dark photo of female robot with artificial face partially off

When Religion Is a Weapon: Understanding Spiritual Abuse

emotional abuse.

the etiquette of disagreement in cults and sects

and in families

who love you so much

that they hurt you

for their own good.

even if.

The following is an excerpt from Reverencing the Wombs That BROKE You by Umm Zakiyyah:

Spiritual abuse is arguably the least talked about form of abuse. However, in religious families and communities, it is one of the most widespread. In brief, spiritual abuse can be defined as any form of emotional or psychological manipulation that seeks to convince a person that God (or a religious teaching) has obligated him or her to suffer harm, to remain in a harmful situation (or relationship), or to do anything that he or she feels is not right, sensible or safe. Spiritual abuse includes convincing a person that God will punish him or her for speaking up about any abuse, for seeking a divorce from an abusive spouse, or for protecting oneself from abusive family, whether through limited contact or no-contact.

In other words, in the name of religious obligation or under the threat of punishment from God, spiritual abuse removes the right of individuals to make judicious decisions regarding their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being and safety. Consequently, they are mentally paralyzed, as they know they are in a harmful situation, but they feel completely incapable of doing anything about it lest they fall into sin or spiritual damnation.

As discussed earlier in the book, those who use religion as a tool of abuse rely heavily on religious evidences that point to the rights of parents and other family while ignoring evidences that point to the obligations of protecting oneself from harm, of speaking up against wrongdoing, and of actively opposing oppression. The result of this abuse is that people are blocked from their God-given right to their own mind and soul.

Unfortunately, this blocking of individuals’ rights is quite common in religious circles, even outside contexts of overt abuse. I reflect on this phenomenon in the following entry in my journal:

One of the most emotionally and spiritually damaging things we can do to someone is to deny or block their right to their own mind and soul. We do this by presenting our own opinions and convictions as inflexible religious obligations, particularly during the beginning of a person’s learning process when they trust us most.

Whenever I see inflexible, black-and-white responses to permissible disagreement (whether it’s the face veil, music, or following a particular scholar or school of thought), my heart breaks. I don’t understand why so many of us guilt believers into following us instead of encouraging them to sincerely research and consult their Lord.

What makes us trust ourselves more than we do our Creator? And what makes us so convinced that we are right that we can now completely disregard another point of view, or deem it as unworthy of even mention? And more tragically, what inspires us to mock and scoff at those who disagree with us? Unfortunately, the latter creates cult-like behavior that, quite literally, destroys a person’s emotional and spiritual health—and encourages emotional and spiritual abuse in the worst form.

One thing I’ve learned from my own spiritual struggles, as well as supporting others through theirs, is that much of our pain stems from being in environments that assaulted our sense of self, and blocked access to healthy individuality. These environments punished us for the slightest disagreement with a prevailing opinion or for not showing enough “respect” to the group’s favored personality. And the more vulnerable we were during this time—whether in childhood or when first learning about our faith—the more traumatic our suffering and the more difficult and tumultuous our healing.

Each day I’m surprised and saddened to find that there are so many of us—and so many who have given up on faith and spirituality altogether…

Because it’s rare to find a religious community that respects the right of each person to his or her own mind and soul. Most communities are so fixated on the worldly outcomes of behavior control and group or leader validation that the spiritual goals of sincere guidance and salvation in the Hereafter are completely lost. These groups forget that ultimately God is in charge of hearts and souls, and that it is actually a mercy that He has not placed this burden on us…and that it is a form of oppression—of self and others—to place this burden on ourselves.

In Islamic tradition, it is not without divine wisdom that the Qur’an states, “There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the right path is distinct from the wrong path…” (Al-Baqarah, 2:256). Thus, even in the case of fulfilling one’s most basic and weightiest obligation to the Creator (by following the right religion), God has given human beings free choice, and He has assigned only Himself as the ultimate Reckoner and Judge. How much more is this the case regarding humans’ lesser obligations to each other?

Furthermore, the person to whom everyone is most principally obligated is the self. As such, every man and woman has full rights (and obligation) to protect the self from harm—irrespective of whether or not a parent, spouse, family member, or religious leader disagrees or feels the person is displeasing God in some way.

God Wants You To Accept Abuse, They Say

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.

READ FULL BOOK: Reverencing the Wombs That BROKE You. [CLICK HERE]


Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com

Subscribe to Umm Zakiyyah’s YouTube channel, follow her on Instagram or Twitter, and join her Facebook page.

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