In recent months there were at least two reported cases of sexual abuse involving asatizah, or Muslim religious teachers, that made the headlines here in Singapore.
In April, a 73-year-old religious teacher was given a 16-month jail term for molesting his 36-year-old female student.
The crime was committed in 2017 – in a mosque, no less – under the guise of curing her of black magic.
Just a month earlier, a 31-year-old man – a religious teacher at a local madrasah – was jailed for eight months for molesting his student, a girl who was just eight years old.
These are only the most recent of such incidents that have occurred in the Republic.
A quick scan of news headlines over the years turns up numerous other cases – and these are only the ones that have been reported.
Such cases would qualify as examples of “spiritual abuse”.
In Shaykh’s Clothing – a North American organisation, run by students of sacred knowledge, which seeks to address such issues in the Muslim community – defines spiritual abuse as the misuse of religious authority to “manipulate, control and bully through the guise of religion, religious principles or claims to spirituality”.
While molest and sexual assault are clear examples of spiritual abuse, the concept is not limited to what would be considered crimes by a secular court of law.
The website of In Shaykh’s Clothing lists several examples of offences committed under the broad scope of spiritual abuse. These include financial misappropriation, secret marriages, bullying, and psychological harm, among others.
Indeed, in recent years, several such cases involving leaders in the Muslim community have come to light internationally.
Most prominently perhaps was the case of prominent Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and author of several popular books on the religion.
Ramadan was charged with several counts of rape last year. He denied the charges, confessing instead to a number of extramarital sexual relationships with his accusers. In doing so, he admitted his conduct was not in accordance with the religious principles he espoused.
And though he was accused of secret sham marriages and other inappropriate relationships with women in 2017, Texas-based preacher Nouman Ali Khan – who dismissed sexually suggestive text messages and shirtless selfies sent to female students as “communication” between consenting adults – continues to operate his Quranic studies outfit Bayyinah Institute and give talks across the world today.
Domestic violence, secret marriages and other illicit relationships – these are not unknown among the community here. And as much as some may want to use such cases to promote partisanship or sectarianism, they are also not limited to any particular group or school of thought.
There are no easy answers to the problem of spiritual abuse.
However, to address the issue, the community and its leadership must first acknowledge the problem exists.
It is true that a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) recognises scholars as the “inheritors of the prophets”, and as such, deserving of respect.
However, this does not and should not translate into us perceiving them as being ma’sum or infallible, a status afforded only to the prophets in the Islamic tradition.
As Ustadha Zaynab Ansari puts it in her 2015 piece for Muslim Matters entitled “Blurred Lines: Women, “Celebrity” Shaykhs, and Spiritual Abuse”:
“We are doing ourselves and our teachers a tremendous disservice when we elevate them beyond human frailties. Our ‘ulama, teachers, and Mashayikh are not perfect. They are flawed human beings, with the same weaknesses, shortcomings, and challenges with which we struggle.”
She argues that treating teachers as being beyond reproach creates a toxic environment where the proper boundaries between students and teachers are not respected, where abuse of power is commonplace and where women in particular are subject to deception.
Of course, the pendulum cannot and should not swing to the other extreme such that we treat all religious leadership with scepticism and distrust.
Nor should we take it that those who might be guilty of such acts are somehow unworthy of repentance or forgiveness – by their victims, by the larger community or most importantly, by God. Such a form of “cancel culture” does not befit a religion which recognises Ar-Rahman, the Most Merciful, as one of the Names of Allah.
Still, the Muslim ummah (community) must work to protect the most vulnerable among us from being taken advantage of by those who abuse the authority invested in them.
Though our religion calls for us to make 70 excuses for our brothers and sisters in faith, we cannot simply sweep such cases under the rug under the guise of covering the a’ib (shame) of others.
After all, another hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) holds that a Muslim is one from whose tongue (i.e. speech) and hands other Muslims are safe from, and who else should hold to this principle more than religious teachers and leaders?
It needs to be recognised that the harm abusers do – whether physical, mental, emotional or otherwise – goes beyond whatever they inflict on their victims.
Such abuse also hurts the reputation of religious teachers as a group, and ultimately can shake the foundations of a person’s faith in Islam as a belief system and a way of life.
History has shown us this before, in the experience of other religious groups whose leadership was shaken by controversy and cases of spiritual abuse.
In numerous works, the 11th century scholar Imam Al Ghazali warns against those who are learned, but corrupt.
In his magnum opus the Ihya Ulumuddin (Revival of the Religious Sciences), Al Ghazali writes:
“Their evil influence upon religion is greater than that of Satan, because through their aid does he arrive at removing religion from the hearts of men. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah upon him) said, “At the end of time there will be ignorant worshippers and corrupt learned men.” (Hakim)
As much as our reliance should be solely on Allah, the spiritual wellbeing of individual Muslims as well as that of the community depends very much on having trustworthy religious teachers and leadership.
Thankfully, Singapore has an accreditation programme – the mandatory Asatizah Recognition Scheme – intended to keep religious teachers here above board, with no tolerance of deviant or extremist teachings, as well as criminal or unethical behaviour.
Still, however far-reaching, any such scheme can only do so much.
It falls upon both the laity and the leadership in the Muslim community – as followers of the final prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – to not tolerate instances of spiritual abuse, but rather hold people accountable for their actions and ensure bad deeds do not hide behind beautiful words.
And in doing so, we should also cast the mirror on ourselves lest we ourselves unknowingly become the monster we battle, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it.
In his 2017 piece “What Do I Do When I Find Out My Favourite Preacher Is Corrupt?” – published shortly before the scandal involving Nouman Ali Khan went public – Imam Omar Suleiman advises:
“The first thing we should do when we see someone fall from glory is to seek refuge in Allah from encountering a similar fate. Every person in religious authority needs to be vigilant with themselves. Protect yourself with a strong spiritual regimen, mentorship that can hold you accountable, and do not put yourself in a situation where you could be lead astray.”
Only then can the Quran injunction found in verse 110 of Surah Ali Imran – that Muslims are the best nation and an example for humanity, and that we enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil – ring true.⬛
Ahmad Abdullah holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a part-time writer.