The Challenges of Leaving Spiritually Abusive Groups

The Challenges of Leaving Spiritually Abusive Groups

By Danish Qasim                                                                                                                                                                December 12, 2019

It’s common to think that if someone recognizes or experiences abusive behavior, they can just walk away. However, the fact is that after commitment and emotional involvement in abusive groups, doing so is not easy. There are many reasons for this, ranging from losing a social circle and embarrassment to physical danger. Some groups operate like the mafia and will bribe, threaten, and harm victims for speaking out. At a surface level, such groups are kind and do good work. In fact, the majority of Muslims involved will not face any abuse, and the abusers will have good, often longstanding, reputations. Further, the credibility of the abuser as a respected figure who has done great work becomes enough reason for victims to be dismissed. The odds are against victims of such groups, and as a result they face many struggles while exiting.

Losing social groups

Victims of spiritual abuse who take a stance against their maltreatment lose their social circle. They are often blamed, slandered, and maligned if they speak out. This is very difficult and is one of the reasons victims or cult members often go back to abusive groups. Imagine being deeply involved in a community for years, then suddenly losing that because you no longer want to tolerate or support abuse. This is a very uprooting experience that leaves people socially lost and alone, and the desire to avoid such challenges is enough for most to just go along with the status quo. It’s easy to think that we would stand for justice and not tolerate abuse, but when it involves our own group or our own leader—especially when we have not suffered any harm—it’s easy to make excuses and blame the victims. In these situations, those who receive or are aware and unhappy with the abuse will often form bonds with each other and walk on egg-shells around the abusive figure, devising plans to avoid certain behaviors and in best case scenarios, agree to stand up for one another.  Humiliation, disrespect, bullying, and other types of abuse are just accepted as something to put up with. In many cases, those who are attracted to such groups are bullied in other social settings, and the very ‘safe space’ with which they thought they were getting involved ends up being a religious version of what they are accustomed to. The marketing of such organizations itself often targets those looking for an escape from such environments, which makes them easier to mistreat without repercussion. When individuals do leave, they often do so quietly. Usually these people simply want to move on with their life, and avoid reliving painful stories and having to explain what they are still trying to figure out fully.

In the specific case of cult recovery, there is a fear of leaving a very familiar environment and returning to the society from which one originally tried to flee. Reclaiming life after being in a cult is challenging and generally requires help from family and friends.

Lacking the stamina

Victims of spiritual abuse may suffer PTSD and be very deflated about their experience. Given the support they saw for the abuser in their group, they often don’t believe much will change. Prohibiting the wrong is not an obligation if one will harm themselves or doubts there will be any benefit, and those coming out generally are not equipped to do so. Below are some tough challenges victims face in addressing abuse.

  1. They realize that it is an uphill battle because defenders fight hard. For example: The abuser has been collecting evidence against the victim and slandering the victim to reduce credibility, and has no problem twisting the truth, whereas the victim has not been setting up the perpetrator up to be disbelieved.
  2. They have seen or heard of other situations where an abuser is outed but nothing changes since the defenders play the waiting game and keep things silent, knowing that eventually things will calm down and return to normal.
  3. They don’t know how to advocate. They are feeling overwhelmed and so affected from the experiences that they are unable to offer support to others. They may suffer panic attacks.
  4. They feel that no one will listen to them, and when weighing the options between speaking out and being shunned or keeping quiet and ‘avoiding fitna,’ they choose the latter.
  5. They don’t want to invest the time needed to reach out and demand accountability.
  6. In short, they don’t want to deal with all the drama and just want to move on in their life.

Shame and Victim Blaming

Volunteers and students will sometimes be discouraged by parents and friends from joining the group. It’s common for volunteers in such organizations to lie about abuse endured, excessive hours spent in the group, as well as other sacrifices they made, which may include relocating with their family. When they are able to see the organization’s true colors, it’s very embarrassing because their own naivety is also revealed. Here it is important for parents and friends to not shame the person who comes to this realization, and to be supportive of their exit.

When someone has spent years in service to a false shaykh it can be embarrassing. This includes recruiting for the shaykh, setting up programs, distributing and producing literature, and developing the organization. The higher up in the tariqa, the more difficult it is to leave.

When someone enters a secret marriage, or a polygamous one that is not legally registered, it is usually against the advice of those around the wife. Once the marriage abruptly ends or she is not given her rights, she begins to see the lack of recourse she has. This may evoke the same shame of feeling naïve for entering such a relationship, and it is important for others to remember that the decision to enter such a marriage does not sanction abuse therein. Likewise, when someone is scammed out of money and realizes the signs were clear that they were being conned, they feel stupid and hide it. No one likes to admit they’ve been fooled, especially when past victims have been blamed for the abuse inflicted upon them.

Abusers are skilled manipulators. Targets don’t get calls saying “Give me your zakat money and don’t ask questions”—trust is first established to break barriers of procedure. Likewise, women who are targeted for exploitative marriages aren’t told “Hey, enter a secret marriage with me.” Rather, it happens slowly, and the abuser learns about a person to prey on their weaknesses. For example, a convert who is eager to learn more about Islam might be approached for free private tutoring, and in that process the tutor will collect the information he needs on her. She might not have a frame of reference for appropriate gender interaction, and even if she does, might make an exception for the tutor because of the teachers who vouch for him. Even when the relationships are illicit, they are often coupled with promises of marriage being in the near future, to suggest that a marriage in the future is a justification for an illicit relationship in the meantime. We must remember that even when a person ignored signs of obvious roadways to abuse, they are not to be blamed for the abuse itself. The blame for abuse must always be on its purveyor. The victim of that abuse will learn lessons, but we will always have individuals who are susceptible to abuse, and that is precisely why they are targeted. What is ‘obvious’ to most is not obvious to all. A quick survey of financial scams and cult recruitment tactics will show you just how many people are easy to convince of ‘obviously ridiculous’ propositions. Furthermore, when an individual is targeted, and has their emotional voids filled in an elaborate con, rational thinking goes out the window.

Lastly, people who endure spiritual abuse are by no means stupid. I’ve worked with traditionally trained Islamic scholars, academics, doctors, lawyers, and other very well educated and successful (as well as street-smart) Muslims who have faced intense spiritual abuse. Muslims who are not very religious, and actually disdain religious figures, will devote themselves to one religious scholar they admire, or a shaykh of tariqa and serve him diligently. Some of these Muslims in particular are very wealthy, in top corporate positions, and well-known in the business community. It is their wealth and success—not their stupidity—that make them targets, usually of positive spiritual experiences, such as umrah trips, private gatherings, and star treatment. Their own resentment of religious figures (when applicable) is catered to by the shaykhs to whom they are drawn, who often put down other scholars who ‘just don’t understand context and nuance’ or are ‘too caught up in the letter of the law.’  Their own religious baggage, coupled with their desire to have a positive religious experience, is precisely what is exploited.

Interventions by the Group

When victims are ready to leave, and especially be vocal about abuse, they are soon met with interventions. Shaykhs who are hard to reach or who previously ignored complaints are now happy to talk and accommodate.

In these interventions, involved teachers will show empathy with the victim, affirm the wrong, and work hard to suppress any bad publicity. If the problems are with muqaddams, the Shaykh himself will be involved to diffuse the situation. The Shaykh or other religious figures will tell the victim to let the problem go as that is better for their suluk (spiritual wayfaring), and that the issue is a test by which the victim may show who they are by forgiving transgressions and earning high stations with Allah. They may also say that seeking justice is a lower level than forgiveness, so it’s for the lay-Muslims (‘awam), but the elect (khass) must forgive, as that is the way of the Awliya’. This is powerful because it is coming from those entrusted to guide the spiritual aspirant to high stations in Islam, but it is a total betrayal of that trust when used to placate victims of abuse. The proof that the intervention is just a sham is when the perpetrator is not removed, but continues to be celebrated and praised.

Threats by the Group

Threats made to those standing up to abuse are of different types. These threats may also extend to loved ones.


Victims are often threatened that harm will be carried out by third parties, such as connections the preacher may have to former or current gang-members, which the preacher says will not be traceable back to him.


Abusers will remind those standing up to abuse of the dirt they have on them. One sister who joined an organization as an eager volunteer disclosed private information for advice, and years, later when she would stand up for herself, was told “Halima, you’re a good sister. I remember when you were stuck with your boyfriend in college and I’m proud of you for breaking out of that relationship. You said yourself that my organization helped you grow in your deen; it’d be a shame if you undid all of that.” This was not only a threat to hurt Halima’s reputation, but also a way of taking her back to an unconfident self and reminding her of sins from which she repented, with the ultimate goal of diminishing her self-worth and suppressing her. In other cases, information that men and women shared was threatened to be used against them, such as family issues, mental health issues, past illicit relationships, etc. When people did speak out against abusers, all of what was once shared for seeking nasiha (counsel and advice) was used to discredit them. The unfortunate reality is that people we may seek advice from or disclose private information to will in return get information about us—which is the greatest weapon to harm you.

Reputation and Livelihood

This includes telling women that they’ll make sure no one marries them, spreading rumors about people being mentally unstable, discouraging women from marrying men who speak out, threatening to tarnish one’s reputation to other religious leaders, and making sure the individual is not employed in the Muslim community.

Members may also have their livelihoods tied to the groups, either as employees, or entrepreneurs where the group is a source of clients or referrals.

Emotional Blackmail

This includes the abuser threatening suicide, or hurting the reputation of other loved ones.


This includes being told they will suffer an evil end at the time of death, they will be at war with Allah, will never attain ma’rifa (gnosis), will always be spiritually veiled, that their knowledge won’t have baraka (blessing), and they will never attain closeness to the Prophet (salla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam).


Lawsuits. Abusers may claim or exaggerate government connections and threaten to report others to government, to put them on no-fly lists, and on watch lists.

Confusion About the Abuser and Myths of Leadership


One of the pitfalls of an abusive dynamic is when people begin to psychoanalyze the abuser. They often believe the abuser is just a hurt person looking for love, doesn’t know what they are truly doing, and wants to change but doesn’t know how. These are traps that will keep a person entangled with the abuser for a long time. While these questions are wonderful for the abuser to sort out, it is irrelevant for the targets of abuse or those involved in the organization who should be focusing only on behavior. Whether someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is irrelevant when behaviors are destructive.

Seeing the Positives

 There are many positives that come out of the relationship, such as being guided to Islam through the abuser, learning a lot, benefiting greatly from reminders, and seeing good character. As previously mentioned, none of this justifies or overrides abusive behavior. We can benefit greatly from abusive figures; one being abusive and beneficial is not a contradiction.

Social Proof

 Other scholars or leaders vouching for and praising an abusive figure casts self-doubt on victims, leaving them to wonder whether they are just misinterpreting what they are seeing. We cannot judge an individual by which scholars visit, praise, or do programs with him. Social-proof is a powerful tool, and it’s why so many businesses use associations and positive feedback in their marketing. These other leaders may or may not be aware of the abuse, but it is irrelevant for those affected, as they should act on what they know to be true.

Allah Put Them There

 Victims may believe or be told that Allah put these religious figures in power, and that we should not question Divine Will. I have seen many times leaders of organizations be compared to governmental leaders, and as a result, traditionalist teachers will say we have to respect our leaders and opposing them is akin to rebelling against a ruler. This type of reasoning not only allows anyone to start an organization and abuse others unchecked, but also encourages people to not stand up for themselves or create checks-and-balances in such organizations. By telling victims that Allah put religious leaders in a position as some sort of divine favor to them, or that they are special because they are leaders, encourages suffering and oppression. This is usually done by friends of the abuser or those who enjoy doing programs with them. The reality is leaders usually strive for leadership—which is not necessarily bad—and even if we view it as a test, like any other test, it is possible to fail.

Fitna of Leadership

 Victims may think that abuse of power is just a natural byproduct of leadership and that it would happen to anyone else. This is not true, and upon reflection we will see areas in which we have leadership and do not abuse authority. Furthermore, setting up mechanisms such as In Shaykh’s Clothing’s Code of Conduct, is how we ensure leadership is not equated with tyranny. A good leader sets up mechanisms that will hold him accountable. Finally, a common excuse is the saying “love of leadership is the last disease to leave the hearts of the Awliya’.” Even if we accept this statement, love of leadership speaks to the state of one’s heart in regards to leadership and is not analogous to abuse committed in a leadership position. The latter is not merely a lack of spiritual refinement, it is a transgression that must be checked. These myths around leadership give abusers excuses no one should have.

They Are Pillars

 When abuse is recognized and admitted, those affected and involved in an organization will often encourage people to keep silent or let it continue because the abusive figure is a ‘pillar’ in the community. Perhaps the abuser is a great da’i (preacher), an important scholar, a female scholar who has done a lot for women, or someone who addresses doubts about Islam and counters Islamophobia, who is good at speaking to the media, provides free education, or is important for select persuasions, such as Sufism. The lesson here is the rules of behavior only apply to average Muslims, and if you are good enough at what you do or are important enough to a cause, you can do whatever you want and it will be covered up. This is not a moral message; this is the practice of jahiliya. When the Quraysh sought intercession for a noble woman who committed theft to have her penal punishment lifted, the Prophet (salla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam ) addressed them, saying, “O people! The people before you were only destroyed because if a nobleman among them stole, they would leave him be, while if a weak commoner among them stole, they would carry out the punishment against him. (Ibn Majah, Sunan) We have no justice if we don’t hold pillars and high-performers to justice.

Spiritual Experiences

This is a major reason why victims doubt themselves even when witnessing abuse by their shaykh. People may have visions, spiritual states, good dreams, inspiration (ilham) in the gatherings of, or from the guidance of, their shaykh. It is critical to understand that spiritual experience is not a measure for one’s nearness to Allah, and that the soul itself is like a muscle which can be trained even outside the parameters of religion. Spiritual exercises engender spiritual experience that can occur despite the shaykh. Associating spiritual experiences with a station with Allah is a major pitfall of suluk (spiritual wayfaring), and the role of a guiding shaykh is to help one not be deluded by their own spiritual experiences. There are Buddhists, Hindus, and new-age spiritual groups that can provide rich spiritual experiences and have a strong spiritual state (hal), and may even have unveilings (kashf) in which they can tell you hidden matters about yourself. None of those experiences equate to guidance. 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).

My shaykh in Mauritania would often repeat these lines of poetry to me when we had these types of discussions:

إذا رأيت رجل يطير
وفوق ماء البحر قد يسير
ولم يقف عند حدود الشرع
فإنه مستدرج أو بدعي

 If you see a man flying, or walking on the sea
But he does not observe the limits of the Shariah
Then he is one lured into destruction or a wretched innovator

Furthermore, victims may believe that if they speak out or take a stance, they will be deprived of madad (spiritual support) or the special spiritual benefits to be had from associating with the group.

Spiritual experiences are quick to take a person away from rational thinking, and are often what religious aspirants and even those who are not very religious want out of religion. It is erroneously considered ‘the real stuff,’ and when not governed by the Shariah, they will lead people to worship their own desires.

Sympathy for the Abuser

 Victims may feel they don’t want to ruin the life or reputation of the abuser. Exposing crimes of the abuser can prevent the abuser from working again, make him look bad in the community, or in some cases, put him in jail. When such serious cases come to light, the abuser is found to be very apologetic and will often make promises of being repentant. Other religious figures may also get involved, particularly if they are from the same group or work together, and assure victims that they will keep an eye on the abuser and not let him be in a situation where they will abuse again. This usually doesn’t work, and even if the other figures are sincere, they are unable to monitor the abuser’s activities. They believe the abuser is genuinely sorry and that he won’t repeat his mistakes. Unfortunately, even in cases of child sexual assault, sympathy for the abuser is a reason for the abuse to go unreported and the perpetrator will be allowed to go elsewhere. The worry about what a perpetrator will do when only vocationally trained grows when the perpetrator has a family to take care of. Mental health professionals involved in such cases are sometimes the most susceptible to letting these sympathies stand in the way of justice.


 Victims may be worried about liability. Their name is tied to the abusive shaykh, so if anything is disclosed about the shaykh there may be legal issues or harm to their personal reputation and even livelihood. Furthermore, in many cases board members did not fulfill their own responsibilities out of loyalty to the shaykh, and if a full investigation were launched, they would also be held liable or be proven to be negligent. Board members may have ignored years of complaints, until they themselves saw or experienced abusive behavior.


There is competition among masjids and organizations—one masjid or organization doesn’t want its rival to find out about the abuse and use it for mudslinging. Likewise, Sufis may not want Salafis to find out about their abuse, and one tariqa may not want another tariqa to find out.

Family Still Tied to the Group

 A husband may have a wife who is still in an abusive group and vice-versa. The shaykh may tell one spouse to divorce the other and use the children as leverage. This happens most often in abusive tariqas, and women will separate from their husbands, and husbands from their wives, on their shaykh’s orders. One spouse may stay or leave with some excuse just to keep the family together.

Other reasons include having a sibling or close friends in the group who do not want to leave, or worrying that bringing attention to the abuse will hurt those relationships.

Bought Off

 Victims may be silenced by teachers, paid off by an organization or the abuser, or be told by respected figures to drop it. The shaykh offers positions to the victim or others who stay loyal (e.g., making them muqaddams or promoting them to be on stage teaching at retreats, etc.) Those who are bought off may go to the additional length of discrediting other victims to ultimately protect the abusive figure.


It is difficult to transition out of a group with which one has been involved. Groups have a way of making their bubble seem like the world, and when victims are discredited in such groups, they assume they will remain discredited outside of the group. Setting up a new social circle and being rooted outside of the group is one of the best ways to assure a person does not return to it. There may be a sense of loss, especially if a person had a high position in the group which has now been stripped away. In understanding the struggles of exiting abusive groups, we can do our part in helping those affected move on with their life and heal.


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