Defining Spiritual Abuse- How And Why We Use The Term

Defining Spiritual Abuse- How And Why We Use The Term

By Danish Qasim
Originally published 10/7/18, Updated 12/6/18

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of religious position. Spiritual abuse is its own general category of offenses that encompasses other specific offenses such as financial misappropriation, secret marriages, bullying, sexual assault, molestation, exploitation, manipulation, and psychological harm. Thus, it is meaningless to say “John spiritually abused Jason” or “John is guilty of spiritual abuse” because ‘spiritual abuse’ is not a specific action.

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 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 and friendships. That is a practical exclusion for the purpose of our work- yet it falls under the category of spiritual abuse.

It is also worth noting that ‘spiritual abuse’ is not used to solely describe abuse of spiritual concepts or harms that diminish one’s spiritual state.

 Islamically we divide the perpetrator of wrong into two 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 and praise.  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 once 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 we went with to address age-old religious abuse because it is already an established term. This includes concepts such as  طلب الدنيا بالدين talab al-dunya bi al-deen,   seeking the world through religion, charlatans, dajjals, predators, and for recognizing their tricks.  Using the comprehensive term ‘spiritual abuse’ serves a practical benefit for people searching for help.  Most Muslims in need will not know of traditional concepts to search for, they just know that they are going through spiritual abuse and want help. I have received plenty of outreach just from people who searched ‘Islamic spiritual abuse’ and found In Shaykh’s Clothing.

We deal with terms as they exist. There is not a need to coin an ‘Islamic term’ in English that captures the concept of spiritual abuse as traditionally understood.  For example[1]:

  1. If a man tells his wife that she is divorced if she attends a gathering about spiritual abuse, the working use of spiritual abuse will be used to determine whether that condition was fulfilled or not. The condition of divorce will not be deemed meaningless due to variation in the definition.
  2. If a person bequeaths 1/3 of his wealth to helping victims of spiritual abuse, those in charge must use that wealth to help victims of spiritual abuse.
  3. If someone sets up a waqf (endowment) for spiritual abuse education, that waqf must be used for spiritual abuse education.

In all three of these examples, the legal rulings will be implemented based on the way spiritual abuse is used, notwithstanding variations.

Michael Langone founder of Cults Studies Association writes on

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 meaning 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. As 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, we use ‘spiritual abuse’ for practical purposes to discuss abuse of religious position. 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 ‘spiritually abuse’ without specific actions under this category being stated.


[1] These examples are not to be taken as fatwas. Consult with a qualified instructor before acting on any of these scenarios.

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