Originally published at Safa Center
When Religious Leaders Fail: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
(This article was reviewed by a licensed therapist.)
The first level of disappointment is regarding the religious leader him/herself. Here are the aforementioned points that deal with this level:
- You may feel your trust was betrayed by their behavior because they did not practice what they preached. They not only did the opposite, but they did so in ways which are lower than you would ever expect in a friend, let alone a teacher and spokesperson for the religion. You may have trusted them, looked up to them, helped them, loved them, and/or obeyed them with devotion. The closer you were, the deeper the pain.
- Perhaps you feel the whole “Religious Preachers Industry” is corrupt to begin with. After all, you may have found out that others in the field were aware of this person’s ethical issues and did nothing to protect the public, or defend the rights of those abused. In fact, some continued to work with and promote their work as it was mutually advantageous to do so. Somehow, when religious leaders fail, they seem to be treated as above the law, above justice, and others in the field are part of the cover up using excuses of selective mercy that do not extend to the masses these people have harmed, or have the very real probability of harming, based on their issue reflecting an untreated pattern of such behavior.
- If you were specifically harmed by a religious leader, you may feel unsafe around religious leaders in general, particularly ones with the same physical profile or features as the person who harmed you.
As for the first point, your trust was in fact betrayed. You have a right to feel wronged. This feeling though, thankfully, does not mean you have to remain a victim to the mountainous pain of disappointment. When a religious leader fails, it has nothing to do with you, even if you were the one they directly harmed. It is a reflection of themselves, their own weaknesses, and internal states. There is no benefit that you can gain from holding onto the mountain of pain. Sometimes, a person might think by reliving the pain regularly, by carrying the mountain, they are protecting themselves from becoming desensitized to corruption, as the person who ‘doesn’t care’ is part of the problem. One can care very much, and be fully sensitive without having to carry the burden of pain with them. Integrity does not require self-imposed suffering. Just as you have a right to feel wronged and disappointed, you also have a right to let go of this pain while retaining the lessons.
The second point can become a dangerous slippery slope. There are hundreds of religious leaders in America. Even 30 Failed Leaders should not make us think the rest are in the same boat. At the same time, there is also no need to be naïve and assume everyone else is a saint. Everyone is human and capable of great good and great evil. To have the best opinion, do not assume more than what you see, in either direction. If someone does a clearly wrong action in front of you, “making 70 excuses” does not mean you say the action was right or justified. It means you might think, “Perhaps they are having a bad day, maybe they didn’t realize it was wrong, etc.” You also don’t extend it beyond that by thinking, “They probably do this all the time, this is how they *really* are, etc.” This would be having the worst assumption, and it’s not something allowed in Islam. To have balance means you don’t assume in any direction where their heart is as only Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) knows the hearts, and you only judge through actions, their observable behavior whether or not they are someone you’d like to take as a teacher. No one should be idolized. The religious leader is not the religion. I repeat, the religious leader is not the religion, no matter what claim to authority they might make. Even the most honorable ustaadh or ustaadha (teacher) is still human and makes mistakes. In Islam, we put following principles above following people.
Umar radi allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him) once asked his people when he was amir al-mu’mineen (the Leader of the Believers) what they would do if he bowed down to corruption. He asked three times, until one of the people responded and said they would fight him. He congratulated the man who responded for having the appropriate response. If Umar (ra) as the khalifah (Caliph) was not above the law, no one else should be. If people have been wronged, they have the right to have their claims addressed even if they have to go to court. Sometimes people don’t want the stories to get out because they feel like such stories hurt the community’s faith. That might be true when it comes to smaller claims that can be negotiated between intermediaries. But for situations where a person is a clear danger, allowing a dangerous religious leader to continue harming people causes a much bigger crisis to faith and trust in religious leaders and institutions in the long run. Seeking justice is a means of having mercy on the community and even on the offending personality. Having once been involved in helping out with an intervention in which therapy was one of the requirements placed on the offender, the community leader who compliantly left their position, after some time, thanked those who intervened saying, “For the first time I felt like my problem can be, and will be, solved.” Alhamdulilah (all praise be to God), it was.
That being said, the entire field is not corrupt. The entire field is not pristine and pure either. Look for people of solid character, sound credentials in their learning, and people who work with others to build institutions that are about a cause bigger than their specific persona. Avoid taking people who display regularly narcissistic behavior as personal guides. You might be able to benefit in knowledge, but over time the behavior becomes normalized to you, and you would unknowingly adopt it yourself. The sincere teacher connects you to your mission, and calls you to God, not to himself or herself. Sound credentials are also important. Don’t take anyone as a teacher in religion who does not have the educational background that gives them ijaza (credential) to teach others. A beard, accent, and long robe are not indications of an educational background nor good character. Be wary of online degrees where the person has not also studied directly from scholars. Peer acknowledgment of requisite knowledge, character, and training by those who are credentialed and of exemplary character is another form of legitimacy. Our religious understanding is a living tradition, and it is inherited through people and institutions.
As for the last point, you may need therapy to fully recover from your experience. This is not something to fear or dread. Does anyone fear taking medicine when they feel physically ill? Medicine does not contradict prayer and tawakkul (trust in God), it completes it. If you don’t get treatment, you may find yourself turning away from anything and everything that reminds you even remotely of religion. After being harmed by a religious symbol, it becomes tempting to turn away from all religious symbols. If one was fake, there may be an urge to paint it all as fake. This is a trap of shaytan (the devil). When we are tested, we are in even more need of turning to Allah and holding onto His rope for our survival, guidance, and healing. If you feel like turning away, then allow yourself to stop the downward spiral by getting up, and turning back to Allah. Call on Him to guide you, help you, strengthen you, and liberate you from your pain.
Here are some tools that help alleviate overwhelming emotional distress:
- Journaling in the third person: By expressing, you release the tension and come to realize the situation is not so big that it has to overwhelm you. It’s small enough to put into words and make sense of. By using third person you are able to dissociate from the heavy emotions while acknowledging what happened, and gaining lessons as well.
- Channel your energy into a helpful hobby: exercise, painting, etc..
- Releasing: A technique that is taught in the Whims-I-Kill program at ipersonalenrichment.com.
- Speaking to local trained Muslim counselors and therapists.
- Surround yourself with support. Fight the tendency to isolate. Spend time with worthy friends who would be like perfume sellers not blacksmiths. [i]
- Increased worship and du`a’ (prayer). Every time you feel a whisper telling you to turn away from Allah, rebel and rebel hard. The shaytan wants you to despair in Allah, so you can feel utterly alone and without support. When you call on Allah, do so with hope in Him and His infinite abilities and wisdom. Believe in Who you don’t see much more than what you do see.
In the next piece, we will deal with the second and third levels of disappointment insha’ Allah. Until then, I pray this is of benefit for those affected and a conversation starter for all. Please feel free to add comments or reflections to this. You never know whom your shared thoughts are going to help.
Thank you Muslema for this piece, I really thought it was beneficial and addressed an issue that happens to many. I have counseled individuals through this very process of getting over the “religious let down” by a teacher or organization. One of the points I emphasize is only Allah is perfect and humans are mistake making machines. We can not fully invest our selves into anything created. In a way we must be our own saviors. To idealize and extend our salvation through another is a disservice to one’s self. Allah is Most Knowledgeable and our Islam must be about a path to God not to group agenda, cultural belonging or identity politics.
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