A walk down honesty lane: Consensual illicit relationships in the Muslim community

September 26, 2017

I’ve discussed the issue of shaykhy crush/fangirling from both the student and teacher’s perspective before and as much as many seem to enjoy creating villains and victims I don’t think most of these cases are as clear-cut as people would like to pretend they are. A victim is someone who is preyed upon, a villain (predator) is someone who preys upon others. The problem is most of these relationships are quite murky and don’t fit into this clear-cut victim-villain/prey-predator dynamic. In some ways I think people already know this. But newer definitions of what exactly a victim (prey) is, causes us to view even consensual relationships through the prey-predator prism.

It should be clear that a relationship merely being consensual doesn’t make it halal. At the same time, a relationship being haram doesn’t equal it being predatory. Nevertheless, many still categorize shuyookh as predators and their behavior as predatory in consensual illicit relationships. This is because they believe the uneven power dynamics in these relationships to be inherently harmful. The activist wing in and outside of the Muslim community believe that women can be victims even in a consensual relationship especially if the man is in a position of power. If a consensual haram act takes place between a sheikh, imam, or celebrity scholar and his female student he becomes the predator and she the prey. He used his power to tantalize her into a secret marriage, emotional relationship, degrading social (media) exchanges, and the like. I understand this narrative and for the most part, I geared towards until very recently. I understand the comfort a woman can take in portraying herself —both to herself and to the public, as a victim and the man as the evil sheikh. The problem is, it very often isn’t the whole truth. If women were completely transparent about these situations, they would admit to often being just as culpable as the men.

While it’s fair to say the one with more knowledge deserves more blame, it doesn’t take years of Islamic studies to know the basics of right and wrong. But what’s also problematic is the fact that quite often these relationships enter into a “grey area” without ever crossing any technically haram boundaries. For instance, what are we to think when a leader is accused of “spiritual/emotional abuse”? What does that mean and how do we deal with that as a community? Is a shuyookh “predatory” if he entertains marriage proposals from his students? Is it problematic for a female student to “offer herself” in marriage to her teacher? Is it an abuse of power if he accepts? I don’t know that there are explicit answers to these questions and I don’t know that its fair for our shuyookh to be labeled as predatory in any of these scenarios.

Yes, it may be true that a woman leaves one of these relationships feeling used and abused but it’s probably also true that the relationship was not one-sided, while it lasted it’s doubtful that the women in these scenarios didn’t enjoy the attention and special treatment that being around the sheikh permitted. The problem with seeing one’s self as solely a victim is that it alleviates one from responsibility, it creates a false picture whereby the woman is just an innocent party something happened to and not an adult with agency fully able to choose to engage or disengage in that relationship. It important to understand how difficult it is to get out of a relationship with a “power” man, but difficult doesn’t equal impossible and it’s in the difficult situations that we get to test our moral character. Even if you put most of the moral obligation on the man, the woman still has her part to play.

I also question the categorization of these relationships as predatory because I question whether or not an uneven power dynamic is an inherently negative thing. In some ways I agree with this stance because those in power over others naturally have an opportunity to oppress them through that power —if the man is more knowledgeable than she can be manipulated by him because of her lack of knowledge, if he is wealthier than her she can be oppressed through her dependence on his wealth, if he is her teacher she may fear bad grades if she doesn’t cave to his will, if he’s her boss she may fear being fired if she doesn’t do what he wants, if he is the community leader she may fear isolation if she doesn’t give in to his demands, and on and on. As real and as dire as this power dynamic is, it bypasses something more fundamental that we all intuitively know —women (often) desire to be with men who have a higher status (greater power) than themselves.

When things go bad it’s easy to blame the power dynamic and to categorize the more powerful person (the man) as a predator and the less powerful (woman) as a victim —for instance, once the secret marriage is in shambles it’s easy to say the sheikh forced her into such a union but the reality may be that she was willing to bypass her wali and agree to the marriage because she desperately wanted a part of the perceived power this sheikh possessed. If we’re honest with ourselves as women —despite society deeply desiring our dishonesty, we sometimes do crazy things to be with powerful men. Whether it’s the fangirls sneaking backstage to be close to their favorite musician or the fangirls sending secret messages to their favorite shuyokh “offering themselves” for marriage, many of us have a thing for powerful men and will do a lot of crazy nonsense to be around them. To pretend as if we don’t actively participate in pursuing these relationships is disingenuous and frankly, infantilizing.

None of this means men in power don’t bear the brunt of responsibility —they do (with great power comes great responsibility), and no man who engages in unIslamic characteristics should be put forth as a leader —we can do better than to have leaders who engage in blatantly haram or questionable activity especially involving the opposite sex, but it doesn’t do us any favors if we as women continue to play the victim game. Your Islamic knowledge is your responsibility and Allah gives us all an inner conscious to guide us in questionable situations. To pretend as if the women who get involved in these relationships don’t know —for instance, that zina is haram, secret marriages are questionable, sending illicit picture is a bad idea, etc. is to say that women are somehow desperately ignorant of the religion and should be treated like children who don’t know even the basics, that’s insulting and I have a hard time believing it’s anywhere near the truth.

This essay isn’t meant to overlook the actions of the shuyookh, men who behave like that or who constantly draw suspicious attention to themselves through questionable actions don’t deserve to be our leaders. But can we stop treating women like damsels in distress? Even if we put 90% of the onus on men when these relationships are consensual there are no victims and villains, just a lot of sinful folks in need of repentance.

May Allah restore our adab and give us guidance in this increasingly “grey” world.

What is lawful is evident and what is unlawful is evident, and in between them are the things doubtful which many people do not know. So he who guards against doubtful things keeps his religion and honor blameless, and he who indulges in doubtful things indulges in fact in unlawful things, just as a shepherd who pastures his animals round a preserve will soon pasture them in it. Beware, every king has a preserve, and the things God has declared unlawful are His preserves. Beware, in the body there is a piece of flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound and if it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt, and hearken it is the heart.” (Muslim, 1599)

[To note: I hope it’s completely obvious to any Muslim that in the case of non-consensual relationships we get the secular law involved. If anyone (especially among our leaders) is known to be involved in or in serious suspicion of committing domestic violence, molestation, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, etc., they should be prosecuted and punished in a court of law, as one sheikh said, “If someone acts like a kafir, treat them like one”.]


  • Shakeb Ahmad Firdausi

    Very profound exhibition of thoughts coming through a perspective glass.Descending deep below the surface..keep writing .keep expressing.Shukran

  • HMA

    Very well written and timely. Truly agree with the writer. At one end women demand equality in everything and then when something like this happens they use the innocent victim woman card.

  • Noor

    Thank you, both.

  • Zunaira Zahid

    Well put!

  • Hanna

    Well written but I am confused. As Muslims we recite the Quran to protect ourselves from evil. How can some one who recites and studies the Quran everyday commit an act that is so hated to Allah when remembrance and recitation bring you closer to him. The munafiq ex Muslims use this problem to undermine the miracle of the glorious Quran by astaghfirullah saying if it isn’t good enough to maintain the decency of a shaykh then it isn’t for anybody. Allah forgive us all.

    • Noor

      Ameen… Assuming something inappropriate did happen in NAK’s specific case, it is sad. These are confusing times with a lot of fitna -just the creation of private communication through text and video chat is a huge fitna for many overwise pious Muslims. All we can hope is that Allah doesn’t give us the same trials.

  • Gibran Mahmud

    If someone acts like a kafir*

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