Blurred Lines: Women, “Celebrity” Shaykhs, and Spiritual Abuse

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By Pure Matrimony -

Author: By Ustadha Zaynab Ansari


You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly–if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” (The Qur’an, 4:135)

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), God bless and grant his peace, said, “Religion is good counsel. We [Sahaba] asked, ‘To whom?’ He, peace be upon him, replied, ‘To Allah and His Book, and His messenger, and to the leaders of the Muslims and the masses.’”  (Muslim)

“It is said that a man from the Children of Israel acquired much knowledge from books that would fill up eighty vaults. But that knowledge was of no benefit to him. Allah, the Exalted, revealed to the prophet of that time to tell that person, ‘Even if you were study more books to further your knowledge that would still be of no benefit to you as you do not act upon three things: (1) do not fall in love with this world for this world is not the permanent abode for the faithful believers (lit. mu’minin), (2) do not befriend Satan for he is not a friend of the faithful believers, and (3) do not trouble any of Allah’s creation because such is not the nature of any faithful believer.’” [1]

Disclaimer: The following article represents my views and my views alone. None of what follows should be attributed to the people or organizations with whom I currently work or with whom I have worked in the past. While names and identifying information have been left out, the following accounts are based on verifiable events.

While I welcome comments and questions on this subject, I will not respond to speculation about the identities of the individuals involved in these scenarios. This essay is also not about any particular approach to Islam, school of thought, or minhaj. It is about human behavior.

In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy[2]

People are often curious about my role as a female teacher and speaker in the male-dominated field of “traditional Islam.” [3] “What does a woman scholar-in-residence do?” I am often asked. To the non-Muslim questioner, my role is seen as a bit of a curiosity, especially given the stock, standard media image of the oppressed Muslim woman. To the Muslim questioner, the question goes deeper. For some women, I am a potential role model for their daughters and a mentor to them. For some men, I represent the rare woman in the circles associated with traditional Islam who is willing to speak in public. I am simultaneously called upon to speak for the women in the audience, while defending the Shar’i (Islamic legal) basis for my presence on stage. Event organizers, typically quite gracious, believe that I contribute to the diverse perspectives they hope to offer to audience members. Often the only woman in a lineup that is otherwise exclusively male, I represent, supposedly, a continuation of the tradition of the scholarly Muslim woman.

At first glance, it may appear as if I am successfully negotiating the gender politics of the American Muslim conference. It is really offstage, however, that the tensions between my public role and private reality collide. While I enjoy learning from and interacting with the teachers, callers, and Shuyukh who attend the conferences, events, and retreats that constitute the American Islamic socio-intellectual scene, I have experienced moments that have given me pause. These are the moments in which the lines between the public world of the “celebrity” Shaykh and his private life become blurred, and the women who inhabit both worlds reach out to me for clarity.

When I first started writing Islamic advice columns, I was completely unprepared for the deluge of questions I would receive from men and women around the world. A laid back former colleague told me the job would not be difficult. “You’ll just be the Muslim version of Dear Abby,” he chuckled. Unless Abby has started fielding questions on Shari’ah law, however, I have come to disagree with his assessment. Over the years, thousands of questions have poured in on every conceivable topic: theology, Qur’anic exegesis, hadith studies, human rights, environmentalism, disability, marriageand family law, sexuality, gender relations, Islamic ritual law, history, politics…the list goes on. I quickly realized that the Muslim (internet) public was consuming and demanding answers at a faster rate than I or any other writer could provide. Perhaps dissatisfied with the limitations of online Islamic answers and quasi-fatawa, prospective students of knowledge—which included women in large percentages—began signing up for classes with their favorite teachers and scholars. They also flocked to retreats, intensives, and conferences, looking for the personal connection that was missing from online forums.

This combination of electronic delivery of Islamic content and personal interaction with scholars and teachers at onsite venues has led to a revolution in “classical” Islamic learning. [4] Suddenly, students did not have to spend thousands of dollars and experience the culture shock of living overseas. They could access sacred texts from the comfort of their home computers—and, increasingly, their smartphones—and even communicate with the teacher in real time using Skype, chat, and other instant messaging applications. In an instant, the distance between student and teacher shrank and the boundaries of decorum that circumscribed the public interactions of males and females shifted and relaxed. The blurring of lines sparked by this technological revolution has resulted in the creation of fan pages for ‘ulama, “friending” unrelated men and women on Facebook, following favorite teacher profiles on social media, and casually messaging heretofore inaccessible people at all times of day and night.

Adab on the Internet

From the perspective of the democratization of Islamic knowledge, the above developments might appear promising. However, from the perspective of adab (etiquette), the “formality between men and women” so keenly articulated by a prominent woman scholar; the integrity of the knowledge itself and its purveyors; and the safety of the family structure; the above developments are alarming.[5] Before I discuss why I find this trend disturbing, let me say a word about the “celebrity” Shaykh. Lest anyone think I am being dismissive toward our ‘ulama, I am not. I do not believe teachers, scholars, and speakers set out to become famous. I pray that all of us serving in a public capacity read and reread imam Al-Ghazali’s (God rest his soul and sanctify his secret) warning to teachers of sacred knowledge, particularly regarding their susceptibility to arrogance, showing off, and amassing followers. I believe the celebrity Shaykh is a victim of his own success, a product of the techno-obsessed culture that dictates that every ‘alim, school, and institution market its “authentic,” “classical” and “traditional” Islamic “products and services” or perish. Moreover, the celebrity Shaykh has become enthroned on a pedestal, the pedestal of unimpeachable piety and character, the pedestal of “see no wrong, do no wrong,” in which we, the adoring students, have cast this very fallible human being as larger than life.

We are doing ourselves and our teachers a tremendous disservice when we elevate them beyond human frailties. Our ‘ulama, teachers, and Mashayikhare not perfect. They are flawed human beings, with the same weaknesses, shortcomings, and challenges with which we struggle. The only perfected human being was the Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and give him peace. And if we read his biography, we realize that even he, peace be upon him, his wives, companions, and associates had to deal with real human problems. So why do we try to ascribe perfection to our teachers and scholars today? It is natural to feel affection for the person who guides and directs us, but are we helping our religious leaders when we declare them beyond reproach?

I contend that we have created a toxic environment for our religious leaders: an environment in which the proper boundaries between student and teacher have become blurred, an environment in which misuse of power is rife, and an environment in which women, in particular, are subject to deception and spiritual abuse. I raise this issue, not to cause dissension (fitna) in the ranks of the Muslims, but to warn our leaders, our elders, and our masses that we have to address this social ill before we lose all credibility when it comes to the Qur’anic injunction to the

“[Believers], you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God.” (The Qur’an, 3:110).

Adding Up Islam in Public and Private

Our leaders, particularly those who claim to be spiritual guides, must practice what they preach. Our ‘ulama are not politicians, for whom a wide disparity between public image and private conduct is expected. Yes our ‘ulama are fallible, but they have a responsibility to recognize the tensions inherent in their roles, the pitfalls of the celebrity Shaykh culture, and the integrity of the positions they hold. How can our leaders recite platitudes about women’s empowerment and status in Islam publicly, while privately undermining those very rights they claim to cherish? How is it acceptable to publicly proclaim respect for women, while privately deeming them little more than sexual conquests?

It has recently come to my attention that there are well-known individuals who are using their platforms for more than the dissemination of Islamic teachings. There is evidence demonstrating that these individuals are using their positions in circles of sacred learning to groom, recruit, and entice female followers with promises of marriage, access to Shuyukh, study abroad opportunities, and entrée to exclusive socio-spiritual networks. Under the guise of mentoring, these individuals are engaging in private, unsupervised conversations with marriageable members of the opposite sex. These conversations, carried out in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, appear to run the gamut from fairly innocuous exchanges of biographical information (à la pen pals in the pre-computer era) to material that is merely suggestive to thoughts and sentiments that are wildly inappropriate. For those who want to make the excuse that the conversations are a prelude to marriage, I would merely remind them that the individuals involved in this scenario are teachers of Islamic law and, hence, know full well that there are rules surrounding courtship in Islam. I would also point out that when said teacher is engaging in conversations with multiple women at the same time, we also have a math problem. Islamic law only allows a man to marry four wives, so if the already-married teacher is “courting” multiple women at once, only a certain percentage can expect the relationship to become licit. What then of the remaining percentage? Again, a math problem.

One could make the excuse that our ‘ulama are not mathematicians. True, but surely they have some knowledge of Newtonian physics, “for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” After making the cold calculus of choosing and excluding whom to marry from their adoring students, these teachers may very well be able to move on, accepting the next exciting or lucrative speaking engagement. However, the women who were promised marriage and then jilted are having a more difficult time of it. It is not an easy thing to be played, particularly when the player is your favorite Shaykh. One can only imagine what these women’s perception of Islam has become, especially when the Shaykh was their Islam.

As a direct consequence of these individuals’ actions, women have become disillusioned, embittered, and depressed. Every time these individuals raise their voices up to proclaim their sincere love of the deen, these women’s hearts fall just a little more. The harm is even more egregious when these women are actually the ex-wives of Shuyukh. Typically, these women start out as eager students who strike up an online relationship with the Shaykh (or with whom the Shaykh initiates contact), which then descends into banter and flirtation, then promises of commitment, talk of marriage, etc. In some cases, the Shaykh proposes marriage, in other cases, it is the women. The common denominator though, in all situations, is the existence of the first wife. Her presence is often alluded to in online conversations, but her consent for the relationship is rarely sought. She is either said to be “okay with it,” or believed to be able to “deal with it.” In most cases, the first wife is not okay with it, nor is she able to deal with it. In fact, in most cases, the poor woman has no idea the other woman even exists, until it is too late.

Talaq by Text Message

Since the purpose of this essay is to draw attention to the plight of the “other woman,” I will not belabor the point about the first wife, except to say that when her husband’s dalliances and marriages are revealed, the trust between them is irreparably broken. If she is legally married (per the laws of the United States, for example), she may have some means of redress. However, the other woman has no such means. As the clandestine second (or third or fourth) wife of the Shaykh, she has no legal avenues through which to pursue her rights. Her Islamic nikah (marriage contract) is not enforceable, placing her in an extremely vulnerable position. It is a position no one’s daughter or sister should find herself in, but it is happening to good women from good families. As the secret second wife of the Shaykh, the poor woman receives no public recognition or respect. She cannot appear with him in gatherings. She cannot announce herself to the community. And she dare not contact his first wife and speak out lest she be accused of causing fitna. To add insult to injury, the Shaykh, who will not even deign to acknowledge the woman publicly, still retains conjugal access, enjoying all the pleasures of marriage without the responsibility, for, in many cases, he has not provided a marital home nor financial support to the secret second wife. To cap it all off, when he is done with the second wife, the marriage is ended without much ceremony, unless one deems talaq by text message ceremonious. Predictably, when the woman reacts badly, as anyone would under the circumstances, the Shaykh and his followers write her off as “unstable.” [6]

I will leave everyone with a few thoughts. What is a woman’s broken heart worth? What does a woman’s lost faith mean to us? What would the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, who conducted his marriages with total transparency, think of us? Is it appropriate to use one’s access to knowledge and teachers as a lure for needy, vulnerable women? Is it fair to marry a woman in secret, knowing one lacks the means to support her? When a man marries behind his wife’s back, does he truly value the marriage bond? When individuals abuse their religious authority in this fashion, are they upholding the integrity of the tradition with which they have been entrusted? Is it not inconsistent to publicly lecture about modesty and the niqab (face veil) for women, yet let one’s guard down in private communication? We need to think very carefully about how we as teachers, scholars, Mashayikh, and students contribute to the blurred lines that have resulted in broken homes, broken hearts, and broken minds.

“By the declining day, man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness.” (The Qur’an, 103:1-3).


Shaykha Zaynab Ansari Abdul-Razacq is a native Southerner with Northern roots. She spent several years studying the core Islamic sciences, including Arabic, jurisprudence, Qur’anic recitation & commentary, Hadith, and Prophetic biography in Damascus, Syria at Abu Nour masjid’s college preparatory program. Currently, she is the scholar-in-residence at the Tayseer Foundation in Knoxville, TN.

[1] Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani and Mawlana Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, tr. Habib Siddiqui, Al-Munabbihat: The Counsel (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 2007), 17.

[2] This invocation and all translations of Qur’anic verses come from the M.A.S. Abdel Haleem Oxford World’s Classics Qur’an. The hadith translation is my own.

[3] I am enclosing this term in quotation marks given the fact that most observant Muslims would regard themselves as practitioners of a traditional Islam vs. a non-traditional Islam.

[4] Again, this term is enclosed in quotation marks given that there are a plethora of institutions embodying varying approaches to Islam that lay claim to this mantle. Again, this essay is not about any one particular approach or institution.

[5] See “Formality between men and women” at (accessed May 7, 2015).

[6] All conversations enclosed in quotation marks are either paraphrased or quoted directly.


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