You cannot legislate the human heart, I once told someone. Emotional needs are real, as are emotional wounds.
When our “naseehah” focuses on religious rules and etiquette more than the needs of the whole human being, then we’re likely causing more harm than good. In fact, in this case, our advice isn’t naseehah at all. If offering sincere advice were as simple as listing the Islamic ruling on this and the rules of adab (religious etiquette) concerning that, then a prodigious child could be the sincere advisor to us all since he or she has such a good memory. And all we’d need them to know is the “topic” being discussed, then they could parrot the Islamic ruling and adab surrounding that issue.
But let’s be real. When we most need advice, it is precisely because it’s not as simple as rules and etiquette. If we don’t understand this profound point in the very depths of our hearts (more than our minds), then we’ve missed the entire point of not only naseehah, but also du’aa and Istikhaarah. In the absence of this basic understanding of the whole human being, we should rarely, if ever, offer advice at all.
The Woman Who Complained
Given our fixation on rules and etiquette, had most of us been advisors to Khawah bint Tha’labah, the female Companion discussed in Surah 58 (Al-Mujaadilah), may Allah be pleased with her, we would have immediately advised her to be patient with the man who was mistreating her—because rules and etiquette dictate that wives should always respect our husbands, even when they’re wrong, since they are women’s “Paradise or Hellfire.”
“But the Qur’an was still being revealed at that time!” many of us would say. “Not even the Prophet (peace upon him) or the Companions would’ve known what to advise her!”
While this is undeniably true, the point I’m making is far more significant than anyone knowing precisely what to advise her. My point, as I alluded to at the beginning of this post, is that, for most Muslims today, our entire spiritual orientation ignores the human being and focuses solely on rules and etiquette. It is as if we genuinely imagine that rules and etiquette are cure-alls to every life problem, especially those involving mistakes or wrongdoing from anyone with rights over us. Whether the person is a spouse, parent, or religious scholar, we are consistently reminded of the rules and etiquette dictating our proper treatment of them, far more than we are even sincerely listened to regarding any wrongs, mistreatment, or hurt they inflicted on us.
In my book, Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, through the true story of Melanie Davidson, a convert to Islam who is the child of rape and abuse, I discuss the emotional harms of fixating on the rights of parents and family more than the emotional and spiritual needs of the human being who is consistently abused or wronged by them. In my book, I Almost Left Islam, I discuss my own emotional and spiritual breakdown as a result of consistently being taught that I must put the rights of scholars and other authority figures before my own emotional and spiritual needs.
In both of these books are two modern day examples of, literally, a woman who complained about rejection and mistreatment by those who were supposed to be protectors and guardians over her and whom God entrusted with nurturing and caring for her human needs. And more often than not, people like Melanie and myself are not even heard because the culture of “rules and etiquette” has made our well-meaning brothers and sisters in faith imagine that reminding us of the rights of parents and scholars should be the starting point in addressing what we’re complaining about.
However, true and proper advice always begins with listening to and validating the human being. After this noble and crucial focus, discussing rules and etiquette can indeed be helpful (and at times critical). But the reality is, far more often than we realize, rules and etiquette are completely irrelevant to the problem at hand. Nevertheless, the needs of the human being are never irrelevant to the problem we’re facing.
To illustrate what I’m saying, I offer this profound quote: “People start to heal the moment they feel heard.”—Cheryl Richardson
I know many Muslims’ response would be, “This isn’t from the Qur’an and Sunnah! So we shouldn’t even pay attention to it!”
Like our fixation on rules and etiquette at the expense of the human being, our fixation on who said something is often at the expense of authentic Islamic spirituality. This harmful disconnect is manifested in our obsession with who is or is not a scholar (and thus who does or does not have a right to speak on a certain topic); it is manifested in our obsession with our respective groups, sects, and cults (and thus who is or is not on the right path); and it is manifested in our utter inability to recognize the wisdom of Allah outside overtly religious contexts, especially those highlighting rules and etiquette—hence our inability to give proper, meaningful, beneficial advice to the hurting believers around us.
Have You Even Heard the One Who Complains?
Whenever a person who is responsible for others does or says something wrong—whether the person is a parent, spouse, or scholar—we generally have two extreme responses amongst Muslims. On one extreme, we have those advising forgiveness, and on the other extreme, we have those advising rules and etiquette. However, in both extremes is the disappearance of the human being in the middle: the one whose needs, suffering, and complaints are completely ignored or dismissed in the name of forgiveness or following rules and etiquette.
Because this is a vast topic, I won’t even attempt to tackle it completely in this simple blog, but I’ll say this: Much of our problem as Muslims today lies in our failing to even hear the suffering human being and to even acknowledge their presence and needs—which have absolutely nothing to do with forgiving wrongdoers or following the rules and etiquette of respecting parents, spouses or Islamic scholars. In most cases, the benefits of forgiveness and the necessity of adab are secondary, if they are relevant at all. What is most important when harm or wrongdoing has taken place is giving the complainer our full heart and ear and letting them know—with no if’s, and’s or but’s—“I hear you.”
Interestingly, that is precisely how Allah handled the complaints of Khawlah bint Tha’labah (may Allah be pleased with her) in Surah 58, Al-Mujaadilah, which can be translated as “The Woman Who Complained.” The starting point of His response to her complaint was not listing rules and etiquette, even though the person wronging her indeed had some level of authority over her. He didn’t even remind her of the rights of her husband, or how he was her Paradise or Hellfire. Allah, the Most Merciful, said first and foremost, as we see in the first ayah of the surah, “qad sami’a Allah…”: Allah has indeed heard the statement of the woman who pleads with you [O Muhammad] concerning her husband…
Today, the field of therapy is so beneficial and healing, as even mental health experts will tell you, precisely because in it is the fundamental obligation to first and foremost listen to the one complaining and then validate their concerns. Going back to Cheryl Richardson’s quote: People start to heal the moment they feel heard.
However, amongst Muslims we’re constantly told to shut up before we’ve even had the opportunity to fully share our complaint. We’re told our words are disrespectful; our approach is wrong; or the one we’re complaining about (or talking to) is so much more important than we are. On and on, we’re asked to micromanage the expression of our hurt before we’re even heard, let alone listened to, regarding our suffering.
As a result, so many Muslims have given up on complaining altogether. For some of us, this means living with repressed anger and unhealed trauma as we strive to be “good Muslims” who never disrespect parents, spouses, or scholars. For others, this means running from environments of Islam altogether in search of some semblance of spiritual and emotional peace outside cultures of abuse and religious elitism, as we already know they will consistently ignore and dismiss us. Worst of all, for still so many others, we have simply adopted the cultures of abuse and religious elitism and are now passing on the toxicity to others in the name of reviving the “proper rules and etiquettes of Islam.”
Religious Muslims, Broken Human Beings
One day a friend of mine was venting to me about the widespread culture of harm in the ummah, especially amongst those who consider themselves religious. With near tears in her eyes, she asked me, “Why do you think this lack of humanity is so common amongst Muslims?”
And I responded by saying this: “The way Islam is taught today kills our humanity.”
This might sound harsh, but it’s what I truly believe. Amongst most students of books and classes (i.e. those who take pride in all their studies under scholars and at Islamic universities), you can’t expect much empathy or compassion for anything you’re struggling with. They’ll either rush to tell you to forgive the wrongdoer (so that Allah will reward you), or they’ll tell you that your complaint was delivered without proper adab, that your job is to respect and honor parents and scholars even when they’re wrong, or that you’re a bad Muslim for even having the problem in the first place.
In this way, the culture of institutionalized pride has created droves of religious Muslims whose very study of Islam has created broken human beings. And when I say institutionalized pride, I am referring to the formal study of Islam that emphasizes the superiority of scholars over laypeople more than it emphasizes everyone’s individual accountability in front of Allah, and teaches the requirement of rules and etiquette more than the necessity of showing empathy to every human being.
Stop Policing People’s Pain
Rules and etiquette certainly have their place. Thus, if the problem we’re facing is that someone is trying to blatantly change the rules of Islam, then we need to focus on rules and etiquette first and foremost. For surely, no amount of emotional suffering justifies changing the religion in anyone’s favor. As I’ve discussed on many an occasion, especially in contexts of sexual morality and gender, the phenomenon of emotionalism replacing authentic spiritual practice is never acceptable and must be spoken against in the strongest of terms.
However, in most cases, the problem we’re facing is really just the widespread culture of institutionalized pride (i.e. religious elitism). This toxic culture continuously silences and accosts laypeople—especially women, children, and Black people—who are complaining about the abuse and harm they suffer from those who are supposed to be their guardians and protectors, whether parents, spouses, or scholars. But we are too busy policing their voice tone and word choice to even hear their complaints. (Ironically, sometimes the women and Black people expressing hurt are also Islamic scholars themselves. But even their voices are silenced on the altar of institutionalized pride, because inherent in this toxic culture is also sexism and racism, but I digress.)
Tragically, those who give lip service to hearing the complaints of suffering people quickly return to the topic of rules and etiquette, sometimes in the same sentence or context of claiming to hear them! This too is a trait of the toxic culture of institutionalized pride.
However, in true Islamic practice, when a wrong has occurred, the emphasis is on hearing and understanding the complaint of those harmed, not on micromanaging the voice tone and word choice of the sufferers.
Scholars Are Our Servants, Not the Other Way Around
Anyone who truly understands Islamic practice—as opposed to merely rules and etiquette as taught by cultures of institutionalized pride—knows that in practical reality, scholars and leaders are in service of the people more than the people are in service of them. Yes, there are certainly rules and etiquette that guide our respect toward those who teach and lead us in religious and worldly affairs. However, there are far more rules and responsibilities on the shoulders of leaders and scholars than there are on the shoulders of those they serve.
However, I doubt you’ll be hearing that basic point in an Islamic class today—or on social media—especially after innocent women, children, or Black people are accosted, yet again, for daring to stand up in the face of harm and say, “Listen to me! I have the right to exist and be heard! And I won’t tolerate your abuse any longer!”
Yet all the lectures and posts silencing them claim to be standing on the side of Allah, while they tell “those who complain” to shut up and show respect to their superiors, who apparently matter more than they. Meanwhile these superior people are causing harm left and right, even when their very job is to protect and guard the practical and spiritual needs of the people they continually wrong.
In closing, I leave you with this profound quote from Muslim activist and artist, Khalil Ismail:
“The first job of a leader is servitude to the people, and the first principle of a leader’s servitude is understanding the problems of the people he is serving. And this understanding must come from the perspective of the people, not from the perspective of the leader. If we, as leaders, do not practice this, are we really serving the people—or are we serving ourselves?”
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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