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The Role of tawba (Repentance) in Social Work with Muslim Clients

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Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 9)


For interventions to succeed in social work, practitioners need to be familiar with clients’ religious worldviews and value systems; by understanding these dimensions in a client’s life, appropriate coping behaviour in the context of their lived experiences can be enhanced. In working with Muslim clients, such intervention requires knowledge and awareness of Islam and of the concepts that Muslims rely on to deal with problems or to bring about change in their lives. These concepts provide a reference and motivation for change to occur and can be integrated into social work to ensure services are culturally sensitive for them. Tawba (repentance) is one such concept that is fundamental in Islam; it is considered a starting point for personal change and a means to achieve a new way of being in relation to others and to God. Tawba is defined religiously and spiritually; as religious doctrine, sin and transgression are emphasised, while spiritually, inner transformation is the focus. This paper examines the concept of tawba and its use in social work to enhance intervention outcomes with Muslim clients.


  • Islamic social work
  • Islam
  • Repentance
  • tawba


It is an important societal need to provide culturally sensitive social work for Muslim clients. In Western secular societies, Muslims face many challenges that make helping interventions necessary. In addition to individual or family problems, their experience is often characterised by social conflicts, negative stereotyping and discrimination which impact their well-being (Chaney & Church, 2017; Guru, 2010; Husain, 2015). Research institutions, such as the Pew Research Centre and Gallup, confirm perceptual and attitudinal differences in relation to Muslims and verify the disadvantage they encounter (Lipka, 2017; Younis, 2015). As more Muslims access welfare services under these conditions, appropriately sensitive social work for Muslim clients is crucial. For this service to be effective, the integration of Islamic values and principles into interventions should be taken into consideration.

Various approaches have been proposed to bridge the religious and cultural divides in interventions with Muslim clients in secular contexts. Emphases have been placed on understanding the basic prescripts and practices of Islam related to the foundations of worship, and Muslim family and social life. Practitioners are advised to familiarise themselves with the Pillars of Islam, its Articles of Faith and other core aspects of communal and ritual life throughout the life cycle, including diet, family structure, gender roles, and rites of life and death (Canda & Furman, 2010; Graham et al., 2010; Williams, 2005). Consulting or working with religious scholars or clergy (Imams) to develop cultural competence with Muslim clients is also suggested (Ali, 2016; Al-Krenawi, 2016). Practitioners are discouraged from making assumptions about Muslims based on negative stereotypes, such as generalised associations with violence and terrorism, with sensitivity training suggested to overcome bias (Chaney & Church, 2017; Williams, 2005). In other strategies, comparative perspectives examine equivalence between social work principles, practice techniques, and similar practices in Islam to increase the effectiveness of services to clients (Abdullah, 2014; Hodge, 2019; Husain & Hodge, 2016; Pathan, 2016).

The above strategies ensure that Muslims can access appropriate professional services. However, there is a need to examine Islamic concepts that are deeply connected to Muslim identity and how these can become part of social work intervention as well. These concepts, if overlooked, can create impediments in the helping process, as they are intrinsic to Muslim life and can influence outcomes even when clients do not consciously identify with them. They form part of the Muslim collective consciousness in ways that transcend the individual, whose functioning is nonetheless influenced by them. As such, these Islamic concepts can be a source for positive change because of their religious and cultural relevance. Rajab (2016) supports an approach using focused integration of Islamic concepts in social work, arguing for a conceptual model whereby Islamic concepts are applied in social work, their efficacy tested in practice settings, and their theoretical principles refined as new knowledge emerges from their implementation. In an illustration of this kind of integration, Ahammed (2010) presents Qurʾanic verses as therapeutic metaphors to assist clients; she identifies verses related to, for example, descriptions of the light of God or the phases of the moon or scattered ashes, for use as symbolic representations which provide spiritual guidance to clients to help deal with emotional turmoil or personal problems. At a social level, Islamic and cultural concepts like ṣulḥ and muṣālaḥa (peacemaking and reconciliation), taḥkīm (arbitration) and wiṣāṭa (mediation) have been identified as significant for conflict resolution in communities and families (Ozcelik, 2006). In one instance, mediation on this basis was successfully integrated into professional social work practice, in a Bedouin-Arab community in the Negev (Al-Krenawi & Graham, 2001).

This chapter aims to contribute to this approach by examining the concept of tawba in Islam and its inclusion in social work to enhance intervention outcomes with Muslim clients. Tawba is a core Islamic construct that structures ethical conduct in human relationships as well as the human relationship with God. Although it is described as repentance and is associated with sin and judgment, it is a much more nuanced concept, through which an intricate interaction of human repentance and divine forgiveness unfolds (Khalil, 2009) and which Ayoub (1997, 108) asserts is the cornerstone of faith, law and piety in Islam. At an individual level, tawba is the first step in personal change. This change is constructed as a transformation of the self toward a state of spiritual centredness that connects the person to God. The Islamic belief that humans are born pure and without sin, but in life and over time can become alienated from this inner state and therefore spiritually isolated from God, underlies this view (Mohamed, 1996). Repentance, then, is the door to divine mercy (Ayoub, 1997) that reconnects the person to God. At communal and societal levels, tawba has implications of accountability where harm has been inflicted upon others. Here tawba shifts into the public domain in the practice of Islamic Law (Shariʿa), particularly criminal law, where crimes and moral transgressions are defined and their punishment determined. This is an area of scholarly contestation, but tawba is a decisive factor in how offences are dealt with, to allow those who offend the opportunity to redeem themselves in relation to others and ultimately in relation to God. Overall, whether individual or societal, tawba is a mechanism for achieving the goal of living in submission to God’s will, which is the defining character of being Muslim. To assess the role of tawba in social work, this chapter will firstly provide an overview of the concept and its definition. An outline of its respective religious and spiritual formulations, of repenting from sin and beginning inner transformation, will follow. The chapter will conclude by examining possibilities for the use of tawba in social work, focusing on its meaning, practitioner-client interactions, and broad practice principles from its interpretations, which can be applied to form a framework which facilitates the change process.

The Concept of tawba in Islam

Repentance is a religious concept that, at a basic level, means an expression of regret or remorse. It is generally associated with sin, for which confession and making amends to God is required (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2013). In Islam, tawba is a comparable concept and although associated with repentance, it is a multifaceted concept that only indirectly refers to regret (Khalil, 2009, 22). As Khalil (2012, 296) points out: “While repentance can function as a viable translation of tawba in most cases, it does occasionally obscure the deeper semantic nuances of the term which accent not an emotional experience but an ethical or moral directional reorientation.” Tawba therefore is an important instrument for ethical conduct in Islam and the ways in which it is interpreted, including its lexical, religious and practical dimensions, reflects this complex nature.

Lexically, tawba means “turn” or “return” (Khalil, 2006, 403) or “frequently returning to” (Ayoub, 1997, 97). Through its grammatical patterns, it refers to purifying intentions and mending one’s ways (Zilio-Grandi, 2013) and incorporates related traits including mercy, forgiveness and pardon, all of which occur in a dynamic interaction between humans and God (Khalil, 2009); even though it is related to sin, Ayoub (1997) observes that its deeper meaning is more about returning to God in devotion than repenting from sin. The importance of tawba in Islam is conveyed through its many occurrences in the Qurʾan. With its correlates it is referenced eighty-seven times (Ayoub, 1997, 98) and Surah nine, titled at-tawba is a wider reference to the theme in the context of challenges faced by Muslims in the early establishment of Islam (Al-Ghazali, 2000). Qurʾanic verses that expound on tawba include “And he who repents and does righteousness does indeed turn to Allah with [accepted] repentance” (Q 25:71)Footnote 1 and, “And return to your Lord time after time and submit to Him before there comes to you the punishment, then you shall not be helped.” (Q 39:54) In addition to the Qurʾan, the narrated words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammed (Hadith) portray him as being in a constant state of repentance, turning to God and seeking repentance over seventy times a day and lauding the repentant person whom God looks on favourably (Sahih al-Bukhari 6307, 2020).

From this doctrinal perspective, tawba refers to both humans and God, which Khalil (2009, 33) describes as human tawba and divine tawba. For humans, it means a return to God from sin or disobedience, while in reference to God, return is a divine act, whereby God turns to humans in forgiveness and compassion (Khalil, 2006; Rubin, 2004; Zilio-Grandi, 2013). Drawing on a text of the eminent scholar of classical Islam, al-Ghazali, Stern (1979, 591) describes tawba as a conversion away from error or negative behaviour towards an awareness of God that follows three consecutive steps: knowledge, regret, and action. The person comprehends the extent of her or his wrongdoing, experiences the emotional impact of their action through remorse, and redirects herself or himself away from past actions while striving not to repeat them.

At this human level, tawba is also part of Islamic Law relating to sin, offences against others and their punishment. Sin in Islam ranges from religious oversights including moving away from the path of God, to intentional misdeeds and acts of evil (Simon, 2003). Within this domain, violations are classed as those that affect the rights of God, usually duties and responsibilities of worship that require accountability to God, and those that affect the rights of others, like public actions of harm (Ḥusain, 1969; Nanji, 2007). For the former, there are condemnations and warnings, but laws for punishments are not prescribed, as accountability to God is an individual matter between the person and God. Regarding the latter, harsh penalties with threats of eternal damnation in the hereafter are prescribed. However, tawba remains a factor in determining how penalties are metered out, as well as in securing Divine forgiveness (Ḥusain, 1969). Committing an offence against others adds an additional dimension that requires seeking forgiveness from those against whom an act of wrongdoing has been committed (Uyun et al., 2019). A victim’s forgiveness is a factor in securing God’s forgiveness, as a violation against a person is an affront to God whose laws forbid the harm of others. In this overall framework, Nanji (2007, 321) explains that a person who commits a sin “is one who acts out of ignorance or wilfulness, inflicting material or spiritual harm on him or herself or on others”. The implications of such actions are inner turmoil and alienation from God (Khalil, 2006; Stern, 1979), for which tawba is a means to resolve and to return to the conduct required by Islam.

When tawba refers to God, it refers to a merciful and forgiving God who is responsive to human repentance (Ayoub, 1997). As the person turns or returns from sin or error in repentance to God, there is a reciprocal divine turn or return towards the person in compassion. This divine turning, as Khalil (2009, 17) explains, may be from divine wrath to divine mercy, or rejection to acceptance or punishment to forgiveness. It is based on mercy and grace from God for the benefit of the person and the development of his or her soul. This turning can also take the form of a separate Divine intervention, as though it was by divine favour or mercy that a person is directed to repent in the first place (Khalil, 2009), or what Rubin (2004, 427) refers to as “the first cause that generates repentance”. Divine repentance is not then equivalent to human repentance, as God is regarded as the ultimate Being and therefore beyond the characteristics of human fallibility and accountability which repentance implies. The divine turning of God to the repentant person is also not a given; human repentance must be deeply sincere and illustrated through appropriate actions that have to be sustained. Thus repenting and subsequently sinning in a cyclical manner is viewed as a mockery (Ayoub, 1997), which the Qurʾan forbids, saying “And repentance is not for those who go on doing evil deeds, until when death comes to one of them, he says: Surely now I repent (…).” (Q 4:8) This is embodied in the person of the Pharaoh in the Qurʾanic narrative of the prophet Moses: after several warnings to repent, and doing so only in the face of death, he is denied divine forgiveness (Q 10:90–92).

Tawba as Spiritual Transformation

Tawba is a requirement to turn from sin and wrongdoing in the profane world but is also considered a first step in inner spiritual transformation. This view is grounded in Sufism (taṣawwuf), the mystical tradition of Islam. Sufism emphasises a mystical interpretation of the Qurʾan and Sunna (prophetic example) and ongoing spiritual development toward the realisation of the oneness of God (tawḥīd) (Chittick, 2000; Danner, 1987). This process takes the form of a path upon which an individual embarks with the assistance of a Sufi Sheikh as a guide, towards an elevated level of spirituality. In this quest, the worshipper moves from being a novice to an advanced spiritual state to attain a sense of nearness to God. The process commences with tawba. Al-Ba’uniyyah (2014, 33) stresses the essence of tawba as the starting point or first principle of the Sufi path, noting that it is only through ‘the door of repentance’ and maintaining the principles of repentance that the mystical stages of Sufism can be entered into. Through subsequent acts of worship, the Sufi progresses through various stages to a fully spiritual life which culminates in the annihilation of the self (fanāʾ) and constant God-consciousness. The spiritual stages in Sufism vary, but common features include the negation of the material world, contemplation, and especially invocation and the remembrance of God (dhikr) (Nasr, 1987; Zeki, 2018).

The purpose of Sufism is the destruction of the ego through devotional acts that aim to reduce the experience of existential separation from God (Aslan, 2005; Derin, 2009). The Islamic position on human nature and the purpose of humankind provide the framework for its practice. Islam refers to peace, safety and submission and the means to submit or surrender to the will of God (Ali & Leaman, 2008; Siddiqui, 1997). Submission to God’s will is considered the purpose of humankind; a Muslim is one who submits accordingly and whose life is regulated by the principles and practices of Islam for which the Qurʾan is a guide. The Qurʾanic narratives of creation and of the fall of Adam provide the archetypal context for attaining the goal of submission to God. According to this narrative, God creates humans, who in a primordial covenant, agree to be the guardians of the Qurʾan and to implement the will of God on earth (Rahman 1989) This then becomes the measure by which Muslims will be judged in life and in the hereafter. The complexity of this task is illustrated through the story of the fall of Adam. God creates Adam to whom the angels are commanded to bow down. Satan (iblīs) refuses and is therefore expelled from paradise, but vows to be an eternal force of provocation for humans to distract them from the path of God (Nanji 2007; Rahman 1989).

The first illustration of this action is in the deception of Adam and Eve, whom he draws into disobeying God. Moving from a state of purity to fallibility, they too have to exit paradise and the fall becomes symbolic of human fallibility and vulnerability to sin. Adam repents, which God accepts, and Adam is symbolic of the first sinner, the first to repent and the first whose repentance is accepted by God (Ayoub, 1997). This narrative provides a framework for humans to understand the ever-present risk of being tempted not to live in submission to God, which the Qurʾan cautions against saying:

Children of Adam! Let not Satan tempt you as he brought your parents out of the Garden, stripping them of their garments to show them their shameful parts. Surely, he sees you, he and his tribe, from where you see them not. We have made the Satans the friends of those who do not believe. (Q 7:27)

The Islamic representation of human nature adds a psychological dimension to the creation and fall narrative and is the point where the transformation of the self is centred. In this model, humans are created in a state of purity (fiṭra) and with a divine spirit (rūḥ). These innate forces positively influence efforts toward spiritual transformation. They are linked to the heart (qalb), which is the centre of emotions and moral judgement. Human behaviour is indicative of the state of the heart, so that a sincere heart reflects sound actions, and an ‘impure’ heart reflects otherwise (Abdullah, 2014; Ajmal, 1987; Mohamed 1996). Further within this structure, is the nafs or self. The nafs consists of three innate drives or human tendencies which are an-nafs al-ʾammāra (the lower self), an-nafs al-lawwāma (a self that instils conscience) and an-nafs al-muṭmaʾinna (a self at peace) (Ajmal, 1987). The lower self is an egotistic self, with an impulse towards expressing desires, and is an ongoing obstacle to attaining spiritual progress that has to be overcome. If achieved, the person moves through the other levels of the nafs to eventually align her or his heart, spirit, and original purity to experience the spiritual realities of the oneness of God (Ajmal, 1987; Nasr, 1987).

The struggle to overcome the self is associated with jihad (Ashraf, 1987). Jihad means striving or striving to the utmost in any matter (Aslan, 2005; Aydin, 2012). According to al-Ghazzali, jihad consists of two levels of struggle, the lesser jihad (jihād al-aṣġar) and the greater jihad (jihād al-akbar) (Bonner, 2006; Cook, 2015). The lesser jihad refers to external conditions related to defensive combat and war; it is justified in circumstances of oppression with strict related conventions like securing the safety of civilians and places of worship (Aslan, 2005). The greater jihad is the individual struggle to overcome the lower self and achieve a constant state of God-consciousness and as a result, live in submission to God. Jihad, therefore, is always an effort towards God, to re-establish one’s relationship with the Divine (Aslan, 2005; Renard, 1988). To do so, struggling against an instinctive drive and the ever-present iblīs in action, makes it an ultimate jihad, with the annihilation of the self being the goal of Sufism.

Tawba and Social Work

The integration of tawba in social work links to a broader debate on the inclusion of religion in social work. Religion and spirituality serve fundamental functions in life that intersect with the values of social work. They are instrumental in supporting the human impulse to connect with the sacred or a higher power and help in the quest for existential meaning (Cox, 2017; Hodge & McGrew, 2006). Religion can also provide comfort in dealing with life’s uncertainties, as well as offering ways for adherents of a faith to chart a desired life course (Cox, 2017). At personal levels, religion and spirituality can enhance coping mechanisms, while socially they influence compassionate relatedness toward others and support socially beneficial behaviours, such as those that serve humanitarian ends (Jensen, 2020). These transcendent aspects of religion and spirituality can enhance professional competence in social work and have been embraced by the profession in different areas of care and service provision across the lifespan (Canda, 1999; Furness & Gilligan, 2010; Graham & Shier, 2009; Reese, 2011; Seinfeld, 2012; Sheridan et al., 1994). They play an important part in social work and are requirements of social work codes of ethics (Hodge, 2018) to ensure effective, culturally sensitive services to diverse clients.

Organised religion, however, presents challenges for social work and has been a point of historical tension in the profession (Canda, 2005; Kriegelstein, 2006; Praglin, 2004; Sheridan et al., 1994; Streets, 2009; Spencer, 1956). In organised religion, shared faith, beliefs, and values are central, along with guidelines for appropriate actions for daily living for an anticipated afterlife. Adherents characteristically follow texts and rituals and participate in prescribed acts of worship as an expression of their faith (Hodge, 2019; Walsh, 2016). Spiritual practices, although more focused on transcendent realities, can likewise be structured through ritual acts of devotion. Where rigid requirements exist for believers to function within these systems as the only acceptable form of worship, a lack of conformity can lead to judgement and exclusion. Furthermore, when organised religious systems are based on a shared identity that binds a community, and the construction of these group identities are negatively reinforced in relation to others, social division and conflict can occur (Cox, 2017; Jensen, 2020). Religion and spirituality in their organised forms within social work raise questions about their viability in practice, because of the contrasting orientations of these systems.

Tawba as part of social work brings to the fore the dilemma of integrating a distinctive religious construct into social work as a secular service. Tawba is the first principle of change in Islam and is important to consider in working with Muslim clients. If overlooked, social work will be limited in its response to the lived realities of its Muslims clients, for whom repentance as an act of devotion, personal responsibility and interpersonal conflict resolution is a deeply rooted part of religious and cultural life and consciousness. However, tawba also has connotations of sin and judgement and is specific in its Islamic focus and practice. This form contrasts with the secular value system of social work where social workers are required to be non-judgmental and provide services to clients objectively and without proselytising. When working with religion and spirituality in practice, they cannot instruct clients in religion nor judge them by the principles of their faith.

Substance abuse, which is an area of frequent intervention in social work, is a case which illustrates the complexity of this situation. Islam forbids the use of alcohol and drugs; they are classed as intoxicants, the use of which affects cognitive and spiritual functioning, and hence their relationship with God. Its outcomes are also considered to be socially disruptive. In its ban, the Qurʾan forbids only alcohol, but this directive is extended by the Islamic legal practice of analogy (qiyās) to drug use, as it is seen as having a similar effect and being likewise harmful to society. It is therefore considered, both a sin and a crime with respective theological and legal implications. In classical Islamic law (Shariʿa), the penalty for alcohol and drug use is corporal punishment (Ali, 2014). As with all sins in Islam, tawba is necessary to allow the person to return to God.

Despite the Islamic rules on alcohol and drug use, many Muslim communities face problems of substance abuse. When these circumstances affect social work intervention spaces, practitioners, including Muslim social workers, cannot enforce Islamic law, nor moralize about tawba as a religious devotional practice. A balance which reconciles these disparate systems in working with Muslim clients, including avowed Muslims whose preference is for Islamic intervention in a professional setting, is needed, if culturally sensitive services are to be provided with reference to religious concepts. This applies across a spectrum of social problems that Muslims experience. The following section examines such social work practices pertaining to the concept of tawba.

Tawba in Social Work Practice

The following strategies are suggested in the case of tawba: the aim is to draw on the wider principles and spirit of tawba, to assist Muslim clients from a perspective that resonates with their experiences and to initiate change from the starting point required in Islam. These strategies, include a focus on the meaning of tawba as ‘return’, using the practitioner-client interaction to explore tawba in mutual problem assessment and intervention design, and extracting preliminary practice principles from the interpretations of tawba for use as a framework to sustain the client’s change.

When social workers first meet with clients, the holistic assessment of presenting problems and their contexts, together with the design of suitable interventions are essential (Hodge, 2018). With Muslim clients, this needs to include thorough assessment of the religious values and practices with which the client identifies (Warden et al., 2017; Barise, 2005). The exploration of tawba can be part of this assessment to direct the intervention. Tawba can be introduced into the process by focusing on its meaning of ‘return’ to redirect the client toward change. The client could be encouraged to reflect on her or his situation and the idea of turning towards a new way of being. Through this emphasis, practitioners will be able to connect to a familiar religious and cultural value and assess its design in the intervention. The emphasis on ‘return’ avoids imposing religion or its requirements for practice onto the client; and it makes the process inclusive to accommodate Muslims at different levels of faith and practice. The theological dimension of ‘return’, as a turning to God or God-consciousness does not have to be excluded. It can be explored as part of the wider assessment of the client’s understanding of his or her circumstances through the practitioner-client interaction.

Where clients and practitioners hold different value systems there are risks of damaging the helping relationship or causing harm to clients as a result of spiritual insensitivity (Hodge, 2018). However, this interaction can also lead to mutually beneficial outcomes in achieving the intervention goals; with effective practice, clients can benefit from culturally sensitive services while social workers could enhance their knowledge and skills by engaging with the client’s worldview. Kriegelstein (2006, 26) describes this practitioner-client engagement as the basis of “relational spirituality”, in which a mutual transformation of consciousness can occur for both the social worker and the client. Hodge (2018, 134) likewise identifies this interaction as a site of spiritual competence in practice. He argues that spiritual competence rests on practitioner self-knowledge, a strengths-based understanding of the client’s spiritual worldview, and the related design of the intervention. A feature of this spiritual competence that practitioners should display is “epistemological humility”, which requires them to show a collaborative attitude that gives preference to the client’s experiences and constructs the intervention on this basis. In a similar manner, Knitter (2010) proposes that social workers engage in religious dialogue with clients to support intervention.

The practitioner-client relationship can be a space to explore the client’s understanding of tawba and to assess relevant interventions in relation to the client’s circumstances. Discussion could include how the client relates to tawba as a return to God or God-consciousness and the understanding of their problems as sin or wrongdoing, whether as personal error or as harm directed at others. Where clients link their problems to sin, practitioners could further assess any perceived need to undertake corrective action. Khalil (2009) explains that tawba is not only meant to be psychological or emotional but, depending on circumstances, must co-occur with restorative actions that rectify or eliminate the discord that has emerged because of ethical or religious wrongdoing. The Qurʾan does not specify the acts that must accompany tawba (Khalil, 2009) but fasting, charity, and especially a two-unit prayer called “ṣalāt al-tawba” (prayer of tawba) serve a compensatory function in performing tawba (Talmon-Heller, 2009). Socially, communal gestures of regret where restitution is needed, and charitable gift-giving can also function as concrete displays of its expression (Abu-Nimer & Nasser, 2013). The competence that is needed to facilitate such action requires an in-depth knowledge of Islam. Where this is lacking, social workers could engage clergy and Islamic scholars or consult with them in this determination. This is especially needed when the assessment process reveals an expressed preference by the client for an Islamic-based intervention. In this capacity, Imams provide an important attendant service for intervention, outside of their role as clergy who conduct sermons and perform religious rituals, in different fields in social welfare involving Muslim clients (Ali, 2016; Al-Krenawi, 2016; Padela et al., 2011). Consultation with qualified persons or experts to ensure appropriate services to clients is also a feature of spiritual competence that is encouraged (Hodge, 2018).

Not all Muslims will relate to tawba in the same way. In addition to emphasising ‘return’ and exploring the religious dimensions of tawba with clients, extracting broader principles from its interpretations is something that could be used to support a range of Muslim clients. Among Muslim communities, the practice of Islam or more generally Muslim cultural life, is diverse; it includes ritual practices, transcendent spiritual beliefs in the self and God, and ideological standpoints that influence Muslims’ expression of Islam as faith and practice. Despite this diversity, concepts like tawba are part of a common belief system and shared familiarity in Muslim culture and tradition. Drawing on the interpretations of tawba, the following initial set of principles are suggested as a framework for practice that social workers could use as a reference with different Muslim clients:

  • A new orientation

  • Commitment to change

  • Resolute striving

  • Personal responsibility

  • Valuing the other

  • Spiritual relatedness

These principles reflect the values and spirit of tawba. Clients at different levels of identification with Islam and Muslim life would be able to utilise them equally to support change in their lives. They are inferred from core elements of tawba and are not prescriptive; within the interpretations of tawba, alternatives can be explored for context-specific responses.

The proposed strategies, overall, provide options for the inclusion of repentance in social work that could ensure culturally sensitive services for Muslim clients. Their significance is underscored by how Muslims relate to tawba as an act of piety and cultural affinity. Muslims are encouraged to routinely perform tawba even for minor infractions and are exhorted to constantly seek God’s forgiveness. These values are inculcated from childhood (Abu-Nimer & Nasser, 2013) and become part of a greater consciousness of how one is expected to act in relation to others and in relation to God. As already indicated, the Prophet himself is said to have been in a state of constant tawba and had declared himself as the Prophet of repentance (Khalil, 2009, 2). For prophets, whom God may declare free of major sin, tawba can be primarily an act of devotion (Ayoub, 1997); for humans influenced by an innately fallible nature and environmental forces that can easily draw them into deviating from the Islamic path, tawba is a constant, and a form of striving to return to the path of Islam (Brohi, 1987, 70), to which Muslims are expected to direct themselves consistently.


Social work considers many facets of diversity in intervention. Where religion is the focus it is important to draw on the positive aspects of religious worldviews to ensure services to clients that are compatible with their belief systems. This chapter has explored the role of tawba in social work, highlighting possibilities for its inclusion in work with Muslim clients. By integrating tawba at different levels of intervention, Muslim clients can be assured of services that are appropriate to their religious and spiritual needs.

Tawba can serve an important function in initiating individual change for Muslim clients who face challenges in their lives. By referencing this concept in intervention, the practitioner will be able to assist clients from the perspective of their religious and cultural realities and utilise concepts that are familiar to them in their development. The approach is an important part of cultural competence, which is a requirement of social work. It is linked to other principles of cultural competence, such as a strengths perspective and person-centred intervention. On this basis, practitioners would be able to provide a culturally sensitive service to Muslim clients.

In addition, tawba has many positive principles emanating from its different interpretations that practitioners can draw on to support appropriate intervention. An underlying philosophy of personal accountability and respect for the rights of others that should be upheld within the bigger context of human relations with God, provide for a morally binding commitment that can help the client focus on change. As a purely devotional practice, it would not be suitable for social work. This relates both the expectation regarding counselling on religion, which is outside the role of social work, and the awareness of an intricate concept which would be well beyond the knowledge of majority of social workers. Nonetheless, it is possible to integrate tawba into social work through adapting its design for practice.

This approach would require astute discernment from practitioners. At the very start, the discomfort of an automatic association of tawba with sin and judgement, which could create justified resistance, would need to be addressed. This is part of setting up a suitable atmosphere for intervention, which is a basic requirement of social work. After this, practitioners could assess the principles to apply, the depth of the engagement that would be needed on the topic, and a suitable intervention in relation to the clients’ problems. This is critical if tawba is to be a strategy in practice. Clients who access services are among the most vulnerable members of society. Inappropriately advising repentance would undermine the intervention and only serve to blame those who suffer in society and are victims of oppression. Muslims who seek social work service due to circumstances of disadvantage or dire social circumstances cannot be expected to engage in tawba as repentance. ‘Return’ to direct a new path for the client may be more suitable. Instilling the message of spiritual hope that tawba implies could be similarly suitable. Blumenthal (2005) provides insights to this approach in an example of gender-based violence. In a discussion of repentance in Judaism (Teshuva) he explains that a woman who has been battered by a husband and abused by a father is not obliged to forgive the abuser, if he does not repent sincerely through the key steps of repentance as required in Judaism. In a similar vein, victims and survivors of gender-based violence cannot be advised to perform tawba or to repent as an intervention strategy.

The proposal for tawba in social work is complex regardless. As a theological concept the direct integration of tawba in the secular environment of social work is not feasible; instead, adapting its focus while still retaining its core values could facilitate culturally sensitive services for Muslim clients. By emphasising its values and principles, depending on the client’s identification and responsiveness to it, intervention can be designed to fit the needs of the client. Even so, it is a concept that focusses on the individual and her or his personal moral and religious transformation. It is therefore restricted in its ability to deal with the social problems to which Muslims are subjected. Concerted efforts will be needed if Muslims are to deal with the many problems hey face beyond individual transformation. The way tawba calls for accountability for acts of harm committed against others does give it the potential to extend beyond the practitioner-client interaction to social and communal environments. This would still be at the level of individual action that social workers could facilitate. Untested in practice, it remains a risk for intervention. Rajab’s (2016) view of the implementation of Islamic concepts and refining them on an ongoing basis, through lessons learnt in the process, would be a good point of departure.


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    All the Qurʾan translations in this chapter derive from


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Abdullah, S. (2022). The Role of tawba (Repentance) in Social Work with Muslim Clients. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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