University of Iowa to offer Islamic Psychology class

'It's a new course; nobody is teaching this'

Carrie York Al-Karam, Adjunct Professor at the University of Iowa, sits at her table where she works at her house in Iowa City on Thursday, Jul. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Carrie York Al-Karam, Adjunct Professor at the University of Iowa, sits at her table where she works at her house in Iowa City on Thursday, Jul. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Students across the state, nation and world this fall will have the chance to take a new University of Iowa-based course about Islamic psychology, something new in academics.

Introduction to Islamic Psychology is the start of what UI adjunct professor Carrie York Al-Karam hopes will blossom into an Islamic Psychology Institute offering an Islamic psychology certificate.

“It’s not even just a new course at the University of Iowa,” York Al-Karam told The Gazette. “It’s a new course; nobody is teaching this.”

Islamic Psychology will be offered online for three semester hours this fall to traditional and non-traditional students alike.

The course will cover past and present ties between psychology and religion and delve into how the Muslim world has dealt with psychology and related ideas.

Proponents of the course say it will take students beyond the headlines and into the lives of practicing Muslims, presenting practical aspects of the world’s second-largest religion. It also could shed stereotypes and highlight broader connections between psychology and religion in general.

“In order to understand any culture and understand its history, understand what’s important to it, understand its cultural products, you have to understand something about religion,” said Diana Fritz Cates, chairwoman of the UI Religious Studies department.


And student interest in Islam — as it continues to grab headlines nationally and internationally — is robust, according to Cates.

“I think there’s a strong interest on the part of students in understanding their world,” she said. “And they know they really can’t understand what’s happening, especially in the Middle East, without knowing something about Islam.”

But, Cates said, many don’t know how to look at religion as an object of research or scholarship.

“They only know how to believe or disbelieve personally,” she said. “So I think it’s really important that they learn to look evenly and open-mindedly at all the variations of religion.”

That includes its psychological aspects, which York Al-Karam said are significant and profuse.

Islam, she said, has a lot to say about the nature of being human, about psychopathology and about healing both mentally and physically.

Students will become familiar with therapeutic modalities in Islam, and they’ll understand the differences between Islamic psychology and mainstream psychology — including the central role the soul plays in Islamic psychology.

“In the Islamic traditions,” York Al-Karam said, “there are what are called diseases of the heart, which are actually spiritual diseases.”

York Al-Karam, with her cross-disciplinary academic and cultural background, has a unique perspective on what in Arabic is referred to as the “science of the self.”


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She earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies, a master’s degree in Middle East studies and a doctorate in psychology after growing up in upstate New York and later spending nearly 17 years overseas in the United Arab Emirates, Lebonon, Turkey, France, Russia, Latvia and Singapore.

She came to Iowa from Abu Dhabi in June 2016 with her husband, who had landed a job as a surgeon at the UI Hospitals and Clinics. Although York Al-Karam is not formally educated in religious studies, Cates said she jumped at the chance to tap her expertise and build more connections within the department and with other disciplines across campus.

“I have been looking at this huge array of connections that we have and trying to be creative about what a number of us have in common that could really be strengths of the department,” Cates said. “And one of the things that Carrie helped me identify ... is the strength we have in religion, health and healing.”

The new Islamic Psychology course will connect with other classes with a similar health and healing theme.

“She really is going to bring a lot, I think, to thinking through how to strengthen those connections,” Cates said.

“That’s something that’s actually pretty rare, but I think it would be extremely valuable,” she said. “Partly because I just can’t imagine studying religion without also studying psychology. It’s all about how people construct reality, how they respond to difficulties, how they regenerate hope.

“To me, it’s just a really important pairing.”

For those reasons — and for its potential to broaden general understanding about Islam — UI student Salma Haider, 20, is promoting the class through the Muslim Student Association, where she’s president.

“I don’t think this class is just meant for a certain type of people,” she said. “It’s for anyone who’s interested in psychology, in religious studies, or just trying to educate themselves about Islam. I think everyone should take it.”

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