Season 1. Episode 1: Dr. Rania Awaad, Spiritual Abuse, Part 1

Season 1. Episode 1: Dr. Rania Awaad, Spiritual Abuse, Part 1

A discussion with Dr. Rania Awaad about the series of psychological impacts of spiritual abuse including grooming, moral confusion, nonresistance to prolonged abuse and failure to report. Based on her co-authored paper with Dr. Tabish Riaz for the 2020 Hurma Project Research Conference:

About Dr. Rania Awaad

Dr. Rania Awaad, M.D., is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine where she is the Director of the Muslim Mental Health Lab and Wellness Program and Co-Director of the Diversity Clinic. (Click here to be redirected the Muslim Mental Health Lab). She is also the Clinical Director of the San Francisco Bay Area branches of the Khalil Center (learn more about the Khalil Center by clicking here), a spiritual wellness center pioneering the application of traditional Islamic spiritual healing methods to modern clinical psychology. Prior to studying medicine, she pursued classical Islamic studies in Damascus, Syria and holds certifications (ijaza) in Qur’an, Islamic Law and other branches of the Islamic Sciences. In addition, she serves as the Director of The Rahmah Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating Muslim women and girls (The Rahmah Foundation: Islamic Education for Women, where Dr. Awaad directs the Murbiyyah program, click here Home | The Rahmah Foundation, to learn more). Dr. Awaad is a nationally recognized speaker, award-winning teacher, researcher and author in both the Islamic and medical sciences. Follow her on the following social medias @DrRaniaAwaad, or by clicking on the following social media links:



The following transcript has been edited for fluency.

Text in brackets indicate clickable links to resources that can be found on the Hurma Project website or it will redirect you to more information on our speakers/material using external links.

Ep1: Spiritual Abuse Part 1, Dr. Rania Awaad Transcript


Dr Mattson: Hello and welcome to the Hurma Project Podcast. The show where we seek to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community realities. Hurma is an Islamic legal term signifying the divinely granted inviolability of the human person from abuse, assault and exploitation. In this podcast, we speak with Muslim experts from a variety of fields about how to prevent and respond to assaults on the bodies, property, and honor of those who are present in Muslim spaces.

Whether those spaces are virtual discursive or physical spaces, such as mosques, schools and circles of remembrance. We examine common misconceptions about Islamic teachings that serve as barriers to safety and justice, and we present Islamic principles, precedents, and teachings that will help us correct and improve our communities.

I am Dr. Ingrid Mattson, founder of the Hurma project, which I direct with my friend and partner Mihad Fahmy. Since 2012, I’ve been the London and Windsor community chair of Islamic studies at Huron university college in London, Canada. Before that I founded and directed the Islamic Chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and served as president of the Islamic society of North America based in Indianapolis and Washington, DC. (You can learn more about Dr. Ingrid Mattson and her work by clicking here.)

Mihad: And I am Mihad Fahmy, a human rights lawyer and workplace investigator based in London, Ontario. I also teach at Huron University College at Western University on the intersection of religion and the law. My day-to-day work investigating and deciding complaints of harassment, bullying, and human rights violations involves a lot of listening, asking questions and then listening some more. I hope you will join me in doing just that with this podcast. (Learn more about Mihad Fahmy’s work by clicking here.)

Dr Mattson: Today we are speaking with Dr. Rania Awaad about her paper “Insights into the Psychological Sequelae of Spiritual Abuse” (click here to access the paper), a paper she wrote and presented with Dr. Tabish Riaz at the 2020 Hurma Project Research Conference.

Dr. Awaad is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine, where she is the director of the Muslim Mental Health Lab (click here to read more about the Muslim and Mental Health Lab at Stanford University). Chief of the diversity section and co-director of the intersectionality clinic through her outreach work at Stanford. She’s also the clinical director of the San Francisco Bay area branch of the Khalil Center, a spiritual wellness center, pioneering the application of traditional Islamic spiritual healing methods to modern clinical psychology. Prior to studying medicine Dr. Awaad pursued classical Islamic studies and Damascus, and she holds certifications in Qur’an, Islamic law and other branches of the assignment sciences, more information about Dr. Awaad as well as the research paper we discussed today can be found on the Hurma Project website. Before we begin, I want to give a content warning to our listeners in this episode of the Hurma Project Podcast. We will be discussing the sexual grooming and exploitation of a child and young woman.


Mihad: We’re really happy to have you with us, and what we want to do is start off our discussion around the synopsis or the case study that you discuss in the paper, that’s up on the Hurma Project website. And so we’re wondering if you can walk us through that case study first, cause that will form the basis for our discussion moving forward.

Dr Awaad: So this is a very difficult case. And the reason I have to first preface this by saying that the reason I chose this particular case is because it was very clear cut. Ofcourse wanting to give just content warning before we start. We’re talking about a sexual abuse of a minor, and I’m going to talk through the details in a minute here, but also because the case – the way it concluded was it was taken to court and prosecuted. And so it kind of gives you a case that’s has a clear beginning and a clear end. From there, we’re able to really draw from it the educational points that we want to talk about.

I just wanted to preface as to why this specific case was chosen. It is a case where the girl in the story here – she was actually a girl when this started because she was 13 years old when she first met the Imam in question. The case is of a girl whose father left the family when she was a young girl and because of that she has always felt a sense of abandonment. Her mother, in hopes of giving her a good male role model figure in her life, reached out to the
local Imam and asked if he could continue to mentor her daughter, be a support figure for her – and just sort of be someone in her life that she can turn to when she needs support and help. Which all seems like a reasonable thing to ask of a religious and spiritual leader.

Now over time from the age where she’s 13, over time the counseling and mentoring that was meant to happen in more of a very set, very platonic kind of situation. Unfortunately then went beyond the pale of a typical student teacher or counseling relationship, eventually, this whole case kind of inched along the lines of very sexual content.

There was over time, requests made of the girl from the Imam that were on a sexual nature of asking her to show more of herself on camera, for example, or to kind of exchange sexual content over texts and over pictures. Even to the extent where she would show herself in lingerie or belly dancing on the video chat and all of this was happening and she’s still a minor at this point. From 13 all through her teen years until it reaches a point when
she turns 18 he basically sends her an address and says, meet me here.

And often, she would actually go and meet him at various places. But in this particular case, when she arrived to the location she found that this was a motel. When she went to the motel, in her mind when she says, she thought they were going to be talking, but when she arrives, the Imam actually comes out of the bathroom naked. At that point has sex with her and all of this to say that she, in her mind, he had promised her marriage. And in fact, one of
the things that was very alarming and the statements that she says about him is that he had, when she asked him about marriage, he had actually said to her I have, jokingly, apparently that I have two spots available, he had already married two women and he had two more remaining.

So in her mind, this was heading in the direction of marriage. But immediately after this incident takes place, the Imam basically completely cuts ties with her and he says, I don’t intend to marry you. She’s very distraught of course by all of this and attempts to alert other people to what has happened, because she feels very depressed, even starts having some suicidal thinking, weight loss, it’s very much affected her emotionally, physically, and
psychologically. And when she finally comes to her family, to let them know that this has happened, they respond by actually kicking her out of the home. And so she’s homeless, she’s on the streets. And she eventually goes to the mosque director to report to him what has happened.

While this mosque director actually does point her in the direction of getting some mental health counseling, at the same time also discourages her from actually speaking out of the matter, because says that this would ruin the Imam’s reputation. The Imam is a family man, he’s a religious leader, he’s the beloved leader of the community and so on and so forth. So it actually takes her some time working up the courage to talk to anybody else about this. And she does actually go seek out mental health counseling and through that eventually decides to confront some of the board members of this mosque to let them know this has happened.

At that point, finally, they bring this forward to the Imam. He denies all claims that such a thing has happened, but he actually resigns the next day, which we’ll understand later is actually, a sign that something probably here has happened.

What’s really important in this – the end part of the story is that, the various figures who are playing a role, who’s actually allowing this to continue, and in some cases, blindly and in some cases overtly. But eventually there are some members that are part of the board who don’t want this to be publicly revealed.

So they go ahead and process the Imam’s resignation, but do not reveal exactly what has happened. And it’s not until much pressure later from legal action that finally the masjid also finally releases a public statement about what has happened here. Then this case actually goes to trial, and as you probably know, in July of 2019, that Imam was tried, found guilty of sexual misconduct and the woman in this case was awarded for damages due to the sexual exploitation and clergy malpractice and grooming that he was found guilty of.

Mihad: So let’s get into some definitions that you elaborate on in the paper. And the first one is the central one, which is spiritual abuse. So that term is slowly, very slowly starting to become more discussed in our communities. And in the paper, you define it as when a religious leader misuses authority to coerce or manipulate community members for personal gain. You go on to say that the term can encompass financial gain, sexual misconduct or harassment and bullying. So in this case, we’re talking about sexual misconduct clearly in the form of sexual abuse. And as I said, our understanding of this term is clearly developing and it’s evolving. And what I wondered about is whether or not you think it could also encompass conduct by a religious leader that isn’t necessarily intentional so not intentionally manipulative, but still problematic.

Dr Awaad: Yes, absolutely. This is a term that is more commonly being used, but I also think there’s quite a bit of confusion around it. And I think first, I like to say that the reason I put in so many different parts of this, so many different types of abuse is so that we can really broaden. This category because, for some people they might say no, I’m definitely not experiencing spiritual abuse, but they are absolutely drowning in debt because of something that is under the guise of supporting religious work or something of that. So that too is a
form of abuse.

So I just wanted to broaden that. This particular case, we focus on one aspect of spiritual abuse, which is in this case, sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. The question about, could it be something that’s unintentional in some of the other aspects, there’s that potential, but really what I want to say is what we know and understand psychologically about spiritual abuse about this kind of abuse is that it’s actually something that takes time. Hence the word grooming, which is a word I used earlier, it actually takes a lot of cunning behavior. And it’s something that, over time slowly but surely, slowly, but surely inches along lines that are very kind of a gray zone until actual abuse takes place.

So that’s a really important concept to understand here about this idea of, spiritual abuse. It’s not something that happens overnight and it’s not a one-time thing either.

Mihad: Okay, so this slowly sure, this kind of lead up to the actual abuse let’s take that idea and apply it to the case we talked about. So up until that point, where the abuser did make sexual advances towards the young woman. Can you tell us about the ways in which he crossed boundaries in the course of counseling her? What were the problematic things that happened up until that point of sexual abuse?

Dr Awaad: So, in this case, we see that in retrospect. These are the kinds of things, where sometimes you don’t see them until after the boundary has been crossed. And so some of the earlier signs, when we look retrospectively, you see, for example, that once this Imam started to become the father figure, which is a bit in itself, if you talk about it in a general mentorship sense, maybe not so problematic, but when you talk about it as he becomes the father figure for somebody. So here, for example, crossing the lines meant that he was doing things like co-signing her car on the car loan or loaning her money for a laptop. And again, if you take these things kind of independently, just one or the other by themselves, you don’t really see a problem per se.

The person who’s needed some financial assistance, maybe the mom was helping them out; however, if you start putting together, put the dots all in a row. You start connecting the dots. And when this started she’s 13, at this age, she’s very young. She’s very impressionable. We even understood that she would endearingly refer to him as Baba. Which means father, right? At which then if you fast forward to where the sexual advances happen, it’s very problematic to see where it went from a father figure, literally calling him father or Baba, to the sexual advances.

Clearly this individual understood that she was a minor. And the actual sexual abuse itself, didn’t happen until she turned 18 – that’s also another telling sign. So you see that from 13 to 18, he’s crossing boundaries of, the sexting and the sexual language and talk, the inappropriate video, chats and so on and a lot of sexual content, but no actual sexual interaction happens until she passes the age of 18. So, so all of this, you can’t really say this is, Oh, unintentional, we didn’t really see this coming. So when you start connecting the dots, you see, there’s a clear pattern here and that’s the key word. I want to emphasize a pattern of behavior.

Dr Mattson: Okay. That’s a really excellent, clear explanation, Dr. Rania. I wanted to follow up about a few of those points and then move into some others. So the first is, the issue of grooming. So you’ve explained what grooming means for the individual that there is a methodical planning and plotting that makes the vulnerable person become more and more dependent.

In this case we see certainly there was emotional dependence. There was financial dependence in terms of spiritual knowledge or spiritual life because this person, this man, this predator, was in a position of an Imam of a masjid. So all of this methodical, plotting and planning to make this vulnerable person more and more dependent shows how he was grooming her to be able to bring her to a position where it would have been very difficult for her to say no to him. Maybe she wouldn’t even have understood that saying yes was necessarily wrong because of these multiple dependencies on her. Can you talk a little bit about how this kind of grooming leads to impairments in terms of her ability to freely consent or not consent to the subsequent actions.

Dr Awaad: Absolutely, and I think this is really a point where it’s so important to understand psychologically where a person who has been abused, where cognitively, they do function differently. And I think this is where this term of like victim shaming, which I’m sure we’ll get to in a bit here comes up so often.

And people always want to understand, well, couldn’t that person say no, couldn’t they prevent the advances, don’t they have a role in all of this too. So part of what I want to do here is kind of explain the concept of trauma and how neurologically psychologically, when a person has been traumatized, particularly ongoing trauma. So this is a chronic issue, not an acute issue. This is kind of situation where over time and over time, a person is experiencing this kind of abuse. And really here, we can take a moment and kind of step back and generalize to all different forms of abuse. The same essential concept happens in the brain where a person really starts to struggle of figuring out what exactly are they able versus not able to do. So let me explain a little further, there’s a couple of concepts that I want to kind of define for us if that’s okay.

We talked about the grooming, which is that kind of slow, deliberate process of kind of, in this case, because of spiritual abuse, often guised in religious framework but then there’s another concept that happens, which is called a religious duress. And what that essentially means, is that role of the spiritual leader, that person has a lot of affinity, dependence in terms of knowledge and caretaking and so on from that leader, eventually also said it gives a person a sense of awe. Feeling that person is really not just special, but it also leads to an intimidating fear.

That heartfelt awe or respect, but it’s that intimidating fear: of disappointing that leader. And that phenomenon of being very overwhelmed to disappoint the leader is called religious duress. And I think that’s important to understand because once a person has developed that kind of religious duress, where you actually hear people say – Oh, I can’t possibly speak out about this, or I can’t possibly, but they are such a good person, they’re such a learned person. Look at how much they’re helping the community. So then you start to say to yourself, there’s something wrong with me, not them. And when that person has religious duress, it leads to the next level, which we call boundary violations. So in this case, for example, this person is inching along – this very predatory – boundary violation – he’s inching along until finally outright sexual abuse happens. When that happens, the victim in this case is paralyzed. There’s a sense of paralysis that happens, a fear of disbelief, of blaming oneself.

And that con that phenomenon we call moral confusion. The victim here really starts to struggle to understand and is overwhelmed by this paradox. And the paradox – is how could this  eligious leader, whom I put so much trust and faith in, sin, when they are the very person teaching me not to sin – that kind of paradox that happens. And because of it, leads a lot of guilt, a lot of blaming themselves, sometimes even believing that they’re the ones who led the religious leader to sin. So that moral confusion that happens is really key here. And I want to explain that because it has a direct, neuro-biological kind of response where if this continues to happen again, chronically and over time. You asked about the question of consent. Can the person actually give meaningful consent in the moment that the abuse has happened? Especially after kind of this grooming little by little. And the answer is no, we cannot expect, with this disrupted neural pathway, that the person, this victim who has been chronically abused, can give consent in the same manner as someone who has not experienced abuse.

Dr Mattson: I’d like to go back to the grooming process and to the concept of religious duress. We’ve discussed that in terms of an individual and how an individual can really fall under the spell of awe and fear of a religious leader. And how that can impact their ability to be able to even identify what is right or wrong.

If that religious leader crosses a line, crosses a boundary, violates a boundary, there is moral confusion. And we’ve talked about that with respect to individuals who are being abused. Dr. Rania, does this happen with communities as well? Is it possible in some way to understand that the denial that we see in many cases from community members somehow relates to a kind of communal grooming process?

Dr Awaad: Definitely the part about the communal duress. I think that’s definitely communal religious duress, is definitely a real phenomenon. As you mentioned here, we’re kind of focusing on one specific case, but over time, especially in the last many years here, it just seems like it’s one case after another.

And I want to make this point actually, even though the cases we are hearing of community leaders, religious leaders, quote-unquote, falling like flies each and every one of them. Seemingly engaging in inappropriate behavior, abusive behavior and so on. It seems like it’s everybody. And then there’s this feeling of – who are we going to trust? But I do want to make a point before I go further in that line of thinking, which is that in actuality, the majority of religious leaders and chaplains and so on, are people who humbly serve God and bow their head and serve the community and do not engage in this kind of behavior.

This type of behaviour, and these types of spiritual abuse behaviours are predatory behaviours and they are only a small subset and percentage of overall leaders. Now because of this era that we’re in with social media, and because we’re in an era where there could be these individual cases that are highlighted and played over and over, you might even say, it seems to us – to the community, that everybody is abusive and we shouldn’t trust anybody at all. And in that sense, it absolutely causes this kind of community based religious duress. Overwhelming emotions, overwhelming fear, I should say, and mistrust of religious leadership. So I just wanted to kind of add that piece.

Mihad: Yeah. I actually want to stick with that point around moral confusion just for a moment before we move on. Because when I read that term in the paper, it really resonated with me because I thought back to situations exactly, as you described it, where my own reaction, even as someone just learning that those whom I had so respected and learned from had engaged in misconduct in sexual abuse was very overwhelming and very confusing. And so this idea of communal moral confusion I think is very real. I think it’s particularly so when it comes to our youth and the impact that it can have on our youth is really troubling. So I think that’s something we need to reflect on. You talked about the moral confusion of this young woman in the case and how it impacted her consent. Before we move on, could you highlight how it may have impacted her response in general to the situation aside from specific the specific issue of consent.

Dr Awaad: Definitely, this is where I was trying to highlight who are the different players in the story after she attempted to come forward, because what happens here and the kind of emotions that people – that victims feel – is that there is absolutely a sense of their own internal shame.

Their own internal kind of – embodying shame. Like it being the quote – unquote in this case she was very young. So the troubled child, always kind of painting herself as I’m the one who is always causing trouble. And in this case, here is this great religious leader and I have caused the trouble. So internalizing guilt and also blaming, a lot of internal blaming. And especially in adolescents. We find in the literature, it actually supports this too.

Ben Kurt and Doyle wrote an important paper on this very topic where adolescent aged victims more often actually observed in having severe feelings of guilt and self-blame when it relates to clergy member misconduct. So, I really want to highlight that as well. And so here’s this person carrying around, shame, guilt, self-blame. In addition to that moral confusion that we talked about, and duress, all of this is being carried around, trying to say I’ve had this very difficult thing happen. Being silenced and being told, you can’t tarnish the reputation of this important person, you sever all kinds of trust as well. You’re left completely alone. Very much isolated. Here in her case, there was even a more extreme situation of being kicked out of the home and living on the streets. There were so many difficult things that happened to this young woman. But in general, it wasn’t until there was another person who stood up, an adult figure who stood up and said, this is wrong and this must get dealt with appropriately. If she couldn’t have actually reached that healing process that I hope we’ll end up talking about.

Mihad: So let’s talk about her going to the board for a moment, that stage, that very significant step that she took. So this was quite remarkable to me because there are so many other cases where the person who has been abused does not report. And I believe in your paper, you talk about that recurring theme of failure to report. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are on what was at play here that allowed her to take that really important step in coming forward and talking to somebody from the board.

Dr Awaad: Going back to the topic of isolation, I think there’s something psychologically that happens that’s very important that allows a person to be able to try, try to move forward. And that dependence that we saw earlier on the Imam. When the Imam cut ties with the patient, by the way, I have to backtrack here just a moment and say another one of those red flags that showed up retrospectively, is that there was also a pattern of cutting off ties
like this on purpose.

That every time she wouldn’t comply with sexting or some other thing he would just cut off completely from her for days and not speak to her and not return her messages and so on. And it was very manipulative. And also the kind of thing that played on her issues of abandonment.

Again, her father had abandoned her and this was her father figure and doing the same kind of sense of abandonment. And so when the Imam completely cut ties with her, after having sex with her, she now was completely cut off, totally. And we heard about how she fell into depression and suicidal thinking and so on. Here, something important happens, which is that feeling like, okay, this person is no longer my go-to, I’m free to be able to move beyond this person. And that takes a ton of courage. And this is exactly the point, as you mentioned,
where people are not able to take that step.

It’s incredibly difficult stuff. It takes us a lot of courage. And this is when the literature speaks to this. When I keep referring to literature on is, there’s actually a lot of literature from the Catholic community and the literature related to nuns and priests, as well. Not just victims, but also some of the clergy members who’ve experienced abuse at the hands of other clergy members. But what we find is that the sense of healing or the ability to actually just begin healing and to actually be able to speak up, a lot of it has to do with how the community is supportive and those who are able to help and respond. And that’s such a key ingredient to this healing process.

Mihad: So would you say that her coming forward was part of that healing process for her.

Dr Awaad: Absolutely.

Mihad: And I’m sure that, the healing process is something we’ll get into, but as members of our various communities, what steps can we take to facilitate that healing?

Dr Awaad: One of the first very important pieces of this, before we can even talk about healing is that if somebody, let’s say community member, comes up to a community leader and says, X, Y or Z has happened to me.

Maybe they don’t even say I need anything. They just say this traumatic incident happened to me. The very first thing is to actually listen. I feel like this seems like such a simple, straightforward thing, but this is exactly where we lose the ability to help somebody when we just shut off our listening abilities.

So at this very first stage, listening to the person, even if you don’t really say or do anything just yet, but just listening becomes the very, very first step. And we find that when cases of abuse are mishandled it’s because the person coming forward was not listened to. And often that the person who was in power that religious leader, or maybe it’s a community leader or any other person – we continue to empower the abuser by essentially allowing them to still stay functioning in that space of power without calling them to account in any way. So when a case comes forward, one of the first things we often have to remind us ourselves is to be supportive in actually being able to listen, to understand the different ways that a victim actually copes with their abuse, which may not make sense to us.

I find that a lot of people judge and say, well, why wouldn’t they do this? Or how come they don’t do that? When you start to understand that the coping mechanisms that a person that’s experienced trauma and abuse is very different than a person who is not experienced trauma and abuse.

Does that make sense?

Mihad: It does. And listening, sounds to me that has to be the response that we all have is to first and foremost, listen to the person who has come forward to you, because as you said, that is an incredibly difficult step to have taken.

Dr Awaad: To even have taken the step, to open your mouth and say anything, knowing that there will be a backlash, knowing that there probably will be people who point the finger of blame at you, so on and so forth. But knowing that you risk your standing quote-unquote in the community and so on. To even have come forward takes so much courage that if a person does come forward to first, just listen. I’m not even asking anybody to take another step just yet, or to say that they yay or nay. Just listen first.

And one thing I want to say about this listening piece is that over time – remember we said earlier, how it’s a pattern of abuse, one of the first things over time I found myself saying to people who’ve come forward is to ask myself, well, if I know that there is a pattern of abuse, usually predatory behavior is patterned behavior. That means that this is probably not the only victim. And that’s what’s very troubling because in this case, when the masjid had him resigned, but never said what the issue was publicly not until much later. The Imam was free to go onto some other masjid and with his credentials as an Iman, continue to be an Imam somewhere else. And for all we know, as he kind of travels across the country and leaves in his wake victims, they can’t connect the dots because no one is saying exactly what the issue is.

Mihad: Do you find it difficult not to shift into action mode. So what I mean by that is, for me as a lawyer, if I were to hear something like this, my instinct would be, what are we going to do? As opposed to, you listen first, but as you’re listening, your wheels are turning and thinking what next? So is that problematic?

Dr Awaad: So, yes. I fully understand this, because that is exactly what I want to do, go exactly into action mode. But you have to remember too, that the person coming forward may not necessarily be asking that of you just yet. In fact, going into action mode might actually mean that you’re not listening quite enough to what they need, because at that moment, what they might need is actually support, is empathy, is validating the emotions that they’re feeling, is pointing them in the direction of, and I do make this point because it happened for the young lady, pointing in the direction of counseling, which we found. Then when she had that mental health counseling, it actually opened up the door for her to be able to move forward in healing.

These are some of the initial steps and it may not come intuitively or naturally to us, especially if we want to go into action mode. And so in that I mentioned a 2013 study of nuns who are sexually abused by priests. And I bring this up because I think it was really interesting that the woman they studied here, they asked them, how is it that they ended up having a kind of spiritual regrowth. Kind of being able to undergo, after that post traumatic situation, what they called was post traumatic spiritual growth, is what they termed it in the paper.

And I thought that was such an interesting concept, after you go through trauma for many, so many people, when it’s at the hands of a spiritual religious leader. They loose not just faith in the person, but also in the religion altogether and the faith altogether. And here was a very interesting case where there was actually spiritual growth afterwards.

And when you see, what is it that happened? It was actually the integration of that trauma into a religious narrative. A narrative that actually then provided those positive outcomes. And the nuns in this case were reporting that one of the most positive and significant factors in their healing and their treatment was the community acceptance and public support.

That is really important here because often, in our communities, and because there is religious instruction, not to air dirty laundry. We must talk about where we draw the line here when individuals sin versus somebody who is in a place of power has misconduct but then has the ability to jeopardize so many other people in his or her wake.

Mihad: That’s so interesting for a number of reasons, but Dr. Mattson and I have been talking about really what motivates us to do this work in a big central piece, is that the impact can be enormous. For individuals in terms of their relationship with Allah, with their faith, with their connection with their faith community.

So it’s really interesting to know that other faith communities have engaged in this kind of deep research around that.

Dr Awaad: Yeah. In that case, in that situation, I really think that they’re ahead of us in that space. And so much of in writing this paper and looking for, of course we have our deen based knowledge and drew a lot from there. But the parts that kind of are more evidence- based, that there are actual studies done, so much of it came out of the Catholic literature. By this, I mean to say that this abuse and spiritual abuse is a human condition. It’s going to exist in every faith, in every non-faith in every group of people. There’s always going to be
where humans abuse one another.

It’s a human condition. So we, as Muslims should never kind of stick our heads in the sand and say, this doesn’t happen to us, this can’t be the case, or victim blaming of, well you did that, you caused that because this can’t possibly be. That is a very immature way of thinking, and talking about this issue.


Mihad: We sincerely thank Dr. Rania Awaad for joining us in this first episode of the Hurma Project Podcast and helping us begin the conversation around spiritual abuse in Muslim spaces. The case study Dr. Awaad walked us through gives rise to a number of issues that call for further reflection, study, and action. First, it’s important to recognize that spiritual abuse often happens over time, slowly inching along a gray zone until the actual abuse takes place.

This process, in some cases, amounts to grooming and can lead the vulnerable person to become morally confused and lack the ability to give consent. Communal moral confusion is also very real. We often cannot fathom that someone so highly respected and regarded has engaged in an abuse of power. And finally a victim’s healing journey is closely tied to how her community responds to her disclosures and whether, and how support is provided.

We continue our conversation with Dr. Awaad in the next episode of the Hurma Project Podcast (click here for next episode). We will discuss the multiple impacts of trauma, the role of community members and supporting a victim through the healing process and some of the red flags of unhealthy teacher-student relationships.

We want to take a moment and recognize that the issues and information we discussed in this episode are difficult. They’re weighty and they can take a toll on our mental health. We encourage listeners to seek out resources and community supports, and we’ve listed some that we hope will be of use to you on our website And of course, we always invite you to visit our website to learn more about the ongoing work of the Hurma Project.

If you liked this episode and want to help us reach a broader audience, there are a few things that you can do. Subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform, leave us a rating or review, or tell someone in your life about the Hurma Project Podcast and the work of the Hurma Project. We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you, until then, salamu alaikum.