After ten years with his Shaykh, “Ali,” (not his real name) was approached by a fellow female student, who said that the Shaykh had sexually assaulted her. Upon investigation, Ali discovered that the Shaykh regularly touched and kissed many women against their will, mostly in private so-called ruqya sessions. Those who tried to resist, question or protest, would be emotionally abused by him and other authorities in the group. They were isolated and forbidden from telling anyone, and even blamed for their own assault, with implications that the assaults were justified in their spiritual interests. Others in the community did not view these incidents as the assaults they were, trivialized them as errors, or even justified them by implying that the ladies themselves were complicit.
The full account of this story, which appears here, shows that abuse by religious authorities, which are far too common, often go unchecked by a community that prefers to remain silent and brush it under the rug.
Prevention and Accountability
Danish Qasim is the Founding Director of In Shaykh’s Clothing, a platform created to combat spiritual abuse all over the world. Along with his co-founder, Danya Shakfeh, Esq, an attorney, they raise awareness, counsel victims, and create resources for groups suffering from spiritual abuse.
Danish defines the term “spiritual abuse,” as any form of abuse through religion, including financial abuse, bullying, manipulation, exploitation, and sexual assault. Since the inception of In Shaykh’s Clothing, he has worked with around 300 victims. “This may seem like an exaggerated number,” he says, “but many times one abuser will leave an entire community rocked, and I’ll talk to 10 or 15 people from just one scandal.”
Unfortunately, spiritual abuse is rift in communities across the globe, and seeking accountability is very difficult. “We saw that even with proofs of abuse, including abusers admitting to various forms of abuse, the general apathy or commitment to these individuals outweighed any sense of righteous indignation,” he said, “so we shifted our focus to helping victims, educating the community, and creating mechanisms for prevention and accountability rather than warning against specific individuals.”
Danish and Danya created a Code of Conduct for Islamic Leadership, which organizations can use when they hire staff or volunteers. It includes guidelines for handing funds and transparency, behavior with minors and vulnerable persons, and amorous relationships within an organization. What sets it apart, however, is that it sets a special focus on the dynamics in the Muslim community that may go unnoticed by the law. For example, it lists newly converted or newly practicing Muslims as vulnerable persons, since they can easily be misled by twisted religious interpretation. It also states that anyone in religious authority cannot enter into a secret marriage, nor enter into a marriage intending to divorce, as these tactics are very commonly used to manipulate vulnerable women.
“It becomes a contract between the institution and staff members.” says Danya. “If a staff member violates the Code of Conduct, the school (or organization) has a claim for breach of contract and could either enforce the Code of Conduct or sue for damages. Even students can file a breach of contract claim as ‘beneficiaries’ of the contract if the institution does not take action or alongside the institution. In other words, since the Code of Conduct is largely designed to protect students and congregants, they also have legal rights to enforce the contract.” In this article, she explains that oftentimes, abuse such as financial manipulation, or emotional abuse through secret second marriages, are not technically illegal, and therefore cannot be addressed through legal means, which is how this Code of Conduct steps in to fill the gaps.
The website has many other resources, such as accounts of spiritual abuse, and articles on how to identify narcissists, and information about grooming.
Abuse at Many Levels
Unfortunately, spiritual abuse does not just exist at the institutional level. Much abuse occurs at the individual level that goes largely unchecked. When the victim tries to ask for help from the community, it’s often either brushed over, covered up or disregarded. In her award-winning memoir, Things That Shatter, Kaighla Um Dayo recounts her experience as a new convert to Islam, rushed into a marriage by the well-meaning but misguided community who felt that marriage would provide her with the stability she didn’t have as a single mom, as well as help her learn more about her new religion.
She discovered that he was abusive, neglectful, and repeatedly lied, such as telling her that he had divorced his wife in Egypt, although in reality he had not. Time and again over the next six years, Kaighla was abused physically and mentally, neglected at the most basic of levels. As she moved cities and even countries, she was repeatedly let down by the Muslims she came across,who fed her misinterpreted and outright false religious teachings about her rights as a Muslim woman. Those who did try to help often could not offer her what she needed, downplayed the situation, or even blamed her for it.
Kaighla was not the sole victim of this man. She discovered that he had a classic narcissistic pattern of pursuing vulnerable women. He chooses to target recent converts who do not have a support system, are unaware of their Islamic rights, and are not able to protest his twisted version of the religion.
Now, an author of three books, Kaighla uses her online platform to share her experiences healing from the PTSD she developed as a result of this abuse. She wrote Things That Shatter in the hopes that more people would become aware of the dynamics that allow abusers to do what they wish, without accountability.
Countering Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abuse cannot be written, shared, or lectured away. It cannot be policed by a group nor eliminated by a few individuals, no matter how passionate. What makes spiritual abuse so difficult to counter, is that there is simply no quick fix. Efforts to spread awareness and put preventative measures in place, like those of In Shaykh’s Clothing, can make people think twice and know where to go for help. Reading the accounts of people like Kaighla and Ali can encourage us to be on the lookout for abusers and victims in our communities, and about which rhetoric is helpful and which is not. But until each one of us decides to take a stand, will this problem go away.
Danish concludes Ali’s account on In Shaykh’s Clothing with this powerful reminder:
“It is easy to condemn abuse as an abstraction. No one defends the idea of oppression or abusing others. However, when mistreatment or abuse does happen in one’s own group, difficult challenges can arise when faced with the task of addressing the accused, sometimes turning old trusted friends and associates into foes. Nevertheless, in the end, we as Muslims must stand up to abuse to the best of our abilities.”