“Abusers often operate by manipulating you with what they’ve done for you. Someone’s good deeds to you NEVER gives them the excuse to abuse you. So do not allow them to make you feel bad for removing yourself from their presence due to what they’ve done for you. All good ultimately is from God and people are simply the vector. Human beings who try to take credit for all good that has happened to you are dangerous for your independent development whether they have good intentions or not.”
—Khalil Ismail, LiftingSouls.com
The following is an excerpt from Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You by Umm Zakiyyah and Melanie Davidson:
Being engaged to Akil was like a fairytale. His mother was so loving to me and even helped plan our wedding. She also helped me learn a lot about Islam. Till today she holds a special place in my heart. When I met her, I felt for the first time that I was part of a real family.
But not everyone in Akil’s family agreed with our marriage. His extended family rejected the matrimony on the grounds that I was black, as it was preferred that he marry a woman with fair skin. In fact, the only ones who supported the marriage were his parents. His other family members were quite vocal in their opposition to his decision to marry a black woman. In Indian culture, colorism is very common, so their disappointment was with my skin color more than my ethnicity [as an African-American].
I was twenty years old when Akil and I got married.
I began wearing hijab that year, and it was a refreshing experience for me as a woman. For the first time in my life I was able to walk down the street without being catcalled, flirted with, or approached for sex. In fact, my whole spiritual transformation that year was rejuvenating. I felt an inner peace I hadn’t felt in a long time. I had a loving husband and supportive in-laws, and it felt really good to be part of a functional, healthy family unit.
However, I didn’t feel comfortable wearing hijab to work until I talked to my manager. I had no idea how my colleagues would take the news that I’d become Muslim and planned to cover my hair because I didn’t really interact with them on a personal level. It was a really good job in an environment where I was one of the only females amongst mostly middle-aged White men. My position entailed mostly research, which I analyzed and compiled to present at our weekly meetings. Because the experience opened up so many other career opportunities to me, I didn’t want to make any unnecessary waves. I was a hard worker and took pride in not only doing excellent work but also maintaining a good rapport with my superiors and colleagues.
I requested a meeting with the hiring manager, and without knowing what I wanted to talk to him about, he agreed. Technically, my conversion to Islam had no direct bearing on my work, but I was a bit nervous nonetheless. I had no idea how he would react to the news. If I hadn’t made the decision to begin covering my hair, I doubt I would have felt compelled to divulge something so personal. However, as we sat across from each other at the office table, I managed to put into words what I felt he should know.
“Dammit, Melanie!” he said, slamming his hand against the table so hard that the pencil he was holding broke in two.
I winced. I’d feared that becoming Muslim would subject me to different treatment due to Islamophobia, but I hadn’t expected such an enraged reaction from my manager.
“Don’t you know,” he said, rage lacing his tone, “the main reason we even come to these meetings is so we can see you in your short skirts?”
What? He was angry with me because he and his friends could no longer stare at my legs? I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
I felt violated on so many levels, but I maintained professional cordiality. What else could I do? I was a young Black woman just getting my foot in the door in my field, and he was a respected White man who had the ability to fire me at will. So I said nothing.
I wasn’t fired from my job, but the atmosphere changed after I covered my hair. Fortunately, I did excellent work, so it was advantageous for the company to keep me.
My solace each day was in coming home to Akil and spending time with him. When I think back to those first few months of marriage, as cliché as it might sound, Akil was my Prince Charming. He really was the love of my life. That his parents treated me like a daughter made the marriage all the more like a fairytale come true. They taught me how to pray and bought me hijabs and abayas. They spent time with me and talked to me as if I had always been part of the family.
My fairytale ended one night when I was seven months pregnant with our first child. I was lying next to Akil in bed, and he was just beginning to fall asleep. As I was preparing to go to sleep myself, I put my arm around him and kissed him.
“If you do that again,” he said, his voice grumpy with sleepiness, “I’m going to punch you.”
His words were so bizarre and out of character that I thought he was joking. He can’t be serious, I said to myself. But he sounded upset, so I tried not to bother him. But because I was lying so close to him, I inadvertently touched him again.
“I already told you not to touch me,” he said in aggravation.
By then I realized he was serious. I assumed he must have been having such a difficult time falling asleep that even the slightest movement would disturb him. Not wanting to disrupt his rest, I turned away from him, careful not to touch him. Because I was in my last trimester of pregnancy, changing positions was not as fluid as it used to be. So I think my foot brushed against him accidentally when I changed positions.
He shot up and reached over to where I was lying in bed and grabbed my arm. “I’m going to break your arm,” he said bitterly. Using both of his hands, he gripped my forearm firmly turned it in opposite directions like someone would wring a towel. There was a snapping sound, and I felt my bones break. The pain was excruciating, but I was too speechless in shock to do anything to protect myself. He punched me in the face, blackening my eye and bloodying my lip. His attack had caught me completely off guard. Nothing I’d experienced in our relationship before this moment had prepared me for this.
After Akil finished with me, I lay in gut wrenching pain, dying inside, unable to even move. Nothing made sense. Everything in our life had been perfect. We were so happy. I could not fathom why this was happening to me.
“Oh my God,” Akil said, the concern in his voice as if coming from a complete stranger who’d just happened upon me at that moment. “I’m so sorry, Melanie!” His eyes darted back and forth in panic as he surveyed the damage he had done. “Are you okay?” It was more a desperate plea than a question. “I love you, Melanie. Oh my God.”
I said nothing as Akil hurriedly reached for the phone and called 911. I don’t know what he told the dispatcher who answered. My mind was swirling in confusion and disbelief, and every part of my body throbbed in agonizing pain. I wondered if my baby was okay, as I couldn’t imagine a seventh-month fetus withstanding that physical trauma without suffering some harm of its own. But I assume Akil told the dispatcher that his wife was injured and needed immediate medical assistance. I know he wouldn’t have told them he had inflicted the injuries.
An ambulance arrived to take me to the hospital, and Akil was taken to jail. I didn’t say anything to the police or emergency personnel regarding how my injuries had occurred. But I’m sure the source was self-evident since it was only Akil and I in the home, and I was obviously pregnant.
A few days later, Akil was released from jail, and he came home livid. He was furious with me for being the cause of him being arrested. When people found out what my husband did to me, they kept asking, “What did you do?” I’d tell them I didn’t do anything. “I’m good,” I insisted.
My mother refused to believe that I was completely innocent. She was convinced that I had provoked the attack. She yelled at me, telling me how horrible I was and that I should behave better. As hurtful as her words were, they didn’t surprise me. Since I was a young child, she never gave me the benefit of the doubt. The tiniest things were signs that something was inherently wrong with me. Even my appearance itself was an offense.
Perhaps it was due to my mother’s consistent disapproval of me that I became such a meticulous rule follower. I really was being a good wife, even if she couldn’t fathom it. All my life I’d wanted a real family, and once I had one, I was determined to make it work. Even after Akil assaulted me that night, all I could think of was how to make things right again.
Magnetic Pull of Toxic Relationships
When survivors of abuse have not engaged in healing of the spirit, it is almost inevitable that they will continue to be drawn to toxic relationships that mirror aspects of the relationship they had with their abusive parent. However, healing of the spirit cannot occur until a survivor is aware that emotional trauma has taken place. Unfortunately, those who have suffered abuse from their parents are unlikely to recognize that abuse has even occurred, particularly if they come from ostensibly religious, upstanding families.
This lack of recognition is due to years of the spirit suffering while the heart and mind, as well as external messages from the environment, convince the nafs that everything is okay because everything is supposed to be okay. Amongst those who ultimately do come to terms with what they suffered, they are often well into adulthood and suffering psychological, emotional, and health-related struggles before they consider for the first time that a serious problem exists in the relationship they have had with their parents.
At this stage, adult survivors have likely lived for quite some time in a toxic relationship themselves or a series of toxic relationships (romantic and platonic) that they had not realized were merely the natural result of the nafs being repeatedly drawn to what is familiar. If the survivors are now parents, they are likely in the throes of repeating familiar patterns of abuse with their own children. The good news is that it is never too late to heal and start anew.
However, the existence of abusive patterns within one’s current household complicates the matter tremendously, particularly if the survivor is also living with a toxic or abusive spouse. Nevertheless, the first step to healing is awareness of self.
In later chapters [of the book Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You], we will discuss the signs and symptoms of emotional trauma and the steps necessary to heal such that the magnetic pull of toxic relationships is weakened and such that survivors can protect themselves, as well as their children and relationships, from further harm.
Shahida Arabi, bestselling author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Self-Care, says of her own experience with the magnetic pull of toxic relationships:
For those of us who have experienced narcissistic abuse since childhood, many of us are familiar with the trauma bonds that can keep us locked in the vicious cycle of meeting and mating with narcissists. Growing up with a narcissistic parent and witnessing narcissistic abuse was the precursor to the destructive, toxic relationships I had with narcissists – from friends to relationship partners to acquaintances to co-workers…
Narcissistic abuse can be a vicious cycle, especially for those of us who have experienced it when we were particularly vulnerable as children. Before I met narcissistic romantic partners, I experienced severe bullying in addition to witnessing domestic violence during my childhood. These experiences essentially primed me for narcissistic abuse…It was not until I discovered what narcissistic abuse was that I came to realize that this pattern had been ingrained within me ever since I was a young child.
Although I knew I was not to blame for any of the abuse I received, I recognized how these patterns had come to be. Back then, I was not aware that my subconscious wounding was enabling me to stay tethered to these toxic relationships. Our subconscious mind is incredibly powerful; it carries forth the core wounds from childhood and does everything in its power to reinforce those wounds and prove them right. I was unintentionally gravitating toward people who reminded me of my narcissistic parent…they were also gravitating toward me as I had not yet healed my wounds (Arabi, 2016).
We Are Drawn To Kindred Spirits
When Shahida speaks of the subconscious mind reinforcing core wounds and proving them right, she is speaking of the extensive work of the nafs to justify its own suffering. However, core wounds (inflicted as a result of abuse) exist in the spirit, which has known all along of its own suffering and that of the nafs (heart, mind, body, and spirit-soul) as a whole. But the continuous silencing of the spirit by the nafs means that the rationalizing of the heart and mind—which are dominated by concepts of should and should not as opposed to what is and what is not—entangle the human psyche and experience. Because the nafs has linked securing love, survival, and safety for oneself to maintaining relationships with those who continuously cause it harm, it is automatically drawn to those who offer the same definitions of these concepts that were experienced in childhood.
Moreover, given that the bond between parent and child is rooted in the fitrah (inherent nature) of both the heart and spirit, when a survivor who has not engaged in self-healing meets someone who exudes traits of the parent, he or she experiences a connection that is felt not only in the heart and mind but also in the spirit. This connection can be so visceral that survivors might imagine they have found their soul mate. However, this deeply felt connection of the spirit is one of recognition, not approval. But because the heart and mind have worked to muffle the alarms of the spirit, the nafs experiences only the spirit’s confirmation that an authentic connection is taking place.
This confirmation of a connection is further complicated by the subconscious need of the heart and mind to validate their life’s work in defining love, survival, and safety based on the traits of the parent. Therefore, the toxic friend or romantic partner is viewed as someone who can provide love, survival, and safety for the unhealed survivor. Unfortunately, because the survivor has not yet learned the true definition of any of these concepts, entering the toxic relationship will mean inflicting only more trauma and suffering upon the spirit.
It is relevant to note here, however, that not all toxic relationships manifest as blatant physical abuse like what Melanie suffered from Akil. In addition to there being different types of abuse—including emotional, verbal, and sexual—there are also toxic relationships that do not involve an abusive or toxic partner. I reflect on this concept in the following excerpt from my personal journal: A toxic relationship does not necessarily involve toxic people—just as there are chemicals that are harmless in themselves and become deadly only when mixed with something else.
Similarly, even when continuous harm is taking place in a relationship, it does not always manifest as a single aggressor harming an innocent victim. Harm can be inflicted and experienced by spouses (and friends) relatively equally, hence this entry in my personal journal: Suffering does not move in only one direction. The one from whom you’ve suffered harm may have also suffered harm from you. So be careful before you label yourself a victim and someone else a wrongdoer. It is possible that you are both victims and wrongdoers.
Beware of Repeating Abuse Patterns
Sufferers of abuse who have not engaged in self-healing are susceptible to becoming abusers themselves. The same faulty messages of the nafs that draw the survivor toward repetitive abusive patterns in their romantic relationships are the same faulty messages that teach the survivor how to treat their own children. This chilling reality makes it all the more pertinent for everyone, even those who do not think of themselves as having suffered abuse or trauma, to engage in honest soul-work (spiritual healing) and spirit-work (emotional healing).
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.
Arabi, S. (2016) Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare: How to Devalue and Discard the Narcissist While Supplying Yourself. Kindle. Retrieved from Amazon.com