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The Myth of the Depression-Proof Muslim

Zeba Khan

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There’s this article I haven’t written yet, the one where I confess to struggling with depression.

In that soul-baring masterpiece I finally admit to sleeping too little and breaking down too often. I talk about having a child with autism, a rare genetic disease, and the heart-breaking pain of watching my children develop the same disease too.

I cry while writing it, you cry while reading it. Its completion gives purpose to my years of private struggle but – but I haven’t written that one yet. So I’m writing this one instead.

We Muslims have some pretty ridiculous myths about depression, and the worst is that somehow there is “no depression in Islam.”

O mankind, there has to come to you instruction from your Lord and healing for what is in the breasts and guidance and mercy for the believers. – Qur’an 10:57

Allah calls the Qur’an the healer of hearts. If depression doesn’t exist, is Allah referring to coronary heart disease?

This myth’s existence is based on the idea that depression is a form of ingratitude or low faith. Therefore, a person in depression mustn’t be “in Islam” so to speak.

Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested?  Allah asks this of us in Surah Anqaboot. You think being a believer means never being stressed? Wrong.

We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false. – Qur’an 29:2-3

Allah tested believers before, and He’ll test believers now. To say that depression is a sign of weak faith is to imply that those with bad lives are guilty of being bad Muslims, and this completely contradicts what we know about the most righteous people. In fact, the more righteous you are, the more likely you are to be tested.

Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqaas, may Allah be pleased with him, once asked, “O Messenger of Allah, which of the people are most sorely tested?”

The Prophet ﷺ said: “The prophets, then the next best and the next best. A man will be tested in accordance with his level of religious commitment. If his religious commitment is strong, he will be tested more severely, and if his religious commitment is weak, he will be tested in accordance with his religious commitment. Calamity will keep befalling a person until he walks on the earth with no sin on him.”

For as long as people have been unhappy, the human mind has struggled with understanding the difference between a test and punishment. A person can suffer and instead of seeing their suffering as temporary opportunity, they wonder what they did to deserve such punishment.

Shaitaan loves this train of thought, because it travels due south. I’ve done everything Allah asked me to. I know I’ve messed up, but I said I was sorry. Why is He is doing this to me? Either Allah’s not fair or Allah’s not really there. Either way, this sucks and I don’t wanna do this anymore.

That’s a dangerous ride to take, and if you don’t change direction before going too far, your options become limited to loss of faith or loss of life. You either give up on Allah and find other reasons to continue living, or discontinue living entirely.

No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.  – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Life is painful and unpredictable and complicated, so when it comes to knowing the difference between a punishment and a test, all you have to remember is this: How are you reacting to it?

If you find yourself faced with depression and you fight it with the help of Allah and all the means He puts at your disposal, it is a test and you have passed it even if you NEVER fully defeat depression. As long as your keep your faith and stay patient, you have shed sins the way a tree sheds its leaves in fall. You trade some pain in this life for reward in the next, that other believers will be halal jealous of.

However, if you find yourself faced with depression and you resent Allah for it, allowing your state to push you farther from Him and closer to any sinful thing you can use to distract yourself from it, then your test has become your punishment. Your response increases your pain in this life AND the next.

Say: “Nothing shall ever happen to us except what Allah has ordained for us. He is our protector.” And in Allah let the believers put their trust. – Qur’an 9:51

A dear friend of mine called me once, knowing that I was struggling. She had been taking a class on the names of Allah, and when she read up on Al-Jameel, she just had to tell me about it.

“Zeba listen!” she said excitedly, “Allah is Al Jameel, He is Beautiful! He creates beautiful things! He loves Beauty!”

I thought of flowers and fractals and fish. I didn’t see the relevance. “And?”

“Don’t you get it? Al-Jameel wrote your Qadr with beauty too. He wrote autism into your son’s Qadr. He wrote beauty in all of it, even in your pain.”

If that hit you in the heart the way it hit me, make dua for Mona. I think of that phone call often, because it was the first time I began to see pain as part Allah’s plan, rather than my own failure at the emotional invulnerability that I believed all good Muslims were supposed to have.

I wasn’t hurting because I was a bad Muslim, badly managing Allah’s punishment for my badness.  I was hurting because Allah was allowing me to experience hurt, and hurt forced me to seek Allah out for healing.

How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for his affairs are all good, and this applies to no one but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is thankful for it and that is good for him. If something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience and that is good for him. -Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Being depressed feels like sitting underwater in the bottom of a well, hating the darkness but starving for the air and strength needed to swim toward the surface. It’s cold and lonely and desperately hopeless down there. Depression feels so very far away from Allah, but it forces me to fight my way closer to Him. And I feel safer and less afraid knowing that Allah put me at the bottom of the well the same way He put Yusuf down there, peace be upon him.

Allah knows I’m  down here. He knows I can make it out. I don’t have to know everything that He knows, I just have to trust Him.

In my other article- I’ll write it one day maybe – I have this totally neat, emotionally satisfying and perfectly well-rounded conclusion. I put depression in its proper context by calling it a test, not a punishment or curse for weak Muslims. I let on that I was depressed before but I’m ok now, and if I can make it out of depression then you can too.

That’s in my other article though. In this one, I’ll be frank. I get sad sometimes, I get really, really sad. And then, I feel guilty for feeling sad. Not because I’m blaming myself for not being “Muslim enough” to get happy already, but because I when I look at my first world life and my first world problems, I feel as if I am making a big stink. Like oh pity me, I’m chronically sick but happily married, well supported, and have a good healthcare plan that covers most of my deductibles and I also don’t live in a war zone. 

None of my self-deprecating objectivity seems to work. I can imagine all the children dying in Syria and Palestine and Burma and South Sudan, but when mine cries in my lap because she’s not feeling well for the 99th day out of the last hundred, I feel like my heart is broken.

I’m trying to remember that my heart is NOT broken though. It’s working perfectly well and doing the things my heart is supposed to be doing. It is aching out of sympathy for the love of my children, because they too are being tested by the will of Allah. My heart is struggling and in pain, and I will use that pain to seek healing by the will of Allah. Because that is what my heart is supposed to do. Hearts are supposed to hurt.

Because Allah has promised to heal them.

Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Samir

    March 14, 2017 at 7:33 PM

    You’re not alone sister. I was seeking knowledge in the East, praying all my prayers in congregation, reading Arabic books in Islamic knowledge when I was hit with panic/anxiety and almost fell into depression as I was upset about being unable to study at the level I was before.

    Although I’m not as familiar with depression as I am with anxiety and panic, the key to remember is that these mental disorders have a biological component as well and are related to your nervous system. It’s not purely spiritual.

    A big mistake in thinking among many Muslims, even some du’āt and scholars is that depression and anxiety disorders can be cured by just fixing one’s spiritual habits.

    There is some truth in this, not being alone with your problems and keeping righteous company helps A LOT, as well as just slowing down and taking the time to have ikhlās and khushū in your daily actions, spending more time in tawakkul and sujūd and less worrying/ruminating etc.

    But the biological component of these disorder is still there, as well as the psychological. It is highly imperative to be able to speak to someone qualified to counsel you. I highly advise you to find a good therapist (preferably one with personal experience with depression and who is understanding of your need to be a faithful Muslim). If not, or if it doesn’t help much then medication is plan B.

    Do not continue on your own. Seek help, seek understanding and righteous company, and seek professional treatment. It’s been just over a year for me and I’m almost out of mine alhamdulillah.

    • Avatar

      MalikSaabSays

      March 15, 2017 at 8:20 PM

      As a healthcare Pro, the “medication” isn’t really medicinal, and proof of it is in the cure rates after accounting for other variables.
      The power of belief reigns supreme. Belief can effectively ​bring about physical and biological changes – and it does. Neurotransmitters start depleting when negative & irrational trains of thought are left unchecked. Those who check and remove them (whether by self or through help) their neurotransmitters get back up to speed again.

      Brain, mind. The One who designed it hasn’t left it without a service manual. And for sure we did not design it, nor it designed itself, and for certain it’s degree of specificity and precision is not a product of randomness …

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:45 PM

      JazakAllahuKheiran for sharing your experience Samir. You’re 100% right about there being two parts to depression, one that we can influence through our spiritual input, and one that’s plain ole biology. Having strong religious practices certainly can’t prevent depression, but it definitely helps mitigate it. :)

  2. Avatar

    dhaakirah

    March 14, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    I thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts with us. jazakillahu khairan.

    We have all been created unique & different and so our struggles & tests are also unique and tailormade for us. Our syrian bros and sis’s have their own tests, as do our Burmese, Palestinian, Sudanese and all the rest of humanity. They may see our struggles in the ‘free’ (non war-torn) world and be thankful for theirs while we see them and may feel guilty about ours. But Allah knows us all, every single one of us and so has gifted each of us with our very own personal pains that we can bear and overcome…(no soul is burdened with what he cant bear).
    (O Allah let them overcome their soon aameen).

    The Best of Planners has a plan for you and your family and maybe part of that is for you to get close to Him in this way, after feeling so far away, so that your children will emulate you and thus leave a beautiful legacy for yourselves.

    I recently learned that everyone in Jannah will each be there for a unique and different deed – maybe this is your unique path to Jannah.

    Imagine the unique depression of Yunus AS in the depth of the ocean and darkness of the whale when he made his dua of desperation, and then he is saved. I find that incident so inspiring and encouraging whenever I feel like I’m slipping into the proverbial well.

    Make dua the rest of us quickly find the direction on our paths and we meet among the Gardens.

    Sincere duas for you all from across the pond :)

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:47 PM

      This was a lovely thought and I will definitely hold on to this: “I recently learned that everyone in Jannah will each be there for a unique and different deed – maybe this is your unique path to Jannah.”

      And I love the mental image of Yunus AS in his darkness. I can only imagine what must have been going through his mind. May Allah have mercy on us all.

      • Avatar

        N

        March 11, 2018 at 5:54 AM

        I’ve tried to understand it but I can’t. How can you feel hopeless if you trust Allah, if truly internalise it its impossible. There’s a difference between sadness and depression. Depression is a hopelessness and that is why Yunus A.S made taubah a hundred thousand times for his hopelessness. If you believe your negative thoughts shaitan wins. I hate negativity. Know Allah and know happiness.

  3. Avatar

    Sofekul Allum

    March 14, 2017 at 9:40 PM

    Aa, A very interesting and beneficial article. The articles benefit me greatly in understanding mental health, depression etc.

  4. Avatar

    Alia

    March 14, 2017 at 11:09 PM

    Jazaki Allah Khair sister. I’m feeling your pain and I’m glad I read this. But Allah also asked us to take care of our health which includes our mental and emotional health. And our beloved prophet Asws “Tadawoo” use medication to heal. It’s obvious you are going through enourmous stress and sadness and it’s important that you seek professional help. It’s part of faith to care for yourself. I love you.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:47 PM

      Jazakillah sis :) I love you for the sake of Allah, and ask that Allah make you among those most beloved to Him.

  5. Avatar

    Saara

    March 14, 2017 at 11:41 PM

    insh’Allah may He give you the ease after your hardship. I relate to what you wrote so much.
    Depression among other mental illness has a biological component, so I hope you know that prayer helps us deal with going through life with illness but it’s definitely not a because of a lack of faith. We don’t say that about other illnesses I hope the Ummah comes to know this about mental illnesses too.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:49 PM

      You know Saara surprisingly sometimes we do say the same about other illnesses… and it’s not great there either. I’ve been told that if I made more dua my son wouldn’t have autism anymore. It’s important to recognize that people mean well, even if they are accidentally tearing holes in your heart without realizing it. Alhamdulillah. :)

  6. Avatar

    Shine

    March 15, 2017 at 12:46 AM

    Asalaamualaikum… Hey sister you are not alone. i have been there. And i admit i do sometimes revisit that well again and again. But as you said it should take you closer to Allah swt not away from Allah swt. It doesnt matter whether it is trail or punishment, what matters is how we deal with it.. What matters is the consolation that it was written in our Qadar. And we muslims believe in Qadr. What is apparently bad to us has many hidden dimensions that are known only to Allah swt. And we have this consolation that overall whatever Allah swt plans for us is the best. We may not always know the wisdom behind the trails, but we need to be assured that all trails have deep wisdom behind them. Sister nothing that happens in this world is futile, nothing is redundant. Everything that happens, even the leaf that falls has a deep wisdom behind it. You see Allah swt is not concerned with end results. You and i are depressed, thats perfectly okay but inspite of that even if we try to come out of it and struggle to fight it .Even if you may not come out of it but you tried and struggled with it . Thats called effort. and thats what Allah swt values. He values efforts rather than end results. I am sure sister you know all this but we need to keep reminding ourselves again and again because REMINDER BENEFITS THE BELIEVER. In the end we all need reminders sometimes even those that were written by us only.
    http://www.abezsez.com/2013/11/dear-not-a-loser/
    I pray May Allah swt ease our trails and give us best in this Life and Akhirah. Aameen

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:56 PM

      Hey sis, of course I remember you! < > Jazakillah for the reminder, reminders are awesome.

  7. Avatar

    Ali Saeed

    March 15, 2017 at 10:06 AM

    So much truth in your powerful ending: “Hearts are supposed to hurt….Because Allah has promised to heal them.” – makes you wanna cry in sajdah

  8. Avatar

    Mariam

    March 15, 2017 at 5:06 PM

    I hope you also get to finish your other article with a good ending inshaAllah. And also an ending with a never-ending joy and contentment of the Hereafter, ameen.

  9. Avatar

    Mubashira Ajmal

    March 15, 2017 at 6:49 PM

    Assalamualaikum

    Jameel..also, as in, Sabrun Jameel.. a beautiful patience. Duas for u, ur little one, n those fighting the hard times everywhere

  10. Avatar

    Zenubia

    March 15, 2017 at 11:48 PM

    If the believers didn’t feel sad or depressed there wouldn’t be a chapter in the seerah called Aam Ul huzn – the year of sadness.

  11. Avatar

    umm ismael

    March 16, 2017 at 1:11 AM

    Asslam u alaikum
    May Allah Alleviate your burdens and May He Make ease in your affair and may He Grant you from His endless bounty. May He Heal and cure you and Provide you from where you did not even imagine ameen

  12. Avatar

    Waffles

    March 16, 2017 at 2:23 AM

    I loved that you shared this. I think as Muslim communities, we always share good things or accomplishments. I think it’s harder to share loss, grievances, or just daily struggles. But this is what Muslims are about. We are there for each other thru thick and thin. More than that, we believe Allah is there thru it all.
    Thank you for your beautiful words and pointing us all back to Allah (swt).

  13. Avatar

    Amatullah

    March 16, 2017 at 2:35 AM

    Your fear for your children reminds me of Yaqoob AlayhiSalaam. He was so much in depression after the temporary loss of his child – Yusuf AlayhiSalaam. He cried until his eyesight got weak. But Allah delivered Yusuf AS “beautifully” back to his father, SubhanAllah.
    La Ilaha Illa Anta Subhanaka Inni Kuntum Minazzallimeen.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:58 PM

      Beautiful reminder Amatullah- Yaqoob, may Allah bless him, lived for years in sadness and cried until he went blind and of course he was a proper Muslim, he was prophet of Allah!

      SubhanAllah :)

  14. Avatar

    Simeen

    March 16, 2017 at 12:30 PM

    Subhanallah, Zeba! This is so beautiful, I’m lost for words. Barakallahu feeki. May Allah ta’ala bless you and your family With His best both in this life and The Hereafter.

  15. Avatar

    Farah

    March 16, 2017 at 6:55 PM

    JazakAllah so much for sharing your thoughts and story. You are so strong. May Allah make all your hardships easier, may He give you sabr through the hard days and the ability to find little precious joys amidst the sad moments. May Allah grant your children health amd happiness and guide them to all that is right and good. Ameen.

  16. Avatar

    amtullah

    March 17, 2017 at 4:28 AM

    New Atheist Fantasyland?
    Quick question before I start exploring your blog: U an atheist?

  17. Avatar

    Abu Aaliyah

    March 22, 2017 at 8:10 PM

    I am a Psychiatric Social Worker and can confidently state that there is no such thing as a depression-proof Muslim. Anxiety and Depression are very common in the Muslim community. Thank you for taking the courage to write about your experience and raising self-awareness on this issue. Thank you for being vulnerable and using it as a tool to let others connect with your experience(s). I want to share with you an article on vulnerability that you may find useful.

    http://www.thismuslimreads.com/read/daretobevulnerable

  18. Avatar

    Mahmoud

    April 19, 2017 at 1:30 AM

    Dear Zeba,
    As said by others, your will not walk alone. Once in a while i do get down for no reason. But possibly worth sharing is that i have been struggling with an anxiety disorder for over 30 years. My outsider demeanor is that of a calm and composed Muslim but inside there is periodic storm! Though i am aware, Alhamdulillah, about my excellent articulation of of issues, speaking publicly coherently is a arduous task, not withstasding the pounding heart. It may sound ridicuous even after self positive talk about the absurdity of that current emotional being.To flavour the challenge, there is this ringing ear (tinitus) which occassionally roars.
    This is part of the tests we will all be subjected. In sha Allah, as one sister mentioned it may be the ‘dog’ that will propel you to Jannah.

  19. Avatar

    Maria

    September 25, 2017 at 7:15 AM

    Thank you sister for this article.
    I thought I was the only one who thought that being depressed is unislamic and proof of my weak eeman, being ungrateful for what I have and that my anxiety issues are a result of little tawakkul. It turns out I was wrong.
    May Allah bless you and give you lots of strength.
    P.S.
    What I found hugely helpful was a self help book “Manage your mood” by David Veale & Rób Willosn. It’s about using Behavioral Activation techniques.

  20. Avatar

    craig turton

    December 7, 2017 at 9:26 PM

    You are right, I too have experienced what you have. But what has lead us back, our-believe in the God of Abraham, brings us back and stronger!

  21. Avatar

    anne

    March 21, 2019 at 5:53 PM

    This has helped me so much. I am feeling so lonely at the moment.
    I am married, have good healthy kids Alhamdolillah, not going through what you are with your child, and not living in abject poverty or in a war zone, but I am so terribly in a bad place, that there are times where I will sit alone and stare into space, not wanting to do anything.
    Maybe I have depression, but why? What have I got to be depressed or sad about?
    Yet here I am, day after day, wondering why am I sleeping so much, always feeling tired and lethargic, and I don’t even know what am I feeling sad about.
    I have this feeling of my own personal black cloud filled with gloom hovering over my head. Everyone seems to be getting on with things, but I am feeling useless. I get invited to places, but the mere thought of attending fills me with anxiety and stress. I feel I have to act happy and the effort to do small talk with others fills me with dread.
    I have such low esteem, and I don’t know how I can get my confidence back.
    I feel I am no good at anything. I miss my parents and siblings who live quite far from me, but yet I have a husband and children, so nothing to really be complaining about.
    I listen to Islamic talks whilst I am alone at home, am chirpy and smiley when I do meet people, but it is just a mask.
    I feel all alone. Your article has given me hope that maybe this is only a test, and I should be optimistic that it will be my turn to shine one day. I don’t feel I am of any real use to anyone anymore. If I cry I chastise myself for feeling sorry for myself when I should not have any real reason to cry. I can’t talk to anyone because they too will think it strange, when I have nothing to feel depressed about. I am grateful for everything I have but am stuck, like you described, on the cold floor at the bottom of a well, peering through the blurry water, but not making any progress to rise above it.
    Everyone tells me to get a job or a hobby or do something, I wish I could.
    The first step seems to be the hardest hurdle, I feel I need to do something, but cannot motivate myself to do anything.
    So I will carry on, being the stay at home mum that so many will envy. You are so lucky they say, and I am, so why am I still feeling sad and unfulfilled? Am I so ungrateful? I don’t want to be.
    I hope this feeling passes, and until then, I will just put on my happy mask for my kids sake, and hope for the true healing of my heart, and all of yours too.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 27, 2019 at 4:46 PM

      Anne habibti, I feel you. Depression doesn’t make sense and it’s not the same as being sad because you lost something or you’re missing someone. It’s something your brain does regardless of whether there’s a reason to or not, and maybe that’s your jihad. Allah reward you for the struggle and the patience, Ameen! < <>>

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#Life

Challenges of Identity & Conviction: The Need to Construct an Islamic Worldview

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islamic online high school

He squirmed in his seat as his Middle East history professor–yet again–made a subtle jab about Islam, this time about the jizyah.  This professor claimed to be pro-Arab and pro-Islam and was part of a university department that touted itself for presenting history and narratives that are typically left out of the West’s Eurocentric social studies sequence. Still, she would subjectively only present an Orientalist interpretation of Islam. Ahmad* sighed. He felt bad just thinking about what all his classmates at this esteemed university thought about Islam and Muslims. He was also worried about fellow Muslims in his class who had not grown up in a practicing household-what if they believed her? He hated how she was using her position as the “sage” in the room to present her bias as absolute truth. As for himself, he knew deep down in his bones that what his professor was alleging just could not be true. His fitrah was protesting her coy smile as she knowingly agitated the few Muslims in her class of one-hundred-fifty.  Yet, Ahmad had never studied such topics growing up and felt all his years of secondary education left him ill-equipped as a freshman in college.  He tried to search for answers to her false accusations after class and approached her later during office hours, but she just laughed him off as a backward, orthodox Muslim who had obviously been brainwashed into believing the “fairy tale version” of Islam. 

***

Asiyah* graduated as class valedictorian of her Islamic school. She loved Biology and Physics and planned to major in Engineering at a top-notch program. While both family, friends, and peers were proud of her (some maybe even wishing they were in her shoes), they had no idea of the bitter inner struggle that was eating away at her, tearing her up from the inside out. Her crisis of faith shook her to the core and her parents were at their wits’ end. While she prayed all her prayers and even properly donned her hijab, deep down she felt……..sort of….……atheist.  Physics was her life–her complete being. She loved how the numbers just added up and everything could be empirically proven. But this led to her greatest anguish: how could certain miraculous events during the time of the Blessed Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) have occurred? How could she believe in events that were physically and scientifically impossible?  She felt like an empty body performing the rituals of Islam.

*names changed

***

An Unwelcome Surprise

Islam is a way of life. Its principles operate in every avenue of one’s life. However, English, History, Science and Mathematics are often taught as if they are beyond the scope of Islam. It is commonly assumed that moral teaching happens, or should happen, only in the Islamic Studies class. Yet, if we compare what is being taught in the Islamic Studies class with what is being taught consciously or unconsciously in other classes, an unwelcome surprise awaits us. Examining typical reading material in English classes, for example, reveals that too much of the material is actually going against Islamic norms and principles. Some of the most prominent problems with traditional English literature (which directly clash with Islamic moral and ethical principles) include: the mockery of God and religion, the promotion of rebellion against parents and traditional family values, the normalization of immoral conduct such as lying and rude behavior, and the condoning of inappropriate cross-gender interactions. Additionally, positive references about Islamic culture are either nonexistent or rare. Toxic themes of secularism, atheism, materialism, liberalism, and agnosticism are constantly bombarding our young Muslim students, thus shaping the way in which they view and interact with the world.

Corrective Lens: The Worldview of Islam

We need our children to develop an Islamic worldview, one that provides a framework for Muslims to understand their world from the perspective of the Qur’an.  It is impossible for the Islamic Studies classes alone to successfully teach Islamic behavior and nurture moral commitment unless the other classes also reflect the Islamic worldview- an outlook that emphasizes the idea that all our actions should be focused on pleasing Allah and doing good for ourselves and others. Therefore, the majority of what is taught in all academic disciplines should be based on Islamic values, aiming to improve the life of the student by promoting sublime ethical conduct. The unfortunate reality is quite the opposite: a typical child in a school in the West spends a minimum of 576 periods (16 periods of core classes/week * 4 weeks/month * 9 months) of classroom instruction annually on academic subjects that are devoid of Islam and contain minimal teaching of morality that aligns with Islamic principles. How much Islam a child learns depends on whether their parents choose Sunday school, Islamic schools, and/or other forms of supplementation to provide religious knowledge. However, rarely does that supplemental instruction undo the thousands of hours of the atheistic worldview that children soak in by the time they finish high school through the study of secular subjects. By not having an Islamic worldview and not having Muslims’ heritage and contributions to humanity infused into the teaching of academic subjects, we witness the problems experienced by the likes of Ahmad* and Asiyah*–problems that plague modern Muslim youth.

Identifying the Unlikely Suspect

This realization is perhaps the missing piece in the puzzle when it comes to our bewilderment: how are large swaths of youth from some of the kindest, sweetest, practicing Muslim families going astray and getting confused? When we shepherd our flock and find one or more of our “sheep” lost and off the beaten path, we think of the likely suspects, which include negative influences from peers, family, movies, social media, etc. We may even blame the lack of inspiring role models. We are less likely to suspect that the very literature that our children are consuming day in and day out through our well-intentioned efforts to make them “educated” and “sophisticated” could cause them to question Islam or fall into moral abyss.

Ibn ‘Umar reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. A man is the shepherd of the people of his house and he is responsible. A woman is the shepherd of the house of her husband and she is responsible. Each of you is a shepherd and each is responsible for his flock.”

Islamic Infusion in Academic Study as a Solution

There have been efforts across the globe to infuse Islam into academic study of worldly subjects. Universities such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia(IIUM), which has a dedicated “Centre for Islamisation (CENTRIS),” is an example. At the secondary school level, most brick and mortar Islamic schools do offer Arabic, Qur’an, and Islamic studies; however, few Muslim teachers are trained in how to teach core academic subjects using principles of Islamic pedagogy.

How exactly can educators infuse an Islamic perspective into their teaching? And how can Muslim children have access to high quality education from the worldview of Islam, taught by talented and dynamic educators?

Infusing Islam & Muslim Heritage in Core Academic Subjects, According to the Experts:

  • Dr. Nadeem Memon, professor of Islamic pedagogy, states that for a pedagogy to be Islamic, it should not contradict the aims, objectives and ethics contained in revelation (Qur’an) and should closely reflect an Islamic ethos that is based on revelation, the sunnah of the Prophet(pbuh), and the intellectual and spiritual heritage of his followers. It should also effectively develop the student’s intelligence (`aql), faith (iman), morality and character (khuluq), knowledge and practice of personal religious obligations (fard ain) and knowledge, skills and physical abilities warranted by worldly responsibilities and duties (Ajem, Ramzy and Nadeem Memon, “Prophetic Pedagogy: Teaching ‘Islamically’ in our Classrooms”)
  • Dr. Susan Douglass, expert in Social Studies, promotes a panoramic study of the world by global eras–emphasizing the interdependence of nations–rather than an isolationist civilizations approach (which in Western societies focuses only on Western civilization). Such study includes Islamic history and Muslims’ contributions to humanity throughout the ages.
  • Dr. Freda Shamma, pioneer in promoting culturally inclusive and ethical literature, emphasizes that English classes should carefully select literature aligned with Islamic moral values and include works by both Western authors and those from other cultures, i.e. literature that 1-features Muslim main characters and 2- is authored by Muslims.
  • Dr. Nur Jannah Hassan at CENTRIS, stresses that Science classes should be designed to awaken the student’s mind, to inspire a complete awe of and servitude towards the Creator and Sustainer, to instill the purpose of creation, vicegerency and stewardship of the earth and its inhabitants, to enable students to decipher God’s Signs in nature and in the self, to infuse responsibility in sustaining balance and accountability, and should include Muslims’ legacy in the field.
  • Dr. Reema alNizami, specialist in Math Education, advocates that Math classes should instill creative thinking, systematic problem solving and an appreciation of balance; include a survey of Muslims’ contributions to the field; and utilize word problems that encourage charitable and ethical financial practices.

Technology Enables Access to Islamically Infused Schooling for grades 6-12

Technology has now enabled this Islamic infusion for middle schools and secondary schools to become a reality on a global scale, alhamdulillah. Legacy International Online High School, a college preparatory, online Islamic school serving grades 6-12, whose mission is “Cultivating Compassionate Global Leaders”, offers all academic subjects from the Islamic worldview. Pioneered by leading Muslim educators from around the globe with background in Islamic pedagogy and digital learning, Legacy is the first of its kind online platform that is accessible to:

  • homeschooling families seeking full-time, rigorous, Islamically infused classes
  • Public school families looking for a part-time Islamic studies or Arabic sequence
  • Islamic schools, evening programs, and Sunday schools that are short-staffed and would like to outsource certain courses from the Islamic worldview
  • Schools and entities needing training/workshops to empower Muslim educators on how to teach from the Islamic worldview

Alhamdulillah, Legacy IOHS is an accessible resource for families with children in grades 6-8 who are seeking curriculum and instruction that is Islamically infused.

Strengthening Faith & Identity in College and Beyond

For those seeking supplementary resources to address the most prevalent hot topic issues plaguing young Muslims of our times, Yaqeen Institute, whose initial publications were more targeted towards a university audience, is now working to make its research more accessible to the general public through both its Conviction Circles initiative and its short videos featuring infographics.

Another online platform, California Islamic University, offers a comprehensive course sequence which allows college students to graduate with a second degree in Islamic studies while simultaneously completing their undergraduate studies at any accredited community college or university in the United States. Qalam and AlMaghrib Institute also offer online coursework in Islamic studies.

What We Hope to Avoid

While volunteering at his son Sulayman’s* public school with ten student participants, Ibrahim* was saddened when he met a young boy named Chris*. When Chris met Ibrahim, he piped up and eagerly told Ibrahim, “my grandparents are Muslim!” Through the course of the conversation, Ibrahim realized that he knew Chris’ grandparents, a very sweet elderly couple (and currently very practicing) who had not made the Islamic worldview a priority early on in their children’s lives. A mere two generations later, Islam is completely eliminated from their family.  *names changed

Our Resolve

Legacy IOHS recommends the following to Muslim families/educators and Islamic schools:

  1. Instill in our children a strong grasp of the foundational sciences of Islam, while preparing them with the necessary contemporary knowledge and skills
  2. Teach our children in their formative years to view the world (including their “secular” academic study) through the lens of Islam
  3. Follow this up with relevant motivational programs that assist them in understanding challenging issues of today and coach them on how to respond to the issues in their teenage years.

We pray that with the above, we will have fulfilled our duty in shepherding our flock in a comprehensive way, with utmost care. It is Allah’s help we seek in these challenging times:

رَبَّنَا لَا تُزِغْ قُلُوبَنَا بَعْدَ إِذْ هَدَيْتَنَا وَهَبْ لَنَا مِنْ لَدُنْكَ رَحْمَةً ۚ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْوَهَّابُ

‘Our Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after You have guided us. Grant us Your mercy: You are the Ever Giving. [Qur’an 3:8]

 رَبَّنَا هَبْ لَنَا مِنْ أَزْوَاجِنَا وَذُرِّيَّاتِنَا قُرَّةَ أَعْيُنٍ وَاجْعَلْنَا لِلْمُتَّقِينَ إِمَامًا

‘Our Lord, give us joy in our spouses and offspring. Make us good examples to those who are aware of You’. [Qur’an 25:74]

يَا مُقَلِّبَ القُلُوبِ ثَبِّتْ قَلْبِيْ عَلَى دِيْنِكْ

“O turner of the hearts, keep my heart firm on your religion.”

Freda Shamma has a M.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Ed.D. from the University of Cincinnati in the area of Curriculum Development. A veteran educator, she has worked with educators from the United States, South Africa and all over the Muslim world to develop integrated curricula based on an Islamic worldview that meets the needs of modern Muslim youth. She serves as Curriculum Advisor for Legacy International Online High School.

An avid student of the Islamic sciences, Zaheer Arastu earned his M.Ed from The George Washington University and completed his training in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. his experience in Islamic education spans over 15 years serving as both teacher, administrator, and dean of innovation and technology. He currently serves as the Head of School for Legacy International Online High School.

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Grit and Resilience: The Self-Help vs. Islamic Perspective

Omar Usman

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grit

I don’t really care about grit.

Persevering and persisting through difficulties to achieve a higher goal is awesome. High-five. We should all develop that. No one disagrees that resilience is an essential characteristic to have.

Somehow, this simple concept has ballooned into what feels like a self-help cottage industry of sorts. It has a Ted talk with tens of millions of views, podcasts, keynote speeches, a New York Times best-selling book, and finding ways to teach this in schools and workplaces.

What I do care about is critically analyzing if it is all that it’s cracked up to be (spoiler alert: I don’t think so), why the self-help industry aggressively promotes it, and how we understand it from an Islamic perspective. For me, this is about much more than just grit – it’s about understanding character development from a (mostly Americanized) secular perspective vis-a-vis the Islamic one.

The appeal of grit in a self-help context is that it provides a magic bullet that intuitively feels correct. It provides optimism. If I can master this one thing, it will unlock what I need to be successful. When I keep running into a roadblock, I can scapegoat my reason for failure – a lack of grit.

Grit encompasses several inspirational cliches – be satisfied with being unsatisfied, or love the chase as much as the capture, or that grit is falling in love and staying in love. It is to believe anyone can succeed if they work long and hard enough. In short, it is the one-word encapsulation of the ideal of the American Dream.

Self-help literature has an underlying theme of controlling what is within your control and letting go of the rest. Islamically, in general, we agree with this sentiment. We focus our actions where we are personally accountable and put our trust in Allah for what we cannot control.

The problem with this theme, specifically with grit, is that it necessitates believing the circumstances around you cannot be changed. Therefore, you must simply accept things the way that they are. Teaching people that they can overcome any situation by merely working hard enough is not only unrealistic but utterly devoid of compassion.

“The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.” -Diane Ravitch, Forget Grit, Focus on Inequality

Focusing on the individual characteristics of grit and perseverance shifts attention away from structural or systemic issues that impact someone’s ability to succeed. The personal characteristics can be changed while structural inequalities are seen as ‘fixed.’

Alfie Kohn, in an article critical of Grit by Angela Duckworth, notes that Duckworth and her mentor while studying grit operated under a belief that,

[U]nderachievement isn’t explained by structural factors — social, economic, or even educational. Rather, they insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their “failure to exercise self-discipline.” The entire conceptual edifice of grit is constructed on that individualistic premise, one that remains popular for ideological reasons even though it’s been repeatedly debunked by research.

Duckworth admitted as much in an interview with EdSurge.

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don’t know much about sociology, and I don’t know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you’re right, but I’ve always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, “Well, maybe there’s a point here that I hadn’t thought of,” and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It is mind-boggling that the person who popularized this research and wrote the book on the topic simply didn’t know that there was such a thing as structural inequality. It is quite disappointing that her response essentially amounted to “That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Duckworth provides a caveat – “My theory doesn’t address these outside ­forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” This is a cop-out we see consistently in the self-help industry and elsewhere. They won’t deny that those problems exist, they simply say that’s not the current focus.

It is intellectually dishonest to promote something as a key to success while outright ignoring the structures needed to enable success. That is not the only thing the theory of grit ignores. While marketing it as a necessary characteristic, it overlooks traits like honesty and kindness.

The grit narrative lionizes this superhero type of individual who breaks through all obstacles no matter how much the deck is stacked against them. It provides a sense of false hope. Instead of knowing when to cut your losses and see a failure for what it is, espousing a grit mentality will make a person stubbornly pursue a failing endeavor. It reminds me of those singers who comically fail the first round of auditions on American Idol, are rightly ridiculed by the judges, and then emotionally tell the whole world they’re going to come out on top (and then never do).

Overconfidence, obstinance, and naive optimism are the result of grit without context or boundaries. It fosters denial and a lack of self-awareness – the consequences of which are felt when horrible leaders keep rising to the top due, in part, to their grit and perseverance.

The entire idea of the psychology of achievement completely ignores the notion of morality and ethics. Grit in a vacuum may be amoral, but that is not how the real world works. This speaks powerfully to the need to understand the application of these types of concepts through a lens of faith.

The individual focus, however, is precisely what makes something like grit a prime candidate to become a popular self-help item. Schools and corporations alike will want to push it because it focuses on the individual instead of the reality of circumstances. There is a real amount of cognitive dissonance when a corporation can tell employees to focus on developing grit while not addressing toxic employment practices that increase turnover and destroy employees physically and emotionally (see: Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer).

Circumstances matter more than ever. You’ve probably heard the story (of course, in a Ted Talk) about the famous marshmallow test at some point. This popularizes the self-help version of delayed gratification. A bunch of kids are given a marshmallow and told that if they can avoid eating it for 5 minutes, they’ll get a second one. The children are then shown hilariously trying to resist eating it. These kids were then studied as they grew older, and lo and behold, those who had the self-discipline to hold out for the 2nd marshmallow were far more successful in life than those who gave in.

A new study found that a child’s ability to hold out for the second marshmallow had nothing to do with the ability to delay gratification. As The Atlantic points out, it had much more to do with the child’s social and economic background. When a child comes from a well to do household, the promise of a second marshmallow will be fulfilled. Their parents always deliver. When someone grows up in poverty, they are more attuned to take the short term reward because the guarantee does not exist that the marshmallow would still be there later. The circumstances matter much more than the psychological studies can account for. It is far easier to display grit with an entrepreneurial venture, for example, when you have the safety net of wealthy and supportive parents.

Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post that grit discourse is driven by middle and upper-class parents wanting their spoiled kids to appreciate the virtues of struggling against hardship. Unfortunately, this focus on character education means that poor students suffer because less money will then be spent on teaching disadvantaged students the skills they need to be successful. Sisyphus, she notes, had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.

Strauss asks us to imagine if a toxic dump was discovered near Beverly Hills, and our response was to teach kids how to lessen the effects of toxins instead of fixing the dump.

The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular. Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is seen as a virtuous enterprise whether practiced by Horatio Alger’s urchins or Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs (bootstrapping is a common term in technology finance circles). And most importantly, it creates a purported path out of poverty that does not involve any sacrifice on the part of the privileged classes. -Valerie Strauss

This approach is a way to appear noble while perpetuating the status quo. It provides the illusion of upliftment while further entrenching the very systems that prevent it. We see this enacted most commonly with modern-day Silicon Valley style of philanthropy. Anand Giridharadas has an entire book dedicated to this ‘elite charade of changing the world’ entitled Winners Take All.

The media also does its fair share to push this narrative. Stories that should horrify us are passed along as inspirational stories of perseverance. It’s like celebrating a GoFundMe campaign that helps pay for surgery to save someone’s life instead of critically analyzing why healthcare is not seen as a human right in the first place.

Islamic Perspective

Islamically, we are taught to find ways to address the individual as well as the system. Characteristics like grit and delayed gratification are not bad. They’re misapplied when the bigger picture is not taken into account. In the Islamic system, for example, a person is encouraged not to beg. At the same time, there is an encouragement for those who can give to seek out those in need. A person in debt is strongly advised to pay off their debts as quickly as possible. At the same time, the lender is encouraged to be easygoing and to forgive the debt if possible.

This provides a more realistic framework for applying these concepts. A person facing difficulty should be encouraged to be resilient and find ways to bounce back. At the same time, support structures must be established to help that person.

Beyond the framework, there is a much larger issue. Grit is oriented around success. Success is unquestionably assumed to be a personal success oriented around academic achievement, career, wealth, and status. When that is the end goal, it makes it much easier to keep the focus on the individual.

The Islamic definition of success is much broader. There is the obvious idea of success in the Hereafter, but that is separate from this discussion. Even in a worldly sense, a successful person may be the one who sacrifices attending a good school, or perhaps even a dream job type of career opportunity, to spend more time with their family. The emphasis on individual success at all costs has contributed to the breakdown of essential family and community support systems.

A misapplied sense of grit furthers this when a person thinks they don’t need anyone else, and they just need to persevere. It is part of a larger body of messaging that promotes freedom and autonomy. We celebrate people who are strong and independent. Self-help tells us we can achieve anything with the right mindset.

But what happens when we fail? What happens when we find loneliness and not fulfillment, when we lack the bonds of familial solidarity, and when money does not make us whole? Then it all falls on us. It is precisely this feeling of constriction that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), give good news to those who are steadfast, those who say, when afflicted with a calamity, ‘We belong to God and to Him we shall return.’ These will be given blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” (2:155-157)

Resilience is a reflex. When a person faces hardship, they will fall back on the habits and values they have. It brings to mind the statement of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that patience is at the first strike. He taught us the mindset needed to have grit in the first place,

“Wondrous is the affair of the believer for there is good for him in every matter and this is not the case with anyone except the believer. If he is happy, then he thanks Allah and thus there is good for him, and if he is harmed, then he shows patience and thus there is good for him” (Muslim).

He also taught us the habits we need to ensure that we have the reflex of grit when the situation warrants it –

“Whoever would be pleased for Allah to answer him during times of hardship and difficulty, let him supplicate often during times of ease” (Tirmidhi).

The institution of the masjid as a community center provides a massive opportunity to build infrastructure to support people. Resilience, as Michael Ungar writes, is not a DIY endeavor. Communities must find ways to provide the resources a person needs to persevere. Ungar explains, “What kind of resources? The kind that get you through the inevitable crises that life throws our way. A bank of sick days. Some savings or an extended family who can take you in. Neighbours or a congregation willing to bring over a casserole, shovel your driveway or help care for your children while you are doing whatever you need to do to get through the moment. Communities with police, social workers, home-care workers, fire departments, ambulances, and food banks. Employment insurance, pension plans or financial advisers to help you through a layoff.”

Ungar summarizes the appropriate application of grit, “The science of resilience is clear: The social, political and natural environments in which we live are far more important to our health, fitness, finances and time management than our individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. When it comes to maintaining well-being and finding success, environments matter. In fact, they may matter just as much, and likely much more, than individual thoughts, feelings or behaviours. A positive attitude may be required to take advantage of opportunities as you find them, but no amount of positive thinking on its own is going to help you survive a natural disaster, a bad workplace or childhood abuse. Change your world first by finding the relationships that nurture you, the opportunities to use your talents and the places where you experience community and governmental support and social justice. Once you have these, your world will help you succeed more than you could ever help yourself.”

The one major missing ingredient here is tawakkul (trust in Allah). One of the events in the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that epitomized grit, resilience, and perseverance was the Battle of Badr. At this occasion, the Companions said, “God is enough for us: He is the best protector.

“Those whose faith only increased when people said, ‘Fear your enemy: they have amassed a great army against you,’ and who replied, ‘God is enough for us: He is the best protector,’“ (3:173)

This is the same phrase that Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), while displaying the utmost level of resilience, said when he was thrown into the fire, and it was made cool.

There is a core belief in Islam about balancing between fear and hope. Scholars advise when a person feels despair, they should remind themselves of the traditions that reinforce hope in Allah’s forgiveness. When a person feels themselves sliding further and further into disobedience to Allah, then they should remind themselves of the traditions that warn against Allah’s punishment. The focus changes depending on the situation.

Grit itself is a praiseworthy characteristic

There is no doubt that it is a trait that makes people successful. The challenge comes in applying it and how we teach it. It needs a proper level of balance. Too much focus on grit as a singular predictor of success may lead to victim-blaming and false hope syndrome. Overlooking it on the other hand, enables a feeling of entitlement and a victim mentality.

One purpose of teaching grit was to help students from privileged backgrounds understand and appreciate the struggle needed to overcome difficulty. Misapplied, it can lead to overlooking systemic issues that prevent a person from succeeding even when they have grit.

Self-help literature often fails to make these types of distinctions. It fails to provide guidance for balancing adapting the advice based on circumstance. The criticisms here are not of the idea of grit, but rather the myopic way in which self-help literature promotes concepts like grit without real-world contextualization. We need to find a way to have the right proportionality of understanding individual effort, societal support, and our reliance on Allah.

Our ability to persevere, to be resilient, and to have grit, is linked directly to our relationship with Allah, and our true level of trust in Him.

To stay up to date with more articles from Omar, sign up for his email list at http://ibnabeeomar.com/newsletter

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#Life

Who Can We Trust?

Danish Qasim

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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.

Blurring Lines

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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), 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 ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) 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 outright 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.

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