A Follow-up to Blurred Lines: Women, “Celebrity” Shaykhs, and Spiritual Abuse
by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari
In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
In this article, I will endeavor to respond to some of the concerns raised about my May 27, 2015 essay,
My views are mine alone; I chose MuslimMatters as a platform because of their willingness to discuss broader issues relating to student-teacher relationships in the world of traditional Islamic Studies. (See, for example, “Shaykhy Crushes: Trials in the Lives of Men of Knowledge.”) While my article was not intended as a direct response to “Shaykhy Crushes,” I have been concerned for some time about the emergence of a near culture of celebrity around those who inhabit the North American Islamic lecture circuit.
While the feedback to my piece was overwhelmingly positive, several commenters objected to my article on the following grounds:
I should have named names. By not naming names, I have cast a wide net of suspicion over every Shaykh and speaker on conference rosters.
My response: I did not and will not name names, as identifying the miscreants is not the purpose of my article. My larger concern is the behavior of individuals who use their scholarly authority for personal gain. I am not interested in launching a witch hunt, destroying people’s careers or “undermining Islamic scholarship,” as one person put it on Facebook. My article was very pointed, yes, and intentionally so. I wrote it from the “other woman’s” point of view, i.e., the vantage point of the jilted secret, second wife, because I believe her situation illustrates the extent to which the integrity of sacred knowledge and its disseminators has been compromised. I want those who are in a position of authority and those who hold sway over the Islamic (intellectual) public to consider my advice and reinstate the (moral) boundaries that I believe have fallen away to the detriment of teacher and student.
This article is also not about any one individual, although some cases have stood out as more egregious than others. For over a decade, I (and others) have heard about the misuse and abuse of the institution of polygyny. Go to any Muslim community and you will hear about the secret plural marriages, messy divorces, and other related drama that ensues when people do not follow the strictures of Islamic personal status law. I could have written an article about the lay Muslim man who engages in serial monogamy, or maintains a revolving door of second wives, in either case making a mockery of Islamic law and leaving behind a string of broken homes in his wake. The reason I did not is because these individuals—for the most part—do not lay claim to the mantle of religious authority. While they might invoke (aspects) of the Qur’an and Sunna to justify their behavior (the women are right-hand possessions, etc (!), they are not lecturing the public about morality, taqwa, modesty, spirituality, and so on. I firmly believe that those of us who inhabit the public space that is the Islamic lecture circuit—and I include myself in this—need to abide by higher standards and strive for a measure of consistency in our public and private lives.
There is no need to be suspicious of everyone on the lecture circuit. By and large, I believe our ‘ulama conduct themselves with the appropriate decorum, especially with members of the opposite sex. This article is about those who do not observe the proper boundaries, and, in doing so, are causing emotional and spiritual harm to their (erstwhile) female students. While some commenters feel my concerns are overblown, others have publicly and privately indicated that the issues I have raised are valid.
I will concede that the evidence I have gathered is largely—although not exclusively—anecdotal. Unfortunately, the evidence will remain anecdotal so long as women refuse to go public with their stories. I believe a study of (North American) Muslim marriage practices, especially relating to polygyny and its impact on women and children, would be helpful. Fortunately, there is an emerging literature on this topic. However, this article, again, is not about polygyny per se, but the intersection of religious authority, the public sphere, and gender in the rarefied atmosphere of the Islamic conference.
What is a “celebrity Shaykh”?
My response: Obviously, the article touched a nerve with my reference to the phenomenon of the “celebrity Shaykh,” and I can see how my tone seemed irreverent to some. As I explained initially, I am not trying to diminish or demean our Shuyukh. As I stated before and will state again: I do not believe anyone on the lecture circuit sets out to become a celebrity. We make them into celebrities and now everyone is paying the price. Instead of attending an event to learn, we go to programs to be entertained. Big name speakers just happen to be given the coveted Saturday afternoon speaking slot that commands maximum audience attendance. Lesser known or more substantive speakers are often placed too early in the day or too late in the evening to really reach an audience. We have all been in the lecture hall that has emptied out as soon as the really-famous-speaker was done, leaving the not-so-exciting-speaker talking to empty seats. To make matters worse, we now have speakers who roll in with entourages of adoring students half-bent in ruku’ as one (very good) speaker noted at a conference I recently attended. Although the image sounds humorous, what is the effect on the audience? It is to enthrone the speaker on a pedestal, rendering him almost superhuman. So when we hear that he (or she) is actually human and makes mistakes, we take it personally, losing our iman or dismissing the whole lot. This is an extreme reaction to what is often extreme adulation of our teachers. Let’s let them be human again. Yes, we should hold them to higher standards—after all, they are transmitters of a prophetic legacy—but they are still people.
I’m not the first person to critique this culture of celebrity. Brother Omar Usman has a great website, FiqhOfSocial.Media, that specifically addresses the fanboy/girl culture we’ve created. Also, Imam Zaid Shakir poignantly writes about being a Muslim “rock star” at New Islamic Directions, and reminds us that we woefully underestimate the impact of public service on the health, family life, and free time of our leaders.
Very few people on the lecture circuit, myself included, fit the qualifications of a Shaykh. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of those who appear on conference programs are preachers, du’at (callers), and motivational speakers. A very small subset of those who speak at conferences are actual scholars. In fact, some of the most serious scholars tend to eschew public appearances altogether.
What about the role of the women? Aren’t many of them behaving inappropriately?
My response: Yes, women do play a role in these scenarios. I remember going to a convention with a stack of books from my library, books by well-known ‘ulama and speakers. I was determined to get these authors to sign my books and most of them did. Some were very gracious, and even remembered my name (probably from the last time I cornered them). Some seemed quite bemused as to why I would want them to autograph their books. Some employed personal assistants who ran interference, but most were surprisingly—and refreshingly, for me as a woman—accessible. When I think back, however, I have to take a more critical view of my actions. Yes, I was, in my view, just a bibliophile getting books signed by my favorite authors. But how would these men’s wives have viewed me? They wouldn’t have known that any chance I get, I go to book signings because I believe in the institution of scholarship and want to support good writing. All they would have seen was yet another (young-ish) woman, smiling and making small talk. I share this anecdote to caution sisters that we must try to look at our actions through the eyes of others, particularly the wives of the Shuyukh. These long-suffering women typically have to put up with husbands who are frequently absent and travel more than they stay home. They also have to put up with female students of knowledge approaching their husbands in ways that are, frankly, inappropriate. I have to admit that, as a wife, it can sting when I see photos of my husband with other women, as innocuous as those photos might be. How then do we think it affects the Shaykh’s wife when she has to deal with female fans taking selfies with her beloved husband, then striking up a conversation with said husband once they get to the nearest computer?
I would be remiss if I didn’t address the subject of the halal home-wrecker. This is the woman who is determined to pursue the married Shaykh at all costs, knowing the harm it will bring to his marriage and the hurt it will cause his wife. She quotes hadiths to justify her pursuit of a married man, arguing that the first wife is lacking in faith if she doesn’t wish to share her husband. This argument is spurious and dangerous. Spurious because it is not for the second woman to make pronouncements on the first woman’s faith in the first place. Dangerous because we know what the Qur’an says about those who cause discord between husband and wife, and it’s not favorable. All I will say additionally is if one’s intention is to become not just the second wife, but the only wife, then one needs to check her intention and make taubah. Also, remember the saying, “How you get him is how you lose him.” If he entertained your advances, he’ll entertain those of another.
This article will make it even harder for women to study with male teachers. And male teachers are more scholarly than females.
My response: This article is not about preventing access to qualified scholarship. Women have a right to seek sacred knowledge, so long as they (and the teachers) observe proper gender etiquette. If program organizers start barring women from events, it won’t be because of my article. My article is not calling for the policing of spaces in which men and women gather to seek sacred knowledge. I am calling for the reinstatement of common-sense policies and moral boundaries around the student-teacher relationship, especially when those relationships spill over into the relative anonymity of cyberspace, a space in which people become emboldened to do or say things they would likely not do or say in public.
If men are perceived as being more “scholarly” than women, then that perception may owe to the fact that men are far more likely to receive the sort of training, mentoring, and sponsorship that are required to produce rigorous scholarship. There are serious structural barriers impeding women from attaining parity with their male counterparts in traditional Islamic scholarly circles. Ironically, one of the main obstacles women face is the lack of a platform from which to teach and speak. It is difficult to become an effective teacher or an excellent speaker when many venues simply do not include women. We have to move beyond the politics of the female token and seriously start mentoring the next generation of women scholar and teachers.
Where are the solutions?
My response: I have several suggestions, but few are enforceable. Ultimately, the responsibility for working on these issues falls to the individuals themselves and those in their inner circle. Ideally, their peers, colleagues, and teachers would take up the matter with them; however, that has not appeared to be the case, hence the need for this essay.
Ingrid Mattson tweeted that ‘ulama should consider adopting a code of professional ethics similar to the code adhered to by Muslim chaplains, and I agree. If a teacher or Shaykh finds himself in a position of marrying one (or more) of his students, he needs to really think the matter through, including consulting with his first wife, and considering the potential benefit and harm entailed by entering into polygyny. Ideally, there would be boundaries established that would forestall these scenarios, such as avoiding courtship and marriage with current students. However, if the teacher and student feel marriage is necessary to prevent fitnah, then the process has to be conducted with the utmost integrity and transparency, with measures taken to ensure the rights of all parties are respected.
Women who are approached to be second wives need to regain common sense. Why enter into a relationship that is not legally recognized in the West, then complain when you have no rights? Marrying an already-married man while trusting in his assurances that his first wife is “okay” with the arrangement, or, worse, doesn’t even need to know about it, is naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. Why wouldn’t you want to talk to the first wife to see what he is really like when he’s not sweet talking you? Why refrain from talking to the ex-wives? They’re out there. Are you afraid they’re going to say something to shatter the brother’s mystique?
The teachers and peers of these individuals have a moral obligation to call these brothers on the carpet, not sweep their behavior under the carpet. I believe that there is a culture of enabling this kind of behavior-or at least turning a blind eye—since it takes place behind closed doors and involves a demographic that is the least likely to speak out, namely, women.
Finally, this issue is crying out for women scholars to fill in the knowledge and mentoring gap. Instead of turning to male scholars for validation and inspiration, why not seek out women teachers? When I was in Damascus, I noted the presence of strong networks of women scholars and women students. Observing the impact of these networks years later and assessing the quality of the student-teacher bond, I can say that I have seen no women more self-assured, confident, and empowered than these women immersed in an environment of gender-specific knowledge and learning. On the contrary, I’ve noted that the women who seek out opposite-sex teachers for mentoring and validation, often to end up married to them, seriously struggle with issues of self-esteem.
And Allah knows best.
 Traditional as opposed to the academic study of Islam at secular universities