Principles of Social Work Practice in the Muslim Arab World

Article excerpt

THIS ARTICLE EXAMINES SOCIAL WORK in the Muslim Arab world, with particular reference to research that we have undertaken with Muslim Arab peoples in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Much of the proceeding analysis is based on English language social work scholarship; future research could profitably consider innovations as considered in Arabic and other language social work literatures. English language traditions and literatures, as we subsequently point out, have been important to the Arab world's development of social work. Such diverse and loosely defined social groupings as "Northern" and "Muslim Arab" are fraught with dangers of reductionism, simplification, and essentialism. Their advantage, on the other hand, is the possibility of considering broad patterns at this early stage in the literature's evolution. Consequently, the generalizations that we present are intended as nothing more than a beginning point: as one scholar describes such enterprises, as "signposts for future research rather than as definitive conclusions," for further reflection and for application in more precise and defined geographic, historical, national, and other contexts (Salem, 1997, p. 11). Insofar, therefore, as generalizations may occur, we argue that this social work epistemology remains a largely Northern conception, but is nonetheless beginning to add space for other perspectives, including the Arab world--where social work, as we argue, has been a product of colonialism. Historically, many aspects of social work have fit poorly with Arab cultures and social structures. Polygamy and blood vengeance are excellent examples of culturally embedded practices for which social work theory and methods had, until recently, little to say. As we also argue, there are three important areas where social work in the Arab world has been enhanced: conflict resolution, collaboration with religion and with traditional healing, and strategies for working with families. Ultimately, we advocate an integration of social work as it is presently conceptualized in the Muslim Arab world, with principles derived from Arab cultural and religious practices; this process may lead to a more locally responsive, culturally appropriate model of professional intervention.


At the turn of the twentieth century, the social work profession emerged in Western Europe and North America (hereafter the North) and in the interwar period was transplanted to colonized countries (hereafter the South) inside and outside the Arab world. In the post-World War II era, the profession was globalized, as schools of social work proliferated across the South--invariably with cultural assumptions originating in the North (Healey, 1999; Midgley, 1981). As a result, scholarship now widely concurs: social work in the Arab world, as elsewhere, is incompatible with cultural, economic, political, and social realities (Healey, 1999; Midgley, 1981, 1999; Ragab, 1990). The profession's growth has been characterized as "academic colonialization" (Atal, 1981) mirroring political and scientific colonization (Clews, 1999). In their transmission to the Arab world, social work knowledge and practice retained Northern assumptions regarding human nature and the nature of social problems (Ragab, 1990; 1995). These persist to the present time.

Examples of Northern biases in teaching, research and practice in the Muslim Arab world, are legion. In the early twentieth century, the profession of social work emerged in the North, with strong assumptions regarding the primacy of the individual: for example, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, with self-actualization as its pinnacle; Mahler's notion of separation, individualism and autonomy; and Erickson's ideas on the importance of autonomy in the development of individuals. These and other currents of helping professional theory are strongly grounded to Northern, individualistic cultures. …