Reflections on Culpability, Forgiveness, and Mercy
By Ustadha Zaynab Ansari
In March 2015, Imam Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, founder of the Institute of Islamic Education (IIE) in Elgin, IL, was indicted on charges of criminal sexual abuse stemming from a series of encounters between the religious teacher and an administrative assistant employed at the school. While the woman who initially brought charges is an adult (in her early 20s), other victims came forward with allegations of abuse reaching back over decades.
In the wake of Maulana Saleem’s arrest, the Muslim communities of the greater Chicago area—understandably shocked at the allegations—offered up a range of responses. HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual health awareness in faith-based communities, published a strongly-worded statement calling for justice for Saleem’s victims and swift action to move the case forward.
Other Muslim-led organizations in Chicago, however, put out statements that attempted to find a compromise between public censure of Saleem and silence toward his victims. Puzzlingly, the statements invoked the concept of adultery, which, in my view, was a distraction from the original issue: that a prominent religious leader allegedly used his position to victimize an unsuspecting woman and children. While all of the above statements were unanimous in their recognition that sexual abuse is prohibited in Islam, the different responses highlighted the tensions inherent in the various approaches embraced by Muslim leaders in Chicago and beyond. Sherman A. Jackson, a nationally-renowned scholar, elaborated on these tensions in an article published for the ALIM Institute, wherein he reminded readers that the accused reserves the right to make tawba (repent) for his actions.
In writing this reflection for the HEART Women & Girls blog, I would like to explore the notion of tawba further. Specifically, I would like to consider whether the act of tawba absolves one of his or her responsibility to submit to the legal process, reckon with the victims’ stories, and acknowledge the harm done by one’s actions. In other words, does tawba exonerate the (alleged) abuser from additional culpability toward his or her victims? And does tawba also require a reciprocal effort from the victims to forgive their victimizer? In other words, can the victims be compelled to forgive their abuser, drop charges, and “move on” because he or she repented?
Before I consider these questions, I would like to define the concept of tawba. Per classical Islamic manuals like Reliance of the Traveller, when a human commits a sin, that sin can be categorized as major or minor. The latter category of sins can be expiated by acts of worship, such as praying and fasting. The former category—major sins—can only be expiated by performing tawba, a process of atonement in which the penitent recognizes the sinful nature of his or her act, feels remorse, and resolves not to repeat the act. Additionally, if the act involved the violation of someone else’s rights, the performer of tawba must attempt to restore the victim’s rights. Furthermore, some scholars mention that if the act was tied to a specific environment, the penitent must take measures to change his or her environment.
While Saleem certainly reserves the right to make tawba—in fact, given the nature of the accusations, he is required to make tawba—does his repentance remove additional responsibility toward the accusers? I would argue, no. Tawba is a private spiritual act intended to make things right with God. The performance of tawba, however, does not remove one’s responsibility toward those who suffered as a result of one’s actions. For example, when I wrote about the issue of “blurred lines” between religious teachers and their students and the culture of celebrity we have built up around some of our scholars, someone contacted me with the critique that I had disregarded the role of tawba when I took my position. On the contrary, I do not discount the necessity or benefit of tawba for those who have committed wrongdoing; in fact, it should be part of their rehabilitation process. However, the possibility of their tawba does not preclude the community from addressing the fallout of their actions.
One of the hadiths that was most frequently cited in the wake of the IIE scandal was the hadith of “amr bil ma’ruf wal nahy ‘an al-munkar,” or enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong. In this hadith, the Prophet, God bless him and give him peace, exhorts the Muslim community to confront wrongdoing in one of three ways: changing it with one’s hand, or with one’s tongue, or with one’s heart, the latter being the “weakest in faith.” What this means is that we have an obligation to confront wrongdoing with direct action, and, in the event such action is impossible, then at least speak out. If saying something is not an option, the least we can do is detest wrongdoing in our hearts. Lest we think these measures only apply to those witnessing abuse, they also apply to the abuser. God the Exalted says in the Qur’an, “Believers, turn to God in sincere repentance. Your Lord may well cancel your bad deeds for you and admit you into Gardens graced with flowing streams, on a Day when God will not disgrace the Prophet or those who have believed with him” (Al-Tahrim, 66:8).
The term used in the above verse, nasuh, is reminiscent of a word in another hadith: Religion is nasiha. In the Qur’an, Allah calls upon the believers to turn to Him, making their repentance sincere. In the hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, links the practice of good counsel, or nasiha, to religion itself. In other words, there is a dialectic between community members and leaders, a mutual process of taking ourselves to account, and requiring those in authority to uphold certain standards of conduct. In this reciprocal relationship, we expect that those who commit wrong will sincerely repent, but we also reserve the right to advise them about their conduct. Returning to the responsibility of the abuser, he or she, after making tawba, is also required to enjoin the right and forbid the wrong per the Prophet’s directive. The abuser must take direct action to stop the abuse, acknowledge the nature of his or her actions, and despise those actions on a spiritual and intellectual level. Once this multilateral approach to wrongdoing is initiated, the healing process can begin. However, there must be recognition that the victims have the right to decide when—and if—they will forgive. In the case of the plaintiffs in the Saleem case, the majority of them have carried the scars of abuse for decades. It is not appropriate for the community (or the alleged abuser and his supporters) to demand that the victims simply forgive and forget. The victims must be given the space to determine what constitutes proper justice in their case.
In the Qur’an, we read, “God commands you to return things entrusted to you to their rightful owners, and, if you judge between people, to do so with justice” (Al-Nisa, 4:58). If the restoration of trust is an imperative of justice, what then of the betrayal of the ultimate trust—the safety, sanctity, and inviolability of our children, under the guise of teaching them the word of God, no less! Yes, tawba is important, but so is the right of the plaintiffs to seek justice, speak out, and, I pray, have something of what was taken from them restored. And God knows best.