By: Dr. M.I. Waley, R.S. Idil, N. Akhtar, Y. Birt, A. Bora, M. Bora, B. Gombar, A. Habibullah, L. Khan, S. Khan, Dr. A. Malick, R. Nabulsi, N. Shamma, and Z. Sheikh
Dr. Waley served as muqaddam (representative) of Shaykh Nuh Keller from 1997 to 2021.
All praise belongs to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon His Envoy, the Best of Mankind. This article concerns a single branch of the Shadhili tradition, itself a genuine Sufi tariqah (order) with a spiritual genealogy traced back to the Prophet, which has authorized shaykhs in many parts of the Muslim world. One branch of this tariqah is headed by an American shaykh based in Jordan, who is equally familiar with the Western and Islamic worlds and fluent in English and Arabic. That is rare, and it is hardly surprising that this branch has attracted many committed, high-minded, and talented people from English-speaking backgrounds.
We write, as ex-members, to warn the Muslim public about deliberate and systematic spiritual abuses that have long taken place within this branch headed by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller of Kharabsheh, a neighborhood of Amman, Jordan. These abuses mark a radical departure from the genuine Shadhili tradition and blessed Prophetic Sunnah, and serve as a cautionary tale of a shaykh losing his way and causing immense damage to innocent lives in the process. We do not advocate publicity or exposure as the preferred way to solve these problems, but as a last resort. This step has therefore not been taken lightly. It comes after attempts to have these abuses recognized and to seek redress internally have been suppressed, evidence has been destroyed, and those who revealed and meticulously documented the abuses have been vilified.
For those interested, an independent investigation into a few of the issues raised here (primarily the physical abuse of children) has recently appeared in the respected online news outlet Middle East Eye. We hope that future investigative work by other outlets will continue to unravel and document the many additional layers of abuse for which Shaykh Nuh and his group are responsible. We can only give an overview of these spiritual abuses in this article, based upon evidence gathered from firsthand eyewitness accounts from some co-authors of this article, prior internal investigations, and the testimonies of victims whom we are in contact with.
What is Spiritual Abuse?
Spiritual abuse involves a repeated pattern of coercion and controlling behavior in a religious context. One Muslim practitioner’s definition of spiritual abuse is “the misuse of spiritual power, authority, status, knowledge, or teachings to violate the sacred inviolability (hurmah) of a person, which applies to the bodies, property, and dignity of all human beings.” Its levels of severity range from the unprofessional to the unethical to the criminal.
Spiritual Abuse in the Tariqah Run By Nuh Keller
Although centered on the Kharabsheh community, the abuse has severely impacted followers of the tariqah everywhere.
The boundaries of control in Kharabsheh. Source: The Zawiya 2021 (Amman, unpublished), p.6.
Kharabsheh is run by the tariqah of Nuh Keller as a quasi-independent entity, with its own defined borders (see map) within which its rules hold sway under the shaykh’s leadership as self-appointed “Amir”, Jordanian laws being disregarded in some instances. Visitors are required to comply with an agreement which says, “Sheikh Nuh Keller is the Amir [leader] of the Hayy [neighborhood] and all matters return to him, and by extension those he has deputized.” Abuses perpetrated in Kharabsheh under this Amir and his deputies have taken a variety of forms, including the following.
- Persistent psychological abuse, coupled with the invocation of Divine authority, used to frighten, control and isolate both adults and children. This has included systematic bullying, demeaning through insults, inculcating beliefs of personal defectiveness and reliance on the tariqah leadership for salvation, demanding unquestioning obedience and loyalty, monitoring through spies, and punishment by shunning, public shaming and humiliation.
- A particularly severe regimen of bullying and control directed towards women in the neighborhood, who were subject to intrusive scrutiny and monitoring of their private and public lives by the two female authorities of the tariqah, Besa Krasniqi (wife of Nuh Keller, known as Umm Sahl) and Hedaya Hartford (known as Umm al-Khayr).
- Interference in and break-up of existing marriages, as well as lying and deception by the tariqah leadership and their proxies to destroy friendships and other family relationships (for example, privately convincing one spouse, family member or friend of the defectiveness of the other) in order to create further vulnerability, isolation and dependence.
- Arranging of marriages, often between clearly unsuited couples and without parental consent, including women being married off to men with known criminal records, addictions, or other severe psychological disorders.
- Through an overwhelming combination of isolation, control, humiliation, and excessive physical abuse during the key developmental stages of childhood, driving several teenagers to the point of suicidal ideation, self-harm through cutting, severe anxiety and depression, substance abuse, or other harmful addictions.
- Cruel techniques of physical and psychological abuse inflicted on children designed to break their spirits and cause maximum pain and humiliation. Psychological abuse has included widespread bullying, insults, name calling, public shaming of children, pitting children against each other, and ostracization (including in one instance a forced year-long shunning of a young girl by all the neighborhood children). The instruments of physical abuse included a hose to whip boys and a wooden stick with holes drilled into it to remove air resistance and thus maximize physical pain and bruising. Beatings were also inflicted on toddlers and small children.
- Active discouragement of parents seeking professional help for their abused children.
- Tight controls over entry and exit from Kharabsheh, especially of children, including bans on travel to the West and the forcible expulsion of targeted families.
- Prescribing medicine, including controlled substances, without a license.
- Abusive “counseling” services that included, for example, the hypnotic implantation of false childhood memories of sexual assault by family members.
There have also been many harmful effects on the tariqah worldwide, including the following.
- Demanding unquestioning obedience to authority and surrender of individual judgment in everyday as well as spiritual matters, without regard for legal and moral principles, leaving many members broken and unable to judge or act for themselves.
- “Role inflation” in the tariqah’s leadership to dictate many aspects of personal life, including parenting, marriage, medicine and health, without qualifications or checks and balances.
- Replication elsewhere of Kharabsheh’s authoritarian hierarchy and methods of coercion and control, producing comparable harm to adults and children.
- Broken marriages resulting from bad, often destructive, advice or matchmaking.
- Injuries and long-term harm to children resulting from brutal, non-Islamic forms of discipline and corporal punishment.
- Creation of an insular, elitist mentality contrary to the blessed Prophetic Sunnah, purposely distancing members from their families and the wider Muslim community.
The Internal Investigation and Cover-Up
The abuses are both widespread and longstanding, affecting adults and children in Kharabsheh and around the world for over two decades. Matters came to a head in January 2019 over the running of the Futuwwa School, when families began withdrawing their children amid grave allegations of harm. Futuwwa was closed and its staff were replaced, after an internal investigation by a handpicked team of lieutenants and senior members sponsored by Nuh Keller himself. The investigation found overwhelming evidence of physical and psychological abuse of pupils. In private correspondence dated May 14, 2019, Ashraf Muneeb, investigator and primary lieutenant of Nuh Keller in Jordan, vigorously defended the integrity and outcome of his investigation, insisting that his findings were “just facts” that were not subject to interpretation, adding that the principal of Futuwwa was a “criminal” and (among many other conclusions) that the school had intentionally harmed children. Some may have felt reassured when the Amir declared publicly on January 30, 2019, that “I had the matter investigated as carefully as I know how to investigate” and that there would be no “cruel or unusual punishments” at the new school to be established after the closure of the old one.
However, the period 2019‒22 has been marked by cover-up and denial. The Amir, Nuh Keller, ordered the destruction of over 300 pages of evidence and the testimonies of 70 families, discredited the investigator he had appointed, declared the school and its staff and policies blameless, and denied that any physical or psychological harm had been inflicted. In the course of stamping out any opposition, he demanded “loyalty to the end” from his disciples, taunting those who stood against him as “juveniles,” “losers,” and “failures.” And in order to discourage parents from seeking professional help for their children, he has claimed that “there is no harm in being beaten and robbed, Confucius used to say, as long as you don’t remember it,” and that even getting raped and burned can make one stronger and more self-assured.
Most tellingly, he invented a conspiracy to explain this U-turn, claiming that eight families had created a climate of hysteria through exaggerated allegations in order to discredit the tariqah and its leadership. And Muneeb has followed suit, publicly claiming for the first time three years after his investigation (and in flat contradiction to his private emails) that his investigation was actually a mere exercise in collecting information. Loyalists have claimed, absurdly and in contrast to their own sheikh’s continued defense of the school, that its closure ended any problems the tariqah had – and that all its problems had been confined to Kharabsheh.
Warning and Backlash
The leadership’s unresponsiveness led some concerned ex-members to put together (supported by fatwas) a private access website, published in March 2021, to warn members of the order about these appalling wrongdoings. It features testimonies submitted by former members from around the world, and describes and analyses the harm caused over more than two decades. Its centerpiece is a lengthy and detailed document, “A Storm Without Port”. A group of ex-members reiterated key demands in support of the victims. These included full acknowledgement of and redress for the abuses carried out, financial transparency, the ending of excessive control and systematic manipulation of tariqa members, and an end to giving unqualified instructions or advice about matters outside of Sufism like marriage, education, psychiatry, health matters and child-rearing. The aims were to warn members of the order run by Nuh Keller about the nature and extent of the abuses, and to help the victims and other ex-members gain closure. It also seemed conceivable that this exposure might lead the perpetrators to repent and make amends.
This call for redress was summarily rejected by Shaykh Nuh Keller in an address to his followers worldwide on March 26, 2021. He dismissed Dr. Muhammad Isa Waley, his long-serving representative (muqaddam) in the UK, who had publicly supported the report and the call for redress, and replaced him with a hardline loyalist. Denouncing as lies all the charges against him, he ordered his followers to treat ex-members like apostates or Covid sufferers, and not to read or listen to any reports of abuse. Some members have been told to take a new pledge of absolute fealty to Nuh Keller and, extraordinarily, to his “household” – meaning his wife, Besa Krasniqi, who is at the center of many of the abuses in the Kharabsheh community and at its school. The Shaykh’s response notably failed to mention her or the other main members of the tariqah leadership: Ms Krasniqi’s friend Hedaya Hartford, and the latter’s husband Dr. Ashraf Muneeb. All three are profoundly implicated in the abuses.
Who We Are and the Importance of Speaking Out
The authors of this article are among the many who have left the tariqah since 2019, in some cases after 25 years of membership. Our primary reason for writing it is to warn the Muslim public about the abuses and try to avert any future harm. Attempts to resolve this matter internally have been met with a systematic cover-up and attempts to discredit the abused and their supporters.
It is common practice within the Keller group to suppress revelations of abuse and to ensure conformity among loyalists by mislabelling standing up for justice as seditious discord (fitnah) and as unlawful indulgence in two sins of the tongue, tale-bearing (namīmah) and backbiting (ghībah). This ignores the Shariah principle that it is an obligation to protect the well-being of Muslims by publicly warning others against scholars or others who use their status and influence as publicly known figures to spread false teachings or commit abuses.
More than half of the families who lived in Kharabsheh have left the neighborhood, and significant numbers of murids of Shaykh Nuh Keller around the world have left the tariqah after becoming aware of the systemic abuse. But readers may wonder why, if our accusations are true, there has not been a complete exodus from the tariqah. When a group becomes cult-like, its members are often convinced there is nowhere else to go. Also, it is natural that when people have dedicated themselves to a shaykh and a spiritual path, perhaps for many years, sacrificed much, and turned their lives upside down to do so, they are less likely to exercise vigilance against abuses or even acknowledge that they exist. Anyone who has fully “bought in,” and whose belief in their own judgment has been systematically undermined, is liable to disbelieve even the evidence of their own eyes. They are prepared to embrace all kinds of baseless explanations as to why it is they who are at fault for even suspecting there is any wrongdoing in the tariqah. Even for those who have been abused it can be very hard, and heartbreaking, to turn their backs on spiritual teachers, friends and community, and even, tragically, imperil family ties. The consequences of the rift have been felt acutely in the lives of members and ex-members everywhere.
Readers may also want to know why the Jordanian authorities were not brought in to deal with those abuses that were illegal under Jordanian law. The main reasons are twofold. The first is that the cultish environment in Kharabsheh, where very loyal and dedicated members lived, meant that such a step was not even contemplated. It would have meant expulsion from one’s social and spiritual community and the severing of ties with one’s spiritual guide; in fact, over the years numerous attempts to raise concerns even within the group were trampled, with the dissenters being stigmatized as disloyal and the Amir warning disciples that speaking ill of the school was a sin that “will incinerate your flesh” and that “your body will burn over and over again.” Spying was endemic too, with loyalists in the neighborhood gathering and reporting intelligence to Ms Krasniqi so building enough support to go to the authorities was impossible, at least until the crisis of 2019 described above. There was also a high level of deception about the systematic physical and psychological abuse of children at the school, which left many parents ignorant of the stark reality of what was going on.
The second main reason is that, aside from the obvious infractions of running an illegal school with a regime of severe corporal punishment, the deeper levels of harm came from the malignantly narcissistic, controlling environment whose negative effects were largely psychological and spiritual in nature, and which legal systems have not been set up to deal with. These ills require other remedies, to which we now turn.
We are determined to try to prevent these abuses from being “swept under the carpet” and allowed to continue with impunity and zero accountability. It is vital that the Muslim community take action. At present we generally behave as if we are content with little or no self-regulation of religious authorities and religious institutions, except regarding abuses that are the subject of criminal law, which itself is inadequate as many criminal abuses go unreported or are difficult to prove in court. The legal dispensation we live under takes no account of the ethical obligations Islam imposes on religious leaders and institutions. We often have no recourse to any higher authority than the manifestly inadequate and fickle court of public opinion.
A central feature of this shameful situation is what could be called complaisance culture: that is, the common expectation that followers be complaisant – so eager to oblige that they yield unconditionally to their leaders’ wishes and demands, however unethical and damaging they may be. This culture extends to, and results partly from, a collective failure by those in positions of authority to uphold the Quranic command to enjoin good and forbid evil. When a scholar of the Islamic sciences goes wrong, the default response is to assert that he is a good man who needs support and understanding, and whose reputation must be protected at all costs because it is, supposedly, synonymous with the good name of Islam itself. Victims of abuse are pressured to suffer in silence for the same reason. Sometimes the abusers are even portrayed as victims, and the victims’ supporters as abusers. Moreover, any abuser, fake shaykh, or corrupt scholar who is called to account by his peers is commonly let off with a rebuke and assured that if he promises not to repeat the offense, the whole matter can be forgotten.
Such an attitude and policy are not so very different from the Churches’ historic failure (until recently) to correct and discipline rogue priests: anyone who complains to the authorities or warns the community, even after making every effort to seek a remedy in private, has supposedly offended Allah and the religious establishment. But the Muslim Ummah cannot afford to continue indulging in complaisance culture. It has no place in our beliefs or way of life. As for the question of obeying those in authority, obedience to human beings that entails disobedience to the Creator is unlawful by consensus. And the Islamic obligation to avoid unfounded suspicion, and to give others the benefit of the doubt, should never be extended to closing one’s eyes to real signs of danger, let alone proven facts.
What Needs to be Done
As for overturning complaisance culture, Muslims must act to institute robust safeguards against spiritual and other abuse in our religious institutions and movements, and effective means of redress. Continued neglect of this central aspect of the Dīn, that of forbidding wrong (al-nahy ‘an al-munkar), would mean failing the victims of abuse. It is the duty of our ‘ulamā’ to stand up for them too – not just privately but openly. How can our Ummah hope to prosper without upholding justice and the rights of the abused? May Allah help us all to do better. As for the concept of Kharabsheh as an ideal, wholly self-contained Muslim community with leaders treated, practically speaking, as infallible, this is a dangerous bid‘a (harmful innovation). We intend to discuss this in a future article.
Let us conclude by offering some hope and solace to those whose lives have been shattered by spiritual abuse, and who may feel confused or lost. Firstly, we hope and pray that our public stand will encourage others to challenge spiritual abuse wherever it appears. Moral courage is a contagious virtue. Secondly, Muslim communities in the West have begun to address this issue over the last few years, and an invaluable new sector of pastoral support and advocacy groups such as In Shaykh’s Clothing has emerged to provide guidance on navigating the challenges of leaving abusive groups and the inevitable backlash. These efforts have been aided by sympathetic outlets like MuslimMatters that are helping to bring about a long overdue reckoning with all forms of abuse in our communities. And in Allah Most Merciful we seek refuge from every calamity. ‘Lord, do not let our hearts deviate after having guided us.’ Āmīn.
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Source: Muslim Matters