Several years ago, a teacher and friend told me of a dream he had once had, in which one of his noble sheikhs had decided to pay him a visit at his home. Most people in that situation would undoubtedly roll out the red carpet and take the fine china from the cupboard, honoured to be blessed with such esteemed company. But in his dream, my companion told his sheikh when he arrived before him: “With all due respect, please do not come to my house when I’m not here.”
This story has stayed with me for many years, always recalled whenever arriving too early for a lesson or visiting a friend. I know to make my excuses if my companion is not there: to go and sit in the car, or hurry off to do the weekly shopping until my friend returns.
In recent weeks, however, that imagined conversation has been thrown into sharper focus by the reported behaviour of a multitude of religious personalities: of teachers, preachers, proselytisers, scholars, imams and sages. While it is true that some allegations will undoubtedly turn out to be unfounded, borne instead of malicious intent, in many cases there is certainly cause for concern. What may have started innocently or with good intentions frequently turn into awkward encounters, causing damage to all involved.
It turns out that apparently religious folk need reminding as much as others not to transgress boundaries clearly set. That when a woman approaches them for religious guidance or counselling, they have a duty to interact with them professionally; not to groom them and condition them to accept preposterous personal propositions.
My teacher’s response to his sheikh in his dream was an affirmation of what many in this age of hero worship seem to have forgotten: that sheikhs and scholars are humans like the rest of us, subject to the same nafs, the same ego, the same desires and calls of the deep soul. They may have been granted knowledge and insight in certain realms, but they are no less human than the common man. They have no protective forcefield which insulates them from desire. To their followers they may be giants, but in their own hearts they know themselves to be men born weak and helpless.
Men of power often abuse their positions to exert undue influence over others. Men with large followings in particular, who command great respect amongst their flocks, often find themselves in a dangerous environment: if they are not especially dutiful and extremely cognisant to their surroundings, they risk falling into traps of their own creation. It may start with the ego: self-belief transforming into arrogance. It may become love of status, wealth and the world. And beyond that: it may become a means to an end; to all that a man desires, be it wealth, women or carnal desires.
Thus, when a young female follower approaches the teacher or guide in search of knowledge, the man of faith should know himself. I do not say shut the door in her face or send her away. But behave as one entrusted with beneficial knowledge: impart what you know, to the best of your ability, just as any professional in any field would, without expecting anything in return. Be it by email, instant message, telephone or social media, where you find yourself alone with the one who asks, try if you can to introduce a third-party. Copy in your wife, or the organisation you represent, or a representative of the one who asks, or a trusted friend. Do not go to that virtual house alone.
I do not say lock the woman in a cupboard or banish her from public life. There is much we must learn from our female companions, who travel the path to God as our equals. I do not say shroud her beneath veils to silence her, or hide her behind great partitions, and when she asks turn her away. Our female companions must ask questions of those who know what they do not know. It is just that those who are asked must know how to behave when approached by one seeking knowledge.
Those of us who work in business are all too well aware of the affairs between colleagues: of infidelity when a manager and his assistant get too close, always when one of them is going through a rough patch; of the flirting team mates who forget about their spouses and children during a moment of madness; of unplanned, inebriation-induced duplicity during the office Christmas party.
Publicly, most of our religious spokesmen would preach that such protagonists are blameworthy for transgressing the unspoken boundaries of family life: the expectation of a wife that when her husband goes off to work in the morning, he will not go on to confide their personal problems with his secretary; the beliefs of the children that when their mother says she is working late on an important deadline, she is not in fact drowning her sorrows about life’s difficulties with a trusted colleague.
It is strange then that these same guides consider themselves immune to the same calls of their souls when interacting with one seeking guidance. It is strange that they see fit to engage in intimate, private conversation for months and months with a stranger, under the pretence of imparting knowledge, that again and again blossoms into a short-lived romance, to be brought to life by legitimate or illegitimate means: the secret second marriage, the secret temporary marriage or — why not? — plain old adultery. It is no different from the office romance, except that the profession employed was religion.
To these guides we can only say, “Fear your Lord who created you.” To their followers we must say, “Do not know the truth by men, but rather know the truth and you will know its adherents.”
Do not be blinded by personalities, to whom you become subservient: take from them what benefits you, but do not let them become the object of your desire. Hero worship will lead us down a blind alley. Be careful of establishing a relationship of dependency; depend only on your Lord. Do not expect one man to answer all of your questions. Do not invest in them all of your fears.
Alarm bells should go off when established norms are transgressed in the pursuit of knowledge. Secrets should give pause for thought. A suggestion to meet in person or in private ought to cause you apprehension. Could it be that the one you thought you trusted intimately has been grooming you all this time? Could it be that yours is not a teacher-student relationship, but rather a predator-prey liaison? If well-established boundaries were broken down long ago, it’s likely that trouble lies ahead.
Teachers, preachers, proselytisers, scholars, imams and sages: it’s what they can teach us that make them great. Otherwise they are just people like you and I. They are not giants or superhuman beings. Of course some people are better than others: some sheikhs have certainly mastered their souls to a greater degree than others. Of course some teachers are walking encyclopaedias. Of course some preachers have been blessed with eloquence unmatched. We respect and admire them for all that makes them great.
But were a scholar to come to visit you while you were not home, you should certainly ask them kindly to sit in their car until you arrived. Yes, even Sheikh ul-Islam the Great, the Scholar of the Scholars, the esteemed and eminent one. Yes, even he should await your return before crossing the threshold of your house. And so in your virtual home: ask Sheikh ul-Islam the Great to lower his virtual gaze, to restrain his typing fingers, to behave in a manner concordant with his profession. If he is the guide you think he is, he will certainly sit and wait in his virtual car respectfully.