Backlash: Silencing Survivors of an Abusive Shaykh

Backlash: Silencing Survivors of an Abusive Shaykh

Like any abusive situation, leaving an abusive shaykh is very difficult and can result in a backlash that negatively impacts a person’s personal, social, and financial life. Not only does one have to deal with the fallout of the abusive shaykh, but also that of the other figures in the group, such as the shaykhas in the group, the muqaddams, and other murids, and the group backlash that comes along with it. It is important for individuals who are attempting to leave these groups to understand that the patterns of abuse and the type of backlash they receive is typical and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the individual. Understanding the ways in which abusive groups work to erode boundaries and focusing on boundary awareness can protect the individual from future abuse, but once these boundaries have been breached, the fall out can be both difficult to avoid and painful.

Many of those who face such abuse, and consequent backlash for leaving the group, are themselves respected religious leaders and scholars. Abusive groups are a norm, and listed here are common and actual scenarios of backlash men and women face when leaving an abusive shaykh.

Backlash from the Shaykh

This is particularly an issue in Sufi tariqas where the shaykh has the role of a spiritual guide. The shaykh in this context is not just a general religious figure with influence, but someone who has intimate knowledge of his followers. This includes knowledge of sins, bad thoughts which the shaykh may ask to be journaled so he may monitor progress, or any other life problems. This is a spiritual justification for invading boundaries and the information garnered can be used for abuse. In groups where this is the norm, someone may feel uncomfortable but ignore those feelings of discomfort due to a desire for spiritual growth and the normalization of the practice within the group.

Just like a patient may uncover his ‘awra in front of a doctor for medical treatment, the shaykh will say he can learn about the private sins of his murid to properly treat him. Under this guise, he may ask very intrusive questions to collect personal information to understand the psychological makeup of the murid or collect blackmailing information. Many abusive shaykhs are narcissists, and, in general, narcissists thrive on gathering information about their targets as it is an essential ingredient for control of the target. Even if this information is not initially gathered for blackmail, it becomes useful to leverage against a murid who begins speaking out.

Furthermore, conversations may be used to learn more about the sexual desires of murids. This may include desires for forbidden sexual relationships such as homoerotic inclinations and desires for in-laws. When conversations become sexual, the shaykh may be learning how to engage in a relationship or assault, or may just be interested in gathering information on their target.

In other cases, the shaykh will seek to learn about the family life of his murid. Unbeknownst to the murid, what seems like genuine concern and an empathetic ear will turn into blackmail when the target tries to leave. In cases of a female follower leaving, a shaykh may inform her husband of shameful aspects about her life that she did not want disclosed. He may exploit marital issues he was made aware of to get the husband on his side or to intimidate them as a couple. The more shameful information the shaykh can gather, the more material he has to keep his ex-murid or murida silent when he or she wants to leave. This is especially the case if there is an email record of private thoughts and marital issues the murid disclosed under the presumption of spiritual guidance. Even those who may seem to support therapy and work with Muslim mental health institutions and associations will weaponize a disciple’s disclosure of mental health issues, or even seeking therapy, once there is a conflict.

It is common for shaykhs to recognize that a murid is drifting away and will soon be a problem. A cunning shaykh will prepare by making simple statements to other murids such as ‘his heart is veiled.’ Then, when problems arise, the shaykh will be proven right to his murids in a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the murid is wrong by definition of the fact that he spoke out or asked too many questions.

False teachings of the one leaving a tariqa dying in kufr will scare others into more blind allegiance. Furthermore, the pain and mental agony of the former murid in dealing with harassment and emotional turmoil will also be used as proof of God’s wrath for the one who speaks out against the shaykh. If the shaykh is from the family of the Prophet ﷺ, the former murid may be said to not love the Prophet ﷺ fully and slandered as someone who disrespects the Prophet ﷺ. This is of course false, as loving the family of the Prophet ﷺ does not mean following them in misguidance or accepting their transgressions. Using lineage to justify abuse is a far greater insult to the honor of the Prophet’s ﷺ family.

When the shaykh has this much information about a murid, exposing the shaykh means the murid’s private history will also spread. I’ve witnessed countless examples of former murids being afraid to speak out due to blackmail or fear of information dissemination. This is particularly the case when the former murid has recently broken from his shaykh (less than six months to a year) and has not yet transitioned to a new social life.

A shaykh of a tariqa, or even a tasawwuf oriented group that is not formally a tariqa, will generally not expose the secrets of his former students himself. Although it does happen occasionally, the more common scenario is that he will delegate this dirty work to someone else. The shaykh will usually act hurt and sympathetic about his former murid who is, in his mind, veiled from the goodness of the tariqa and who chose a path of self-destruction rather than staying with the group. In other cases, the shaykh will give lectures describing his former murid, or may allude to a campaign by the former murid against him, but he will cloak it in general language.  The shaykh must convey the image of someone who does not go low and mud sling. Generally, he will look for excuses, like being betrayed,  before speaking out directly and harshly. The shaykh may complain to others that he is being ignored by his former murid and will encourage other murids to pressure him into reaching out to the shaykh as if it is all a misunderstanding. This includes a shaykh pressuring others to reach out to women he has harassed or tried pressuring into marriage who no longer wish to communicate with him.

The belief structure of the group includes beliefs that the shaykh has a special connection to God, special knowledge, and that connection to God must be achieved through a shaykh. These beliefs prevent criticism from seeing the shaykh as the culprit. If everyone who disagrees with the shaykh is veiled from the truth and on a path to perdition, those in the group will be wary to side with the individual leaving. The individual may experience some cognitive dissonance and may struggle to believe what he or she knows to be true and knows to be wrong. Within the logical structure of the group the shaykh can act in blatantly unlawful ways while claiming special status with God. Additionally, the shaykh may claim secret knowledge of the murid’s inner thoughts and intentions, even sometimes claiming to know subconscious thoughts, thereby claiming a more intimate knowledge of the murid than the murid has of himself. This is all meant to destabilize the murid and cause him to question himself, or to keep other murids from leaving.

The shaykh in these settings needs no proof for his claims because his statements are all matters of spiritual realities others cannot understand. It is essential for someone to understand that ultimately only Allah knows a person’s heart. Furthermore, it is imperative to understand that there are moments of kashf a person may have, but having kashf, accurate dreams, or visions does not indicate piety in any way. We only judge a person by his uprightness. Kharq al-‘Ada and kashf are never used to judge someone. Such unveilings and seemingly miraculous actions may occur at the hands of the pious, the wicked, polytheists, as well as average Muslims.

Allah says “And they ask you about the spirit. Say, ‘The spirit is of the affair of my Lord. And you have not been given knowledge of it except a little.’” (Quran 17:85). Often it is our distance from anything spiritual that leads us to believe anything spiritual is good and an indication of a person’s sainthood or status with Allah. The early Sufis would often warn murids of becoming deluded by their spiritual experiences. Unfortunately, many who are in positions of being murabbis in our time are themselves deluded by personal spiritual experiences and are utterly unfit to guide anyone through spiritual experiences. Whether one has an authentic ijaza or not makes little practical difference.

The shaykh will generally fight covertly against former murids and make statements about forgiving those who have wronged him, ignoring slander, and following the example of the righteous who pray for the guidance of those who wrong them. The shaykh will add hints, however, of tribulations to come for the one who crosses the awliya’, hinting at themselves as one of the awliya’. In other cases, the shaykh will condemn those who go against him, demonize them, forbid murids from communicating with former murids, and sometimes even rile up others to harm them.

If those who have left the group are convincing others to leave the shaykh or be wary, the shaykh may share dreams or visions with ambivalent murids which affirm the special status of those in the tariqa and warn of the wrath and destruction that await those who left.  They may quote the early Sufis or take statements which encourage the suspension of thought and judgment to make the one speaking out against clear wrongs seem hasty and low in spiritual discernment. They may quote stories of shaykhs who tested their murids by appearing to do something haram that was later shown to be halal, or even clear haram which ended up serving some benefit which effectively negates any confidence in calling an action haram, or accepting that haram is wrong because their murids are taught to always second guess themselves and not believe they can ever have the full picture even with what is clear. Faith that the shaykh cannot do anything wrong even when they see wrong is conflated with a high spiritual station, all the while they will affirm that the shaykh is fallible as a credal point. The ones who do not conform are then deemed veiled and problematic. They are deemed trouble-makers causing fitna for disturbing the group’s harmony which is rooted in the shaykh’s sanctity.

Backlash from the shaykhas

Women may hold varying leadership positions in these groups. They may be shaykhas, hold administrative roles over other women, be assigned to teach, or may just be the shaykh’s wife or family member.

Shaykhas, ustadhas, or women of position in abusive groups may be the ones who oppose female victims of the male shaykh most fervently. The shaykh may understand that the optics are better for the group when a woman opposes a woman rather than a man. Unfortunately, it is common for such shaykhas to blame women for tempting the shaykh by not being modest enough in dress or interaction for her own sexual harassment, assault, or unwanted relentless advances for a relationship. They will scold women who raise such issues as being ignorant, immodest, and just not understanding the nature of man. They may also blame the targeted woman for not studying with female teachers even if the group structure itself does not allow for her to do so.

There are also many tariqas and spiritual groups formally headed by women. They are the sole figures in charge and will exercise the same control as male shaykhs over their disciples, which may include men.

In whatever form the setup may be, bullying and control are commonplace in such groups. When disciples are Western women to a shaykha who is either Eastern or is a Western woman who has ijaza in an Eastern tradition, the bullying and berating is often justified as them being naturally inferior due to being Western, or lacking modesty, no matter how they may dress and act, which creates an undefined hence impossible standard that allows the shaykha to make the disciples feel perpetually inadequate and spiritually inferior. In due time, the murida is broken and becomes only a shell of her former self. PTSD and health problems often follow. It is very important for someone exiting the group to understand that the logic of the group is false and not Islamic. Our status before God is not related to our race, origins, or where we live, and even past sins can be forgiven simply by seeking forgiveness from God. We are not inherently less worthy or less Muslim for having been raised in the West.

Furthermore, tarbiya is to nurture the soul and to help individuals grow. Bullying is to strike fear in, ridicule, and emotionally damage others. The goal of the bullying in such groups is to break a person down, keep them in perpetual fear, and have them not be taken seriously by others. Acts of rage, erratic behavior, public humiliation, berating, and embarrassment should never be termed tarbiya. Consider that the behavioral issue lies within the shaykha herself. If someone finds excuses to be so removed from good character, know that you are not the one with nafs issues.

Backlash from the Muqaddams and Fellow Murids

Muqaddams form unique bonds with one another. They organize events together, they run the majalis of dhikr and oversee the running of the group, whether in informal gatherings in homes or in dedicated buildings (zawiyas). Comradery is built among them through serving the shaykh, and they will often have many stories of travels, service, and private gatherings. The shared mission will overpower a lot of the discord, competition, and even envy that exists among themselves. Muqaddams also grow close and their relationships are often grounded in shared special moments with the shaykh and a shared purpose.

When one muqaddam leaves, however, the other muqaddams will close ranks and make sure he is made out to be the problem. This will occur even if they acknowledge the shaykh has committed major acts of sin. They will fault the muqaddam who leaves as being veiled, of not understanding that only the prophets are perfect, or of just not being strong enough to withstand a tribulation on their spiritual path.

When a lower ranking murid breaks from a tariqa, it is far easier to slander him. Depending on the setup of the tariqa, the murid may not have access to the shaykh and will instead be in regular communication with the muqaddam. The muqaddam will function as a shaykh for these murids and will use his position and higher rank to legitimize his own abuse. (It is important to emphasize that in many tariqas in the West, and even the East, the murid’s relationship with the shaykh is usually limited, and the primary conduit of spiritual instruction is through the muqaddam. In some tariqas in the West, murids only know the muqaddam personally, have never even met the shaykh, and do not speak the shaykh’s language.)

Murids will often open up to fellow murids about their personal lives, feeling they have found brothers and sisters in the path of Allah. They feel they are in an incredibly safe space where people are understanding and focused on attaining nearness to Allah. They are completely blindsided when, just by not siding with an abusive shaykh, all these “friends” will become sworn enemies. All of those shared secrets, ambitions, and struggles will be presented as proof that the person has deep “issues,” and will be used to malign the individual doing the right thing (i.e. breaking from abusive tariqa). Real examples include include death threats, murids sabotaging engagements, threatening their former friends with contacting any suitors with smears, and heavy slander in general.  Murids who have a low standing with the shaykh may harshly oppose someone speaking against the shaykh to gain favor from the shaykh. It’s a moment to prove loyalty, and the action is usually rewarded. With this motivation, a murid may harshly oppose the one who left more than anyone else.

Additionally, if the individual tries to seek support or advice from friends within the group, they will fall back on this logical framework, normalize the abuse, and blame the person trying to leave. For example, if the individual is tired of being verbally abused, bullied, and disrespected, he will be labeled weak for not being able to handle tarbiya and the special spiritual training the shaykh is putting his disciples through. If murids question the abuse they are receiving, they will be guilted as questioning the chain of shayukh from whom their own shaykh received his ijaza. This is illogical of course, as an ijaza is not something that validates abusive behavior, nor does it in any way guarantee the shaykh will be or remain upright. This can create a sense of isolation and again can lead the person to question their own interpretation of reality.  Even admitted acts of male teachers sexually assaulting other adult male students are justified by the group and the victim is the one blamed.

The shaykh may tell close murids to post in chat groups or email lists warnings against those who turn away from their shaykh and even refer to such people as demons. Such messages will generally not name any names but the group will understand the ‘dissenters’ are being targeted. Not being part of the chastised group is enough of an incentive to remain loyal.

Cyber-bullying is used to discredit and intimidate those speaking against the shaykh. This includes hacking accounts, posting pictures of a person’s wife without hijab, writing negative comments, information of past relationships, or sharing edited images of someone’s wife to demoralize them. This may be done through anonymous accounts, or they may just appear on private email groups. If there was any knowledge of a previous relationship, regardless of whether the person was Muslim or not, it will be used as a psychological weapon. The same group which publicly espouses morals of love, forgiveness, mercy, and being upright, now foregoes all human decency, and will privately justify bullying as a necessary action to silence a shaytan.

Other instances of backlash include doxing, such as contacting employers and defaming the former murid. If this is done often enough, sometimes the employer will grow tired of hearing the complaints and it will at least cause some problems at the former murid’s job. If they leave one teacher and go to another while the previous teacher maintains a good public reputation, the shaykh may seek to destroy the student’s reputation in the new community as well. Negative reviews of the ex-murid’s business, rumors, and boycotts are also common occurrences.

Furthermore, one’s own children, parents, or siblings may remain loyal to the abusive group.  The family members’ discord with their own family will be very convincing the counter any statement the former murid makes. In the case of a wife staying loyal while the husband parts ways, she may be asked to defame her own husband or exaggerate arguments to make him seem abusive.  Tariqas and tariqa like groups can be very successful in turning spouses and parents and children against one another.

Parents of the former murid may be contacted and told that their child is causing a lot of problems. The parents will often just try to talk their child out of it or pressure them just to end the problems because they don’t want to deal with it. If the former murid persists, he will be further labeled as problematic by the group because not listening to one’s parents will ‘prove’ that this former murid just doesn’t accept any authority, not even his parents, other than his own nafs.

United through Abuse—The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Sometimes the former member will have high credibility and cannot be easily marginalized. If he speaks out against his former group and has proof, the shaykh may be forced to remain silent and just privately control whatever narrative he can. If the former member, however, speaks out against the problems of another group, whether he is or is not part of them, the abusive shaykh now has an ally now to partner with in slandering the one standing up to abuse. Now, the shaykh or his inner circle can pass on personal information about the former murid to the other abusive shaykh and maintain plausible deniability. If they disclosed such information publicly, they would be seen as vindictive, but if they pass it on secretly to another shaykh, the latter can disclose it in a way to tarnish the reputation and discredit the one speaking out.

Conclusion and Advice

Leaving an abusive group is not as simple as just walking away when someone was deeply involved, particularly when leaving due to uncovering abuse.  In addition to the shame and regret of being a part of such a group and having an emotional and financial investment, those who leave face enmity from members of the group. The obstacles in exiting will often be greater when someone is speaking out. This is why many decide to walk away quietly.

Make friends and establish relationships outside of insular groups. This will give you a better picture of how warped your previous group’s understanding was and certain dysfunctions will make themselves apparent by contrast.  You will also find that most people will find what they understand of the abuse to be wrong (although there will probably be details that they won’t fully understand). It is also essential to understand the false framework used by the group and re-ground oneself in the basic truths of Islam, work to restore a direct relationship with God, and understand the magnitude of God’s Mercy. Realize the mistake in thinking yourself unable and unworthy of a direct relationship with God and in need of “fixing.” In fact, all humans are unworthy, but through the infinite Mercy of our Creator, this is in fact what we are given.

With this understanding, we can remain practicing Muslims striving for the highest levels of ihsan. Understanding what was wrong in one’s group will also prevent them from from joining other abusive groups, which is common unfortunately.

My advice to anyone in a tariqa or similar group is to understand that as long as your relationship is defined by the shared shaykh, you will not have a true friendship. That is to say, if your conversations, activities, and bonds all revolve around being in the tariqa and are about the shaykh, what you consider to be a bond of brotherhood or sisterhood will disappear the second you go against the shaykh. If the relationship was formed in the abusive group but grew to something beyond the tariqa, then that relationship could very well last. There are relationships that survive ugly tariqa breakups and usually people just agree not to talk about it. This includes marriages where one spouse remains in the group while the other left.

It is also helpful to talk to others who left the same group or had very similar experiences. Such conversations help you see that you are not unique and it erodes the shame of being manipulated. You will also learn how to move forward if you speak to those who have successfully transitioned out of the group and adjusted to a normal life. However, such groups can be harmful if not enough members have transitioned or made sense out of their own experiences. If the conversations are dominated by sharing frustrations, particularly on social media or chat groups, it may be better to not be part of the group. Such groups are more effective if they are scheduled discussions rather than continuous threads.

We also have a responsibility to not stigmatize or view friends or religious leaders as tainted for once being part of an abusive group or cult. We need to be empathetic to why they may have joined such a group and recognize the good in the fact that they left after uncovering the abuse therein.  Not everyone will announce their departure or publicly discuss their experiences.


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6 Replies to “Backlash: Silencing Survivors of an Abusive Shaykh”

  1. Much more must be said about the idea that a shaykh can guide a woman directly without the mediation of her husband. This is tantamount to the woman having two authorities over her and goes completely against Islamic law and tradition.

  2. There is no doubt that many people abuse their position of spiritual authority to prey upon their unsuspecting victims. And this might also be true that such behaviors are more prevalent in the modern day Sufi tariqas. However, this blog and much of the published material on this website seems to be suggesting that ALL Sufi tariqas are evil and such abuse is inevitable in a Sufi tariqa. I hope this type of attitude is not intentional. Of course any and all abusive behavior must be exposed but one must avoid reporting such issues in a way that give a sense of generalization. I will, therefore, sincerely suggest you to keep the writing in a balanced and impartial manner and avoid giving an expression of generalization against all Sufi tariqas (or any other particular group for that matter).

    1. Salaam. Abuse in tariqa is a norm and very prevalent. However, no where have we suggested it is all groups. If you think that is the case, I will be happy to hear why. We have a reference for how a tariqa should be by a shaykh of tariqa (and have contacted a few others). You can see the link here Our job is to give a realistic depiction, and that includes not watering things down. You can also listen to a podcast hear a more detailed discussion on turuq by Danya and I here

      1. ” Abuse in tariqa is a norm and very prevalent.” How exactly have you come to that conclusion? Have you conducted some sort of qualitative assessment of all the tariqas operative in the world? Far more likely I would presume is that you are making mass generalizations based on your limited life experience and given that you have set yourself up as a contact and reference for spiritual abuse are probably encountering an echo chamber that only reinforces your prior assumptions. Maybe its worth holding back from the generalizations and statements that something is a norm when you have no way of establishing this. Perhaps its also this understanding of yours that comes across implicitly to the non-discerning reader, leading to the idea that you are against all tariqas in general.

        1. There is a difference between something being “a norm” and “the norm” (the rule). “The norm” would suggest 50% or more, “a norm” means it’s not strange or rare. don’t need to know all of the tariqas to say it is a norm. Is it wrong for example for someone to say a shaykh murabi is rarer than the red Sulphur? Does a statement like that require knowledge of all shayukh, or is there a point where one may recognize it is very rare? Are the shayukh who made similar claims (like Zurruq, Ghazali) speaking from limited echo chambers and life experience?

          Did Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq conduct a ‘qualitative assessment’ of all the tariqas operative in the world? One can easily discount his critique by saying the exact same thing: he was making mass generalizations based on his limited life experience and interactions with fake-shaykhs. What about the statements “shoddy fatwas are a norm” or “masjids hosting speakers who are untrained is a norm?” Do such statements require an analysis or every single masjid and every single speaker those masjids have hosted? Wouldn’t we just understand those statements to just mean “it’s not strange, it’s something we can expect, it’s a well-recognized communal issue” etc?

          All of life experiences are limited, it’s the nature of both life and experience. I understand the temptation to say I’m speaking in an echo chamber but that’s simply an ad-hominem. Imagine someone responding to a faqih who rules on something in light of ‘umum al-balwa: ‘Did you do a qualitative assessment of the phenomenon to determine if it is really wide-spread?’ Surely, the faqih is getting many questions from mustaftis and rules based on his observations of the reality on the ground. Imagine someone objecting, ‘No, you are just making mass generalizations based on your limited life experience and given that you are a reference in fiqh, you are probably encountering an echo chamber!’

          Teachers/shayukh in tariqa themselves are very aware of abuses that go on, sometimes with muqaddams sometimes with shayukh. Also when you write “prior assumption” you assume the original statement is simply an assumption and baseless. It implies I began with a belief and sought to confirm it, this is ultimately another ad hominem. Abuse in tariqas, false claimants to tasawwuf are a problem recognized all over the world whether Pakistan, Morocco, Senegal, and it’s also the case in the Western world. The prevalence (strong presence) of charlatans does not negate rightly guided/sincere/ turuq.

          If I were against tariqas [I know you didn’t say this] it would have been incredibly easy to use public videos, private handbooks and stories to just attack turuq. It’s really not a hard thing to do. It’s just not a goal nor my belief that turuqs are inherently abusive. Again, I have multiple contributions by a shaykh of tariqa and have invited even more (not for a debate, but to give their position). Maybe “prevalent” was lazy wording since it equivocates ‘normal’ and ‘dominant.’ I meant the former but the latter would require an analysis of most turuq in the world. Either way, that was in a comment, and to say that my “understanding” comes across as anti tariqa to non-discerning readers is not to different than saying that a reader injects his tariqa-zeal to read everything as a total attack. Again, I know you did not say this, but it’s important that we can acknowledge abuse without viewing those acknowledgements as undermining.
          You can look at works by Dr. Umar Faruq Abdullah (just as an example), he speaks to no end about abusive shayukh and how rare it is to find a good shaykh. He’s definitely not against tariqa.

          If such thoughts are held simply by looking at some material and not others, that’s not a real critique. You can listen here where I mention abuse in sports, schools, entertainment and really drive this point home.
          Finally, I am already working on conveying how false expectations hurt people without there being wrongdoing which sometimes lead to false accusations.

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