“…I wondered why children so easily accepted it as their place to absorb the sins of their elders, even if it meant losing themselves in the process.” —the character Sonya in Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani
“Why?” I ask him for the first time in my life. It never occurred to me to ask as a child. I accepted his violence like other children accept love—as an assumed part of their lives. Only when I left…did I consider not everyone was raised as we were. It seems almost naïve to me now, but when beatings are a normal part of your upbringing, you don’t question them. It may have been too much for my psyche to acknowledge before eighteen that I had been put on the path of abuse while others were given the hand of love.”—the character Sonya in Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani
I was quiet when the woman spoke. Everybody was. No one wanted to say she couldn’t cut ties with her abusive father, and no one wanted to say she should. It was an unwritten rule amongst us, the Muslims I mean, that denial and suffering were religious obligations, particularly if the harm was inflicted by parents or family. There was no ayah in the Qur’an or hadith from Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that told us this. But years of listening to our elders and imams scold us, voices raised authoritatively, as they quoted the Qur’anic verses and hadith about the rights of parents and family, had struck so much fear into our hearts that we’d lost the ability to speak—or to think even—when unimaginable abuse was mentioned in our presence.
“My father sexually abused me until I ran away at sixteen,” the woman said, “and my mother knew about it but didn’t do anything about it.” Her voice was shaking as she looked around the room, eyes brimming with tears. She had taken her shahaadah recently, and everyone wanted to celebrate this, her conversion to Islam. That’s why we were there. We weren’t prepared for this.
“And I haven’t spoken to him in ten years,” she continued, shame and guilt in her voice. “But now that I’ve become Muslim, everyone is telling me I have to visit him and keep ties with him.” She inhaled deeply and exhaled in a single breath, as if prepared to sacrifice her life and heart. “Is that true?”
The room grew deathly silent.
A fire of rage built inside me as a few people slowly began to speak up. “Yes…” they said, apology in their tone. The quiet ones nodded, the look of obligatory deference on their faces as their eyes crawled guilty to the side.
“No, it’s not true.”
I myself was just as surprised as everyone else to hear myself say this. A few years ago, I probably would have told her yes myself. I too had been groomed to answer questions like these as if I were a robot reading a religious script instead of a trusted fellow human being offering advice that would deeply affect someone’s life.
“Allah does not obligate us to subject ourselves to harm,” I explained. “Yes, we’re obligated to keep ties with our families, but keeping ties does not require you being in their presence, or even speaking to them directly if this is unsafe.”
I then shared in my own words a powerful message I’d heard from a scholar recently:
If it is unsafe for your parents or family to know where you are, then you can keep ties by sending postcards with no return address. You can speak well of them publicly and seek advice and comfort privately for the pain you suffered at their hands. And if there’s nothing else you can think to do, then just keep them in your prayers, asking Allah to guide them if they’re not Muslim and to forgive them if they are Muslim. If they are no longer alive, you can keep ties with their good friends by sending the friends gifts and speaking of the good times you remember, as the Prophet, peace be upon him, did after his beloved wife Khadijah died, may Allah be pleased with her.
You know your situation better than anyone else, so you know best what you need to do to protect yourself from harm. But cutting direct contact with family is not the same as cutting ties. Actions are by intention. There are many ways to keep ties, and they go beyond physical visits and phone calls. Be creative. But most importantly, be safe.
Yes, we must obey Allah with regards to keeping ties and respecting parents. But there are many more ayaat in the Qur’an and stories from Islamic history dealing with parents than the ones favored by angry parents and authoritative imams. Physical, emotional, and psychological abuse is nothing new. But we somehow choose to focus on only the happy stories in Islamic history. Or more tragically, we pretend that all stories narrated to us regarding parents and their children are happy ones.
See the story of Salman Al-Farsi and his father.
Healing Yourself Is a Lifelong Effort
“The occasional good treatment and happiness you experience in a toxic or abusive relationship—whether with a friend, romantic partner, or caregiver—is not an exception to the harm you’re suffering. It is the fuel of it. For the sporadic goodness is what keeps you entangled in the relationship and blinded from your own emotional and psychological destruction.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
Before sharing the story of Salman Al-Farsi, may Allah be pleased with him, I want to share some practical advice for those struggling in abusive, toxic, or dysfunctional families. I share these because your emotional healing goes far beyond merely cutting or limiting physical contact while striving to keep ties in a way that is best and safest for you. You still have to heal the emotional, spiritual, and psychological wounds that were inflicted upon you. And for many survivors of abuse, this is a lifelong effort. However, the good news is that genuine healing is very possible, with the help of Allah.
Some points to keep in mind (particularly for adult survivors who now live on their own):
- Allah helps those who help themselves, so help yourself and He will help you. The first way to help yourself is to take care of yourself spiritually with regards to keeping your heart and soul connected to Him through prayer (Salaah), du’aa (informal prayer or supplication), and Qur’an on a daily basis.
- Allah didn’t ask you to suffer abuse, so if you knowingly subject yourself and/or your children to harm, you have to answer to Him for this on the Day of Judgment.
- Taking care of your emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health is a religious obligation; and this health takes precedence over making other people happy.
- You, not your family or parents, define what it means to “keep ties” with them. So if you feel most comfortable seeing them only once a year at a family reunion, for example, then do that. If sending letters or emails work best, then use this form of communication. If the phone is too stressful for you, find another way to keep ties. But in the end, strike a balance between your needs and what you can healthily do to keep ties.
- There is no such thing as satisfying or pleasing a controller or abuser in the ultimate sense, and it’s almost impossible to make them happy. Their dissatisfaction and anger are results of their own internal scars that they never faced, and you can never heal that for them, no matter how hard you try. So do what you can reasonably and healthily do seeking Allah’s pleasure, while asking His forgiveness for whenever you knowingly or unknowingly fall short.
- Know that abusers and controllers will always use emotional manipulation and guilt trips to make you second-guess yourself and your intentions. Mentally and spiritually prepare for this through lots of du’aa (prayerful supplication) and getting practical advice from other sufferers and survivors. Chances are, you’ll find something in their struggles that can help you navigate your own.
- If your parents are physically disabled or elderly and need you, do the best you can and get others to help you whenever possible, such that you avoid anxiety attacks and health complications incited by flashbacks and triggers.
- Abusers and controllers have double standards that are almost always self-serving, so stay focused on what Allah requires of you as opposed to what they say and do. For example, they will speak a lot about the importance of family ties, but they’ll be the first to betray you and cut ties if you upset or offend them.
- For those who are being abused and harassed due to accepting Islam or practicing Islam differently from their parents or family, know that your abusers will continuously use religion as a weapon against you, even as they don’t respect those religious rules themselves. They’ll cut ties and break promises, yet remind you of God and Islam if you so much as don’t call or visit them when they want you to. Allah says, “With regard to a believer, they respect neither ties of kinship nor covenant. It is they who are the transgressors” (Qur’an; At-Tawbah, 9:10).
- Educate yourself on gaslighting (denial tactics used to make you doubt your memory), “honeymoon” periods, and other traits of abusive relationships. As I mentioned in my journal entry above, the good times are the fuel for the bad, not an exception to them. So don’t let their occasional kindness confuse you. It’s not to be understood. They don’t even understand it themselves. Most abusers don’t think of themselves as abusers, so there’s no need to try to make sense of their unpredictable, senseless behavior.
My final advice would be this: Stop the cycle. Victims of abuse are very susceptible to becoming abusers themselves, so seek lots of help professionally, practically, and spiritually in noticing and rooting out any harmful symptoms in yourself.
And know that you are not alone. As the author Nadirah Angail posted on her Facebook page, “I need everybody to know this: Don’t believe the hype. Don’t ever think you’re the only one struggling, you’re the only one not where you want to be, you’re the only one battling demons. This life is a test for everyone. Don’t assume someone else is on easy street just because their test isn’t apparent to you.”
Here Are Some Resources That Can Help You Heal:
Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You by Umm Zakiyyah and Melanie Davidson, with contributions by Haleh Banani, cognitive behavioral therapist
Fiction (for Bibliotherapy):
Trail of Broken Wings by Sejal Badani
His Other Wife by Umm Zakiyyah
Self-Help and Inspiration:
Pain. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah (includes reflections on traversing difficulties in life)
Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward and Craig Buck
Mental Health for Muslims: mentalhealth4muslims.com
Help from a Muslim Therapist: drsabrinandiaye.com
Healing After Parental Abuse: emergingfrombroken.com
Overcoming Sexual and Emotional Trauma: beatingtrauma.com
As always, whenever you read or take advice from someone, know that you should take what is beneficial and leave what is not. No human being has a perfect perspective or flawless advice. When reading from non-Muslims or those who don’t believe in God, you’ll inevitably come across advice that violates Islamic principles. So always make du’aa and Istikhaarah and seek advice from trustworthy, knowledgeable, and understanding believers before making any decision on how to handle a difficult family situation.
“For abused children, the stories that need to be highlighted are those like Salman Al-Farsi (may Allah be pleased with him), who had to literally escape from his father’s house and live out his life elsewhere for the sake of his soul.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
From “Companions of The Prophet”, Vol.1, By: Abdul Wahid Hamid:[Salman Al-Farsi, may Allah be pleased with him, narrates]:
I grew up in the town of Isfahan in Persia in the village of Jayyan. My father was the Dihqan or chief of the village. He was the richest person there and had the biggest house.
Since I was a child my father loved me, more than he loved any other. As time went by his love for me became so strong and overpowering that he feared to lose me or have anything happen to me. So he kept me at home, a veritable prisoner, in the same way that young girls were kept.
I became devoted to the Magian religion so much so that I attained the position of custodian of the fire which we worshipped. My duty was to see that the flames of the fire remained burning and that it did not go out for a single hour, day or night.
My father had a vast estate which yielded an abundant supply of crops. He himself looked after the estate and the harvest. One day he was very busy with his duties as dihqan in the village and he said to me:
“My son, as you see, I am too busy to go out to the estate now. Go and look after matters there for me today.”
On my way to the estate, I passed a Christian church and the voices at prayer attracted my attention. I did not know anything about Christianity or about the followers of any other religion throughout the time my father kept me in the house away from people. When I heard the voices of the Christians I entered the church to see what they were doing.
I was impressed by their manner of praying and felt drawn to their religion. “By God,” I said, “this is better than ours. I shall not leave them until the sun sets.”
I asked and was told that the Christian religion originated in AshSham (Greater Syria). I did not go to my father’s estate that day and at night, I returned home. My father met me and asked what I had done. I told him about my meeting with the Christians and how I was impressed by their religion. He was dismayed and said:
“My son, there is nothing good in that religion. Your religion and the religion of your forefathers is better.”
“No, their religion is better than ours,” I insisted.
My father became upset and afraid that I would leave our religion. So he kept me locked up in the house and put a chain on my feet. I managed however to send a message to the Christians asking them to inform me of any caravan going to Syria. Before long they got in touch with me and told me that a caravan was headed for Syria. I managed to unfetter myself and in disguise accompanied the caravan to Syria. There, I asked who was the leading person in the Christian religion and was directed to the bishop of the church. I went up to him and said:
“I want to become a Christian and would like to attach myself to your service, learn from you and pray with you.”
The bishop agreed and I entered the church in his service. I soon found out, however, that the man was corrupt. He would order his followers to give money in charity while holding out the promise of blessings to them. When they gave anything to spend in the way of God however, he would hoard it for himself and not give anything to the poor or needy. In this way he amassed a vast quantity of gold. When the bishop died and the Christians gathered to bury him, I told them of his corrupt practices and, at their request, showed them where he kept their donations. When they saw the large jars filled with gold and silver they said.
“By God, we shall not bury him.” They nailed him on a cross and threw stones at him.
I continued in the service of the person who replaced him. The new bishop was an ascetic who longed for the Hereafter and engaged in worship day and night. I was greatly devoted to him and spent a long time in his company.[After his death, Salman attached himself to various Christian religious figures, in Mosul, Nisibis and elsewhere. The last one had told him about the appearance of a Prophet in the land of the Arabs who would have a reputation for strict honesty, one who would accept a gift but would never consume charity (sadaqah) for himself. Salman continues his story]:
…At that time the Prophet was inviting his people in Makkah to Islam but I did not hear anything about him then because of the harsh duties which slavery imposed upon me.
When the Prophet reached Yathrib after his hijrah from Makkah, I was in fact at the top of a palm tree belonging to my master doing some work. My master was sitting under the tree. A nephew of his came up and said:
“May God declare war on the Aws and the Khazraj (the two main Arab tribes of Yathrib). By God, they are now gathering at Quba to meet a man who has today come from Makkah and who claims he is a Prophet.” I felt hot flushes as soon as I heard these words and I began to shiver so violently that I was afraid that I might fall on my master. I quickly got down from the tree and spoke to my master’s nephew. “What did you say? Repeat the news for me.”
My master was very angry and gave me a terrible blow. “What does this matter to you? Go back to what you were doing,” he shouted.
That evening, I took some dates that I had gathered and went to the place where the Prophet had alighted. I went up to him and said:
“I have heard that you are a righteous man and that you have companions with you who are strangers and are in need. Here is something from me as sadaqah. I see that you are more deserving of it than others.”
The Prophet ordered his companions to eat but he himself did not eat of it.
I gathered some more dates and when the Prophet left Quba for Madinah I went to him and said: “I noticed that you did not eat of the sadaqah I gave. This however is a gift for you.” Of this gift of dates, both he and his companions ate.
The strict honesty of the Prophet was one of the characteristics that led Salman to believe in him and accept Islam.
Salman was released from slavery by the Prophet who paid his Jewish slave-owner a stipulated price and who himself planted an agreed number of date palms to secure his manumission. After accepting Islam, Salman would say when asked whose son he was:
“I am Salman, the son of Islam from the children of Adam.”
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