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Understanding Spiritual Abuse: An Interview with Salma Abugideiri Understanding Spiritual Abuse: An Interview with Salma Abugideiri

Understanding Spiritual Abuse: An Interview with Salma Abugideiri

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Muslims are talking more openly about domestic and sexual violence within our communities. 

But what about Spiritual Abuse?

Muslim Link interviewed Muslim American professional counsellor Salma Abugideiri who explains what spiritual abuse is and its impact on the lives of Muslims in North America.

Tell us about yourself

I was born into an immigrant family. My parents are Egyptian but left Egypt relatively young. I was actually born in Austria, and then they came to the United States when I was 2. I grew up in the US in several different states. -

I basically grew up seeing my parents do a lot of community counselling. They’re both leaders in the Muslim community. A lot of people came to our home from around the country. My parents often took people in who were struggling with either marriage or family relationships.

I later came to understand that some of these people were experiencing abuse, and so that, I think, is what really led me to be interested in becoming a professional counsellor. I also recognized the huge gap in services for these people.

I’m licensed as a professional counsellor. In that capacity, I’ve had many clients who were victims of domestic violence, as well as perpetrators who were mandated to get counselling. I used to work for a multicultural agency so often these were people who didn’t speak enough English to go to the county intervention program. I would do individual work with them in Arabic.

Then I was asked to join the Peaceful Families Project in 2005, basically to take over the programming.

Tell us about the Peaceful Families Project

The program itself was started by Sharifa Alkhateeb. She did what we believe is the first survey of Muslim leaders to determine the prevalence of domestic violence in our communities. She asked about physical and sexual violence and the respondents, about 10%, said they had experienced physical or sexual violence. That led her to seek funding from the Department of Justice, who connected her with FaithTrust Institute, a national multi-faith domestic violence and sexual assault prevention organization.

Peaceful Families Project became FaithTrust Institute’s Muslim program, which Sharifa ran until 2005. She then asked me to take over the program, which I did along with Maha Alkhateeb. When the funding was cut in 2007, Maha Alkhateeb and I established the Peaceful Families Project as an independent 501c3 (non-profit organization). The program has existed in various forms. I’m a founding board member of our independent organization, but the program was developed by Sharifa Alkhateeb in 2000. She established the training model that we continued to use.

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse is used to refer to a wide number of things, so I understand why it’s confusing to people.

In a family context, we use the term spiritual abuse to refer to anything that interferes with someone’s spirituality or religious practise.

Let’s say in spousal abuse, it would be misusing hadith or Qur’an to manipulate a spouse for the other spouse’s personal gain. For example, if a husband can’t get his wife to do whatever it is he wants her to do and is not able to persuade her, then he may resort to saying that he is the head of the household so she has to obey him in order to be a good Muslim woman who is pleasing Allah. He may tell his wife that she's going to burn in Hell because she’s not “fill in the blank” enough. She’s not patient enough, she doesn’t clean enough, she doesn’t take care of the kids correctly.

We also see it when people are directly interfering with people’s worship, so sometimes a woman will tell me that her husband will stand on her prayer mat when she’s trying to pray and not let her pray, or will beat her and drag her out of bed to force her to pray, or will not allow her to leave the house with hijab because he’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to be seen with a woman who wears hijab, or won’t let her leave the house without hijab.

One of the earliest cases that I had of spiritual abuse was when an attorney consulted me because her Muslim client was experiencing domestic violence. But the woman’s complaint was that her husband forced her to have sexual intercourse during Ramadan during the day and the attorney, of course, didn’t understand why the time of day was so important to her client. I had to explain that not only was this woman forced to have sex, but she was also forced by her husband to break her fast as we Muslims are not supposed to have sexual intercourse from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan.

The attorney didn’t understand the spiritual impact of this abuse. The woman was complaining about the spiritual part of it, that she felt stuck because she’s “supposed” to obey her husband, and at the same time, knows that she’s not supposed to engage in sexual relations while she’s fasting. From her perspective, she’s disobeying Allah either way. So those kinds of double bind situations really create a lot of spiritual trauma for people. Any time that any kind of abusive behaviour is cast in religious terms, then that has the potential to create spiritual trauma.

Those are some of the ways spiritual abuse can occur in a spousal relationship. But it’s the same with children. It’s not uncommon to hear people making du’a (prayer) against their child. They ask Allah to take the child away from them. It’s cursing your child but through du’a. So the children grow up having a very complicated and negative relationship with Allah. Or parents use absolutely good ayahs (Quranic verses) that are totally appropriate to use in the right context about children’s obligations to obey their parents, but parents use these verses to force their children to do something that either they shouldn’t do or they really aren’t religiously obligated to do.

I’ve seen parents do this to get their adult child to divorce his or her spouse because the parents don’t like him or her. The parents may say, “If you are a good Muslim, you have to obey your parents. So we want you to divorce this person and if you don’t, you are going to hell for disobeying us.”

It’s creating these really spiritually conflictual situations for people. I can give you hundreds of different ways that I’ve seen this play out.

Do you ever find that talking about these issues is difficult because in the context of dealing with Islamophobia and because the community wants to put a best face forward, do you find that it’s sometimes harder to explore these very real issues?

Harder for me or harder for victims? For me it’s not hard at all because I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I’ve witnessed it, and I’ve witnessed the direct effects. I’ve spent the bulk of my therapy practise working with people who have been affected by some form of abuse or another. I work with adults, and these are people who have been impacted as children and impacted as teens. I don’t have any problem talking about it.

I’ve done a lot of interfaith work, and so I think that for me what it boils down to is that this is just how people are as human beings, whether they’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish or atheist or whatever they are. I think that’s really important to understand. Perpetrators will use any means they can in order to get what they’re trying to achieve. So if they use a fist, or they use insults, or they use threats, or they use scripture, these are all just a variety of different control tactics.

So I don’t really see this as a Muslim specific problem, and I think it’s important that when we speak about abuse that we don’t in any way suggest that it’s a Muslim specific problem. In fact, the first thing that struck me when I started doing interfaith domestic violence work was that if you just remove the name of the faith tradition, everybody is saying the same thing.

The specific scriptures that are used are of course different because we have different books, but the concepts that people are misusing are the same.

For example, obedience to the husband is a teaching found across the Abrahamic scriptures. Everyone has their verse that is taken out of context, misused or abused to be used to the benefit of the perpetrator. So I don’t find it difficult to talk about.

I think that victims find it difficult to talk about because we’re all very trained as Muslims to focus on certain things. So if someone is complaining about a parent misbehaving, then it’s almost like a reflex that the response is “these are your parents, you have to have mercy on them, you have to be kind to them.” I think that our general community has a hard time hearing when people that we’re supposed to look up to and listen to have violated the boundaries, whether it’s clergy, or parents or grandparents or uncles. We have a lot of respect for elders, a lot of respect for people of knowledge and so sometimes the respect makes it difficult for people to hear when there have been violations by these people.

We overemphasize- I used to be a Sunday school teacher so, we when I say we I’m part of that ‘we’-we can overemphasize the importance of the child’s responsibility towards the parents and really underemphasize the responsibility of parents towards their children.

The right of the child actually comes before the right of the parent but as a Muslim community, I don't think we typically teach it that way. And so when children are abused or mistreated, whether it’s spiritual abuse or another form of abuse, that makes it really hard to talk about because you’re somehow betraying your parents if you’re g talking about them or reporting them. And even just conceptually, it can be hard to recognize when you’re being abused.

As children, our parents are supposed to be the best and so “it must be me, the child, who is wrong.” That way of thinking is reinforced by our extended families and communities that it must be the child. That’s just another example of the victim-blaming that victims, even as adults, will experience, being told, “It must be you.” “How could it be this other person(the parent, the spiritual leader, the whatever…), it must be you.”

Let’s discuss the issue of spiritual abuse when it comes from spiritual leaders. How is that different than what happens within families?

How it happens is that our spiritual leaders are in a position of trust. We trust them to represent our teachings and trust them not only to represent them in the way that they teach them, but also represent them in the way that they live them, and in the way that they engage with us. When we give our trust to someone and they violate a boundary, what happens is a feeling of betrayal, confusion, self-doubt, and uncertainty as to what to do.

Some of the abuse is really intangible. It’s not necessarily that a spiritual leader hit someone or pinched someone. It’s very hard to measure, often times it’s quite subtle. For example, if a woman is going to seek counselling from a religious leader after a divorce, or she’s in the process of getting a divorce and she’s feeling extremely vulnerable and she’s really turning to this leader to guide her, advise her and give her moral support, and in that moment of vulnerability, if he offers to marry her, that can be a real abuse of her trust. This type of situation is so common, and I’ve known about it for the 20 years since I’ve been a therapist.

In that moment of vulnerability, the religious leader has crossed multiple boundaries. He’s taking advantage of a person in an extremely vulnerable state who is trusting him in order to get really good guidance. If that “really good guidance” is “I’m going to marry you and save you from all of this, I will take care of you.” Unfortunately many women actually fall for this because they’re kind of desperate for someone to take care of them and someone to make it better. And so the timing is wrong. A lot of times these men are already married, and at least in the US, it’s against the law to get a second wife and in Canada as well.

And so inherently now there’s another level of betrayal because she’s going to be a secret wife, she’s going to have absolutely no rights in which ever state that she lives in. If this religious leader is now her husband, dies 5 minutes later, or the next day or after one child or two, she’s really stuck because there’s no inheritance, there are no rights that she can claim. And if he physically abuses her or anything else, again she’s really stuck. That’s not to mention the fact that an Islamic marriage contract should be public with witnesses. So there are multiple violations that can happen just in that one scenario, and that’s a really common scenario.

There are other ways as well where the religious leader may misuse his influence. I say “his” because most of our leaders are male. But there are also female leaders who can abuse their power as well. 

Let’s take another scenario which is unfortunately common. A woman is married to an imam or respected spiritual leader in the community. If she is experiencing abuse from her husband, what can she do? Where can she go? Her husband will say “I’m the one who is the imam, I’m the one who is knowledgeable here. Who are you to challenge this and who is going to believe you if you go and complain?” So there are situations where there’s severe physical abuse where the woman does not feel like she can come forward because nobody is going to believe her. He’s convinced her that basically if she were to try to get help, no one’s going to believe her, no one’s going to accept her. But layered on top of that is the religious authority this man has in the community, so it basically just complicates the abuse further. It just adds another layer that makes it even more difficult and can interfere with this woman’s relationship with Allah (swt).

So whether you’re a congregant and you’re turning to your religious leader or imam, or whether it’s a family member of an imam, when the religious layer is mixed in with the boundary violation or the physical abuse or whatever it is, people start to associate that with Islam, with Allah (swt) and then they often times will have a major spiritual crisis which can range from just questioning Islam to leaving the faith altogether. Sometimes, they leave temporarily for a few years, sometimes people leave it forever. I have seen this happen many times. I have clients who have experienced abuse at the hands of a religious leader, Qur’an teacher, sheikh, halaqa leader, etc. I have met other therapists from Muslim backgrounds who have experienced these forms of spiritual abuse so they have grown to have absolutely zero trust for our community leaders and absolutely zero interest in serving Muslims.

Should we be more cautious about how much we trust religious leaders, especially when they have no structures to hold them accountable?

I don’t have a solution, and I think that there are multiple areas for us to address. One is to build more confident and competent individual Muslims who have understanding of at least the very basic principles of Islam and who have enough trust in themselves that when something feels wrong, they know it’s wrong.

We have to create spaces for people to be able to say, “I just had this experience, it feels really off” and then for us to help explore what happened. But if we don’t allow people to say “This feels off,” then we can’t help people figure out what’s off about their experience. We’re all born with a fitrah, this sort of innate inborn knowing about what’s wrong and what’s true and what’s good. We have to learn to trust that. I’m not saying that every Muslim can interpret hadith and ayahs and post that everywhere. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about when someone is interacting with you, you have to be able to trust yourself, to trust your gut, and feel free to say if someone, even if they are a religious leader, is making you feel uncomfortable.

I think if we’re silencing people, we’re oppressing people. Once people don’t have a voice, they’re being oppressed and that’s completely un-Islamic.

So the other problem that we have in our contemporary society is that what’s the space that we’re choosing to express ourselves in, what’s the forum? So if we can’t talk to our parents and we can’t talk to our teachers and we can’t talk to anybody in private…well now we have this big public space, social media, where we can talk about it, and that I think is very damaging.

I think it’s really important for parents to cultivate relationships where their children can speak to them or where they can identity a trusted person, a trusted adult that if the kids don’t want to talk to their parents then they can talk to this trusted adult, and the parents can trust that they’re going to get good guidance from this third party.

If we basically shut down all of these safe spaces, there are none. Now people only feel safe if they’re anonymous online and that actually, that’s a whole other disaster area that we have. So in addition to trusting ourselves, I think we have to teach people the basics of Islam. And by the basics of Islam, I mean values like justice, freedom from oppression, honesty, integrity, kindness…you know these basic character qualities because then when somebody acts in a way that’s unjust, we can name it.

Islam is all about boundaries and guidelines and proper behaviour, so we have all of that. I’m not really sure why it’s problematic for us to empower young people at any age to trust themselves and to trust that Allah does not want anything harmful to come to them.

Spiritual abuse, often when it’s not in the form of physical or sexual abuse, people don’t know how to recognize that it’s abuse. It’s not tangible, but do you think it’s important for our communities to understand the impact, because as you said it can cause people to leave Islam and distance themselves from Muslims?

I think it’s critical. I think there are many things in our religious teachings that are clearly wrong and are not always physical forms of abuse.

The Qur’an (58:2) describes the old Arabian practice that men would tell their wives, “You’re like my mother’s back.” They wouldn’t hurt her physically, but they would leave her in this position that she’s not really his wife anymore. She’s like his mother in the sense that there can’t be any sexually intimate relationship between them. It’s a form of emotional abuse. It’s deeply damaging and it’s prohibited.

There’s lots of things like that. Surat Al Hujarat (49:11) is forbidding us to call people names, even though we didn’t touch that person, we hurt their feelings and hurting people’s feelings is prohibited. There’s a verse in the Quran about it, so it’s not like we’re overdramatizing and people need to develop thick skin and get over it. Being sensitive about these issues is part of our religion.

It’s a very clear teaching that for men specifically and women specifically that they should not mock or call names or slander or spy or be suspicious of each other (49: 11-12). These verses name multiple forms of abuse. Being suspicious is pretty intangible, and it’s prohibited. Something doesn’t have to be measurable or quantifiable in order for it to be prohibited.

Regarding keeping secrets, like if you tell me that something terrible has happened to you and you tell me a secret about you, I have to keep that secret. That’s called guarding trust. But if you do something to me and it feels really bad, and I tell you to keep that secret that’s not OK. That’s a red flag. So I want to make sure that we’re not telling people that all secrets are bad. Sometimes you have a trust, if you work in a company and there’s confidential information we have to keep those kinds of secrets. But we don’t have to keep the kind of secret that someone has done to us that feels bad.

The unfortunate mis-teaching we’re taught is about hiding each other’s flaws. So maybe I don’t pray my 5 prayers on time or maybe I have a habit of sometimes drinking alcohol, you don’t have to tell everybody that because it’s not affecting anybody else. In fact, if you tell other people now you have done something wrong because you’re supposed to cover my flaws. But when somebody’s flaws are damaging and hurtful to others, are oppressive to others, then we’re mandated to speak about it. (4:135).

We look into the area of backbiting for example, we’re not supposed to say anything bad even if it is true about other people, but there are certain exceptions. If you want to get married and this guy is proposing to you and I happen to know him very well, and I know that he has a serious flaw, I’m obligated to tell you. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told Fatima bint Qais regarding someone who proposed to her that he was known to beat women (Muslim, Book 9, #3526). When there’s potential harm, specifically if there’s oppression or injustice, we have to speak up. It becomes wrong then to keep it a secret. Of course we have to decide wisely where we should speak up. We should always choose the least invasive manner to address something.

What should someone do if someone comes to you with an accusation?

The very first thing is to break the silence, so that means to find someone who has some expertise in whatever it is you think is going on. So if you think it’s spiritual abuse, then find somebody who can understand what you are describing and can help you sort out if this is abuse or if there is some misunderstanding or something else. Sometimes people who have been abused in the past are very easily triggered and can be triggered by something that isn't abusive. They can be triggered by smell, by a particular sound or movement. So there’s lots of reasons why it’s important to talk to somebody who has expertise. Whether it’s a mental health professional, whether is a domestic violence advocate, find someone who has expertise on the subject of abuse.

It’s really important to start out assuming someone is telling the truth, and as their story unfolds you might discover that they’re not. But the reality is that most people who come forward have such a struggle to come forward. It’s so hard for them to come forward, so the number of people who are making up stories is pretty small. I’ve worked with some of these people too, but in my 20 years of working with a thousand people, I can count on one hand the number of stories that were completely made up.

A person with some kind of expertise can figure that out, so it’s really important to identify people who are trusted experts. If I think I’m having a heart attack, I’m not going to tell my neighbour I’m going to go to the physician. And if I think I’m being spiritually abused, I also don’t have to tell my neighbour. I can, but it may not be helpful. So the first step is to seek out some kind of professional guidance, and depending on the nature of what happened, to determine what the next steps are. Some things are appropriate to report to the police, some things the police have nothing to do with. If someone proposed to you inappropriately, that’s not exactly a criminal offence so the police can’t do anything about that. But then there might be a masjid board who this behaviour should be reported to.

In terms of solutions, we definitely need more regulatory bodies. We do not have many oversight bodies with expertise in these issues for our religious organizations. That is something that we desperately, desperately need.

There has to be accountability. All of us, all professionals, have regulatory bodies that we are accountable to. For example, there’s a mental health professionals’ board in every state. Wherever you’re licensed, there’s a board. If a client has a complaint about me, they’ll send it to the board, and the board will do an investigation. Every profession has some kind of regulatory body or oversight body. But right now we pretty much have nothing for imams, sheikhs, and religious educators. I can today declare I am now the prominent religious authority on X and put myself out there, even though I haven’t studied anything that would qualify me to say that, but I could do it. I mean it can happen anywhere. It happens in other professions too, like people who set themselves up like quacks, but because there are regulatory boards it’s easier to take somebody down. When there’s no board then it becomes “this group of individuals vs this particular person.”

We really have so much work to do on this issue.

I appreciate that is exploring the issue of spiritual abuse.

To me it’s unnecessary that people have to suffer in this way. Part of spiritual abuse is making people feel like they just imagined everything. I’ve had so many people over the years tell me, “ I just needed to know that I didn’t imagine this. What happened to me really is wrong.” Sometimes that’s all they need to hear.

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Chelby Daigle

Chelby Marie Daigle is Muslim Link’s Editor in Chief and Coordinator. Under her direction, Muslim Link adopted its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Policy so that the website strives to reflect the complexity of Muslim communities in Canada. She knows that she fails to do justice to this complexity every day but she will continue to try to improve as she recognizes the frustration of being both marginalized in the mainstream and also marginalized in Muslim communities. As Coordinator, she works to build relationships with Muslim and mainstream organizations and manages the website's social media, event listings, and directories. She organizes regular Muslim Link gatherings. She also works closely with the Publisher to find ways to keep Muslim Link sustainable. Find her on Twitter @ChelbyDaigle