Lessons from the Nouman Ali Khan Allegations: The Proper Way of Handling Allegations of Spiritual Abuse

Lessons from the Nouman Ali Khan Allegations: The Proper Way of Handling Allegations of Spiritual Abuse

By Danya Shakfeh, Esq.

Over the past few days, the Muslim social media world has been a whirlwind of allegations, claims, mud-slinging, some back-tracking, and under-the-bus throwing. Onlookers are feeling a range of emotions including shock, sadness, anger, and confusion. Many are angry but cannot articulate exactly why. Many are asking questions to truly understand, only to be scolded for being insensitive. Some involved want to blame the Muslim community for the varying reactions but it cannot be denied that the recent allegations against Nouman Ali Khan (NAK) have been grossly mishandled.

There are many considerations when handling cases of spiritual abuse. In my own experience in dealing with these cases, I had to consider social factors, verifying evidence, veracity of the claimants, politics, covert manipulation, and moral issues. But before anything is to be considered, I had to define “spiritual abuse” and the benchmarks to be used. As an attorney, I found it most helpful to use my legal reasoning and analytical skills in order to decrease room for error in my analyses.  The purpose of this article is to introduce and make the case for the application of legal reasoning in addressing cases of spiritual abuse, even if outside of the courtroom.

Introducing Legal Analysis

When uncovering cases of spiritual abuse, a lot of allegations are thrown around and rumors easily buzz.

“You heard what about Ustadh X?”

“They said that he harassed these women.”

“Harassed… like.. wait, rape?!”

“Well, maybe — it’s actually not clear.”

“I heard there was consent… so then there was no harassment!”

And queue the allegations, the rebuttals, the rebuttals of the rebuttals, and eventual mud-slinging and scandal. All the while the main issues are lost, the victims are blamed, perpetrator being slandered, and on some fronts, the dialogue focuses on the personalities rather than addressing the matters at hand. In the end, most people are confused as to what exactly happened and the dialogue turns to irrelevant matters.

Although cases of spiritual abuse usually are handled outside of the legal system, we can benefit from legal tools to clearly address spiritual abuse. One of the most basic legal analytic tools is IRAC: Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. Generally speaking, defining issues is probably one of the most underrated and overlooked exercises in debate that I have seen. Without clearly defining the issues, it is easy to go down a rabbit hole of irrelevant points in connection with the matter. So what does IRAC look like? Let’s examine a hypothetical scenario for the legal claim of negligence.

Consider the following basic fact pattern: A driver is texting and driving. While driving, a child runs into the street and the driver hits an adult pedestrian, who had slightly wandered onto the road, seriously injuring the adult pedestrian. At trial, an expert witness testifies that even if the driver was not texting, the driver would still have hit the pedestrian in the same way. Meanwhile, outside, there are angry protesters blaming a variety of things including cell phone use while driving, the child’s parents, the driver for “not paying attention”, and the pedestrian for “not watching where he is going.” Who is at fault? What are the specific actions at play? Is it possible that no one is at a fault at all but this is simply a series of unfortunate events? This is where IRAC is useful in clearly and coherently assessing whether the legal claim of negligence is applicable. The analysis would play out as follows:

Issue (aka “question presented”): Does the driver’s use of his mobile device constitute negligence as to the pedestrian?

Rule (aka “legal standard”): The elements of negligence are 1) duty of care, 2) breach, 3) causation, and 4) damages.

Application: All drivers have a duty of care to other drivers and pedestrians. The driver breached that duty of care when he was using his mobile phone while driving. However, according to established facts, the driver’s breach did not cause the accident because even if the driver was not using his phone, his window of reaction time was still so limited that when the child had run into the street, the driver would still have hit the pedestrian.

Conclusion: The driver is not liable for negligence to the pedestrian because his use of the mobile device did not cause him to hit the pedestrian.

You can use the same analysis with the issue of whether the child’s parents were negligent and same with the pedestrian for what is known as “contributory negligence.” Most cases have multiple issues as each set of facts will lend itself to multiple legal claims or asking varying questions to accommodate the possible variances of the facts that would ultimately be established.

Another tool of legal analysis is the legal defense. There are two methods by which a defendant (the accused) can defeat the claim of a plaintiff (the accuser) in the legal system. A defendant can 1) demonstrate that a plaintiff cannot prove all the elements of the claim or 2) come forth with “affirmative defenses” by which a defendant admits to the claim but presents a new set of facts that mitigates or defeats the claim. For example, “Yes I punched him in the face, but it was in self-defense.” The defendant admits to punching, but not the circumstances of the punch presented by the plaintiff. Affirmative defenses will vary by the claim, but generally, examples include statute of limitations, self-defense, “unclean hands” (that the plaintiff also acted unethically), and insanity.

Application of Legal Analysis in Cases of Spiritual Abuse outside the Legal System

            In the Muslim community, particularly the Western Muslim community, when cases of spiritual abuse come to the surface, the allegations are often vague and clear standard of conduct is never established. Allegations often are along the lines of “inappropriate interactions”, “harassment” or “violence.” In turn, the defenses refer to the accusers being “feminists”, “modernists” or “liberals.” In the recent case regarding NAK’s allegations, many commentators conflate and obfuscate issues and incorrectly match the wrong set of facts to the claims of abuse.

In NAK’s case, the initial statement presented vague allegations of “inappropriate contact” and “interactions with various women.” People saw screenshots of chats and this was claimed as an example of “spiritual abuse” and of being a “predator.”

Before explaining further, let it be clear that the purpose of this article is not to determine whether there was spiritual abuse concerning the NAK allegations. I do not have access to any information or evidence beyond what was presented to the public. I do not know who the victims are and I do not have access to them. The purpose here is only to explain the ineffectiveness of the analyses of the claims and allegations.

In NAK’s case, the only allegation was “inappropriate contact.” This raises the following questions: What is the definition of “inappropriate?” What is the definition of “contact?” Specifically what facts and evidence were used to determine whether contact was inappropriate? Even if NAK engaged in inappropriate contact, do his actions fall within the elements of spiritual abuse? All of this analysis has, so far, been completely lacking.

Equally lacking and flawed were NAK’s defenses (by him and his supporters). The two most common defenses I read, assuming all the evidence is sound and true, are that NAK was “getting to know the sisters for marriage” and that the women in question consented (also known as the “it takes two to tango” defense). Before even entertaining the factual question as to whether NAK was actually getting to know the women for marriage or not, one has to consider whether this is even relevant. Would the elements of abuse of authority even preclude simply getting to know someone for marriage? In other words, is it possible to get to know someone for marriage and abuse your authority at the same time? This is why it is important to state the elements of each action up front – in order to determine what is relevant.

While not everyone will fully understand the issues and there is a segment of our community that will engage in mental gymnastics and speculation in order to defend or indict the accused, it is still important for those presenting the case to be as clear and accurate as possible in presenting the issues and particular violations alleged. Whether public opinions matters or such cases should be “tried” “in the court of public opinion” is a separate issue, which I will not discuss here.

So what would that look like in our context of spiritual abuse in the Muslim community? It would be essential to first establish the elements of spiritual abuse. This would fulfill the “rule” portion of our IRAC analysis. One potential definition of spiritual abuse is “the use of spiritual authority for one’s personal gain.” Consider the following scenario:

A woman alleges that a “shaykh”, who is already married, married her in secret as a second wife. The woman in question is a student who managed the shaykh’s schedule and helped him write material for lectures and classes. The shaykh is aware that the student has a strong desire to study with scholars in a serious fashion. The shaykh proposes to the sister that the sister can have this life of piety and get close to scholars if he marries her. But the marriage must remain a secret for the first year of their marriage. He also frequently flatters her and makes her feel special in the process. The sister agrees to marry the man and learns that it was all a façade, and that the shaykh has a history of this with other female students, and he also reneges on allowing the marriage to go public. She soon divorces the shaykh and attempts to seek her rights.

Let us revisit the hypothetical “rule” for spiritual abuse proposed above: “the use of spiritual authority for one’s personal gain.” There are two elements here – 1) one’s spiritual authority and 2) personal gain. Both elements must be present. The woman here would claim that the shaykh used his spiritual authority by stating that he would connect the sister with inner circles of spiritual knowledge and his personal gain was marriage (really, sexual access or otherwise “winning” the woman).

His defenses would be to disprove one or both elements. He could theoretically argue that he did not use his spiritual authority or connections or that there was no personal gain. However, in my experience in handling such cases, the perpetrator’s defenses are characterized “affirmative defenses” versus defeating the initial claim. Such affirmative defenses include she is “mentally unstable”, “this was simply a case of polygamy gone wrong”, “he was getting to know the woman for marriage” or that she “consented.” Most of these defenses do not speak to the elements of the claim at all – and therefore do not defeat the claim or otherwise absolve the shaykh from his actions. For example, a woman being mentally unstable (assuming it is even true) does not vitiate the claim, all other things being established. The fact that a spiritual authority is allowed to enter into a polygamous marriage [in Islam] also does not defeat the claim and is wholly irrelevant as polygamy is not even the issue presented.

A separate article could be written in order to address the issue of consent. Many often cite “consent” as an affirmative defense and therefore, “there was no abuse.” In order to analyze consent as a defense, a simple walk-through of this faulty reasoning can be summed as follows: Let us return to the elements of spiritual abuse 1) using spiritual authority 2) for personal gain. Does an accuser’s “consent” negate the accused’s spiritual authority? No. Does “consent” negate such power was used for the accused’s personal gain? No. As such, consent must be an affirmative defense – in other words, a “yes… but” defense. To spell that out, consent as an affirmative defense would be “yes, the accused used his spiritual authority for personal gain but the accuser consented to this arrangement.” This reasoning is clearly absurd as one cannot consent to abuse.

Why a Clear Analysis Matters For Cases Of Spiritual Abuse

While some may view certain actions as being self-evident with respect to a claim, rarely is it ever that simple. Having a clear analysis for the claims and potential defenses is important for the following reasons:

  1. Clarity: As these cases are often contentious and sensitive, we want to avoid parties speaking past each other. By setting a clear understanding of claims we remove room for doubt as to our analyses of the claims, and avoid wasting time discussing issues and facts that are not relevant. Further, it is worth distinguishing between those religious figures who use their spiritual authority to abuse versus religious figures who happen to engage in misconduct. Frankly, expecting religious figures to be perfect only sets up congregants for disappointment and we need to acknowledge that religious figures are imperfect.
  2. Due Process/Doing Right by the Parties: Due process is not merely “innocent until proven guilty.” It also encompasses the fact that a defendant has a right to know exactly what the potential claims are against him so he can properly defend against those claims. If those are not clearly laid out, the defendant either will be unable to defend himself or will defend himself using facts that are not relevant. The latter point is also important for the claimant to ensure that irrelevant facts are not used to defend against her claims.
  3. Not Diluting Spiritual Abuse Claims: The gravity of spiritual abuse is unique because it not only affects one’s worldly state, but one’s relationship to God and may even lead people to suffer existential crises. If we claim “spiritual abuse” when it is not the appropriate claim, we risk diluting the very real and grave cases of spiritual abuse when it does happen.
  4. Precedent: How such cases – and the corresponding analysis – will be used for future cases. If there is no coherent analysis at the outset, future cases will only be more confusing.
  5. Remedies: Remedies often correspond with the crime. Without clearly articulating the issues and problems before us, it will be difficult to determine appropriate remedies.  As stated above, there is a difference between religious figures who use their authority and those who happen to engage in misconduct. These two types should be treated differently.

Final Thoughts

While legal analysis will not address or solve all the problems that face the (Western) Muslim community, it can set a foundational framework to precisely address the problem of spiritual abuse. The purpose of this article is not to establish the standards of conduct, but to provide examples and begin the work of clearly identifying what constitutes spiritual abuse. This requires the expertise of attorneys and those who are familiar with logic.

To be clear, there are many other issues such as moral, ethical, and social aspects that legal analysis is simply not designed to address. We also need to consider methods and mediums of verifying evidence and presenting claims and to what extent and when such presentations should be made public. Additionally, just because an individual is not found to be liable for spiritual abuse, it does not mean that a religious figure is not liable for other abuses or is still fit to be a in a position of authority. These are all issues outside the scope of this article. But as a start, we can mitigate a lot of the furies and flames that come along with addressing spiritual abuse by being as precise as possible with our language and claims.

Danya is an attorney and litigator.   Through her practice as an attorney, Danya is skillful in collecting evidence and testimony, legal reasoning, sifting through evidence to determine the veracity of claims, and conflict resolution.

To learn about training opportunities for your institution, you can email info@inshaykhsclothing.com. You can contact Danya directly at Danya@inshaykhsclothing.com.