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Dealing With News of Abuse in the Muslim Community

by in Identity on 30th September, 2021

TW: This article contains discussions of spiritual abuse. If you are affected by this or any of the issues raised in the article and need mental health support, please get in contact with one of the organisations listed here. For resources on dealing with spiritual abuse and other forms of abuse, visit FACE.

Public revelations of abuse within our community provoke a medley of intense emotions. Horror, anger, betrayal, confusion, and often despair. For some, past traumas are triggered. For others, we watch to see how the news is received. Questions abound. Is this happening more or just being reported more openly? Do we still feel shocked? Where are the true allies of Muslim women? Why is the bar for a victim to be believed so impossibly high? Is ‘benefit of the doubt’ being misapplied here?

Feeling let down, outraged and deceived is a natural reaction when hearing of abuse of power, position and persona. Accountability is important, consequences must be felt and the most vulnerable must be safeguarded. As this plays out on the community level however, many of us feel the consequences internally. Many who have been previously burned by those presenting as “religious”, the pain and trauma of the experience can invite doubt and insecurity around one own’s faith. Witnessing hypocrisy is so jarring to the human heart that to guard oneself from being exposed to it, many in our community quietly disassociate from Muslim spaces and people.

However, the attempt to remove yourself from one harm by stepping back from the Muslim community, can lead to another greater harm- that of spiritual isolation.

‘Umar ibn Khatib said that the Prophet sallallaahu `alayhi wa sallam said: “It is incumbent upon you to be with the Muslim group and you must avoid disunity. Shaytan is with a single person and he is far from two persons.” [At-Tirmithi]

The very concept of the ‘Ummah’ points to how the practice of community and benefit of unity is an essential protection in many ways. There is no easier prey for shaytan than a believer isolated, alone and feeling like an outlier. However, when your community is deeply flawed and being part of circles you cannot trust leaves you scarred, then take careful measured steps to protect yourself and your eeman:

Find your people

Away from the noise, hype and diversion of online and social media spaces, look for the accessible people within your community that help stabilise and grow you spiritually. The offline, slow and deeply nourishing interactions. This can be a solid friend, a regular class, a teacher who you’re able to share and connect with. Search out the meaningful connections and- without guilt- close the door on the spaces that drain, enrage and deplete your emotional energy. Simply stepping away from the fast-paced dens of frivolity (hello social media Islam!) will automatically spare you from exposure to seeing, hearing and knowing events of no spiritual benefit. Clear the landscape of the weeds first, so you can begin planting seeds of benefit.

“Try to have as many as possible true friends, for they are the supplies in joy and the shelters in misfortunes.” (Bihar-ul-Anwar)

Nurture your own faith privately

Some of the most spiritually edifying times come from solitary, internal work and the inner shifts one experiences as a result. The good old days of reading through a series of books on some of the foundations of Islam (whether tenets of eeman, Seerah, biographies of Companions or thematic commentaries on the Qur’an) provide benefit we often underestimate. The knowledge gleaned slowly and mindfully strengthens and sticks with you longer. This is what provides your heart with the strongest spiritual protection.
We constantly chase nuance, intellectualising points of religion and delving into niche areas to such an extent that we forget the enduring benefit of strengthening our foundations through private study. The loss of reading- (whether it’s patience to sit alone and quietly with a book or ability to extract the full benefit from a text)- is part of a general degradation of knowledge today.

“It is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in true awe of Allah. Indeed Allah is Almighty, Most Forgiving” (Qur’an 35:28)

Engage on your own terms

There is a lot going on within Muslim community spaces- whether your passion is in teaching skills and education, addressing social inequality, inspiring children and youth, formal study with teachers or building the platforms to provide services to different sectors. Choose who and how you want to engage with the community and focus on being in safe and supportive environments. If you have been hurt by community involvement in the past, take a step back and give yourself time for the learning (and healing) to take place. When you come back, be selective and careful about the way you engage again.

“Your best friend is the one who: seeing him reminds you of Allah, speaking to him increases your knowledge, and his actions remind you of the hereafter.” (Al-Muhasibi)

Humans are humans, all flawed

In an ideal world, our outer appearance would align seamlessly with our inner state. Our commitment to worship would secure good character. Our ritualised acts of worship would mean others are safe from our words and actions. Trust would be assumed, the bar for moral conduct would be high and basic expectations would be met.
But we live in an altogether different reality.

Humans are humans and the propensity for (all types of) abuse, deception, exploitation, and ability to inflict harm on others exists in all- those who follow religious guidelines and those who don’t. Islam delivers the guiding principles to strive for and the tools to overcome the weaknesses inherent in us all, but what we do with them is down to us.
Everybody will struggle with some manner of inner challenges such as ego, carnal desires, elements of hypocrisy, dissonance, excess, addictive behaviours or the many spiritual diseases of the heart. Deal with people cognizant of this painful, but necessary reality.

Separate your eeman from the conduct of others

Often the hardest thing. We live in a world where almost everything is out there for public consumption and vice is glorified at every turn. Try not to let your gaze settle externally too much. If your eeman is tied to the good conduct of others, then you are left in a very vulnerable position. Everybody is flawed in their own open and hidden ways and when relying on other mortals, we will inevitably let each other down. It is important to protect your own eeman from feeling the ramifications of “religious Muslims”who behave in depraved and harmful ways. Separate and affirm the standards Allah holds for us, even when witnessing others falling short. A person’s inability to live up to principles is a reflection of personal shortcomings, not the principles themselves.

Also resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It may seem like the community is slowly imploding as we get a steady stream of scandals being exposed, but try to keep a balanced perspective. There would be no greater victory for shaytan than for the evil deeds of some people to result in the loss of eeman for other believers.
There is plenty of good out there and much positive, nourishing and fulfilling energy to reach into. The source of your soul’s calm is with the Divine. In times of confusion and pain afflicted by others, return to the core of the deen, and with Allah is the Ultimate Refuge .

Aisha reported: When the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, finished his prayer, he would not sit long enough but to say, “O Allah, You are peace and from You is peace. Blessed are You, the Majestic and Noble.” (Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 5920)

Zimarina Sarwar

Zimarina Sarwar

Zimarina Sarwar is a Writer and Editor living in London with her family. She holds an MRes in Linguistics from Kings College London and her interests include all things language, spirituality, social justice and a hearty dose of Tom Yam noodle soup. You can find more of her work on her website below.