Shaykh Power © – Righteous Leaders, Superheroes, Shallow Celebrities or Hungry Wolves?

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” -Uncle Ben.

Clergy -or shayukh-  in Muslim communities hold sacred power in that their positions symbolize a representation of character and religious authority in their community.

The role of a shaykh is complex in that community members can turn to their him for financial advice, marital counseling, matchmaking, conflict resolution, religious classes, youth engagement, and pretty much anything else a community needs. You name it and a shaykh is approached for it. In most communities, the shaykh is a critical component of a healthy community, but in some cases – the great power is used to facilitate great abuse instead.

Understanding Shaykh Power©:

Shaykh Power© doesn’t mean the ability to bless or forgive,  it simply means the effect a shaykh can have on the general public for the very reason that he preaches about religion.

People subconsciously associate their spiritual growth with the shaykh, building a bond of love, respect and trust. It’s perfectly natural – someone who has helped you, taught you, or supported you through a difficult time is likely to become dear to you regardless of their position. As a result it’s natural for people to:

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  1. Look up to a shaykh
  2. Become attached to the shaykh whose da’wah or lecture may have helped them find, or re-find Islam
  3. Trust a shaykh and hold him in honor
  4. Be influenced, which is a consequence of being held in honor
  5. Giving him a place of authority in their lives

Again, it is natural for people to attach themselves to a shaykh, and it is completely okay for a shaykh to be respected and trusted to that level. It is a relationship built on faith, in which the shaykh earns trusts by demonstrating trustworthiness, fearing Allah in the relationship with his congregants, and maintaining a consciousness of his actions and consequences with God.

There is no conflict in this trust when viewed alongside human fallibility. No one is sin-free, not even a shaykh. They are humans and humans are weak. A healthy community is not one with a sin-free shaykh. However, the line is between fallibility and abuse is crossed when the shaykh’s sins or inherent weakness start hurting others, and the authority they hold is abused to give into those weaknesses.

What is Abuse of “Shaykh-power©”

The abuse of a shaykh’s power happens if a shaykh uses his position, authority, or religious knowledge to manipulate people into compliance or obedience to his sin.

A very simple example of a shaykh using all three – position, authority, and knowledge – to manipulate someone into compliance came from a woman who covers her face. During a Skype call related to business -and not marriage at all- a well-known shaykh diverted from the agenda to convince her to remove her face-veil as he was a “shaykh” and it was okay for him to see her face. The shaykh tried to establish a religious basis for his exception to the rule and made his female student believe that as a shaykh he had “special privileges”.

There are common patterns of “special privileges” that emerge.

The Secret Marriage

Secret marriages occur where the shaykh uses his authority to wrongly legitimize a marriage without witnesses. Please be aware, there is no marriage valid without 2 witnesses, and in majority of the fiqhs, marriage is not valid without a woman’s wali (representative guardian) present.

While the term “marriage” is used, what happens in secret marriage is not what Islam recognizes as marriage. Rather than entering a serious, long-term commitment in which each party agrees to honor the rights and terms decreed by Allah, a secret marriage is usually the culmination of grooming and manipulation. The victim is led to believe that the shaykh is sincere in his pursuit of their marriage and future together, but cannot go public for whatever reason. He convinces the victim that their secret marriage is valid by manipulating Islamic information is his favor, and the result is that the victim consents to what is an otherwise shady arrangement.

After the “marriage” is consummated, the women are divorced – also in secret and without due Islamic process. They have no legal recourse – since they were not legally married. They don’t even have Islamic recourse since oftentimes there are no witnesses to the secret marriage.  Some shayukh misinform the women that they don’t need witnesses because as a person of knowledge, a shaykh is sufficient as a witness to finalize his own marriage contract.

Consider the difference between marriage as a communal celebration, a public declaration, and a legal protection of the rights of both spouses – and compare it to a verbal agreement with one man in a hotel room. Consummation followed by divorce, with no intention to sign a marriage-contract or honor the woman as a wife, is not a valid marriage.

The impermissibility of secret marriages has been discussed in detail here.

On Secret Marriages | Dr Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Some argue that women who are legally adults and gave their consent to the secret marriage have no claim to victimhood. It is true that secret marriage and serial marriage are not rape, but secret marriage is an abuse of the trust that our community places in a shaykh.

Women are deceived into marrying by means of the shaykh’s authority. The shaykh – a person of religious credibility with community trust – implies that something halal, lasting, and keeping with the Islamic sanctity of the family will happen. What happens instead is a woman falling victim to the shaykh’s pattern of marrying a variety of women to satisfy carnal curiosity, and then divorcing women once the desires are satisfied.

The abuse of women goes beyond just the women- the entire community is deceived when a shaykh abuses their religious credibility. They trust that the man committed to the spiritual betterment of their families will act in keeping with that trust. There is no way to legitimize the secret wooing, secret wedding, and immediate, premeditated divorcing of anyone in the community.

Divorce can happen under completely normal circumstances, just because a man is a shaykh doesn’t mean he has to stay in a bad marriage. However, when a pattern is developed to frequently marry and divorce, sometimes after a week or less, and a shaykh does so knowing that the position and reputation will help him replace the wife soon enough-  then this is not what either marriage or divorce is for. This is abuse.

A man on the podium, delivering the Message of God and helping people connect with their Lord holds enormous spiritual power over his community. Unfortunately, some shaykhs can and do use that power to satisfy their desires in religiously inexcusable ways.

Misuse of Polygamy through “Shaykh Power”:

Polygamy itself is not the issue here. Polygamy itself becomes abused when it is used to justify secret marriage and divorce of multiple women, without having any sincere intention or giving any marriage or divorce it’s due Islamic rights or process.

Shayukh who abuse polygamy paint a glamorous picture of polygamy, making it a special mission to “revive the sunnah”, and practicing polygamy almost a measure of a woman’s level of iman.

The delusional idea of becoming more religious under the wings of a shaykh as his wife is also used to entice women seeking closeness to Allah. A more intimate relationship to the shaykh is directly conflated with a more intimate relationship with Allah.

What the shayukh are luring women into is not a revival of polygamous marriage, as much as it is a revival of temporary marriage – without the decency of telling the women up front what they are consenting to. The woman believes she will be the shaykh’s second wife. Instead, she is third, or fourth, or fifth ex-wife.

Do We Have a Solution?

The first step towards resolving an issue is to acknowledge that problem exists. As a community, we have tried to conceal our dirty laundry in the name of gheerah and satr, only to suppress ‘adl instead. As an ummah, we need to address the harmful behavior of shayukh who abuse their our religion and their power to manipulate and use women – leaving them emotionally and spiritually broken in the name of a religion that is mean to protect them.

Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.

Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.

It is women’s religious right to have access to a religious scholarship for knowledge and seeking verdicts, and the mistakes of few cannot outweigh the virtues of many.

1400 years ago, we– Muslim women — were given protection from a society that sold their daughters in exchange of money and loaned out their wives to other men.  Our Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) taught and showed us how to treat women with honor, and he then entrusted the knowledge of Islam to his inheritors– the shayukh.

Consider the gravity of that abuse, when our scholars are trusted to carry forward the Prophet’s legacy, and instead weaponize the Prophet’s words to abuse us instead.

Needless to say, not every shaykh is abusive of his congregants. Alhamdulillah, the abuse is the exception and trust fulfilled is the norm. However, that doesn’t mean that silence should be the norm as well. As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed.

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7 responses to “Shaykh Power © – Righteous Leaders, Superheroes, Shallow Celebrities or Hungry Wolves?”

  1. Abu Hamza says:

    I find it strange that the women in question are never held responsible. Somehow they are just so gullible that they will fall for anything. Until and unless you put the blame where it lies, you will never find a solution to the problem. Throughout history shuyukh had power, but women had haya and gheerah. We didn’t have these problems.

  2. Umm Isma'el says:

    Assalamou alaykoum,

    You are talking about who? Is this Nouman Ali Khran? Can he defend himself of these accusations? How can you know theses secrets marriages were meant to be temporary? Sometimes, they struggle to find the right partner. And because polygamy is forbidden, they have to make it secret. But I agree this issue has to be addressed, but it should not be in a very aggressive and accusative way like this paper. Wa Allahu allam.

  3. Leila says:

    Jazakumullah khair for this article, I married one of these powerr shaykhs unfortunately. He was abusive of his power inside the masjid, within the community, and inside the home. I realized what he was doing (using his power to get away with horrendous acts) and he didn’t care about me or his children and I finally built up the courage to leave. He was abusing me physically, mentally and emotionally and this has been going on for seven years. He refused to pay for his childrens’ needs saying I ran away from the marriage and so I am not entitled to financial support— an abuse of his Islamic knowledge. But alhamdulillah I live in a country where the law will protect me and my children from this monster. I couldn’t imagine what would have happened to us if I agreed to marry in an unlawful way. He has a 4 month old daughter he’s never seen and is already married since two months! I feel sorry for that woman whoever she is because he will dump her like trash when he’s done with her. He is the imam of masjid Aisha in downtown Montreal and people respect him for his khutbahs but I cannot stand the idea that someone who is a complete hypocrite teaches people their religion. Don’t do it ladies! Never accept to marry someone without legally registering the marriage. Thank you again for this much needed article.

  4. Umm Isma'el says:

    The problem is not the ‘secret marriages’. The problem, indeed, as Leila said, is that some sheikhs are abusive in their private life, while they show another face in public. They are not fit for the job. A sheikh should have an irreproachable character and behavior. Some mistakes can be overlooked, but after a certain point, they should lose their position. This is the role of the community leader to take these decisions and to protect the community against these wolves.

  5. Um Nour says:

    I am amazed by this paper who is attacking in a very insidious way men who practice polygamy, and on the same website (Muslims Matters) we can find a paper who is taking the defense of an adulterer (and maybe a rapist), I am talking about Tariq Ramadan, and who compare him to Martin Luther King ! What is halal is disgusting, and what is haram is OK. The firsts are wolves the seconds are only human beings who have to be excused.

  6. Mustafa says:

    This article is a bit incomplete. Spends a good deal diagnosing the problem and doing so well, but then

    “Stopping sisters-only sessions with shaykhs or banning sisters from contacting shayukh for personal or Islamic questions is not a foundational solution. Women have to consult knowledgeable men for a variety of issues: spiritual and marital counseling, for Islamic rulings on life matters etc.

    Stricter segregation between shayukh and women, or building physical barriers in the masajid is a suggested preventative measure but not a solution either. Frankly, many shayukh have the dignity to respect their boundaries with women without a barrier in their masjid, while many have crossed all lines despite physical barriers.”

    Yes preventative measures are not a complete solution-there may not ever be in this life because Allah has allowed thulm to happen here and He seizes or forgives the oppressor in the next life.

    However, preventative measures do have some net benefit. And these net benefits do not need to be at the detriment of women. It’s not harmful if a woman consulting a Shaykh or Imam has two other trustworthy women (perhaps counselors?) present during the interaction-if she can confide confidential information with one professional she can do so with two other professionals as well. Developing a class of female Muslim professionals who can be witness or help in cases like these would go a long way-like having women be OBGYNs and encouraging the field to be dominated by women. It should also be noted, seclusion, which can be in many different forms in the modern era, between two non mahrams is itself HARAM-this is not up for negotiation.

    It’s just not practical or sensible to diagnose a problem then dismiss (in tone or reality) clear preventative measures that have a net benefit effect and then provide no solution apart from

    “As a community, we are responsible for each other, in standing up to our oppressors and standing up for our oppressed”

    How exactly??

  7. Umm Aasiyah says:

    @Um Nour. The author was not “insidiously” attacking polygamy. Far from it. Could you please read the piece again with an open mind?

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