This khutbah will deal with a difficult and touchy subject. It is a subject that not only must be addressed but addressed frankly and honestly. Part of this khutbah will be technical, but it is not technical for the sake of technicality. When moral and ethical perspectives are obstructed because of the technicalities, it is the job of the moral scholar and the moral jurist to address these technicalities in order to make space for morality and decency.
Recently, a well-known Muslim figure passed away. This well-known figure was rather controversial, because although he was an imam who was popular with young people and may have provided guidance and inspiration to young people, there were allegations of sexual misconduct, as has become rather common in our community.
The more rare situation is when the sexual misconduct is not dressed up in any legalities. In other words, the more rare situation is when an imam sexually abuses an underage girl - or in some situations, underage boys - and normally there is no pretense of a marriage or marital relationship, but rather it is straightforward sexual abuse. That is the more rare type of situation. The more common situation that we have unfortunately seen repeatedly in our community is when an imam uses his position as an imam to convince women, often converts, to marry him although he is married already. And so, the marriage is in secret, pursuant to a secret contract in a secret relationship, with the marriage consummated through some form of a sexual relationship or another. Eventually, the woman discovers that she lacks any of the rights or the recognition of a wife, and that she has simply been used sexually and is, quite often, discarded.
In the case of this man who has recently passed away, there were allegations of female victims that had been misled or influenced to enter into marital relations with him. The issue is that, rather typical of our community, when this man died, everyone wanted to remember all the good he has done, and to thoroughly ignore the rights of the victims of sexual abuse. Unsurprisingly, these women felt re-violated and re-traumatized, because what they had been through did not matter to the Muslim community. Following what has become the norm in our Muslim communities, the victims were told that in Islam, when someone dies, we do not talk about their misdeeds, and we only talk about the good that they have done. They were told that the Prophet taught us to only speak about the good that the dead have done, and to abstain from talking about any misdeeds that they might have done. For years now, I have seen victims, primarily women, suffer sexual abuse and be told by the community that exposing their abuser is un-Islamic. And if their abuser passes away, they are told that they can only speak about the good that their abuser did.
The immorality in this is rather obvious, because we are making choices as to whose rights we uphold and whose rights we disregard. Do not blame God for your decision, it is voluntary. God presents us in life with choices, and these choices often have a tension between the rights of human beings. Whose rights do you honor, and whose rights do you de-emphasize and ignore? That is a choice, that is a moral choice. Do you focus on the rights of a man who may have served God in certain regards? Or do you focus on the rights of victims who have been used and discarded after whatever function they have played in a man's life?
Let us delve first into that famous hadith, telling us to only speak well of the dead. All of this hadith is recorded in Sunan Abu Dawud and in Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, and also recorded in Al-Mustadrak by Al-Hakim and in Sunan Al-Bayhaqi. Al-Tirmidhi and Al-Tabari, as well as Al-Bayhaqi themselves, comment that this hadith is problematic because of its chain of transmission. It is narrated by a man named Ata', who says that he heard it from Abdullah Ibn Omar, who heard this from the Prophet. But all these hadiths go back to a man named Umran Ibn Anas Al-Makki, who was an unreliable narrator of Hadith.
There is disagreement on whether Umran invented hadiths, or if he was used as a placeholder by inventors of hadith. But in all cases, as had been recognized by hadith scholars for a long time, this hadith is weak. Even the modern scholar of hadith, Al-Bani, has categorized it as a weak hadith. Yet, so much injustice and immorality is justified on the basis of a hadith that, through the technicalities of the science of hadith, is recognized as unreliable.
However, Muslims in this situation will often tell you, "Perhaps this hadith is weak, but aren't there other hadiths where the Prophet said, ‘Speak well of the dead?’ For instance, hasn’t the Prophet said, ‘Do not curse the dead, because their affairs are now with God?’ Hasn't the Prophet said, ‘If your companion dies, do not speak ill of them?’ Hasn't the Prophet said, ‘Only mention good things about the dead?’ Hasn't the Prophet said, ‘Do not speak ill of the dead so that you do not hurt their loved ones?’”
All of these hadith, although less famous, are more reliable. But all of these hadiths, as Muslim jurists recognized centuries ago, teach a general moral rule: that once the person dies, forget your petty disputes and personal grievances. Once the person dies, it is time to let go of petty grievances and petty disputes, and as a general matter, learn to honor the dead and not disrespect them.
However, this must be understood in light of the other side of the coin; that being, as God teaches us in the Qur'an, that God does not forbid and, in fact, encourages those who suffered an injustice to speak up. Refrain from ill-talk, but do not refrain from speaking up if you have suffered an injustice. Moreover, in another hadith that has an authentic status, it is reported that the Prophet was passing by, and he heard people speak well of a dead person, and so the Prophet responded, "May God accept.”
On another occasion, the Prophet passed by a group of people speaking ill of a person who had just died, and the Prophet said, may God accept or answer your prayers. The meaning of this hadith is that a person who leaves a good legacy, may God accept, and for a person who leaves a bad legacy, may God also accept. In the hadith, the Prophet goes on to explain that our role is to witness the deeds of a person, meaning we witness the deeds of the living, so when they die, if their deeds were good, we may speak about these deeds; and if the deeds were bad, we also have an obligation to testify about these deeds.
Notice that in the second Hadith, the Prophet heard these people speak ill of a dead man but did not tell them to stop speaking ill of him. If the reputation that this man left was a bad one, so be it, that is what he had left. The Prophet does not say to these people, stop criticizing and exposing what he has done. As most scholars recognized centuries ago, this all goes back to a juristic principle: when it comes to the rights of people, the standing principle is that there is a presumptive demand that the entire community is obligated to fulfill the rights of people, and when it comes to the rights of God, the presumptive demand is forgiveness.
In other words, we as a community are obligated to address the rights of those whose rights have been violated before all else. Apply this to our situation. Just because they are women does not mean that they do not matter. Just because they are violated sexually does not mean that it is their fault. Just because we like to puff up our imams at the expense of less illustrious, less connected and less celebrated men does not mean that we ignore the rights of these women. The whole community has an obligation to fulfill the rights of those whose rights have been violated.
When a man dies and the whole community jumps on hadith – hadith that they have not studied, the context of which they do not understand, and without understanding the jurisprudence surrounding it – and cites these hadith in order to idolize a male figure at the expense of women victims, then it is time for real scholars to speak up and say, "That is unethical, that is immoral, that is not right. This is not Islam, this is not Shari'a."
Men who use their charisma, their superior knowledge of the Sunna and the Qur'an, and their purported closeness to God to obtain license to the bodies of women do not act in a righteous manner. When the community covers up for these men, the community becomes complicit in the crimes of these men. These women are not just violated by their abuser or the person who exploited them, but they are then re-violated by the entire community.
Do you really think that God will bless, support, aid or help a community that uses and abuses the Sira of the Prophet in order to ignore and dismiss the rights of abused, exploited, misled or misdirected women? Do you think that God will look at this and be perfectly fine with it? If you do, you are deluded. If you do, you are not Muslim and you do not understand what Islam is about. You do not understand what the Qur'an is about. You do not understand what the Sira and the Sunna are about. If you do, then you are just a continuation of the tradition of misogyny, exploitation and abuse.
When will we Muslims learn that God gave us an overriding principle that trumps all that is summed up in one word: Al Haqq, meaning truth, morality, and righteousness? When God said that those who are silent before Al Haqq - those who are silent when there is a right involved - they are like silent devils. Again, the juristic principle is that the rights of people come before the rights of God.
How about a community that does not see the rights of people? How about a community that looks truth right in the face and says, "No, there are other priorities. We have to uphold the reputation of our male network, our friends and colleagues." What do you think God does with a community like that? What do you say about a religion that supposedly tells women, "Swallow your pride, live with your humiliation and indignity, and just suffer in silence because the men of your community cannot be bothered"?
Unfortunately, in so many Muslim communities we keep hearing of scandals at an increasing rate. Some of these scandals actually escalated to the point that the police became involved, and so imams were arrested, convicted and even sentenced to prison. But for every imam who abuses people in his community and is arrested and sent to prison, there are 10 imams who are never exposed, never arrested, and never sent to prison.
It is only in extreme cases, or in cases where there is a parent in the community who is willing to break ranks and go to the police, where we find an imam actually exposed and arrested. But these cases are truly alarming because frequently, they involve an imam and underage girls who are entrusted to the imam - because the parents want their children to learn Qur'an, the Sunna, or the Sira of the Prophet - only for the imam to abuse this trust and violate the minors and, in some cases, even violate people who are of age. But there is an enormous amount of pressure upon our children and our women to keep their mouths shut and not expose these imams.
The problem is that we do not vet our imams. The problem is that we live in a world of pietistic affectations. If someone has a good memory and can rattle off Qur'anic verses and hadiths, regardless of whether they have been properly vetted for their qualifications and their moral character, the community falls for such a person very easily. The problem is there are many who are computer scientists or engineers or businessmen who are so eager to teach minors, and we do not ask ourselves, "Why are they so eager to be left alone with minors?" Just because they go around speaking religiously to the parents does not mean that they are trustworthy or reliable.
But more important than the outside garb and all the religious symbolism that we engage in is to teach our children dignity and pride, and to tell them very bluntly, if you think you are being touched inappropriately, it is absolutely necessary that you talk to your parents and that your parents provide you with a safe space. It is equally important that when the parents go to those who are responsible in the community, that they in turn are provided with a safe space to discuss the concerns of their children.
It is imperative that we not say, "Oh, well he recites the Qur'an beautifully. He talks about all the Sunna of the Prophet all the time. He made girls wear the hijab. So, it cannot be." If there is an allegation, it is morally and Islamically incumbent upon the community to act promptly, to investigate, and to protect. The ripple effects of an abusive imam upon a community destroys an entire generation. I know many children who were sexually abused by imams and grew up to resent Islam, resent the Muslim community, and resent anything Islamic. Some of them became addicts and some of them even became sex workers.
That, unfortunately, is the reality. We cannot put our heads in the sand and say, "But God said there must be four witnesses." If only people bothered to be educated, the four witnesses requirement is in the context of a formal prosecution by the state, where the demand of the state is to apply the criminal penalty for adultery or fornication. Aside from that particular procedure, when the issue is whether or not to protect a minor, the four witnesses are not needed. When the issue is whether or not to terminate someone's employment, the four witnesses are not needed. When the issue is whether or not to stay married to a person, the four witnesses are not needed.
Stop acting like lawyers who know what they are doing, because you do not. Have the humility to admit that you know nothing about law, because you are not trained as lawyers. You are not trained as jurists. Rely on morality, not law, because you are qualified to speak for ethics, but you are not qualified to pretend to be jurists. It is a crime that you will be held responsible for in the Hereafter if you do not encourage the abused to speak up and provide a safe space for the abused; and not just a safe place, but a comforting shoulder, support, understanding and clear communication. We would rather have someone who cannot recite the Qur'an or lead prayer, than someone who recites the Qur'an beautifully, but is otherwise an abuser and an immorally decrepit human being.
This is the talk of Haqq (truth). This is what Haqq sounds like. The voice of Haqq is pure, clean, sensible and straightforward. The voice of Haqq is not convoluted. It does not do cartwheels. The voice of Haqq is as clear and pure as the al siratal mustaqim (the Straight Path). And the Haqq is, there have been too many abuses by religious figures. And the Haqq is, we must protect our children and our women from abuse. And the Haqq is, the abused grow up to be a problem for themselves and for others, and it is our fault.