Payoffs, threats, secret marriages: An accused preacher saving his empire
Nouman Ali Khan/Bayyinah TV
This article by Hannah Alam originally appeared in Buzzfeed News on December 20, 2017.
In the spring of 2017, 29-year-old N.M.’s life took a sharp turn.
She, along with her mother, was left homeless after her parents’ nasty breakup. They left London and crashed with a relative in northwest England. The move cost her the job she loved at an Islamic school. Broke and bewildered in a new city, N.M. was desperate for a spiritual boost.
That’s when she heard about Losing My Religion, a conference where some of Islam’s most popular speakers were to discuss big political and religious issues affecting Muslims. She was particularly curious about one of the speakers: Nouman Ali Khan, a Texas-based preacher who has earned millions of fans through his plainspoken Qur’an lessons aimed at millennials. Unofficial recordings of his lectures, such as one about material wealth titled “I feel sorry for Justin Bieber,” break the half-million mark for views.
At the conference in April, N.M. and a few other women approached Khan with questions regarding the interpretation and meaning of Quranic verses and teachings. She recalled that Khan was quick to zero in on her, asked about her personal life and her work as an Islamic teacher.
N.M. was excited when he offered to share a coveted syllabus from his suburban Dallas-based institute, Bayyinah, regarded as the most successful for-profit Islamic learning centers in the USA.
“For years, I’ve listened to him,” N.M. said, referring to Khan’s lectures on YouTube. “He was a very, very pious person, and I already kind of trusted him, I suppose.”
When N.M. left the conference, she was inspired by Khan’s teachings and stayed in touch with him over the phone. Later, when he learned N.M. was unemployed and dealing with family turmoil, he offered her a job at the Bayyinah. She was allowed to work from London. This was good news for her. Finally, she thought, her life was on the upswing.
“He’d say, ‘Call me anytime, I’m here,’” N.M. said. “I looked to him as a father figure, a teacher. Then the texts got more and more frequent.”
N.M started to hear "alarm bells" when his tone of conversation changed, she recalled. Initially, she dismissed the idea that he might be interested in romance. Everyone knew Khan had a wife and seven children. But then he confided that he was going through a divorce and floated the idea of marriage, N.M. said. Startled, she told him she’d consider the proposal.
But privately Khan started sending her sexually suggestive text messages and shirtless selfies -- a shocking behavior for someone who discouraged unmarried men and women from even minimum physical contact.
[caption id="attachment_2266049" align="alignnone" width="794"] A picture texted to N.M. by Khan/Buzzfeed News[/caption]
By that time, N.M. said, she and her relatives no longer felt flattered by the celebrity’s attention. Instead, they were suspicious, and began to make calls to the United States to figure out: Who, really, is Nouman Ali Khan?
Little did they know that their curiosity will help unravel one of the biggest controversies to hit the national US Muslim leadership in years: a tale of secret marriages, hush money, and threats.
Way before N.M. first met Khan, four Muslim clerics already had begun looking into reports about his conduct with women. They discovered that Khan's private life was nothing close to what he taught.
A written summary of the clerics’ findings, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News and hasn’t been previously disclosed, depicts a man who used his prestige to groom female fans for “secret sham marriages,” essentially sexual relationships that have no US legal standing and only dubious religious cover.
The panel, which included some of Khan’s longtime friends and colleagues, found that Khan “lies and manipulates” women as he courts them for such undercover unions. Some culminated in sex; others, like the one he pursued with N.M., did not. Khan is still legally married to the mother of his seven children, two associates of his wife said, though the couple is in divorce proceedings.
“He has urged them to lie to one another when he is found out. When he tires of them, he divorces them,” the clerics’ summary states. “At any step along the way, if they call him out on his manipulation, he apologizes and attempts to buy their silence or threatens them.” Included in the clerics’ report was a screenshot of a nearly $7,000 bank transfer from Khan to N.M., which she described as hush money. N.M. spoke on condition that only her initials be used, to protect her family’s privacy.
Bruce Turner, Khan’s attorney in Texas, called N.M's account allegations against the preached, “unfounded and clearly driven by a damaging motive.”
“The claim that my client made a practice of singling out women and taking advantage of them at Islamic events is preposterous,” Turner said.
In September, a mediator's Facebook post revealed the claims against Khan. This was 10 days before reports about Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein triggered the #MeToo explosion.
It is painful for any religion to acknowledge, let alone accept, a leader's flaws. An example is the Catholic Church, which is still fighting to protect abusive priests and teachers. For US Muslims, that defensiveness is compounded by many other factors that contribute to a culture of silence when it comes to addressing misconduct claims.
For one, Islam frowns upon revealing the sins of others, with sensitive matters handled quietly to protect all involved. The idea of innocent until proven guilty is enshrined in Islamic law, with an especially high burden of proof for illicit sex.
In conservative spaces, women often choose to remain quiet for the fear of damaging future marriage prospects and bringing shame to their families. In instances where they do speak up, the claims are often sidelines because of the societal taboos. If the issues involved a controversial marriage, then the chances of coming forward shrink further.
According to groups studying the issues, Muslim community figures who are asked to look into misconduct claim lack the training and resources to do a thorough job. There’s also a financial risk in calling out famous figures who are vital to fundraising. The few Muslim leaders who’ve criticised Khan on social media have been hit with a vicious backlash from his followers.
To top it, there’s the grim political backdrop, with many Muslims opposed to “airing dirty laundry” at a time of rampant hostility toward Islam.
“The reality is, in most Muslim institutions, there is so little oversight of the religious leadership,” said Ingrid Mattson, an Islamic studies professor and former president of the Islamic Society of North America who was part of an inquiry into Khan’s conduct. “There’s no easily accessible mechanism for reporting violations.”
Despite the little gain in exposing a man like Khan, N.M. agreed to speak publicly for the first time, in a series of interviews this month with BuzzFeed News, to offer a cautionary tale about the dangers of failing to hold religious figures accountable. She’s alarmed that Khan is already easing back into public speaking with little outcry from the US Muslim leadership, which she says sends a chilling message to any woman grappling with whether to report inappropriate conduct.
“I don’t want anyone slipping into the same trap as me,” N.M. said. “The rock-star Islamic speakers have access to so many women and if they’re corrupt, that’s a major danger for a lot of women.”
BuzzFeed News reviewed text messages, emails, bank transfers, and other materials that support N.M.’s claims and received further confirmation from three other people with direct knowledge of the events who requested anonymity because of Khan’s repeated threats of lawsuits against his detractors.
Separately, the news organisation interviewed a second woman who alerted community leaders to unwelcome advances from Khan and contributed to their report; the woman didn’t want to be named or to speak at length about her experience. The clerics’ fact-finding document mentions at least four other women who’ve reported inappropriate conduct by Khan, including one who was in a secret marriage with him for two years.
Khan hasn’t disputed the veracity of the photos and text threads that were leaked but has said on Facebook that the claims are a mix of lies and distortions about “communications” between consenting adults after he divorced his wife. (Khan filed for divorce in March, according to court records.)
Because no criminal offense is alleged, there’s much hand-wringing about how to frame the Khan controversy: Is it abuse of power? Is it sexual misconduct? Is it both? Neither?
N.M. said she has no qualms about adding Khan to the growing list of influential men who’ve mistreated or manipulated women from their positions of authority. In fact, she’s let Khan know exactly what she thinks of him, according to one of the last text messages she sent him before cutting off contact.
“Interesting how your favorite movie is predator,” she told him.
Rumors had swirled for more than a year, but the first big public sign of trouble in Khan’s world was his absence from this year’s Islamic Circle of North America convention, an annual gathering of thousands of Muslims that took place over Easter weekend in Baltimore.
Khan, always a marquee speaker at the convention, was a no-show, leaving the audience to speculate about why he was missing. In an online essay published after the misconduct claims went viral, attendee Humera Gul recalled sad fans asking one another, “What happened?”
“We all know exactly what happened,” she wrote.
At the time, however, only a few Muslim leaders across the country were aware that Khan had agreed to a private, negotiated agreement to retreat from the limelight. That was because the panel of four clerics had found that Khan repeatedly had abused his influence by approaching his admirers about marriage, lying to them about his marital status, and “manipulating” them into keeping the relationships quiet. For Sunni Muslims, marriage requires witnesses, and any union that’s shrouded in secrecy or understood to be temporary is strongly discouraged, if not prohibited, depending on religious interpretation.
The agreement, which Khan has acknowledged in a Facebook post, called for him to cease contact with the women, get counseling, and stop giving public lectures. He was permitted to publish or air previously recorded talks, except for those on “marriage or gender matters.” In exchange, the clerics weren’t to go public about Khan’s behavior and to only discreetly alert other leaders so they’d stop inviting him to speak.
In his emailed response, Turner said Khan’s absence from the ICNA convention this year was not as a result of the accusations but “based on a difference of opinion on a theological/Islamic studies-related issue.”
The clerics then learned that Khan had resumed giving speeches and approaching women. When they confronted him, Khan had his attorney send letters to the mediators threatening lawsuits. BuzzFeed News obtained a copy of the letter the clerics received.
Khan’s contract, along with new claims by N.M., led to the controversy being revealed in a September 24 Facebook post by Omer Mozaffar, one of the clerics who received the letter and who’s mediated in other high-profile Muslim scandals. Mozaffar wrote that Khan “confessed inappropriate interactions with various women,” lied about them, and threatened lawsuits to stop people from exposing him.
“The failures of one preacher do not mean that the entire Tradition is suspect,” Mozaffar wrote. “But every preacher, scholar, and activist should know that if there is evidence that your behavior is illegal or detrimental to the community or society, you will be outed.”
Khan’s Facebook page boasts more than two million fans; tens of thousands more subscribe to his pages in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, and other languages. He has more than 280,000 Twitter followers and more than 400,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.
Khan was correct when he figured out that there was a market for Muslims who wanted a deeper understanding of Islam without relying on traditional clerics. Launched in 2005 with Khan as founder and CEO, Bayyinah is believed to be the first in the US to turn Qur’an study into a for-profit business — a controversial approach. More than a decade later, the institute has expanded to include Bayyinah TV, an online streaming portal that’s billed as the Netflix of Qur’an lectures, with mobile apps for Apple and Android. There’s also a nonprofit arm, Bayyinah Foundation.
The jewel of Khan’s empire is Bayyinah Dream, a rigorous Qur’an study program housed in a sprawling new campus that was built with millions of dollars from a fundraising campaign.
Some purists sniff at Khan’s credentials, noting his lack of formal study, as well as his focus on the Qur’an to the exclusion of other important texts. Khan is always careful to stress that he’s just a preacher, not a scholar, a regular guy who got lost and found his way back to Islam.
“Bayyinah,” Khan said in an introductory video, “is about people who felt like they want to connect with the Qur’an, but they don’t even know where to begin.”
Bayyinah’s reach has catapulted Khan to the top echelon of Muslim preachers worldwide. Khan has said he receives more than 1,000 emails a day. The comments sections of his videos are filled with people asking him to pray for their relatives, visit their mosques, and settle their household disputes. He’s been candid about how overwhelming the adoration can be, and not just because of the nonstop requests for selfies.
“Suddenly, there are people jumping over each other after a lecture to shake my hand, take a picture, or tell me how I’ve changed their life,” Khan wrote in a 2014 essay. “It’s almost an out-of-body experience and, quite honestly, most of the time I feel like they’re talking about someone else.”
For a guy who was keenly aware of all he had to lose, Khan appeared to have acted recklessly at times, openly bragging in text messages about giving hush money to a jilted woman and revealing plans to dump a secret wife just as soon as he’d scrubbed incriminating information from her cell phone, according to screenshots included as supporting material in the clerics’ report.
The story that emerges from the report is this: A couple of years ago, the legally married Khan “married” his secretary in secret, promising her a public ceremony when his divorce was final. When the secretary learned of other women in his life and confronted him, Khan agreed to announce their union to a wider circle in Dallas. Two days after fulfilling his secretary’s dream of going public, he dumped her. N.M. said Khan boasted of leaving the woman “on the floor howling like a child.”
At the time, according to the cleric's report, Khan was courting at least two other women with similar promises of marriage, among them N.M., who said he lied to her and her family about his marital status. They only discovered the existence of a secret wife — the secretary — through a chance mutual connection.
Another former Khan fan told BuzzFeed News that Khan brought up marriage in a phone call with her around the same time.
She answered questions via email on the condition that her name is withheld to protect her family’s privacy. The woman said Khan gave her just a week to respond to his proposal and in that period “began to pester me with annoying messages,” including suggestive texts that she felt crossed a line. The messages might sound benign in non-Muslim circles, but requests to spend unchaperoned time together are out of bounds in their conservative, observant milieu.
“He was just a regular perv kind of flirt,” she recalled. She declined his marriage proposal before the week was up and later shared her story with clerics looking into Khan’s conduct. Two people with direct knowledge of the inquiry confirmed the woman’s account.
Through all of this drama runs the pain of Khan’s legal wife of more than 15 years, who was lied to repeatedly when she asked whether Khan was courting other women, according to the clerics’ report. Khan’s wife could not be reached for comment. Khan’s mother-in-law has posted (and removed) scathing Facebook rants about her daughter’s suffering at the hands of the man she’s called “Nouman Ugly Khan.” The report describes how Khan convinced his wife to stop divorce proceedings and “once she signed, he began moving assets around without her knowledge.”
Those assets, according to the report, included a million-dollar Bayyinah building. He transferred ownership of it to a nonprofit “that would protect it from the results of the divorce proceedings.” Former Bayyinah employees told the panel they noticed a flurry of asset transfers in that period “that made them uneasy.” Two weeks later, Khan divorced his wife in accordance with Islamic, if not Texas, law.
The report also describes how Khan would try to keep his accusers silent. For example, N.M., the woman in England, received £5,000 (nearly $7,000) in what she called “hush money,” even though she never agreed to keep quiet. She didn’t feel right accepting the cash, she said, so she donated it to the mosque of a British imam who’d supported her during the ordeal. He returned it to her, she said, saying there was no ethical problem in accepting the money. N.M. said she put it toward getting her and her mom back into a place of their own, but it still unsettles her that Khan tried to buy her off.
“It was no secret to him or me,” N.M. said, that he was trying “to keep my mouth shut.”
Turner denied Khan gave N.M. or any woman hush money. He said the money Khan gave N.M. was a “mutually understood gesture of kindness” to help her and her mother through hard times, and was not explicitly or implicitly intended to buy her silence. Turner said, “at one point she asked to return those funds and she was told she can donate it to a charity of her choice.”
Turner also said that N.M. was not an official Bayyinah employee but “volunteered to help with some assignments.”
As US Muslim leaders waffled over how to handle the claims against Khan going public, some of his prominent friends moved swiftly to launch a defense. A petition condemning the slander of Khan attracted more than 2,500 signatures. Across social media, Khan’s colleagues and fans found excuse after excuse to dismiss the claims. Fangirls throw themselves at him — he’s only human to respond. It’s the woman’s fault for consenting to a secret marriage. This is just part of the liberal feminist agenda to attack Islam.
As the stories spread, six celebrated Muslim clerics and academics decided to conduct their own inquiry into the allegations. They interviewed some of the same women the clerics spoke to, reviewed text exchanges, and talked to Khan. This second panel wrote a joint statement affirming that Khan “has engaged in conduct unbecoming of any believer, much less someone who teaches about the Holy Qur’an.”
Khan learned of the looming statement and lobbied hard to prevent its release, “begging” and cajoling the scholars, according to interviews with two people with firsthand knowledge of the events. He made a direct appeal to Mohamed Magid, the nationally known imam who led the effort.
It didn’t work. Later that day, the scholars posted their statement online, which included the first full-throated defense of women by high-profile community leaders.
“We unequivocally recognize and support survivors of abuse who are often silenced in our communities,” the scholars wrote. N.M. said she read those words in England and instantly felt a wave of relief wash over her.
Not long after the statement was released, Magid got a message from Khan asking him to call a number he didn’t recognize. The imam dialed. Khan’s attorney answered.
Khan was never given a written summary of the conclusions of what he called “self-appointed mediators,” Turner said. He also disputed some of the findings, saying for example that it was a “false accusation” that Khan moved assets to shield them from divorce proceedings. “My client has consistently been asked to tell his side of the story and he has continuously committed himself to keeping sensitive matters of his private life private,” Turner said in his email to BuzzFeed News. “It is precisely for this reason that some have had their way in shaping a narrative about him while he remains silent.”
Only a handful of cases involving misconduct by Muslim religious figures have made it into the public eye. Those that do typically involve a criminal offense, allowing community leaders to turn the thankless investigative job over to authorities. That’s the case with the UK-based megastar scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was accused of rape in France just a month after the Khan allegations, and has since denied the allegations as a “campaign of slander.”
Several other cases are brewing at the local level, expected to gain little or no visibility unless criminal charges are introduced, said Muslim activists who are part of a nascent movement to bring more attention to sexual, financial, and other misconduct by religious figures. The problem is: What to do with allegations that fall short of criminal offenses?
That’s the question advocates such as Danish Qasim struggle with as they listen to sobbing women confide their stories. In June, Qasim founded In Shaykh’s Clothing, part of a wave of new US Muslim efforts to address “spiritual abuse,” a catchall term for misconduct under the guise of religion, including bullying volunteers, stealing from donations, and propositioning followers.
Qasim said the silence of national Muslim leaders who aren’t involved in the Khan case isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the community doesn’t need “mob mentality in lieu of fact.” However, Qasim said, he hopes such cases will spark a long-overdue conversation among US Muslims about improving the way communities deal with transgressions. If the issue isn’t treated with urgency, he warned, cynicism can set in and push people away from the faith.
In the past three years, Qasim said, he’s received more than 20 reports involving secret marriages and sexual misconduct. Most of the accused men are well-known figures in their communities, he said, which means In Shaykh’s Clothing staff can listen to the women, examine evidence, and connect them to therapists, but options for action are limited because of the level of discretion that’s usually involved.
Many Muslim women simply won’t come forward because they know they’ll face a backlash. One woman, Qasim said, hid her identity and created a secret Skype account in order to report her abuse. Some write anonymously to share the names of religious figures who mistreated them, hoping to spare other women what they’ve experienced. Others hide the names of their abusers; just being able to tell someone what happened to them is enough.
“They’re not raging for justice or anything — they’re heartbroken,” Qasim said. “They’re wanting to know they’re not going to hell for this, believe it or not. Parents don’t believe them. Families don’t believe them. Families have been ruined.”
N.M., Khan’s accuser in England, is gradually putting her life back together after her experience with Khan strained family relations and plunged her into depression. Since her rough patch in the spring, she’s moved back to London and is again teaching at an Islamic school. She’s undergone counseling arranged by FACE, which stands for Facing Abuse in Community Environments, another new Muslim effort to tackle the issue.
N.M. said the quiet support she’s received disproves the idea that Muslim women won’t find allies if they speak up. It’s not easy, she said, but “there are people who care about justice, who care about protecting the vulnerable.”
“Even if it was a few, it was reassuring, and it did restore my faith in the male clergy,” she said. “And even if no one had stood up, that still wouldn’t have shaken my faith because I understand that there’s always going to be corrupt preachers. Just because they’re preachers doesn’t mean they’re saints.”