Author’s note: This article may contain triggering elements. If at any times you are triggered, please pause, check in with yourself, and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
Editor’s note: This article is in no way meant to substitute for medical or mental health advice from a trained and educated mental health professional. Muslim Girl encourages those who need help to seek it, and encourages the use of resources such as therapists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and trained mental health professionals. You should never try to manage your mental health alone. You are not alone, and there is no shame in seeking professional help. Muslim Girl also does not recommend self-diagnosis; again, please seek the help of a professional. The following are the views and experiences of the author only.If you have feelings of self-harm or suicidal ideation, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Every few months in our community, a woman comes out to speak against her abuser — usually someone who has been in a trusted role in the community. We all then watch our Instagrams, and sometimes the news as we hear of the abuses she endured, and we watch the way people react to her. There is currently another story that has popped up in my circles in the last few days, and the cycle of reactions have started. Reading her story, or any other story, I’ve seen people think, “I’m sad for her but this was obviously spiritual abuse; why didn’t she leave earlier?” Or: “What if she’s just misinterpreting all this?” There have been worse reactions that are rooted in misogyny, but the comments I mentioned are rooted in a general confusion on what spiritual abuse is.
Spiritual abuse is quite common in our communities, and is often missed because of our inability to see it and correct it. It’s also missed because of the shame associated with abuse. No one wants to admit they were spiritually abused, and many don’t want to be associated with spiritual abusers. And often, spiritual abuse is connected to someone of influence or power, but in our communities, we give a lot of respect and authority to those people, so it gets challenging to speak out against it.
We all think abuse and abusers are evil, but we only associate evil with cartoonish Disney villains, or caricatures of villains like The Joker or Lord Voldemort. There is a lot of evil in abuse, but it gets confusing when that person is kind, when they can be loving, and when the people around them feel taken care of. Abusers maintain their control by being able to switch from loving to abusing. It’s hard to experience it, to recognize it, to stop it, and to heal from it; to be able to recognize that someone who was supposed to look out for you or love you or care for you abused you. But it’s so important to do so.
It’s important to be able to reclaim ourselves and our spirituality — to be able to develop a relationship with God that is based on God’s purpose, not someone else’s. To be able to see love and recognize it and be able to accept it. We need to discuss more about spiritual abuse, but we first need to understand abuse. Abuse in its most basic definition is when something is misused, or someone is mistreated.
Abusers maintain their control by being able to switch from loving to abusing. It’s hard to experience it, to recognize it, to stop it, and to heal from it; to be able to recognize that someone who was supposed to look out for you or love you or care for you abused you.
When we think of abuse, we think of women and children in vulnerable situations, scared, hurt, unable to reach out. We think of violent homes and people desperately trying to leave. That is not the only way in which abuse presents; it is the most severe form. Abuse can be much more subtle, and only seeing the most extreme side of abuse ensures that we miss mental, verbal, and emotional abuse.
As I mentioned earlier, abuse usually operates on a cycle. The abuser is kind, loving and attentive until — until they have a bad day, or someone irritates them, or something doesn’t go their way. Then they become mean. They will intensify in their abuse whether that is through control, silent treatment, or violence. Part of their abuse is to make the victim feel like they deserved it. The victim will then apologize or give them space to calm the situation down. The abuser calms down, and then becomes kind again. Because the victim feels that the way they were mistreated is their fault, and as the abuser does get kinder after they apologize, the victim is less likely to realize the cycle of abuse. It is not consistently hurtful, and there is a false sense of control.
Spiritual abuse operates in a similar way. The difference here is that the abuser uses God or religion rather than themselves to assert control. In abuse without using spiritual abuse, the abuser might say something like: “What’s wrong with you? You’re always so ungrateful to me.” When spiritual abuse is added, it may sound like: “What’s wrong with you? You’re so ungrateful to God and everything He has given you.” The victim is often made to feel by the abuser that they are inherently not good enough for God.
In these situations, the victim’s choice becomes informed by the abuser and is connected to their inherent worth. Making choices begins to sound like, “I am not good if I do this or feel this or think this as it goes against God and I know this because my abuser told me so.” The key point to notice is the connection to worth and shame. These are used to control the person, and if the spiritual abuse is so subtle, it’s important to look in oneself and see how closely spirituality, shame, worth, and the abuser are connected.
The abuser uses God as though they are aware of the way God feels or thinks of a particular situation, even if it is something that is in a grey area religiously. And “God’s” opinions on a matter will often mirror the abuser’s opinions. The abuser sends the victim two messages: “I know what God likes and dislikes more than you and I am simply guiding you according to His pleasure,” and “You will only get to Heaven if you are a person who follows God and that’s by listening to my advice.” And in this situation, going against the abuser feels like going against God because the victim may connect God to the abuser, which is why it can be so challenging to leave a spiritually abusive relationship.
A person should always have complete control of their lives, bodies, and choices. One always has the power of choice, whether that is used to do good or bad. We do not lose worth if we make mistakes. We are not our actions, but we are accountable for them. In spiritual abuse, victims are the sum of their “mistakes,” and these “mistakes” are at times not displeasing to God, but to the abuser.
In this article, I only write of spiritual abuse in a close relational context, as something that occurs between a close family or other relationship. Spiritual abuse also occurs in religious/spiritual communities, spaces, social media accounts, places of worship, etc. Again, paying attention to the connection between worth, shame, “spiritual advice,” and the person possibly committing the abuse will help one recognize if they have experienced spiritual abuse.
If you feel like you have undergone spiritual abuse, please seek help through a therapist, and a spiritual advisor that you trust. I will be writing in my next article how to reclaim your spirituality after spiritual abuse. Reclaiming spirituality is a journey alongside healing from spiritual abuse; not one to replace it. It’s important to heal from the abuse a person has done regardless of what type of abuse it is.
The second part in this series, How To Reclaim Your Spirituality After Spiritual Abuse, will be published on 9/8/2021. You can read it here.
Ayah Issa is a therapist who works with trauma, spirituality issues, identity issues, depression, anxiety, and relationship conflict. She received her social work degree from Columbia University School of Social Work with a concentration on international affairs and community work. She works through a trauma lens with an understanding of community, spirituality, intersectional identities and a holistic view of the self. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.