Teaching Mindfulness in an Arab-Islamic Context

By Karunavira, Bangor University and Fadwa Al Mughairbi, United Arab Emirates University.  

Learning mindfulness via a telephone distance learning programme can be viewed with scepticism but it can also be seen as releasing seeds on the wind...seeds carried into the wilderness and barren deserts! The Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice (CMRP) was approached to run a mindfulness-based training retreat by a woman in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who had just completed a distance learning course with us. She was keen to introduce mindfulness to the rest of her teaching team in the Department of Psychology and Counselling at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU). This was how I found myself at 2a.m. looking anxiously back at an immaculately white-robed Arab passport officer in Dubai airport, thence to be driven for 2 hours through the incredibly hot (46°) dessert night to Al Ain, the university oasis town where the ‘retreat’ was to take place. 

What follows are some reflections on teaching a mindfulness-based course in an Arab Islamic culture, firstly from my ‘outsiders’ perspective as the teacher, and secondly from an ‘insider’ perspective (one of the participants). 


Reflections on Teaching Mindfulness in an Islamic Setting 

I was to work with an exceptionally friendly and enthusiastic group (pictured below) offering the curriculum of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course over 5-days.  They ranged in age from a woman in her early 20’s, just beginning an academic career at the University, to a woman in her late 70’s just retired from a central involvement in National Mass Media (TV and Newspapers). 

All but two of the participants taught at the University (UAEU), several with doctorates from Western universities. One of the exceptions to this was a woman who was one of the few female members of the UAE Senate. There was a range of awareness of mindfulness and other cultures and religions within this group of 13. The impressions and generalisations made below do not apply evenly to all. I have written about my experience and wish to acknowledge from the outset that working alone in such a different culture my perceptions are likely to include misunderstanding and assumption. 


How we worked

The first obvious adaptation was to turn the programme that the CMRP usually offer in a retreat context into a non-residential training without losing continuity or intensity of practice engagement. This was partly necessary for practical reasons and partly because the idea of a residential mindfulness retreat was initially just too alien in this culture. Had I insisted on the ‘normal’ residential model the project may not have got off the ground, but by the end of the course several participants could see the value of a full retreat experience and began to research organising one!  But, how to create equivalent conditions and so protect the important depth of embodied learning required? We adopted a structure modelled on what is sometimes called an ‘urban-retreat’  where participants attend a series of long days, returning overnight to their homes with explicit and particular intentions to continue the retreat ethos of simplicity and practice until the next day.

Even discounting the cultural differences I found it difficult to make ‘comparisons’ with previous teaching experience because of the non-residential dimension. In the place of this was an increase in the hours of practice, working from 8am through to 6pm on all five days (with a 90 minute break at midday for journaling, ‘home practice’ and lunch). These very long days (divided by three 10 minute prayer breaks) afforded a lot of practice time but this in itself created a challenge for people not used to sitting still or being so quiet! Consequently, I felt an unusual depth of strain created by my responsibility to ‘hold the space’ and embody confidence in leading this group through what seemed like very long hours of practice. 

The rhythm of the day supported this ‘urban-retreat’ model in that the first 90 minutes was uninterrupted ‘silent’ practice, thus re-establishing the experiential learning ethos of MBSR and consolidating the previous day’s work. The model was successful in that all 13 participants demonstrated (by the end) an embodied understanding of mindfulness. For example, they demonstrated experiential understanding of the difference between ‘concentration’ and meta-cognitive insight, and how to stay open and pay attention to all their experience and learn from this. They did not find it easy but they knew how to practice and the value of this in relation to both stress-reduction and living a more appreciative life (see appendix below for ‘self-evaluation comments’).

It was evident from the start that the group had little experience of this kind of relentless experiential training sustained over such long periods of time. So, for the 10th and last hour of each day we timetabled question and answer discussion session, during which more rational and conceptual processing could take place. I sensed that the promise of this time helped participants trust the experiential process of the day and so give themselves more fully to the mindfulness practices.  In addition because mindfulness was such a new idea in the UAE and this group was so rooted in academia, I sensed a need to introduce the underpinning theory and rationales (cognitive and neuro-scientific) at the end of the first day to support their motivation to engage.  So, I presented an interactive power-point which introduced this. This was a gamble in that it may have undermined the experiential ethos I was trying so carefully to build but it had a tremendously positive impact on the group’s motivation for practice. My intuition is that for participants who are suffering more strongly (with stress, anxiety etc) the intention and motivation for practice is relatively accessible, but for a group such as this, with a part-professional agenda and faced with such alien ideas, the input of theory early on  helped clarify  ‘intention’ and so build engagement.


Adapting MBSR for an Islamic cultural setting

To headline some of the more obvious cultural differences:  i/without exception everyone prays five times daily and see this as a defining element of their day, ii/no alcohol whatsoever can be bought or drunk anywhere in shops, restaurants, supermarkets or hotels (outside of a few 5-Star hotels in Dubai); iii/ men and women seldom speak or associate with each other outside of the family home in public places and I often noticed women walking demurely in their graceful black covering (Abaya) a few steps behind their husbands

Thus, the two main areas of challenge were: firstly, how to ‘bridge’ into this Islamist Arab culture and find an appropriate symbolic language through which to communicate mindfulness; and, secondly, how to teach mindfulness to a mixed-gender group in a context that rarely allows men and women to occupy even the same space or interact at a personal level in public?

It was heartening to find a lot of common ground in a country that is so radically non-‘Western’! Many of the themes I found teaching this workshop were very familiar, reflecting our shared human condition. For example, one very familiar theme was a tendency to conflate or confuse mindfulness and relaxation; to see meditation as just ‘concentration’ (calm), rather than seeing it additionally in its ‘insight’ (mindfulness) mode. 

The so called ‘barriers to practice’ were also identical in both range and intensity. It was, however, much harder to read this group and at times I found myself worrying (more than usual) about how certain people were doing (imagining from their quietness or expression of restlessness that they were struggling much more than they were. The Arab culture is hot and expressive in a way not dissimilar to more ‘Latino’ cultures, so when the group became strangely quiet I was not sure how to read this). The group’s mixed responsiveness to doing the overnight home practice was about the same as I experience in an eight week course.


Language and symbolisation:

The majority of the participants worked within the university and teach exclusively in English (since an edict passed by the University five years ago). So, one would expect fluency but this was variable and, even when literal understanding was adequate the use of tried and tested metaphors proved problematic and challenging. In relation to this challenge my plan at the outset was to use the poet Rumi as much as possible, thinking that this would ‘bridge’ the worlds of MBSR and Arab culture. However, on the very first day, just before reading ‘Two Kinds of Intelligence’.  I discreetly checked with my ‘helper’ how the group might relate to Rumi and, in a polite whisper, told that most Muslims see Rumi as an irresponsible heretic! This was a shock but in talking to the whole group about my surprise and how I had planned to use Rumi poems, we opened up a discussion about the ‘place of heresy’ in all world religions.  I then asked for forbearance and read ‘Two Kinds of Intelligence’ and spoke about mindfulness having roots in the experiential mystic roots of several religions.  Being honest about all this was a good move and I discovered that pretty much all the participants secretly admired Rumi, who I was told should be referred to with the respectful prefix of  ‘Mewlana’ or just as ‘Mewlana’ (using the name ‘Rumi’ on its own was in itself a bit rude!)

One of the main problems I discovered was that participants associated Mewlana Rumi as not giving sufficient emphasis, to daily working life (I could have pointed to several poems by Rumi that challenge this view) but, having discussed all this, I was able to read Rumi poem’s by explaining that they point at the ‘spirit’ of mindfulness in a helpful way...even though they might lack a direct connectedness to ordinary working life. So, when I read Rumi poems over the first few days I introduced them with a few words of reminder about their limitations in this respect.

The Mewlana Rumi poem that really worked well and which I read many, many times was one called ‘Let Go of Your Worries’1 which speaks about the “clear-hearted face of the Mirror” and how we polish this by not concealing secrets ‘from ourselves’. It also speaks about seeing our ‘self’ as “shameless”. It brilliantly asks the question: “what polishing might the Mirror of the heart require” and of course the answer became ‘mindfulness practice’! I stumbled upon this poem by chance and was cautious about using it because it seemed to say avoid your worries. But the title belies the content; what the poem is actually saying is that we should look deeply into our hearts and be open to seeing the truth here, and by not concealing its secrets become “completely clear-hearted” and so let go of our worries by seeing them clearly for what they are. It was also possible to draw out the traditional link between ‘heart’ and ‘mind’. Having read this poem, participants started to quote parts of the Quran that it reminded them of, embracing it as a truth they could identify with and, in so doing, made their own connections with mindfulness. In the guidance of many of the meditations I used this metaphor of the heart as a mirror and other themes from the poem to communicate the essence of the practice and how to work in meditation. It was truly a fantastic find and, I think something I’ve learnt from this workshop, is that when teaching in a new culture, it is important to be honest about the limitations of our tried and tested poems, words and metaphors and be alive to finding new appropriate ones that bridge-into and resonate with the new culture we find ourselves in. Also, when you find one that works to really make the most of it...to catch the wave and ride it, and ride it.

One of the ways the group tried to make sense of what I was saying was to check it against their incredible store of memorised Quran quotes. It was important for me to embrace this dynamic fully but at times some of the sentences quoted seemed to actively oppose the ‘received’ teachings of mindfulness. To give one example, when I introduced the theme of ‘Turning Towards the Difficult’ (Session 5) a participant reported that the Prophet says “If you feel fear when you’re standing up then sit down; if you feel fear when you’re sitting down then stand-up” (in other words when you feel some strong difficult emotion you should deliberately change your posture). The Buddha seems to say  the exact opposite, when in relation to awareness of strong difficult emotions (i.e. fear) he says “If you feel fear when you’re lying down, stay lying down; if you feel fear when you’re sitting up, stay sitting up”. This teaching seems to be very supportive of the idea of accepting the negative emotions and allowing them ‘to be’. I felt dismayed and wondered what on earth to do!  Again though, it was important to be congruent and to make my confusion explicit. Having done this ‘we’ found a way forward in a dialogue about what the Prophet may have meant in this story and suddenly, there was the link we needed: in the guidance for sitting meditations the initial instruction is to adopt a ‘deliberate’ posture. So, perhaps the Prophet was saying: ‘it is important to adopt a new, deliberate posture to meet a challenging situation as a practical way of developing a clear intention for working with it’. The whole group realised this was a very sensible and objective teaching linking the Prophet and the Quran to MBSR. As a consequence the whole ethos of ‘working with the difficult’ was beautifully captured and owned. It was clear that they did not think this meant avoiding their emotional experience, but represented simply a helpful, practical use of the body when facing a difficult issue; a way of using the body to signal that a negative emotion is present and that it needs some ‘wise attention’. I registered quietly to myself that Islam seems ahead of the game in relation to ‘body awareness’. 


Gender separation and ‘hierarchy’ 

Attitudes and customs relating to gender presented both practical and emotional challenges for me. With the exception of a few special days in the academic year for particular seminars all teaching at the University is done in separate male and female student groups (faculty members teach both males and females). The norm, etched deeply into this UAE culture is for gender separation in any public setting. Less explicitly, in the way, women may be seen walking slightly behind their husbands (although this custom is fading in city areas).  Thus, our ultra modern hotel had several large, plush seminar rooms all equipped with huge moveable screens to visually separate men from women. The screens had panels that swivel to allow occasional visual contact between. These are pictured below in the ‘set up’ for the ‘body scan’:

We did this practice every day, men on one side and women on the other...with me sitting in the middle speaking and relating to both sides. It is an absolute, even for this progressive group of University psychology teachers, that women reclining or lying down are not visible by men at any time (I was told it was completely out of the question to photograph women lying down but one of the men volunteered to stay a while in the paired inquiry following a Body Scan). 

I noticed the screens were in use in other seminars rooms for general business presentations but for our liberal group of university psychologists they were only necessary for our ‘body work’. This presented a challenge in that it was impossible to conduct any inquiry straight after the practices (‘from the mat’). It was necessary to transition back to the circle of chairs with the inevitable loss of immediacy of direct experiencing, that we just had to accommodate.

But, I was very positively struck by the way the men and the women sat, quietly at ease in separate groups on the floor at tea breaks and in discussions. There was a palpable bond of sister and brotherhood and what seemed to be an absence of any posturing or projection. On a few occasions (mostly when I forgot the protocol) I invited cross-gender pairings which demonstrated that men and women could speak freely and openly together...it is just that by culture and by preference they mostly do not do this. 

Likewise, in large group sharings there was openness and respect shown to all even though there was a sense that the ‘men’ (who always sat in a block of 4 together) had nominal authority. In my journeys around the town and the hotel I observed this strange gender phenomenon that challenged so much I take for granted in the name of sexual and gender freedom...and I wondered! 

As I was leaving at the end of the retreat, I noticed the men engaging in some friendly teasing of the women. The men were lounging together in a deep sofa, speaking across the plush foyer to the women who were standing ‘demurely’ in their head-to-toe draped elegance. I saw how the women were playing this game and said quietly to them that I now knew who in this country held the ‘real power’... It was a light-hearted moment but, as one they smiled a discreet knowing look and gestured to me to keep this secret to myself!

Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them”: Sura 24 (An-Nur), ayat 30-31,Qur'an


Adapting curriculum elements

To give another example of the impact of the radically different geographical context of the Emirates on teaching MBSR, I realised (from Session 6 curriculum onwards) that I was not able to use either the ‘mountain’ or the ’lake’ meditations: there are simply no mountains to speak of that people visit or climb or relate to as strong and/or steady in the face of the changing weather of emotional life. The weather hardly changes! The few rocky outcrops that do exist in the desert are barely visited. There are no changing seasons, no animals running on the surface and no vegetation whatsoever. So, I found the idea of trying to teach mindfulness through the metaphor of ‘the mountain’ completely inappropriate. Likewise, there are no lakes even though this was the famous oasis town of the UAE. The one natural spring in hundreds of square miles country was just outside the town but there is simply no notion of ‘standing water’ (if you turn on a garden hose and spray it up into the air the water evaporates before hitting the ground!). So, equally, the idea of the ‘Lake Meditation’ was impossible. I came to wonder what an equivalent symbol might be...the camel...the desert?

The desert, though a very important symbol of the ‘romantic past’ in the old culture of this place, seemed ambiguous. It is all pervasive, uninhabitable and mostly unmentioned, surrounding all the towns in its relentless silent heat! I sensed that the desert could be used as a metaphor in mindfulness teaching but I was not sure how. It occurred to me, from the way that carefully irrigated drought-resistant hedges and trees screened the desert from view along all of the roads, that perhaps for some it represents their unacceptable, primitive past. One evening, when I asked my driver to show me ‘the local sights’ he took me to three vast modern shopping malls; shining marble, glass and stainless steel palaces. These acted as modern air-conditioned oases where people of all ages just meet and relax, and I guess at times shop! So the metaphors of the desert and the oasis are powerful but nuanced and I sensed a need to research them carefully before being able to helpfully integrate it into my teaching. The concept of nature is likewise complicated, such that rather than talking about nature, participants would talk about the Quran, quoting with passion, various verses in Arabic and then translating them to me. These words of God (“Allah”) and of the Prophet (the Hadith) seem to be a main way by which people add to their narrative, contrasting with the way Westerners use metaphors from the natural world and/ or images from a wide range of natural settings and philosophical perspectives. 


Reflections from the ‘Inside’: one of the participants tells her story 

By Fadwa Al Mughairbi: Department of Psychology & Counselling, United Arab Emirates University

“The carpenter’s door is loose or not well fitted” is a famous Arabic proverb; ironically it described my position organizing this mindfulness training very well.  Being a bio-psychologist didn’t protect me from falling into stress and anxiety, for I developed fear of hospitals and illness after my father’s death in 2006. I tried to be logical about it, to face it, fight it, and to associate hospitals with good events, but despite knowing all of the psychological tricks, nothing worked. 

I heard about mindfulness when I was looking for professional development workshops.  At first I wanted to be sure that it is not a pseudoscience, so I joined a one day workshop of “Mindfulness in Workplace” at Bangor University, UK.  The course was logical, which led to my registration on an “8 weeks distant mindfulness course”.   I really enjoyed the course; I was able to handle my stress better, to be more relaxed and to notice some of the small things I’ve been ignoring in my life, such as the beauty of some of the paintings in my house.  However, my fear of hospitals and illness were still there.

I told my colleagues about the course and we decided to have an in house training in the UAE.  Some were reluctant fearing that it may contain some religious ideas that disagree with our religion, but when I assured to them that it didn’t, they were happy to join.  On 26-30th September 2012 Karunavira (‘KV’ for short!) came from England and trained 13 members of UAE University in mindfulness.  I joined the workshop to assist KV, however, we agreed that it would be better if I also participated as a trainee. I thought this would be fine and add to my practice experience, although I wasn’t really sure how it would make any difference in my knowledge about mindfulness (I had already finished the 8 weeks introductory course!)

KV was able to run the group very smoothly, the timing for each meditation or task was excellent, he organized it very well, and the transitions were smooth and logical.  He contained our differences and arguments/perspectives, so the atmosphere was very comfortable for us.  I asked KV if we can put a divider between males and females during body scan because my female colleagues didn’t feel comfortable lying down in front of their male colleagues,  KV approved of that saying that mindfulness should fit every culture, and I think it does.  In many ways, I thought mindfulness could fit our culture and religious perspective and we could make it part of our religious practice as we are encouraged to be mindful in our thinking, worshipping and living as a whole.  However, as probably KV noticed, as Arabs Muslims, we always find ourselves relating what we learn to our religion, I guess this makes us feel more positive towards new knowledge or practice.  I was really happy that KV didn’t try to stop us from talking about our religious perspective and how it fits mindfulness,   and he was able to steer the talk smoothly to a more neutral vision. 

We all were very excited, KV seemed to me as a “Guru – type” of a trainer, in the sense of his calmness and wisdom.  My colleagues and I noticed how careful he was about not hurting our religious feelings or culture, at the same time, how well he handled our noise and laughter.  Many of us came late at the first two days, being close to each other as colleagues caused lots of talking and laughter during the workshop.  But I noticed that my colleagues became more involved in the course, quieter and more mindful.  I think each one of them had a different, yet similar experience with KV and mindfulness, they all asked about the next course, like me, they wanted to go to the next level.  

As for me, the group atmosphere and the meditation were great; it felt as if I was taking the course for the first time.  There was something new, something different every day.  I wasn’t alone... My colleagues were just like me, strong, weak, and stressed as well.  I practiced mindfulness walking for the first time, and it wasn’t boring as I expected.  I enjoyed the sitting meditation and could stay with my breath longer than I used to.  I also learned from KV to include the noises that interrupt my meditation, to be aware of it, mindful, and make it part of meditation, which enabled me to meditate in noisy places.  But the most amazing experience and breakthrough in my practice was definitely as a result of the day of silent practice.  

I became silent early in the morning at home, I was wondering, how the day will go for my colleagues. I didn’t feel it would make any difference for me, thinking ‘What’s so special about this day? Why do we need to be silent?’.  But this day was amazing, I faced my true feelings about my fear of illness and hospitals for the first time, I saw why I was afraid, and it was okay.  I think this is what mindfulness is about, to be okay with your feelings no matter what they are (and not just putting up with them). Once I was okay with them, I could let them go, and they weren’t there anymore...  Amazing!!

My experience wasn’t  only great,  it was practical, I finally fixed the carpenter’s door;  having said that, I am aware that it may loosen again in the future, but I also know  that, as a skilled carpenter,  I will be there prepared with my tools 


Some concluding reflections

  Having said so much about challenges and difference I need to balance this with my deeper sense that what is essential in my mindfulness teaching did not have to change at all. As I adjusted to the culture shock it seemed increasingly that I and my own culture got out of the way and we met as human beings engaged together in the universal quest for growing awareness and compassion. Mindfulness is clearly relevant in this conservative Islamic Arab culture and these new friends of mine (for this is how it seems) lapped it up and asked for more. When I described the ‘All Day’ programme and ‘the silence’, jaws literally dropped in fear and/or disbelief but afterwards, their responses were strikingly positive. The anonymous self-evaluations completed at the end of the training included an opportunity to give a score from 1 to 9 for “How helpful” it had been for them in “personal” and “professional” terms. The average for “personal helpfulness” was 8.5 and for “professional helpfulness”, 7 (where the top score is 9). 

So, I am convinced by the value of MBAs in this far flung place and hope the mindfulness-based teaching community can continue to seed the desert. It is an ancient, refined and noble culture and I found its people considerate, generous and genuine; we have much to gain from each other. Teaching mindfulness in its modern secular format can fit into Islam. In fact they welcomed the Buddhist origins of mindfulness and me as ‘a Buddhist’. Buddhism was, they said “a rational religion” that does not make claims or counter claims based in the written books of God; it is in itself unproblematic in a way that the Judaic religions are not! So, yes the Arab Islamic world is ready and open for MBSR. But, it is early days...are we ready to take it there? How brilliant it would be to offer mindfulness in Arabic suffused with appropriate cultural metaphors and integrated with the words of Allah and the beloved Prophet.

Karunavira MSc: senior trainer and tutor at CMRP (Bangor University) and founding director of MindfulhealthLLP, delivering 

Publication date: 24 April 2017