One Muslim Chaplain's Blog

(PART 2) The Sheikhdown: Signs of Sufi Spiritual Abuse (Interview with 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 Spiritual Abuse, we discuss signs of abuse and what counsel he has for those who suspect they have been victimized.  -TCM
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TCM: You say in your book’s description that “if they seek to gain control over others through techniques of undue influence, then they are propagators of spiritual abuse.” It is essentially an exploitation of the teacher-student emphasis in Sufism, is it not? What should we be looking for here?
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Since truth is at the heart of the spiritual path, anyone who controls the access routes to the truth has a considerable advantage relative to those who are being kept in the dark with respect to such matters. Spiritual abuse – whether done in conjunction with the Sufi path or in relation to the Muslim community in general – is about controlling essential information or understanding and, then leveraging such control in order to induce people to cede their moral, intellectual, and spiritual agency to those who control things.
Spiritual abuse is about the betrayal of trust. One trusts a person to be truthful with one, and when that trust is betrayed, the control of information entailed by such betrayal is used as a tool to hide the nature of the breach of trust.
To the best of my recollection, my first spiritual guide – the authentic one – never lied to me or, to the best of my knowledge, anyone else. Within the context of what could and could not be talked about with respect the mystical path [and as Prophet Moses – peace be upon him – discovered in relation to the spiritual being, Khizr (may Allah be pleased with him), there are certain knowledge which is above our spiritual pay grades], my shaykh was very forthcoming with his comments, even if those comments were, on occasion, not always pleasant to hear. Sometimes he was upset with me for some of the mistakes I made, and sometimes he was happy with me for those instances in which, somehow, I got things right. He offered guidance, but he never told me what to do … the choice was mine. When it came to matters of prayer, fasting, zikr, seclusion, and so on, I was the one who asked him about such issues. They were explained to me, but they were never imposed on me. The information and knowledge that he shared with me were intended as guidance. I took as much, or as little, as I was able to manage at the time, and I sought to inculcate such understanding into my life as best as I could and to whatever extent God permitted.
With my first shaykh, most of the facts that I needed to gauge the meaning of his behaviors and words were out in the open – facts to which I had ready access many days of the week. With the second ‘teacher’ most of the facts that were needed to gauge the meaning of his behaviors and words were hidden.

The Prophet once counseled a person that if the latter individual wanted to know whether, or not, to trust someone, then they should have some business dealings with such an individual or go on a journey with that person. Such situations often cannot be scripted and, therefore, one has an opportunity to see how a person responds under difficult or problematic circumstances. I never had that kind of cross-situational confirmation when it came to the second, fraudulent shaykh.

Is information used to induce people to cede their moral, intellectual, and spiritual authority to a human being, or is that information used to induce an individual to seek God and only God? Is information used to help the individual to work toward spiritual independence, or is that information used to create emotional, psychological, or social dependencies of one kind or another with respect to the ‘guide’ or the ‘silsilah’? Is information being used to shape and manipulate behavior in relation to better serving the ‘teacher,’ or is that information being used to shape behavior so that it permits the individual – God willing – to be able to better serve God and the purpose of one’s life? Is information being fed to one through third parties, or is the information coming directly from the teacher, and when the former situation is the case – this is referred to as triangulation – then, oftentimes, the purpose of such triangulation is to leverage that information as a way to manage the impressions of the person toward whom it is directed. Is the information one has concerning the ‘shaykh’ based on one’s own direct experiences, or is that information a function of third-party accounts that are unverified by one’s own process of ‘fact’ checking?
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TCM: In the few cases where alleged victims have gone public, many Muslims responded very critically, arguing there is no proof, that these are “random” “anonymous” people making claims, and it becomes an issue of their word against a sheikh who obviously has accumulated more trust and charisma amongst Muslims. Is there any way to prove abuse? Why are so many of these people unwilling to share their identities?
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One of the reasons why people are so unwilling to share their identities – whether their own or that of those who are ‘fraudulent’ teachers — is precisely because of the abusive ways in which they often are treated by people in the general public … many of whom, quite frequently have no insight concerning the issue of spiritual abuse.
When the topic of spiritual abuse is raised, many people become uncomfortable because they are being asked – or induced — to think about an issue that has potential ramifications for their own lives, and, yet for a variety of reasons they don’t want to take the time or make the effort or spend the resources that will be necessary to properly address such issues. Spiritual abuse is all around us. The problem is not restricted to merely certain spiritual charlatans that serve as pretenders on the Sufi path, but, as well, spiritual abuse is given expression through many of the khutbahs that are delivered on Fridays and on other occasions.
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Just as God made Iblis possible, God made false shaykhs possible
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When I was associated with my first shaykh – the one whom I consider to be authentic – I had an extensive opportunity to work with many facets of the Muslim community. I met a lot of very good people, and I also met a lot of not very nice people. Many of the latter individuals were, in one way or another, interested in gaining control over various segments of the Muslim community in order to advance their personal agendas that entailed political and financial purposes. I encountered many individuals who shared with me their detailed and credible accounts concerning various alleged shaykhs, and some of the alleged shaykhs were very well known … both here in North America, as well as elsewhere in the world. Many of the foregoing accounts were given independent corroboration – that is, different people shared certain information with me concerning one and the same shaykh without knowledge that such independent sharing was taking place. By the Grace of Allah, authentic tasawwuf has had an extremely deep and lasting impact upon my life. However, just as God made Iblis possible, God also made false shaykhs possible.
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Truth does not reside in the reputation of anyone
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Truth does not reside in the reputation of anyone, and if one is not prepared to take the time and make the effort to determine the truth with respect to the issue of whether, or not, false shaykhs lurk amongst us, then anyone who rests their opinion on someone’s reputation rather than substantive evidence is giving expression to an essentially biased opinion concerning the matter, and, therefore, such a person is not in a position to offer an objective account of the matter.When I had gathered the array of facts which, beyond a reasonable doubt, proved that my second spiritual ‘guide’ was a charlatan, I sought to share this understanding with other people in the silsilah with which I was associated. For them to acknowledge and accept the truth of what I told them concerning the alleged ‘shaykh’ would require them to change their way of thinking and behaving in relation to so many facets of life that they became overwhelmed with the prospect of their lives – spiritually and emotionally — spinning out of control. Many people in the general Muslim community are in somewhat the same boat as the foregoing individuals with whom I talked. Denying the idea of spiritual abuse is easier for them than is engaging the matter head on.
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TCM: Some have taken issue with me using the term “Sufi”—they argue that this abuse is not “true” Sufism and more of a fringe. On the other hand, I’ve encountered things in classical mainstream Sufi texts* that one might regard as “extreme” in its devotion to the sheikh or teacher. Would it be wrong to say that the tradition of Sufism itself contain the seeds for abuse?
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If one has complete confidence in, and trust concerning, the authenticity of a given shaykh, then there is no limit to what, God willing, might be accomplished … as long as the seeker is correct with respect to his or her judgment of the matter. If, on the other hand, the seeker is wrong with respect to his or her judgment concerning a given shaykh’s authenticity, then disaster may very possibly await such an individual. The seeds of abuse are not in authentic tasawwuf. The seeds of abuse are inherent in those individuals who seek to offer people a counterfeit version of the real thing.
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TCM: What is your advice to the victim of spiritual abuse, whether at the hand of a “Sufi sheikh” or someone else? For whistleblowers, how do you deal with accusations of of “backbiting” and not “veiling the sins” of such figures?
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My counsel for those who might have encountered spiritual abuse – whether at the hands of a fraudulent shaykh or some other portal of ignorance – is to seek out a compassionate witness … someone who is willing to empathetically listen to one’s experiences and, without judgment, attempt to help one to sort things out. This compassionate witness might, or might not, be a professional counselor, or it could be a friend, relative, or a spouse.
Moreover, I have seen many people lose their faith completely following an encounter with spiritual abuse. Everything which comes into our lives has been placed there by God and has the potential for serving as a vehicle for spiritual growth or spiritual dissolution … the choice is ours. Life is a contact sport. God contacts us in many ways, and it is our responsibility to work our way through the enjoyable as well as problematic dimensions of such contact. Among all of Creation, the Prophets were the most severely challenged in relation to the manner in which they were contacted by God in the form of difficult life situations. However, the Qur’an has promised us that we each will be challenged with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in order to test us with respect to the purpose of life … that is, to learn about the truth that is given expression through all life events and to use such truth to enhance our understanding of our relationship with ourselves, God, and all of Creation.
As far as the issues of back-biting and hiding the faults of others is concerned, the Qur’an is replete with many examples in which people are warned about the faults of individuals who are specifically named – e.g., Iblis — and are used as illustrative examples to teach people about the sorts of individuals who are to be avoided or engaged with extreme caution. Where possible, the faults of others should be concealed, but there are circumstances in which the need to warn someone outweighs such considerations. Like so many things, this is an issue of discernment, and one must exercise considered judgment in relation to these sorts of matters.

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*From al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism: “After the aspirant has given up his property and rank, he should make good his pact with God Most High and not oppose his master in anything that the latter prescribes to him. For opposition to one’s master during one’s novitiate is a grave deficiency, because one’s initial state is the best indicator of [what will happen to him] during the rest of his life. One condition for success is that there should be no opposition to the master in his student’s heart. If it occurs to the aspirant that he has any value or power in this world and the next, or that there’s on the face of the earth someone who is more lowly than he, he has no right to [aspire to God]…Should he happen to disagree with what the master has commanded to him, he must confess this in front of his master immediately. He then should submit himself to the master’s judgment as a punishment for his transgression and objection. ” p. 406

“If the aspirant cannot find someone who could instruct him in the place he lives, it is incumbent on him to travel to someone who is renowned in his age for [his] guidance of novices. He must stay with this teacher and never leave the door of his house except for the canonical prayers.” p. 410
“When the hearts of the Sufi masters accept an aspirant, this is the clearest proof that he will achieve salvation.” p. 411
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