One Muslim Chaplain's Blog

The Sheikhdown: Signs of Sufi Spiritual Abuse (Part 1: Interview with Anab Whitehouse)

In Islam, Religion on February 1, 2012 at 7:22 pm
Shakedown: n. 1. Slang Extortion of money, as by blackmail.”
“Sheikhdown: n.  Extortion of one’s allegiance and intellect, as through self-proclaimed Sufi masters.”  ©The Civil Muslim
” The danger of Sufism that bothers me, is there are a lot of principles in Tasawwuf that are very easily manipulated into certain cultic control mechanisms and they become very dangerous. I think for those of us in the West, we come from a tradition of individual sovereignty and independence of self. And I personally believe those are very high Islamic characteristics and qualities. I think a lot of the problems in the East is all this slavishness, and devotion and obsequiousness to the grand Master Pu-Ba whoever. I mean, if you want my personal opinion, I do believe that. That does not mean I don’t show the utmost respect to my teachers. Sh. Abdullah bin Bayyah is my teacher and what I love about him is he’s somebody who respects my opinion, listens to my opinion, he’s never been despotic in any way.” -Hamza Yusuf
Years ago, I listened with an open mind to a lecture by an American scholar who resides in Jordan and  who came highly recommended by several friends. A comment he made, in which he referred to himself in the third person and stated that niqab was enforced if a sister wanted to be in his halaqa,  struck me as odd and I eventually stopped the lecture and decided he wasn’t for me. I had reservations, but I didn’t share them with anyone. Now, more recently, I have become aware of several different sources warning about this person (and most famously, one by Suhaib Webb) which caused me to confirm the hunch I’d had all those years ago.  I decided that the issue of Sufi spiritual abuse should be brought to light. I recently interviewed Bill “Anab” Whitehouse, author of The Sufi Lighthouse: Illuminating Sufi Spiritual Abuse to find out what spiritual abuse looks like and why we don’t hear more about the problem.
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As salaamu alaikum Dr. Whitehouse, and thanks for taking the time to speak to readers of The Civil Muslim. Just to clarify for people for whom this is important, are you a “universal Sufi” for whom the laws of Islam are not considered important (prayer, zakat, etc.) or would you consider that Sufism goes hand in hand with the law (shar’)?

I was not a Muslim when I stepped onto the Sufi path. However, by the Grace of Allah, I did enter Islam through tasawwuf or Sufism. I like to think that I came to Islam via the servant’s entrance, and my first teacher – in my opinion, a genuine Sufi guide – introduced me to, among other things, at least three possible dimensions of Islam … namely,  being a Muslim, being a Mu’min (believer -TCM), and being a Mohsin or one who practices ihsan or spiritual excellence. Becoming a Muslim may be the first step toward seeking Allah. However, there are many more spiritual way-stations along the spiritual journey of life.
With respect to the facet of your first question which raises the question of whether, or not, Sufism goes hand in hand with the shar’ (law) of Islam…many people seem inclined to translate ‘shari’ah’ as meaning law in a legalistic sense. The Qur’an is not a book of law. It is a book of spiritual guidance. The journey toward God is not an exercise in legal hermeneutics. It is an exercise in coming to understand the truth about ourselves, our relation with the universe, and our relationship with Divinity.
The word shari’ah appears only once in the Qur’an. In Surah 45, verse 18, one reads: “O Prophet, We have put you on the right way (shari’ah) concerning the deen, so follow it, and do not yield to the desires of ignorant people.” The etymology of shari’ah indicates that one of its root meanings – as a noun — concerns a place where animals come to drink water. A related verbal derivative from the same root – shar’a – refers to the process of taking a drink. Another word that is derived from the same root is shari’, and this term can refer either to a lawgiver, legislature, or one who determines the law. However, the same word also can refer to a street, path, or way.
Truth is the water to which God invites all Creation. In other words, God is the lawgiver in the sense of natural law, not legalistic conventions.

What encounter lead you to sound the warning about Sufi spiritual abuse?

I have had two spiritual teachers in my life. One of those individuals was, in my opinion, an authentic shaykh, while the other person was, in my opinion, a fraudulent shaykh … a charlatan.
My first – authentic – guide had asked me to conduct a weekly session concerning the Sufi path at the University of Toronto. I did this for about twenty years … including four, or so, years that followed the passing away of my guide. Somewhere early on during the aforementioned four-year period, a woman phoned me and asked if I was the one conducting the weekly Sufi meetings at the University of Toronto. I indicated that I was, and she replied that she would be at the next meeting…and she continued to do so for the next several years. She didn’t say much, but, from time to time, she would make references to her own spiritual guide.
Through a set of gradual steps which occurred across several years, I eventually had the opportunity to meet with her shaykh who was visiting from the United States. Following several more lengthy meetings with him, I indicated to the woman who had been coming to the weekly discussion group concerning the Sufi path that I wanted to be initiated and would she broach the subject with the teacher.
Although nothing had been intimated to me during the previous several years of association with the woman, nor during any of my several discussions with the ‘shaykh,’ it seemed – as I later found out – that the alleged shaykh had instructed the woman in question to find me, babysit me, and wait for the alleged ‘shaykh’ to make his way to Toronto in order to meet with me.
The unexpected twist to the initiation ceremony is that after that process concluded, the gathering was informed by the ‘shaykh’ – and there were about approximately 50 or 60 people who had assembled for the ceremony – that I was being made a ‘shaykh’ in the silsilah into which I had just been initiated. I had not come to the ‘shaykh’ for that purpose, and even though I had had a very close sixteen-year relationship with my first teacher and was something of a ‘right’ hand man for him, I went to the second ‘teacher’ with no expectations other than to continue on with the learning process concerning the Sufi path.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving


Seven or eight years into the relationship, circumstances led me to spend some time with the ‘shaykh’ in the United States. Although the people in the household were very observant with respect to holding ‘fatiha’ sessions — during which the Qur’an is recited, thanks is given to God, and blessings are sought for the different shaykhs in the spiritual lineage, as well as for the people who have gathered for the session — the people in the household seemed to be less observant when it came to prayers and fasting. It seemed that while, on certain occasions, they did perform salaat, more often than not, this did not seem to be the case … although it is quite possible that they observed the prayers by themselves in their own rooms.
The fasting issue – at least in the case of some individuals – was more overt. I was up for fajr during Ramadan, and after eating something prior to the beginning of fasting, I would say the morning prayers. After I got done, I noticed that some of the people were continuing to eat despite the fact that the time for eating had long since passed by. People – whether Muslim or non-Muslim — come to the Sufi path from all different conditions and with different spiritual capacities and different levels of commitment. What such people do is not necessarily a reflection of, or on, their spiritual guide.

Manipulating the Impressions of Others

I heard in a round-about way that people within the silsilah had been told by my ‘teacher’ to not bother me because I was in a state of jazb – or intense spiritual attraction, often characterized by a sense of spiritual intoxication – and, therefore, they should not disturb me or contact me.  Although we often are not the best judges of our own spiritual condition, I did not feel that what people were being told correctly described my spiritual station.
Certain allegations were made by various individuals that were critical of my ‘teacher.’ Yet, without facts which can be substantiated – and such facts are not always easily accessible — what is one supposed to do with those kinds of allegations?Unfortunately, life does always permit itself to be parsed in clearly understood terms. Sometimes our lives are left hanging in the interstitial spaces between what can, and cannot, be proven.

The final straw – the proverbial one which breaks the ‘camel’s’ back – came in the form of someone who was an initiate of mine…on one occasion, we had taken a trip to another state to visit with my ‘shaykh.’ Not too long after our return from that trip together, the individual began to behave in what I considered to be rather anomalous ways. Among other things, the person was going to take another trip to visit with the ‘shaykh,’ however, my ‘teacher’ had not said anything to me about the upcoming journey – despite his claim that he was under an obligation to tell me everything that took place in conjunction with the silsilah, and despite the fact that the individual who would be making the trip was supposedly my ‘student’ and, therefore, part of the spiritual adab or etiquette of the situation entailed that both my ‘shaykh’ and the student should ask my permission concerning the proposed journey. When that person returned from the journey, the individual indicated that I was no longer the student’s ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual guide.’

This turn of events tended to put a strain on the relationship.When we met in person, the individual began to tell me, little by little, what had transpired during the three week period of the aforementioned trip that had been spent in the company of my ‘shaykh.’ Whatever my former ‘student’s’ faults might, or might not, be, I knew the individual to be a very truthful person … someone who did not lie about other people.My former ‘student’ showed me a phone bill from December – the month before the trip – which indicated that my ‘shaykh’ had phoned the individual and spent many hours on the phone speaking with that person. I recognized the phone number.
A little later on, I followed up with a further investigation of something else that the ‘teacher’ had told me when I and my student had last visited with him the previous November. I checked with official sources – including the state police and the local police where the ‘shaykh’ was living – and uncovered indisputable facts indicating that my ‘shaykh’ had been lying to me about the event in question.
During subsequent investigations, I discovered that the ‘shaykh’ had been lying to other people about me. I began to understand that the reason why it seemed to me that I was being moved to the periphery of ‘silsilah’ activities was because this was, in fact, what was happening … but it was all done by the shaykh’s manipulating and managing the impressions that others had concerning me.

(To be continued…Subscribe to this blog (located in the lower left portion of the page), to receive an email notification of Part 2.)

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Disclaimer: The information linked to in this blog is for informational purposes only. The Civil Muslim does not endorse all of the views or allegations contained therein. The Civil Muslim does not endorse all views of persons interviewed, as stated here or elsewhere.
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  1. [...] author Anab Whitehouse) In Islam, Religion on February 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm Continuing from Part 1 of my interview with Dr. Anab Whitehouse, author of The Sufi Lighthouse: Illuminating Sufi [...]

  2. Salam. Thank for writing about this topic.

    You can listen to the Hamza Yusuf quote mentioned at the start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_5MIf2BSMw

    Barakallahu fik.
    Masalam.

  3. hi/salams,

    Is it a sin in Islam to leave a tareeqa, (simply because) if someone feels they can not live up to its obligations?

  4. [...] piece that resounded most with readers was my look at the phenomenon of spiritual abuse in the Sufi Muslim community. I had several people comment or email me privately with stories of abuse. Many more found this [...]

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