23 Mar Episode 4: Salma Abugideiri, Healthy Boundaries, Part One
Licensed Professional Therapist Salma Abugideiri explains the dynamics of power and vulnerability and the importance of setting healthy boundaries in professional relationships, including between religious teachers, imams, and counselors.
About Salma Abugideiri
Salma Elkadi Abugideiri is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Virginia, who specializes in couples counseling and the treatment of trauma. She is the primary trainer and founding Board member of Peaceful Families Project, which, for over twenty years, has been conducting research and providing training for Muslim communities on domestic violence. She has widely published in the fields of domestic violence and mental health, including authoring the facilitator guide for the training program, “Garments for One Another: Ending Domestic Violence in Muslim Families.” She is co-author, with Imam Mohamed Magid, of “Before You Tie the Knot,” a book to help Muslim couples prepare for and achieve a successful marriage.
To learn more about Salma Abugideiri and her work:
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The following transcript has been edited for fluency.
Ep. 4 Salma Abugideiri, Healthy Boundaries
[SHOW MELODY FADES IN]
Dr. Mattson: Hello. Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Hurma Project Podcast, a show where we seek to close the gap between our Islamic values and our Muslim community realities. I am Dr. Ingrid Mattson, founder of the Hurma Project, which I direct with my friend and partner Mihad Fahmy, a human rights lawyer and workplace investigator, and a lecturer at Huron University College, where I am also Chair of Islamic studies.
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 experts from a variety of fields about how to prevent and respond to violations against all those who are present in Muslim spaces.
More information about us can be found on the Hurma Project website: Hurmaproject.com, where you may also leave us feedback through the contact form. In previous episodes of the Hurma Project Podcast, we spoke with Dr. Rania Awaad and with Imam Muhammad Abuelezz, both of whom mentioned the importance of setting boundaries in counseling and teaching relationships, including, or perhaps especially, when the counselor or teacher has spiritual or religious authority.
In this episode, we explore the practice of setting healthy boundaries and the dynamics of power and vulnerability on a deeper level with Licensed Professional Counselor, Salma Abugideiri. Sister Salma is in private practice in Virginia, specializing in couples counseling and the treatment of trauma.
She is the primary trainer and founding board member of Peaceful Families Project (linked here), which for over 20 years has been conducting research and providing training for Muslim communities on domestic violence. She has widely published in the fields of domestic violence and mental health, including authoring the facilitator guide for the training program: “Garments for One Another: Ending Domestic Violence and Muslim Families.”
She is coauthor with Imam Mohammad Magid of: “Before You Tie the Knot”, a book to help Muslim couples prepare for and achieve a successful marriage.
[SHOW MELODY FADES OUT]
Mihad: So Salma, the organization that you founded, Peaceful Families – I understand that it works towards preventing all types of abuse in Muslim families by increasing our awareness around domestic violence. How did you become that engaged with the issue of healthy boundaries in the religious teacher-student relationship?
Salma: Sure. So, actually, Peaceful Families Project was founded by Sharifa Alkhateeb. I was just a founding board member when Peaceful Families Project moved from under Faith Trust Institute (To learn more, click here: Faith Trust Institute) to become its own independent 501c-3. So, in working with survivors in my capacity, as a therapist, I often had cause to work with religious leaders helping my clients to get consultation from religious leaders when they were experiencing abuse and also to navigate the steps of an Islamic divorce if they were pursuing that course. And I started to hear stories about examples of my clients having conversations with the Imams that were really inappropriate, making my clients uncomfortable sometimes. It was clearly that there were violations of the role of the Imams in that specific context of either offering counseling or spiritual guidance to a client who had experienced domestic violence. So that’s how I first became aware of it. It’s something that has always, since the time I’ve been working as a therapist, very early on, became aware of that.
And then in my work with Peaceful Families Project in training Imams how to understand domestic violence and to respond appropriately and effectively to domestic violence in the Muslim community, it also became clear that the Imams sometimes were very unclear about their role, the limits of their role, what are really realistic expectations that they can have of themselves and that community members can have of them. So it’s two-sided – hearing from survivors and hearing from the Imams as well.
Mihad: So we’re going to, we’re going to really tease out the different elements of a couple of concepts, mainly healthy boundaries and dual relationships. But I’m wondering if we can just start by having you set out some definitions. So let’s start with healthy boundaries. What do we mean when we talk about healthy boundaries?
Salma: So boundaries are some kind of a line or a limit that tells us where we can go. Where is – what’s my role versus your role. And these are, in relationships, these are invisible lines, they’re invisible limits. Healthy boundaries help us to feel safe, whether we are providing the counseling or whether we are receiving counseling. So these boundaries help us to feel safe. They include mutual respect and mutual recognition of each person’s role and appropriate expectations of what each person either contributes to that interaction or can take away from that interaction.
Mihad: Okay, and in this context, we’re talking about the two people in the relationship would be somebody with spiritual authority or a religious leader, or a teacher, and the student or congregant.
Salma: Right. And that specific context, a really important aspect of the healthy boundary is that the person in a leadership role in this spiritual authority role is very clear about the fact that they have authority, and the ways in which that authority can be helpful or harmful. And that in maintaining that healthy boundary, it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that the boundary is clear and to uphold that boundary.
Dr. Mattson: Can I ask a follow-up question about that. Why is it the leader’s responsibility to maintain that boundary if the person they are counseling or giving spiritual support to is an adult.
Salma: I think that’s a really good and common question. When we’re seeking help, we are in a position of vulnerability. It’s really difficult sometimes to share your personal problems, personal experiences; when we’re talking about domestic violence, it’s even more can be more difficult. Or if somebody has gone through sexual assault, you feel really exposed. And in that moment, you are trusting the leader that you’re consulting. You’re trusting that person to take good care of you, to offer good care. And if I’m worried about how you’re going to view me, are you going to judge me, I’m feeling exposed; I’m not really going to be able to attend as well to making sure that the boundaries are upheld. Certainly, I can be aware of what I’m feeling. But by virtue of taking the responsibility of being in a leadership role, we are then responsible for making sure that we practice in a way that’s responsible and conscientious and ethical, and that we are owning that responsibility of keeping that space safe for both people, but primarily for the person who is now in a very vulnerable position.
Mihad: What about the term dual relationships? How can you define that for us and tell us how it applies to those with religious authority?
Salma: So dual relationships are really just what it sounds like, dual means “two.” In fact, in our community contacts, oftentimes we have more than dual relationships. You can have multiple levels of relationship, but it’s basically when, if we’re talking about religious leaders, a religious leader has multiple kinds of relationships with the community members. So the most explicit relationship is that leadership role. So if it’s an Imam, for example, who’s heading a congregation, so now it’s the relationship between an Imam and a community member. At the same time the community member may have children that are the same age as the Imam’s children, those children might play together. And so now they may also relate to each other as parents; each parents of those respective children. It could also be that the community member is a physician and it may be that the Imam is ill and has reason to go to this particular person as a physician. So now they have three relationships and it’s really just dependent on the community and the size of the community as to how many overlapping relationships a person might actually have.
Mihad: And is this just a description of how our relationships might intersect and be formed or is there something inherently problematic with having these kinds of dual relationships?
Salma: Both. It is a description of the relationship and there is the potential to have a problem. Sometimes it’s unavoidable to have those dual relationships. And being aware of what it means when I’m in this relationship as an Imam, what does it mean when I’m interacting with you as a parent and you are also a parent, but you’re still seeing me as the Imam of the community.
So being aware that whenever a leader engages with a community member, the community member will always see that person in their role of Imam or sheikh or scholar while they may also be interacting with Imam in another capacity, as a person who also has parenting struggles or challenges. So again, it’s the leader’s responsibility to be aware that they’re wearing multiple hats and that the community member will always be aware. Even if the Imam wants to put down that leadership hat temporarily. The community member is always going to be aware that this person has some authority- religious authority – in that relationship.
Mihad: But aside from just being aware of that is there, what can that person with religious authority do to really minimize any risks associated with these dual hats or dual relationships?
Salma: So sure, if a leader is aware that no matter what context they’re in, the community member is looking at them as a person with authority, then being aware that whatever the Imam says in that context may be taken in a much different way than if they were peers. If they were truly peers, you know we all say things that our peers can understand as well – maybe, you’re having a bad day or you’re just frustrated with your child or, whatever it is. But when an Imam says something, the community member may take that as some kind of endorsement or some kind of a religious perspective and not just a human being feeling at that moment.
And so that awareness comes with a responsibility and again, safeguarding the community member and safeguarding that relationship by being vigilant. And even, naming and acknowledging that in this moment, we’re chatting as parents. And being aware that, if the Imam were to say something that’s not really appropriate or reflective of the Imam position, it’s not really religious opinion, to be very clear about labeling that as such: ‘I had a bad day, I shouldn’t have said that,’ or, ‘that’s really not what the Prophetﷺ is teaching us.’ Just to be very careful and aware, mindful that even when the leader is just being human, the community member is still looking at this person. So there’s potential influence and there’s just more, likelihood, probability or possibility of influence.
Dr. Mattson: The example, Sister Salma, that you give of a typical dual role where an Imam of a masjid might also have children who then socialize with the children of members of the congregation, I think is a very typical example and the kind of scenario where we might easily see how the esteem in which the Imam is held, the desire to become close to this religious leader, might negatively affect those children’s relationships or how the children are treated by other members of the community.
So for example, if the children got into a fight, would the teacher fairly resolve that conflict? Or if there was a competition for a certain role in the community, might that influence how the children were judged? Can you say a little bit about how the children of an Imam might be affected by these dual relationships?
Salma: I imagine that it’s a very difficult position to be when you’re the child of a prominent leader, expectations from community members can be very unrealistic that the children of the Imam or the religious scholar should be perfect. They are not going to have the normal sort of detours that children might take in their lives that they’re not going to have any of the behavioral or spiritual challenges that any child or teenager might go through.
So there’s some, probably some very unrealistic expectations, as well as, community members may have a tendency to even shame a child of a leader by saying that, ‘Your father is so-and-so, I can’t believe that you would act this way. What would your father say? Your father’s the Imam!’
So putting really unreal, unrealistic expectations, which really are an extension of the unrealistic expectations that a community member may have of the Imam himself. That, because you’re an Imam, you’re a perfect parent. You’ve got it all figured out, you know how to do it all right. You’re not going to have any problems.
And so that kind of expectation can contribute to the messiness that can happen. And it’s inevitable to some degree when there are these dual relationships.
Dr. Mattson: Sister Salma, you also mentioned a scenario, a very common scenario I think, in a Muslim community where the Imam might be a patient of a congregant who is a physician in the community. And that brings to mind the realization that, of course the physicians in the community are also occupying dual roles that sometimes might be uncomfortable for them. So for example, as a physician, you’re guided by professional responsibilities about where you can treat people, how you can treat people. You want to set up your office in a way that is professional to signal that what’s being done here as medicine, and then people in the community might approach you. They’re just another member of the congregation or the Imam or a friend and ask you to provide them with medical care. And if you would refuse or say, come to my office, they might wonder why you’re being so standoffish. Aren’t you just a friend or a member of the congregation? Can you help out?
You are a professional therapist. Can you tell me a little bit about what it might feel like to be a professional provider of care in the community who’s not an Imam and how challenging it is managing those dual relationships?
Salma: Yeah. It can be very challenging again, because of the expectations that people have that may or may not be realistic. Again, the issue of boundaries is so critical here to maintain safety and in the case of professional, to maintain a professional type of relationship. So there can be an expectation from community members that if you have a particular gift, so whether that is, the gift of knowledge of medicine, or the gift of knowledge of psychology, that you would voluntarily share those gifts, whenever a person is in need. And it can be difficult sometimes for community members to understand that if I am, as a therapist, for example, if I am just seeing you at jumu’ah, Insha’Allah one day we’ll have jumu’ah again, if I’m seeing you at jumu’ah and there are a hundred people around us and you start to go into your very personal issues, now I don’t even have a way to protect your confidentiality. I’m also not in the headspace to respond to you in an appropriate manner. Perhaps I am dealing with my own personal struggles and I’ve just been praying very intensely to resolve my own personal issue. And now, when you turn to me, and I’m not ready, I may respond in a way that’s really inappropriate. I may respond in a way that’s not helpful. I may not have the emotional space to really hear you and listen to you and attend to you.
So I think that it’s important really, to be aware that the boundaries are important for us as professionals, they’re important for us as community members, and the same for Imams. Which is why, it’s really important that community members be educated about what they can expect when they can expect it, and how they can expect it so that there’s clarity, there’s transparency and people are less likely to be disappointed and less likely to fall and slip into those really slippery slopes.
It could be very easy, perhaps I’m having a good day and a person approaches me in the musallah and starts to share their personal issues. Maybe I’m actually in a really good space, but now I’m also not in charge of the public setting that we’re in. I can’t maintain that confidentiality. I haven’t done the proper assessment. I don’t have the paperwork that I need that my profession requires. There are lots of ways in which I may compromise my service to that person. And then I also set an expectation that, people can just walk up and get counseling or medical care because, if a physician flags those boundaries and says, okay, let’s step outside here and says ‘let me look at your leg or your arm, or whatever’s bothering you,’ then that sets a precedent and expectation that we can all just provide these services anywhere, anytime, and that the Imam should also be available anywhere, anytime under any circumstance. So the boundaries really helped us put some structure and make sure that we’re able to provide services in the most professional and appropriate way possible.
Dr. Mattson: Sister Salma you’ve mentioned a few of your professional responsibilities as a therapist that might also be shared by an Imam who engages in counseling of congregants for example, confidentiality. Can you tell me about some of the other shared responsibilities that a therapist and an Imam who provides spiritual care or counseling will have with respect to the person in the congregation to whom they’re providing care?
Salma: First and foremost is the responsibility of doing no harm. And that in of itself could entail a lot of different things. But that’s a shared responsibility and maintaining the trust that people have put in us. Being able to really listen and offer our service in a way that is respectful to the person that’s in front of us so that we are responding to people in a way that conveys, respect, acceptance, a lack of judgment, and understanding and faith in that person that with support, they can come to the right place, they can come to wherever they need to come to, that people do have internal resources. They may not be able to connect with those internal resources, and it’s our job to help them connect. By providing a safe place, a space that’s free of judgment of where they’re at in that particular moment. And really honoring that person’s journey and respecting the courage that it takes to come forward and ask for help and to share and disclose very personal, intimate aspects of a person’s life.
And then I think that we also have to be knowledgeable about what are appropriate suggestions, what kind of education maybe we need to provide. So there needs to be definitely a level of competence. So for me as a therapist, it should be a mental health competence. For an Imam, it should be Islam knowledge as well as some basic knowledge of human psychology and basic counseling skills to be able to relate to a person in distress and in an effective way.
Dr. Mattson: Some Muslims might wonder why the Imam should withhold judgment in such a setting. After all, isn’t the Imam there to tell people in the community, what is right and what is wrong. And if they have transgressed the limit set by Allah (SWT) has set that their role is to inform them of that and to warn them away from that. So why is withholding judgment important in the counseling setting?
Salma: So I think it’s important to make a distinction between providing education about what’s right and what’s wrong, and providing judgment. So education is, for example, letting somebody know that if you wash your hands and you wear a face mask, you will reduce the risk of transmitting a virus or getting sick yourself. So that’s education. Judgment would be what is wrong with you? Don’t you know anything? Don’t you know better than to not wear a face mask. Are you stupid? Did you not read the CDC guidelines? So that’s judgment. And that does not contribute to change. It doesn’t facilitate change. What it does is it shuts the person down. If I talk to you in that way, you’re very likely to feel embarrassed at the least shamed, maybe confused or misunderstood or anything, any numbers or feelings will arise that will then interfere with the ability to receive accurate information.
And it will also interfere, most likely will interfere with a person opening up and sharing what’s going on with them. So the education piece is important and that is an important role for an Imam. And for most providers of any kind of, service – healthcare service, or pastoral service.
Judging just is not helpful. And it shuts down conversation, communication where what we need is for people to open up more so that they can explore, and we can help them explore what’s going on with them. What is keeping them from prayer, for example. What’s making it difficult to pray on time? What’s making it difficult to pray at all? As opposed to, you know better, we have to pray five times a day.
Now, why would I tell you how I got into this struggle? Or, the fact that my spouse who is abusive is beating me when I’m trying to pray? Like, I’m already now feeling very ashamed of myself. And I’m already deciding that you probably aren’t going to understand me anyway. And I made a mistake to come and talk to you.
Mihad: Sister Salma you brought up a number of scenarios involving Imams, and their various interactions and engagements with members of the community that may raise issues of boundaries and dual relationships. Are we also talking about those within our communities outside of just Imams? Would you say that healthy boundaries also apply to, for instance, our Islamic school teachers, youth group leaders? Can you give us a sense of how wide of a net are we talking about here? Is it just Imams?
Salma: Oh, we’re talking about everybody. Every single person. So whatever role you’re in there are appropriate boundaries and there are healthy boundaries and there are ways in which you can violate boundaries and you can… from disrespecting someone, to causing severe harm. And whether you’re a teacher in a Sunday school or in Islamic school, whether you are a religious scholar, whether you are a khatib, whether you are a professional – anyone who has a role, a specific role in the community, must be aware of the boundaries that are necessary to maintain a healthy interaction, healthy relationship.
Mihad: But if we’re specifically talking about those who hold some kind of religious leadership or authority, who would you include in that kind of grouping? It’s a very specific kind of relationship with us as community members.
Salma: Right. Because people who have religious authority have an additional level of influence and an additional degree of power by virtue of that religious authority. So a physician has some authority by virtue of their medical knowledge. But when a person is speaking from a religious perspective and is using Qur’an, or using hadith, or using – even just their own opinion – but it’s coming from that religious authority, there is an additional layer of power and influence. And so anybody who may have that religious authority, regardless of what their actual title is, has to be very vigilant about the boundaries that are there.
Mihad: What would you say to the Imam who tells you that he, in fact, doesn’t have very much power, he’s bullied by his board, over-scrutinized by community, isn’t well paid, doesn’t have any source of mentorship. Where’s the power there?
Salma: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. And we actually hear that a lot from the Imams who don’t feel that they have power to make decisions from their religious institution, from that perspective, they don’t feel like they have a lot of power. They may not even get paid very much. They may not even be able to advocate for higher salary. So in some ways, institutionally, they may feel like they don’t have power. And perhaps with the board, they don’t have a whole lot of power, but they always have power in their relationships with their community members because community members are turning to them for guidance.
And so whatever comes out of the Imam’s mouth and, or the scholar’s mouth – whatever the title of that person – whatever comes out of that person’s mouth and whatever actions they engage in are going to be received by the community member as coming from a religious authority and having religious significance, which can impact not only that interaction, but how the person views themselves, how they understand their relationship with God, how they understand their relationship in the hereafter. It’s such a multi-layered impact. And so Imams have to be aware that in the context of that counseling relationship, they have an incredible amount of power. And it’s going to vary, depending on, how much that individual person – how much weight that person gives to the Imam’s religious authority. And in some cases it is tremendous. People put the Imams and religious scholars and shuyukh on pedestals. And so whatever that person says carries a lot of weight.
Mihad: And I would think it also will turn on the particular vulnerability of that person, whether we’re talking about somebody who was going through a divorce, or somebody who’s new to the country, somebody who is really dependent upon whatever services that Imam is providing, so that will vary as well.
Salma: Right. I think the more vulnerable a person is the greater, the potential that the power of that religious leader could be misused.
Mihad: Okay, so let’s talk about that, misuse. When I’ve been thinking about this issue of boundary violations, it strikes me that it’s very similar to workplace harassment in that, there’s a series of events that could happen. But if you isolate each individual event, that event might not be so problematic. But if you look at the string of events, it might actually culminate in a really harmful incident, regardless of what that might look like. What are some of the warning signs that perhaps the relationship is beginning to cross boundaries in a harmful way? Because it might not be one, one defining boundary violation that has become harmful. So what kind of warning signs should community members and those holding religious authority be aware of?
Salma: Yeah. So I actually think that in most cases the violations don’t begin in an egregious manner. So it often can start with something that is relatively subtle. And so for the community member, it’s really important to pay attention to their internal compass that tells them that didn’t feel quite right. Something is off about that. And to really pay attention to that, and to trust that we are all given the ability to discern what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate just based on how it makes us feel. And so paying attention to that and really exploring inward, and trusting. Because sometimes what happens is that the community member will dismiss their own feeling, Oh, that didn’t seem appropriate and they might even feel guilty. How could I even question that this Imam might do or say something inappropriate? There’s really something wrong with me now.
And so, for the community member, I think it’s really important to remember that, God has given each of us this ability to sense. Beyond, halal and haram, but to sense when something just doesn’t feel right. And we should trust that though that’s an internal cue. There are some red flags, that if the religious leader is making some remarks that convey that you are somehow special, that I’m only going to meet with you after hours. I wouldn’t do that for other community members, you’re such an asset to this community or whatever.
The words themselves may not be red flags, but it would be the action of making an exception and cultivating some sort of a special relationship. If the religious leader is doing things that are outside of their job description. So for example, I’ve heard many cases where a religious leader may feel sorry for a woman who has been kicked out of the house by her husband doesn’t have any money, and so is giving a personal loan. So it may seem this is an appropriate thing to do as a fellow Muslim, I’m going to give you a loan. But within the role of the Imam of the mustard is not appropriate to give a personal loan. It’s more appropriate to refer her to the zakat committee. And so any sorts of exceptions, that’s a red flag.
And of course, any type of – if we’re talking about an Imam and a female community member – any kind of, physical touch. So that’s, so that’s from the community members side. From the religious leader’s side: if this religious leader is really paying attention to the limits of their role and the appropriate behaviors that they should be engaging in, it’s really paying attention to what feelings are arising in me when I’m sitting with this community member. Am I noticing that I really want to disclose my own personal problems? Am I feeling some kind of a special connection here? Am I attracted to this person? Am I noticing that I’m going out of my way and staying after hours or meeting at early hours before the building is even open. Am I doing special favors for this person? Am I looking for this person’s approval? Am I doing whatever I’m doing because when this woman smiles, I feel amazing? So I want to continue to offer more counseling because it satisfies something in me. It’s fulfilling a need in me. So there are lots of things to pay attention to on both sides. And you know what I’m saying here is definitely not an exhaustive list, but maybe just to start a place to start.
Dr. Mattson: Sister Salma, you have introduced some of the dynamics that occur or can occur, within a counseling situation, or a care situation. So the person who is seeking help might begin to have feelings towards the Imam, for example, or the youth counselor, or whoever it is in this position of religious authority who’s offering some kind of support, care, counseling. That vulnerable person might start to feel that they have a special relationship. They might start to feel that they’re attracted to this person. Perhaps simply because they’re an attractive person, or perhaps because, finally, this is someone who is listening to them. On the other side, you talk about the person who’s offering care, who might also begin to notice, or might not notice, that they are feeling special in this situation, because here is someone who is finally appreciating their skills or religious knowledge, who might be acknowledging how much they’re sacrificing for the community, and they feel, otherwise very unappreciated. Can you speak a little bit more about this dynamic of a kind of mutual vulnerability, and what’s happening back and forth, and how we would understand that, and how that might impair the ability of both parties to exercise good judgment?
Salma: Yeah. In your question, there is another piece that we haven’t really talked about yet. So I’ve talked about the power that a religious leader can have. And at the end of the day, religious leaders are also people and have their own vulnerabilities. And, as human beings in religious in positions of religious authority, it’s important to remember that no one is really immune to, nobody is really above these situations. Anybody can be tempted. Anybody can be corruptible. Anybody can deviate. And anyone can be tempted by shaytan. And so to remember, to be acutely aware of that, I think is also really important.
So in providing a good service and providing a space where people feel heard and accepted and respected, there is that possibility that if a person hasn’t experienced this before, they may get really confused and feel like that they’re in love with the Imam. They may feel loved by the Imam in a way that’s beyond that pastoral love, but even a romantic kind of love because they haven’t . . . if a person is in an abusive relationship and has been as a child and now is as an adult, and they’ve never really experienced a healthy relationship when they are treated with respect and care and love, they may then feel like this is something that’s very unique. And it’s because of these two individuals, the community member and the Imam, rather than knowing that this is part of any healthy relationship: you deserve to be respected and cared for and heard all the time.
So there’s that element. And I think, it’s important for the Imams to be aware of that. Not so that they’ll withhold that type of care, but so that they’ll be aware if a community member then responds by expressing some kind of affection or even a wish to marry this Imam or youth leader, or scholar, that they understand that it isn’t because of the Imam or that religious leader themselves. It’s really about what the person has experienced. And so that’s a really great opportunity to educate people that.
And people will opportunity to explain it, people will tell me, for example, I’ve never been able to talk about this with anyone. I’ve never had anyone listen to me in this way. I’ve never been able to just cry and not upset the person that’s in front of me. So people express that they’re having a unique experience. So then when they, if they start to attribute that unique experience to something romantic in a relationship, it’s really important to use that opportunity to educate a person that, because of your experiences, you didn’t know that this is actually the way that people should treat each other. You didn’t know that you can have a relationship that’s healthy. That you can be heard. You can be valued. You didn’t know you could trust someone before. All of that is actually really good experience to have. And you can have that with other people, not just the therapist or the Imam and that you help a person understand that it’s not about, it’s not because I, the therapist so amazing or so special, but it’s that this person experienced something that they hadn’t experienced before.
So there’s that piece. Because I think sometimes what we hear from religious leaders who have found themselves, or have entered into really inappropriate relationships with community members, is that the community member or their student actually initiated the inappropriate relationship. And that could very well be true. That the person may misunderstand the care as a sign of, romantic attention. And may then follow up with some inappropriate behavior or action or request. So that can certainly happen. But it’s important for the religious leaders to understand that, where is this coming from? It’s not about me, the religious leader. It’s actually a reflection of that person’s experience and potentially their history and what they’re bringing into that interaction or series of interactions.
Dr. Mattson: In the situation where a person who’s seeking care or advice from an Imam or a sheikh or a religious teacher expresses or demonstrates that they are, attracted to them. That they want to enter into a romantic relationship with them. Perhaps enter into a marriage with them. At that point, you say that this is an opportunity for the Imam or the sheikh or the teacher or the person providing care or advice to point out to that person that their reaction to their kindness or their listening is itself an example of – unfortunate example – of the fact that they have not been treated well in their life. And so the responsibility of the person offering care is not to then say, Wow, I am really special. I must be the only one in the world who can help this person. Or, my very presence to this person is healing and is the way for them to, become a better person.
You’re saying that the responsibility – their professional responsibility in that case – would be to use that opportunity to help that person continue to heal. So if they said . . . what if they said: Yeah, we have a mutual attraction here. I’m a good person. I’m obviously able to make them feel better. What’s wrong with me entering into a romantic relationship with them? As long as it is Islamically lawful?
Salma: Yeah, that’s a really common question. What’s wrong with it is that there’s a power dynamic that is built into that relationship. That is always going to be part of that relationship. And when we enter into a marriage, the marriage should be between people who are peers and they can really be partners. And the relationship didn’t begin as a relationship where the person is dependent emotionally and spiritually on the religious leader. Certainly religious leaders may marry people who are not religious leaders. It doesn’t that, a religious leader can only marry a religious leader, not at all, but the marriage cannot come out of a counseling relationship.
Because that dynamic . . . I’ll talk about it a little bit from a therapist, point of view that, and what I see in my office all the time, when people marry someone and there’s a power dynamic, it could be a student and a professor. It could be a patient and a physician. It could, whatever it is, a person who’s very young and doesn’t know much have doesn’t have much life experience marrying somebody who’s much older. There’s a point at which that is going to shift, and the person who entered into the relationship seeking spiritual guidance or, physical care, or whatever it is, it doesn’t really need that anymore and grows. And now the relationship has completely disabled, disarmed, it just falls off the tracks.
The other thing is that I often see is that if the relationship begins with this power dynamic and what’s happening – whether the religious leader is conscious or not – there is a bit of manipulation that’s happening. There is some taking advantage of that’s happening. The religious leader is taking advantage of the other person’s vulnerability. And what happens when those dynamics begin to change and the vulnerable person is no longer so vulnerable, there’s going to be some pushback about, maybe challenging.
So now if the religious leader is the husband, and the community member is the wife, and the wife says, you know what? I actually disagree with you. I think you’re completely wrong about how you’ve interpreted this particular ayah or this particular hadith or the conclusion that you’re making. I disagree with how you’re handling this matter in the community. Now the religious scholar – the Imam – may need to assert their authority in some other way, may not really like the fact that he’s being challenged. That now I have a peer. I have somebody who feels like they can debate me and challenge me, which is fine in a marriage. It’s great in a marriage. But that’s not necessarily the relationship between a community member and a religious leader where the religious leader is held in some kind of high esteem or regard.
So the dynamics just become very unhealthy. And it’s important to remember that as long as the person is in a position of power, there is an element of taking advantage of the vulnerable person who may not really even be aware of how they’re taken advantage of. They may not be aware of how they might be manipulated into having a relationship that cannot – it cannot – be healthy because it did not start out healthy.
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Mihad: We are so grateful that we have the opportunity to delve into the fundamental principles of healthy boundaries and dual relationships with Sister Salma Abugideiri – someone who was pioneered the opening up of these conversations in our communities.
In our various relationships, the boundaries that define our roles and expectations are often invisible. Healthy boundaries help clarify, and bring these lines into focus. They allow us to feel safe by defining upfront the respective roles of the relationship and hence the limits of appropriate and inappropriate conduct. We heard once again, that for Imams and religious leaders, this means being acutely aware of the power that they hold vis-a-vis community members. Especially those who are particularly vulnerable.
This power dynamic exists, even though the Imam himself may be feeling powerless in relation to the institution or mosque board that employs him. Imams are not alone, however, in needing to maintain healthy boundaries. Many of us who have a specific role in the community, or hold a professional designation, also need to be aware of such boundaries in order to maintain healthy interactions.
Interestingly, Imams and therapists like Sister Salma, share other obligations, for example, both are tasked with providing safe spaces, free of judgment, for those they serve. Sister Salma very clearly and eloquently explained the difference between education on the one hand and judgment on the other. We would all do well to keep this in mind in our roles as friends, siblings, spouses, and parents.
Finally, even when boundaries are not well-defined, each of us is endowed with our own internal compass, that in some cases tells us that something in a relationship just isn’t right. And Sister Salma urges us to listen to it and not push it away.
We continue our conversation with Sister Salma in the next episode of the Hurma Project Podcast. We discuss the responsibility of community members in maintaining healthy boundaries, the Imam training programs delivered by Peaceful Families, and the attention or lack thereof that we give to our own emotions and emotional wellbeing.
Thank you for joining us for this episode, we would like to thank our funders Pillars Fund and the Waraich Family Foundation for supporting the work of the Hurma Project. This episode was produced by Kyle Fulton with 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 that you can do: subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform, leave us a rating or review, and tell someone in your life about the work of the Hurma Project. We look forward to continuing our conversation with each of you until then, assalamu alaykum.
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