“And fear the Day when you shall [all] be brought back to Allah. Then shall every soul be paid what it earned, and none shall be dealt with unjustly.”
—Qur’an, Al-Baqarah (2:281)
In the community I was part of as a youth, spiritual salvation was not a personal experience. It was a community experience, and it wasn’t an optional one. Either you showed complete allegiance to the group’s imam and religious ideology, or you were punished severely. Even before I was mature enough to understand what any of this meant personally or spiritually, I was told who my religious leader was, what I was to think about myself in relation to him, and what I was to think about Muslims who didn’t follow him.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t fully process the group’s rules until I had broken them. As a recompense for my “affront” (as one community member called it), I was publicly humiliated, warned against, slandered and ostracized before I even comprehended exactly what I’d done wrong. In time I would learn that my crimes were wearing a full khimaar (displaying only my face and hands), not listening to music, and no longer celebrating non-Muslim holidays.
Apparently, these were all signs of religious extremism, so they had to “save my soul.” Thus, like the social terrorists who inflict hate crimes on Muslims under the guise of rooting out terrorism in the world, my fellow brothers and sisters in Islam subjected me to verbal, spiritual, and emotional abuse with the “honorable” goal of rooting out misguidance in me.
And due to my believing that I had no right to my own life, mind, and soul, I continuously subjected myself to their torment because I genuinely believed that Allah had given them authority over me. It took some time before I realized that like many tyrants in history, they were merely trying to censor my soul.
Even Spiritual Teachers Have Emotional Wounds
In the more than forty years I’ve been alive on this earth, I’ve interacted with many different people and cultures, and every single one had at least two types of religious people: those who used religion as a means of self-honesty and self-correction, and those who used religion to hide from themselves and claim (or strive for) spiritual infallibility. Needless to say, only the former offered an emotionally safe and spiritually healthy environment for me.
Today there are entire sects and cults established for the expressed purpose of teaching their followers that their spiritual teachers and scholars are infallible saints with a special connection to the Divine. I’ve even heard lectures where they teach that these men have special powers and miraculous abilities. Sometimes these cults go as far as to work with jinn to secure followers and wow the ignorant masses who are thirsty for some escape from the painful realities of life.
In fact, a female family friend was so wowed by one of these cults that she actually committed adultery with a sheikh who claimed to have been given divine permission to sleep with her (while they were both married). Undoubtedly, no one, whether layperson or scholar, gets to this level of moral debauchery unless they are severely ignorant or they have deep, unhealed emotional and spiritual wounds.
So often we throw ourselves into religion as a means to cover up our pain instead of as a means to confront and heal our pain. When our emotional and spiritual wounds remain unaddressed for too long, we often turn to narcissism or self-harm.
In the case of the corrupt spiritual leader who takes advantage of followers, he has undoubtedly turned to narcissism that is now bordering on psychopathy. Had he learned early on about his own human weaknesses as manifested in emotional and spiritual wounds, he could have gotten help from a mental health expert instead of imagining that religion would turn him into a divine saint who isn’t bound by human moral codes.
However, even in the case of a scholar or leader who is not morally corrupt, it is very helpful to address underlying emotional and spiritual wounding before taking up the heavy responsibility of leading large groups of people. If he does not, it is very likely that unaddressed childhood (or adulthood) trauma can negatively affect group members who trust him.
And there is no shame in getting mental or emotional help, no matter who you are. We can all use an emotional and spiritual check (and cleanse) every now and then, even if we don’t imagine we are traumatized in any way.
Tell Them You’re Only Human
If you’re an imam, scholar, spiritual teacher, community leader, or even a parent or caregiver in any capacity, please for the sake of your soul and the souls of those who trust you, do two things and do them daily: be honest about your humanity, and engage in self-care. You’re not a superhero, and you don’t have all the answers. Tell this to your nafs, and tell this everyone you teach, lead, and mentor. One day all those people who look up to you will realize you’re just a human being like the rest of us. And there’s nothing wrong with that—unless you made them believe there is something wrong with that.
You don’t become a remarkable benefit to your community and family because you are infallible and sinless. You become a remarkable benefit to your community and family because you share with them from the gifts Allah has given you, despite your faults and sins.
Today there are so many traumatized men, women, and children who feel betrayed and heartbroken because they blindly trusted someone who taught them that he (or she) was beyond question, sin, or reproach. So when things went wrong, they couldn’t understand that only Allah can give from an endless supply of good, while the rest of us are only giving from limited resources.
You might think that being honest about your humanity and fallibility will make people respect you less and rush to trust only those who claim sainthood or some other heavenly station on earth. But you’d be wrong.
Yes, in the short-term, those who are emotionally insecure and spiritually undeveloped will want the “sinless” teacher, leader and guide. But they are like the child who is just learning to crawl and who reaches out for anything in front of them. But as the child grows and matures, they learn to stand upright, and then ultimately they learn to think and discern, while choosing very carefully what they put into their hands and bodies.
Similarly, the emotionally and spiritually developed person learns to carefully discern what they put into their minds and souls.
And not a single child of Adam with any emotional maturity or spiritual understanding genuinely believes that another child of Adam—no matter how lofty his or her worldly or religious title—is without fault or sin. In fact, life has taught them what the Prophet (peace be upon him) taught centuries ago: The best among us are those who sin and constantly repent, not those who never sin at all.
Spiritual Salvation vs. Group Membership
Personally, I believe the solution to many of our collective spiritual problems is simple: focus on cultivating religious environments in which Muslims are encouraged to take personal responsibility for saving their souls, instead of religious environments in which they are taught that someone else can do it on their behalf.
After Allah alone, no one can save anyone’s soul except the person himself. In fact, no one is charged with that responsibility except the one who will stand alone in front of Allah and answer for it.
Therefore, outside matters that Allah himself has forbidden diverging interpretations, we must stop viewing diverse points of views and religious practices as affronts and challenges to authority and authentic Islam. And we must stop defining “building a religious community” as recruiting as many members as possible to commit to our personal ideology, group, or sheikh.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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