Spiritual Abuse and the Sufi Tradition

Interrogative Imperative Institute

"Once tasawwuf (the Sufi path) was a reality without a name, and now it is a name without a reality."

The foregoing words were said more than twelve hundred years ago. The situation today is much worse.

While there are still some authentic shaykhs or guides and legitimate chains of spiritual/mystical transmissions (silsilah or Sufi Orders) that are in existence today, there are many, many more counterfeit/fraudulent 'teachers' and groups who have muddied the spiritual waters considerably and, in the process, are exploiting the ignorance and vulnerability of unsuspecting individuals.

Identifying Perpetrators

Several individuals have wondered why the names of spiritually abusive individuals are not mentioned specifically so that people might be able to know what Orders and groups to stay away from, as well as in order to be able to breathe more easily and gain reassurance about certain spiritual groups with which they have been associating. In addition, there have been a few individuals who believe there are a number of worthwhile 'rules of thumb' which can be used to help separate the wheat from the chaff with respect to the issue of legitimacy among potential spiritual guides -- one of these aforementioned rules being: to use the quality of a mureed as a sort of barometer for gauging the authenticity of that mureed's shaykh.

This web page serves a variety of functions and purposes. However, among these purposes and fun ctions there is none which is intended to utilize this Group as a clearinghouse for specifying who might be an authentic or inauthentic spiritual teacher or for trying to identify which silsilahs are legitimate. This is not a matter of being coy, evasive, unforthcoming, difficult, or irresponsible. Rather, the whole arena of naming names would take us very far away from the primary foci for which this web page was established in the first place.

To speak about problems, experiences, feelings, difficulties, principles, issues, obstacles, interpretations, resources, and reactions in relation to spiritual abuse does not require any names to be mentioned. No one has to be chastised, and no one has to be defended.

If, say, 6-7 years ago, someone had asked me, or a number of the other people who are members of this web page, whether such and such an alleged teacher, or such and such spiritual circle, was authentic, we might all have answered in the affirmative to both questions. If someone were to ask us the same things today, we all would feel serious reservations toward, if not outright rejection of, the so-called teacher, as well as have a lot of uncertainty concerning the extent of the legitimacy of the last two or three shaykhs of the silsilah -- not because of anything which we have learned about those latter individuals but due to the doubts and questions which the behaviors of the present so-called shaykh raises in relation to those earlier spiritual guides. Were we wrong 6-7 years ago, but right today? Or, were we right then, and wrong now?

The value of the answer one receives to a question depends on when the latter is raised and to whom it is directed, and the character of experience over time may affect how a given question is answered at different junctures in a person's life. Furthermore, would knowing the name of the alleged guide or the relevant silsilah get one any nearer to the truth of the issues which are at the heart of the problem before us?

This web page tends to focus on three themes. More specifically, (1) what constitutes spiritual abuse, and (2) how does one go about seeking recovery, (3) in the context of the Sufi Path -- both with respect to (1) and (2).

There is no need for the identification of specific personalities in order for us to deal with any of these three issues. If one listens to the experiences being shared, if one pursues the questions which are being asked, if one reflects on the principles being cited, if one seeks to merge horizons with the difficulties encountered, if one strives to understand the nature of the emotions, motivations, intentions, thoughts, suggestions, possibilities, and behaviors which are being explored, if one inquires into the basic issues of life which we all face -- Who are we? Why are we here? What are the possibilities? How should we seek? Where are we going? When will we know? -- then the releasing of names is not a very useful exercise.

Moreover, the very fact someone would ask about the authenticity of a given silsilah or a particular individual would seem to suggest that the person who is making the inquiry doesn't really know the truth of the matter and, therefore, is in need of exploring such issues with greater rigor in order to arrive at a more informed and insightful hermeneutic of the situation. In addition, such understanding cannot be derived by borrowing the reassurances of another individual, irrespective of how well-meaning the offering of that sort of opinion may have been, because no one can do another person's spiritual work. There are many people in this group who are having to face the ramifications of spiritual abuse because, among other things, they trusted someone's word about the truth of something. One of the most central themes in recovering from spiritual abuse revolves around the problem of trust -- whom to trust? What to trust? When to trust? How much to trust? Why trust? Will I ever be able to trust my own judgment again?

To claim that such and such a silsilah is okay, or that such and such an individual is all right, entirely misses the primary issue for someone who is trying to come to grips with spiritual abuse. A person who has been exposed to spiritual abuse doesn't want to know what someone's opinion is about such and such a silsilah ... a person who has been subjected to spiritual abuse wants to know why what is said should be trusted.

Once trust has been violated in an essential sense, one is not eager to be violated in the same way again. There are no words to adequately convey the intensity and depth of betrayal one feels when essential, spiritual trust has been trampled upon.

The whole of the Sufi path can be summed up in one word -- nisbath. Nisbath is the channel way of reciprocal trust through which teacher and seeker communicate ... through which understanding is transmitted and acquired ... through which spiritual progress is made possible.

Faith, insight, hal (states), intuition, kashf (unveiling), stations, knowledge, adab(spiritual etiquette), and yaqueen (certainty) are nourished and developed through the roots of nisbath. When trust is undermined due to the presence of spiritual abuse, nisbath cannot be established, and suluk, or spiritual journeying, of any substantive character becomes extremely difficult, if not dangerous.

What was once freely given ... perhaps, too freely -- namely, trust -- before the arrival of spiritual abuse, must be struggled for mightily after the emergence of spiritual abuse. This is true not just in relation to how a spiritually abused person feels about others, but, as well, how a spiritually abused person feels about trusting herself or himself with respect to almost anything of spiritual importance.

If spiritual frauds were all simpletons who were consumed with run-of-the-mill spiritual illnesses such as greed, laziness, and lust, then, identifying some of the warning signs which mark the presence of these sort of maladies might be a relatively straightforward process. Unfortunately, not all spiritual frauds are simpletons and, furthermore, the nature of the underlying spiritual problem is often quite complex.

For example, if the goal of an individual is to corrupt someone, or to lead the latter person away from the truth, or to interfere with the realization of the latter person's spiritual potential, then, detecting the warning signs which indicate the presence of such intentions tends to become a much more difficult and subtle problem. Disinformation, misinformation, and falsehoods, of one sort or another, mixed in with the truth, become the poisons of choice -- often tasteless, odorless, and difficult to detect at the time of consumption.

In a later essay within this book, I speak about the behavioral transformations which have taken place in several young Canadians who were induced to undergo a paradigm change by their so-called spiritual guide. The difference in these two young women before and after this transition was nothing short of breath-taking.

However, one would only see these differences under certain circumstances -- namely, situations in which the two individuals were introduced to facts, evidence, experiences, and truths which threatened the stability and viability of the new paradigm. In most other circumstances, one would see them as kind, warm, friendly, loving, thoughtful, honest, even-tempered, patient, caring individuals ... and I have direct experience of this truth because I have spent a fair amount of time in the presence of such people and know how they act in certain settings.

If one were to take a sampling of behavior from the latter population of possibilities, the sampling would be biased, and, consequently, not really representative of different behavioral potentials within these individuals. If one were to try to gauge the spiritual authenticity of the so-called teacher based on this sort of sampling technique, one would tend to have a very favorable opinion concerning the issue of spiritual legitimacy in relation to that alleged guide.

However, if one were to take a sampling of behavior from the set of possibilities which arises when the underlying teacher –student paradigm is being critically challenged -- as happened when I went to Canada a few years ago -- then, one would obtain a very different idea about both the spiritual condition of the 'seekers' as well as the teacher. Moreover, because of the revealing character of this latter sampling, fraudulent teachers often instruct members of the circle to camouflage almost everything they do whenever they -- that is, the members -- are in the presence of 'outsiders' (i.e., those who have not, yet, undergone the necessary spiritual paradigm shift, and this may include people within the so-called silsilah who are 'resisting' being compliant in relation to the teacher's agenda).

Furthermore, fraudulent teachers always create escape routes for themselves, and, quite frequently, their followers will assist them in this respect. Through the use of triangulation, a charlatan will encourage certain individuals to pass on various sorts of misinformation, attitudes, expectations, rules, conduct, group norms, and so on, to selected 'targets' of paradigm change.

If problems arise during the unfolding of this arrangement of control through triangulation, then, the so-called guide attributes those difficulties to the misunderstanding of either, or both, of the other two corners of the triangle. In addition, all too many followers are prepared to accept this pronouncement, because they feel that if any mistake has been made, it is likely to have been theirs, not that of the alleged teacher who is assumed to be of spiritually superior an d more elevated character and knowledge.

No one blamed Hazrat Rumi (may Allah be pleased with him) for the great likelihood that some of his mureeds may have been responsible for the final disappearance of Shams (may Allah be pleased with him). Indeed, whatever may have happened in that regard, the shaykh was not responsible for the foibles of the seekers who surrounded him.

Unfortunately, the existence of such historical precedents also affords fraudulent teachers with a means of plausible deniability concerning the assigning of blame for the misconduct of mureeds. A spiritual charlatan doesn't need to be completely exonerated of wrong doing -- all he or she really needs is a degree of ambiguity within which to work on the doubts that people may have concerning her or his spiritual authenticity. Some of these fraudulent shaykhs are real masters in exploiting such margins of ambiguity to their own benefit.

Some people may be annoyed that names are not named on this web page. They may feel this casts all guides and all silsilahs under a shadow of doubt, or cloud of suspicion, and, consequently, they consider this to be unfair to those teachers and silsilahs that are authentic.

We believe that which is true will be able to sustain such examination. We believe that which is not true will, sooner or later, fail such an examination.

Our intention is not to create doubt where none is deserved. Our intention is to encourage people to rigorously think about, reflect on, and explore the commitments they make and the circumstances under which they invest trust in another human being and/or group of people - especially when matters of essential spiritual importance are involved. We don't expect others to automatically and blindly trust what is being said here. We do expect others to seriously engage the issue of trust and begin to ask themselves: why, how, when, where, who, and what, in conjunction with that issue.

Copyright 2003-2017, Interrogative Imperative Institute, Brewer, Maine, 04412