Zia ul-Haque Sheikh, former board member of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was ordered to pay $2.5 million to a Texas woman who accused him of sexually exploiting her. He had counseled her for years, beginning when she was 13, but used that relationship to pressure her into a secret religious marriage and sex.
This was not Sheikh's first episode of sexual misconduct. On at least two other occasions over the last 20 years, Sheikh took advantage of his position of power as an imam to engage in illicit relations with his congregants. But the first two times, Sheikh was able to escape punishment and find a new position elsewhere. And ISNA apparently had no problems placing him on its board, despite his history of prior abuse.
In the late 1990s, Sheikh was terminated from the Islamic Center in Richmond, VA, where he served as an imam, after he secretly married one of his students. The already-married Sheikh thus committed bigamy and violated the mosque's ethical code of conduct. Nevertheless, he left with a severance package and the congregation was not told the reason for his departure. In 2001 Sheikh was terminated from a mosque in Tampa, Florida for engaging in an illicit relationship with a 19-year-old student and congregant, to whom he had again promised marriage.
Sheikh then moved to Texas to head the Islamic Center of Irving, where he later began to counsel a teenager who had recently lost her father. After establishing a relation of trust over many years, he pressured her into a religious marriage and sexual relationship. Shortly afterward, Sheikh abruptly cut off contact.
When the woman attempted to report the matter to the mosque, she first went to celebrity preacher Nouman Ali Khan, the president of the Irving mosque board. Khan reacted by discouraging the woman from reporting what happened with Sheikh, telling her it would harm his reputation as a "religious leader and family man." Khan took no further action to address the matter.
But Khan, another ISNA regular, had been involved in a sex scandal of his own. In public, he preached rigid separation between the sexes and even disapproved of men shaking hands with women; but secretly, he initiated a number of extramarital relationships, in some cases manipulating women to whom he seemed a respected religious figure. Moreover, Khan was very familiar with Sheikh, as Sheikh worked as an instructor at Khan's Bayyinah Institute.
Then the abused woman went to Facing Abuse in Community Environements (FACE), a Muslim community organization that works against sexual abuse by community leaders. Sheikh admitted that the accusations of the young woman were true, but nevertheless refused to resign from his position. He further lied by saying he had never engaged in similar behavior before. Sheikh went as far as to quote a Quranic verse to the young woman's mother to remind her of his kindness towards her daughter, asking "Is the repayment of good anything but good?"
Sheikh continues to minimize his wrongdoing, describing the civil judgement against him as an "error" and attributing his loss to his lack of financial means.
ISNA has yet to comment on the behavior of its former board member.