In my fear of tying my heart and life to something that would harm my soul in some irrevocable way, I began to more and more distance myself from religious groups and communities. However, this was an extremely lonely experience, and I didn’t like this life path. Like everyone else, I wanted companionship and a community to call my own, but nearly everywhere I went, there was some form of religious elitism in place.
Before my spiritual crisis, I was able to be patient with the elitism and focus on the benefits that I was gaining in certain social circles and Islamic classes. O Allah, make me benefit from what is good and truthful, and protect me from what is harmful and false, I consistently prayed. However, I was finding that my defenses were weakening, and I increasingly felt the need to “just belong.” I was tired of having to filter so much of what I was learning.
From young, I had been taught that I did not have the right to exist and that my thoughts, life path, and soul had to be sacrificed in service of people and cultures that were more important and valuable than I was. These included parents, elders, family, husband, the African-American people, American democracy, and specific religious leaders who had been given the title imam, sheikh, scholar, or spiritual teacher.
In my accepting the assignment of my personal disappearance from existence, I was not allowed to consult my own mind, heart, or soul in pursuit of self-care or individual spirituality. If I ever sought these, I was reminded that God had commanded my self-sacrifice and that I was being “disrespectful” to those in authority over me by voicing my own “selfishness” and “arrogance.” Even if anyone “with authority over me” or from the “more important” groups harmed me in any way, I had to bear it in silence “for the greater good.”
In other words, I was told: You don’t matter. Our image does.
This damaging message is sent to children of abuse who are tasked with protecting the family image. This message is sent to victims of domestic violence who are tasked with protecting the image of their husband or wife. This message is sent to church and synagogue congregants who suffered harm from religious leaders. And this message is sent to Muslim men and women who were wronged or abused by the religious elite.
When I attended Islamic classes, if I asked a single question that appeared to suggest even the possibility of having a point of view different from the community’s religious elite, I was berated with, “Who do you think you are? He has way more knowledge than you!” In this way, the culture of the religous elite was reinforced by the indoctrinated followers, who were convinced that silencing their thoughts and feelings, even if only when asking a sincere question, was displeasing Allah or was a violation of Islamic adab.
‘If You Feel Hurt, You’re in Sin’
“Are you really saying that you are so arrogant that you would not forgive your Muslim brother if he asks you to?” This question was posed to me in the midst of a discussion following the racist statements made by a renowned White American Muslim scholar. In a speech to a predominately non-Black audience at an annual Islamic conference, this White American imam and convert to Islam trivialized the reality of police brutality and murder of Black people, saying that white people had it worse. The scholar then stated that racism was not the biggest problem facing Black people in America; it was the breakdown of the Black family.
In other words, even though racism negatively affected Black people more than any other group, and even though family problems negatively affected every human group, the pathology and brokenness of the Black family was so bad that widespread oppression itself paled in comparison. And in keeping with the dysfunctional culture of forced forgiveness, the focus of discussions thereafter was less on addressing the problematic statements themselves, but on harassing the people who felt anger and hurt at his words. Continuously, we were reminded of how good of a person this imam was and that it was a sin to focus on this “one mistake.”
It is indeed ironic that for all the compassion and understanding that adherents of forced forgiveness show to people guilty of hurting others, this compassion and understanding miraculously disappears when they are dealing with those wounded by hurtful words or behavior itself. It is as if, subconsciously, they believe that wrongdoers are generally good and victims are generally evil. Thus, it is only the former who deserve swift and unconditional compassion, excuses, and forgiveness; while the latter deserve swift and unconditional harassment, emotional manipulation, and slanderous statements about their mental and spiritual state.
It continuously astounds me how the excuses and claims of inherent goodness routinely abound for aggressors, even with no evidence of contrition or changed behavior; and the insults and claims of inherent corruption and bitterness routinely abound for sufferers, even with clear evidence of their attempt to cope and heal despite the hurtful or emotionally traumatic situation. This phenomenon alone speaks volumes about the subtle abuse and toxicity inherent in forced forgiveness culture.
Sometimes forgiveness peddlers defend this hypocrisy by claiming that the hurtful incident (like the one involving the White American scholar) was really just a matter of one person’s subjective perspective on a controversial issue, not evidence of any clear wrongdoing. However, they fail to have a clear answer as to why then is it only those who feel hurt who are labeled corrupt and sinful. Why aren’t these people’s statements of disagreement viewed as a “legitimate subjective perspective” on a controversial issue—instead of as evidence of some inherent evil within them? Furthermore, why don’t forgiveness peddlers stand up to defend these people’s goodness with as much fervor as they do the ones who inflict the harm (even if unintentionally)?
When the focus of blame is turned on the ones who are hurting—through the statement or implication that they are bad people for expressing their anger and hurt—I have to beseech my Lord for help in calming the rage in my heart. Till today, it is difficult for me to wrap my mind around the default pathway of blame being directed at the harmed more than the harmers, especially when emotional healing or religious righteousness are used as the tools of manipulation and harm.
When people defend their blaming of the harmed by saying that everyone makes mistakes or that no one should be accosted for falling into human error, sin, or wrongdoing, I wonder why a victim’s expressed anger and hurt almost never falls under the category of forgivable error, sin, or wrongdoing that these people say we must consistently excuse, ignore, or be patient with. What is it, I wonder, that causes the human heart to soften more toward abuse and wrongdoing than it does toward the anger and hurt incited by that abuse and wrongdoing?
I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, except that I suspect the roots of this imbalance are in the cultures of forced forgiveness, privilege, and elitism. I say this because usually when the pathways of blame focus primarily (or only) on the victim, at least one of these three dysfunctional systems is in place.
People Will Abandon You When You’re Hurting
If there is anything these last few years have taught me, it is that no one is coming to your aid—except Allah Himself—and that no one truly cares about you, except a select few believers. And they’re often not the people you expected to be there for you.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that our friends and loved ones or our brothers and sisters in faith sit around intending to hurt and abandon us. It’s something they do naturally, often without even realizing it. And that’s what scares me. Because I’m human too, so I imagine I must do it myself without knowing it. May Allah forgive us and help us, and remove these spiritual diseases from our hearts.
But there is some hurt and abandonment that is not merely an honest mistake or a sincere oversight. It is the result of a culture of abuse put in place by a system of religious elitism. And here, I use the term religious elitism to refer to the use of religion as a means to establish a spiritual hierarchy. In this hierarchy, sincere worshippers are indoctrinated into believing that there are people who matter and people who don’t—and the former are usually the religious leaders and the latter are “the commoners.” However, when these systems of religious elitism favor cultures of people with their own systems of discrimination and mistreatment (racism, misogyny, domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, etc.), the problem is exacerbated beyond measurement or comprehension.
Naturally, the details of each system of religious elitism varies from culture to culture and group to group, but nearly all of them have at least one of these five characteristics (and some have all):
- They do not honor or accept the God-given right of each individual to self-care and soul-preservation, specifically when the elite are insisting that the “lowly person” heeds their demands. In other words, they view it as an affront and a sin to honor the maxim that represents the dividing line between respect and abuse, freedom and tyranny, and human rights and oppression: Whenever you genuinely believe that serving, pleasing, or obeying someone will displease God or harm your life and soul, honor your life and soul.
- They silence and criminalize permissible disagreement. In other words, they have beliefs and behavior codes that are not obligatory in Islam, but they present them as if they are. Thus, if anyone disagrees with their view or follows another permissible view, they use emotional manipulation or spiritual abuse to convince the person that they are wrong. If this doesn’t work, they resort to slander, ostracizing, name-calling, or character assassination to convince others that God is displeased with the person. They sometimes go as far as to incite group members against the “dissenter.”
- They punish those who find fault in them or who speak up against any abuse, as “dissenters” are viewed as threats to the elitist system. In this aspect of religious elitism, the sins and wrongs of the elite are defended or trivialized, and anyone who speaks up after being wronged is labeled a “bad Muslim” or is accused of disobeying or displeasing God. If the elite are forced to address the wrong because it is publicized or widespread, they continuously highlight all the good the wrongdoer has done while trivializing or denying the wrongdoing itself. In this, they literally “play God,” declaring that the wrongdoer’s good outweighs the bad and that the crime committed is nothing compared to all of his good. In this way, the wronged are punished and humiliated while being portrayed as sinful troublemakers who wish to tarnish the pristine image (or challenge the lofty spiritual station) of the religious elite.
- They slander those who do not follow them, as these non-members are also threats to the elitist system. Depending on the group or culture, this slander is done either overtly or covertly, but the slander is generally taught as if it is part of Islam itself. Here is where labels and name-calling are most effective. These elite groups generally use praiseworthy labels for themselves and offensive labels for others, thereby detracting the layperson’s focus from distinguishing spiritual truth from spiritual falsehood—and thus eliminating the possibility of the elite being questioned or accountable when wrong. Those who have been indoctrinated into these groups tend to trust Muslims who carry their group’s label and distrust those who don’t, even without fully understanding their own group’s actual beliefs or the beliefs of “the other.”
- They require blind obedience and complete allegiance. To achieve this, the layperson’s indoctrination begins very early on, such that their first “Islamic lessons” are about their inability to understand Islam without the help and assistance of a spiritual teacher, thus necessitating taqleed (blind following) of a religious authority or a single school of thought (which often bears little resemblance to the original school of thought carrying the same name). This guarantees that the layperson will consistently equate pleasing Allah with obeying the spiritual leader.
I reflect on this phenomenon in my journal: It is no coincidence that the first lesson given to new members of most religious groups is taqleed (blind following), to establish complete dependence on a single spiritual teacher—as opposed to Tawheed (Oneness of Allah), to establish a complete dependence on Allah alone. The former ensures that guidance is forever connected to your relationship to a specific human being, whereas the latter ensures that guidance is forever connected to your relationship with the Creator.
Regarding these abusive, mind-controlling elitist systems, I also wrote this in my journal:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was sent to free us from the shackles of worshipping men to the freedom of worshipping the Creator. But some Muslims want to return us to the shackles of worshipping men while trying to convince us it’s a requirement of worshipping the Creator.
But my Lord is Allah, and bi’idhnillaah, I will not allow anyone to come between me and my soul, no matter what fancy label they put on their misguidance or invitation to shirk—and no matter how many “Islamic degrees” and years of study they claim to have that grants them the qualification to be called “sheikh”, “scholar” or “spiritual teacher.”
There is no lofty label or scholarly qualification that grants any human being the right to call to a spiritual path or religious teaching that is not directly from Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam).
If you have been granted the tremendous blessing of beneficial knowledge, then by all means, share it with the world. But do not seek to prop yourself up as an intermediary between the people and Allah, saying that religious allegiance to you (or your favored sheikh) equals religious allegiance to the Creator. That in itself is a sign that you do not have even basic Islamic knowledge.
Refuse All Invitations To Hellfire, Even From Those You Love
I think it relevant to reiterate here the necessity to guard ourselves from all invitations to the Hellfire, no matter where or whom it comes from:
Many who rejected the Messengers in history were resentful that the Prophet whom Allah sent to them did not have the qualities they felt made him honorable and worthy of such a noble role, whether it was wealth, power, or a certain lineage. And many who followed misguidance in history were pleased with the “noble” traits of the one leading them to Hellfire, whether it was because the inviter was a parent, a “righteous” person, or someone they deemed honorable in some worldly way.
Today, we find history repeating itself in Muslims rejecting obvious spiritual truths because the person speaking the truth does not have a lofty scholarly title, did not study overseas or in an Islamic university, or is not part of our favored group, sect, or culture.
Many times Allah tests us by placing the truth on the tongue of one who will reveal to us the very depths of our hearts—and our response to this divine truth will make plain to us whether it is Allah or our pride that is most beloved to us in this world.
O dear soul, be careful.
While this warning is certainly relevant to laypeople who dismiss or trivialize the knowledge of scholars teaching authentic Islam, it is also very relevant to those who are scholars themselves but have fallen into error, whether due to natural human fallibility or to having studied in a system rooted in falsehood.
Undoubtedly, it is difficult to dedicate years of your life to something only to realize in a moment’s clarification that you were wrong and that, for the sake of your soul, you need to tread a different path. Many converts to Islam understand this feeling on a deeply personal level, especially those who had been religious preachers or ministers in their former faith tradition. However, this predicament is not unique to non-Muslims. It happens to Muslims too, even those who are imams, scholars, sheikhs, or Islamic preachers.
Though we often hear the stories of laypeople who move from sect to sect and sheikh to sheikh in search of spiritual truth, it is rare you hear the stories of scholars and sheikhs themselves openly admitting that they were wrong and in need of repentance for spreading false teachings. Similarly, it is more common to hear stories of average people converting to Islam than of priests, ministers, or rabbis leaving their religions to become Muslim. However, following spiritual truth is no less obligatory upon religious scholars than it is upon common people. Why then is there such a wide discrepancy in who accepts truth?
The answer is so simple that it is chilling: The more we stand to lose in terms of our worldly status, earthly comforts, and pride, the less likely we are to follow the truth when it comes to us. However, given the nature of spiritual matters and the tests that Allah promises He will give us on earth, we can be almost one hundred percent certain that we will be asked to sacrifice one or all of these throughout our lives, sometimes repeatedly.
But will we be ready?
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 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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