Here’s Why We Need to Deconstruct Celebrity-Shaykh Culture

Here’s Why We Need to Deconstruct Celebrity-Shaykh Culture

“Come as you are, to Islam as it is.”

A call to fellowship and communal religious growth in a culturally relevant safe space. A judgement-free zone where believers can be their most authentic selves. This is the Ta’leef Collective, founded by California-born Islamic scholar Usama Canon.

In Arabic, “ta’leef” means “to bring together” or “to reconcile.” The latter meaning being of particular relevance to the organization in light of misconduct claims against Canon.

Two years ago, the Internet flooded social media with messages of support for Canon, who received a terminal diagnosis for the degenerative neurological disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ASL, or Lou Gerig’s disease. Now, many are forced to reconcile with Canon’s admissions to professional misconduct, including verbal abuse and abuse of authority.

Are we seeking to elevate mere mortals to god-like statuses by fostering a culture of infallible religious scholars and leaders? tweet

On “The Medium,” Sana Saeed penned a thought-provoking piece detailing the claims laid against Canon and the personal impact these revelations had on Saeed and the collective. Then, she led the conversation into celebrity-shaykh culture, imploring Muslims to think deeply about what they want from their masajid, their imams and the shayukh. Are we seeking to elevate mere mortals to god-like statuses by fostering a culture of infallible religious scholars and leaders?

As someone who was culturally Catholic prior to converting, Islam’s lack of a religious hierarchy appealed to me. The Qur’an and authentic ahadith do not establish priestly classes, for instance, like other faiths. A Muslim’s guide is the direct revelation received by Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, (the Quran) and requires no intermediary.

However, people tend to follow celebrity-shayukh as if they have special access to the truth which the average Muslim does not. When accusations, like those against Canon or Nouman Ali Khan, are raised it rocks people’s faith to the core. Social media fights ensue, and the haram-police come out in full force, shaming those wishing to discuss matters of spiritual abuse in the community.

These important dialogues are silenced due to fears of fueling Islamophobic sentiments in the media, and by de-contextualizing passages of the Qur’an and ahadith.

“The Messenger of Allah said: ‘Whoever relieves a Muslim of some worldly distress, Allah will relieve him of some of the distress of the Day of Resurrection, and whoever conceals (the faults of) a Muslim, Allah will conceal him (his faults) in this world and the Day of Resurrection.” (Narrated by Abu Hurairah)

…what role does the community play in protecting its members from spiritual violence, gross misconduct which utilizes a trusted position of religious authority to harm, to mislead and to violate the sacred trust supposedly existing between the teacher and their students? tweet

For some, a public discourse surrounding the sins of others falls under haram territory, especially concerning community leaders. The duty of a Muslim is to shield the faults of their brothers and sisters from the world, leaving it all to Allah. However, what role does the community play in protecting its members from spiritual violence, gross misconduct which utilizes a trusted position of religious authority to harm, to mislead and to violate the sacred trust supposedly existing between the teacher and their students?

An important principle of Islamic law is often removed from the conversation: ”Greater harm can be removed by lesser harm” (Sharḥ Majallat al-Aḥkām 1/54). In the case of Canon and Khan, concealing their sins could potentially lead to greater harm in the community. Although Muslims are instructed to cover the sins of their brothers and sisters in faith, in these instances, the spiritual violence committed against community members was a spiritual toxin needing to be publicized and removed in order to cease rampant abuse. The rights of the community superseded those of the individual spiritual leaders.

These shayukh and YouTube “scholars” are not divine representatives on earth, and the culture which raises them to this status must cease. tweet

People follow individuals and forget that they too are a part of the conversation that the Qur’an encourages us all to have. Knowledge-seeking and debate was always a community endeavor in the early ummah. These shayukh and YouTube “scholars” are not divine representatives on earth, and the culture which raises them to this status must cease. When these individuals are brought back down to earth, the culture which perpetuates these types of spiritual abuses will diminish.

As a community, we are responsible for re-joining the conversation with al-Qur’an and our Creator. We are responsible for engaging in dialogue and for educating ourselves to further Islamic knowledge and Qur’anic discourse. Our faith is not intended for an elite few. It’s an eternal dialogue between our Lord and the Creation. It’s an inclusive back-and-forth irregardless of income, race, gender, social status. Man-made identifiers will seek to disengage us from the collective ummah. 

Let us learn from these spiritual abuses by reclaiming ownership of our masajid and our faith. Afterall, I am not accountable for the sins of another, but I am accountable for encouraging fellow Muslims back to a community of open dialogue and religious discourse which returns Allah and al-Qur’an back to the forefront of our lives, not mere mortals who have dangerously been placed on pedestals by us all.

Image courtesy of Instagram
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