The image of the sheikh standing up on stage, practically shouting to everyone “You better not have non-Muslim friends! You better not have non-Muslim friends!” became a screw my mind, twisting deeper every time I thought of it. Every time he stamped his foot, it drove a nail further into my heart.
That was the moment my long bout with Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder started.
Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder occurs when an impressionable Muslim is faced with a sheikh—a religious scholar — whose views are either extreme or hardline. Said Muslim then begins to obsess over the opinions of this sheikh, becoming confused and depressed because such opinions are a stark contrast to what they had been brought up to believe. The individual follows this logic: he’s a scholar of religion, therefore he knows more than me, therefore anything he says must be religiously accurate and true—no questions asked.
Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder can occur at any age, and whether or not someone is born a Muslim or becomes one. If left untreated, the Muslim could end up adopting these views as their own and spreading them. Everything contrary to the harsh opinion seems implausible—you doubt that anything less than harsh couldn’t possibly be the correct opinion because it’s “too soft”. Even more frightening is that once a harsh, extreme view becomes imprinted in your mind, it’s difficult to get rid of it.
Allow me to backtrack a bit.
At this point in my life, I had been a Muslim for several years but was still new to gaining religious knowledge. My previous experiences with religious scholars was negative. I once attended a two-weekend seminar left me frightened and confused and triggered anxiety attacks that had been dormant for several years (but that’s another story). The sheikh at that seminar was incredibly emotional, and I felt he guilt tripped people who didn’t feel the same intensity of emotion as him. I preferred learning through reading; it was safer, as I could stop reading whenever I wanted.
A long-winded set of circumstances put me at a weekend conference in Calgary, alone, surrounded by hundreds of strangers and constantly on the verge of another anxiety attack. Things had been going pretty well, until this particular sheikh (who I should mention was also a convert) got up on stage.
His tone immediately set me on edge. He was angry. I felt he was angry at me. And then he was telling me—shouting at me— that I am commanded by God to abandon any friend of mine who isn’t Muslim. He quoted the verse from the fifth chapter of the Qur’an:
“O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them…” (5:51)
At the time, the majority of my friends were non-Muslims. They were people I’d grown up with all my life, who accepted me as a Muslim, and tried their best to accommodate my new way of life. And now I was being told—no commanded—that they could no longer be part of my life. I felt a black hole open up inside of me. I was upset. I was confused. I was asking, “why would Islam would tell me to do this?”. I was asking, “how was that fair?”.
I couldn’t understand this. I was hurt. I was numb. Islam, once as clear as a pane of glass, had become cracked and distorted. I returned home two days later. When I spoke to my friend and mentor about it, he almost seemed to confirm what the sheikh had said.
But there was a verse that I held on to like a lifeline, that I would repeat to myself:
“God does not forbid you from dealing kindly and fairly with those who have neither fought nor driven you out of your homes. Surely God loves those who are fair. God only forbids you from befriending those who have fought you for ˹your˺ faith, driven you out of your homes, or supported ˹others˺ in doing so. And whoever takes them as friends, then it is they who are the ˹true˺ wrongdoers.” (60:8-9)
While it brought me comfort, I didn’t know how I could reconcile these two verses. Did one verse cancel another out? Were they referring to the same people? Why were these verses revealed?
My lone search took me to the dangerous minefield of the Internet.
Some symptoms of Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder include, among other things: panic attacks, depression, fear of gaining religious knowledge, fear of religious figures, aversion to friends, obsessive tendencies.
I would wake up and, for a brief few seconds, I would be blissfully forgetful of the whole thing. But then it would came crashing back into my conscience and wouldn’t leave for the rest of the day.
I became afraid of reading the Qur’an, afraid of coming across a verse that would scare me.
I would obsess over the issue, searching online for answers which often conflicted each other and would confuse me more. Even if one source said that, yes, it was ok to have non-Muslim friends—and even explained it in depth—there would still be dissenting voices that would say otherwise, and then I would be back where I started. And so I was stuck in a loop.
I didn’t dare talk to anyone about it. To me, all sheikhs became either like that man on the stage, stamping his foot and yelling at the crowd, or that man at the seminar, guilt tripping me about how I felt.
There would be times that I felt I “got” it, that I’d overcome the issue, but really I had just pushed it back for a while until it resurfaced.
I would spend the next two years grappling with the above and more.