The power of charisma is undeniable and often irresistible. Whenever our community witnesses the painful “fall from grace” of a religious figure, there is always a vocal faction calling out “cults of personality” and urging commitment to principle over people. On the one hand, this is appreciable. The Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet (upon him be peace) are replete with warnings about the injustice that accrues when focus is unduly placed on personalities as opposed to principles. On the other, while the virtue of qiṣṭ (moral commitment to justice) should guide our adjudication, it certainly cannot be said to account for the heartbreak we feel at the knowledge that one of our leaders has morally failed. Imam Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, while occupying an endowed chair at the famed Nizāmiyyah Academy in Baghdad, was one of the most sought-after lecturers of his time. His spellbinding command of Arabic and adroitness as both jurisprudent and theologian dazzled and impressed but failed to move people. After suffering a psychological breakdown due to his own perceived lack of sincerity, Ghazālī eventually left his post. Yet, after a nearly 10 year sabbatical and rediscovery of sincerity through discipline and experience, the Imam returned. In contradistinction to his earlier high-flown style, it’s mentioned that the spiritually renewed Ghazālī would speak plainly; and at the simple mention of the name of God, people would be moved to tears. When highlighting the connection between sincerity and preaching, I’ve referenced this story many times and I’m willing to bet others have also heard it. We only separate the substance from the shadow when someone who has taught us dīn is caught in an act of apparent immorality. In fact, quite the reverse, we’re often taught that the spiritual state of the speaker and the impact of their words are inseparable. Consequently, when a religious authority is accused of wrongdoing, many people are given to doubt concerning what they’ve learned from the leader. In earlier writings, I’ve attempted to address this conflict by emphasizing the dynamism of faith, i.e., just because the teacher is alleged to have entered a state of sin, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they were in a state of sin while teaching. This, I mentioned, as an extension of the customary understanding of Ḥusn ad-dhann (having a good opinion of others) and a means of protecting our faith against surreptitious cynicism. Now, however; given that the winds of controversy have touched someone I know and love, I feel compelled to speak more personally and less theoretically about moral failure as it relates to leaders in the Muslim community.
We are professionals. We are performers. We are professional performers. Inasmuch as the word “performance” connotes artificiality and insincerity, it’s jarring to think of scholars as performers. Actually, I have no such connotation in mind. What I have in mind is more along the lines of one whose standing and credibility rest on the competent performance of specific professional duties. That said, a certain measure of indifference to the highs and lows of one’s own life and faith is entailed in the position. Whether upon a personal spiritual peak or valley, the professional responsibility of the preacher is the same. When we’re presenting, our “dark night of the soul” is in Alaska. I actually chuckle at the thought of conducting weddings and giving sermons about loving relationships as Hadiyah, my wife (may Allah preserve her) gives me the side eye or refuses to listen! And all because we’re going through the same ups and downs as any other couple. In that moment, she and I probably have the same feelings about marriage: “it’s challenging and my partner gets on my nerves!” The only difference is that I have a microphone and a professional responsibility to say something encouraging. So I perform. I perform like a physician having the worst day of their life struggling to retain impeccable bedside manner or an exhausted recording artist on the 30th leg of a tour manufacturing enthusiasm to perform the same set they’ve done the previous 29 dates. Would you expect any less? This is not justification for a lack of integrity. Findings of gross moral inconsistency on behalf of a scholar could mean removal from their position and public accountability. Nonetheless, the shock and dismay that the person “was never who we thought they were” is always telling. Quite frankly, I’m astonished that we’re astonished. Did we really believe that he or she was only a walking repository of scriptural references, uplifting anecdotes, and witty bon mot? Did we actually believe the healer had no wounds, no scars?
Consider the work of our secular colleagues. A strict code of relationship ethics gives the professional therapist a clear set of boundaries inside which they can serve their clients. Have you seen how your therapist interacts with their spouse? How they respond to their children? How they deal with slights or public embarrassment? This distance aids in the creation of a useful compartmentalization: We are able to benefit from the therapist’s counsel without any presumption that we “know’ them. Religious personnel enjoy no such luxury. We host dinners and respond to invitations. Our children attend the local Islamic school. We frequent the weddings, births, graduations, funerals, etc. of community members. We “do” community and speaking for myself, I absolutely love it. However, when the fallible human being struggling “to submit” is furtively seen, or perhaps in some cases, glaringly seen beneath the robe of public religious performance, what should be our response as a community?