Episode 2: Dr. Rania Awaad, Spiritual Abuse, Part 2

Episode 2: Dr. Rania Awaad, Spiritual Abuse, Part 2

The second part of our discussion with DrRania 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: https://hurmaproject.com/research/articles/

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.

Ep2: Spiritual Abuse Part 2, Dr. Rania Awaad


Dr Mattson: Hello, and welcome to the Hurma Project Podcast. A show where we seek to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community realities. Today we continue our conversation with Dr. Rania Awaad. 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.

Prior to studying medicine, Dr. Awad pursued classical Islamic studies in Damascus, and she holds certifications in Qur’an and Islamic law and other branches of the Islamic sciences. More information about Dr. Awaad can be found on the Hurma Project website.

In episode one of the Hurma Project podcast, Dr. Awaad presented a case of spiritual abuse, where a religious leader engaged in the grooming and sexual exploitation of a teenager who was particularly vulnerable due to her history of childhood trauma. Dr. Awaad explained that a series of psychological impacts of the trauma and grooming included moral confusion, non-resistance to prolonged abuse and failure to report. Dr. Awaad also shared with us the hopeful news that post-traumatic spiritual growth is possible, especially when survivors find support, love and acceptance from their communities. The detailed examination of the case can be found in the research paper Dr. Awaad presented along with her co-author, Dr. Tabish Riaz at the 2020 Hurma Project research conference, the paper is available on our website.

In today’s episode, we returned to the topic of trauma and impaired decision-making because we sometimes hear objections to the characterization of such cases as abusive. If the groomed person is an adult who in normal circumstances is morally accountable for their actions. The Islamic legal term here is mukalaf. So I asked Dr. Awaad to help us understand how the capacity to consent is impaired by grooming and abuse.

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.


Dr Awaad: This concept of impaired capacity is a very real thing. This goes back to some of the neurobiology we described and how when a person has experienced their religious duress and has experienced, I should say first grooming and then religious duress. And eventually when boundary violations happen, then moral confusion, there is phenomenon that happens that then explains why the consent can be very much altered.

This issue of taklif, can the person really be making the right decisions or be expected to make decisions in the same way as somebody who’s not been traumatized would make decisions. And that’s called the trauma bond. Some people will know this more commonly known as the Stockholm syndrome. What that means is, the person who has been traumatized forms this bond with the abuser. Not only a dependence, but also a feeling that this person must know what’s best and has my best interest at heart, and so therefore I must concede to whatever is happening here. And often people will say, especially in consent, why does this person keep going back, they keep going back to this abuser. Isn’t that a sign that it’s not really abuse.

And the answer to this is that, there’s a phenomenon called this trauma bond or the Stockholm syndrome, which basically means a dependence on the abuser, an inability to think for oneself fully and clearly. And the kind of dependence where it literally impedes their ability to recognize red flags that otherwise someone who’s not experienced the abuse would be able to recognize, probably very clearly. But this person isn’t able to, considering the trauma that they’ve been undergoing.

Especially when it’s a child, especially when it’s an adolescent; someone who’s at a stage where the brain is not fully developed. Now the research is showing that our executive function, the frontal cortex, for example, that it will be developed fully by 21. Now research is showing it’s not actually fully developed until about 24. So we’re talking about a developing brain. One that’s not fully in place just yet to have the different abilities to make a decision, which is a very complex situation. And if that’s altered, then you can see why putting taklif, as you mentioned, putting this burden of making decision making becomes very difficult thing to ask or expect of a person.

Mihad: So could we go back to your discussion at the beginning of our conversation around the impact of trauma from a neurobiological standpoint. So in workplace investigations, which is an area that I practice, a lot of discussion now is coming around the impact of trauma, on how we conduct investigations and ultimately how a case is adjudicated if necessary.

And we’re trying to understand how processes can be altered if at all, in order to accommodate the traumatic experience of a victim. And I’m wondering if you can comment on how trauma impacts a complainant or a victim’s ability to participate in what can be a very taxing, a very stressful experience for anybody in the best of times.

It’s a very stressful process for somebody who’s never gone through it. And then when you have the trauma, how does that impact her ability to engage?

Dr Awaad: Especially when you’re talking about testimony in legal cases, one of the things that we know and is now been established over and over again in the literature about post-traumatic stress syndrome, PTSD. And this is what’s so difficult for people who do not understand PTSD or do not understand trauma, like they have no actual literacy in this topic. They can’t understand why the person in front of them is unable to comply with testimony or when they give their testimony.

This is probably even more likely, that when they give testimony there’s a lot of gaps and holes in it. Sometimes when they retell the story, it sounds like they’re telling two or three or four different stories. And therefore they’re accused of lying. And it becomes very contentious.

One of the things that’s proven with PTSD is because when trauma happens, one of the other things that happens, a protective measure of the brain. It basically takes something very complex and oversimplified here, essentially puts pause on some of the memories being made. And so the reality is people sometimes describe, when they come to relive which is very difficult, their trauma and re-discuss it. We have these terms in PTSD where we call it re-experiencing, kind of going through that again. Often what happens, there’s memory gaps, and that’s a self-preservation mechanism that the brain does for the person. Almost like protecting them from some of the most difficult things.

So when they come to retell the story, it literally sounds like sometimes two or three different stories, or it sounds like big holes and gaps. And when a person comes and especially in a case, like you mentioned in legal proceedings, this is a very problematic. Because as soon there’s question about their testimony, does a whole case get thrown out?

And this is a really key thing to remember and to understand the phenomenon of the memory gaps that happen in trauma. So that’s one thing. And then there’s the other aspects of having to re-experience or relive the case in these legal proceedings, which is painful.

Even oftentimes when a person is ready to come forward, has the community support. I mean, maybe all things are kind of working in the direction of being able to bring this case forward. The victim themselves may choose not to. Because they simply don’t want to relive or re-experience, and they know that predator needs to be taken into account needs to be, essentially quote unquote, pay for what he or she has done. But they, the victim don’t want to go through with it because it’s just too much to re-experience or to relive it all.

Mihad: And are you seeing more of these cases in your clinical practice?

Are you seeing more people come forward with cases of experienced spiritual abuse?

Dr Awaad: Yes. It’s a hard question to answer exactly because I don’t want to say that there is necessarily more quote unquote spiritual abuse than there had been before. I think what’s happening is there’s more of an awareness of it.

As a human condition, cross-sectionally over all people and over probably all times that this phenomenon has always existed. I think what we’re seeing now is more of an ability to name this type of abuse and willingness for the community to support it. We’re back to that idea of community support of people.

And we know from mental health research, in fact, all the research I do in my own lab, the Stanford Muslim mental health lab, every single study we’ve done on Muslim mental health has shown that the very first people that a person who’s experienced any type of mental health concern, the very first person they’re willing to go to is usually family or friends. Sometimes family comes up first. Sometimes friends come first. But the point is, it’s almost never the professionals, it’s almost always friends and family. And the reason I say that, it’s so key and so important because that means that is the community support.

These are the people who when a person comes forward and says this devastating thing has happened. The next steps depends a lot on the friends, family, and community’s reaction and the kind of support or lack thereof. And I think we’re seeing more of the cases come forward because we’re starting to name this, and people, the friends and family circles are starting to say, this is wrong, here is help.

Again to really make this very clear and how much of a human condition that is.That study I told about earlier about the nuns, in their study too. The researchers there found the exact same findings, which they found that the community support that they experienced actually had such a significant effect on the whole case that it was, they described acceptance, love, supportive community members, was all those three things were the legitimizing and healing experiences that the abuse victims needed.

Mihad: And when you said that the first people that those experiencing mental health crises or struggles go to our family and friends. What did you find about the incidents of going to a religious leader or an Imam? Because we know that they are starting not starting, bute one of the pressures on our Imams and religious leaders is that, community members, congregants are unwilling, uncomfortable in many cases of seeking out mental health support, and you talk about that in your paper. When they do turn to the Imams and the Imams are untrained to provide counseling and therapy, they find themselves in a difficult situation. So I’m curious is that commonfrom your research?

Dr Awaad: Very much. We’ve repeated these studies, after 10 years just to see what happened. And it’s very interesting. The question is basically, whom would you go to first, second, and third, if you felt that you had a mental health concern? I believe similar, at least to how the question is worded. And the study, that I had done 15 years ago, shows that family and friends was first.

Then secondly actually came the Imams or community leaders. And later, I would say by a large margin, came the professionals. And so that was really interesting. Now this question was repeated very recently actually, in 2018. So in about almost 15 year kind of gap between the two studies. And in the more recent study, which is very recent, shows friends and families are still first.

For some people it’s family before friends, and people’s friends before family. But the point is friends and family always take the biggest chunk first, and then it was professionals, and then it was Imams, which is very interesting. We’re about to report on this. We were writing a paper on this right at the moment because there is a trend and there’s something changing in the community.

This is all amongst Muslims, definitely mimics the broader society around this too. Because the terminology and the thinking, and even just using the word mental health is now much, much more common. I would say that 10 years ago, especially somewhere in the last five years, has become much more of a thing in the Muslim community to talk about and to legitimize and to explain. We still have a long way to go, but it’s much more prevalent. There’s all these talks now on mental health. Whereas, 15 years ago, doing this work we had to, couch it in families, parents, and parenting and all kinds of other terminology just to avoid the word mental health. So this is changing.

And the part about the Imams, whether they come in second place or third place, I have to say they are still going to continue to be frontline supporters and responders to our community on all issues and cases. And as you mentioned, many of which, they’re not actually trained in because unless they did family counseling, they don’t know how to counsel marriage and divorce, marital and premarital counseling, unless they’ve actually taken courses in that. They only have their own personal reading or their own personal experience. Not at a more robust professional experience.

Same with cases of abuse, not understanding trauma, or even more taboo issues like the topic of suicide, when a suicidal person comes forward and what do they do? What do they say? If all they have in their toolbox, is this is haram.

So here, we’re trying to say that there’s much more complex issues that require deeper training. And some people have done whole careers and professions on how to counsel. So we put our Imams in predicaments, we put them in these very difficult situations. We put so much on their shoulders. I would say communities are only now just very slowly starting to realize you can’t go to the Imams for everything. But when Imams are approached, they too need to be able to stand up and say, this is wrong. Even if it’s about their own colleague or friend

Dr Mattson: Dr. Rania, I think you make such an important point here about the necessity to delineate the roles of people in the community and for people to be aware of their own knowledge and skill limitation.

And for those who appoint them, also to be aware of those limitations at the same time. Recognizing that there is a place for everyone in supporting those who are struggling with whatever issue they might have, and stopping abuse. So the fact that friends and family are usually the first people to whom anyone who’s experienced abuse, discloses their abuse too is the reason why we need general education or general literacy.

It’s one of the reasons why we founded the Hurma Project and are presenting these audio interviews through the podcast so that all of us can have the basic information that we need in order to, first do no harm. And first do no harm is not only the physician’s ethic, but it’s also an Islamic ethical principle.

That we need to first avoid a harm and then we can do a good. And we’ve seen in this case here that at various stages, there were those who either harmed, or helped the child and then the young woman who suffered abuse. So for example, what we see very often is the reaction of community members as you’ve outlined in this case where community members shame the victim or deny that this possibly could have happened.

Perhaps there’s some kind of collective moral confusion here because they, like the victim, also trusted the Imam and saw the Imam as a symbol of religious knowledge, and as you say, religious purity. But they were speaking about something they had no knowledge of, there’s no way anyone in the community can know what happened in a place where they were not present.

So it shows that community members need to refrain from speaking about something about which they have no knowledge. And then we have the reaction of the board, very often in cases the board decides to investigate, although they are not trained investigators, like Mihad Fahmy, she’s undergone many years of education, training, and experience investigating workplace violations.

The board is not trained for investigations and they certainly aren’t trained to be judges either. Because very often we see that board members, or even maybe scholars who are called in to help with the situation, take the defacto role of judges. Even though this isn’t a court and they haven’t been trained as qudat.

So, this idea of overstepping our bounds of knowledge and authority is something that we see persistent throughout these cases of abuse. And at the same time, I’m really happy to hear that you saythere is a role for everyone. Everyone can do something to help that abused person have the abuse stop, find justice, and heal as well.

Dr Awaad: Absolutely. And I would also add to that the role of the Imam as the first responder for many, this is a phenomenon that exists in other faith communities as well, but very highly. So in the Muslim community, where we go to the amount for everything from marital issues to my kids using drugs to I need counseling for X, Y, or Z, to what’s the ruling on this the thing or the other, subhanaAllah.

They’re kind of these first-line responders and they have such an important role in establishing what we call the safe space. Which I hope to talk about in just a minute here. But it really is a responsibility upon the Imam to establish that safe space within the religious congregation, within that spiritual space. And that safe space needs to have clear cut boundaries. And reallyunderstand what is boundary crossing, and then to recognize that, and effectively respond to that even if you’re under a tremendous pressure. As I was mentioning, a lot of Imams are colleagues and friends of each other. And so it’s a difficult thing sometimes to do that. Again, just like the prophet (PBUH), we must enjoin what is good, and we must forbid what is wrong.

Mihad: So can we talk about what that safe community space would look like for you. In the paper there’s a really interesting list that you provide of community preparedness for these situations, which may come to many different communities in different forms. Understanding that spiritual abuse, has very very many different ways that it may manifest itself.

So, maybe you can walk us through some of those steps that a community can take to become prepared. But before that, just this general idea of safe space, what does that look like for you?

Dr Awaad: A safe space in my mind on a community level would look like, first and foremost, having competent referral systems.

And what I mean by that is, if somebody were to come forward and say that they have this crisis that has happened, there needs to be a crisis response either team of people, and this would include, appropriate professionals or it needs to have a crisis response protocol that’s followed. Otherwise it’s very ad hoc, depending on who happens to be around that day.

And there has to be what we call the spiritual abuse toolkits to really understand what is this. I’ll talk about this next about the trainings that need to happen. But in general, think of the crisis response team as having professional contacts who actually work in this space and know how to help. Protocols that need to be followed by that institution, whether it be a masjid, or a community center, or an Islamic Institute, or organization, or educational space. And then access to the toolkits that help you guide appropriately. So that it’s an appropriate professional response that gives you the kind of desired outcome, right when it’s needed. You need to respond as soon as they happen.

You can’t just sort of sit around and wait. So that competent referral system is really key. We know masajids and organizations that have built into them either, within them, or have a good referral system to professional Muslim mental professionals. And we know other organizations that even when trying to approach the topic or even give them a list of professionals, even Muslim professionals around them that could help, in one case an Imam took the list, locked it in his drawer and said, we don’t do that here.

So you have a wide spectrum of response to this, of accepting and understanding the importance of having a competent referral system when needed. So that’s the first.

Then after that, I would also add having the trainings that I was referring to, which are essentially preventative trainings. If I could make an analogy here, I do a lot of research work on the topic of suicide within the Muslim community, which I know is very taboo and difficult, very much like this topic. And there’s something in suicide literature that talks about, they have three stages, they call it prevention intervention and postvention. And what that means is prevention, as it sounds, is basically how you prevent this from happening in the first place. So it’s a lot of awareness trainings, teaching healthy, in this case a spiritual abuse, teaching healthy boundaries.

The intervention is what I was referring to be right before this, which is the competent referral system, the intervention. Knowing how to actually help right in that moment. And then there’s a third stage, which is the postvention, which basically means after a crisis has taken place. How do you then help heal, promote the healing process, and help reintegrate that person back into the community.

So those three stages I think are key, and are going to be part of creating that safe space. We’re talking in the prevention stage, workshops, classes, trainings, understanding the signs of spiritual abuse as early as possible.

This should be common language that’s talked about, even in our lectures and our sermons, in our khutab, etc. To understand that abuse can come in various forms, and how to protect oneself. Community dialogues have to happen for safe avenues of disclosure.

Sometimes people won’t come forward. They need to come forward and want to come forward, but they can’t if they don’t feel that it’s safe enough of a space to do so in. But this also means that we need to have professionals and, or, both have an important role here, of peer led support groups.

So sometimes the mental health professionals can lead support groups and dialogues. But sometimes it can also be not with the professionals, but rather peer led. So those who’ve experienced trauma, and abuse can actually have that peer support system amongst themselves. Literally having a space for such things is part of creating a safe space.

And lastly, on this list, having or establishing a very important checks and balances system. That really looks at the hierarchy system we have within religious leadership, community leadership. And a checks and balances where there’s always somebody to answer to. That there’s a way to – when the beginnings of something wrong is happening, you start to sense that the red flags are starting to show up, that there is a way to check that before it really spirals out of control.

Dr Mattson: And it’s those systems that we are hoping to help the Muslim community develop. And we’ve seen also previous attempts and presentation of guidelines and best practices for board members, for mosques, for other organizations. Even if more communities would simply follow those guidelines to make sure that their board members are well-trained, they’re aware of their responsibility. They are aware of conflict of interests, which is areally difficult problem to overcome in our communities where we see that board members who are supposed to be supervising the Imam and other employees, or for example, in an Islamic school, the principals, the teachers. That very often the board members are good friends with the Imam, or they are students of the Imam. So the ability to supervise or to exercise authority over the Imam becomes very difficult.

We also have situations where now we see that there are certain Muslim scholars who have established for profit entities. And so they evade altogether the scrutiny of a board of directors. So we’re in this really complex environment where we cannot always count on a chain of supervision.

Historically there would be a chain of supervision under the judiciary. So the qadi was always the one who had authority to supervise any of the awqaf, the charitable sector, the nonprofit sector under which all mosques or schools or zawiyas or anything functioned in traditional Muslim society.

So it really does seem like we’re in a challenging environment to find practices that can be implemented in all different places. I guess, in a way, we should have a good opinion of our teachers and religious leaders. At the same time, it does seem that the responsibility in the end falls upon us, as Muslim community members, to have a certain amount of knowledge, wisdom, common sense, perhaps, and maybe ask more about those whom we place in authority over us and over our children.

Dr Awaad: Absolutely. Dr. Mattson, also, I know we spoke about some of the resources that have been developed in other faith communities and trying to understand from what’s been developed as well. And I know you’re familiar of course, with the Faith Trust Institute (We at the Hurma Project have participated in their excellent trainings and benefit from their publications, you can access them by clicking on the following link: Healthy Boundaries — Faith Trust Institute)

Right on my shelf here, there’s a handbook here called Responding to Clergy Misconduct. (You can learn more about the handbook by clicking here). What I want to say to this, is that there have been resources, as you mentioned that have been developed before. There have been attempts, of course, in the Muslim community that are still half baked.

And here, I think we should learn from people who’ve come before us, and those who have actually developed full on resources, maybe for a different faith community. But there’s so much to learn from what’s already happened before. Understanding we’re not the first at this, not historically, and certainly not this in a time and space either.

And really trying to then build something more robust, but specific and adopted to the Muslim community.In the modern sense where there isn’t the qadi, where there isn’t that religious supervision that an Islamic state would have given us. So now how do you respond and what do you do? These are the challenges and I’m really hopeful and thankful for the Hurma Project for stepping into the space, to really try to think about these things and build them up.

Dr Mattson: Dr. Rania, if I could, end with one further question, which I would like you to answer from your perspective as a scholar and teacher of Islam, someone who has been trained in a traditional Islamic learning system. Is there something that we get wrong about the role of a religious teacher or scholar and how we should relate to them? Is the problem in our own expectations? Is the problem how we have set up our own relationship with these teachers?

Or is it personalized, is it individualized? That when we see these problems, we really should just blame the individual, and it has nothing to do with our own desire to have religious guidance and spiritual formation or any problematic expectations we could have.

Dr Awaad: SubhanaAllah , what an amazing question. And thank you for asking me this.

Just this morning I was attending a class by one of my teachers and the topic was specifically on the topic of, taking a teacher. When things like this happens, the Muslim say, the Prophet believed in good omen, he didn’t take bad omens, but took good omens.

And right after this, I would be talking with you about this very topic. And I was reminded, it’s something that I’ve heard from my teachers early on. And I was blessed from a very young age to study. I actually went to Damascus when I was 14. So a very young kid. When I first went to begin my formal studies and landed in the laps, I would saylanded because when you’re so young, you’re not really picking yourself, maybe making all these grand decisions, you’re just sort of going where things take you.

And I happened to land in the laps of some really wonderful, excellent teachers and mentors. And I say that because the proof is in the pudding and over the test of time, I think this has been shown. I want to emphasize again here, as I promised I would earlier that most teachers and most people in this religious space and in the mentorship teaching space, whether they’re scholars or whether they’re spiritual teachers, do their work humbly and for the sake of Allah, and want the betterment of the people that Allah sends in their path to help.

And the majority are not predators, the majority do not cause spiritual abuse or boundary crossing. SubhanaAllah, we are all human though, and I think that’s one of the key lessons.

So I’m going to share with you a couple of things. That’s subhanaAllah that I was reminded by these things just this morning. But one of them is that we do put too much on our teachers. We start to see them almost as superhuman, subconsciously. I don’t think if you asked anybody, do you think your teacher is divine? I think most would say what kind of question is that, and no, I don’t.

But I think we do that subconsciously, we start to think of that purity of faith, that we talked about earlier, that they cannot and shall not, and will not sin. And so therefore when they do, because they’re only human and shall at some point make mistakes. We’re devastated by it. We’re broken up into pieces over it.

And I think what’s important here to understand is they are human at the end of the day. And in our Dean and our faith, we have a way of tobah, of repentance, and of coming back.And this is a very key point for me. For me, that’s helped me and I hope it will help others.

That when the sin is a private center, the misconduct, now the person does still go between them and Allah (swt), and none of us have the right to call that out or to air their dirty laundry. When it’s an individual thing.

When it’s something that happens in a communal public space in the role as a community leader, using that spiritual or religious power that they are given. And the sin now involves someone else, or the misconduct involves someone else, but then the tobah needs to be public, just like the sin was a public one.

So what I mean to say by that is, this is a really key point.And I feel like this is where we kind of muddle things and confuse things. Cause you’ll hear people saying it will, if somebody did something wrong, you’re backbiting now and don’t bring that up and we should not talk about these things. Yeah, it’s true,if a person sinned in the privacy of their own home.

I have no space and I should never enter into that discussion. But when it is something that is in this case, for example under the trust, the communal and God given trust that was breached, but then the tobah and has to be made publicly as well.

And that’s very important because then there’s no protection for the people going further later either, like when we saw in case of this Imam. Who just literally hopped from one masjid to another masjid, and his work and his space was never jeopardized until of course the legal case happened.

And even then, interestingly enough, eventually this all caught up with him. And the people who are in his caretaking. We would be very concerned because if it’s happened again,patterned behavior, if it’s happened once and twice and three times, there’s nothing to say it’s not going to happen a fourth and fifth and sixth time. In fact, we see that it actually does.

So I want to share in wrapping up some of my thoughts on this as somebody, as you mentioned Dr. Mattson, who’s spent a lot of time with wonderful mentors and teachers. There have been times of course, there might have been some disappointments in some cases, but the overwhelming majority of teachers I’ve experienced have been phenomenal.

But there is something key in them and in me, and this is the piece I want to say. There is a concept that I learned early on as a teenager, thatone of my teachers calls in Arabic, ta’a mubsirah, which doesn’t translate very well in English. But the rough translation is seeing obedience.

Dr Mattson: Obedience with your eyes open.

Dr Awaad: What that means is, when you have a teacher and mentor, somebodythat you’re taking from, either scholarly ‘ilm, knowledge or you’re taking from them, spiritual kind of growth, and you’re kind of growing your milestones on a spiritual level. Having your eyes wide open.

And I would say from the minute I got there, they were saying this and I would often think, why are they saying this? But it’s clear because it’s clear, Allah the end of the day is above all people. And we have this concept in our dean:

لا طاعة لمخلوق في معصية الخالق

You never obey the creation of a Allah while disobeying Allah (SWT) himself.

And this goes for teachers, parents, anybody who’s in a place of authority over you. And they would say this and say, look just like sayings of sayyidna Omar who would say this, I am your khalifa, I am your teacher, I am the person in charge here. However, if you see me err, if you see me in error and sin then do not take from me and correct me. And if you see me doing well and follow me.

This kind of conceptthese teachers would say. And I love this concept because then it helped after I branched out and studied in and out with multiple teachers from multiple different traditions, manahij, basically different countries, and different places, ways of teaching, this concept stayed firm all the way through.

Of seeing obedience, so therefore, if I saw what seemed like red flags, then I was on alert.Understanding that this person at the end of the day, has a lot of knowledge, and inshaAllah is very close to God, but they are only human at the end of the day. Eyes wide open. It’s like the hadith from the Prophet (PBUH) when he says, when you ask for a fatwa or opinion,and he says, trust your heart. And this is of course, assuming that the heart is in a good place, but to trust. Then he says, and even if they try to give you a fatwa, he repeats it three times.

So even if you’re given something, but it doesn’t sit well with you. Then there’s something here, where you need to trust your gut, as they say, and know that you need to exit out of there or seek counsel from others. To see whether your gut is picking up the right thing or not.

Dr Mattson: And then in that case, then certainly one of the earliest red flags, if someone is considering joining a spiritual community or putting themselves under the direction of a particular spiritual guide or sheikhor teacher.

If they begin by demanding a kind of absolute obedience, if you see around them, that their followers or their students are minimizing or justifying or covering up for actions that are clearly wrong. That should be a red flag from the beginning. That this is not a space that you want to enter. This is not a relationship that you want to continue in.

Dr Awaad: Absolutely. And there’s a list, when you’re looking, when you’re looking for a teacher, the kind of red flags to look out for.You described so many of them.

I might add to them also the asking of anything, our teachers would always say this to us, teachers should never ask of you, even for religious purposes, even for da’wa, any religious purposes. If you want to do this on your own accord, like you want to volunteer your time and help with a project or help with something, that’s you volunteering. But for you to feel the duress of it, or for you to feel like if you don’t do this, you will lose that favor with your teacher or someone, that’s problematic.

And this is time, energy, money, family relationships. So our teachers often say,family comes before teacher. Money goes to family before you put it in da’wa projects.

Always orienting us back to the priorities. So the teacher should be the kind of person who wants the best for you and your growth, not that you are serving them, their growth, and popularity.


Mihad: Dr. Rania Awaad, experienced clinician, researcher and Islamic scholar is invaluable in understanding issues around trauma, healing, and community safety. From our conversation with her, we learned that victims of boundary violations and spiritual abuse, often experience what is referred to as the trauma bond, meaning that the person who has been traumatized, develops a dependence on the abuser, believing that they know best and have their best interests at heart.

This helps explain why the victim may be unable to recognize red flags in the relationship or walk away from it. Trauma also has a significant impact on memory and the ability to recount traumatic events. We certainly need to keep this in mind when designing complaint processes and systems of accountability.

Research has also shown that across faith communities, those who are experiencing mental health struggles and crises, consistently turn first to family and friends. This is why it is so important for us to understand how to respond if someone close to us makes such a disclosure, because at the end of the day all of us could be first responders.

As Dr. Awaadalso points out, Imams have a great deal of responsibility, not only in responding to reports of abuse, but also in establishing a safe space within their communities. In our next episode, we turn to this very topic and we will speak with Imam Mohammed Abuelezz about the responsibilities, but also the vulnerabilities of Imams in carrying out their multifaceted roles.

We want to take a moment and recognize that the issues and information we discussed in this episode are difficult and can take a toll on our mental health. We encourage listeners to seek out resources and community supports, and we’ve listed some of them that we hope will be useful on our website, hurmaproject.com.

We’d like to thank our funders Pillars Funds and Waraich FamilyFoundation for supporting the work of the Hurma Project. This episode was produced by Kyle Fulton with additional assistance provided by Maram Albakri.

If you found this episode to be beneficial and would like to help us reach a broader audience, there are a few simple things you can do subscribe to the podcast, leave us a rating or review, and tell someone in your life about the Hurma Project Podast. We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you, until then, salamu alikum.