Social Work and the House of Islam: Orienting Practitioners to the Beliefs and Values of Muslims in the United States

Article excerpt

As a consequence of immigration, conversion, and comparatively high birth rates, the Muslim population in the United States is growing rapidly (Melton, 1999; Smith, 1999). Estimates 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 approximates the size of the Jewish population (Richards & Bergin), relatively few articles have appeared in the social work literature on this group (Canda & Furman, 1999).

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 considered it important that counselors understand Islamic 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 competence 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 organizations 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 dimensions (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 gratitude 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 understand reality.

Both terms, Islam and Muslim, appear repeatedly in the Quran, making Islam the only world religion to have a built-in name from its inauguration (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. Although 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 consequently, the primary source of shari'a (Renard, 1998).

Significantly, Muslims chose to date their history 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, 1998).

Within the House of Islam, there are two significant streams: Sunni and Shiite. Sunnis are approximately 90 percent of Muslims worldwide; Shiites form the remaining 10 percent and are the overwhelming 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 Catholicism and Shiite Islam. In Sunni Islam, as in the Protestant faith, there is an emphasis on a direct relationship 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, 1985). …