African-American man with closely cropped trimmed beard laughing, wearing earrings

We Need Leaders Protecting Us, Not Their Pride

Where are the men?

They are scowling at me for my “wrong” hijab.

SubhaanAllah! Where are the men?

They are criticizing me for fearing Allah on my job.

O Allah! Where are the men?

They are making jokes about me and the suffering I’ve endured.

Yaa Rabb! Where are the men?

They are shaking hands and patting each other on the back.

Yaa Rahmaan! Where are the men?

They are putting up barriers in the House of Allah.

O my Lord, help me! Where are the men?

They are abandoning me when I need them most.

O Lord of ‘Aalameen! Where are my protectors in this world?

They are protecting and looking out for themselves.

O Master of the Day of Judgment! Where are the men?

“They are awaiting My judgment, dear soul, for how they treated you in this world.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

“But why did you lie about what happened?” I asked, getting choked up as I held the receiver to my ear. Tears welled in my eyes as I recalled all the angry phone calls and emails I’d gotten from community members who were livid after they heard the imam’s account of a disagreement he and I had had. He had told them I’d verbally attacked him and called him foul names, whereas in reality, I had merely told him that I believed that my obligation was to obey Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) in religious matters, not the senior imam. That was it.

In fact, it was the imam himself who’d become enraged during our discussion and called me offensive names, even threatening me physically. But I didn’t respond to these threats. Truth was, I was scared to do or say anything that would incite him to actually physically attack me. Thus, I kept my voice low, my eyes cast down, and was extra careful to speak in a manner that he would deem respectful.

I’d known this man since childhood and was very aware of his unpredictable temper, which often resulted in physical violence, particularly toward his own children and family. From what I understood, he had been involved in “the street life” before converting to Islam, so I imagined that some of his extreme mood swings stemmed from that. One moment he would be calm and empathetic, and the next he would become enraged and threatening to publicly humiliate you, especially if you said the slightest thing to challenge him or disagree with him. I constantly felt anxiety whenever I was around him. Thus, I’d never in my life raised my voice in his presence, let alone called him offensive names. It simply wasn’t safe.

There was extended silence on the other end of the phone, and I sensed that the imam’s heart was softening and he was beginning to regret what he had done. He spoke softly to me as he tried to rationalize what he had told others about me, but he kept stumbling over his words in a failed attempt to convince even himself that his grossly exaggerated account of events was justified.

We ended the conversation on a cordial note, and I had hope that the whole misunderstanding would be cleared up. Though he didn’t outright admit that he was wrong, he did allude to perhaps having not handled everything correctly. I felt in that moment that I saw the goodness and sincerity in his soul, no matter how difficult it was for him to contain his arrogance and cruelty on most days.

Hours later my phone rang, and the caller ID displayed the imam’s name.  After I picked up and offered salaams, I heard his angry voice through the receiver. “I’m not even going to reflect!” he said, without even returning the salaams. “I’m not going to spend a single moment thinking about anything I did wrong! I’m not going to do that for you!”

I grew quiet as my heart filled with sadness. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Because if you did self-reflect and think about what you did wrong, it wouldn’t be for me. It would be for you.”

At that, he hung up on me.

This happened nearly twenty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten how chilling it was to see someone strive so hard to reject self-accountability in favor of pride and saving face. Moreover this imam was so dedicated to defending his false teachings that he was willing to drag my name through the mud as a cautionary tale to anyone who dared challenge him.

And the men in the community saw this happening and did nothing to defend me or the truth of Islam. While some did call me privately and admit that what he was doing was wrong, none stood up to him publicly. Instead these men took every opportunity they could to be in this imam’s good graces, thereby carrying on as if nothing had happened. Neither my reputation nor the true teachings of Islam mattered to these men more than having a good relationship with this imam.

It was my first lesson in how many men work together to support wrongdoing and protect the pride and egos of abusive men, while leaving innocent believers (especially women) out in the cold to fend for themselves. In some circles, this toxic culture of “good men” protecting
“bad men” is called “the good ol’ boy network.”

It was tragic to learn that it exists amongst Muslims.

And unfortunately, the scenario I faced with the imam would be one I would see over and over again in life.

Men, Help Your Brothers

Dear men, help your brothers become real men.

Because there are far too many little boys trapped in men’s bodies playing dress-up in leaders’ clothes. How can you help them? Teach them the difference between:

  • Controlling and leading.
  • Pride and confidence.
  • Cruelty and strength.
  • Protecting their fragile egos and “demanding respect.”
  • Being passive aggressive and “humble.”
  • Being reckless and “revolutionary.”
  • And having toxic insecurity, and protecting their energy and peace “at all costs.”

Because we don’t need more leaders protecting themselves.

We need more leaders protecting us.

Not just some of us. Not just those they like. Not just those they agree with. Not just those whose faults and sins they can understand and relate to. All of us—every single believer striving for Paradise.

This is what it means to carry the sacred mantle of spiritual leadership.

And this mantle is not for little boys…

No matter how long their beard. No matter how “perfect” their Arabic. And no matter how impressive their “religious résumé.”

Because real leaders are not made of beards, Arabic, and Islamic paper. They are made of heart.

Being “made of heart” means you are willing to sacrifice your ego for the greater good—not the greater good for your ego.

Yes, real men know when to “step up.” But more importantly, they know when to step back. Yes, real men know when to “speak up.” But more importantly, they know when to keep silent. And God help us when we have leaders whose followers must tiptoe around their fragile egos and only speak their pain, concern, and disagreement when they are “safe” from these men’s earshot—and from the ire of these men’s wounded pride.

So real men, I ask you to help your brothers in faith. Help them learn the meaning of manhood. Help them learn the meaning of faith. Because far too many of us are suffering in silence out of fear of being their next victim—should they ever learn that we value worshipping Allah over worshipping them.

Why Care What These Men Think?

Sometimes when I share the experiences I’ve had with spiritual abusers in the position of Islamic leadership, particularly when I’ve been slandered by them, I’m asked, “Why do you even care what they think? Forget them. You know you are teaching the truth about Islam. That’s all that should matter to you.”

However, I challenge us to think carefully about this for a moment, even as it relates to our own lives and experiences. 

When we say, “I don’t care what people think about me,” are we being honest with ourselves? Because here’s the thing: It’s not what people think about us that causes so many problems in our lives. It’s what they say and do about those thoughts. Rarely do people’s opinion stay in their minds. They talk about it and act on it.

So often we claim, “They can say what they want! I don’t care!” But is that really true? 
How many lives and relationships are brought to ruin due to someone’s carelessness or cruelty with their tongues? Even the Prophet (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam) himself was distressed and harmed by what people said about him and those he loved, so much so that Allah Himself had to intervene. Think of the slander of his beloved wife Ayesha (may Allah be pleased with her). Did he and his family dismiss this and say, “We know who we are! Forget what people say!” Moreover, did Allah respond in this way?

Rather Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Behold, you received it on your tongues, and said out of your mouths things of which you had no knowledge, and you thought it to be a light matter, while it was most serious in the sight of Allah” (An-Noor, 24:15).

I know on a deeply personal level how it feels to be slandered, and it’s not something I view as trivial. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between caring about the harm that others cause with their tongues, and obsessing over what others think about you until it negatively affects your emotional and spiritual health.

But here’s what I find ironic in all of this: Those who cause the most harm in slandering innocent people are often those who claim to be strong-willed and revolutionary in “telling it like it is” when calling out the wrongdoing of others—yet they tend to be involved in the most wrongdoing of others. Why?

Because they are so obsessed with what others think about them that even the slightest disagreement or criticism sends them into a fit of paranoia. Someone can say in the most respectful manner, “This is wrong” or “This makes me uncomfortable.” Then they immediately resort to silencing, blocking, or defaming the person who highlighted their wrongdoing (as I experienced with the abusive imam nearly twenty years ago).

When this trait is found in a self-proclaimed imam, sheikh, or community leader, we are seeing chilling signs of the Last Days.

And when these “leaders” begin to lie on Allah, His deen, or the believers; you’ll find that these “revolutionary” leaders are far more strong-willed in defending themselves than they are in defending divine truth.

If you say to them, “Fear Allah,” that’s when you see their self-proclaimed “revolutionary” mask crumble to reveal their toxic insecurity and false bravado for what it is.

Allah says what has been translated to mean, “When it is said to him, ‘Fear Allah,’ he is led by arrogance to [more] crime…”(Al-Baqarah, 2:206).

Then they scramble to defend even this by claiming they are only protecting their energy and peace “at all costs.”

Even at the cost of divine truth and the honor of believers? SubhaanAllah.

Allah says, “The believers are only those who, when Allah is mentioned, their hearts become fearful, and when His verses are recited to them, it increases them in faith; and [they] put their trust in their Lord” (Al-Anfaal, 8:2)

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us: “The strong man is not the good wrestler; but the strong man is he who controls himself when he is angry”  (Bukhari and Muslim).

Guard Your Tongues, Dear Believers

So often we defend harming others due to fixating on some fault or sin of theirs. This is how spiritual abusers are able to get away with so much crime. They shift the focus from their own cruelty and false teachings to the apparent faults of those who disagree with them—or to the sins of those they claim to be speaking out “strongly” against. In this, we are distracted from these spiritual abusers’ own sins of the tongue and changing the rules of Islam (because we are so focused on the faults of those who disagree with them and the sins of those they’ve decided to publicly humiliate).

It was in observing this chilling phenomenon that inspired this entry into my personal journal, particularly in relation to hyper-focusing on the sin of zina (fornication or adultery) while ignoring the sins of slander, spiritual abuse, and changing the rules of Islam:

O dear soul overcome with rage because you see another soul sinning differently from you! 

You are no better than they are. 

You are no better than they are. 

You are no better than they are.

While they sin with that which is between their legs, you sin with that which is between your jaws. And tell me dear soul, can you be absolutely certain that, in front of Allah, your sins of the tongue are not worse? Or perhaps you imagine that because your wrongdoing emanates from the mouth that your potential place in Hellfire will be one of honor while their potential place will be one of disgrace? 

Lord have mercy on our souls when we feel pride because we wrong our souls with a different body part!

Lord have mercy on our souls when we compete for the more “honorable” seat in the flames!

Lord have mercy on us when we use the tongue our Creator has given us to say others have no right to His mercies or honor on earth—because our marring of the soul with the “superior body part” fills us with so much pride that we actually imagine that only *we* have the right to Allah’s forgiveness and an enjoyable life in this world.

Abu Huraira (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) was asked, “What admits most people into Paradise?” The Prophet said, “Fear of Allah and good character.” It was asked, “What condemns most people to Hellfire?” The Prophet said, “The mouth and the genitals” ( Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2004, sahih by Ahmad Shakir).

Mu’adh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said “…’Shall I not tell you of the basis of all that (i.e. being admitted to Paradise and protected from Hellfire)?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ He took hold of his tongue then said: ‘Restrain this.’ I said: ‘O Prophet of Allah, will we be brought to account for what we say?’ He said: ‘May your mother not found you, O Mu’adh! Are people thrown onto their faces in Hell for anything other than the harvest of their tongues?’” (Sunan Ibn Majah 3973, hasan).

Prophet Muhammad (sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam) said further, “O you who have spoken the words of faith but faith has not truly entered your hearts! Do not backbite about the Muslims, and do not seek out their faults. For whoever seeks out their faults, Allah will seek out his faults, and if Allah seeks out a person’s faults, He will expose him even in his own house”(Ahmad, 19277; Abu Dawood, 4880; saheeh by Al-Albaani).

He also said, “No person who spreads nameemah (i.e. gossip, tales about others) will enter Paradise” (al-Bukhaari, 6056; Muslim, 105).

So be careful, dear soul. Be careful. 

Choose carefully what you are begging from your Lord in your speech about others, especially when you imagine yourself to be a community activist, imam, or leader—or supporting one.

As Muslims, we know full well that we are not allowed to harm or slander believers, and that we are not allowed to support anyone seeking to change the rules of Islam, no matter how much we admire their “revolutionary” methods in fighting against some sin (while indulging in and supporting worse sin). But more than following truth of what Allah taught us, so many of us love fitnah (problems, trials, and tribulations), which makes us unnecessarily quarrelsome in the face of divine truth.

Allah discusses this tendency in us when He says, “And indeed We have explained in detail every kind of example in this Quran, for mankind. But man is ever more quarrelsome than anything” (Al-Kahf, 18:54)

At the same time, Allah reminds us that it is not too late for us to repent to change our ways when He says what has been translated to mean, “Say, O My slaves who have wronged their souls!  Despair not of the mercy of Allah. Verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly, He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (Az-Zumar, 39:53).

cover of Prejudice Bones in My Body, photo of half face of black woman in hijab looking to the side
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Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.