Iman loved her study circle at Sr. Yasmin's house. Since it had started, it had given her a place to really feel accepted. It was a place where she belonged. About 12 to 15 high school girls met there every Tuesday night when Sr. Yasmin's husband would go out for the evening. They would read Quran, recite dua and talk about Islam together for about an hour, then have a little social time with juice and cookies before heading home. It was cool to be with other girls like herself, to talk about problems at school and issues with kids at school.
Since she'd started wearing hijab in middle school she had felt like an outsider at school. Kids she'd known for years had started talking around her and avoiding eye contact in the hallway. Teachers seemed to have less interest in her - or was that just because high school was different from elementary? She just felt out of place, alone. Then Sr. Yasmin had started her halaqah.
Her parents were very happy with the new program for Iman. They supported her membership and made sure she had transportation to the halaqah, and to the other activities that sprang up from it. At first there were social things, like roller skating parties and trips to the river and the woods to go canoeing and hiking. Gradually, over time, the girls started spending more time with thikr. They did some community service projects, like volunteering at a food bank, but they put in more and more time before and after salah in thikr activities. Sr. Yasmin taught them some chants to say together, swaying back and forth with the rhythm. Then, during Ramadan, they did some weekend nights of itikaf at the mosque together, praying tarawih and then continuing with reciting Quran and thikr until fajr. It was such a wonderful experience for Iman. She felt such love for Allah and a strong desire to spend her life in devotion to Allah. She loved Sr. Yasmin.
Gradually the suggestions of Sr. Yasmin took the form of dictates. You had to come. You had to participate. Iman didn't notice. She was too happy to be a part of things and loved having Sr. Yasmin ask anything of her. The halaqah spent more time at the mosque and Sr. Yasmin's husband spent more time away so the girls could stay with her. Evening after evening, weekend after weekend, the halqah was taking all of the girls free time. Parents were noticing the absence and the absent way the girls behaved when they were home, busy reciting dua when they weren't studying or memorizing Quran. Gradually the girls had all come to wear very similar clothes and wanted to fix their hair the same way.
Iman's mother was the first to speak up to her friends, the mothers of several of the other girls. What was going on here? It was good Iman wasn't mopping about school anymore and had friends, but this was becoming too much. Little by little a few other mothers started questioning around.
Before she knew the whole story, Iman's mother had learned enough to call it quits. She had discovered that a man was hanging around the halaqah all the time. Her husband knew him. He was a time waster, an unemployed man who claimed to be in import/export business, but who just hung out at the mosque and sponged off his brother. Two mothers had seen Sr. Yasmin talking and laughing with him in a manner that seemed overly friendly. One girl innocently mentioned how Sr. Yasmin spent a lot of time "consulting with the sheikh" in the back room. Between the excessive time consuming obsession this halaqah had become and the existence of an odd man hanging around the group, there were too many inappropriate things going on here for Iman's mom.
She made her daughter quit the group and told other mothers what she had learned and what she was concerned about. Several became indignant and refused to hear her out. They said she was gossiping and spreading slander. Those who had helped her get the story sided with her. Sr. Yasmin defended herself with great outrage at the accusations. The girls halaqah was split. Iman was heartbroken and cried, but, in spite of all the pressure, her mother stayed firm. Iman heard from some of the girls that Sr. Yasmin had told them not to talk to her. It all seemed worse! How she wanted to be near Sr. Yasmin again and be in her good graces! Her mom was so unfair! Then it was summer vacation and Iman traveled with her family to her aunt and uncle's home several hours away. She stayed with them over the summer, recovering. Her cousins took her to many activities and gradually she regained her balance.
In September, Sr. Yasmin filed for divorce. Her husband countersued. The story was soon all over the community.
Sr. Yasmin, so pious and sweet, turned out to have been using the halaqah to cover for her affair. She'd met him at the mosque during the itikaf experience during Ramadan. She had introduced him to the girls as a 'visiting sheikh' and had arranged for him to 'assist' with their halaqah. He didn't do much more than lead them in a short opening dua and closing dua most of the time. Sr. Yasmin had arranged the program so the girls could conduct most of it on their own, and she could slip away into another room to visit with her sweetheart.
As the affair came to light, everyone stopped going to the girls halaqah. Iman was re-included in the group that talked on the phone and on line, hashing over the whole story, each girl remembering details they had noticed, but not made sense of earlier. At the request of Iman's mother, the imam of the mosque called a meeting of the girls and their parents. He explained briefly and politely what had been discovered about Sr. Yasmin. He explained the Islamic position on her behavior and apologized for not having acted earlier. The husband had been complaining for some months about his wife's distant behavior and obsession with the halaqah. They discussed how things had happened and the girls recognized that Sr. Yasmin had started with good intentions. The group had been so successful that she had let her success go to her head. The imam led the group in dua for Sr. Yasmin and her family, and for all of the community hurt by her betrayal.
Iman felt a little better after the talk with the imam, but it would be an important event in her life that colored her thinking for years to come. She called up the girls and arranged to restart the halaqah as their own group. They knew how to do it on their own now. They returned to the initial format of once a week and they took turns in hosting it. Some of the mothers joined in now and then, participating as friends and not as leaders. Some girls left for college and adulthood. New girls joined.
I write this story with few details, to keep to my self- imposed space limit. It is very painful to write, a composite of three real events I witnessed over the years. We really need good programs for our youth and the halaqah started out with such promise. People need to create these support groups for our youth around the country, for boys and girls. I know most of our school teachers and imams are humble and devote a lot of time and sacrifice to educate our children. But a few of our leaders abuse their power. This Yasmin abused it for personal reasons, ego. Others abuse it for political goals. We've seen some convince young men to commit crimes in the name of their faith!
Enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong is an obligation of all Muslims, and parents have a special responsibility. Young people want to be so independent, but they lack perspective to see the moderate path of faith.
There are several topics in this story:
• What is excessive religious practice? Was Sr. Yasmin excessive? What would be a good amount of religious practice? Do your children get some spiritual experiences as well as the common “Let’s memorize Quran” rote work?
• What is arrogance in leadership? How do you recognize it?
• How do you stand up for what is right when there are differences of opinion, or where you are criticizing someone in power who has blind supporters? What kind of evidence do you need? Did Iman’s mother have enough information when she stopped her daughter from going to halaqah and started complaining to others? Where would you have drawn the line?
• How do you heal after betrayal and how do you help your children when they are betrayed? Did the imam do a good job helping the families? Who else might have helped? What else might be useful? What are some things that are NOT helpful to do?
Each one takes time to study. But we cannot remain ignorant or follow a leader blindly. We have the responsibility to our families and our communities. And Allah (SWT) will hold us accountable.