Spiritual Abuse and the Sufi Tradition

Interrogative Imperative Institute

"Once tasawwuf (the Sufi path) was a reality without a name, and now it is a name without a reality."

The foregoing words were said more than twelve hundred years ago. The situation today is much worse.

While there are still some authentic shaykhs or guides and legitimate chains of spiritual/mystical transmissions (silsilah or Sufi Orders) that are in existence today, there are many, many more counterfeit/fraudulent 'teachers' and groups who have muddied the spiritual waters considerably and, in the process, are exploiting the ignorance and vulnerability of unsuspecting individuals.


The purpose of this web page and the information to which it gives expression is not to serve as a clearing house for identifying authentic and inauthentic 'teachers' and so-called Sufi groups. Rather -- and in line with the old adage that says: 'give a person some fish, and you feed them for a day; teach a person how to fish, and you help to feed them for a lifetime.' -- the purpose of this web page is to help provide a variety of resources for individuals -- that if consumed, digested, reflected upon, and acted on -- may help a person to either: (a) learn how to protect herself or himself against spiritually fraudulent (and, therefore, spiritually abusive) teachers/groups, or (b) learn about some of the principles which may assist an individual to work toward recovering from having had a relationship with such spiritually abusive 'teachers' and groups.

None of what is given expression through this page is just a matter of idle theory and speculation. I have experienced both the good (a close relationship with an authentic shaykh for nearly seventeen years) and the more problematic (a relationship with a spiritual charlatan for nearly eleven years). I have learned a great deal from both sorts of relationship, and I am seeking to share some of what I have learned over those twenty-eight years with whomever might have an interest in such matters.

Frequently Asked Questions

(1) Is the Sufi Path a cult?

Response: There is considerable difference of opinion about what constitutes a 'cult'. The definitions of a cult tend to vary with the theoretical, religious, and psychological biases of the people who are doing the defining.

Some researchers contend that 'cults' or 'cultic relationships' revolve around four primary features: (a) the nature of a group's origins; (b) the personality of the leader, along with the sort of role a leader plays within the group; (c) the kind of power structure which links a leader and those who follow her or him; (d) the presence or absence of a system of thought-reform, sometimes referred to as 'brainwashing'.

Supposedly, cults and cultic relationships tend to give expression to social arrangements in which a self-appointed, charismatic leader uses techniques of persuasion to induce others to venerate her or him, rather than either Divinity or principles of ethics, law, and government (depending on the sort of cult or cultic relationship), and, in addition, employs authoritarian modalities of maintaining allegiance.

However, there are many individuals who are fraudulent spiritual guides who do not necessarily conform to the foregoing model. For example, they may not appear to be self-appointed (although this may, in fact, be the case but it is hidden) but, rather, they may appear to be 'teachers' who are selected or appointed by, allegedly, duly appointed spiritual authorities. Moreover, in many cases, the teacher may not be charismatic but, instead, appears very sincere, compassionate, kind, loving, and authoritative in the things which are said or written, and, as well, in relation to surface behavior.

In addition, no overt authoritarian or mind-control techniques may be readily detectable, and followers may seem to be prepared to freely comply with the suggestions of the teacher. Finally, a fraudulent teacher may not overtly court the veneration of others and may even profess not to care for being treated in a special manner but, nonetheless, humbly and reluctantly accepts the freely given offerings of love in order not to hurt the feelings of followers.

Spiritual abuse is not a function of whether a given set of social relationships conforms to someone's definition of a cult or cultic relationships. Rather, spiritual abuse is a matter of whether one person intends to exploit, manipulate, control, undermine, corrupt, obstruct, or injure the spiritual capacity of another human being in order to serve some personal agenda (emotional, social, physical, material, psychological, and/or financial) of the first individual.

Because intentions are very difficult to gauge and since there are a wide variety of techniques which can be used to re-frame the 'appearance' of intentions, often times the presence of spiritual abuse can be camouflaged or masked. Authoritarian power may, or may not, be exercised, and a leader may, or may not, be charismatic and/or self-appointed, and a leader may, or may not, employ a co-ordinated set of techniques to persuade people to become followers, but one theme which remains consistent in spiritual abuse is an underlying intention to deceive in order to gain the trust of another human being, for trust is the gateway to the soul of that person. Once such trust is given, almost anything becomes possible as far as the issue of exploitation and manipulation is concerned.

(2) What is the most difficult aspect of spiritual abuse from which to recover?

Response: The answer to this question may vary from individual to individual. However, in general, the most devastating dimension of recovering from spiritual abuse is the sense of essential betrayal and mistrust which arises in conjunction with a person's realization that he or she has been spiritually exploited.

There are many psychological, emotional, social, financial and spiritual wounds which may ensue from a spiritually abusive relationship. Yet, often times, long after many of these problems are resolved, there remains a lingering paralysis of trust, and one's willingness to invest that essential part of ourselves in anything else -- whether it be oneself, another human being, or an organization of some kind.

(3) Are only certain types of personalities or developmental backgrounds drawn to situations of spiritual abuse?

Response: There is a common misconception among many people that only 'weak', stupid, naive, pathological, 'simple', uneducated, fools are likely to become entangled with spiritually abusive individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Almost everyone is vulnerable to the possibility of spiritual abuse. Only a person who is pathologically incapable of trusting another human being is relatively immune to being exploited by a spiritually abusive individual.

The currency of spiritual abuse is trust. Once trust is given, a person becomes vulnerable to being spiritually abused and betrayed, and there are some life circumstances which incline us to be more willing to invest our trust than are other life circumstances.

More specifically, when, due to certain happenings of life, a person is feeling isolated, alienated, frustrated, or has experienced a substantial loss of some kind, or is in developmental transition, or is going through emotional turmoil, then, one may be in substantial need of a sense of peace, stability, friendship, kindness, meaning, direction, purpose, motivation, and love during such times. Consequently, if, at these junctures in our lives, we are introduced into, or happen into, the sphere of influence of a spiritually abusive individual, we may be quite ready to invest our trust because our normal defenses of critical circumspection and/or usual, natural reluctance to commit ourselves have been lowered as a result of what is going on elsewhere in our lives.

(4) Is it true that once a person has begun to come to the realization that she or he has been spiritually abused, then, disengaging from a spiritually abusive individual is relatively easy and straightforward?

Response: The short answer to this question is: no. As years of research with respect to such phenomena as domestic abuse [whether spousal or that involving parent(s) and a child (children)], the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, and related issues have revealed, the emotional relationship between abuser and abused is very complex.

The dimension of an abuser-abused relationship which enables an abuser to continue to have a debilitating emotional claim on the minds, hearts, and souls of those who have been abused by such an individual is very insidious and runs extremely deep -- even after the abused person comes to realize that abuse has been perpetrated. There are many reasons why such a pathological theme continues in the life of an abused individual, and such reasons are tied to, among other things, the personality, developmental life history, social circumstances, the specific vulnerabilities of such an abused individual, as well as the kind of recovery assistance that is, or is not, received by that person.

(5) Is recovery from spiritual abuse just a matter of 'time healing all wounds'?

Response: Not necessarily. Although there are always exceptions, the basic rule of spiritual abuse recovery is that those individuals who have had an opportunity to go through some sort of debriefing and disengagement process with one, or more, other individuals tend to adjust more completely and more quickly than do those people who try to sort out such matters on their own. In fact, in the latter set of instances, the long-term prognosis for emotional, spiritual, social, and psychological recovery tend to be relatively poor.

(6) Are people who are spiritually abusive easy to identify?

Response: If the answer to this question were 'yes', the problem of spiritual abuse might be a lot simpler to resolve. The fact of the matter is: very few spiritually abusive people appear to be so upon first, and even subsequent, contact, and, indeed, many spiritually abusive individuals seem to be down-to-earth, intelligent, sincere, committed, thoughtful, empathetic, emotionally stable, kind, loving human beings.

If spiritually abusive individuals frothed at the mouth, or had a deranged look about them, or were overtly cruel, then we all would know what to avoid. However, it is the conspicuous absence of such clear signs that makes detection of spiritually abusive behavior very difficult.

Furthermore, the whole issue of mysticism is, for the seeker, steeped in ambiguity, uncertainty, puzzlement, apparent paradoxes, differences of opinion, and so on. Consequently, a new comer, and even many veterans, have difficulty critically processing information in a way that would permit her or him to make definitive judgments about whether, or not, a given person is being spiritually abusive.

Through techniques of mis-direction, re-framing, consensual validation, and plausible deniability, spiritually abusive individuals are able to muddy the waters sufficiently to give themselves degrees of freedom through which to keep the suspicions and doubts of any given individual off-balance so that a person is, quite frequently, never quite sure whether one is being abused or not. Many abused individuals are caught between a rock and a hard place since, on the one hand, there may be a certain amount of inconclusive evidence that something 'funny' or inappropriate is going on, but, on the other hand, such a person does not want to lose one's relationship with an 'authentic' spiritual guide if it turns out that these sort of suspicions and doubts are not well-founded, if not self-generated.

(7) What are some of the emotional consequences which ensue from the realization that one has been spiritually abused?

Response: Among the emotional conditions experienced by someone who either has begun to suspect, or actually realized, that one has been spiritually abused are the following: shame, guilt, denial, grief, self-doubt, cynicism, betrayal, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, fear, alienation, de-realization (a sense that nothing is real), depersonalization (the sense that one is not an actual person), apathy, mistrust, mood swings, depression, hyper-vigilance, and dissociation. Any given individual may not experience all of the foregoing states, but, at the very least, most such people will have to struggle with issues revolving about a core sense of betrayal, self-doubt, mistrust, and alienation.

(8) What forms does spiritual abuse take?

Response: In one sense, there are as many kinds of spiritual abuse as there are different agendas of individual abusers. In another sense, there are a certain kinds of spiritually abusive behavior which tend to keep showing up.

For instance, some spiritually abusive individuals seek to exploit people to gain access to material possessions, money, power, fame, veneration, and/or sexual partners. However, irrespective of the presence or absence of the foregoing possibilities, the sine qua non of spiritual abuse is the transmission of false information concerning an alleged teacher's actual ability to help a person realize the spiritual purpose of the latter's life or to assist a seeker to achieve spiritual realization through such a fraudulent guide. All of the other forms of spiritual abuse are, in a sense, entirely secondary to this underlying problem since the 'hook' which makes all these modes of exploitation, manipulation and abuse possible is the promise of spiritual development, fulfillment, realization and sanctity. This is the essential trust which is betrayed, and the rest of the forms of spiritual abuse mentioned earlier -- whether sexual, financial, or otherwise -- merely add considerable, and very painful insult to this more essential form of spiritual abuse.

(9) What is the most frustrating facet of trying to inform other people associated with a fraudulent teacher about the perpetration of spiritual abuse?

Response: Almost no one believes you. The emotional, psychological, social, conceptual, material, and spiritual investment of fellow followers in a so-called teacher tends to be so extensive that such individuals usually enter into significant denial about what is being related to them.

Quite frequently, the person who is telling about the perpetration of spiritual abuse becomes the issue rather than the behavior of the so-called teacher. The motivations of the former are constantly called into question and being construed as being less than sincere, honest, or fair with respect to the alleged spiritual guide.

In addition, the moral authority of the person who is speaking about the existence of spiritual abuse is far less than the moral authority enjoyed by a so-called shaykh. Moreover, this moral authority tends to be freely projected onto a spiritual charlatan by his or her followers, whereas someone who broaches the subject of spiritual improprieties is subjected to the most brutal of cross-examinations -- which often are less about fact-finding or determining the truth of a matter and more about trying to force back into silence those who are crying out for help.

(10) Is it necessary for there to be direct, physical contact between a spiritually abusive individual and another human being in order for the latter to fall under the sway of the former?

Response: Not at all. In fact, there is a great deal of recruitment by spiritually abusive individuals that is going on through the Internet.

The Internet offers a perfect cover of anonymity through which the character and flow of information can be almost completely controlled without the fear of that information being contradicted by disclosures concerning the problematic, and inappropriate behaviors of a spiritual fraud. Once trust has been established through disingenuous means, the individual who has handed over her or his trust has been 'groomed' to be induced to move in almost any direction the spiritually abusive teacher cares to take that person.