Many years ago, close to a decade perhaps, when I lived in Connecticut, a scandal broke.
Connecticut had a small, fairly tight-knit, and very active Muslim community with some wonderful local leaders in the state, and I was lucky to have worked closely with most of them and do what I could as an activist and advocate. During my time there a CAIR chapter even came into being, and there were a good five or six mosques just in the Hartford area. Given the growth of Muslim organizations and communities, fundraising dinners became regular programming on the the social-philanthropic scene. And to do great fundraising, you need a fantastic fundraiser.
Enter a local imam who brought it all to the table – the soaring rhetoric, the scripture, the stories, the inflection, the command of his audience – he could really make us happily empty our pockets, teary-eyed with inflamed passions. He was good at this, so good. And we all loved him for it.
Then came the breaking news: local imam arrested for attempting to run down his wife with a car. Apparently, the wife had suspicions her husband was having an affair and tracked him down to a motel or hotel to confront him, where she did indeed find him with another woman. The imam, enraged at being discovered I supposed, followed his wife to the parking lot, got in his car, and tried to run her down. It didn’t work thankfully, she lived and he ended up arrested and making the local news.
Suffice it to say, the community was gripped with horror on multiple levels: the sordid nature of his affair, his attempt to run over his wife, his arrest, what it meant for future fundraising (I joke, but not really), and, finally but most forcefully, the sharing of the story itself.
On a email listserve of Connecticut Muslims, anger that the story was even being circulated among the community dominated the conversation. We could barely get to the substance of the allegations because any discussion of the matter was condemned as slander. All the hadith and scripture I don’t have to repeat here was raised to protect the reputation of the imam and squash the discussion.
In the end, the squashers won out. Intimidating those who thought it was an issue worthy of discussion, they ended up killing the conversation with visions of hellfire and damnation.
Fast forward this many years and, well, the more things change the more they stay the same. One thing that has changed is that I’m no longer pearl-clutching when I hear about the misconduct of religious and spiritual figures, which I totally was when the imam tried to raze his wife down.
That’s because over the past decade I’ve come to learn too much about too many religious leaders that has been disappointing, disgusting, enraging, or a combination of all three. Here are a few examples of the stories that are either fairly well known or have been confided to me by multiple sources:
- Anwar Awlaki’s proclivity for prostitution
- The internationally known street-speaking charismatic celebrity circuit speaker/scholar/player, behaving indecently with students he was supposed to be counseling, inappropriately flirting and leading on dozens, and was one of a number of men who inspired this piece: https://muslimmatters.org/2015/05/27/blurred-lines-women-celebrity-shaykhs-spiritual-abuse/
- The young sufi teacher in the midwest who couldn’t stop secretly marrying students he would seduce by inviting them into more and more private study circles, then telling them he had dreams about them, then telling them he had sexually graphic dreams about them so they should probably get married, then forcing the marriage to be kept secret, and then abandoning the secret wife and starting over in a different location (by the way, this technique has been perfected by more than one such teacher, including the above referenced celebrity shaykh and at least four others I’ve heard about – the religious dream seduction is powerful stuff).
- The hadith scholar who publicly rails against “The Man” but has been spotted at least half a dozen times at CIA headquarters meeting with the Director himself (not that there’s anything inherently wrong in that, only that his public persona belies such a relationship and he has no compunction berating other Muslims who work with government)
- The familiar community names that were exposed in the Ashley Madison leak
- The mild-mannered community activist whose battered wife has stayed with him for years because of the kids, despite me and others urging her to leave
- The academic who preaches Rumi-like love, forgiveness and gentility, but refuses to pay his long time wife (now divorced) and mother of his children, the mahr she is due (hang in there sister, it took my ex ten years to grow a conscience and give me my mahr)
- The proprietor of a Muslim women’s shelter who appoints close family members to well paid positions funded by community donations and allegedly mistreats, coerces, and threatens women coming there seeking refuge
- The stylish artist who is definitely not a shia but managed to talk many young ladies into mu’tah and was forced to step down from a beloved community institution when the allegations were verified
The list of disappointments, hypocrisy, and misconduct is long enough that when I was first told about the Nouman Ali Khan (whom I’ll refer to as NAK henceforth) allegations, I shook my head but wasn’t surprised in the least. Angry, yes, because I really have loved his lectures and work over the years, and so I thought, “well another one bites the dust”, reducing my list of scholars I’ll follow by yet another one (alhamdulillah there are many, many wonderful scholars still, don’t let this discourage you).
There are two reasons I’m writing this piece now. One is to unpack what is going on in the NAK case, and the second is to talk about the broader implications of this and other similar stories and the response of the community to them.
Let’s start with the NAKastrophe: a brief summary is that community leader and teacher Omer Mozaffar posted a statement about NAK on Facebook in September with allegations of spiritual abuse that he had been personally asked to help investigate, NAK then posted that the allegations weren’t true and that he didn’t even know Mozaffar, shortly thereafter NAK posted another statement hedging the first one and saying he was open to intervention and investigation, then a website went live with screenshots of messages and, uh, unsavory pictures of NAK that had been exchanged between him and numerous women, then the website went down (though it’s archived here), then former Bayyinah members posted confirmations of mozaffar’s statement, then bam, NAK served Shaykh Omar Suleiman with a lawsuit for mostly business related charges, but also mentioning defamation.
Now, the basic allegations against NAK are this, as verified to me by multiple parties: as a legally married man (and yes he is still legally married – according to public records, he originally filed for divorce in 2015, then filed a nonsuit in January of 2017 stopping the divorce, then refiled for divorce in March 2017 but it is a long way from being final) to a long-time wife with which he has seven children, he married a second wife secretly (over the phone, officiated by a female student, as his wife was expecting baby number 7) a couple of years ago, then allegedly abandoned that second wife, and was shopping around for other wives by proposing to numerous women in different parts of the world without telling them about his wives. There are many more unsavory details to it all having to do with threats, bribes, intimidation, withholding employee wages, calls from lawyers, but I’ll spare everyone those. Now while the evidence seems (to me and everyone who has personally investigated and spoken to all involved) to confirm these allegations, they are, still, allegations in that there has been no formal finding in a court of law on any of this. Why? Because there really is no legal cause of action against being a player.
Bigamy on the other hand…well, we’ll get to that. And we’ll get to the implications of the allegations themselves too
But first, back to the mystery of that lawsuit, and I’ll get to the substance of it in a bit. In order to understand what happened here, it’s important to lay out the timeline of events leading up to where we are now. Here is what has been verified to me by multiple sources:
- Rumors of NAK misconduct reached Omer mozaffar in the spring of 2016 through the leadership grapevine – he had been working on the terrible Saleem case and, as he recently discussed in a podcast, was often approached on how to handle such situations. The last couple of years a flurry of reports of misconduct of many different religious and community members came his way, and to the ears of other leaders (inspiring this piece by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari about spiritual abuse) and in the fog of all the different stories were some about NAK.
- He told a mutual friend of NAK’s, who went to Dallas to determine the truth around May 2016. That friend returned to Mozaffar and said the allegations were not true.
- Omar Suleiman, who had not only been a very close friend of NAK but worked with Bayyinnah since 2014, had formally resigned a bit earlier, in February 2016.
- For the following year, Mozaffar and others deflected stories about NAK but a year later, in the summer of 2017, that changed
- A group of four scholars that included Suleiman had been investigating allegations brought to them and others about NAK. On June 3, 2017, Suleiman wrote a piece, not very subtly titled “What To Do When I Find Out My Favorite Preacher Is Corrupt”.
- In Ramadan of 2017, that group of four now wanted to now meet with NAK to confront him about the allegations and set up terms. Mozaffar was contacted by a mutual friend of NAK’s to join this meeting given his past experience in such matters. NAK then confirmed to Mozaffar that he should come down and get involved in the matter.
- Mozaffar reviewed the evidence of the allegations and then went to meet NAK with the entire group.
- NAK was asked by this group of investigating scholars to step down from any public speaking and teaching for three years. He agreed to a year and agreed to get spiritual and emotional counseling. If he broke the terms, it was understood they would make a public statement. It was also understood that they would privately contact Dallas and other leadership around the country to inform them of the agreement.
- Not much later it came to the group’s attention that NAK was giving Friday sermons and had delivered a talk overseas. Having broken his part of the agreed terms, the group was contemplating what to do.
- In early September, NAK’s attorney sent the group of investigating scholars demand letters threatening legal action. Those people included Mozaffar, Suleiman, and three other well known scholars. Suleiman was sent a letter separately. The others were sent the same letter as a group. Here is the the letter sent to Suleiman:
Here is the letter sent to the others:
In case you are wondering why most of the names are redacted on this letter, it’s because I am honoring the decision of these men not to go public. Simple as that. I have had no direct contact with them but I am aware that none of them has said anything publicly, and that’s good enough for me
Contrary to what this letter says, according to those present, they were supposed to meet at an office but then were invited by NAK to his home to talk because he said he wasn’t feeling well. Despite not wanting to be on his stomping grounds, they went.
Back to the timeline:
- Shortly after these letters were sent, Mozaffar drafted and posted his now notorious post exposing the allegations against NAK
- A website went up on September 23 with screenshots of conversations between NAK and various women
- On October 2, 2017 Bayyinah LLC filed a lawsuit against Suleiman
- On October 3, 2017 a statement verifying the allegations against NAK was written by a second group of religious leaders and published on MuslimMatters.org
- On October 18, 2017 Bayyinah posted this:
BAYYINAH v/s OMAR SULEIMAN
Ok, let’s unpack the demand letters and lawsuit a bit. When the suit was filed, it shocked a lot of people because not only is this the first time a major American Muslim religious figure has sued another, but also because the suit alleges defamation, a reference, it seems, to the allegations posted by Mozaffar. Most people did not know that Suleiman had anything to do with those allegations until the lawsuit was filed.
Some saw this the lawsuit as retaliatory, which is probably what prompted the October 18 Bayyinah post, which by the way, is made by NAK’s sister. This post seems to suggest they just caught all these business discrepancies now, her having done a review, and that the lawsuit timing had nothing to do with the misconduct allegations against NAK.
Now, that seems like a blatant CYA if ever I’ve seen one. There are a few reasons why. First, the demand letter sent to Suleiman is an offer for mediation. It’s the kind of thing a lawyer writes when their client really really wants to settle stuff outside the public eye, because that client who has something to lose. In this case NAK had his reputation to lose. He refused to step down from his public platform (indeed, he still has not, posting sermons and lectures online nearly daily to the continued support of his followers – I can’t help but be reminded of the rallies Trump needs to feed his ego), feared Suleiman and others would go public for not stepping down, and threatened them with lawsuits to prevent that from happening.
But it didn’t. If anything, it spurred Mozaffar to go public. And he probably made the right call, because the alternative was likely shutting up about it all and letting NAK continue his ways.
The other reason the Bayyinah statement does not add up to the facts here relates to the charges in the lawsuit itself, which are enumerated here:
- “Breach of contract” – Bayyinah alleges Suleiman breached his employment contract by “failing to provide services required by his position”, and “using Bayyinah’s assets to compete with Bayyinah” when he was an employee of Bayyinah as well as after his employment with Bayyinah ended
- “Breach of Fiduciary duties” -Bayyinah alleges Suleiman breached his fiduciary duty (which basically means the highest standard of care and applies in relationships where the fiduciary is obligated to act in the interest of another entity or party) by not providing specific services he had agreed to. Though the specific duties aren’t enumerated, it maybe referring to earlier parts of the suit that allege Suleiman competed with them while employed by them.
- “Theft of trade secrets” – this one’s a doozy, in that it is kind of…ridiculous and may I say, even obnoxious. Here are the trade secrets they say Suleiman stole: “Such trade secrets and confidential information includes business methods, knowledge of specific projects in which Bayyinah was engaged and planned at the time Suleiman was an employee of Bayyinah, customers and supplier names and lists, know-how, process and procedures, and pricing data”. I find this charge obnoxious because, as a layperson who has taken many Islamic classes in the past, it is uncomfortable to think of the enterprise of Bayyinah as a “trade” that has “secrets”. Doesn’t Bayyinah do what dozens of other educational institutions do? Teach classes, hold seminars, produce videos, use social media? Aren’t the prices of these kinds of things always advertised, ie when Al Maghrib holds a class, the registration fee is public, right? Specific projects, like new classes, films, seminars? Customers names and lists? You mean the Muslim community? Suppliers of…what, printing materials? These are trade secrets? Not unless Bayyinah was the very first educational institute to ever do any of this, I don’t think so. A number of times the suit alleges Suleiman to have used “confidential” information, but doesn’t state what that information is. It also says he had access to Bayyinah’s “assets” and used them to learn their business and compete with them. I’m hard pressed to understand what specific, proprietary business methods Suleiman could have possibly learned at Bayyinah that are any different than any other such business. The suit also alleges, in the context of fiduciary duties I suppose, that “Suleiman conspired with a former employee at Bayyinah and secretly maintained his corporate Bayyinah email address, [email protected], after his employment had come to and end. He used this email address to respond to speaking requests and business proposals that were meant directly for Bayyinah and used them to further his personal interests.” Now, if these requests were specifically for Suleiman, this charge is weak sauce. If someone was trying to book Suleiman and he didn’t have a Bayyinah email, pretty sure there are half a dozen other ways he could be contacted. Like Twitter, Facebook, his own institute, or even his own personal email account. HOWEVER, if Bayyinah has proof that Suleiman got emails related to business opportunities for Bayyinah and messed with them, that could fall into the next cause of action:
- “Tortious Interference With Contract and Business Relations” – interestingly, nothing about interfering with Bayyinah’s emails are in this section. The suit refers instead to a charge that Suleiman was acting on behalf of Bayyinah when they entered into an agreement with a Jordanian film production company to produce something called the Onsite Seerah Project. Bayyinah paid the Jordanian company $166,446 in production costs and the company not only didn’t deliver the film, they didn’t return the money. The lawsuit says “By means unknown to Bayyinah, Suleiman convinced the Jordanian company to refuse to deliver the film to Bayyinah as agreed and to refuse to return the $166,446.00 paid by Bayyinah.” I have a hard time believing Suleiman could be held legally responsible for a foreign company breaching a contract, especially when the plaintiff itself is saying, uh, we don’t really know how this happened.
- “Business Disparagement” – Bayyinah alleges that Suleiman “knowingly has made and threatens to make false, defamatory statements about Bayyinah which Suleiman knows will damage Bayyinah” and “Suleiman has threatened Bayyinah that he would publish and cause to be published libelous and slanderous statements about Bayyinah that Suleiman knows would destroy Bayyinah’s ability to conduct business”. There is no information about exactly what any of these false, defamatory (redundant) statements specifically about Bayyinah are, and no evidence proffered other than, again, loss of that Jordanian film, so I have no idea what to make of this cause of action. Is Suleiman going around saying Bayyinah lectures are whack? That their materials are faulty? That their aqeedah is off? No clue.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the following charge in the lawsuit, not a cause of legal action, but just a mean-spirited little barb: “Prior to joining Bayyinah, Suleiman did not have nearly the exposure that his employment at Bayyinah provided him”. Allahu aalim, but if my memory serves me correctly, I knew exactly who Suleiman was before he joined Bayyinah because I’d seen him speak at plenty of conferences prior to that. In fact, it could be argued that he was invited to join Bayyinah because of his existing public profile – not in order to build it.
They also add, “throughout his employment he continuously asked that his recordings be published on Nouman Ali Khan’s facebook page which had a significantly larger following to help promote his name and teaching efforts”. Rawr.
Anyhoo…Bayyinah wants up to a million dollars in damages for the above stated causes of action. And, they want interest. Riba. You know, that stuff that is haraam.
Now, getting back to that October 18 Bayyinah statement that made it seem like it was a recent review of business stuff that suddenly alerted them to all these business discrepancies, which in turn led to the lawsuit – the charges in the suit don’t support that. The only things they may not have learned until this year was that nefarious email account (arising from a conspiracy no less), and that Bayyinah was still paying for Suleiman’s health insurance coverage after he left and they didn’t realize it until August 2017 . Other than these things, every other allegation could not have escaped them this long. That Jordanian film project? They say Suleiman quit Bayyinah in February 2016 and “assumed ownership” of it then. If so, you’re telling me they didn’t realize this from February 2016 to summer of 2017? And also, since February 2016, they had no idea he had set up his own classes, lectures, used social media JUST LIKE THEM (there go the trade secrets) until just now?
No. That’s not what happened. What happened is what is virtually spelled out in that demand letter threatening legal action: come to the table to mediate on the allegations against NAK and we won’t sue you. He didn’t come to any table, and they sued.
Why didn’t he come to the table? For the same reasons none of the other men did. They had already been at that table, they had set terms that NAK made clear he would not abide by, they already had evidence of threats to others involved, including threats to bury one of the women in legal fees, so they knew his MO, and finally, because sending a letter through an an attorney threatening to sue, instead of simply personally reaching out, failed to convince anyone of good faith intentions. It mischaracterized their meeting at NAK’s house, and left little in the way of trust. It was read as an intimidation tactic that they refused to be intimidated by.
Another question you may have is why did Suleiman get slapped with a lawsuit while the others didn’t? My theory, and it’s just a theory, is that the only cause of action NAK could threaten the others with was defamation. He has no other potential claim against them. And if his lawyer is any good, he would have advised him that hey, you can threaten a defamation suit but to actually prove defamation in a court of law, you have to show that the statements made are false.
When I reviewed the demand letters (yes I saw them before this all went public), my response was that the defense to defamation is the truth. If you’re telling the truth, it’s not defamatory. I could be wrong, but my strong educated guess is NAK’s lawyer did not sue the other men because he knows he cannot prove defamation. They have evidence they are telling the truth and that the allegations against NAK are not false.
So Suleiman, against whom a cause of action other than defamation could be brought, was sued alone. And, in fact, the word defamation against NAK is never raised in the lawsuit. Instead, here is how the charge is framed against Suleiman:
I am assuming the defamation alleged is that they are charging Suleiman with privately informing other organizations and communities about the misconduct and about the agreement for a temporary hiatus for NAK, which were terms they agreed to during that meeting at his house. And if NAK agreed to those terms, and there are at least five witnesses who, if deposed, will attest to that, then it will be hard to make a case of defamation here.
So the suit alleges defamation against Bayyinah, not against NAK personally. Yes, I will read something into that: no charge of personal defamation in this suit, and no charge filed against the other men who were threatened with a defamation suit. Which doesn’t prove, but does seem to indicate, that those allegations are not false.
Before we get to the allegations, I’ll wrap up the analysis on Bayyinah v/s Suleiman with this quote from Sh Suleiman’s attorney, Chris Hamilton:
“We have conducted an investigation of the purported lawsuit, and determined that the allegations in the lawsuit against Imam Omar are fabricated, fictitious, and entirely without merit. My firm, Hamilton Wingo, LLP, has agreed to represent Imam Omar pro bono (for free) in this case. We are prepared, if necessary, to fight these unjust allegations with every resource available and for as long as it takes, in defense of the victims.
We would not agree to take this case pro bono if we believed the allegations against Imam Omar Suleiman had one ounce of merit. The factual allegations in the lawsuit are contradictory, confused, fabricated, and verifiably false.
I have personally witnessed the profound and inspiring character of Imam Omar—and the great and selfless work he has done to advance the cause and progress of humanity—bringing reconciliation and building bridges between people of different faiths.
This abusive and retaliatory litigation is only to serve as a smokescreen or distraction from the underlying allegations of misconduct committed by the owner of the corporation that filed the lawsuit, which have now been well-publicized and widely condemned by the most respected sources. The courageous response of American Muslim leadership to this situation is something that should make all Muslims proud—as well as all Americans. The world has become dangerous with oppressors and bullies who do not like freedom of speech. They try to intimidate even the courageous into silence.
I am proud to stand with my friend Imam Omar Suleiman against these fabricated, false, and frivolous allegations made only to silence him. The lawsuit is without merit. If the case proceeds, in-depth discovery will be conducted into the allegations that have been made publicly by other sources against Nouman Ali Khan and Bayyinah, LLC.
We will be filing an answer to the lawsuit, and taking other appropriate measures, in accordance with the Texas Rules of Procedure. Additional information relating to the public interest will be made available as the case proceeds.”
If you ask me, Bayyinah has an uphill battle in this lawsuit. And NAK risks much more exposure about the allegations of misconduct from the depositions that will surely happen. This is what I call cutting off your nose to spite your face, and cutting it off on the record, in public proceedings.
SHAYKHS IN THE DMS
Now let’s talk a bit about those allegations in a legal context.
There seems to only be one allegation that rises to an actual crime in the state of Texas, and that is the charge of bigamy, ie being married to more than one person at a time. Under TX law, only one marriage is valid at a time, that being the earliest valid marriage. All other marriages after that are void by virtue of the first one still existing. We haven’t gotten to the criminality of this yet, but bear with me for a bit. I’m not bringing this up for nothing.
Any marriage that is considered void essentially deprives that spouse of any and all rights the spouse in the valid marriage has: no right to your spouse’s earnings, no IRS tax breaks, no share of pension and retirement, no right to death benefits, no spousal support or property division in the case of a divorce, because guess what, there is no right to divorce. That marriage doesn’t even exist in the eyes of the law. No marriage, no annulment, no divorce.
There are some limited rights for a person who claims to be a “putative spouse”, a latter spouse who thinks the marriage is valid and acts accordingly. That right ceases the moment a putative spouse becomes aware that the marriage is not valid because a prior valid marriage exists.
Then there is the Texas penal code. Under Title 6, Chapter 25.01:
An individual commits an offense if:
(1) he is legally married and he:
(A) purports to marry or does marry a person other than his spouse in this state, or any other state or foreign country, under circumstances that would, but for the actor’s prior marriage, constitute a marriage; or
(B) lives with a person other than his spouse in this state under the appearance of being married; or
(2) he knows that a married person other than his spouse is married and he:
(A) purports to marry or does marry that person in this state, or any other state or foreign country, under circumstances that would, but for the person’s prior marriage, constitute a marriage; or
(B) lives with that person in this state under the appearance of being married.
(b) For purposes of this section, “under the appearance of being married” means holding out that the parties are married with cohabitation and an intent to be married by either party.
The penalties for bigamy in TX can range from 2-10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Now, some argue that the criminal offense of bigamy only applies if someone attempts to have multiple legal marriages at the same time, but prosecutions in FLDS trials suggests otherwise because charges were brought against men who entered into plural religious, not legal, marriages. And then, under TEXAS Family code 2.401, common law marriage is also recognized. A common law marriage not require a licence, officiation, or registration of the marriage. It comes about if these elements are met:
- You have “agreed to be married.”
- You have “lived together in this state as husband and wife.”
- You have “represented to others” that you are married.
Whether NAK’s second marriage meets these standards would be for a court of law to consider, and it’s highly unlikely that will ever happen because, frankly, these kinds of cases are nearly never, ever prosecuted. Why? Likely because police and prosecutors treat these matters as being consensual. Which takes me to the next allegation: improper contact with women other than the wives.
As I said earlier, there is no law against being a player, which seems to be what NAK was doing: chatting with multiple women for, as he said, the purpose of potential marriage. A crime? No. That’s the end of that legal analysis, so let’s move on to what I absolutely must talk about next: the community response to the story. It was, and is, bonkers.
I have, very conscientiously, extracted myself from “community affairs” in the past few years. I rarely post articles about or by Muslim scholars, or from Muslim publications, I don’t work directly with any Muslim organizations, and I it’s a few years since I attended an “Islamic” conference. It’s not that I’m unconcerned with issues that impact our communities, it’s just that first, there are many more people today working on these issues and I think it’s important to let the experts handle stuff, because I think I can better serve the community indirectly by working to help change systems and institutions outside the community, and finally because after having been an activist and advocate for “my people” for decades, I’ve gotten burned out and disappointed from the vitriol, in-fighting, and enmity.
There are some things for which, however, I will jump right back into the fray. The abuse of power and the protection and fostering of toxic patriarchy and misogyny, especially in a religious context, is my siren call.
Having said that, when I was shown the demand letters just to get legal feedback, I didn’t go running to the public sphere to spill all. In fact, I advised that going public would have repercussions that should be carefully considered, but also said I would support the decision if that was made. Plainly put, the information I had was this: a group of scholars I trust had investigated and found misconduct on the part of NAK. I never asked the details of that misconduct, ie who he talked to, what did he say, who are the victims or women making the allegations, how long was it going on, etc. It was simply enough that an entire group of people I trust all came to the same conclusion (but I knew the minute it went public, people would demand so much information, evidence, answers, all of which I don’t think anyone is entitled to by the way). Reviewing the letters and giving my legal opinion was the extent of my involvement.
Until, of course, I did the unthinkable and actually shared Mozaffar’s post, the post that broke the Muslim internet for a couple of days and triggered a collective “five stages of grief” reaction from much of Muslim community. Here is what that looked like.
First stage of grief: DENIAL
Overwhelmingly, Mozaffar’s post got slammed with people rejecting the allegations. I’m a different animal than Mozaffar, I don’t just let anybody comment on my posts, they aren’t public in the sense that only “friends” can comment. And if “friends” are rude, I’ll delete and block them too. Not Mozaffar though.
People who couldn’t comment on my page found other ways to get through. I, and plenty of others who also shared his post, got slammed with DMs.
Luckily, alhamdulillah, I am at this point literally made of teflon. None of this stuff gets to me. If you were around when I wrote about Abu Eesa and MLI, you’ll know why.
The deniers demanded evidence. So they got it. Someone (to this day, I have no idea who) posted screenshots of communications between NAK and a variety of women on a website. I was sent a link to the site and posted it (well, here’s your evidence that YOU so desperately wanted, I never asked for it when I first heard about all of this), but the site was inaccessible. Either it was getting too much traffic or it was deliberately being subjected to a DDOS attack. No clue. Regardless, people are enterprising and most had taken screenshots of the site, which again were sent to me by a third party, so I posted those.
It was my mistake to just post them without context (“hey these are from the site I linked earlier but no one can access, again, the evidence you demanded”) and that got turned into a stupid thing with irresponsible media outlets (you know who you are) publishing actual “news” stories citing me as the source of these images without doing a damned bit of due diligence by contacting me to ask where the screenshots came from. Good job, hacks.
Denial is always expected in such situations and even more serious ones, ones that rise to crimes, like the recent rape allegation against Tariq Ramadan. Most of the posts by men, including prominent public figures, in response to these allegations has been either silence or innocent till proven guilty or why did she wait so long to come forward/do you know she’s a total Islamophobe tool.
As someone who spends a considerable amount of time focused on the wrongfully convicted, and has been advocating for a wrongfully convicted man for nearly 19 years now, I get it. And I agree. That’s why there is a process to verify allegations. But it is wrong, wrong, terribly wrong, to begin picking apart the alleged victim – are we really back in the “yeah but what was she wearing” ages?
We’ve got some Muslim male intellectuals and academics online snickering at the allegation, while others are trying to use statistical voodoo to discount the possibility that the charge is true.
That’s not this works. That’s not how any of it works. In no court of law, and in no ethical or religious framework whatsoever, do we factor the statistical probability of the veracity of certain classes of allegation as a measure of the veracity of a specific allegation. I think what’s happening here, on the part of some men, is a growing skepticism in the face of campaigns like #MeToo – how on earth is it possible that nearly every woman you know has been victim to sexual harassment or assault? IT IS STATISTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR THAT MANY MEN TO BE SEXUAL DEVIANTS.
You’re right. It is. And no one is claiming that. Let me show you what is happening with these illustrative exercises:
If you’re a person of color, raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced racist discrimination.If you’re an American Muslim, raise your hand if you’re ever experienced anti-Muslim bigotry.
If you’re a POC/Muslim I bet nearly every single person can say “yes, I’ve experienced this at least once in my life”. It doesn’t mean every single non-POC/non-Muslim you’ve ever come across is racist or an anti-Muslim bigot, it just means at least once you’ve come across that kind of crappy person.
99% of the men I’ve come across in my life have not sexually harassed or assaulted me. Four have. Out of thousands. That is what is going on. That nearly every single woman in her lifetime will come across that handful of men who are perverts, abusers, or outright criminals.
I know I’ve gone a bit off road from the purpose of this blog post, but I wanted to put a plug in the rising tide of “yeah I don’t believe all these #metoos, these feminazis demonize all men”.
Back to Tariq Ramadan – speaking of denial, he has categorically denied the allegation. And yes, he is absolutely innocent until and unless he’s proven guilty. At the same time I will say this: most women do not report sexual assaults. I know at least six women in my own personal close circle of friends who have been raped or molested. Not a single one has ever reported it. It takes a lot to go public with this kind of allegation and if I was a betting woman, I’d bet Ramadan’s accuser Henda Ayari did not make the complaint without any evidence. And for the skeptics, even after all these years, yes there can be evidence. There could be evidence of threats against her by him (emails, voicemails, messages), she could have confided in others (affidavits), gotten medical treatment for injuries, gotten therapy for trauma, still have garments with evidence (how long did Monica Lewinsky keep that stained dress?). The point is, if Ayari has an attorney, she must know she has to have evidence to back her claim. For now, a preliminary investigation into the matter has been opened by prosecutors in France. He will have his due process, and I join everyone in hoping for justice. If he’s guilty, his status as a scholarly Muslim intellectual affords him no special privilege. If anything, it burdens him with even greater responsibility than the average man.
The story of these charges, and the charges against NAK, is called news by the way, and many are even objecting to it being shared online. When Trump was accused by woman after woman of sexual assault, he certainly wasn’t given the same benefit of the doubt by our community that is being extended to Ramadan. We all frantically retweeted and shared stories about Trump’s misconduct, hoping that would prevent him from assuming the Presidency.
If we are fine sharing news of Weinstein, Trump, Mark Halperin, Catholic priests, and others who have yet to be convicted of anything, but draw the line at sharing news of charges against a Muslim man (see my opening paragraphs), this is bro-code gone very wrong.
Anyway, back to business: NAK.
Denial gave way to stage two of grief:
Second stage of grief: ANGER
Lordy, were people angry. HOW DARE THESE PRIVATE MESSAGES BE SHARED.
Guilty as charged. I do love screenshots.
One of the most ironic aspects to the anger was this: if you’re purporting to be students and defenders of an Islamic teacher, and THIS is how you defend him, you may want to get a refund from Bayyinah. Because clearly, you’ve learned nothing.
Now, to be fair, not everyone got angry. Some were still stuck in the denial phase of grief, insisting the screenshots were altered. My sympathies with those folks because at least they made more sense to me than the group that moved on to the third stage of grief:
III. Third stage of grief: BARGAINING
Now we moved into the ethical acrobatics of those, having accepted the screenshots as real and the allegations as true, were basically arguing “so what”:
- So what, none of the selfies he sent showed his awrah
- So what, a man can Islamically marry more than one woman, so he can court more than one at a time
- So what, a teacher can’t marry a student, what kind of rule is that?
- So what, everyone involved is a consenting adult
- So what, he’s just acting like man
- So what, we aren’t supposed to be talking about any of this because it’s a sin to expose the sins of others so the real culprits are the people talking about this!
I have to talk about some of these “so whats”. They bother me.
Do I need to say anything about the awrah stuff? Really? If you can convince me that NAK himself would be willing to give a public lecture about the Islamic permissibility of such..uh, courting, fine. Let’s talk. Otherwise, just stop.
Let’s talk about consent instead. First of all, since when did a group of orthodox, conservative Muslims decide consent is an appropriate standard for assessing behavior and why didn’t I, and marriage equality advocates, get that memo? Are you arguing that as long as there is consent, NAK or any Islamic teacher, scholar, regular joe Muslim man can marry multiple women simultaneously and play/court/date/DM on the DL numerous others? Are you telling our youth that AS LONG AS THERE IS CONSENT YOU CAN GET YOUR GROOVE ON?
I know that’s not possible. No way, no how, do Bayyinah students really believe as long as folks are consenting adults, all is ok.
But that begs the question of whether consent really exists between clergy and congregation. Texas law says it doesn’t. The penal code specifically finds criminality where there is sexual contact if the “actor is a clergyman who causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser…”. To be clear there is no such allegation against NAK. That’s not why I’m quoting this law. I’m providing an example of the understanding that emotional dependency on religious leaders exists, that students believe their religious teachers when they are told “I’m having dreams about you”, that people who are seeking spiritual solace can be fooled into accepting whatever a spiritual leader tells them as divinely ordained, that there is no dearth of examples (from pirs and mullahs in Pakistan to pastors in the bible belt to rabbis in Brooklyn) in which religious leaders haven’t convinced naive students/congregants into “consenting” to do things they shouldn’t.
The second consent related issue is related to the spate of secret nikkahs being had by celebrity speakers. In some cases, there may be true consent by the new wife, ie she has complete and accurate information about the man’s personal situation. But what if she doesn’t? In this case, one of the women making allegations against NAK told me she was lied to and not told about the second wife. When she found out she ended things. But say she hadn’t found out and had married him. Did consent exist? Does it truly exist when a woman is communicating with a man for the purpose of marriage but doesn’t know about his other women? I’d argue there is no consent without disclosure. But that’s just me.
Then there is the pearl-clutching by those aghast at the idea that Muslims should in any way, shape, or form be opposed to bigamy, because HELLO, it’s the sunnah.
This is a classic switch and bait. No one is opposed to the practice of bigamy in the actual tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): full disclosure/agreement of existing wife, publicly celebrated and announced, legally recognized. You know, the way marriage is supposed to be.
The institution of marriage is not booty-call shortcut in Islam. It’s a contract with obligations that must be enforceable. If that contract is unenforceable, it evades the entire purpose of the nikkah: legal and societal recognition of spousal status and rights to financial support and inheritance. But when a nikkah is done in secret, it leaves a woman completely at the mercy of the husband. Because he can just as easily abandon her and she has no recourse. It’s like she never existed in a legal sense, and even in an Islamic sense, because how many of our communities here in America recognize and honor the second, third, fourth wife? We just look the other way when she comes knocking, saying her husband left her and moved on.
Secret marriages are against the very ethos and purpose of marriage in Islam. And they are deeply devastating to the existing wife, who almost no one talks about. I haven’t seen a single comment or post related to NAK that says, hey, how is the wife in all of this? What impact has all this had on her? What does it do to her faith, her soul, to quietly watch the world learn religion from her husband, knowing what she knows? Does the consent of the long-suffering wife to second, third, fourth marriages matter at all? And what kind of marriage can be valid and good and right if it destroys an existing home? If a core purpose of the sharia is to protect the family institution, what to make of new marriages that destroy old ones?
Don’t however, take my word on why secret marriages all but violate the sharia. Read this recent piece by scholar Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadawi, “On Secret Marriages”. He writes,
“Secret marriage is one of several kinds of violation by men of the rights and dignity of women. I have been informed that it is increasingly common for Muslim preachers in Europe and America and for those visiting the West to marry women in secret and for a short period, after which they, presumably, end the marriage, before going on to contract another marriage of the same sort somewhere else. This is a violation of the laws and good purposes of marriage, and a vicious exploitation of women whose circumstances oblige them to enter into such contracts. The wrong is analogous to riba, which is a violation of the laws and good purposes of lending money, and severely injurious to those whose circumstances force them to borrow in this illegal way…..The neighbourhood and community must know the legal status of the couple’s being together, so that they can celebrate their relation and support it. Secret marriages, in addition to violating the rights of women, also violate the right of the community to be spared the innuendoes and slanders that are so corruptive of social order, harmony and trust. Such marriages do the same long-term damage to what is nowadays called ‘personal and social capital’, as American-style fast foods (and other ‘instant’ conveniences, not least social media ‘friendships’), do to long-term physical and mental health, and to the long-term sustainability of how food is produced and distributed.
The Prophet , peace be upon him, said: ‘Proclaim the marriage’ (Sunan al-Nasa’i, 3369; Musnad Ahmad, 15697; Sunan Sa`id ibn Mansur, 635)…..This is the opinion of al-Zuhri: ‘If someone marries secretly, brings two witnesses but commands them to keep it secret, it would be obligatory to separate the husband and wife’. Similarly, it is reported that Imam Malik’s opinion is that non-proclamation of marriage invalidates the marriage (al-Mughni, k. al-nikah).Even those scholars who do not make proclamation a legal condition for the validity of a marriage do not express approval for keeping it secret. Ibn Taymiyyah, as forceful and forthright as ever, likens secret marriages to prostitution (Majmu` al-fatawa, 32/102).”
The piece goes on, roundly and robustly condemning secret marriages. It also responds to the those people who think a person’s good deeds are enough to cover their bad ones:
“But how many of us are mindful that the converse is also true: that evil deeds can negate, undo or outweigh good ones? The following is reported by `Abd al-Razzaq in his Musannaf:
Ma`mar and Sufyan al-Thawri narrated to us from Abu Ishaq, who narrated from his wife saying that she called among a company of women on `A’ishah [ra]. A woman said to her: O umm al-mu’minin, I had a slave-girl, whom I sold to Zayd ibn Arqam for 800 with deferred payment of the price. Then I bought her from him for 600 and I paid those 600 on the spot and I wrote him 800 as debt. `A’ishah said: By God!How evil is what you bought! How evil is what you bought! Tell Zayd ibn Arqam that he has invalidated his jihad with the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, except if he repents. (Abd al-Razzaq, al-Musannaf, 8/185)”
Dr. Nadwi published this on October 6, 2017. What, and who, do you think he was talking about?
One more thing I have to say on the subject of bigamy is this: put your time, effort, money, and reputation where your libido is. For those who really truly believe bigamy should be a protected Islamic right, fight to get it legalized. Marriage equality for gay couples already paved the way for you. At least if bigamy becomes legally recognized, it will protect every wife. At least have the courage of your convictions beyond social media rants.
Doing so, I recognize, would be the nightmare of men who benefit from secret marriages with no strings attached. Make no mistake, this is a challenge, a dare, to those very segments of our communities who think Muslim men should have unfettered rights to take on multiple wives. It’s not a challenge they’ll rise to, I guarantee you that. Because secret wives are just so much more convenient than those with legal rights.
Lastly, for the men who need more than one wife at a time but really can’t be bothered to lobby for laws allowing it, at a minimum could you just maybe TELL YOUR FIRST WIFE BEFORE MARRYING HER. There are women who are ok with “sister-wives”. Marry them. If a woman tells you she is not ok with bigamy, don’t marry her. See how simple that is?
The last “so what” I need to discuss is the idea of covering up someone’s sins. Because hey, we all sin right. Correct we do, at least minor sins. But not all sins hurt others. Some are just between you and God. When they do hurt others, it’s a different game altogether.
Plus, NAK and others similarly situated are not just anybody. Along with knowing too much about the misconduct of public figures, I also know too much about the misconduct of private individuals. But I don’t hold them to the same standard, I don’t believe in publicly exposing their misconduct. Public figures, ESPECIALLY religious leaders, cannot be treated like private individuals when it comes to misconduct.
Is there a single supporter of NAK who thinks this is his personal business, shouldn’t be exposed, has no bearing on his position who thought the same thing about Trump when the Access Hollywood woman-part-grabbing statement went public? Since when does the private behavior of public figures not matter in Islam? Since never. A person’s character is paramount in Islam. I will say that if there are people who are comfortable and happy learning the deen from religious teachers who womanize, lie, coerce, and abuse, well you’ve got plenty of options. Enjoy.
Some of us, however, think religious leaders must be held to higher standards because we bring our young people to them to learn, because they model behavior for us, because they have incredible reach and access, because they are inherently trusted and entrusted with elevating our spiritual life, because they connect us to God, because in so many ways they are the only heros we have.
So no, there is no special protection for the misconduct of a public figure. It’s both telling and shameful that religious communities (not just ours, all religious communities) will bend over backwards to protect the misconduct of male leaders while secular society is much more willing to hold them accountable. Weinstein has been dumped from dozens of projects – but how many Muslim leaders whose misconduct is WELL KNOWN throughout our organizations and communities will be dumped from the speaking/teaching/conference circuit?
Exactly zero. Count on it.
So while I don’t think our organizations will end up doing the right thing here, which is to demand from NAK and others with similar allegations that they get help and make their victims whole, at least we know the hypocrisy won’t get past Allah (swt):
“From Abu Hurayrah, who said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, ‘ Verily, the first to be judged on the Day of Resurrection will be a man who had died as a martyr. He will be brought forward. Allah will remind him of the favours He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. Then He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I fought for Your Cause till I was martyred.’ Allah will say: `You have lied. You fought so that people might call you courageous; and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell. Next a man who had acquired and imparted knowledge and read the Qur’an will be brought forward, Allah will remind him of the favours He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. Then He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I acquired knowledge and taught it, and read the Qur’an for Your sake.’ Allah will say to him: `You have lied. You acquired knowledge so that people might call you a learned (man), and you read the Qur’an so that they might call you a reciter, and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him, and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell. Next a man whom Allah had made affluent and to whom Allah had given plenty of wealth, will be brought forward, Allah will remind him of the favours He had bestowed upon him and the man will acknowledge them. He will ask him: `What did you do to express gratitude for it?’ The man will reply: `I did not neglect any of the ways You liked wealth to be spend liberally for Your sake’. Allah will say to him: `You have lied. You did it so that people might call you generous, and they have done so.’ Command will then be issued about him and he will be dragged on his face and thrown into Hell.”
Walk the talk is an Islamic principle after all.
Finally, on the “so whats” in general: you can’t have it both ways. Either NAK’s behavior, if you think the allegations to be true, is a big deal (in a bad way) or it isn’t. If it isn’t a big deal, then it’s not a big deal if it’s being exposed either. And if it is a big deal, then there is no room for “so what”.
Now, there are two more stages of grief, depression and acceptance, and a few folks have already gotten there (took me about 15 minutes), but the majority are stuck in the previous three, so I’ll leave it at that, because most will probably never get past that point anyway.
A lot of conversations took place both on and offline about how to deal with these issues. How can you stop a Muslim leader from bouncing around, secretly marrying women and then dropping them, making moves on students, sexually harassing women, etc. As it is, it’s not like people don’t know. People know about the people doing such things. They wash their hands of it, cross their fingers that the leader just heads to another town to open up shop, and let it continue.
But our silence is devastating. And not just when it’s well known leaders. In the community I was raised in, everyone knew one of the men who did a lot of Muslim youth work was inappropriately engaging with young boys, in some cases having repeated sexual contact with them. No one reported him, all they did was keep running him out of one community, then he’d go to another and start all over. After years of hurting God knows how many boys, he will finally get some justice now, having been caught and charged with sexually assaulting his anesthetized dental patients. I’m glad the criminal justice system finally caught up to him because the Muslim community was nothing short of complicit in his crimes.
If you think there aren’t veils of protective silence around every badly behaving religious leader, you’re wrong. There are designated drivers in our communities, the men who step in to help talk the victimized women down, continuing to give cover to the serial abusers. There are all levels of enablers, including imams and organizations that keep handing their platforms and mics over to those they know have acted in morally reprehensible ways.
It takes a village folks. It takes a village.
So the only real solutions I can think of are these:
- Teach community members on how to protect themselves, and give them the space and encouragement to report misconduct. Reporting is key. We must stop misusing the injunction of covering sins. Sins cease to become only personal issues when they damage others, when they are perpetuated in a pattern, when they rise to abuse. And our communities need to understand what spiritual abuse is, what it looks like, and how the deen tells us to respond to it. I know some of our religious leaders will be writing more in depth on this issue, so I look forward to that. I certainly hope this will be an issue that merits a panel at future RIS, ISNA, ICNA, MSA, etc conferences.
- Establish a group/organization/committee that does intake, investigation, verification, and tracking of reports of misconduct and provides resources to victims. Intaking and tracking claims is done in virtually every other kind of abuse and it doesn’t mean every allegation is made public or every accused is prosecuted. Whether it’s hate crimes or sex offenses or child abuse or spiritual abuse, intake and tracking of allegations is an important tool in figuring out how to mitigate the issue, as well as developing a record for it’s own sake, and perhaps acting as a deterrent.
- Hold organizations and other leaders accountable for giving cover to those they know have proven, problematic track records. We love boycotts right? As someone on the receiving end of numerous community boycotts (it’s ok, I still love you), we do have the power to refuse to give platforms to those who are not deserving of them, until and unless they make their amends with those they have hurt, and with the communities they lied to. Even Jimmy Swaggart gave a teary eyed apology, but I fear the narcissism that fuels the abusive behavior we are seeing among male Muslim leadership will prevent any Swaggart-like displays of public apology.
Posted by Bayyinah on Facebook yesterday. Tell us more, NAK. Tell us more.
For what it’s worth, I sincerely hope and pray for the integrity of our scholars. I need them, my kids need them. But no one is irreplaceable, and regardless of how humans muck up, God’s religion continues and will always continue. That’s what I hang my hope hat on.
Finally, I just want to say, to my single sisters, the minute a man (no matter who he is) suggests a secret marriage, run. Also, the minute you find out a man is already married, run. There doesn’t need to be a lot of gray area here. Don’t participate in destroying another woman’s marriage. Even if he argues, “hey our marriage is already over”, make him get that divorce and prove it. You deserve better and so does his wife.