When Religious Leaders Fail

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When Religious Leaders Fail | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3  

Sexual Harassment.  Marrying a second wife secretly for a temporary amount of time.  Pedophilia. Pornography. Adultery and its kin: Developing ‘back-up’ plan relationships while married. Embezzling funds.  Spiritual abuse and false religious justifications for harmful/ immoral behavior. Slander. Then you see their names on flyers for Islamic events, and hear them speaking about modesty, integrity, courage, family life, being a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, detached from money and wealth, the ethics of speech. They might have adoring crowds who don’t know or just a small team of people they work with who don’t care.

If you’ve ever had a religious teacher or teachers who didn’t just fall, but they *failed* miserably at upholding a basic ethical standard for themselves, you may have experienced emotional burn-out as a result. Please note that religious leaders may fall all the time because they are human and it is human to fall as no one can fully escape the minor sins. This is why I used the term “Fail.” A Fail, as I use it in this series, is when a religious leader falls into a major sin or a socially reprehensible sin that is beneath the level of trust afforded to their position, is confronted, and they stubbornly refuse to make proper amends even when given the chance. This is a fail. Please also note that I use the term emotional burn-out, and not spiritual burn-out because the spirit is essentially untouchable. Our bodies on the other hand produce emotions, and they do get affected by the stress of disappointment. Sometimes spirit and emotion are used interchangeably in language and it’s important to realize they are certainly not one and the same, as described by Ustadh Abdelrahman Mussa here. This is significant because once you realize the burn out is emotional, you have a pathway to recovery.

Let’s unpack some of the emotions and delve into the conscious and subconscious thoughts behind such disappointment:

  • 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.
  • As a once devoted student, you may now feel nothing when you hear about Islamic lectures, classes, and events featuring other speakers and religious leaders. After all, they could be corrupt as well. Why risk the pain of getting emotionally ‘burned’ again?
  • 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.
  • Deep down you may be questioning God for allowing such corrupt people to represent His faith. You may feel at a subconscious level disappointed in God for allowing them to be the leaders of the Muslim community.
  • You may also feel disappointment in yourself for not being ‘smarter’, wiser, for not seeing through the deception. This may also mean you lack trust in your own judgment and don’t trust yourself to trust again.
  • You may feel disappointment with the masses for following such people with the same ‘blindness’ that you once did. Some of their fans may even continue to defend the religious leader and blame the people who were harmed for daring to speak up.
  • You may feel a general lack of hope for the Muslim community. If corrupt or complicit are the leaders, and blind are the followers, what if anything can be done toward progress?
  • You may feel like you have no control over holding the religious leader accountable if you were personally harmed, and you may feel no control in preventing them from harming others.
  • You may feel isolated and disconnected because this issue doesn't seem to bother others around you as much as it bothers you.

This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of what may be some underlying frustrations. Each of these points can create a myriad of different powerful emotions, so imagine what a few or all of them could create? Rather than feel all the sadness, anger, anxiety, fear, disappointment, helplessness, dislike, pain, loneliness, vulnerability, hopelessness, (insert huge overwhelming emotion here), etc. , you may have simply shut down your feelings altogether, thus creating apathy and numbness. Holding onto to the apathy and numbness for a prolonged period without help can lead to a crisis in one’s faith as there is a tendency to extend the apathy to one’s relationship to Allah (swt) Himself.

This post is simply an introduction to the topic and future posts are meant to deal with each of the above mentioned points in greater detail. If you are someone who has experienced this test and what you’re struggling with emotionally is not addressed in the points above, please add your specific struggle to the comments section and we will try to address it insha Allah. If you have a specific trauma that you would like counseling or therapy for, we can try to connect you to someone qualified insha Allah. If you have not gone through this test alhamdulilah, it is hoped that these posts may empower you to help someone who has.

Even though this is simply an introduction, there is one important lesson I would like to leave us with for this week: We can and should disagree with unethical behavior from anyone without disapproving of the Qadar (decree) of Allah. Disagreeing with someone’s harmfulness is healthy, needed, and productive. Blaming Allah for having experienced it is not. Once something is in the past, it is part of His decree. Once it is part of His decree, you accept the good and bad of it as being a test from Him which could not have been other than what occurred. There is no changing the past. The pens have been lifted and the ink has dried on it. You embrace His test without doubting His Perfection, Justice, and Mercy. There is no need to attribute either to Allah or even to yourself anything negative about this test. Allah does not hate you and you are not a horrible or unworthy person because this test happened to you. These are harmful thoughts which lack any benefit and only push you into the mud, so you can imagine where they came from. The whispers of shaytan are to make us despair in Allah, and despair in ourselves. Instead, look to what is beneficial and ask yourself: What do I have control over? What will I be asked about when I am resurrected? My immediate choices. How can I use my immediate choices to better the situation? How can I use my immediate choices to make the best transaction with Allah through this test, and gain unfathomable reward insha Allah? How can I rely on Allah for strength and guidance and come out personally stronger and wiser? Some answers insha Allah will be in the upcoming posts. For now, allow yourself to reflect on your own answers and realize that this is simply the practical application of the famous hadith:

"The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, while there is good in both. Guard over that which benefits you, seek Allah's Assistance, wa laa ta'jiz (‘don't lend yourself to things devoid of benefit’, ‘don’t stop hoping’—both acceptable meanings), and if something befalls you, then don't say 'If I only would have done such and such,' rather say, 'Qaddar Allahu wa maa sha’a  fa'al' (‘Allah ordained (this) and He does what He wills’), for verily the phrase, 'If I would have' makes way for the work of Shaytan." (Muslim)

No matter how weak you might feel in your faith, the Prophet (saw) affirms there is still good in you and the fact that you believe is an evidence of the love Allah (swt) has for you. The recipe to increased strength starts with embracing the decree of Allah, remaining hopeful in Him, and focusing on what is beneficial to you in this life and the next. Know that gratitude in Allah for the faith He has blessed you with increases it, and is immensely beneficial. You may not realize it yet, but you got this insha Allah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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