Who’s going to listen to you?
When I was asked this question for the first time, it wasn’t really a question. It was a taunt. And I didn’t really have an answer. The man taunting me was a community leader, a respected imam, who was bragging about how he was going to drag my name through the dirt. He listed all the people he was going to contact to tell them how horrible I was, being sure to mention every single person I admired and respected most.
At the time, I was more taken aback than concerned. What he was saying was so bizarre and out of character that I genuinely didn’t take him seriously. I processed his threats as angry joking, so I mentally dismissed his outburst and focused on the topic at hand. He was infuriated because I had a different point of view regarding something that the community’s chief Imam had said. I believed that I was obligated to obey Allah and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him); and this man believed that I didn’t have the right to even entertain that option if it contradicted with the chief Imam’s teachings.
This point of view confused me thoroughly, as the man himself, who was my first Islamic teacher, always talked about Allah and the Prophet (peace be upon him) as the ultimate authority in religious matters. He often talked about how we had to be willing to stand up against wrongdoing, even if against our own selves. It was from him that I heard this ayah from Qur’an for the first time, which inspired me to strive to stand up for what’s right, no matter the consequences:
“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, your parents, your kin, and whether it be [against] rich or poor. For Allah can best protect both. So follow not the lusts [of your hearts], lest you may avoid justice. And if you distort [justice] or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that you do” (An-Nisaa, 4:135).
Why then was he telling me that I should do the exact opposite in this circumstance? When I kept asking him why he was opposing me so much when I was just doing what Islam required of me, he raised his voice over mine and declared, “If I had a choice between Islam and the Imam, I would choose the Imam!”
Personalities Over Principles
Some people might think my imam’s proclamation against Islam is rare and extreme, and they’d be right. Such open proclamations that blatantly denounce spiritual principles in favor of religious personalities are indeed anomalies, and thankfully so. However, they are not unprecedented, and the implications of such proclamations are not as rare as the open proclamations themselves.
Nearly all deviant sects and cults are successful in recruiting so many followers specifically because they are successful in convincing sincere believers that religious personalities take precedence over spiritual principles. More specifically, they are successful in convincing sincere believers that religious personalities equal spiritual principles.
However, instead of stating outright that they believe their sheikh or scholar has more authority than Islam itself (as my imam did), they convince their followers that the group’s sheikh or scholar is Islam itself. In this way, followers of these sects and cults assume that anything they learn from the group’s sheikh or scholar represents Islam simply because it came from the teachings of that sheikh or scholar.
But Aren’t We Obligated To Follow Scholars?
In an authentic hadith, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Indeed, the scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, for the prophets do not leave behind a dinar or a dirham for inheritance, but rather, they leave behind knowledge…” (Abu Dawud, Al-Tirmidhi).
Therefore, the short answer is yes, we are obligated to follow scholars. However, as both common sense and Islam itself make clear, not every person who is labeled a scholar is actually a scholar, and even amongst true scholars, none is to be blindly followed without question.
Regarding how we should understand this hadith in our following of scholars, I reflect in my journal: This is a well-known hadith, and from it we learn that the responsibility of the scholar is great, as he or she is entrusted with inheriting and subsequently passing on the wealth of knowledge left behind by the Prophet, peace be upon him. Thus, when we “follow” trustworthy scholars, we are only being directed to follow the Prophet himself. For the job of the scholar is only to share authentic knowledge gained from detailed study of the original teachings. And just as a trustee of an estate does not add or take away from the wealth with which he is entrusted, so does a trustworthy scholar leave the prophetic inheritance undisturbed—except to share the knowledge in full, as his or her role demands.
Here are some well-known quotes from the scholars of the four famous schools of thought that make this point undeniably clear:
“It is not permitted for anyone to accept our views if they do not know from where we got them from.”—Imam Abu Hanifah
“Indeed I am only a human: I make mistakes [sometimes] and I am correct [sometimes]. Therefore, look into my opinions: all that agrees with the Book and the Sunnah accept it; and all that does not agree with the Book and the Sunnah, ignore it.”—Imam Malik Ibn Anas
“For everything I say, if there is something authentic from the Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, contrary to my saying, then the hadith of the Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, comes first, therefore do not [do] taqleed of my opinion.”—Imam Muḥammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi’ee
“Do not follow my opinion; neither follow the opinion of Malik, nor Shafi’ee, nor Awza’i, nor Thawri, but take from where they took.”—Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal
You’re Not Important Enough To Be Trusted, They Said
When my community imam continuously challenged me on my right to believe differently from the chief Imam, he kept saying that the chief Imam was taught directly by Allah, so it was impossible that the Imam was teaching anything wrong. He also kept saying that the chief Imam was effectively the Prophet in spirit so I didn’t have any right to oppose the “mujaddid” (religious reviver) whom Allah had sent to me and “my people.”
When Allah blessed me to leave that small community and find another Muslim community in a different area, I’d genuinely imagined that what I’d left such bizarre experiences behind me.
But I was wrong.
Firstly, the imam who’d argued with me did indeed follow up on his threats to spread my name through the dirt. And he did not confine his claims to the truth. Our initial argument happened more than twenty years ago, and till today, I am suffering from his widespread calculated slander against me. And because his status in the community was (and is) so much greater than mine, I was openly opposed by both close friends and loved ones when they heard what he was saying against me. Though some have now apologized and admitted they were wrong in believing him and openly opposing me, they tell me that though everything he accused me of was completely out of character for me and difficult for them to believe, it never occurred to them that he was being untruthful. After all, he was a celebrated imam, not only locally, but nationally as well. And I was just an unknown twenty-something who was just learning about Islam. Thus, they assumed that he was right and I was wrong. It didn’t even cross their minds that there was a different explanation to what was happening than the one he was presenting to them.
In other words, I was a nobody, and he was a somebody; so he must be right.
The second reason I was wrong in assuming that I could leave this experience behind me in a new community was that many other Muslims communities taught “personalities over principles” as a foundational creed, and any efforts to shift the focus to “principles over personalities” was labeled as disrespecting scholars.
“Stop Disrespecting Scholars!” The Smokescreen of Misguided Sects and Cults
When I found myself the repeated victim of spiritual abuse in a Muslim cult, one of the most powerful tactics used against me was the “You shouldn’t disrespect scholars!” argument. The reason this was so powerful is that nearly all Muslims, myself included, agree on the obligation to respect those who teach us about our faith. Thus, when Muslims hear of someone “disrespecting” a scholar, they have an emotional reaction similar to when hearing of a rebellious teen physically harming his elderly mother. There’s simply no excuse for it, no matter the circumstance.
On the surface, this emotional reaction appears praiseworthy, as it suggests that we have a healthy sense of both emaan and respect for scholars in our hearts. However, what is problematic is when we fail to take a step back and understand what is actually happening as opposed to what is simply being claimed to have happened.
When the imam spoke condescendingly to me and said, “Who’s going to listen to you?” I had no idea how accurate his predictions would be. At the time, I was only in my early twenties and just beginning my detailed studies of Islam, while this imam had been a leader in the community for more years than I was alive. Thus, he knew quite well the culture of most Muslim communities while I did not. I was still naïve enough to believe that my friends and loved ones would simply treat me as they always had, and respect that I merely had a different point of view on some Islamic issues.
I was wrong.
Nothing could have prepared me for the calculated lies and exaggerations of truth that this imam levied against me in a smear campaign that lasted more than fifteen years—all because I wouldn’t submit without question to everything the chief Imam taught about Islam. I was also unprepared for the immeasurable effects of being accused of disrespecting the Imam and betraying “our people.”
Unfortunately, this heartbreaking experience didn’t end with this initial community. In the years to come, I would witness this “stop disrespecting scholars” approach to silence dissent over and over again. Sometimes I was the dissenter accused of disrespecting scholars (if I favored a different fiqh view than the one favored by that community), and sometimes it was someone I knew being accused of this.
Those who suffered the most from this “stop disrespecting scholars” argument were women, youth, and African-Americans. Women were often forced to stay in abusive marriages and were sometimes sexually abused by self-proclaimed “Muslim saints” and “awliyaa of Allah.” Youth were required to quietly accept abuse of parents under the guise of “reverencing the wombs that bore you.” And African-Americans were continuously required to deny aspects of their identity and culture that was deemed “imitation of the kuffaar,” even as similar cultural practices were accepted if they were rooted in Arab or Desi culture.
Whenever I or anyone else spoke up about these issues, we were accused of disrespecting scholars and violating “the rules of adab,” as I discussed in my recent blog “You Can’t Legislate the Human Heart: This Isn’t About Rules and Adab”.
No Human Is Infallible, Including Scholars
What is most heartbreaking about this widespread harm happening in misguided sects and cults is that their harmful teachings are no longer confined to only their misguided sects and cults. Average Muslims who have no connections to these groups now embrace this misguidance as a part of Islam. The overpraising of scholars at the expense of Islamic truth has become so widespread in recent years that it is very rare to find any community, even one purporting to follow the Sunnah as taught by the Prophet (peace be upon him), that does not ascribe to “personalities over principles” and does not swiftly silence anyone who has a different point of view than the chief Imam or Sheikh.
Some of these groups also name certain sheikhs and scholars as “saints” who are infallible or who have special powers and abilities that normal humans don’t have. They sometimes claim these men can perform miracles, answer prayers while they are in the grave, and are exempt from the religious obligations of other Muslims. Some sheikhs claim to be given divine permission for sexual sins such as adultery, which they claim is not a sin when the sheikh has seen a vision or dream telling him it’s okay. And all of this is done under the guise of self-proclaimed sainthood and religious infallibility.
I have been fortunate enough to personally know and study with imams and sheikhs who not only spoke against this type of misguidance, but who also willingly and humbly accepted feedback, criticism, and disagreement from their students. However, these truthful imams, sheikhs, and scholars are very, very rare in these Last Days. Thus, not every Muslim is fortunate enough to meet any of them on a personal level, or even understand that these are the traits that reflect true Islamic scholarship—not claims of sainthood or religious infallibility.
Furthermore, no matter how praiseworthy or spiritually pure we imagine someone to be, we have no right to make this declaration, let alone create groups and Islamic teachings based on it. In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean: “…So ascribe not purity to yourselves. He (Allah) knows best who fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him” (An-Najm, 53:32).
Also Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “If one of you is to definitely praise his brother, then let him say: ‘I deem such and such [to be like that] and I do not praise anyone above Allah, [as] Allah is his Reckoner’— if he believes that he is like that” (Bukhari and Muslim).
In my journal, I reflect on the true nature of Islamic spirituality and learning it from people of knowledge:
The soul can be protected only by believing in and following Truth, as defined by Allah. Yes, those who are more knowledgeable can help us, but the onus of responsibility is on us alone. And what clearer proof is there than the Day of Judgment itself?
On this momentous Day, we will be called to account alone, we will stand before Allah alone, and we will be judged alone—based on everything we alone did in this world. And yes, that includes even our choice of a particular spiritual teacher, whom we will not be able to blame for our sin and misguidance while we had the Book of Allah and the Sunnah within our reach. After all, when the children of Adam are handed their Book of Deeds, your favored teacher will be as helpless and as uncertain as you regarding in which hand he will receive his.
Sheikhs and Scholars As Lords Besides Allah
In many Islamic lectures, classes, and Friday sermons today, it is commonplace to hear many more statements and quotes from scholars and sheikhs than statements and quotes from the Prophet (peace be upon) himself, and it is even more rare to hear a talk quoting extensively from the Qur’an, along with how the Companions understood the Qur’anic topic. Tragically, this emphasis on statements and teachings of scholars more than the Qur’an, the Prophet, and the Companions is often coupled with the introduction of new teachings about Islam.
In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “They took their rabbis and monks to be their lords besides Allah…” (At-Tawbah, 9:31).
When the Companion Adee ibn Hatim (may Allah be pleased with him), who had converted to Islam from Christianity, heard this ayah, he told the Prophet (peace be upon him), “We did not worship them.” The Prophet then asked Adee if the religious leaders had forbade what Allah had permitted, and allowed what Allah had forbidden, and if they (the followers) obeyed them in this. Adee said, “We certainly did.” Then the Prophet told him, “That is how you worshipped them.” (Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Jarir At-Tabari).
Today, we find this same tragic tradition repeating itself in how many Muslims treat their imams, sheikhs, and scholars—and in how many imams, sheikhs, and scholars demand Muslims to treat them.
Is Healing a Sin?
When I lost friends and loved ones and my life was turned upside down after I suffered spiritual abuse at the hands of an imam I’d admired and respected since childhood, I felt lost and confused, and I ultimately fell into deep depression. As I discuss in my book The Abuse of Forgiveness, my self-worth plummeted so much that I eventually felt the urge to take my own life. Though I survived the ordeal and regained my emotional health, spiritual healing has been an uphill battle. The support from Muslim communities and their imams, sheikhs, and scholars is very, very rare. In fact, the most common response has been open opposition and criticism from those in positions to make the most significant difference. Though I keep striving to share my story and help others, the pushback and lack of support does negatively affect my motivation. In my journal, I reflect on this emotional and spiritual challenge:
If you work with survivors of abuse, especially those harmed by a parent or religious leader, my prayers are with you. The battle you’re fighting is painful and often unrewarding in this life, especially in faith communities. Before I myself began to write on this topic and support survivors in my work—and share my own painful experiences—I knew that “spreading awareness” was an uphill battle since our community is generally more interested in protecting image than practicing Islam.
However, what I was unprepared for was the collective, mean-spirited opposition to this work, particularly from those with power and followership that could effect positive change with their support.
Every time the issue of abuse or wrongdoing comes up, especially where women or Black Muslims are concerned, I hear more about “adab” and “respecting scholars” than about aiding those who have been wronged. This approach goes against Islamic principles in so many ways that it’s both mortifying and infuriating that there is even a need to point it out.
To add insult to injury, the activists and writers speaking out against the abuse are then slandered and mocked, called everything from feminazis to enemies of Islam.
I myself have been on the receiving end of this sort of slander.
And it hurts. Oh, how it hurts.
It is one thing to be disagreed with regarding the best way to approach an issue. It is another matter entirely to have your entire character attacked and your Islam denied because you care about your suffering sisters and brothers in faith—and because you are dedicating your every breath to helping them emotionally and spiritually. Yet your only crime is that you didn’t fulfill your spiritual duty in the way that “students of books and classes” say you should (a requirement that continuously eludes you, no matter how hard you try to “get it right”).
I don’t claim perfection in anything I say or write. But I know Allah is my Lord, and I know I must return to Him when I die. And it is due to my knowledge of both these things that I do what I do.
But I would be lying if I said I don’t sometimes feel tempted to just walk away.
In my life, I’ve had many lucrative opportunities dangled my way that would give me a “free pass” out of the Muslim community. Thus far, I’ve turned them all down. But truthfully, I don’t know how much more I can take, mentally or emotionally. I sometimes wonder if even my spiritual health would be better if I just found another cause, one that doesn’t involve battling the “Goliaths” of religious elitism.
But I stay put, and I ask Allah to keep my feet firm.
Because I know how it feels to be wronged by someone in authority.
Because I know how it feels to think the entire world is against you.
Because I know how it feels to imagine you’re in sin if you so much as utter the words “I hurt” if it implicates a “superior person” in any way.
I nearly lost both my sanity and my emaan in just convincing myself that I had the right to *feel* my pain. And as soon as I got up the strength to speak about my hurt, I was told to shut up because I was being “disrespectful.” Then those who had silenced me spent all their time debating the “proper way” to handle problems like mine, coming up with all sorts of hypothetical panels and events, giving the appearance that they genuinely cared—just so long as they could find a way to make sure I had “proper adab” when I spoke about my pain.
And till today, not a single one of them has supported me or my healing. In fact, they continuously oppose it.
Thus, I shouldn’t be surprised to see this same scenario repeating itself over and over again in the wider Muslim community. But I am. And it’s chilling.
Witnessing this makes me think of how ensnaring the traps of Shaytaan are when we imagine we’re doing good. Meanwhile, as we debate *theories* regarding the best way to police the pain of the oppressed, there are innocent women, men, and children living the *reality* of abuse. In that painful space, they’re wondering if they’re going to Hell for “disrespecting authority” when they cry out:
O Allah! I’m hurting!
Is there anyone who can help me?
Or is it a sin to get help?”
The Abuse Is a Blessing, I See That Now
It’s a perspective I would have never imagined possible when I was fighting for my life and faith following the spiritual abuse. At the time, I could imagine nothing beneficial, let alone blessed, in what I was going through. I was alone, and I had no one to help me. Even the people I loved and trusted most abandoned me when they heard a respected imam and “person of knowledge” say bad things about me.
However, as I continue to work with survivors of abuse, I’m beginning to see the blessing in my experience. Firstly, not only am able to empathize with their experiences on a very personal level, I am also able to offer real-life solutions that helped me get through, even when I didn’t even want to live another day.
Also, and most significantly, I see more clearly what makes abusers abuse and what makes sincere Muslims support the abuse. Had I not experienced firsthand the abuse itself, I truly believe I would have been not only an enabler of abuse, but an open supporter of abusers, especially in religious environments. However, by decreeing that I lived the abuse at the hands of the very imam that I was planning to dedicate my life and religious service to, Allah showed me a side of religious misguidance that I would never have understood otherwise.
Today, I understand firsthand how religious sincerity itself is not only a blinder against seeing religious misguidance for what it is, but it is also the most powerful weapon that spiritual abusers have in their favor in perpetuating the abuse itself. In other words, what is happening in many Muslim communities is like the concept that was creatively conveyed in the movie The Matrix. The system is protected most strongly by the very people it harms most. This is not because these people are bad or evil, but because they are sincere yet ignorant.
Unfortunately, those who enable the abuse in both families and religious communities have no idea what they’re supporting. They genuinely imagine they are calling for the respect of elders and scholars, and the implementation of adab and Islamic etiquette when they silence abuse survivors or speak out against those who disagree with certain scholars.
Before I experienced the abuse firsthand myself, I was on the path to becoming one of these sincerely ignorant “soldiers” protecting the matrix of religious elitism.
For this reason, I now see my suffering spiritual abuse as a blessing. It has given me sight, by the mercy of Allah, and I pray that through this blessing Allah allows me to share this sight with others.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than fifteen books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Read HIS OTHER WIFE novel now: CLICK HERE. Subscribe to Umm Zakiyyah’s YouTube channel, follow her on Instagram or Twitter, and join her Facebook page.
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