Absolute power, as they say, corrupts absolutely. There is a reason why power corrupts. It deludes us into thinking we are the reference, we are all that we are because of our own doing. We become to a certain degree gods unto ourselves. The most powerful rulers through history, the most powerful rulers contemporary—and few and far between are those who never abused their powers—all of these people assumed at some level that they were and are indomitable, and that they are in some ways God’s gift to his people. And it usually is the case that these figures were and are men.
Every so often, allegations emerge about famous Muslim celebrity-scholars abusing their power—although, in the case of Nouman Ali Khan, the details are still murky (and in some ways the details don’t matter too much if an abuse of power has occurred). When Muslim celebrity-scholars abuse their power they in a very real sense scar the community, and this applies to any religious community of course—whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or New Age.
When a community vests certain people with its trust and hope, believing wholeheartedly in some very real sense that their very salvation, that their very earthly and otherworldly salvation is happening through such people, so to speak, and then their trust (and hopes and dreams) are betrayed, then the community as a whole suffers spiritual trauma.
Of course, people will always be people—that is to say, people who are invested by their communities with adulation for certain undeniable gifts are bound to fail, even as new figures emerge to replace those who have fallen from grace. Humans as humans will always be human. We are forever—insofar as forever applies to this temporal realm—trapped in these fleshy bodies, which are necessarily limiting, which are necessarily corrupting, insofar as they have these downward tendencies—seen from the viewpoint of traditional metaphysics.
I myself was the victim of certain abuses, not by the person in question in wider social media speculation today, but by another, in some ways even more prominent, person—Hamza Yusuf. I can already see people commenting and thinking: How dare this Hasan Azad even raise questions regarding the great Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, through whom he has guided so many thousands of people to God—who does Hasan Azad think he is?
The reality is that in 2001 I was attending the Rihla, the summer intensive at Zaytuna, which was then based in Santa Clara California. I was seeking the guidance, direction, and ‘inner transformation’ that Hamza Yusuf’s Rihla promised. I also had a history of mental health issues, and two summers previously I had been institutionalized in the UK and in Bangladesh where I was visiting together with my family at the time. In 2001, when I was at the Rihla, I started having a breakdown. I was sleeping less and less, eating less and less—oftentimes the telltale markers for people with a history of mental health issues that they are on the verge of having a breakdown. I started acting up. I recall one time standing up in a class being led by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, and questioning the saintly shaykh whom everyone revered, including Hamza Yusuf, questioning his intent in teaching the class. I felt that he was being a hypocrite.
That was really the extent of my acting up. I did not harm anyone, apart from being disruptive and unpredictable. And how did Hamza Yusuf handle my trying to speak to him? I remember very well my mother advising me—before I left for the Rihla—“Tell Hamza Yusuf everything, he will know how to help you, as far as your health issues.” He barely spoke to me—no more than a minute. He told me to read a certain prayer, and this advice he imparted without even really looking at me. Instead of looking at me, he directed his shoulder towards me—hardly the prophetic example of how one is meant to greet those who are in need.
Hamza Yusuf, through his coteries, subsequently called my father, saying that I was disrupting classes. My father pleaded with Hamza Yusuf saying:
“My son is ill, please wait for me, I will come and get him.”
Because Hamza Yusuf told him he was going to put me on the next flight out of Santa Clara back to London. But Hamza Yusuf didn’t listen. Two of his coteries, one of whom, Nazim Baksh, is now a respected scholar in his own right, drove me to the nearest airport the following day and put me on the next flight out. I had reached out for help. My behavior was taken as a reason to exclude me from the community rather than help me. They had done their “Islamic duty” by separating the problem from their vision of the right kind of seeker of knowledge. In sending me out on the next flight, they not only separated me from the community as a problem that could not be helped, but they sent me into the secular wilderness for the wolves of the nation-state to feed upon my vulnerability.
The closest “every day” analog is being on heavy psychoactive drugs. If you can imagine someone high on LSD and having a bad trip being told to travel thousands of miles through three international airports, back to where they came from, then the gravity of the situation is clear. However, I failed to get beyond the Detroit airport.
To cut a long story short, I was picked up by a police car, I was held in a police cell, and I was later transferred to a mental health facility for observation and subsequently admitted, where I spent three weeks.
All of this is to say that I am today healthy and well, and, somewhat paradoxically, I am glad I went through what I went through, because I used to be a Hamza Yusuf acolyte, an idolater, in many ways, of the Hamza Yusuf image. I believed I was going to tread the same path as him educationally and learn the way he did, and go to Muaritania and become a traditional shaykh. Of course, that didn’t happen. I have a PhD in Islamic Studies from Columbia University, and I am very much my own thinker. It has all worked out well for me in the end, and I thank God for that.
I do not, however, accept that people in positions of power, especially when it comes to spiritual matters, can do whatever they want. And yet very often they are given a lot of leeway, far too much leeway—dangerous leeway because it is assumed that such people see and understand and act, all the time, by the light of God. And that therefore, they are necessarily always doing what is right by the people, even if it might “outwardly” seem as though they are doing something wrong.
The chances are that if it seems outwardly wrong, especially where other people’s rights, and their health and mental wellbeing (in all its vastly complex manifestations) are concerned, then such scholars—such people in positions of power—should not be given complete freedom to do whatsoever they wish, for that is at its core a recipe for destructiveness.
We talk today about the president of the United States, shall we say, or rulers in various countries doing whatever they want—being tyrants. And oftentimes these discourses are projected by many of our religious leaders—and rightly so. The question that should be posed to them and to ourselves is to what extent are we ourselves tyrants of our own realms.
A prophetic tradition says: “Each of you is a shepherd put in charge of his/her flock.” This is profound. The meaning I take in the context of this article is if the shepherd, instead of tending and protecting and loving and caring for this flock, sets upon it as a wolf, he or she is no longer fulfilling the function of a shepherd. In light of the Khan controversy and my story, it also seems pertinent to not remain as sheep waiting for the emergence of a new shepherd of inner transformation and knowledge.
We must ourselves face how many of our religious shepherds are in reality wolves in shepherds’ clothing.