickelman, 1998). In addition to facilitating a closer
relationship to God, fasting encourages Muslims to
empathize with those less fortunate than themselves
The final pillar of faith is the pilgrimage, hajj, t o
Mecca. Every individual not prevented by financial
or physical impediments is expected, at least once
in a lifetime, to take a pilgrimage to the Kaba, the
cube-shaped “House of God,” built by Abraham
and his son Ishmael, where God first entered into a
covenant with Ishmael, and, by extension, the
Muslim community (Esposito, 1988). The pilgrim-
age experience is often life changing, as individuals
experience a deep oneness with God and recog-
nize the equality of all people before God. Malcolm
X’s experience is not uncommon. The pilgrimage
was instrumental in fostering a dramatic, 180 de-
gree shift in his racial views, from a theologically
based hatred of European Americans for enslaving
black people to a view that affirmed the equality of
all races (Altareb, 1996).
The degree to which individual Muslims prac-
tice the five pillars can be a good indication of the
salience of faith in their lives. However, it is impor-
tant to note that circumstances (for example, an
employer refusing to allow time for prayer during
work hours) may prevent Muslims from engaging
in practices they would otherwise undertake. In
such circumstances, Muslims may say extra prayers
during nonwork hours or trust in God’s benevo-
lent understanding (Smith, 1999).
As noted earlier, there are diverse and sometimes
conflicting value positions within Islamic discourse.
However, community, family, and the sovereignty
of God are widely affirmed as foundational to the
House of Islam. These principal values, along with
the subsidiary values associated with them, should
not be conceptualized as discrete value structures.
Rather, they are interrelated constructs reflecting
the unified, holistic Islamic cosmology.
Community is a fundamental Islamic value (Haynes,
Eweiss, Mageed, & Chung, 1997). Rooted in the
belief that all people are equal before God, Mus-
lims tend to emphasize benevolence, care for oth-
ers, cooperation between individuals, empathy,
equality and justice between people, the impor-
tance of social support, and positive human relat-
edness (Kelly et al., 1996). Relationships are usually
based on the principle of consultation, and the
welfare of the community, the ummah, is to be safe-
guarded by all (Haynes et al.).
A relationship is generally understood to exist
between individual freedom and the community’s
responsibility to the individual (Haynes et al., 1997).
In other words, individual freedom is circumscribed
so as not to harm other members of the commu-
nity, for it is this community that protects and em-
powers the individual (Jafari, 1993). Thus, Western
individualistic values, such as personal success, self-
actualization, self-reliance, and personal autonomy,
hold somewhat less attraction for Muslims, who
tend to find meaning in group success, community
development, interdependence, and consensus
(Kelly et al., 1996).
Byng’s (1998) qualitative research with African
American women revealed the significance of the
ummah for Muslims. These women, largely con-
verts to Islam, reported finding a “safe social space”
from the racial, gender, and religious inequalities
they experienced in the larger culture. The com-
munity mediated the discrimination they experi-
enced by providing a resource for constructing a
salutary internal self-definition, essentially empow-
ering them to “transform their life, identity, and
consciousness” (Byng, p. 486).
The basic social unit for Muslims is the family
(Fernea, 1995). However, “family” is often concep-
tualized broadly to include relatives or even the
whole Islamic community. It is the family, most
specifically the husband and wife, that is under-
stood to be responsible for reproducing spiritual
and social values. Thus, family, both nuclear and
extended, is essential to the spiritual and social health
of the broader ummah (Haynes et al., 1997).
Social Work Volume 50, Number 2 April 2005
Marriage, rather than a joining of two individu-
als, tends to be seen as a union of two extended
families, with partners frequently selected by the
respective families (Smith, 1999). Husbands and
wives are held to be of equal worth but to have
complementary roles (Corbett, 1994). Generally,
women have the primary responsibility for main-
taining the home and raising the children, and men
are responsible for the material provision and the
leadership of the family. This structured arrange-
ment promotes less conflict and more harmonious
relationships with associated benefits to the broader
community, such as fostering a stable nurturing
environment for raising children and caring for the
elderly population (Daneshpour, 1998).
It is important to note that women are not nec-
essarily precluded from working outside the home
(Corbett, 1994). However, employment is held in
tension with providing proper care for the family.
Children are considered a blessing, and large fami-
lies are usually encouraged. A secure mother–child
attachment is considered critical to the child’s fu-
ture well-being and consequently the well-being
of the larger community (Smith, 1999). The deter-
mining factor is the provision of a stable family
unit, which enhances the unity of the community
(Haynes et al., 1997).
The sexual commodification of people is be-
lieved to facilitate the breakdown of the family and
community (Altareb, 1996). Accordingly, modesty
is an important spiritual and cultural value for many
Muslims, especially in a liberal U.S. society in which
sexuality plays an increasing role in the public arena.
Outside the immediate family system, many Mus-
lims choose not to mix socially with members of
the opposite gender (Mahmoud, 1996). Women
may adopt Islamic dress, including the practice of
veiling, or hijab, as a proactive way of expressing
modesty, as well as for other reasons (Reece, 1996;
Sovereignty of God
For the Muslim, God is at the center of existence
(Altareb, 1996). God is understood to be omnipo-
tent and personal. Thus, nothing happens to the
Muslim apart from God’s will (Husain, 1998). Al-
though this belief is sometimes thought to engen-
der fatalism, more properly it prepares Muslims to
face hardship and fosters perseverance during tem-
porary trials. Furthermore, because life is a transi-
tory sojourn on the path to eternal life, Muslims
can face the future with optimism. The eternal
perspective can foster a sense of existential mean-
ing during difficult times (Banawi & Stockton,
In addition to Allah, the Muslim cosmology in-
cludes belief in Satan, angels, and supernatural be-
ings referred to as jins. These beings are composed
of fire and can metamorphose into different shapes
and forms. Possession by a jin is a legitimate possi-
bility in the Muslim cosmology and accordingly,
should not automatically be taken as an indication
of psychosis (Husain, 1998).
Through adversity, which in extreme circum-
stances would include possession by a jin, God some-
times tests humans (Husain, 1998). An individual’s
reflection on his or her actions and behaviors is
warranted during such times (Banawi & Stockton,
1993). Should self-examination uncover personal
shortcomings that result from forgetting the pre-
cepts of the shari’a, Muslims can be assured that
God, the merciful and compassionate, will forgive
and restore the repentant believer (Waines, 1995).
Alternatively, it may be God’s will that individuals
merely accept their fate with strong faith, courage,
and patience (Al-Krenawi, 1996). In such cases they
have the assurance that God will reward them in
the next life and that he has provided the support
of the community as a means to help sojourners
endure difficult experiences (Jafari, 1993).
INSTITUTIONS AND ORGANIZATIONS
To nurture vital communities, Muslims have cre-
ated a significant number of institutions and orga-
nizations to support the ummah in the United States.
There are more than 2,300 Muslim institutions
throughout the nation (Haddad & Smith, 1995).
Included in this total are more than 100 private
Islamic schools, a home–school association, the
bachelor of arts–granting American Islamic Col-
lege located in Chicago, and the School of Islamic
and Social Sciences in Leesburg, Virginia, a gradu-
ate program specializing in Islamic studies (Haddad
& Smith, 1995; Hasan, 1998; Smith, 1999). Most
institutions, however, are mosques or Islamic cen-
ters. There are more than 1,300 mosques and Is-
lamic centers in the United States (Haddad & Smith,
1995), with almost 80 percent of these built since
Traditionally, the mosque has not performed the
same function in Islam as the church does in Chris-
tianity. The use of mosques for religious services is
167Hodge / Social Work and the House of Islam: Orienting Practitioners to the Beliefs and Values of Muslims in the United States
optional. It is not a requirement for the expression
of faith, as seen in the delineation of the five pillars
(Eickelman, 1998). It is estimated that only 10 per-
cent of Muslims in the United States are regular
attendees at mosque religious services, although a
much larger percentage typically attend special
holidays such as the feast at the end of fasting dur-
ing the month of Ramadan (Haddad, 1997).
In North America, numerous mosques have
added to the services they offer, changing their
characters substantially, to provide a greater degree
of social support to the Islamic community. In tra-
ditional Muslim countries, mosques tend to be a
place where Muslims have the option of gathering
for prayer, especially Friday midday prayers. In the
United States, these institutions have frequently
evolved into diverse centers that provide Muslim
communities with an extensive array of services,
both religious and cultural (Corbett, 1994). In ad-
dition to traditional prayer services, mosques may
offer education for children and adults, day care,
libraries, and social and sporting activities (Corbett;
Smith, 1999). Consequently, mosques can be im-
portant centers of social support (Hedayat-Diba,
Muslims have also formed a number of organi-
zations (Ahmed, 1991; Nyang, 1999; Smith, 1999).
The largest organization is the Islamic Society of
North America (ISNA) (Denny, 1995). The ISNA
attempts to foster a degree of commitment and
community among Muslims in the United States,
both through its own actions and by facilitating a
large number of locally based organizations
throughout the country (Ahmed, 1991; Smith).
ISNA activities are diverse and address most di-
mensions of Muslim life in the United States. Ser-
vices include instructional material, journals, regu-
lar workshops, library facilities, housing assistance,
a zakat fund, women’s services, and a marriage bu-
reau that operates a computerized database for
matching partners. Although ISNA attempts to
serve all segments of the Muslim population, it
tends to be perceived as an organization tailored
primarily to meet the needs of immigrants (Smith).
The ISNA grew out of the Muslim Student As-
sociation (MSA), the largest Muslim student orga-
nization in the United States. According to the
former president of MSA, more than 500 chapters
exist in the United States (personal communica-
tion with A. Husain, September 25, 1999). These
chapters offer religious and cultural services, in-
cluding, perhaps most important, social support to
the hundreds of thousands of Muslims enrolled on
campuses in the United States (Haddad & Smith,
A number of publications have been inaugurated
to keep Muslims informed of issues from an Is-
lamic perspective. In addition to the products of
the ISNA and the MSA, more than 100 mosques
publish their own journals (Nyang, 1999). Largely
locally based, these publications cover social, cul-
tural, economic, and political issues of interest to
Muslims and can be an important means of main-
taining contact with the larger Islamic community.
POTENTIAL VALUE CONFLICTS
For some social workers, it may be challenging to
respect Islamic values and avoid implicitly impos-
ing their own secular Western values. As mentioned
earlier, Islam is a meta-narrative, it provides a dis-
crete lens for understanding reality. The Islamic
meta-narrative differs substantially from the secu-
lar liberal meta-narrative that has increasingly in-
formed the West, including the western counseling
project, since the Enlightenment (Jafari, 1993).
Sayyid (1997) suggested that Islamism represents
an epistemologically rooted threat to the unchal-
lenged dominance of the established secular liberal
meta-narrative. As Islam has continued to free itself
from the chains of Western political and cultural
colonization and find its own voice, it has increas-
ingly been portrayed as a “radical other” by the
West because it fails to acknowledge the superior-
ity and universalism of Western discourse and its
associated values (Sayyid). For example, Noakes
(1998) and Stockton (1994) chronicled how the
rich diversity of Islamic culture is frequently sim-
plified to denigrating images connoting ignorance,
oppression, fanaticism, violence, and so forth in
mainstream U.S. media depictions of Muslims.
As the 2001 terrorist attacks on September 11th
illustrated, some Muslims commit acts of violence
just as some environmentalists, gay people, femi-
nists, and other groups whose values are congruent
with the dominant secular liberal meta-narrative
commit acts of violence. No population consis-
tently lives out its ideals or is free from those who
would twist its beliefs in service of their own de-
sires. However, rather than portraying acts of vio-
lence committed by Muslims as aberrations from
the groups’ norms, as is generally and correctly done
with the latter populations mentioned, violence is
Social Work Volume 50, Number 2 April 2005
often framed as an Islamic norm. This selective
portrayal of competing narratives implicitly disen-
franchises Muslims by fostering an image as a radi-
cal other in the eyes of Western readers.
This dynamic also appears in some of the social
work literature. A content analysis of a number of
the profession’s more influential textbooks found
that Islamic narratives were rarely featured (Hodge,
Baughman, & Cummings, in press). Furthermore,
when Islam was mentioned, it was often depicted
as seen through the lens of the Western secular lib-
eral meta-narrative rather than as a Muslim might
tend to self-articulate. Although it is difficult to
image a social work textbook stating that the ho-
mosexual world abounds with horror stories of
crimes against humanity, it is possible to find social
work textbooks that report that the Muslim world
abounds with “horror tales of crimes against hu-
manity” (van Wormer, 1997, p. 511). Similarly,
whereas social work texts might suggest that the
“moral agenda” of Middle Eastern countries “is the
complete enslavement of women” (van Wormer, p.
511), it is doubtful that many Middle Eastern Mus-
lims would articulate their values in such a manner.
The Islamic practice of veiling, hijab, is one ex-
ample where the perceptions of some social work-
ers may be clouded by the prevailing meta-narra-
tive with a resulting abrogation of the client’s right
to self-determination. Veiling is widely perceived
in Western discourse as oppressing women, as a
manifestation of enslavement (Almeida, 1996;
Reece, 1996; Renard, 1998; van Wormer, 1997).
For some feminists in particular, veiling symbolizes
the subordination of women to men, and is seen as
“a blanket endorsement of oppression” (Shakeri,
1998, p. 165). In France, such perceptions have
helped foster a climate in which autonomy is com-
pletely abrogated and females are banned from
wearing the hijab in the public schools (Sayyid,
From the perspective of many women within
the Islamic meta-narrative, however, hijab is per-
ceived differently. Hijab, in addition to being a fun-
damental component of worship and a practice that
engenders inner peace and tranquillity, is a political
statement (Reece, 1996). For some it signifies the
rejection of the colonizing Western meta-narrative
(Reece). More commonly, it symbolizes the eman-
cipation from a Western discourse that treats women
as sexual objects, a rejection of the values that foster
the use of women’s bodies to sell alcohol, pornog-
raphy, and vehicles to men and clothing, cosmetics,
and dieting programs to women (Moughrabi, 1995;
Shakeri, 1998). It is a “badge” announcing the re-
spectability of the woman it covers; it communi-
cates that she is to be treated according to her abili-
ties rather than her physical attributes (Reece; Smith,
For many within the Islamic meta-narrative, it
appears to be the secular liberal meta-narrative that
oppresses women, for example, by fostering debili-
tating eating disorders, producing popular music
that extols the humiliation of women, and perpetu-
ating high levels of physical violence against women.
Such degradation of women is comparatively rare
in Islamic communities, where, it is argued, women
are treated with respect and dignity (Cainkar, 1996;
It is interesting that, in many cases, women raised
in the Western discourse have reached the same
conclusion that Islam, rather than the West, respects
women, and consequently converted to Islam and
donned Islamic dress (Haddad, 1997). Which meta-
narrative “enslaves” women and which emancipates
women is contingent on a priori value supposi-
tions rather than an objective, value-free assessment
of women’s existential reality. According to the
voices of many women, Western liberalism enslaves,
and Islam liberates (Byng, 1998).
Other areas where some social workers may be
tempted to abrogate clients’ autonomy include
abortion, homosexuality, and gender roles. Islam,
based on the shari’a and the good of the commu-
nity, generally affirms the sanctity of human life
throughout the life cycle from conception to natu-
ral death (Haddad & Smith, 1996; Zuhur, 1995),
heterosexuality (Halstead & Lewicka, 1998; Siddiqi,
2001), and, as noted earlier, complementary gen-
der roles in the family structure (Daneshpour, 1998;
Fernea, 1995). Workers who are activists in the ar-
eas of abortion, homosexuality, and egalitarian gen-
der roles must monitor their own and their clients’
reactions to ensure they avoid implicitly imposing
their values on Muslims.
Practitioners must be particularly careful when
working with clients who may be struggling with
these and other issues associated with contrasting
meta-narratives delineated in this article and else-
where (Daneshpour, 1998; Jafari, 1993; Kelly et al.,
1996; Sayyid, 1997). In the larger secular culture,
Muslims often face bias emanating from diaphobia,
or animosity toward a divine worldview in which
169Hodge / Social Work and the House of Islam: Orienting Practitioners to the Beliefs and Values of Muslims in the United States
a transcendent God serves as the ultimate point of
reference (Hodge, 2004). Social workers must avoid
reflecting such biases and demonstrate respect for
cultural diversity in their provision of services.
To help practitioners develop sensitivity to Is-
lamic values in the clinical dialogue, Table 1 pro-
vides an encapsulation of the values indigenous to
Islam and Western secular liberal discourse. Work-
ers must be careful not to assume that individuals
who self-identify as Muslims automatically adhere
to the listed values. Obviously not all Muslims, nor
all liberal Westerners, affirm every value listed un-
der each meta-narrative, or in some cases any of the
values. Furthermore most, if not all, of the values
are held in tension with one another. Muslims re-
tain a sense of individualism, for example, while
endorsing community. Table 1 is a visual means of
creating awareness regarding possible value con-
flicts that may occur with Muslim clients and should
not be viewed as a rigid typology.
When faced with value conflicts, consultation
with an Imam, a Muslim religious leader, or a re-
spected devout member of the local community
may be helpful. For example, some social workers
may find it difficult to parse out areas of legitimate
therapeutic concern from healthy family function-
ing within the Islamic framework. Identifying what
constitutes proper role distinctions and what con-
stitutes abuse of power can be extremely difficult. A
local Imam may be able to help workers sort through
their intuitive hunches, identify unhealthy relating,
and provide material from the shari’a to support
Social workers may be able to play an advocacy
role for Muslims by helping them organize with
other groups that are oppressed by the secular lib-
eral meta-narrative. For example, some school offi-
cials may broach the separation of church and state
and attempt to prohibit Muslim prayer groups, re-
ports on Islamic subjects, and so forth. School so-
cial workers may be able to help Muslim students
organize with traditional Catholics, evangelical
Christians, Mormons, and other people of faith to
prevent discrimination. For instance, a group might
work together to ensure that Muslim prayer groups
for the daily performance of salat are permitted on
school grounds (Clinton, 1995; Smith, 1999).
Because of perceptions that practitioners are im-
mersed in the dominant meta-narrative, and con-
sequently may not respect Islamic values, Muslims
may be reluctant to seek assistance from social
workers (Altareb, 1996; Daneshpour, 1998;
Hedayat-Diba, 2000; Kelly et al., 1996; Mahmoud,
1996). For example, Kelly and colleagues (1996)
found that 53 percent of respondents would prefer
a Muslim counselor. More positively, Shafi (1998)
suggested that initial concerns could be overcome
by emphasizing traditional empathetic qualities
such as care, genuineness, respect, support, and
Several practical ways to demonstrate these char-
acteristics have been suggested. Addressing and at-
tempting to meet practical needs may be an effec-
tive way to engender trust (Al-Krenawi, 1996).
Addressing the husband first, or oldest male in his
absence, and requesting his permission to speak to
other family members may build trust given that
such action implies purity of intent for many Mus-
lim men and women. Immodest dress, particularly
Table 1: Values Emphasized in
Islam Secular Liberalism
Community actualization Self-actualization
Group achievement and Personal achievement and
Community reliance Self-reliance
Respect for community rights Respect for individual rights
Sensitivity to group Sensitivity to individual
Identity rooted in culture Identity rooted in sexuality
and God and work
Complementary gender roles Egalitarian gender roles
Sexuality expressed in Sexuality expressed based on
marriage individual choice
Implicit communication that Explicit communication that
safeguards others’ opinions clearly expresses individual
Spirituality and morality Spirituality and morality
derived from the shari’a individually constructed
Spiritual/eternal orientation Material orientation
Social Work Volume 50, Number 2 April 2005
for women, such as low necklines, short skirts, and
bare arms, may lessen rapport because such attire is
often associated with lack of respect for women
and the larger community (Mahmoud, 1996).
Because of differences in values related to com-
munication, indirect communication that implies
a course of action may be efficacious, particularly
with Asian Muslims (Al-Radi & Mahdy, 1994). The
open, direct communication patterns favored in
Western discourse are often associated with self-
ishness and unconcern about the maintenance of
group harmony (Daneshpour, 1998). Confronta-
tion, or even direct communication, between Mus-
lims should generally not be encouraged because
it can be considered selfish and insulting to the
community Similarly, clients may—at least on the
surface—conform to requests, treatment plans, and
so forth, as disagreement might be perceived as
confronting the therapist. Consequently, workers
should identify phrasing accepted in the local Is-
lamic community to communicate concerns
The open expression of negative feelings is not
accepted in many Islamic cultures, because such
statements are frequently seen as an unhealthy self-
preoccupation. Emotional problems may be ex-
pressed as physical ailments, which are legitimate.
As a result, without a clear delineation of the prob-
lem, in conjunction with implicit communication
styles, social workers may find themselves unclear
about the nature of the problem and unable to pro-
ceed without more explicit communication. In such
cases, workers may wish to preface their comments
by indicating that their request may seem unusual,
then state that they are unsure what is wanted or
desired of them, and then invite a direct explana-
tion of the problem (Hedayat-Diba, 2000).
It is also important to note that Muslim families
may seem enmeshed by Western standards because
of the emphasis on group cohesion. A common
problem voiced by Muslim families, however, is
insufficient connectedness due to lack of contact
with other family members, too much distance in
the marital relationship, isolation from the extended
family, and so forth (Daneshpour, 1998). Similarly,
parents are likely to be more concerned about a
child’s lack of connectedness with the family than
with individuation (Hedayat-Diba, 2000).
Muslims may be particularly open to holistic,
ecological interventions that incorporate members
of the family and the broader community
(Daneshpour, 1998). In addition to Imams, it may
be possible to incorporate in the counseling pro-
cess elderly individuals, who are usually held in high
esteem, and benefit from their life experiences, ex-
tensive formal and informal ties, and their social
status. Consultation, logical discussion, arbitration,
and other cognitively oriented approaches using a
respected member of the community are common
practices in many Islamic communities (Haynes et
Community and its associated social support can
be an important resource. Recent immigrants, as
well as other Muslims, may not be aware of the
range of organizations that have been developed
over the past two decades to provide social sup-
port to Muslim communities. This is particularly
the case with mosques, which often provide ser-
vices of a completely different character than Mus-
lims typically enjoyed in their country of origin
(Corbett, 1994; Hedayat-Diba, 2000). Linking cli-
ents to the array of organizations can provide a
significant degree of social support (Byng, 1998;
Mahmoud (1996) stated that it is important to
explore the spiritual belief system when working
with Muslims. Sincerely inquiring about clients’
spiritual beliefs and practices sends the implicit
message that their spirituality is respected and
deemed important in the counseling dialogue.
Hodge (in press) reviewed the strengths and limita-
tions of a diverse set of assessment instruments, many
of which may be useful in work with Muslims.
Spiritual genograms (Hodge, 2001), for instance,
may be helpful for developing a better understand-
ing of the extended family. Spiritual ecomaps, a
diagrammatic instrument for assessing and
operationalizing environmental spiritual strengths
(Hodge, 2000), may be useful with Muslims who
desire “here and now” solutions drawn from envi-
ronmental resources as opposed to more psycho-
dynamically oriented interventions (Daneshpour,
The activation of Islamic values and practices is
widely held to be an important factor for Muslims
(Al-Radi & Mahdy, 1994; Altareb, 1996; Banawi &
Stockton, 1993). Comparing the effectiveness of
motivations revealed that Saudi Muslims motivated
by inner religious considerations recorded outcomes
that were more than twice as effective compared
with outcomes of those who were motivated by
other considerations (Jilek, 1994). Religiosity has
171Hodge / Social Work and the House of Islam: Orienting Practitioners to the Beliefs and Values of Muslims in the United States
been shown to moderate the effects of job stress
(Jamal & Badawi, 1993) and discrimination for
Muslims (Byng, 1998).
Assessment of spiritual beliefs and practices can
lead to interventions that activate Islamic values.
Prayer, fasting, and rituals are traditionally consid-
ered to be among the most effective means for
healing distress (Azhar, Varma, & Dharap, 1994;
Husain, 1998). Similarly, clients can be encouraged
to meditate on the 99 names of God, a practice
that may improve coping (Byng, 1998; Pargament,
Although traditional psychotherapy and group
counseling may not be widely accepted among
Muslims (Banawi & Stockton, 1993), cognitive in-
terventions, particularly those based on precepts
derived from or congruent with the shari’a, may be
particularly effective. Cognitive therapy based on
Islamic beliefs has been demonstrated to be at least
as effective as traditional forms of therapy with
anxiety disorders (Azhar et al., 1994), bereavement
(Azhar & Varma, 1995a), and depression (Azhar &
Varma, 1995b), often ameliorating problems at a
faster rate. In this form of therapy, the worker col-
laborates with the client to identify unproductive
beliefs that are then modified or replaced with be-
liefs derived from the shari’a, particularly the Quran.
Interested readers are advised to obtain Azhar and
Va r m a ’s 1995 study on religious psychotherapy and
bereavement for a more extended discussion of this
It is important to reiterate the diverse array of com-
munities that exists within the House of Islam and
the salient role that the local cultural milieu plays
in shaping the beliefs and values of individual
Muslims. Workers who encounter Muslims with
any sort of frequency are encouraged to obtain fur-
ther information regarding Muslims and their cul-
tural backgrounds. Two particularly helpful texts
are Smith’s (1999) Islam in America, which provides
a good introduction to U.S. Muslims, and Family
and Gender among American Muslims. The latter text,
edited by Aswad and Bilge (1996), includes chap-
ters on issues of importance to U.S. Muslims and
chapters on major Muslim groups in the United
States and their cultural characteristics. This article
represents an initial step down the path of increas-
ing practitioner effectiveness with individuals in the
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David R. Hodge, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow, Program
for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society,
University of Pennsylvania, Leadership Hall, 3814 Walnut
Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104. The author thanks Dr.
Ahmet T. Karamustafa for his comments and encouragement
regarding this article.
Original manuscript received February 1, 2000
Final manuscript received May 26, 2000
Accepted September 7, 2000