Religious interview with a Jordanian Muslim woman
By Andrew Orayfig, MA
The interviewee was a 23-year-old, single, Sunni Muslim female (referred to here as Talia), currently living in Amman, Jordan. She graduated from a major university in Jordan with a degree in computer information systems and is currently working as a programmer in a health care solution company. The interview was conducted over Skype chat due to cultural gender norms. The first theme addressed in the interview included the impact of Talia's Muslim faith on her daily life experiences. Talia described how the Muslim faith prescribes instructions for every nuance in daily life, “Starting from [when you] wake up until you go [to] sleep again.” She described that, on a broad level, religion affects daily life such that “every Muslim…has a great goal to live [for] and everything happens for a reason.” In daily life, for example, Talia described how Islam affects one's manners, conversations and family relations. She described how praying to Allah“affects your day because you ask Allah to give you the best of the day.” The second theme in the interview included normal practices, habits and rituals that Talia found meaningful. She described praying five times a day. She remarked that the final prayer, called Sallat al Isha'a, was the most meaningful prayer for her because she can talk freely about her day with Allah. However, she described her belief that every part of her day can be a religious act, such as working or driving.
Later, Talia shared that she has been a Muslim from birth because of her parents' religion; however, she has seen her “thoughts and faith be bigger now” than during childhood. She did not experience a true, intrinsic belief in Allah or Islam as a child and described that childhood preoccupations included “playing, studying, watching TV” while parents explained about Allah and Islam. However, adulthood brought faith lessons through real-life situations. For example, she shared that “your parents [tell] you why you should be honest, but Allah puts you in a real situation to make it clear.” Talia shared that the most powerful spiritual experiences she has had consists of the times during which “Allah gave me the power to do things I don't think I can…” such as being in administrative positions, completing thesis projects and caring deeply for others. She remarked that she feels close to Allah at all times. Another theme explored what role emotion played in her religious experience. She remarked, “All people can get Islam and understand by [their] own way; emotions [are] one of these.”
Theoretical Orientation # 1: Cognitive Science of Religion
Barrett (2013) explores the cognitive science of religion (CSR), and this may be a useful perspective to use in conceptualizing Talia's religious experience. First, Barrett describes that humans approach thought through two different systems. One of these systems can be called the intuitive system and is characterized by “rapid, automatic, reflexive, seemingly effortless, and often relatively emotional processing” (p. 236). Another system, the reflective system, is “slower, deliberate, effortful” (p. 236) and free of emotion. Importantly, impressions, beliefs and conclusions gained through intuition become the template for later reflective thought unless a reflective process overrides these defaults (Barrett, 2013).
In Talia's case, she described her status as a Muslim as strongly related to her parents' faith. Her description of childhood and adult faith seems to reflect a transition from automatic to reflective processing of religious beliefs. However, the belief system she adopted after further reflection was dependent on the framework built during her childhood and maintained during periods of present automatic processing. Her lack of difficulties with the faith may suggest that she has not entered a period of serious doubt or religious moratorium, and this may be further influenced by her highly religious Muslim context. Nonetheless, she does report periods of reflectiveness about her faith, and these periods appear to reflect a transition from automatic to reflective processing.
Another concept described within the realm of CSR is the idea of minimal counterintuitiveness. Barrett (2013) summarizes previous research suggesting that information that is completely intuitive and easy to understand may not be as attention grabbing or may not be processed as deeply as material that is slightly odd or strange. Thus, religious ideas spread because they are not wholly counterintuitive nor wholly intuitive, but minimally counterintuitive. Additionally, it appears that the context of narratives, potential for cultural transmission of this material, ability to generate inferences and explanations from the material and younger age all play a part in the believability of this material (Barrett, 2013). In Talia's case, her experience of Allah is one of intervention in daily life. She holds an anthropomorphic view of some of Allah's characteristics, such as helpful, correcting and allowing. However, she also maintains a belief in Allah's transcendence and in the power of prayer, and these can be considered minimally counterintuitive.
Finally, Barrett (2013) discusses the meaning of religious rituals and prayer from a cognitive science of religion framework. Religious rituals are conceptualized as evolutionarily similar to mother-child rituals as well as obsessive-compulsive-like rituals. In other words, certain practices are completed habitually, somewhat anxiously and with concern for precision to confer benefits such as protection from unseen harm and cleanliness/purification. Moreover, prayer is understood as a nonreflective process of asking a “psychosocial being to act psychologically or socially” (p. 245). From a CSR perspective, Talia's habitual prayer practices may reflect her intuitive belief that Allah will intervene in her life by affecting her psychologically (e.g., by giving her “the best of the day”) rather than showing up materially. Then, at the end of the day, she talks socially with Allah when telling Him about her day. From a CSR perspective, this habitual prayer may reflect both a psychosocial cognitive process as well as a ritualized habit. Clearly, this paradigm is helpful in conceptualizing Talia's religion.
Theoretical Orientation # 2: Religion, Social Psychology and Behavior
Nielsen, Hatton, and Donahue (2013) conceptualize religiousness from a social psychological perspective, and it may be helpful to examine Talia's beliefs and religious life from this perspective as well. The authors describe three types of religiosity: intrinsic, extrinsic and quest. Intrinsic religiosity is internally motivated, psychologically perpetuated and a guiding force in itself. Extrinsic religiosity is externally motivated, a source of relief and protection and often socially motivated (Nielsen, Hatton, & Donahue, 2013). Quest religiousness is empirically separate from both constructs and is characterized by open-mindedness, openness to experience and lack of prejudice. Quest religiosity is not necessarily concerned with dogmatism and closure in beliefs (Nielsen, Hatton, & Donahue, 2013).
In Talia's case, her answers do not necessarily reflect a quest religiosity, as she does not appear to hold tension or flexibility in her beliefs. Instead, she remarks “that Islam will give me the Paradise…and it's the right road to live a great life, so why [do] I have to change the right road?” It is possible that questions that examine her quest orientation in a more direct manner may have revealed different results. Talia does appear to hold at least a highly intrinsic view of her religiosity. This might be seen in her statements that Islam makes her feel free, unrestrained and responsible for herself and her decisions and in her statement that “your parents [tell] you why you should be honest, but Allah puts you in a real situation to make it clear.”
In addition to religious orientation, self-concept in religion is also an important social psychological construct. People seek meaning about their position and their belonging within the social world through comparison processes and social judgments, and religion serves as an anchor to make meaning of one's place in the world. Outward signs of religiosity in this context become a means to reduce anxiety and uncertainty about group status and identity (Nielsen, Hatton, & Donahue, 2013). In Talia's case, she described comfort and ease in maintaining her faith as being due in part to the community of other Muslims surrounding her. Additionally, many of her explanations of personal Muslim beliefs are described in a group context.
A final social psychological consideration is the role of religious language and social processes in explaining honesty. Talia stated that “your parents [tell] you why you should be honest, but Allah puts you in a real situation to make it clear.” From a social psychological perspective, priming with religious words and belief in a punitive God increase honesty. It is possible that Talia's desire to be honest results in part from a process of social-cognitive priming.
Comparison Between the Models
Social processes such as social comparison, group formation and identity processes and social priming all have impacts on cognitive processes and belief formation. For example, Talia's group membership within the Islamic faith in Jordan is likely to increase her belief in the traditions and faith itself through social and psychological reinforcing processes. Moreover, exclusion of out-group members may increase differentiation between right and wrong belief rather than fostering pluralistic tension.
Additionally, cognitive processes can impact social functioning, as well. For example, the use of psychosocially oriented prayers to Allah as a nonreflective, automatic process is likely to shape group processes and subsequent feelings of in-group status (i.e., these are the types of prayers offered, so by offering these prayers I continue to be a member of this group). Overall, it is clear that these two perspectives offer helpful paradigms to understand religiosity.
About the Author
Andrew Orayfig, MA, clinical psychology, is a fourth-year doctoral student at Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. He has worked in adult/child community mental health, departmental clinic, university counseling and correctional settings, and he has experience with clients across a broad diagnostic spectrum. His research program involves the intersection of multicultural identity and growth/pathological responses to psychological trauma. Research/clinical interests in the psychology of religion involve spiritual growth following trauma, integration of Christian thought and cognitive behavioral psychotherapy and psychospiritual development in young adults. He particularly enjoys working with clients with a trauma history, anxiety disorders and cultural identity concerns. Personally, he enjoys spending time with his wife and family, reading and writing, hiking and involvement in church activities.
Barrett, J. L. (2013). Exploring religion's basement: The cognitive science of religion. In R. Paloutzian & C. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed). New York: Guilford.
Nielsen, M. E., Hatton, A. T., & Donahue, M. J. (2013). Religiousness, social psychology, and behavior. In R. Paloutzian & C. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed). New York: Guilford.