A major part of creating a beloved community is the creation of a family but a Muslim marriage crisis is at our doorstep.
Men and women who really want to get married often face a myriad of issues in finding a good match. The issues are as diverse as the American Muslim community scattered all over the country. Meeting venues and forums are few and this seems to be one major deterrent to suitable marriages.
Adherence to cultural norms and expectations, generational disparity and the neglect of the Islamic standard for the choice of partners are also hurdles single American Muslims face.
An Epidemic: Unmarried and over 30
There is an extraordinary number of very educated women in their thirties and above who have not found a spouse. As intelligent, educated, single women venture to find men to set the cornerstone for a family, they cannot find suitable matches. Women in their late 20s and early 30s, urged to be educated all their lives, settle into their careers or studies, suddenly become less desirable mates to some men.
Another phenomenon faced by several ethnic communities is that many educated men marry outside of their community, race and religion. They are not as bound by the ticking biological clock factor and can usually (not always) find a wife when they get serious about marriage.
Nawaz Khan*, in his 70s, has coffee with his wife in the lobby of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. He is in tears, worried about his very well-educated daughter’s prospects of finding a husband. They are here to attend the matrimonial banquet. He is amongst the many worried parents at the ISNA convention.
At any Muslim marriage event, there are more females attendees than males. The ISNA marriage banquet sold out for the women’s section weeks in advance, while men strolled in at the last minute. Al Rahmah Marriage Bureau in Baltimore has two women for every man in its database. At a local marriage brunch, many of the women attending were born and raised in the US, educated and articulate, while most of the men were first generation immigrants, without large local networks.
Muslim community leaders are taking notice and some are calling it an epidemic. Shuyookh with large social media following often bring up the topic on their timelines.
“We are modeling for our community the lack of marriages, single families and broken homes, that good practicing sisters may never get married. So, if you are a young girl looking at the life of a mu’min versus the life of the dominant culture, the dominant culture may seem more alluring and look to have more opportunities than the mu’min life. We should not be surprised if we continue on this path that in another generation we end up with a community who is either not getting married or having more sisters marrying outside their faith and children who become adults who think that having children on their own is the ideal instead of in a two-parent home,” writes Heather-Laird Jackson.
“I know sisters who have started dating because they cannot take being single anymore,” said Sr. Denise*, a divorced mother of two boys from College Park, MD, attending the ISWA matrimonial brunch.
Another troubling point brought up by Muslims across the diaspora was the desperation angle. If a single Muslim woman of any age expresses interest in getting married she has to deal with the stigma of appearing desperate. This is very damaging to the psyche of the sisters in the community.
“‘Oh my God, she wants to be married, she is so desperate – astagfirullah…’ this popular statement comes mostly from married females when a single Muslimah shares with her that she wants to be married!! Even [those] who were once in the same situation… it’s like, as a community, we don’t have each other’s back anymore,” laments Naeema*.
“Now, it became a taboo for a Muslimah to say ‘I want to get married’,” says Denise*. “[There is] way too much emphasis on sex. Women are being told that they are desperate, weak, and can’t control themselves.”
The delaying of the American adolescence experience or the new emerging adulthood stage has also contributed to the delay in marriage, especially, with the high school experience extended by local community colleges. According to the New York Times, in 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had, by the time they reached 30, passed all five [what sociologists term as] milestones of adulthood: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. Among 30-year-olds in 2000, according to data from the United States Census Bureau, fewer than half of the women and one-third of the men had done so.
Culturally, American society as a whole is seeing this trend of delayed marriages. “Young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone,'” say the researchers at the Brookings Institute. “That is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”
Surveys conducted by AlMaghrib Institute of its student body found that the main reasons that its students were delaying marriage were parents, finances, education, fear of rejection and commitment for men and fear of control and intimidation for women.
“A lot of men fear rejection and get intimidated. In the meanwhile, women wait for proposals and decide to pursue further education while they are waiting. This, in turn, intimidates men more and they think the women are too overqualified or will not make good ‘Muslim’ wives for them and eventually get married to someone from overseas,” says Shaykh Yaser Birjas of AlMaghrib. Or someone much younger since they can without issues.
“For myself, being financially ready [is important] because it is such a big responsibility, starting a new family,” says Farhan, 33, of Philadelphia, PA. His career goals are the major reason for the delay in his marriage.
Some Immigrant Families Issues
Many immigrant parents tend to disregard the fact that their children are raised in the West, and will, ultimately have some elements of their personality influenced by the West. The evolving identity of Muslims in this country further contributes to the marriage crisis. “My parents seem to have the idea – similar to some other Muslims in Western countries – that a spouse from their country would be better. Better for whom? Better for me or better for them? Is this preference due to the fact that they feel culture, ethnicity, and religion would be better preserved this way?” questions a single Muslimah.
Cultural baggage from immigrant parents is a constant problem in many of the communities, but many are optimistic that the tide is changing. Hayat, an Eritrean-American mother from Washington, D.C., says that she and her friends have moved away from this line of thinking. “Many families who come from war ravaged areas think that the only way they can hold on to their culture is by marrying their children to someone from the same background, but now we face [the] reality that as long as the spouse is Muslim, it is acceptable.”
Elitism plays a big part too in many cases, according to matchmakers I spoke to. A lot of focus is on being financially ready, instead of stability. “I just wish that parents would first look at the character and decency of another human being and their families and then look at their background-culture, language, likes, class, and career,” an attendee at the ISNA banquet gives his feedback.
Dowry is an issue faced by many immigrant families although the context differs from ethnicity to ethnicity. South Asian families with daughters are expected to gift the groom a hefty dowry, whereas in Arab and African communities, the demand for a large mahr deters men from proposing and an offer of too little mahr deters women from accepting. “The most hated sentence [to] Muslim sisters is when men say ‘We don’t marry because you ask for too much dowry (mahr)’. Just because a few females are greedy, doesn’t mean we are all like that,” says Naeema.
In cultures where arranged marriages are prevalent, men and women complain about the interference of the parents; in cultures where it isn’t, practicing Muslim men and women are finding it extremely hard to meet someone on their own.
A sister from the Somali community in Fairfax, VA, where there are a substantial number of unmarried women in the late thirties, vents her frustration. “The issue in [my] community is the expectation of the girl to find a man for herself: unfortunately, in our culture, “arranged” marriages are practiced by few and it is widely expected for the woman to take it upon her shoulders to bring the guy to her parents when she is ready to be married… only few, perhaps a handful of families do arranged marriages… I am a devout Muslimah and my religion tells me to never ever [sic] date a guy, but again, my community and the “social norms” are completely against that… I, along with many Somali females are now in their 30’s and single… The older generation needs to change this disgusting norm,” she says.
A few points specific to African-American Muslims
Black Muslim Americans write about constructs of the perfect Muslim woman and increasingly black men tend to think they will find this ‘Muslim’ bride in the immigrant communities.
When asked in an African American only Facebook forum, created to promote growth with-in the community, what barriers the participants face to getting married, both men and women blame the opposite gender, some playfully, others in all seriousness. Questions posed about marriage dissolved into hostility between the sexes, as women blame the lack of ‘good Muslim men’ and men have idealistic notions of a ‘good Muslim women’.
Some think that media gloom and doom which portrays myths about Black marriages in general may also contribute to the image that singles from this community have of each other.
Colorism and racism are very common experiences faced by a large number of people trying to get married.
Wanting to marrying Young
Aniq Tanwir, a South Asian American, was attending the session on pre-marriage counseling at the ISNA convention. It is a constant struggle with temptations for this outspoken 22-year-old electrical engineer. He lives at home and supports his parents. ‘How do you get to know someone? What if they are really dirty? You can pray for the best but the constraints are a big struggle,” he says. He mentions the trend of ‘halal’ dating where practicing men and women talk and meet, but do not get married.
He is frustrated because he is emotionally and financially ready for marriage but has three older sisters who are in different stages of their academics and medical careers. He will have to wait until his sisters are all married, otherwise it will ‘look weird’, and people from his parent’s social circle will wonder what is ‘wrong’ with his sisters. “I would never want to be the reason for my sisters not to have a wonderful match.” He is okay with marrying someone older and is okay with his sisters marrying someone younger. “It’s not about age, it is about maturity and compatibility.”
Should Muslims marry young to protect themselves or wait until they are emotionally ready for marriage is a popular question asked by the youth. “Don’t rush your marriage until you can do justice,” says Imam Mohammad Magid of ADAMS Center, in Virginia. Other local scholars urge younger marriages with room for the couple to struggle, navigating studies, careers and life together.
Instant Islam- Instant Marriage
Converts have their own set of issues. “What works for families from overseas doesn’t work for us. We have so much baggage as reverts,” say R. Kerns, a community activist. Many converts are often urged to get married as soon as they accept Islam. New converts are still learning about the religion and the pressure to get married is very high.
As many do not know their rights and understand differences in opinion, they think the only route to marriage is what is being presented to them. “I don’t recommend this to anyone. You are just learning the religion and getting married just makes the equation harder to solve,” says Kerns. Often with no family or support system, many turn to the imam to act as their wali but, in reality, a majority of the time, the imam does not know them. “I have had people call me late at night to perform a nikkah and act as a wali,” says Imam Magid.
Many are influenced into decisions that are culturally unsuitable for them. When women and men are introduced by the imam, they often don’t share their legal or financial history. “That’s what we don’t see in the imam’s office – the two sides of a brother,” says Kerns. “The lives we live as Muslims have to be inclusive of who we are, where we came from. Many of us have dealt with prison, abuse, and need to be deprogrammed.”
Tribalism, even more than racism, is prevalent all round. “We get requests that the candidate must be Indian and not Pakistani, Durrani not Mazari, must be African-American, not African, so we counsel them so they can enlarge their vision,” says Muhammad Jameel, a matchmaker in the Baltimore area for the past 24 years.
There is also an unrealistic focus on physicality all around. Outside the ISNA Marriage banquet, Dr. Parveen Qureshi, a volunteer who has attended enough of them to comment, says that people are too picky; they want someone who looks like a model. People want their ideal spouse who looks a certain way, has a certain job etc. and will not settle for anything else. Why should we compromise before the marriage. “With so many expectations and not many people lowering their expectations, it makes it much harder to find the right person,” says Malik Shabazz.
A woman at a forum at the Islamic Heritage Museum in DC complained of Muslim men pursuing women who were not Muslims, and how her hijab made it hard for her to find a spouse as she didn’t look as ‘sexy’ and could not compete.
Dr. Qureshi also thinks that the marriage banquets arranged by ISNA and others should be the culmination of careful matchmaking prior to the event, not 400 people thrown together in a room. The ISNA convention has provided marriage banquets set up speed dating style for many years, with mixed results . “People can confused when they have so many choices at one time.” Her nephew met a girl he liked but after meeting so many candidates all he remembered about her was her red scarf.
Social media has made it more difficult because there is little accountability involved, and it is easy to cross boundaries. “Once you get bored with talking to someone, it is easy to just drop that whole prospect. Also unrealistic expectations, on both sides, further complicates the issue. I think eligible guys and girls need a more natural and less induced forum to meet, with sincere facilitators who want the best for the single people in our communities,” says Dania*, a single dental student from Arizona.
Increased physical mobility is a hurdle too. Tolo O. is an eligible, eloquent Nigerian man with ties in Maryland. He doesn’t have a wide Muslim social circle or family in NYC, where he lives, to help him find a match. “You can’t just walk up to a woman and ask [do] you want to get married. I have walked up to someone before and was asked ‘Why are you talking to me?’” he says. He wants to find someone like him and doesn’t have much time to go on websites. He is open to being introduced to any race or ethnicity and is currently using the Islamic Center at NYU as a resource.
Divorced or Widowed Men and Women
Divorced and widowed men and women face an even harder road to marriage. “They are divorced, and then they are divorced from the community,” says N.J., a wedding planner in the DC Metro area. She has a recently divorced sister. “The stigma is so huge. She was physically abused by her ex-husband, and now is being emotionally abused by our community.”
EternalGarment.com, endorsed by 45 scholars, is a new website that caters to previously married men and women. “I had such a hard time getting remarried after my mutual divorce,” said Reza ul Hasan, the founder of Eternal Garment. Some masajid have started matchmaking services such as Salaam Nikah, a local service offered for divorced and widowed Muslims by the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia.
Shortage of Resources
The shortage of resources in local communities is staggering as every person interviewed complained about the lack of resources. “Imams don’t get back to you, and by the third call you feel so worthless,” expresses Denise*.
Imams say that they are overwhelmed with other duties. Some do not have any expertise or interest. Others do not want to take on the responsibility of making a bad match and say that this is a communal responsibility. “This is a community wide issue and all parts of the community need to come together to work on it,” says Imam Tahir Anwar. Others are confined to their own masajid and circles.
Many religious leaders do take an active role in arranging events and suggesting matches to their community members. Imam Magid holds more intimate singles gatherings, participants gather in groups and talk about the Quran and characteristics of husband and wives. Imam Faizul Khan of the Islamic Society of Washington Area conducts the bi-yearly Matrimonial Brunch. Khan has had many success stories, about 20 couples every year for the past decade.
Imams, Islamic Centers, Muslim Student Associations, online marriage sites, local professional matchmakers, volunteer matchmakers (khalas and aunties), active men and women in the community and Facebook groups are some of the options for resources.
In one city a ladies-only tea is hosted by Rukhsana Ameen, where females are invited to meet potential candidates for males they know. This unique solution caters to conservative women who do not want to meet men on their own.
Annual matrimonial events are also arranged by Islamic Centers where singles meet and greet in a pre-arranged setting. Islamic Circles is a London-based non-profit that holds specialized matrimonial events in DC, when requested by locals. They held 3 separate events in 2012 for practicing, converts, and professional Muslims.
ISWA caters to all ages. Talib* is attending as a wali for his widowed mother. Muhammad Mustaqeem, a single software engineer from Frederick, MD, is impressed with the event. He feels that the event was held according to Islamic guidance. “It is organized, and we know that everyone here is looking to get married. You get the information; it is just like a job hunt and you go for what you want, you have to be willing to put in your time to look,” he says, “If you are expecting to walk in and find somebody, [that] is silly. Just have patience.” ISWA has close to 400 individuals in its database.
“I treated it like a job hunt looking through pages and pages of profiles to find the right match,” says Reza ul Hasan, founder of EternalGarment.com. There are many other options online: HalfOurDeen.com, SingleMuslim.com, and even those that cater to particular backgrounds, such as shaadi.com, and singleblackmuslims.com.
Muhammad, a man in his late 20’s attending the ISWA brunch, did have issues with the lax nature of sites like SingleMuslim.com and appreciated the Islamic background and personal touch that the brunch provided.
Many American singles express their frustration with the many hours they spend online searching for the perfect person. Al Rahmah Marriage Bureau uses the Muslim Volunteer Matchmakers team, matchmakers that spend these hours on your behalf. Their goal is to help their clients find that perfect person. All MVM Team matchmakers have doctorates from the United States.
“We have many impersonal institutions opening up but those of us whose families come from traditional cultures are not used to this idea. We need another layer of institutions to normalize expectations for our parents,” says Farhan, a recent immigrant. The stigma attached to the use of these institutions has collectively waned in the second and third generations, but individually more singles need to stop waiting and proactively start looking for spouses.
“It is a shame that we see so many beautiful females out there who are waiting to be married, but yet, we as a community have failed them. Everyone says we have a problem in our Muslim community when it comes to marriage, but no one is willing to fix it. I say to anyone who wants to fix this problem to start with their single friends,” says Naeema.
The Muslims in US need more local matrimonial events, regional cooperative databases that shares resources amongst all the masajid and organizations, as well as pastoral care individualized to suit the needs of these diverse communities.
This is an urgent need and a collective responsibility.
*some names changed for privacy
A version of this feature was published in The Muslim Link newspaper.
Raising a Child between Ages 7-12
From a cognitive-development standpoint, this is called a concrete operational period, according to Jean Piaget.
(N.B: Some adults never progress beyond this phase, while 15% of kids may reach the following formal-operational phase at age 9!)
The child now (7-12) may factor in two dimensions of an object simultaneously. So, the longer cup may have less water because it is thinner. However, this is still hard for him/her to perform in the abstract realm, so, they are still uni-dimensional in that respect. Concepts and behaviors are still black and white. It is also hard for the kids in this stage to imagine and solve the structure of a mathematical problem. They cannot think contrary to facts. In other words, you can’t get them to use as a basis for an argument a question like what if the sky rains sugar instead of water?
Socially, Erikson felt that in this period kids develop industry or inferiority. According to his theory, from age six to puberty, children begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments. If encouraged, they feel industrious and confident in their ability to achieve goals.
Based on these observations, we may recommend:
1- Using a lot of hands-on teaching, since they still have limited ability with conceptualization and abstract reasoning.
2- Continue the focus on memorization. If you want them to finish the Quran in 1-2 years, 12 and/or 13 seem to be the prime years for that. This suits some children and some families, not all. If you like a more gradual approach, you should have them start serious memorization at 7, accelerate at 10, and finish by 15-17. Not all kids are meant to memorize the whole Quran though; they can still be educated and pious. Invest in their strengths, not your dreams.
3- Use concrete props and visual aids, especially when dealing with sophisticated material. Use story problems in mathematics.
4- Use open-ended questions that will stimulate thinking and help the child reach the following stage faster. Example: “What do you think about the relationship between the brain and the mind?”; “What do you think about the relationship between prayful-ness and piety?” Make sure you know the right answers!
5- More explanations will be needed, but keep them simple, and even though they should be more detailed than the last stage, they still need to be uni-dimensional. Examples: we obey God because he created us; if we disobey Him, we get punished, and if we obey Him, we get rewarded in this life and in the hereafter. Too early to teach him that “the brokenness of the disobedient is better than the haughtiness of the obedient.” Break it down. Humbleness and obedience are good, while haughtiness and disobedience are bad.
6- Encourage and praise their accomplishments, while making them aware that there is always room for improvement. Continue to encourage initiative-taking and leadership qualities, yet you may also set limits, and make them aware that they will have to always report to someone. Even if there are no people above them, Allah always is. They have to adapt to being leaders and followers at the same time, because that is the reality of all people.
7- This is still a stage of belonging and affiliation to the group, and the child will develop more or less attachment to Islam through his or her experience at the masjid and with the community.
Raising A Child Between Ages 2-7 | Dr Hatem Al Haj
This is called a pre-operational period by Jean Piaget who was focused on cognitive development.
Children this age have difficulty reconciling between different dimensions or seemingly contradictory concepts. One dimension will dominate and the other will be ignored. This applies in the physical and abstract realms. For example, the water in the longer cup must be more than that in the shorter one, no matter how wide each cup is. Length dominates over width in his/her mind.
Throughout most of this stage, a child’s thinking is self-centered (egocentric). This is why preschool children have a problem with sharing.
In this stage, language develops very quickly, and by two years of age, kids should be combining words, and by three years, they should be speaking in sentences.
Erik Erikson, who looked at development from a social perspective, felt that the child finishes the period of autonomy vs. shame by 3 years of age and moves on to the period of initiative vs. guilt which will dominate the psycho-social development until age 6. In this period, children assert themselves as leaders and initiative takers. They plan and initiate activities with others. If encouraged, they will become leaders and initiative takers.
Based on the above, here are some recommendations:
In this stage, faith would be more caught than taught and felt than understood. The serene, compassionate home environment and the warm and welcoming masjid environment are vital.
Recognition through association: The best way of raising your kid’s love of Allah and His Messenger is by association. If you buy him ice cream, take the opportunity to tell them it is Allah who provided for you; the same applies to seeing a beautiful rose that s/he likes, tell them it is Allah who made it. Tell them stories about Prophet Muhammad . Statements like: “Prophet Muhammad was kinder to kids than all of us”; “Prophet Muhammad was kind to animals”; ” Prophet Muhammad loved sweets”; ” Prophet Muhammad helped the weak and old,” etc. will increase your child’s love for our most beloved .
Faith through affiliation: The child will think, “This is what WE do, and how WE pray, and where WE go for worship.” In other words, it is a time of connecting with a religious fraternity, which is why the more positive the child’s interactions with that fraternity are, the more attached to it and its faith he/she will become.
Teach these 2-7 kids in simple terms. You may be able to firmly insert in them non-controversial concepts of right and wrong (categorical imperatives) in simple one-dimensional language. Smoking is ḥarâm. No opinions. NO NUANCES. No “even though.” They ate not ready yet for “in them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people.”
Promote their language development by speaking to them a lot and reading them books, particularly such books that provoke curiosity and open discussions to enhance their expressive language. Encourage them to be bilingual as learning two languages at once does not harm a child’s cognitive abilities, rather it enhances them.
This is despite an initial stage of confusion and mixing that will resolve by 24 to 30 months of age. By 36 months of age, they will be fluent bilingual speakers. Introduce Islamic vocabulary, such as Allah, Muhammad , masjid, Muslim, brothers, salaat, in-sha’a-Allah, al-Hamdulillah, subhana-Allah, etc. (Don’t underestimate the effect of language; it does a lot more than simply denoting and identifying things.)
In this pre-operational period, their ability of understanding problem solving and analysis is limited. They can memorize though. However, the focus on memorization should still be moderate. The better age for finishing the memorization of the Quran is 10-15.
Use illustrated books and field trips.
Encourage creativity and initiative-taking but set reasonable limits for their safety. They should also realize that their freedom is not without limits.
Between 3-6 years, kids have a focus on their private parts, according to Freud. Don’t get frustrated; tell them gently it is not appropriate to touch them in public.
Don’t get frustrated with their selfishness; help them gently to overcome this tendency, which is part of this stage.
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.