Using Legal Analysis to Address Claims of Spiritual Abuse

ICSA Today, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2018, 14-18

Using Legal Analysis to Address Claims of Spiritual Abuse

Danya Shakfeh

Spiritual abuse is, unfortunately, not limited to any one religion, and people of various religious backgrounds have written about it (Burks & Burks, 1992; Enroth, 1993; Hamacher, 2013; Heimlich,2011; Johnson & VanVonderen, 1991; Lennon, 2008; Lorenz, 1999; Ofshe, 1986; Orlowski, 2010). Since spiritual abuse can arise in all religions, it is not surprising that allegations of spiritual abuse also occur among Muslims. This paper’s goal is to set forth a method for using legal analysis and frameworks in evaluating whether an instance of spiritual abuse has occurred following a claim. Although I am most familiar with claims of spiritual abuse within the Muslim community, I believe the method suggested may apply to spiritual abuse across faith traditions.

Most of the allegations with which I am familiar, which usually occur via social media, have been against male scholars, speakers, and leaders, largely by women who claim they were or were almost swindled into “secret marriages.” Other women have also made some accusations involving sexual harassment. These male Muslim figures have celebrity status, which has given rise to the term celebrity shaykh (Arabic for Muslim male scholar).

Unfortunately, thus far, particularly in the United States, Muslim community leaders have handled these situations either by making overly broad and vague accusations such as “sexual misconduct,” which leaves too much to the imagination, or, on the other end of the spectrum, results in the allegations being swept under the rug without any real investigation.

The problem with vague and broad accusations specifically is that people cannot determine whether the misconduct could truly be characterized as spiritual abuse—or any misconduct at all. The result is confusion and skepticism within the community at large, which ultimately discredits future victims of spiritual abuse.

To address this lack of clarity, those who handle such cases, whether or not they are attorneys, can benefit from using legal reasoning to address cases of spiritual abuse, even if they are doing so outside of the courtroom. Those who handle cases of spiritual abuse must consider many aspects. In my own experience dealing with these cases, for instance, I have had to consider social factors, the validity of the evidence and veracity of the claimants, politics, covert manipulation, and moral issues. But before I considered anything, I had to define spiritual abuse and the benchmarks I would use. As an attorney, I found it most helpful to use my legal reasoning to decrease error in my analyses.

Introducing Legal Analysis

When one is uncovering cases of spiritual abuse, many allegations are thrown around, and rumors easily buzz:

“You heard what about Ustadh X?”

“They said that he harassed these women.”

“Harassed… like... wait—rape?!”

“Well, maybe—it’s actually not clear.”

“I heard there was consent… so then there was no harassment!”

And queue the allegations, the rebuttals, the rebuttals of the rebuttals, and eventual mudslinging and scandal. All the while, the main issues are lost, victims are blamed, the alleged perpetrator is slandered, and on some fronts, the dialogue focuses on the personalities rather than on addressing the matters at hand. In the end, most people are confused about what exactly happened, and the dialogue turns to irrelevant matters.

Although cases of spiritual abuse usually are handled outside of the legal system, we all can benefit from legal tools to clearly address spiritual abuse. One of the most basic legal analytic tools is called IRAC—Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. Generally speaking, defining issues is probably one of the most underrated and overlooked exercises in debate. Without clearly defining the issues, one can easily go down a rabbit hole of irrelevant points in connection with the matter.

So what does IRAC look like? Let’s examine a hypothetical scenario for the legal claim of negligence.

Consider the following basic fact pattern:

A driver is texting and driving. In an effort to avoid a child who unexpectedly runs into the street, the driver hits and seriously injures an adult pedestrian, who had slightly wandered onto the road immediately ahead.

At trial, an expert witness testifies that, even if the driver had not been texting, he still would have hit the pedestrian in the same way. Meanwhile, outside, angry protesters are blaming a variety of things, including the driver, for cellphone use while driving; the child’s parents, for not restraining the child; the driver, for “not paying attention”; and the pedestrian, for “not watching where she is going.”

Who is at fault? What are the specific actions at play? Is it possible that no one is at a fault at all, but that this is simply a series of unfortunate events? Addressing these questions is where IRAC is useful in enabling one to clearly and coherently assess whether the legal claim of negligence is applicable.

The analysis would play out as follows:

Issue (aka question presented): Does the driver’s use of his mobile device constitute negligence as to the pedestrian?

Rule (aka legal standard): The elements of negligence are (a) duty of care, (b) breach, (c) causation, and (d) damages.

Application: All drivers have a duty of care to other drivers and pedestrians. The driver breached that duty of care when he was using his mobile phone while driving. However, according to established facts, the driver’s breach did not cause the accident because even if the driver had not been using his phone, his window of reaction time was still so limited that, when the child ran into the street, the driver would still have hit the pedestrian.

Conclusion: The driver is not liable for negligence to the pedestrian because his use of the mobile device did not cause him to hit the pedestrian.

You can use the same process of analysis with the issue of whether the child’s parents were negligent, and again with the pedestrian, for what is known as contributory negligence. Most cases have multiple issues because each set of facts will lend itself to multiple legal claims or differing questions to accommodate the possible variances of the facts that would ultimately be established.

Another tool of legal analysis is the legal defense. There are two methods by which a defendant (the accused) can defeat the claim of a plaintiff (the accuser) in the legal system. A defendant can (a) demonstrate that a plaintiff cannot prove all the elements of the claim, or (b) come forth with affirmative defenses, by which a defendant admits to the claim but presents a new set of facts that mitigates or defeats the claim. For example, “Yes, I punched him in the face, but it was in self-defense.” The defendant admits to punching, but not the circumstances of the punch presented by the plaintiff. Affirmative defenses will vary by the claim; but generally, examples include statute of limitations, self-defense, unclean hands (that the plaintiff also acted unethically), and insanity.

Application of Legal Analysis in Cases of Spiritual Abuse Outside the Legal System

In the Muslim community, particularly the Western Muslim community, when cases of spiritual abuse come to the surface, the allegations are often vague, and a clear standard of conduct is not established. Allegations often are along the lines of “inappropriate interactions,” “harassment,” or “violence.” In turn, in their defense those accused refer to the accusers as “feminists,” “modernists,” or “liberals.”

In a recent case in the Muslim community with which I am familiar, several women alleged that they had been abused by a very public religious figure. Community leaders referred on social media to this religious leader having what they described as inappropriate interactions with various women, which raises the following questions: What is the definition of inappropriate? What is the definition of interaction? Specifically, what facts and evidence were used to determine whether an interaction was inappropriate? Even if the accused engaged in inappropriate interactions, do his actions fall within the framework of spiritual abuse? In the case to which I refer, this analysis was, as of the writing of this article, completely lacking. As a result of the vagueness of the accusation, commentators conflated and obfuscated issues and matched the wrong set of facts to the claims of abuse.

The defenses of those accused are frequently equally lacking and flawed. Two defenses I read in the case I have mentioned were that the accused was getting to know the women for marriage, and that the women bringing the accusation consented (also known as the “it takes two to tango” defense). Before one even entertains the factual question regarding whether the accused was in fact getting to know the women for marriage, one must consider whether that is even relevant. Getting to know someone for marriage is not mutually exclusive from abusing one’s authority and ultimately is a nonissue when the question of abusing one’s authority is present. As such, this is why it is important to state the elements of each action upfront, to determine what is relevant as to the exact issue at hand.

Although not everyone will fully understand the issues, and, especially when the case involves a public figure, a segment of the Muslim community will engage in mental gymnastics and speculation to defend or indict the accused, it is still important for those presenting the case to be as clear and accurate as possible in their presentation of the issues and the particular violations alleged. Whether or not public opinion matters, or such cases should be tried in the court of public opinion are separate issues and beyond the scope of this paper.

So what would a clear analysis look like in our context of spiritual abuse in the Muslim community? First, it would be essential to establish the elements of spiritual abuse. Doing this would fulfill the rule portion of our IRAC analysis. One potential definition of spiritual abuse is “the use of spiritual authority for one’s personal gain.”2

Consider the following scenario: A woman alleges that a shaykh who is already married also married her in secret as a second wife. The woman in question is a student who has managed the shaykh’s schedule and helped him write material for lectures and classes. The shaykh is aware that the student has a strong desire to study with scholars in a serious fashion. The shaykh has proposed to this woman that she could have this life of piety and get close to scholars if he marries her. But the marriage must remain a secret for the first year of their marriage. He also frequently flatters her and makes her feel special in the process. The woman agrees to marry the man and does so, and then learns that this proposal has all been a façade, and that the shaykh has a history of doing this with other female students; he also reneges on allowing the marriage to go public. She soon divorces the shaykh and attempts to seek her rights.1

Let us revisit the hypothetical rule for spiritual abuse proposed above: “the use of spiritual authority for one’s personal gain.” There are two elements here: (a) one’s spiritual authority and (b) personal gain.1 Both elements must be present. The woman here would claim that the shaykh used his spiritual authority by stating that he would connect the woman with inner circles of spiritual knowledge, and his personal gain was marriage (in fact, sexual access or otherwise winning the woman).

The shaykh’s defenses would be to disprove one or both elements. He could theoretically argue that he did not use his spiritual authority or connections, or that there was no personal gain. However, in my experience handling such cases, the perpetrator’s defenses are characterized as affirmative defenses rather than defeating the initial claim. Such affirmative defenses include such examples as the plaintiff is “mentally unstable”; “this was simply a case of polygamy gone wrong”; “he was getting to know the woman for marriage”; or that she “consented.” Most of these defenses do not speak to the elements of the claim at all, and therefore do not defeat the claim or otherwise absolve the shaykh from his actions. For example, a woman being mentally unstable (even if that is true) does not vitiate the claim, all other things being established. The fact that a spiritual authority is allowed to enter into a polygamous marriage [in Islam] also does not defeat the claim and is wholly irrelevant because polygamy is not the issue presented.

I could write a separate article to address the issue of consent. Many defendants often cite consent as an affirmative defense and, therefore, that “there was no abuse.” To analyze consent as a defense, I can summarize a simple walk-through of this faulty reasoning as follows: Let us return to the elements of spiritual abuse: (a) using spiritual authority (b) for personal gain. Does an accuser’s consent negate the accused’s spiritual authority? No. Does consent negate that such power was used for the accused’s personal gain? No. As such, consent must be an affirmative defense—in other words, a “Yes, but…” defense. To put it another way, an accuser’s consent is separate from the accused’s state of mind, which is the concern at hand. To spell that out, consent as an affirmative defense would be “Yes, the accused used his spiritual authority for personal gain; but the accuser consented to this arrangement.” This reasoning is clearly absurd; consent here does not vitiate the abuse.

Why a Clear Analysis Matters for Cases Of Spiritual Abuse

Although some people may view certain actions as self-evident with respect to a claim of spiritual abuse, rarely is a situation ever that simple. Having a clear analysis of the claims and potential defenses is important for the following reasons:

Clarity: Because these cases are often contentious and sensitive, it’s important to avoid parties speaking past each other. Setting a clear understanding of claims removes room for doubt regarding the analyses of the claims, and avoids wasting time discussing issues and facts that are not relevant. Further, it is important to distinguish between those religious figures who use their spiritual authority to abuse and those whose religious position is only incidental to misconduct (and therefore, not abuse of authority). Acknowledging that religious figures are also imperfect avoids setting up congregants for disappointment through expectations that religious figures are perfect.

Due Process: Due process is not merely “innocent until proven guilty,” but also encompasses the fact that defendants have a right to know exactly what the potential claims are against them, so they can properly defend against those claims. If claims are not clearly laid out, defendants either will be unable to defend themselves or will defend themselves using facts that are not relevant. To ensure that irrelevant facts are not used to defend against their claims, the latter point is also important for claimants.

Avoid Discrediting Legitimate Claims: The gravity of spiritual abuse is unique because it not only affects one’s worldly state but also may affect one’s relationship to God; and it may even lead people to suffer existential crises. If we claim spiritual abuse when that is not the appropriate claim, we risk diluting the very real and grave cases of spiritual abuse when they do happen.

Precedent: It is essential to be aware of how such cases—and their corresponding analyses—may be used or referenced for future cases. If there is no coherent analysis at the outset, future cases will only be more confusing.

Remedies: Remedies often correspond with the crime. Without clearly articulating the issues and problems associated with a spiritual-abuse case, determining appropriate remedies will be difficult. As stated previously, there is a difference between religious figures who use their authority to abuse and those who happen to engage in misconduct. These two types should be treated differently.

Final Thoughts

Legal analysis will not address or solve all the problems that face the (Western) Muslim or any other community, but it can establish a foundational framework within which to precisely address the problem of spiritual abuse. The purpose of this article is not to establish the standards of conduct, but rather to provide examples and begin the work of clearly identifying what constitutes spiritual abuse. This process requires the expertise of attorneys and those who are familiar with logic.

To be clear, there are many other issues around spiritual abuse, such as moral, ethical, and social aspects, which legal analysis is simply not designed to address. We also need to consider methods and mediums of verifying evidence and presenting claims, and to what extent, and when, such presentations should be made public. Additionally, just because an individual is not found to be liable for spiritual abuse does not mean that a religious figure may not be liable for other abuses, or is still fit to be in a position of authority. These are all issues outside the scope of this article. But we can mitigate much of the fury and flames that accompany addressing spiritual abuse by being as precise as possible with our language and claims.


[1] Divorce here is used strictly in the religious context, in that the marriage took place solely as a religious ceremony outside of the State’s recognition and, therefore, the divorce occurred in the same manner.

[2] This definition is admittedly a working definition for the elements of spiritual abuse. There are valid criticisms regarding this definition because it may be overly simplistic. For the purposes of this paper and to convey the overall framework of legal analysis, this is the most suitable definition.


Burks, R., & Burks, V. (1992). Damaged disciples. Casualties of authoritarian churches and the Shepherding Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Enroth, R. (1993). Churches that abuse. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Hamacher, C. (2013). Zen and the art of student abuse. ICSA Today, 4(3), 18–19. Available at

Heimlich, J. (2011). Breaking their will: Shedding light on religious child maltreatment. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Johnson, D., & VanVonderen, J. (1991). The subtle power of spiritual abuse: Recognizing and escaping from spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.

Lennon, J. P. (2008). Our father, who art in bed: A naive and sentimental Dubliner in the Legion of Christ. North Charleston, SC: Createspace.

Lorenz, D. (1999). Spiritual pain and painkiller spirituality: Issues of spiritual abuse, religious addiction, and dependency in ISKCON. Available at

Ofshe, R. (1986). The rabbi and the sex cult: Power expansion in the formation of a cult. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(2), 173–189. Available at

Orlowski, B. (2010). Spiritual abuse recovery: Dynamic research on finding a place of wholeness. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub

About the Author

Danya Shakfeh, Esq., is an attorney and litigator. Through her practice as an attorney, Danya is skillful in evidence collection, claims validation, testimony, legal reasoning, and conflict resolution.