“Mama, I am sorry that I am a very big trouble and difficulty upon you,” my son (who was 8 back then) said to me as he entered the house after Jumu’ah. It was a strange thing for him to say! I noticed serious regret on his face, filled with remorse, and my heart cringed at the sight. Perhaps if it was any other time I would have taken advantage of his “realization” but he had just come back from Jumu’ah and that is the time when I usually appreciate and encourage him. So I asked him why he said what he had said, and he explained, “Today shaikh said in his khutbah that money and children are fitnah!”
Ah! My son had become just another victim of misunderstanding the word “fitnah”. Because he was called a “fitnah”, he thought of himself as someone evil and wicked!
Unfortunately, it is not only a misunderstanding of an 8 year old, but of a fair percentage of the Muslim world, and hence, the most commonly misunderstood hadeeth remains the one in which the Prophet, sallallahu alihi wasalam warned the men:
“I have not left behind me any fitnah more harmful to men than women.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
It seems that some of my Muslim brothers, as much as they love the female species, equally love to demean Muslim women, put them under unnecessary restrictions, and psychologically butcher their confidence as “proud Muslimahs”using the above hadeeth as a “proof” for their actions.
In reaction, some of the sisters, to justify and maintain their Muslimah pride, have gone to the other extreme of rejecting the hadeeth and denying its authenticity. The common notion of their rationalization is along the lines: “If I must believe in the fairness of Muhammad then I must deny…” and a number of ahadeeth are questioned in the name of “fairness and logic”, the aforementioned included.
I questioned the meaning of the hadeeth in an effort to understand if the negative view of women was justified. I could not argue with the hadeeth, since without a doubt, I discovered that, it was an authentic hadeeth. Therefore, rejecting it was out of the question for me. Hence, I was faced with a dilemma: should I miserably accept myself as a fitnah, inherently evil as portrayed by many Muslim clerics, and let them condemn me whenever they wish, by using the words of the Prophet, sallallahu alihi wasalam, as proof, or simply excuse away the hadeeth? It so happened that since I am a proud Muslimah and am very proud of every aspect of my deen, so accepting either option would have been a paradox.
Did I have a third option? Was there any way the hadeeth could be understood rationally while maintaining the harmony of fairness.
Of course, educating myself was the only option not only in this situation but in any situation when my belief, the Qur’an or ahadeeth are criticized; instead of denial and rejection, knowledge is always the key. After researching the matter, I discovered several of the following misunderstandings.
Firstly, I focused on the word fitnah. Fitnah comes from the word fitan which means to separate. That’s why one of the names of goldsmith is al-fattan because he separates the pure gold from its impurities.
In sharee’ah this word has been used numerous times to indicate a test or a trial, because a test/trial separates a true believer from a non-believer. It is only through a trial that a person’s true faith shines. As Allah azzawajal says:
أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَنْ يُتْرَكُوا أَنْ يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ
“Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested”
وَلَقَدْ فَتَنَّا الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ ۖ فَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ الْكَاذِبِينَ
“And We indeed tested those who were before them. And Allah will certainly make (it) known (the truth of) those who are true, and will certainly make (it) known (the falsehood of) those who are liars.”
يُفْتَنُونَ and فَتَنَّا both are derived from the rood word “fitan”.
When something is referred to as “fitnah” it doesn’t mean that it is inherently evil or an innate source of corruption, rather it only means that it is a mean to put a person through a trial. In fact, every blessing or favor of Allah is also a fitnah for mankind. For if a person is blessed with something, and that blessing becomes a reason for him/her to disobey Allah or become negligent of Allah due to the luxuries of it, then in of itself that blessing becomes a fitnah for that person.
Likewise, if a person is put under a test (fitan) but he/she uses that fitnah (test) to come closer to Allah, increase his/her iman through worship, repentance, proper evaluation of himself/herself and improving his/her condition, then in fact that fitnah becomes a blessing of Allah upon him/her.
Hence in the hadeeth, the Prophet sallallahu alihi wasalam, is simply warning the men against their shahwa (lust/desires) for women and that this shahwa (not the women) is one of the biggest trial for men. He, sallallahu alihi wasalam, is not labeling women innately evil or wicked rather he is warning the men that their lust for women will be a test for them. How they act with and around women can be a case for them or against them. Even in our rational world, psychologists have recognized carnal lust of men as one of the strongest desires and addictions.
Nevertheless, the complicity in understanding the beautiful meanings of this hadeeth seems to come from the over zealousness of some brothers in many parts of the Muslim world, who have abused this hadeeth to enforce their male “superiority” over women, and use religious submission of women to satisfy their male chauvinism.
Of the common ways this hadeeth is misused is by restricting women from going to the masajid and branding them a source of “fitnah” for mankind, by adopting a condescending tone or attitude towards the women during khutbah or by delivering lectures warning the men against females, as if they are the cause of the “original sin”. I believe that psychological injuries are far worse than physical injuries and those brothers who demonize women in such a way will be held accountable for the harm resulting from misrepresenting the words of the Prophet, sallallahu alihi wasalam. They have obviously not understood the proper meaning of “fitnah” and thus have decontextualized it.
Second, I looked for other verses that use the word fitnah to refer to things other than women.
Allah azzawal warns against wealth and children calling them a fitnah for us:
إِنَّمَا أَمْوَالُكُمْ وَأَوْلَادُكُمْ فِتْنَةٌ
“Your wealth and your children are only a trial.”
This verse is another proof that just because something is mentioned as “fitnah“, doesn’t make it inherently evil. No one considers money to be evil or one’s progeny to be wicked. People will attain higher levels in Jannah because of how they spend their wealth in the way of Allah. Some will continue to gain good deeds even after their death through the righteous children they raised. The fact is that these two are blessings of Allah and the fitnah lies in how we take advantage of these two blessings, whether we let ourselves get drowned in this world because of them, or we become thankful to Allah for blessing us with these favors and use them to come close to Allah. Similarly, how men deal with their desires for women can either become a path to Jannah or path away from Jannah for them.
The same men who condemn women because they are “fitnah” never condemn wealth or adopt a condescending attitude towards children. Furthermore, these men never restrict the usage or gain of money to keep themselves from the “fitnah” of wealth, nor do they distance themselves from their children to protect themselves from the “fitnah” of awlaad (progeny).
It is quite interesting though that when people, both who abuse and those who reject ahadeeth, evaluate the hadeeth in question, they forget to search how many times and how many things are referred to as fitnah in Qur’an. In reality everything we own and everyone we know can become a form of fitnah for us, as described in this verse:
وَجَعَلْنَا بَعْضَكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ فِتْنَةً أَتَصْبِرُونَ
“And We have made some of you a trial (fitnah) for others, will you have patience?” (25:20)
How many times are men reminded that they too are as much fitnah for women as women are for men? If men are attracted towards women, women too are equally tempted to attract attention from men. Nonetheless, the world is as incomplete without men as it is without women, and women are blessings for men as much as men are blessings for women yet they both remain a fitnah for one another. Men are tested through their women as much as women are tested through their men, but neither group is innately evil.
Hence, the notion that Islam considers women to be the innate source of mischief, inherently evil or inferior (based on the word “fitnah”) is nothing short of a blasphemy and a result of sheer ignorance. Although there are a number of textual proofs opposing such a negative view of women, my favorite one to counter these unsubstantial notions regarding women’s place in Islam is when the Prophet, sallallahu alihi waslama said:
“Made beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.” (Ahmad and An-Nasa ‘i)
Having said all this, I must remind those who doubt the Authority of the Sunnah, position of the Companions, and prefer to put their logical reasoning over textual proof that it is not upon us to bend Islam based upon our own whims and desires. It is sad to see Muslim women ridiculing the ahadeeth simply because they think they contain misogynist undertones. This type of intellectual arrogance is not limited to female Muslims, but even to Muslim men who like to show their sympathy towards women by picking and choosing ahadeeth. Any authentic statement of the Prophet sallallahu alihi wasalam is binding upon us to accept as much as it is binding upon us to accept the ayahs of the Qur’an. Simply because an authentic hadeeth does not make sense to us, does not mean that the hadeeth can be rejected. Similarly, just because some men misinterpret or misuse a certain hadeeth, does not mean that we deny it, to establish our place in our religion. People who have taken this path have endangered themselves with an understanding that is not in obedience to Allah.
My son is not an affliction upon me; in fact, he is one of the biggest blessings from Allah, alhamdullilah, yet he remains a fitnah for me, just as much as I remain a fitnah for him. It was my turn to explain to my son the precise meaning of fitnah, and as I did, his remorse was replaced with relief. As the explanation sank into his little mind, it became obvious through the spark in his eyes and the big smile on his face that he had understood the reality of his “fitnah“. I hope and pray that just as an 8-year-old understood what it means to be a fitnah, so too will most of the Muslims around the world , men and women, so Muslim men can stop demeaning women and Muslim women can stop rejecting the ahadeeth to find their place in Islam.
Unsolicited: Online Sexual Harassment Poisons Social Media For Sisters In Faith
The vast majority of Muslim men will be horrified by these stories and recognize how inappropriate and un-Islamic it is to contact any woman in a manner that is offensive or vulgar.
By Laura El Alam
When Grace* started posting inspirational videos and articles on her public Facebook page, her intention was to reach a non-Muslim audience and show them the beauty of Islam. After all, as a former agnostic who had considered organized religions “distasteful,” she could understand the mindset of many fellow Americans who were suspicious of – or misinformed about- Islam. In her posts, Grace shared the story of her conversion to Islam, highlighted lessons from the Qur’an, talked about the pillars of faith, and generally tried to make Islam more accessible and comprehensible to non-Muslims. While potentially thousands of non-Muslims benefited from her educational material, her noble efforts were derailed by an unlikely source: Muslim men.
In public comments and private messages, Grace found herself receiving a surprising amount of unsolicited flirting, sexual comments and images, and even threats. “All of this made me realize I couldn’t reach my target audience on social media,” explains Grace. “Nearly all the followers I was getting were Muslim men! I have 3,000 likes, and most are Muslim men. My target audience was non-Muslims, but Muslim men sabotaged my efforts and embarrassed me publicly through comments. It was frustrating and disheartening.”
Perhaps she might have ignored and blocked the annoying messages and persevered in her mission, but one man took his online assault to another level. He began stalking Grace (who blocked him), then her husband (who also blocked him), and finally her parents (who were shocked and terrified). Through online messages to all of those people, he called Grace vile names, sent explicit photos, and unleashed words that were both angry and sexual. It caused Grace and her entire family an enormous amount of stress and anger. “My parents were so shaken up that once they found mysterious cigarette butts behind their house and they truly thought the guy had come to their house and was outside it at night smoking cigarettes.”
After the ordeal, Grace’s husband stopped supporting her online dawah efforts. “My husband didn’t like me being a public presence,” she said. “He asked me to stop making videos because he felt it was soliciting unwanted attention. He clearly put the onus on me. He didn’t shame me or anything overt, but in his mind, my face being in the public was the obvious reason I was receiving unwanted and inappropriate attention and contact.”
Some people might think that Grace’s example is an extreme one. Surely not every Muslimah who has a social media presence experiences such offensive treatment from Muslim men or people pretending to be Muslim men?
Unfortunately, the phenomenon is extremely common. Umm Ibrahim of the United Kingdom is another example of a Muslimah who found online sexual harassment in an unlikely place: an Islamic website. “I’ve seen messages of a highly sexual nature sent to an Islamic page which I help admin,” she reports. “A few times I have encountered men posing as women in order to have chats of a sensitive nature with other women. They will pose as a woman having marital problems and will ask to have a chat via Messenger. Usually, this chat will ask for advice regarding intimacy.”
In addition to being an administrator of a website, Umm Ibrahim is also a writer. “If I have been involved in an online discussion or if I have had an article published, I can anticipate an increase in messages,” she says. “Discovering the spam folder on Facebook Messenger was somewhat of a revelation. I had dozens of messages from Muslim men asking to chat, asking if I was married, and asking if I was interested in getting married. I also get a lot of friend requests from men. They are always Muslim men, based on name and location.”
Professional writer Ameera* shares a similar story. “I never used to receive unsolicited messages from Muslim men until I started having articles published on Islamic websites,” she says. “Suddenly, shortly after my first article was published, my inbox was full of men wanting to ‘discuss Islam with me,’ ‘ask me a few questions,’ or compliment me on my hijab. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop at flirtation. Once I opened a pending message that I thought was from a local Facebook buy and sell group, but this one particular message turned out to be a pornographic video sent by a man in Egypt, whose FB profile picture had words from the Qur’an! I closed and deleted the message immediately and blocked the man, but the disgusting image is seared in my brain. I felt — and still, feel — violated.”
“I have received unwanted flirting and a lot of sexual innuendo from men I don’t even know,” confides Salama,* a 20-year-old graduate student in the United States. “I received messages from one person, specifically talking about how he wanted to have sex with me. Granted I didn’t even have any [profile] pics. He was a complete stranger. It was completely unwarranted. I cannot think of a particular reason for why I was targeted,” she adds. “I do know that he asked a simple question on a Muslim forum, and I answered it. I guess that’s when he decided it was okay to privately message me.”
These anecdotes might seem like an indictment of Muslim men in general; however, I believe that those individuals who harass women online constitute a tiny minority of Muslim men. The vast majority of Muslim men will be horrified by these stories and recognize how inappropriate and un-Islamic it is to contact any woman in a manner that is offensive or vulgar.
Online sexual harassment is certainly not unique to the Muslim community. It is a global problem with women, universally, experiencing sexualized forms of abuse at much higher rates than men. According to a 2017 Online Harassment study by the Pew Research Center, “Some 21% of women ages 18 to 29 report being sexually harassed online, a figure that is more than double the share among men in the same age group (9%). In addition, roughly half (53%) of young women ages 18 to 29 say that someone has sent them explicit images they did not ask for.”
Muslims, whose religion’s main characteristic is modesty, should be completely disassociated with any form of depravity, online or in face-to-face interactions. Such behavior is antithetical to our core beliefs, so it was with confusion and disappointment that I embarked upon this necessary but unpleasant exposé.
Unfortunately, there are many brothers who, while condemning online harassment per se, still manage to place the blame anywhere but on their fellow men. They are quick to assume that the woman in question has provoked the harassment in some way. When Muslim women speak up about being abused online, the primary response they receive is, “If you don’t want comments and messages from men, then don’t show your face online.”
This thinking is unfair for several reasons. First of all, even women who do not show their faces on social media still sometimes experience unsolicited and unwanted contact. As Salama points out, “It has been proven many times, that regardless of what a woman does, some men are just predatory and will use whatever opportunity they have to try to prey on her. Covered women get harassed. Women who haven’t posted profile pics have been harassed. Uncovered women get harassed. Women from all over the world have been harassed.”
Many Muslima women — including some of the world’s most esteemed female Islamic lecturers and scholars — choose to show their face on their website, videos, and promotional brochures. They may have various reasons for doing this — Allah knows best — but it is very likely that they use their image on marketing materials or websites for the same reason that many professional men do: consumers trust a product (lecture, book, article, blog, program) more if there is a human face associated with it. People want to see who is behind the words and ideas, and this is why most flyers for Islamic lectures show pictures of the speakers, and why most articles, blogs, and books show photographs of the authors. For Muslim women, showing one’s face online is hardly ever about seduction, temptation, or loose morals. After all, it is the same face we are revealing when we walk down a public street.
Finally, there are many women who choose to show their faces online simply because they believe they should have as much of a right to feel safe and respected in the virtual world as they do in the real world.
Of course, as Muslims, the responsibility is on each of us to obey our Creator’s guidelines. Allah has commanded women to be modest, but He has commanded the same of men. A man who is tempted by a woman’s photograph — whether or not she is dressed according to Islamic mandates — should lower his gaze. If he purposely keeps looking — and more so if he takes inappropriate action — the sin is upon him.
In one hadith from Al-Bukhari, we learn that the Prophet ﷺ was traveling with a Companion named Al-Fadl, who was a handsome youth. A young woman from the tribe of Khath’am approached, and Al-Fadl started looking at her because her beauty attracted him. The Prophet ﷺ caught al-Fadl’s chin and turned his face so that he would stop gazing at her.
It is noteworthy that the Prophetﷺ did not scold the woman for showing her face in public, nor for being too attractive. With his ﷺimpeccable manners, he wordlessly and gently instructed Al-Fadl on the correct action to take when tempted by a woman’s beauty. The onus for modesty was on Al-Fadl, not the woman from Khath’am, who had approached to ask the Prophet ﷺ a question.
As Grace explains, “Men should be held responsible for their actions and be recognized as creatures capable of self-control and morality. Women have a right to exist online as they do in the real world. What’s shameful is that Muslim men still don’t follow the advice of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ when it comes to how they view and treat women. Women never deserve to be treated [as] objects or be blamed for the actions, feelings, or frailty of men’s character.”
She concludes, “The idea that a woman speaking about Islam is an invitation for flirting, sexual innuendos, or stalking is so wrong I don’t even know how to describe it.”
This article, I am sure, will not solve the problem of online sexual harassment of Muslim women. It will likely not be read by the men who engage in such behaviors, and I do realize that if they have the audacity to defy their Creator, they are certainly not going to listen to me. However, I do hope that readers will take away a few key points:
- If you are tempted to blame a woman for being harassed online, think deeply about who is really at fault. Is there any justification for sending porn, threats, or inappropriate messages to a woman? If you truly care about the safety and morality of Muslim women, you will call out the men who are behind the harassment and do whatever you can to educate yourself and others and/or oppose the behavior when you see it.
- If you have young Muslim women in your life, do not assume that they will not encounter inappropriate material or receive unsolicited communications just because they primarily visit Islamic websites. In fact, these sites seem to be a breeding ground for Muslim perverts. Teach youngsters not to open filtered or suspicious messages and not to trust strangers online, even if they appear to be their brothers in faith.
- If you are a convert to Islam, be especially wary of any messages you receive from unknown Muslim men. It is best to delete and block without opening them. Know that some men prey on converts in particular. Be aware that a sincere Muslim would never send sexually suggestive images or messages to a stranger, and one who does will not be a suitable husband for you.
- If you are a Muslim woman who is considering having an online presence for the purpose of dawah, be aware that online sexual harassment is a likely occupational hazard. Set strict privacy filters whenever possible, avoid opening messages from unknown people, and be prepared to block, delete, and unfriend, unapologetically.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
So You Are The Wali, Now What?
The way most Muslims (as well as conservative Christians and Jews) live, a man asks for a woman’s hand in marriage from the father.
The father is not just a turnstile who has to say yes. He is a “wali” or protector and guardian of his daughter’s rights. So he will be asking some serious questions that would be awkward if the woman had to ask them.
Furthermore, in the Muslim community today esp. in the West, there are many converts that seek out a wali because they have no male relative who is Muslim. In this post, I share some guidelines aimed at the wali in his new role and stories that are useful.
Being a wali is not an honorary role. You’re not just throwing out the first pitch. You’re actually trying to throw curveballs to see whether the proposal checks out or has issues.
Here are some questions and demands a wali should make:
Background check: Call and meet at least four people that were close to the man who has proposed and interview them. There’s no husn al-zann (good opinion) in marriage. As a potential suitor, you are rejected until you prove yourself, much like an application for employment. These days, most people’s background can be found on their social media, so the wali has to spend time scrolling down. Keep scrolling, read the comments, look at the pictures, click on who’s tagged in those pictures. Get a good idea. You are a private investigator *before* the problem happens, not after.
Check financials: You need to see the financials to make sure they are not in some ridiculous debt or have bad credit such that they can’t even rent an apartment or cover basic needs. You want some evidence that he can fulfill the obligation of maintenance.
Check the educational background or skill set: This is a given. If it’s solid, then it can outweigh lack of funds at this moment.
Check medical records: If this is a stranger, the wali needs medical records. There was once a wealthy, handsome young man that was suave and a seemingly amazing prospect who proposed for a girl who was comparatively of average looks and from a family of very modest means. The mother and daughter were head over heels, but the dad had enough common sense to know something was up.
“Why would he come knocking on our door?,” he asked.
So the father demanded medical records. The guy never produced them. When the dad pressed him, the man admitted, he had a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and that’s why he couldn’t find anyone else to marry him.
Now note, there are legitimate cases where people have a past when they have made mistakes. This happens to the best of us, and the door for tawbah (repentance) is open. In those cases, there are organizations that match-make for Muslims with STDs. People should act in a responsible manner and not damage the lives of other humans beings.
Lifestyle: It is your job to check if the two parties have agreed on life essentials such as religious beliefs, where to live, how to school kids, etc?
In-laws: Have you at least met the family of the suitor and spent some time with them to make sure there’s nothing alarming?
Engagement: Contrary to popular understanding, there is such a thing as engagement in Islam. It’s an announcement of a future commitment to marriage. Nothing changes between the fiancees, but nobody is allowed to propose anymore. The purpose of engagement is to give time for both parties to get ready. For example, the groom may want to save up some money, or the girl may be finishing up college. Also, it’s easy to put on a face during the get-to-know process, but it’s hard to fake it over an eight or nine-month period. I remember a story where a young woman was engaged, and four months into the engagement they discovered the young man was still getting to know other women. He basically reserved the girl and then went to check for better options. Needless to say, he was dumped on the spot. Engagements are commonly a few months. I think more than a year is too much.
Legal/Civil: The marriage should be legal/civil in the country where you will settle. If you accept a Shariah marriage but not a civil one, know that you’re asking for legal complications, especially if a child enters the picture. (Ed. Note- we realize that some countries do not allow legal registration of more than one marriage- if that is a consideration please look at all options to protect your ward. There are ways to get insurance that can be set up.)
Mahr: Get 50% of the dowry upfront (or some decent amount) and whatever is scheduled to be paid later should be written and signed. I’ve seen too many cases where a really nice dowry is “promised” but never produced.
The dowry should be commensurate to current standards depending on the man’s job. For example in our area in America 5, 7, or 10k is a common range.
In sum, there are very few things in life that are as bad as misery in marriage. The wali’s job is to eliminate the bad things that could have been avoided. If that means he has to be demanding and hated for a few months, it’s worth the cost.
It’s preventative medicine.
Who Can We Trust?
Spiritual abusers are con-artists, and if they were easy to spot then they would be far less successful. That is why you must exercise vigilance and your own judgment above that of public opinion. Never let the person’s position make you trust them more than you would without it.
Spiritual abusers work covertly, present themselves well, and use their service as a cover beneath which to operate. The way to avoid them is to recognize their tactics and avoid being caught by them.
Spiritual abuse often begins with hard-to-spot precursors, with manipulators exploiting grey areas and blurring boundaries to confuse targets. For example, when setting someone up for illicit relations or secret marriage, teachers may begin with inappropriate jokes that lower boundaries.
They may touch others in ways that confuse the person touched as to permissibility, for example, men touching women on their hijabs rather than direct skin. They may inappropriately touch someone in ways that leave him/her wondering whether or not it was intentional.
There may be frivolous texting while the premise of engagement is ‘work only’. Boundaries may be blurred by adding flirtatious content, sending articles praising polygamy, or mentioning dreams about getting married. The recipient may struggle to pinpoint what’s wrong with any of this, but the bottom line is that they don’t have to.
While these tactics may be hard to prove, you don’t need to prove that you don’t want to be communicated with in this way and that you will not tolerate it. You can withdraw from the situation on the basis of your own boundaries.
One of the key challenges in standing up to spiritual abuse is the lack of confidence in calling out bad behavior or the need for validation for wrongs. We may be afraid to a question a teacher who is more knowledgeable than us when he is doing clear haram. However, halal and haram are defined by Allah and no human has the right to amend them. If a religious leader claims exemption to the rules for themselves or their students, that’s a big, bright, red flag.
Beware of Bullying
When you witness or experience bullying, understand that a Muslim’s dignity is sacred and don’t accept justifications of ‘tarbiyah’ (spiritual edification/character reformation) or breaking someone’s nafs (ego). If you didn’t sign up for spiritual edification, don’t accept any volunteer spiritual guides.
If you did sign up, pay attention as to whether these harsh rebukes are having a positive or negative effect. If they are having a negative emotional, mental, or physical effect on you, then this is clearly not tarbiyah, which is meant to build you up.
When abuse in the name of tarbiyah happens, it is the shaykh himself or the shaykha herself who needs character reformation. When such behavior goes unchecked, students become outlets of unchecked anger and are left with trauma and PTSD. This type of bullying is very common in women’s groups.
Trust Built and Trust Destroyed
There are different levels of trust, and as it relates to religious leaders, one does not need to investigate individuals or build trust for a perfunctory relationship. You do not need a high degree of trust if you are just attending someone’s general lectures and not establishing any personal relationship.
If you want to study something with an Islamic teacher, do so as you would with a school-teacher, understanding that their position does not make that person either exceptionally safe nor exceptionally harmful. Treat religious figures as religious consultants who are there to answer questions based on their knowledge. Give every teacher a clean slate, don’t have baseless suspicions, but if behavior becomes manipulative, exploitative, cultish, or otherwise abusive, don’t justify it either.
Personal accountability is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith and we have to take responsibility for our own faith and actions. There is no need to be suspicious without reason, but nor is there a justification for blind trust in someone you don’t know, just because they lead prayers or have a degree of religious education.
It is natural to ask ourselves whether people can be trusted after experiencing or learning about spiritual abuse. The answer is yes – you can trust yourself. You can also trust others in ways that are appropriate for the relationship. If you know someone well and they have proven over a long period of time to be trustworthy, keep secrets, and do not use you or take advantage of you, then it makes sense to trust that person more than a stranger or someone who has outward uprightness that you do not know well. That level of trust is earned through long-time demonstration of its characteristics.
Seeing someone on stage for years or relying on testimony of people impressed by someone should not convince you to lower your guard. Even if you do believe someone is pious, you still never drop your better judgment, because even saints are fallible.
Don’t Fall for Reputation
Never take other respected leaders praising or working alongside an individual as proof of his or her trustworthiness. It is possible that the teachers you trust are unaware of any wrongdoing. It’s not a reasonable expectation, nor is it a responsibility for them to boycott or disassociate themselves from another religious figure even if they are aware of them being abusive.
Furthermore, skilled manipulators often gain favor from respected teachers both overseas and domestically to gain credibility.
If one shaykh praises another shaykh, but you witness abusive behavior, don’t doubt yourself based on this praise. The praise may have been true at one time or may have been true in the experience of the one giving the praise, but no one knows another person’s current spiritual state as spiritual states can change.
Even if the abusive individual was previously recognized to be a great wali (saint), understand that there are saints who have lost their sainthood as they do not have isma (divine protection from sin or leaving Islam) like the prophets (upon them be peace) do. What was true yesterday, may not be true today.
Often praises of integrity, courage, and inclusiveness are heaped on men who support influential female figures. However, men who are praised as ‘allies,’ and thanked for ‘using their privilege’ to support female scholarship and the participation of women in religious organizations and events are no more trustworthy than those who don’t.
Abusers are often very image-conscious and may be acting to improve their own image and brand strength. Influential male and female religious figures also help one another with mutual praising and social-proofing. That is how the misdoings of men who are supportive of women are ignored, as long as they support the right politicized causes such as inclusive spaces and diverse panels.
Don’t be tricked into trust through a person’s credentials. An ijazah (license) to be a shaykh of a tariqa is purportedly the highest credential. It’s a credential that allegedly has a chain that goes all the way back to the Prophet , but that does not impart any of the Prophet’s character or trustworthiness in and of itself. A shaykh has to continuously live up to the ijaza and position. The position does not justify behavior outside of the sharia or any form of abuse. Scholars are inheritors of the Prophet only to the degree to which they embody his character.
When a teacher who hasn’t spent adequate time with righteous shayukh abuses, they are said to lack suhba (companionship of the pious), and that is why they are abusive.
The truth is many of the worst abusers in traditional circles are highly certified, have spent adequate time with shayukh, are valid representatives of them, and are able to abuse because the previously mentioned credentials lead to blind trust.
Don’t let certifications about spiritual abuse, ethical leadership, or the like mean anything to you. Skilled narcissists will be the first to get such certifications and take courses because they know this will make people trust them more. You will see courses on ‘healthy leadership’ and ‘spiritual abuse prevention’ being taught and designed by them. There is a false premise behind such certifications that if religious leaders knew how abuse occurs and the damage it causes victims they wouldn’t do it. The fact is they know how abuse works, know how damaging it is, and don’t care. In a way, it’s good to have lessons on spiritual abuse from purveyors of abuse, just as learning theft prevention from a thief might be the most beneficial.
Don’t judge by rhetoric
Don’t look at the rhetoric of groups or individuals to see how seriously they take abuse. Spiritual abuse occurs in all groups. It is common for members of one group to call out abuse that they see in another group while ignoring abuse occurring within their own group.
Sufis who will talk about the importance of sharia, label others as ‘goofy-Sufis,’ and insist that real Sufis follow sharia, will very often abuse in private and use the same justifications as the other Sufi groups they publicly deride.
Many imams and religious leaders will talk publicly about the importance of justice, having zero-tolerance for abuse, and the importance of building safe spaces, while they themselves are participating in the abuse.
Furthermore, female religious leaders will often cover up secret marriages, and other abuses for such men and help them to ostracize and destroy the credibility of their victims as long as their political views align. Muslim mental health providers often incorporate religious figures when they do programs, and in some cases they involve known abusers if it helps their cause.
In some cases, the organization does not know of any abuse. Abusive individuals use partnerships with Muslim mental health organizations to enhance their image as a “safe person.” This is especially dangerous due to the vulnerability of those struggling with mental illness and spiritual issues, who may then be exploited by the abuser. It is a community responsibility to ensure the safety of these vulnerable individuals and to ensure that they do have access to resources that can actually help them.
Don’t judge by fame
One false assumption is that the local-unknown teacher is sincere while the famous preacher is insincere and just wants to amass followers. This contrast is baseless although rhetorically catchy.
The fact is, many unknown teachers desire fame and work towards it more than those who are famous. Other times the unknown and famous teacher may have the same love of leadership, but one is more skilled than the other. They both may also be incredibly sincere.
Ultimately, we cannot judge what is in someone’s heart but must look at their actions, and if their actions are abusive, they are a danger to the community. Both famous and non-famous teachers are equally capable of spiritual abuse.
Look for a procedure
Before being involved in an organization, look for a code of conduct. There is no accountability without one in non-criminal matters. Never depend on people, look at the procedures and ensure that the procedure calls for transparency, such as the one we at In Shaykh’s Clothing published and made free for the public to use.
Procedure also applies to an organizations’ financials. Do not donate money to organizations based on personalities, instead demand financial transparency and accountability for the money spent. There is great incentive for spiritual abusers to win the trust of crowds when it means they can raise money without any financial accountability.
But what about Husne-Zann? Thinking well of others?
Allah tells us يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ
“O You who believe, leave much suspicion, indeed some suspicions are sinful” (Quran 49:12).
From this verse, we see that some – not all negative opinions are sinful. The prohibition is partitive, meaning some bad opinions are permissible.
If someone punches you, it is not hunse-zann to assume that person just happened to stretch with a closed fist and did not see your face was in the way. This kind of delusion will lead to you getting punched more. To be wary of their fist isn’t a sinful level of suspicion.
Part of why spiritual abuse is difficult to detect is that its purveyors have a reputation for outward uprightness. They are thought well of in the community, and in many cases they are its pillars and have decades of positive service to their defense. Assuming that someone cannot be abusive simply because they have been a teacher or leader for a long time is not husne-zann. When facts are brought to light- like a fist to the face – it is delusional to assume they didn’t mean it that way.
If someone does something that warrants suspicion, then put your guard up and don’t make excuses for those actions. Start with a general guard and be procedural about things which require a procedure. For example, if you are going to loan someone money, don’t just take their word that they will pay you back but insist on a written record. If they say they are offended, just say “it’s my standard procedure to avoid any confusion later on.” A reasonable person won’t have an issue with that. If someone mentions on the phone they will pay you $100 for your work, write an email to confirm what was said on the phone so there’s a record for it.
Lastly, and most importantly, never leave your child alone with a teacher where you or others cannot see them. Many cases of child sexual assault can be prevented if we never allow children to study alone with adults. There should never be an exception to this, and parents much uphold this as a matter of policy. Precaution is not an accusation, and this is a professional and standard no one should reject.