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The Ethics of Muslim Charisma | A Proposal for Leadership Standards


The American Muslim communities have several distinct ethics problems. Consider these hypotheticals.

  • A professional imam trained in Islamic Studies becomes popular in his local community. The local police arrest him for improper conduct involving a woman in the Masjid. The criminal matter is quietly resolved, but the Masjid fires the imam, who is quickly able to obtain new employment at a nearby Masjid where the board did not know of the imam’s prior conduct. The imam later commits misconduct involving women and flees the jurisdiction.
  • An Islamic Scholar in the United States obtains payments from working with organizations that are funded by military contractors and governments that routinely abuse human rights.
  • A nonprofit holds a banquet where the speaker fails to disclose 25% of all donations will be the fee for the speaker himself.

I want to be clear about something. This article is not about Nouman Ali Khan. I have no unique knowledge about his case, nor do I have any position on his guilt or innocence. The subject goes far beyond the publicly known facts of his situation. However, the public discussion should cast a spotlight on how Muslim leaders handle misconduct by those who are in a position of public trust. What was clear about Nouman Ali Khan is that there was no system for managing allegations of unethical conduct, breaches of trust and “spiritual abuse” that did not rise to criminal misconduct. Furthermore, attention came to his case primarily because of Mr. Khan’s international celebrity. There is a continuing concern about ethics among imams, shuyukh, heads of charities and other public figures inside the Muslim community, regardless of if their profile is local, national or international.

As a lawyer, I am part of a regulated profession.  Think of it as an organized tribe with a group of elders that can determine who is in, and who is out.  There are rules of professional conduct. For anyone in an actual profession, Dentistry, Architecture, those who sell insurance, boats and even cannabis, there are defined standards, a group that sets them and a group that enforces them.

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There are no intellgible standards in the American Muslim community for shuyukh, public figures and those who provide some form of spiritual guidance. We need them. What I want to do in this article is provide a path for us as a community to do exactly that.

Ethics for all?

The term “unethical” does not mean the same thing for all people. If you are a private business and your primary goal is value for shareholders, your ethics will be different if you are a non-profit organization meant to provide a public benefit. If you are a shaykh that specializes in Islamic Finance, the Muslim community may hold you to a different standard than if you speak out against domestic violence to Muslim groups. Those two people may not appear to belong to the same tribe, though they are similar in that they take leadership roles inside Muslim spaces and their roles may overlap.

Shuykh and imams, unfortunately, have not yet been able to regulate themselves or hold bad actors accountable in the same way other professions routinely do. So, the situation described in the initial hypothetical can still happen. What we also know all too well is that accusations of spiritual abuse and unethical conduct are in no way limited to shuyukh and professional imams. We need a broader framework.

Public figures or semi-public figures who provide spiritual guidance to Muslims can easily be social and political activists. They can also be business people, educators, professors and community members in unrelated professions who are adept at public speaking and leading halaqas. Yes, they can also be Shuyukh or professional imams. It is possible for some personalities to operate exclusively online, like YouTube or social media stars who are only “Twitter famous.” However, much of a leader’s legitimacy and indeed, capacity to personally affect people for good or ill, comes from speaking in physical spaces to live audiences organized by non-profit Muslim groups, particularly large Islamic Centers and Islamic Conferences, such as ISNA and ICNA, as well as other events for Muslim organizations.

The Non-Profit Choke Point

An organization like the Islamic Society of North America (which I do not represent here though I have a vote on its Executive Council) can invite as many as 200 speakers to a single conference, usually on Labor Day weekend in a major US city.  Many speakers are not the same from one year to another. Nearly all the best-known Muslim speakers have spoken at ISNA, as well as other conferences such as ICNA and MAS. The North American Islamic Trust either owns outright or through trust arraignments hundreds of masajid around the country, many of which (regardless of their connection to NAIT) are connected through regional shura councils.  If there is an opportunity to manage ethics in American Muslim spaces, it comes from these organizations.

These organizations can develop formal rules of ethics governing a range of subjects. A shura, such as an independent ethics commission should determine these rules, so I will not attempt to enunciate them all here. However, it is vital those who are involved in formulating these rules have no business or grant ties with foreign or domestic governments, non-profits interested in reforming Islam, defense contractors or financial institutions (more on this later).

All Muslim speakers would need to sign an ethics agreement developed by this shura, if they are famous in the Muslim community or not. It should not matter if the speaker is a head of a nonprofit, an author of the latest Islamic children’s book or a nasheed singer. Such an agreement could be universal throughout the Muslim community in the United States and can apply to board members, khateebs, halaqah leaders, youth leaders and everyone else who is a trusted voice in the community. The only speakers with no signing requirement would be foreign dignitaries and non-Muslim speakers (such as interfaith leaders and government officials). Should a group, such as shuyukh, wish to eventually regulate themselves for things that are specific to their vocations, such a system would encourage wider adoption of rules they develop. The initial ethics rules I suggest here would be broad and general and necessarily apply to a specific profession.

What if something bad happens?

Part of what these speakers and others would sign up for would be consent to a system in the event someone makes allegations of violations of these rules. This would not be to cover up criminal misdeeds. Criminal conduct gets reported to the police. However, it would be a fair and dignified way to resolve allegations where there is a violation of Islamic ethics regardless of it violates a criminal or civil code.

Perhaps the hardest part of implementing such a plan is not formulating rules, but developing a dignified resolution of an allegation that is fair to the accused and the alleged victims. It should also protect organizations- both those that associated with someone who acted with poor judgment and those groups looking at hiring a charismatic leader or speaker to fulfill their future needs. Those organizations who have subscribed to the system can protect themselves from bad actors by having access to the names of individuals who have violated the rules of ethics so that they know who to avoid.

What gets governed?

Ethics is a vast area and the goal should be to make the rules as comprehensive as possible over time. The most obvious thing that would need to be reviewed are the accusations leveled against Nouman Ali Khan, particularly “spiritual abuse.” This is not to re-litigate it, but to address how well defined the allegations were, and can we do a better job at making sure the rules are clear in the future. Vague terms do not help justice.

This agreement should also govern business practices inside the Muslim community, both in non-profits and to the extent private individuals do business with organizations that are public trusts inside the Muslim community. Many of the worst practices in business, from the exploitation of employees to profiteering, can sometimes be found in Islamic organizations. Other practices may be more specific to nonprofits, such as zakat abuse.

Lastly, a broad area of concern would have to be conflicts of interest.  How do we deal with those who may speak for the interests of a financial institution, a foreign or domestic government, defense or domestic security contractors, anti-Palestinian interests or non-profit groups looking reform Islam into a secular identity. Rules of ethics go primarily to actions and income sources, not necessarily points of view, which should be diverse. However, this is not to say that a formal or informal system of “blacklisting” does not happen already or that this is always a bad thing in a religious space. However, someone being banned from giving khutbas or speaking to youth purely because of his or her expressed point of view is often not an ethical concern. It may be that the individual does not fit the role well.

In some ethics cases, it would be appropriate for Muslim organizations to not associate with personalities because they are known to be harmful to individuals. In other situations, ethics should be looked at, not to judge a person as good or bad as an individual, but instead with a view towards protecting the independence of our community’s intellectual and spiritual development from interests that are opposed to justice, human rights or the religion of Islam itself.

Ethics in the American Muslim community is in dire need of leadership. I do hope we have people willing to provide it.

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Ahmed Shaikh is a Southern California Attorney. He writes about inheritance, nonprofits and other legal issues affecting Muslims in the United States. He is the co-author of "Estate Planning for the Muslim Client," published by the American Bar Association. His Islamic Inheritance website is



  1. Abu Sufian

    October 18, 2017 at 6:01 PM


    There are ethics already. They are the Quran and Sunnah. If someone who is supposed to be teaching these two is not following them it’s probably unlikely they will hold themselves to other man-made standards.

    • Ahmed Shaikh

      October 18, 2017 at 7:08 PM

      My hope is that the standards would be in keeping with the Shari’ah. There is a long history of Muslims drafting agreements and even laws that are understood to be in keeping with our values.

  2. Thehardtruth

    October 18, 2017 at 10:19 PM

    “Ethics” won’t ever work, when a large chunk of the community places conservative Islamic-values over everything else, and can draw support for almost any “unethical” action if needed.

    Take Nouman’s case. I would say most American Muslims were disgusted with his “unethical” conduct, once some of the evidence and statement from officials came to light.

    However, there is a large minority of conservatives who continue to defend Nouman vigorously, and they draw on Orthodox-Islamic precepts to do it.

    They’ll say, “using his station to influence female-students/workers isn’t haram”, and they’re right, its not.

    They’ll say, “marrying multiple women in secret and not telling each one about the other isn’t haram”, and they’re right, its not.

    They’ll say, “divorcing your wife and leaving your kids so you can have younger, hotter women isn’t haram”, and they’re right, its not.

    They’ll say, “even if he’s truly guilty of Zina, you need 4 upstanding witnesses to prove it, or we’re committing sins even accusing him. Orthodox-Islam doesn’t even allow recorded video or pregnancy as proof of zina, it has to be the literal 4-witnesses”. And they are right.

    The point, is ethnics mean nothing when a large segment of our community can just ignore our “liberal norms” as they call it, and judge behavior entirely on Islamic-ideals.

    • shondhabati

      October 18, 2017 at 11:57 PM

      To be fair, many who make these statements understand the importance of ethics in their secular workplaces. ‘Ethics’ is primarily a western and secular concept, in the absence of a law-giving God. In the history of workplaces in the Muslim countries, we did not have the concept of ‘ethics’ the way its understood in the West. We only had the clearly haram, the clearly halal and everything in between. Since this discussion of ethics is very new in Islamic circles (used specifically by Muslims willing to practice, so most people in these ‘circles’ know the clearly halal from the clearly haram), I don’t think its fair to say this is how people would have reacted had there been a pre-agreed set of ethical conduct. I also think it is unfair to go after people based on a loosely, vaguely defined set of ethics. What this author suggested would solve part of the problem.

  3. Usman

    October 18, 2017 at 10:32 PM

    The irony of ethical committees needed for policing religious leaders who espouse and promulgate ethics is regrettable. What does this say about the Islamic speakers and scholars of our era? The intellectually lazy answer would be that
    Universal Justice would be served without such a system of checks and balances. My fear would be that by having another organized layer of authority beyond the Ulema, academic Scholars, and Islamic organizations (ie ISNA, ICNA, MSAs, etc) would generate politics. Politics breeds corruption and favoritism.

    I think the answer lies at the micro-level of individual communities acting as the gatekeeper to speakers. Word of mouth moves quickly via electronic communication which would caution the community Masjids from allowing corrupt speakers from extorting or abusing their respective congregations.

  4. DI

    October 19, 2017 at 5:58 PM

    There’s a few problems with this.

    1) Cherry picking religious texts. We always do this in our community, our hadith are clear on good conduct but then the standard gets lowered to halal-haram from ihsan-good akhlaaq when it comes to misconduct. It becomes a battle of interpretations and overseas fatwas. Its nafsi nafsi.

    2) Even if an ethical framework is created, the leaders of these big organizations have their hands dirty. Their seasonally embroiled in power struggles, in-fighting, government audits for mismanaged funds and under investigation. Any ethical standard or regulation they create gets discarded quickly. Most organizations don’t even abide by their constitutions and bylaws. The only way to control the cronyism is bringing in a non-Muslim voice.

    3) Most academics and Muslim leaders are involved in some way with those anti-Palestinian or anti-Muslim forces, even indirectly. For example, a PhD on madrassa systems in Pakistan or women’s roles can easily be passed off to military intelligence to undermine the Muslim lifestyle of distant Muslim lands. Even if the research grant is not from a shady source, it can still be used against us. You cannot regulate that and its bound to happen when Muslim want fame or have mouths to feed.

    Logistically, a better starting point may be the British movement of Unions for Imams.

    Classically, religious leaders would be ‘regulated’ by their shaykhs and Sufi silsilas and madaris just as Muslims trades people would be ‘regulated’ by their sufi guilds (asnaf) to keep the market fair. Regardless of your view on sufism, asnaf and tariqas are how historically Muslims regulated and governed themselves without involvement from the state. Unions today seem to fulfill this function, but without the moral and spiritual authority.

    Many preachers that you are thinking of have no shaykh they answer to. They have no direct mentors or superiors. If anything, their mentor too cut themselves off from a system of religious chain of transmission. So how do you regulate them? If they really want, they can argue ‘freedom of expression’ and continue to teach as they wish.


  5. Latifa Aimaq

    October 21, 2017 at 3:22 AM

    Excellent article. For those of you claiming ethical standards are 1. Man made, 2. Cannot be enforced because of politics and cronyism, 3. Our Deen somehow allows for unethical behavior through texts that people can use to justify behaviors and so on, I believe you would be surprised that such standards used to exist in the past and have recently been discarded, which explains how ethical standards (which exist in the Quran and Sunnah as well, and in the best form) have disappeared over time. First of all, scholars used to reference students of knowledge and select people who were known for their good character (which obviously encompasses good ethical standards that one practices as well as others.) So prevention was key. Nowadays we accept as imams people who are unknown and whose knowledge and character is either unknown or deficient in some way. Before any other ethical standards are adopted, one should set preventative measures which include character and knowledge references and those are done by scholars who have seniority in knowledge and character. Secondly, a group of people who are highly knowledgeable in Islam can be part of ethics committees which may not have formally existed in the past but used to convene if a person of knowledge acted inappropriately or was suspected of doing so. The scholars would examine the claims and clear or consider the person unfit. The same needs to happen nowadays. Thirdly, for those who think that Islam allows abuse, think again. Yes, someone can technically leave his wife and kids for a younger woman and that technically won’t be forbidden but it would not be accepted as an act of good character when Islam emphasizes kindness toward women. Secondly, the idea of marrying secret wives and divorcing them while retaining a permanent “legal one” under clearly unequal terms in Islam is something not allowed. So for some of you to think that Islam would condone such behavior is to have a low opinion of our religion. I will accept that yes, people misuse the Deen to get what they want but is that person considered ethical in the least? No. Lastly, people in the past had a higher ethical standard than all of us combined. They had books and books on the character of people who passed on knowledge called, “The Knowledge of Men,” primarily in Hadith sciences. If someone was a lier, it was clearly mentioned. Their ethical standards were so high that forget halal and haram, they would not take knowledge from people who acted inappropriately. We need to revive the legacy of those who went before us in these areas and with the help of sincere and knowledgeable scholars and others formulate clear ethical standards and abide by them.

  6. Muhammad

    October 21, 2017 at 9:32 AM

    “It is possible for some personalities to operate exclusively online, like YouTube or social media stars who are only “Twitter famous.” However, much of a leader’s legitimacy and indeed, capacity to personally affect people for good or ill, comes from speaking in physical spaces to live audiences organized by non-profit Muslim groups, particularly large Islamic Centers and Islamic Conferences, such as ISNA and ICNA, as well as other events for Muslim organizations.”

    I agree with the author and I commend and applaud his recommendation for speaker to sign an ethics agreement developed by the shura.

    I agree with this statement of a reader:

    “the idea of marrying secret wives and divorcing them while retaining a permanent “legal one” under clearly unequal terms in Islam is something not allowed.”

    This ethics agreement should call for a recognition that secret marriages are haram. Of course, the ethics agreement should probably cover many other issues as well.

    Islam is above all about honesty. It started out from the honest Sadiq Al Ameen being chosen to be a messenger for his honesty and the message of Islam emphasizes that honesty is a must.

    A secret marriage entails not just one lie but thousands of lies. It entails living a life of lie every day and every night.

    It is said that Muslims need to be reminded of this but we must save our families and our honor from this family destroying deception which makes a mockery of Islam.

  7. Hafiz Gee

    October 21, 2017 at 11:35 PM

    Something that is sorely needed in our times. An issue that spans the Sufi-salafi-ashari-brelwi-deobandi-tradionalist divides.

    The is a difference between proving someone guitly of Zina in Islamic law and holding people in positions of authority in the Islamic community to higher standards.

    I think inevitably in the next 20-50 years sitting like this will come to pass whether or not individuals like the author of this article are supported right now or not, this sort of regulation/professional standards is inevitable at least in the west.

    A lot of students of knowledge who looked up to certain scholars, adherents of Sufi shaykhs, fans of shaykhs, etc. have faced far too many situations where the shaykh has let them down massively through their unprofessional behaviour.

    As with any other organized profession in the West, there needs to be a college or guild and there needs to be serious self-regulation.

    I think getting that regulation in place and imams shaykhs to buy in will take decades, but that’s no reason not to start such an eandeavour as it is necessary.

    This isn’t about casting aspersions on imams/shaykhs/mawlana/pirs this is about facing reality and the cumulative trauma that many in the Muslim community have faced because of the lack of regulations. If these folks don’t start putting their house in order they will lose their following. I think the level of scandals awaiting the Muslim when more and more of these abuses of power and position (specifically sexual abuses) emerg the Muslim community will be facing crisis not unlike that going on in the Catholic community.

    Ijazas, khilafah, isnads do nothing to stop unprofessional behaviour. Yes you can quote stories of famous shaykhs of the “glorious past” who upon hearing their mureed, khalifa, student was doing somethingnit only sinful but wholly unbecoming of station immediately revoked their khilafah (Sufi license), ijazah or whatever. But in today’s world you will see several examples where all of those abuses are overlooked and the unprofessional “imam/shaykh/Mawlana” is able to continue on and do their thing. Some are even today the principles of respected madrassas, heads of Sufi Tariqas, presidents of major Islamic organizations.

    I think the big challenge with Ahmed shaykh’s proposal is getting shaykhs to buy in and not make them feel insulted or like the organization is trying to discredit them or accuse them as a whole of wrong doing. Also it has to be more than just a salafi club, or Sufi club, or a salafi-deobandi club (at the expense of brelwis) or whatever sectarian flavour. This needs to be something universal. Everybody needs to buy in. The professional/ethical need to be sufficiently broad and not sectarian in their wording so as to include everyone, non-offensive, and needs to steer clear of big differences of opinion issues in fiqh. For instance of these professional standards were laid out

    Moreover what would this whole set up look like: would the qualifications of members of this “College of Islamic Educators” have to be vetted and what would that mean(what qualifications if any would suffice)? Or would it just be a pledge for anyone to take? If there reports of breaches of professional conduct (e.g. Quran teacher raping his student) how would these be reported? How would the issue be handled so as not to destroy a scholar’s credibility before a conclusion is reached or more importantly I the scholar is found to be innocent of breaching the code of conduct? How would breaches be handled? Would scholars have probationary licenses or would (I.e. Quran teacher may now only teach adults not children)? How and where would those breaches of conduct be reported so the Muslim Public can be made aware, and to what extent should details be reported?

  8. Educator

    October 22, 2017 at 8:20 PM

    I would also like to respectfully submit that Islamic school leaders (Principals and Board members) be included in the group that needs to adhere to a framework of ethical standards and be held accountable for their actions and words. There have been allegations of violation of Islamic principles that have been swept under the rug and the voices of victims in educational institutions quieted by the ‘elders’ of the respective communities.
    We need more conversations on this subject; it will take time, as one of the previous comments indicate but we must begin to have the difficult dialogue. If nothing else, then to raise awareness.

  9. Md Nayeem

    October 24, 2017 at 4:49 AM

    Jazāk Allāhu Khayr, Bro.!! Your following post is really analytical. I will say one thing that standardization of ethics for an actual leader is following Quran and Sunnah to lead people or giving people chance to trust on you. And the sariah, of-course, its also from the two basements….

  10. Amira

    October 28, 2017 at 8:56 PM

    Great efforts are coming about from these leaders everyone will agree, but time for a reconciliation of practicing what you preach.

    Not to mention the personal major sins and immoral practices community leaders make on a personal basis but hide it in from the eyes of community members affecting their ethical practices of running the nonprofit. Local Texas city youth organization anyone?

    Where do all the community donated funds go. Why are volunteer staff not reimbursed within a reasonable time frame instead of at least a year later. Why are volunteer staff worked like mad dogs with no training whatsoever, receive nothing in return besides self satisfaction, pumped up like crazy to their face, and being the object of trash talk behind their backs while being mentally blacklisted by the Director/President. Why is so much expected of volunteer teachers yet they’re given absolutely nothing in return not even from the supposed successful fundraisers. The community leader fails to reassess his last minute strategies and thus the organization doesn’t reach its potential.

    I know a community leader whose major theme of the organization(s) was the best of sinners is the one who repents and makes great efforts to align the organization’s practices with strict views BUT practices none of that in his own personal life. All in the name of status. Time to clean out some intentions.

  11. Hisham E

    October 28, 2017 at 10:57 PM

    Thank you brother Shaikh. I, also, applaude you for promoting this issue of setting ethical standards for Muslim community leaders.
    The point I like to raise has to do with litigation and litigation only as the one thing that would make this issue move forward, and would force the creation of Imam unions and guilds, that would be able to exclude and issue warnings to members that don’t abide with ethical standards.
    Take for example a lawsuit that would cost a community millions of dollars forcing them to sell their center (or several centers in the case of NAIT).
    It is then and only then that associations and communities would wake up and attemp to regulate their Imams, sheikhs, down to any employee who appeal to others as having any kind of moral or spiritual authority.
    Frankly, I am surprised that insurance companies don’t require such an arrangement. Or better, I should ask if Muslim communities ever have such insurance policies against ethical misconduct.
    This is not just about the image of Islam before our children and outer communities, and not about implementing Sharia, but rather about maintaining the very organizations (and realestate) that our communities put so much energy to create and maintain.

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