Attachment to God in Christian and Muslim Communities: Foundational for Human Flourishing?

Attachment to God in Christian and Muslim Communities: Foundational for Human Flourishing?

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There is considerable research evidence that spirituality affects physical and psychological health (e.g. Larson & Larson, 2003).  From the many spiritual indicators of health and flourishing it is now important to discern what are the foundational, or core aspects of spirituality that must be present for positive outcomes.  Once the necessary foundations are evident it is easier to unravel causal pathways and identify mediators and moderators of the relationship between spirituality and health.

One important foundation for psychological health has been identified in both theoretical and empirical work on human attachment, as discussed in detail below.  Since attachment to God (ATG) is theorised to be analogous to human attachment, it is reasonable to consider whether ATG is foundational for both spiritual and psychological health. 

This paper presents an argument that ATG is foundational for psycho-spiritual health and flourishing in Western societies.  However, if ATG as a construct is to be of broader significance it must be shown to be applicable to non-Western religions.  Below, we discuss theological warrants for both a Muslim and a Christian understanding of God as an attachment figure.  We then present a religiously sensitive measure of ATG designed for Muslims, and empirical evidence suggesting that ATG is foundational for the psychological health of Muslims.

1.  The theoretical argument: Why ATG is foundational for spiritual health and flourishing

The strong relationship between early human attachment and later psychological functioning provides some basis for postulating a proposed link between ATG and psycho-spiritual health.  In formulating attachment theory, John Bowlby (1969, 1973, 1980, 1988a, 1988b) considered that early human attachment was ‘a principal feature of effective personality functioning and mental health’ (Bowlby 1988b, p.121).  Moreover, attachment behaviours and relationships are said to be crucial for psychological functioning at all phases of the lifespan (Ainsworth, et al., 1978). Those who develop secure attachment bonds internalise cognitive-affective schemas, or mental models of the self, as worthy of care, and of the other as responsive and available in providing care (Bowlby 1988b; Sroufe and Waters 1977). Such secure attachment bonds and positive schemas allow the person to maintain positive emotions whilst reducing the intensity of negative emotions (Schore, 2003), promoting positive adjustment to stress.  Insecure attachment schemas result in biased information processing, poor emotional regulation, and vulnerability to stress-related and personality disorders (Sroufe, 2005; Waller and Scheidt, 2006).

As infants mature into children, and children into adolescents and adults, the target of attachment behaviours changes from parents to peers to romantic partners or close friends (Hazan & Zeifman, 1999).  Infant attachments are foundational for these later attachment relationships because early mental models of self and other developed in the context of these relationships act as cognitive filters for subsequent experiences in situations of distress and danger.  Early positive schemas developed in the context of consistent parenting thus allow the individual to maintain a view of the self as valued and competent, and others as emotionally available and responsive through adolescence, early adulthood and beyond (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999).

Empirical evidence supports the link between attachment style (as secure, or variously insecure) and psychological health.  Thus, secure attachments to parents and other human attachment figures have positive psychological impacts evidenced in higher levels of self-esteem, social competence, satisfaction with life, and coping with distress (see Fonagy, 1999 for a review).  Conversely, insecure attachments are associated with indicators of psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness, shame, jealousy, mistrust and coping difficulties (e.g., Brennan Shaver & Tobey, 1991; Kobak & Sceery, 1988; Mikulincer, Florian & Weller, 1993; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005). 

The relationship between a person and God has been conceptualised as an attachment relationship (Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990; Kirkpatrick, 1992, 1997, 1998). As such, one’s relationship with God is said to serve many of the functions of attachment with, in particular, God perceived as providing a safe haven in times of threat, and a secure base from which to return to the challenges of life.  Additionally, the individual may demonstrate behaviours towards God that are characteristic of attachment, such as proximity seeking through prayer or ritual, and separation anxiety (distress and lament) in the case of the perceived absence of God.

Analogous to human relationships, secure attachment to God is associated with psychologically healthy outcomes such as optimism, life satisfaction, lowered anxiety and depression and fewer symptoms of physical illness (e.g., Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1992; Sim and Loh, 2003), and insecure attachment to God is associated with less than optimum health and adjustment including deflated religious and existential well-being, neuroticism, and increased negative affect (e.g., Beck & McDonald, 2004; Rowatt & Kirkpatrick, 2002).  In short, secure attachment to God is associated with indicators of psychological and spiritual flourishing.

2.  The theological argument:  Why Christian and Muslim theologies provide a warrant for ATG

In the seminal work of Lee Kirkpatrick and colleagues there is, nevertheless, no developed theological warrant for applying attachment theory to a believer’s perceived relationship with God.  Instead, Kirkpatrick (Kirkpatrick 1992, 1999; Kirkpatrick & Shaver 1990) briefly appeals to the Christian theologian Gordon Kaufman who writes from an existentialist perspective on the mystery and transcendence of God.  A more detailed theological argument relevant to Christians’ attachment to God, based on contemporary Trinitarian theology, has been proposed by Miner (2007). However, a similar theological grounding for attachment to God amongst Muslims is lacking.  Further, there has been no previous attempt to consider commonalities and differences between Christian and Muslim writings concerning spiritual attachment.  One of the aims of this study was to address this important gap in the literature.

In order to identify and examine bases of spiritual attachment in the two major world religions, a range of sources was examined for themes related to spiritual attachment. These sources included primary texts (e.g., the Bible and the Koran, divine sayings and Prophetic traditions, and hadith), and secondary texts (e.g., commentaries, formal prayers and mystical writings).  The identified themes were chosen to represent various facets of attachment (self, other and their shared relationship) and critical theological motifs governing each facet of attachment.  Specifically, the sources were analysed for five attachment motifs, with three related to God:  (1) Immanence (2) Responsiveness and (3) Manifestation; one related to the self: (4) Innate spiritual state; and one related to the attachment relationship itself: (5) Symbols and rituals reflecting relationship.

The analysis revealed that both religions assert the immanence of God, and hence the possibility of divine presence (fulfilling an initial condition for proximity in attachment). Christianity clearly presents both the immanence and transcendence of God, with both poles necessary for an adequate representation of God:

“Because the Bible presents God as both beyond the world and present to the world, theologians in every era are confronted with the challenge of articulating the Christian understanding of the nature of God in a manner that balances, affirms and holds in creative tension the twin truths of the divine transcendence and the divine immanence” (Grenz & Olson, 1992, p.11).

Within Islam also, there is no transcendence of God without immanence. In the transcendental mode the divine is absolutely majestic and beyond human comprehension, whereas in the immanent mode God is present to the humans He created.  For example, the Koran reveals that, in creation, Adam directly learned God’s attributes, or ‘divine names’ (Kor.2:31): Adam was also given the capacity to comprehend God in a transcendental, majestic mode and in an immanent and “beautic” mode (Chittick, 1982).

The responsiveness of God is also a common theme in both religions, but with different theological emphases.  In Christian Trinitarian theology God is seen as directly responsive to humans because: a) God is responsively present in Godself through the mutual indwelling of the three Persons of the Trinity; b) God created humans with the capacity for relationships, seen as reflecting the relational ‘image of God’; and c) God actively draws people into relationship with God by the work of the Spirit (Gunton, 2002; Miner, 2007). According to Islamic doctrine, Muslims avoid associating God with any human qualities. Hence, the presence of God in the world is viewed symbolically and psychologically: God is projected in the cosmos and everything is a sign and symbol of Him. Everything is from God and everything returns to Him (Kor. 2:156, 2:210, 6:62). At the level of human experience, connection with God is deemed to occur through the heart (Qalb), and according to the Koran (Kor.2:115):“To God belongs the east and the west; wherever you go there will be the presence of God. God is Omnipresent, Omniscient”, and hence Muslims understand God to be available and responsive despite not possessing human qualities.

The theme of God’s manifestation moves beyond presence and responsiveness to the concept of closeness and attunement.  Attunement as a core quality of a secure attachment relationship refers to the reciprocal exchange of emotion, wherein the attachment figure is able to recognize and respond effectively to the other person’s emotional state. In Christianity the possibility of attunement in an attachment relationship with God is premised upon the two natures of Christ, as fully human and fully divine. Jesus is viewed as the literal God-Man who is particularly able to understand human needs for proximity to God.  On the other hand, Muslims are connected to the divine through the Universal Man (Chittick, 1982), and the chain of prophecy (Ibn Arabi, 1972).  Adam is the archetypal Universal Man, to whom God revealed his Divine Names (and hence his defining attributes). In calling upon a particular Divine Name, a Muslim is seeking attunement with the One who manifests that attribute and expecting a response consistent with the attribute.  The converse of attunement is separation, and a related attachment theme of separation protest.  Individual Christians may experience a sense of separation from God, as exemplified in the lament of abandonment by Christ on the cross and expressed in mystical writings (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). Similarly, some Islamic mystics consider the fall of Adam a major archetypal separation from the divine and lament the loss, yearning for reunion (Rumi, 1990; Sabzawari Khursani, 2008). In different ways, then, Christians and Muslims may experience both attunement with God and separation anxiety.

A secure attachment depends upon models of the self as worthy of nurture and care (Bretherton 1987, 1990; Main, Kaplin & Cassidy 1987). Traditionally, in Christianity the Fall is taken to depict human disobedience to God with the consequence of an inherited tendency towards sin.  Such a view might indicate unworthiness to experience God’s nurture.  However, Shults (2003, 201-2) asserts:

“The doctrine of sin has become one of the most problematic issues for contemporary theology. The challenges to the Western theory of inherited sin came to a head in the Enlightenment, and exegetical, scientific, and philosophical considerations in late modernity have continued to undermine traditional formulations”.

Even under ‘traditional’ formulations, however, the grace of God is said to allow believers to be deemed without sin and, hence, to be in some sense worthy before God. This ‘redeemed’ status, derived from the work of Christ, allows believers to remain in proximity to God (by the Spirit) and to derive safety and solace from God.  Islam holds that humans are born with a pure, innate nature (fitrah) that allows them to turn to God. However, innate knowledge of God has to be manifested through religious education as sin leads to heedlessness and ignorance of Allah (Sachiko & Chittick, 1996).  In both religions, then, a state of purity, or righteousness, is deemed to be bestowed on believers by the grace of God. In Islam, it is the inherited state of the infant whereas in Christianity it is the acquired state of the believer. Thus, it is possible for both Christians and Muslims to understand and experience themselves as worthy of God’s care and nurture and thus approach God as an attachment figure when distressed.

Finally, for Muslims and Christians many rituals and behaviours symbolise seeking safety from, and proximity to, God and thus represent an attachment relationship with the Divine (Chittick, 1989; Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008).  Prayer is the primary ritual for Christians, but behaviours such as attending a church or sacred place, raising arms in worship, contemplating icons and using materials such as rosary beads may also signify proximity seeking (Granqvist & Kirkpatrick, 2008). In addition, sacraments such as Baptism and Holy Communion are symbols of relationship with God. Similarly, in addition to devotional prayers and supplications that demonstrate Muslims’ proximity seeking behaviour to God (Qumi, 2005), Muslims engage in other religious rituals in order to bring them closer to God (Chittick, 1989). For example, pilgrimage is a journey to the place symbolizing God’s presence; fasting and moral observance are for purity in order to be able to draw close to Allah; ablution and baptism are symbolic of purification with water; repentance is a means of facilitating reunion with God.

Overall, theological analysis provides warrant for attachment to God in both Christian and Muslim theology. In Christianity, the characteristics of an attachment relationship between God and the believer are that a believer can approach God directly (seek proximity) as forgiven through Christ and depend on the nurturing qualities of God (such as God’s compasssionate love and attunement to human suffering) in times of difficulty. The ideal relationship is one of trust in God’s goodness and responsiveness to God’s calling (secure base).  In Islam, believers approach God through intermediaries – Prophet Mohammad and his household, other prophets and saints (Universal Man) – whilst also experiencing closeness to God ‘in the heart’. They are assured by fitrah (the innate state of purity) of the possibility of relationship with God and can use rituals designed to remove spiritual imperfections that might hinder proximity to God.  God is depicted as a safe haven and secure base for life in the world. 

The theological analyses above confirm the relevance of Attachment to God themes for Muslims, thus providing a theological grounding for the quantitative research phase of the current study (measuring  ATG themes amongst Muslims).   Moreover, it could be argued that, since there are similar theological warrants for attachment to God in Christianity and Islam, ATG measures developed for Christians may be suitable for Muslims.  However, exploratory studies of Australian Muslims indicated that items used to measure images of God (e.g. those from the God Image Scale, Lawrence, 1997) were perceived to be ‘too personal’ and even offensive by Muslims. Such items include: I can talk to God on an intimate basis, I sometimes feel cradled in God’s arms, or God takes pleasure in my achievements.

For this reason it was necessary to construct an ATG measure specifically designed for Muslim participants. This construction initially involved the development of a large set of theologically sound items designed to cover the domain of Muslim Attachment to God. Subsequently, these items were statistically tested for validity and reliability.

3.  Development of the Muslim Spiritual Attachment Scale (M- SAS)


In order to prepare a large set of items to cover the domain of Muslim attachment to God, existing scales were assessed and new items were written. A full set of attachment dimensions was explored: proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base and separation protest behaviours, as well as a positive versus negative sense of self and positive versus negative sense of God.

Existing scales of attachment to God, images of God and religious coping as developed for Christians were examined by a Muslim scholar (Dr Ghobary) to assess their consonance with Muslim theology.  Some items appeared to be immediately consonant, whereas other items required modification.  Using this process, a total of 61 items were derived from Christian scales of attachment to God and related measures. 

A further 130 items, covering the six attachment dimensions listed above, were written using phrases or sentences from Muslim sources. The process of writing entailed:

  1. defining the core constructs of each attachment dimension;
  2. specifying cognitive, affective, behavioural aspects of the core constructs;
  3. searching Muslim writings for short sentences or part-sentences that exemplified the core constructs and their aspects in positive or negative ways;
  4. framing items in past, present and future tenses;
  5. editing the final set of items to remove redundancies, ambiguous items, and overly complex items (such as double negatives).

Consistent with Attachment Theory all items attempted to relate core attachment themes to cognitions and behaviours in times of life stress, difficulty or danger rather than to more general attitudes or actions; both positive and negative manifestations of the dimensions were sought.

Examples of items from each of the dimensions (including items derived from existing scales with reference in parenthesis, and new items) are given in Table 1.  The symbol ® indicates the item was scored in the reverse direction.

Table 1.  Illustrative items for each attachment dimension


Core theme

Illustrative items

Proximity seeking



I choose to draw close to God in times of difficulty because I expect God to meet my needs.


I reach out to God in times of distress
In past crises I have been drawn to religious places (e.g. mosque etc.)

Safe haven

When I feel threatened I turn to God  and God gives me comfort when I express my distress to Him

My confidence in God’s closeness and responsiveness  encourages me to call on Him
I have sought God’s love and care when life seems overwhelming. (RCOPE)
God has sheltered me during the storms of life.

Secure base

Because God is with me I can venture out “beyond my comfort zone’ into the stressful situations of life. 

When facing future trials I will trust in God’s presence with me (RCOPE)
God sustains me when I step out into a new, challenging phase of my life
I face demanding situations of life because I find Allah is with me

Separation protest or distress

I have experienced a sense of God’s absence and when God feels absent I am distressed.

I have cried out to God at times when He seems far away
I do not worry if God seems distant from me ®
I have nightmares about God leaving me

Positive sense of self

I feel worthy of support and nurture by God in times of difficulty.  I can approach God, knowing that I am loved.

Even if I fail I never question that God is pleased with me (AGI)
I worry about whether God can love me ®
Since I am sinful, I’m not confident that God will accept me. ®

Positive sense of God

God is nurturing and available and willing to help in times of difficulty

God takes care of me during times of crisis (GIS)
Whenever I called upon Allah for help He answered me
God is quick to comfort me when I’m distressed

AGI:  Attachment to God Inventory  (Beck & McDonald, 2004); GIS:  God Image Scale (Lawrence, 1997); RCOPE: Religious Coping Scale (Pargament, Koenig, & Perez, 2000)

The final set of items was presented in a printed questionnaire to 313 adult Muslim community members recruited from mosques and a wide range of Muslim community organizations. Participants were recruited via advertisements, presentations at community meetings, and via ‘snowball’ sampling.  Participants responded to demographic items, with questions regarding attachment to God randomly located throughout the questionnaire.  Anonymous questionnaires were returned via sealed envelopes to the researchers. 

Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 66 with a mean of 27.4 (SD=8.7) years.  Females comprised 58% of the sample.  The sample was highly religious, rating their religious observance at an average of 6.1 (SD=1.0) on a seven point scale where 7 represented “always observing religious rituals and obligations”.  On average, participants also ascribed great importance to religion, with a mean of 6.6 (SD=0.8) on a seven point scale where 7 represented “extremely important”.

Results for each dimension were examined separately via two exploratory factor analyses using Principal Components and Maximum Likelihood extraction methods, followed by a reliability analysis of items with factor loadings exceeding of .60 and above on the first factor yielded by each of the factor analyses.  In this manner the properties of uni-dimensional scales reflecting each theoretical dimension of Muslim attachment to God were identified.    


Both Exploratory Factor Analyses converged for all dimensions.  The number of components and factors with eigen values greater than one, and the total variance explained by the components or factors are presented in Table 2.

Table 2.
Principal Component and Maximum Likelihood Factor Analyses of Items Comprising Dimensions of Muslim Attachment to God


Principal Components Analysis

Maximum Likelihood Analysis


No. of components

Total % variance

No. of Factors

Total % variance

Proximity Seeking





Safe Haven





Secure Base





Separation Protest





Positive Sense of God





Positive Sense of Self





The first component or factor for each dimension explained between 24% of the variance for that dimension (for Separation Protest) and 43% of the variance (for Safe Haven).  Using the criterion for item selection of loading at levels of .60 or above on the first component/factor, scales of between 6 and 9 items were obtained for each dimension.  The properties of each scale (item number, mean on the seven point scale, standard deviation, and Cronbach’s alpha) are provided in Table 3 below.

Table 3
Means, standard deviations and Cronbach’s alpha for scale dimensions

Scale dimension

No. of items

Scale Mean

Scale Standard Deviation

Cronbach’s Alpha

Proximity Seeking





Safe Haven





Secure Base





Separation Protest





Positive Sense of God





Positive Sense of Self





Table 3 indicates that the exploratory analyses yielded a final set of 46 items measuring six dimensions of Muslim attachment to God.

 4.  Validation of the Muslim Spiritual Attachment Scale

In order to establish the validity of the new 46 item scale (the Muslim Spiritual Attachment Scale: M-SAS), the scale items were administered to a new Muslim sample (i.e., a sample including none of the participants in the initial exploratory analyses) in order to investigate the scale’s internal construct validity and external concurrent validity with other relevant psychological variables.  With respect to external validity, was hypothesized that high scores on the M-SAS (indicating security of attachment to God) would be associated with low scores on felt stress, anxiety and depression. 


Participants comprised 200 adult Muslims who were contacted through community organizations in Sydney, Australia.  Ages ranged from 18 to 58 with a mean of 28.4 (SD=8.2) years.  Females comprised 57% of the sample.  Highest level of education reported by the sample comprised high school (21%), vocational training (33%), undergraduate degree (21%) and post-graduate degree (24%).  The sample was highly religious, rating their religious observance at an average of 6.06 (SD = 0.88 on a seven point scale where 7 represented “always observing religious rituals and obligations”.  On average, participants accorded high levels of importance to religion, with a mean of 6.57 (SD = 0.77) on a seven point scale where 7 represented “extremely important”. 

Measures included the 46 item Muslim Spiritual Attachment Scale (M-SAS as described above) and the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Inventory – DASS (Lovibond & Lovibond, 1995).  The DASS comprises three scales of 14 items each, and the authors report a three-factor structure for the measure across exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses, supporting its construct validity.  The DASS’s convergent and discriminatory validity has also been supported in studies using clinical samples (Brown, Chorpit, Korotitsch & Barlow, 1997).   In the present study the internal consistency (Cronbach alphas) of the three DASS scales were .91 (Depression), .91 (Anxiety) and .92 (Stress) respectively.

Confirmatory factor analysis (using MPlus, Version 3.1) was used to assess the construct validity of the M-SAS scale.  Structural equation modelling (using MPlus, Version 3.1) was used to examine relationships between dimensions of the M-SAS and outcome measures of stress, depression and anxiety.


Confirmatory factor analysis of the 46-item M-SAS yielded a good fit to the hypothesised six-dimensional structure of the scale (Root Mean-Square Residual (RMSR) = .077). Further confirmatory factor analyses (CFAs) indicated a slightly better fit (RMSR = .070) for a model using 37 items that loaded at levels of .6 or more on their respective factors in the initial CFA.  A higher-order model was also examined, where each first-order attachment dimension loaded onto the higher order construct of Muslim Spiritual Attachment.  The higher order model also yielded an acceptable RMSR = .072, indicating that the first-order dimensions of Muslim Spiritual Attachment are separable but nevertheless related to the higher order construct.

Structural equation modelling (SEM) was conducted to examine hypothesized relationships between Muslim attachment and measures of depression, anxiety and stress.  The initial Full Forward Model, where all paths between dimensions of attachment to God and the outcome variables were calculated yielded a reasonable fit (RMSR=.084).  However, analysis of phi-matrix of first-order factor correlations revealed that several of the M-SAS first-order dimensions were highly correlated. Based on this analysis, we conducted further modelling using two higher order factors to represent Muslim attachment.  One factor, labelled Attachment Functions, comprised the dimensions of proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base and separation protest.  The other factor, labelled Attachment Models, comprised the dimensions of model of self and model of God as other. 

Theoretically, two causal orderings of these two higher-order constructs with respect to the outcomes were plausible.  By analogy with infant-caregiver attachment it is possible that experiences of God as safe haven and secure base, together with behaviours of proximity seeking and separation protest, give rise to mental models of self and other (God) which in turn affect perceived stress and psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety. This causal ordering is called the developmental model, and is represented in Figure 1 below:

Attachment Functions Attachment Models Psychological Outcomes

Figure 1: Developmental model of attachment

Alternatively, by the correspondence theory of attachment to God, mental models of spiritual attachment (generalised from mental models of human attachment) would affect attachment behaviours and experiences, and thence perceived stress and psychological symptoms. This is called the correspondence model and is represented in Figure 2 below:

Attachment Models Attachment Figures Psychological Outcomes

Figure 2: Correspondence model of attachment

A series of SEMs was conducted to test the developmental and correspondence models of Muslim attachment to God, using the Full Forward Model and the CFAs for comparison of model fit.

From the Full Forward Model, relationships between attachment functions, models and symptoms were significant and in the expected direction.  High scores on attachment models and functions, indicating secure spiritual attachment, were highly associated with each other and negatively associated with symptoms (see Table 4).

Table 4.  Phi matrix of relationships between latent variables of functions, models and symptoms








.98*** (.07)



-.17*    (.04)

-.21** (.02)

( ) = standard error

The results of the series of SEMs are provided in Tables 5 and 6 below.  They suggest that both the correspondence and developmental models are plausible explanations of the data.  It is not possible to select one over the other from the results of this sample. However, the correspondence model (M6) is a slightly worse fit for the data using the RMSR as a criterion.

Table 5.  Model fit statistics for relationships within and between M-SAS and the DASS symptoms




Evidence for the construct validity of the 37-item Muslim Spiritual Attachment Scale is provided by the Confirmatory Factor Analysis reported this study.  Its factorial composition, with dimensions of proximity seeking, safe haven, secure base, separation protest, positive model of self, and positive model of God as other, is well attested by the good fit of the six-factor model to the items.  Further, the SEM analyses indicate that the first four dimensions can be represented as a higher order factor labelled Attachment Functions, whereas the last two factors can be represented as a higher order factor labelled Attachment Models.  These latent (higher order) variables are highly inter-related, and together they constitute the construct of Muslim Spiritual Attachment. 

In scales of Christian Attachment to God items have generally yielded higher order factors relating to anxiety about abandonment and avoidance of intimacy with respect to spiritual attachment (Beck & McDonald, 2004). These higher order factors map onto models of self and other (Crowell, Fraley & Shaver, 1999). Hence there is structural similarity between our Muslim measure of Attachment Models and previous Christian measures of Attachment to God.  However, the results also show that the overarching construct of (in this case, ‘Muslim’) Attachment to God is not exhausted by Attachment Models. Thus, there are grounds for including measures of Attachment Functions to cover the domain of spiritual attachment more fully.

If Muslim Spiritual Attachment is foundational for psychological health, then secure attachment should be associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress.  Our modelling indicated that both the Attachment Functions and Attachment Models of our Muslim participants were associated with reduced levels of psychological symptoms.  Hence, Muslim Spiritual Attachment does appear to have a significant role in Muslim psychological health. 

The processes by which spiritual attachment impacts psychological health require further investigation. Our study could not clearly distinguish between two plausible causal orderings linked to psychological health outcomes. The first, the developmental model, suggests that teaching about God and early experiences of God in family and personal religious practices give rise to attachment behaviours towards God, such as seeking God’s closeness and comfort at times of distress.  Such attachment experiences are represented in mental models of the self and of God.  In cases of secure attachment, where such internal representations are positive, the person is able to filter events of threat or loss through more positive cognitive schema, and hence exhibits fewer psychological symptoms. In this model, thus, Attachment Functions give rise to Attachment Models.  The developmental model emphasises social learning and is consistent with claims that people have an innate predisposition towards approaching God. For example, in a discussion of human nature (fitrah) Yasien Mohamed wrote of “the spiritual drive in man, always seeking the presence of Allah” (1998, p.102).  Mohamed also argues that fitrah, together with divine revelation allows humans to attain “all levels of perception, even the knowledge of Allah in a direct and immediate way” (1998, p.97). Thus, the capacity for relationship with Allah is derived from fitrah which implicates an innate human predisposition and ability towards seeking and finding Allah. 

The second pathway, the correspondence model, suggests that children who learn about God and are inducted into religious practices directly generalise from their mental models of parental attachment (models of the self and the parent derived from attachment experiences with caregivers) to God (Granqvist & Hagekull, 1999).  If cognitive models of attachment to God are positive, then the person is likely to respond in stressful situations by approaching God for help and emotional support.  Such positive coping would lower perceived stress and reduce negative outcomes such as anxiety and depression.  Thus, in the correspondence model spiritual Attachment Models give rise to Attachment Functions.  From our study neither the correspondence model nor the developmental model was a clearly better fit to the data.  Further, both Models and Functions were highly inter-correlated in both causal orderings.  This suggests that whatever the causal pathway in childhood, by adulthood the two aspects of spiritual attachment strongly inter-relate. Hence, there could be a strong reciprocal relationship between Functions and Models, or both could be influenced by a third variable such as religious commitment.  Longitudinal studies of attachment from childhood would be needed to distinguish causal pathways more clearly, and more extensive modelling using other religious variables would help clarify the role of other potential influences on the relationship between spiritual attachment and psychological symptoms.

Our study was limited by its use of a non-random sample of Muslim adults from Sydney, Australia.  The participants were all highly devout according to their reported religious observance and their ratings of the importance of religion.  Thus, they are not necessarily representative of the total Muslim population.  Further, participants’ high religiousness is probably reflected in the high scores on four of the six attachment dimensions, with mean scores above 6 on a 7 point scale.  These ceiling effects make it harder to ascertain the strength of associations within the data, and replication with a more diverse sample could improve the accuracy of the models.

Although a single study does not warrant firm conclusions and applications it is possible to indicate potential applications of our work.  Since there is strong evidence that religiosity, including attachment to God, can have helpful psychological consequences for Christians (e.g., Sim & Low, 2003; Beck & McDonald, 2004), therapies that include spiritual elements for Christian clients have been developed (see the regular “Clinicians’ Columns” segment in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity).  Similarly, psychological therapies that are sensitive to Muslim beliefs, practices and spiritual attachment experiences should be developed for use with Muslim clients.  In particular, Muslim clients could be encouraged to nurture aspects of their secure attachment to Allah through personal spiritual practice, and to draw upon elements of secure attachment to Allah, such as proximity seeking, in stressful situations. 

Attachment security, as indicated by positive mental representations of self and other, is also related to healthy interpersonal functioning. Conversely, insecure attachment styles are related to disorders of interpersonal functioning (Brennan & Shaver, 1998; Fossati et al., 2003; Westen, Nakash, Thomas, & Bradley, 2006).  It may be possible to use religiously relevant attachment themes with clients having relational problems to encourage healthier and more ethical interpersonal relationships.  Interventions incorporating spiritual attachment themes would be helpful in several ways.  First, they could improve a Muslim client’s sense of positive relationship with God.  This sense could provide an immediate source of support for ethical conduct, providing emotional and experiential reinforcement for following ethical religious teaching.  Second, an improved relationship with God would be expected to impact a person’s sense of self as being worthy of love and nurturing by God (as well as a sense of Other as available for nurture).  Such a positive spiritual sense of self and other could be used by a therapist to support positive models of self and other in human relationships.  Schema Therapy (Young, 2003) has been developed in light of attachment theory, cognitive-behaviour theory and experiential therapies and could be modified to incorporate a spiritual focus for Muslim clients. 

5.   Conclusion

This paper has considered an aspect of spirituality that has been emphasised in Christian psychology but as yet unexplored with Muslims – attachment to God.  We have argued that attachment to God has theological warrant for Muslims because Muslim texts support attachment-related themes related to God, the self, and relationship with the divine.  There is strong similarity between most Christian and Muslim themes, although important differences at the level of detail must not be overlooked.  By analogy with Christian attachment, it was expected that Muslim attachment to God would be foundational for psychological and spiritual health.  To test this proposition we developed the Muslim Spiritual Attachment Scale (M-SAS), validated it with a separate sample of Muslim adults, and examined its relationship to stress, anxiety and depression.  Both positive mental models of spiritual attachment and behaviours representing secure spiritual attachment were associated with reduced psychological symptoms.  Hence, there is preliminary evidence that spiritual attachment is foundational for the psychological well-being of Muslims.



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