the etiquette of disagreement in cults and sects
and in families
who love you so much
that they hurt you
for their own good.
The following is an excerpt from Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You by Umm Zakiyyah:
In toxic, dysfunctional, and abusive families that identify closely with religion, continuously subjecting oneself to harm is viewed as not only a mark of patience and gratitude, but also a mark of righteousness and piety.
However, it is relevant to note that nearly all toxic, dysfunctional, and abusive family systems have harmful ideologies and behavior codes, irrespective of religious or non-religious affiliations. These codes are in place to ensure that aggressors have the “right” to continuously harm their victims and that victims have the “obligation” to continuously (and graciously) accept the harm.
Thus, it is only natural that abusive ideologies and behavior codes, which are solidified to continue the cycle of abuse, are strikingly similar regardless of the religion (or lack thereof) of a particular family. In non-religious homes, abusive ideologies and behavior codes are often rooted in concepts like “unconditional love,” as discussed earlier [in the book]. In religious homes, abusive ideologies and behavior codes are rooted in selective use of divine texts, which are used to convince sufferers that accepting abuse and mistreatment, particularly from parents and other family members, is a commandment from God Himself.
They Ignore Divine Proof Against Them
In the case of religious families and cultures, it is quite telling that they consistently disregard, ignore, or outright deny divine texts that teach the opposite of what they claim, particularly as it relates to honoring parents and keeping family ties. For example, it is well-known that a common teaching of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that of sacrifice for the sake of God, which very often includes not only being divided from parents, friends, and loved ones, but also speaking out against them when they are involved in sin and wrongdoing. The Bible reports Jesus as saying:
“For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew, 10:35-36).
Similarly, the Qur’an quotes God as saying what has been translated to mean:
“You will not find a people who believe in Allah and the Last Day having affection for those who oppose Allah and His Messenger, even if they were their fathers or their sons or their brothers or their kindred” (Mujadilah, 58:22).
“Say, [O Muhammad], ‘If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your relatives, wealth which you have obtained, commerce wherein you fear decline, and dwellings with which you are pleased are more beloved to you than Allah and His Messenger and striving in His cause, then wait until Allah executes His command. And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people’” (At-Tawbah, 9:24).
“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).
Stories of Pious People Opposing Abuse and Oppression
Moreover, religious history is replete with examples of not only adult men and women but also youth who left their homes and families due to being persecuted and oppressed by loved ones. Religious history also includes stories of those who stood opposite their parents and family members on the battlefield during times of war. In fact, the stories of divided households and families due to oppressive circumstances and opposing belief systems are so common that they are arguably the rule, not the exception.
We see the famous story of a group of youth seeking refuge in a cave, the story of Prophet Abraham ultimately separating himself from his disbelieving father and people, the story of Prophet Lot having to leave his wife behind, the story of Salman the Persian literally escaping from the home of his overprotective father to never return, and the list goes on. Regarding this phenomenon of dissociation from family in religious history, Homayra Ziad, associate professor of religion at Trinity College, says:
The stories of Abraham and Noah are embedded in this context: the Prophet [Muhammad] and his followers, in pursuit of justice and a God-centered life, had not only left family members behind but were in fact engaging in armed conflict with fathers and brothers.
In the trials of these two prophets, we are introduced to the idea of disassociation. The first story is about Abraham’s father Azar, who could not conceive of a world beyond ancestral practice and actively thwarted his son’s religious mission. The second story is about a son of Noah, who called his father a liar and a fool and refused to come aboard the Ark for fear that he would look ridiculous. He drowned in the Flood. Both Abraham and Noah stepped away from a family member for the sake of God. What might this mean? Noah’s story gives us a clue: the meaning of family has changed. It is no longer blood-relation but just and righteous action that determines family. When family prevents us from living out just and God-centered lives, when family becomes the source of oppression, our loyalty to family must be tempered accordingly (Ziad, 2012).
We Don’t Have To Accept Harm From Anyone
Naturally, these stories are most often shared in the context of widespread religious persecution or when a society opposes someone’s belief in God. However, the lessons that can be drawn from them are relevant in all contexts in which someone is suffering harm or wrongdoing for something out of their control. At the very least, there is the underlying religious principle that we are not obligated to continuously subject ourselves to harm, no matter who the persecutor is. In fact, according to religious scripture, there are times that we are obligated to stand up and speak out against oppression and take steps to stop the oppression itself. Thus, it is quite telling that toxic, dysfunctional, and abusive families that identify with religion ignore these points entirely in favor of scripture and prophetic quotes that speak about the obligation of obedience, respect, and reverence for parents and family.
Of course, in none of the stories from religious history do righteous people disrespect or harm their parents, families, or people. However, all of them protect their lives and souls from harm—and receive divine support and praise as a result. Yet ironically, these stories of self-protection are rarely told from pulpits or in religious books or classes for the purpose of encouraging congregants to protect themselves from the harm inflicted by parents, family, and loved ones. Consequently, sufferers who wish to live a life that is pleasing to God often equate God’s pleasure with never speaking up against the harm they suffer, or with never removing themselves from the physical, verbal, and emotional abuse inflicted by their parents or other family members.
Soul-Work Is a Must
No matter who we are and whether or not we come from what we think of as healthy or dysfunctional families, we all have something within our spirits and souls that needs constant attention, healing, and nourishment. Ignorance itself, whether due to inexperience or imagining that we have no need to learn about trauma and abuse, can itself incite dysfunction and narcissism within us, especially when we encounter a survivor of abuse.
In religious communities, ignorant people whom congregants view as knowledgeable or scholarly often teach concepts of righteousness that mirror abusive ideologies. Here, the survivor of child abuse is labeled as ungrateful, sinful, or cursed because he or she finds it difficult or impossible to interact with parents in the narrowly defined manner that the religious community insists is respectful, is keeping the ties of the womb, or is “reverencing the wombs that bore you.” In this way, otherwise well-meaning (albeit ignorant) people become enablers of abuse themselves, as they continuously send the survivor back into harmful environments and circumstances. Thus, their erroneous assumption that they are on the side of God in their limited definitions of respect and reverence for parents leads them to create a system of dysfunction rooted in religious narcissism and victim-blaming, even as they themselves perhaps never experienced abuse.
Irrespective of our backgrounds or childhood experiences, if we are not engaged in honest, necessary spirit-work (emotional growth) and soul-work (spiritual growth)—which root out voluntary ignorance, dysfunctional thinking, and religious narcissism—we are at risk of harming ourselves and others, even if we have never in our lives experienced actual abuse or severe trauma.
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.
Copyright © 2017 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.
Ziad, H. (2012, August 10) HuffJummah: Painful Acts of Forgiveness. HuffingtonPost.com. Retrieved November 16, 2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/homayra-ziad/painful-acts-of-forgiveness-huffjummah_b_1739877.html