Financial Abuse and Covert Cover-Up: Maryam’s Story

Financial Abuse and Covert Cover-Up: Maryam’s Story

The Story

Maryam was a student of the Shaykh. She volunteered frequently at Islamic Institute, a 501(c)(3) corporation, including doing marketing for classes, maintaining the website, and transcribing notes. She spent 15-20 hours a week, the worth of a part-time job, without being paid a penny. Maryam is a professional and could have easily spent those hours working and making money but instead, chose to devote her time to Allah and serving Islam. The Shaykh appeared grateful to Maryam and constantly praised her intelligence and work.

One day, the Shaykh informs Maryam that the Islamic Institute had a severe shortfall of funds and needed $10,000 immediately to cover the month’s remaining expenses. The Shaykh also stressed how important Maryam was to the Islamic Institute and thanked her profusely for all she has done in the past. Maryam, who comes from a wealthy family and has savings from her work, could readily access the funds. However, she initially hesitated because she never had a clear picture of how donations to the Islamic Institute were being spent and she observed that the Islamic Institute took on many unnecessary expenses. Additionally, the Shaykh, who’s income is solely from the Islamic Institute, recently purchased a new car and the Shaykh’s wife did some significant remodeling to their home. Nevertheless, Maryam gave the Shaykh the benefit of the doubt and ultimately obliged as she believed that the Islamic Institute is extremely important in providing courses to students of knowledge like herself. The terms of the transaction were unclear but the Shaykh’s language implied that the funds were a short-term loan as he commented that he was sure she would need the funds for herself at some point.

Many months passed and Maryam was doing her taxes with her accountant. Her accountant inquired about the $10,000 transfer to the Islamic Institute and asked Maryam if she received any letters from the Islamic Institute documenting the donation so Maryam could get a tax deduction. Maryam, believing it was a loan, asked the Shaykh as to when she would be receiving the money back. The Shaykh told Maryam that he thought the funds were a donation and not a loan. Maryam, perplexed, insisted that the Shaykh implied the funds were a loan and in any case, never received a letter from the Islamic Institute regarding the donation. The Shaykh then started blaming Maryam and scolded her for not requesting anything in writing or written clarification at the time she had transferred the money. The Shaykh told Maryam that she was no longer worthy of working at Islamic Institute and fired her from her volunteer position.

Maryam was deeply hurt and confused. She emailed Imam and explained the situation. Unbeknownst to Maryam, Imam called the Shaykh to ask his side of the story. The Shaykh explained to the Imam that there was a dispute regarding money and that Maryam is mentally unstable. The Shaykh asked that the Imam simply humor the girl and the Imam said he would take care of it. The Imam responded to Maryam’s email offering to mediate the situation but insisting that the matter be kept confidential. Maryam sent the Imam a list of witnesses and all written communications between herself and the Shaykh concerning the funds. The Imam said he would review the documents and emphasized that Maryam’s story must be “heard and resolved fairly”. Weeks passed by and Maryam had to follow up with the Imam. The Imam continued to delay responding and then a whole year had passed by without the matter being addressed as the Imam continued to employ delay tactics. Meanwhile, the Shaykh and the Imam were communicating and working together frequently on their projects and publicly praised each other for their “service to the ummah”. Maryam reached out to others who she believed might be able to help but they either stated it was not their business or that she was at fault for not seeking a written contract regarding the money and that it was understandable that the Shaykh might have “misunderstood” the money to be a donation rather than a loan. They were also were pleased that Maryam had not gone public with her grievances.

Commentary

The above story demonstrates how sinister some “shaykhs” can be. At times, the Shaykh’s tactics are not “wrong” in a way that can be articulated but are more subtle tactics of manipulation. The Shaykh, for example, did not outright lie regarding whether he intended the funds to be a loan or a gift, but made subtle statements to Maryam to make her think it was a loan. He also engages in a lot of flattery and pressured her to give the funds by putting a tight deadline. He did not outright steal from Maryam but used emotional tactics to manipulate her to act in a certain way. At the end, he was able to blame Maryam. Further, the Imam and Shaykh worked together and employed delay tactics. The Imam placated Maryam by pretending he was going to hear her story and address it but instead employed delay tactics and ultimately ignoring the issue. It’s certainly easy to blame to Maryam and say that no one was forcing her to give the Shaykh the money or that she was at fault for not insisting on written terms, but we need to understand that this is human nature and it’s normal for humans to give in to authority as observed in Milgram’s famous experiment. The Shaykh and Imam are aware of this natural human tendency and exploit it. At some point though, Maryam did have doubts about providing the funds and as such, we would do well to trust our instinct and not be shy in doing our due diligence before entrusting any part of our assets or selves to an Islamic figure.