Defining Spiritual Abuse- How And Why We Use The Term

Defining Spiritual Abuse- How And Why We Use The Term

-Danish Qasim

Spiritual abuse is its own category. It is not a specific offense.  Bullying, sexual assault, molestation, exploitation, manipulation, secret marriages, psychological harm, are all offenses that constitute spiritual abuse if done through religion.

So it would be a meaningless sentence to say “John spiritually abused Jason” or “John is guilty of spiritual abuse” unless it is known which offenses constitute the mentioned spiritual abuse. When spiritual abuse is used as a specific offense, I agree with skeptics who say that the term is ambiguous. We need to be precise if talking about specific instances, but when referring to the issue generally, that is not required. As the Islamic jurists mention,

لا مشاحة في الاصطلاح
la mashahata fi al-istilaah – meaning that technical terms may be differed upon.

Our primary focus is on use of misuse of religion by those in religious positions.

Most of our scenarios will have these elements:

  • 1 ) Using religious authority 2) for personal gain (even if no one else is harmed).
  • 1) Using religious authority 2) with existence of ulterior purpose or motive underlying the use of said authority.
  • 1) Using religious authority 2) to bully, harass, manipulate, or control another.
  • 1) The violation of another’s legal rights 2) in the context of one’s religious role

This excludes abuse of religious concepts or scripture in spousal relations, friendships, etc. That is a practical exclusion for the purpose of our work- yet it falls under the category of spiritual abuse.

It is also worth nothing ‘spiritual abuse’ is not used to solely describe abuse of spiritual concepts or harms that diminish one’s spiritual state.

 Islamically we divide perpetrated wrong into three types:

  1. ظالم لنفسه “zaalim li nafsihi”  an oppressor to himself
  2. ظالم لغيره “zaalim li ghayrhi” oppressor to other than himself

 Zaalim li nafisihi example:  A delusional person who thinks he is a saint and feels entitled to support, praise, etc.  Also, if an Islamic teacher is insincere and doing it for the money, he is oppressing himself and there are hadith about insincere preachers like the Prophet (sws) witnessing their punishment on his ascent. This is still in the field of spiritual abuse even though no one is being abused on this earth.

This could also include someone who uses religion to marry someone, and the partner is happy and not abused again in the marriage. It is not a perpetual abuse- but using a false religious pretext for a happy outcome is still using religion for personal gain.

Zaalim li ghayrihi example: Creating beliefs that subjugate others to you, exploiting religious concepts, stealing money, using religious position to cover up not paying mahr.

‘Spiritual abuse’ is the term is we went with to address age-old religious abuse. This includes concepts such as  طلب الدنيا بالدين talab al-deen bi al-dunya   seeking the world through religion, charlatans, dajjals, predators, and recognizing their tricks.  Using the comprehensive term ‘spiritual abuse’ serves a practical benefit for people searching for help.  Most Muslims will not know of traditional concepts to search for help, they just know that they are going through spiritual abuse and want to find help.

Michael Langone founder of Cults Studies Association writes on

The resources on this Website conceive of spiritual abuse in different ways.

Some apply the term spiritual abuse to any kind of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse that takes place in a religious context.  Others apply the term specifically to manipulations that damage a person’s relationship to God or to his/her core self. Spiritual abuse has been reported in mainstream religious organizations as well as non-mainstream groups, such as cults.

The terms psychological abuse or emotional abuse refer to harms that overlap those associated with both conceptualizations of spiritual abuse. These harms include but are not limited to: damaged self-esteem, induced dependency, impaired capacity to trust, and emotional reactions such as anger, anxiety, and depression. In some cases, one’s faith in God may also be shaken.

To a large degree, the choice of a term, psychological abuse or spiritual abuse, depends upon the framework (psychological or religious) with which the speaker/writer feels comfortable.

This Website finds value in resources coming from psychological and religious frameworks, though obviously some issues, e.g., questions about God’s mercy, may require religious concepts to address properly.  We hope that readers will remain open to both perspectives and make their own determinations about what information is useful to them.

In further correspondence, Dr. Langone wrote to me that  “Abuse of religious authority” is consistent with those who use the term to refer to any kind of abuse (improper or damaging actions toward a person) perpetrated by religious authorities, so you are not alone in that use.  Personally, I prefer the second application to the term, manipulation that damages a person’s relationship to God or to his/her core self.  The definition I prefer is more restrictive.  The first definition is broader and can include, for example, misuse of religious authority to persuade an individual to give a lot of money to a religious organization.

There is an inescapable ambiguity, which is why there are different definitions.  This is not unusual.  There are many terms, e.g., right wing/left wing, that are ambiguous but nonetheless useful.  In empirical psychological research, one will typically make an operational definition [operationalization = The process of moving from a construct’s conceptual definition to specific activities or measures that allow a researcher to observe it empirically; in other words, a process of converting a definition to a specific measure and deciding how to empirically test it] of the variable one is studying.  This is because so many concepts that we study are ambiguous.  So, for example, in research on depression, one might define depression as a score greater than 12 on the Beck Depression Inventory.  This makes one’s definition precise and enables others to conduct research using the same definition.  Ordinary language does not permit such precision… Different researchers use different definitions.  Even empirical researchers who operationalize definitions may operationalize in different ways.  This, of course, causes a problem.  That is why in the 1970s and 1980s the National Institute of Mental Health spent a lot of money on research designed to make better measures of depression (e.g., the Beck Depression Inventory).  They wanted to have a tool kit of tested and established measures so that future research on depression would operationalize the term in similar ways.”

So far as I know, there is not, alas, empirical research on spiritual abuse that operationalizes the term.  Hence, we must rely on ordinary language with all its inherent ambiguity.”

In conclusion, definitions vary depending on prospective use. Spiritual abuse in a legal context will vary from spiritual abuse in an organizational, or educational and general guidance context.

The lack of consensus on the term spiritual abuse is not a problem. It is a problem however, if someone is said to spiritual abuse without specific offenses under this category being stated.



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