In an era of “celebrity sheikhs” where famous scholars are followed with as much fervor as Hollywood stars, it is no surprise that some Muslims may find themselves falling head over heels for these personalities. I call this phenomenon an “ilm crush” – developing romantic feelings for a student or teacher of Islamic knowledge, an imam, sheikh, religious leader, or Muslim influencer. Youngsters are especially vulnerable as they seek out individuals with whom they can relate while upholding their already fragile Muslim identity. These Islamic “celebrities” have the brain, beauty, some even have the brawn, the fame, and most importantly, they appear to have the Deen or religion as a way of life. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once said:
“A woman is married for four reasons: her property, her status, her beauty, and her religion. Thus, give precedence to one with religion.”
Although the hadith mentions women, the criteria can be applied to both men and women. Truly, these celebrity sheikhs seem to be the full package, radiating confidence and flair. A person may thus argue, “I love him/her because of the right reason – their religion!” Nevertheless, ilm crushes like celebrity crushes, are fleeting obsessions that can be detrimental or even dangerous. Thankfully, there are effective ways to help our youth avoid or get over an ilm crush.
The First Step: Acknowledge the Problem
Ilm crushes exist; there is no doubt about it. I first learned about these knowledge-driven infatuations when I was in my early twenties. Back then, teenagers tended to gravitate toward me, especially young Muslim girls. Maybe because of my vocation as a high school teacher and or since I was closer to them in age than their female relatives, they would confide in me like an older sister. They told me intimate secrets like what guys they thought were cute or who they hoped would ask for their hand in marriage. I noticed that oftentimes these crushes would be none other than the khateebs and teachers at the Islamic centers they attended. They were those brothers who were standing at the podium in the masjid on Fridays exhorting the congregation to fear Allah or the ones organizing Islamic events. I did not blame them. When I was dreaming about getting married, I also envisioned finding a tall, dark, and handsome sheikh!
Yet, there was something alarming; one particular incident raised a red flag for me. On a sunny Friday afternoon, after the jummah prayer, a teenage girl I knew grabbed my hand and whispered in my ear, “I’m going to show you the guy I like!” She tugged at my arm and practically dragged me to a corner outside the masjid. We waited as the brothers emerged from the prayer hall. “There he is!” she squealed in excitement. I searched the crowd for a young teen heartthrob, but I couldn’t see any. “The one with the beard there,” she pointed him out and then added, “It’s too bad he’s married!” My mouth dropped in disbelief. “What?!” The brother she was pointing to was a respected community member, husband, and father of girls in Islamic school. I was quick to advise my giddy, little 16-year-old acquaintance that he was too old for her.
On other occasions, while I was taking weekend Islamic seminars, I noticed the way girls would swoon over the middle-aged professors and the young students of knowledge. One 23-year-old sister confessed to me that she was interested in a hafidh who was one of the organizers of one seminar. What she did not know was that he was only 17! The same kind of things transpired at Islamic conferences I attended. I heard of girls approaching lecturers for marriage without the knowledge or consent of their parents. Some female scholars or influencers whom I know personally have also spoken about the constant harassment they face on social media from men of all ages.
Sounding the Alarm
These scenarios got me thinking about the seriousness of the matter. What if the 16-year-old would have acted on her feelings and approached that man? How about the 23-year-old preying on an underage boy? What gullible Muslim adolescents have engaged in inappropriate behavior with an elder in a position of authority?
There has come to light incidents of alleged and proven spiritual abuse at the hands of Muslim leaders. Organizations such as Facing Abuse in Community Environments (FACE, facetogether.org) help investigate and expose abusers. According to their website as of 2021, they have received 146 cases since 2017. These wolves in sheep’s clothing are sexual predators disguising themselves as pious spiritual guides. Their victims vary – they can be young girls or boys or grown women or men. Certainly, an ilm crush can lead a person to approach an authority figure innocently or to fill an emotional or physical void. This can push them right into an abusive situation.
I know what you are thinking, dear reader. I am now a mother of teenagers myself and I can imagine you are cringing inside. But wait, do not go pulling your child’s ear and questioning them yet! I want to stress that the crush itself is not the problem. Feeling attraction, especially to someone who is seemingly religious and knowledgeable, is quite normal. The issue arises when a person acts upon those emotions. As parents, we must map out a plan to help our youth.
Here are some tips parents can use to curb an ilm crush.
1. Talk to kids gently.
Be open with your child about the developmental stages they are experiencing, including puberty and feelings of attraction toward other people. Assure them it is normal and that Allah created us in such a way that we will seek companionship and love. Cite the story of Adam and Hawwa in the Quran and the following verse in Surah Ar-Rum:
“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed, in that are signs for a people who give thought.”
(Suran Ar-Rum, 30:21)
Tell your child they can confide in you if they have a crush without fearing repercussions. A child naturally seeks this/her parents’ approval. If they are constantly worried about upsetting their parents or caregivers, they will not feel comfortable expressing their true feelings. Once you open the lines of communication without judgement, they may begin to open up.
2. Teach them about modesty early and model it yourself.
Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Verily, every religion has a characteristic, and the characteristic of Islam is modesty.”
Having a certain modest shyness is a positive quality in our children, so it is recommended to instruct them to be reserved and respectful. If they possess this quality early on, then they may be least likely to act upon lustful desires.
3. Explain the concept of lowering the gaze.
A lot of ilm crushes and crushes in general could be curtailed by not staring and fantasizing about the object of the crush. Allah makes it clear in the Quran how unmarried men and women should interact with one another when He said,
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and not to reveal their adornments except what normally appears…”
(Surah An-Nur, 24:30-31)
Of course, this does not mean their eyes should be downcast all the time. We want our youth, especially our girls, to feel empowered and that they have a voice. Lowering the gaze is more about respect and establishing boundaries. In a hadith, the companion Jareer ibn Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with him, said:
“I asked the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, about an accidental glance at a woman. He commanded me to turn my gaze away."
Commenting on the hadith, Sheikh Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri said: “Accidental means that his gaze fell on a non-mahram woman unintentionally. ‘He commanded me to turn my gaze away’ means that he was not to look a second time, because the first glance was not by choice and would be forgiven, but any further glances would be counted as sin…” (Islamqa, 1774). Basically, everyday looks and interactions are fine, but no gawking or stalking!
4. Describe to your child the consequences of acting upon impulses.
Adolescents are seldom mindful about the aftermath of their bad decisions. Their brains are not yet wired to think before they act or speak. One of the ways Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, advised his young followers was by turning questions back on them. Pose certain scenarios to your child when you want to teach them valuable lessons. Make them think!
A young man once came to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, in a gathering and asked if fornication could be made permissible for him. He was a youth who suffered from uncontrollable sexual desires. The Prophet said,
“Would you like that for your mother?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their mothers. Would you like that for your daughter?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their daughters. Would you like that for your sister?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their sisters. Would you like that for your aunts?” The man said, “No, by Allah, may I be sacrificed for you.” The Prophet said, “Neither would people like it for their aunts.” Then, the Prophet placed his hand on him and he said, “O Allah, forgive his sins, purify his heart, and guard his chastity.”
After that, the young man never again inclined to anything sinful. In another narration, the Prophet said to him,
“Then hate what Allah has hated, and love for your brother what you love for yourself.”
(Musnad Imam Ahmad)
In the same manner, you can ask your child, would you feel comfortable if someone were to look at me or your father, uncle, or siblings in that way?
5. Monitor your child’s interactions with religious figures and leaders.
Are they very particular about who they want to listen to or see? Are they suddenly interested in attending a certain class and it is out of character for them? Do they follow Muslim influencers on social media? These may be good things, but make sure to also follow the same people and take notice of the content they promote. If there is anything inappropriate, be sure to discuss it with your child but bring the topic up casually. You can ask, “Did you see so-and-so’s latest post? What did you think of it?” Let them lead the conversation if possible. Make sure the child knows how to establish healthy boundaries. The objective is not to stop them from seeking knowledge but rather to help them express and sort out their feelings in a positive way.
6. Do not leave them alone with a “celebrity sheikh.”
If they have an appointment or a private class with a certain imam, teacher, or youth leader, stay close by. Make sure they are never behind closed doors without a third-party present, preferably you or another caregiver. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
“Whoever has faith in Allah and the Last Day, let him not be alone with an unrelated woman without her guardian. Verily, the third of them is Satan.”
(Musnad Imam Ahmad)
7. Consider audio/virtual options for lessons and lectures or group study.
If it is not possible for your child to have another party present during a private class or meeting at the Islamic center, or if they have expressed they have a crush on their instructor, explore other options. You can find a trustworthy teacher and have them visit them at home (with you or another caregiver present). Hire a tutor along with a group of friends so all your children can be together. There are also audio lectures and virtual classes that can serve the same purpose. Discuss these possibilities and create a plan.
Keep in mind these are just precautionary measures. Allah says in the Quran:
“Oh, you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin.”
(Surah Al-Hujarat, 49:12)
Ideally, those in leadership positions are trustworthy and honorable people. Likewise, we hope our children will be cautious and grow into responsible adults. Eventually, it is our desire that they fall for a person who will help them complete half their Deen, who will be mindful of Allah in their approach to love and marriage. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. As parents, we cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problems happening around us. Are we so naive that we would say, “Not my child!” or “Not my sheikh!”? It is better to err on the side of caution.
As our children mature, they will experience desire. For now, any crushes they have are just a rehearsal for that moment when they do find a suitable spouse. They need to learn how to handle those feelings. Ibn Al Qayim, may Allah have mercy on him, said:
“The steps that lead to infatuation are under one’s control, and what is required is to avoid them. Looking, harboring thoughts, and exposing oneself to circumstances in which one may fall in love are all voluntary matters (that should be avoided), but once one takes those steps, then what results from that is something that a person has no control over... If infatuation occurs due to a cause that is not prohibited, then the individual is not to be blamed.”
(Rawdat al-Muhibbeen, p. 225, 226).
According to this advice, all we can do is take the steps we have already outlined above to curb the ilm crush and similar instances of puppy love. We should not be hard on our youth for experiencing the normal inclinations of the heart. With love and guidance, and above all, lots of prayer, we can support them while they sort through these very human emotions.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.