Mental Health Counseling in the Islamic Republic of Iran: A Marriage of Religion, Science, and Practice

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This article explores the state of mental health counseling in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Topics that are addressed include training of clinicians, theoretical developments in Islamic-based theories of psychology, and issues related to the practice of counseling, Counseling issues in the Islamic Republic of Iran are influenced by its unique culture and history, A discussion of issues related to the prevalence and treatment of addiction is included.


The Islamic Republic of Iran, formerly known to the Western world as Persia until 1935, is a country with a proud and ancient history. One of the most common misperceptions of Iranian culture is to describe it as Arab; in fact, to call Iranians Arabs is one of the surest ways to offend them. Most Iranians descended from the Aryan civilization, predating the current people groups of Iran, India, and most of Western Europe.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA; 2008), the Islamic Republic of Iran's population is approximately 65.4 million, and the median age is 25.8 years. Approximately 23.2% of Iranians are age 14 or younger. There is 11% unemployment rate and 18% of the people live under the United Nation's poverty line. The median monthly salary is approximately US$192 (Payvand Iran News, 2005). According to Saleh-Isfahani (2002), most Iranians reside in medium to large cities (more than 50%), with the remainder living in small towns or nomadically.

There are two primary denominational divisions within Islam: Shi'a and Sunni. The essential difference between these sects is the manner in which religious authority is traced back to Muhammad. By tradition, Shi'a believe that religious authority should be traced back to Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. In contrast, Sunni Muslims trace their heritage through the first four caliphs, believing that the successor to Muhammad should be based on consensus of the community rather than heredity. Both groups endorse the basic teachings of Islam, but they have different rituals and hadiths. Hadiths are sayings that are attributed to Muhammad (Schimmel, 1992). Of the 98% of Iranians who are Muslim, 89% are Shi'a and 9% are Sunni; the remaining 2% of the population are Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and Baha'i (CIA, 2008).

The country became an Islamic republic following the Iranian revolution in 1979, when the ruling shah was forced into exile. The government is a complex blend of theocracy and democratic republic. Mujtahids are Islamic scholars similar in status to those who have attained a doctorate of divinity or have become a Supreme Court judge. Individuals become mujtahids after approximately 20 years of rigorous academic study. After mujtahids summarize their interpretation of Islam into a manifesto, such individuals may become ayatollahs. The relative political power of ayatollahs is determined by the number of followers that their manifesto and teachings draw. The few ayatollahs who garner the most support among followers are given the rank of Grand Ayatollah. A Grand Ayatollah is selected to be Supreme Leader for life (i.e., chief of state) by the Assembly of Experts, which is a popularly elected body of religious scholars. Whereas Iran's government structure includes executive, legislative (i.e., parliament), and judicial branches, the Supreme Leader is considered the final authority on matters and virtually controls the other branches. The parliament is the democratic branch in which elected representatives create and pass legislation (Buchta, 2001; Rogers, 2004).

The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently facing some difficult challenges. These include (a) the transition from a rural, agricultural state to a modem, industrialized urban state; (b) increased access to drugs as a result of regional changes in opium production; (c) conflict between modernization and traditional culture; (d) a dramatic population increase; and (e) residual effects of the Iran-Iraq war. …