In the Muslim community, an imam is someone followers trust, a leader in the community to whom Muslims turn for consolation and counseling. But at one of the largest mosques in North Texas, Imam Zia Ul-Haq Sheikh is accused of breaching that trust when he began an illicit relationship with a woman he had been counseling since she was 13 years old.
According to a lawsuit filed this summer in Dallas County, the woman, referred to as Jane Doe, said she started seeking counseling from Sheikh at the Islamic Center of Irving in 2010 and met with him almost once every week for sessions over the next six years. Sheikh became her mentor and adviser, defending her when she was bullied, mediating between her and her mother and even giving her dating advice. Sheikh loaned her money for school and a laptop as well as cosigned a loan for her so she could buy a car. They became so close that the plaintiff began calling him “baba” — Arabic for dad.
During one of their counseling sessions in 2016, the plaintiff expressed interest in getting married and asked Sheikh for advice, as she had many times before. According to the lawsuit, the already married Sheikh, who is more than twice her age, abused his power by suggesting himself as marriage prospect.
With their relationship being contingent on marriage, the two began a sexual relationship involving illicit texts, phone calls and video chats, the lawsuit alleges. Throughout the year, he refused to talk to her if she wouldn’t follow through with suggested sexual acts and began sexting her on a daily basis.
All of this culminated on Dec. 6, 2016, when Sheikh texted the plaintiff to meet him at a Motel 6, where the years of grooming ended in sexual intercourse. According the lawsuit, after it was done, Sheikh told the now 18-year-old woman to dress and said, “I need to get to the masjid [mosque] to lead Zuhr [prayer].”
After the incident, Sheikh stopped counseling the plaintiff and tried to lose contact with her, so she went to Nouman Ali Khan, then president of the Islamic Center of Irving’s board.
Khan didn’t tell the other board members, according to a report by Facing Abuse in Community Environments, a national organization based in Dallas and started by Muslim women.
“[Khan] advised her to seek mental health services and also discouraged her from sharing what she experienced because it would harm Sheikh’s reputation as a respected religious leader and family man,” the report said.
Neither Khan nor the Islamic Center is a defendant in Jane Doe's lawsuit. Khan is a prominent Muslim in the community with over 2 million followers on Facebook who had his own sexting scandal last year, according to a report from Buzzfeed News.
After Khan dismissed her, the other board members of the Islamic Center got word of what happened and forced Sheikh to resign, according to the report by FACE.
Khan stepped down shortly after Sheikh's resignation.
The Islamic Center of Irving released a statement to the public thanking Sheikh for his service to the mosque, but Doe got a lawyer involved when Sheikh began looking for employment at other mosques in the area. Her attorney and the Islamic Center’s attorney made an agreement that required the center to send a letter to several mosques detailing the reason Sheikh resigned in the hopes that might deter him from being hired in similar positions.
That letter was sent to 2,000 institutions across the country, but their own community of Irving Muslims has yet to receive a public statement addressing what happened.
According to their report, Sheikh has admitted to the incident with Doe twice in front of witnesses, but in a statement from his lawyer, he said he is confident the lawsuit lacks merit.
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"Imam Zia is and has been a prominent Muslim leader who devotes his life in service of the Almighty, his faith community, his fellow human beings globally, and to the Dallas-Fort Worth Community. He has served his Dallas-Fort Worth faith community in particular for the past thirteen years. In addition to his numerous good deeds and outstanding scholarship, he has used his position as a respected leader to advocate for a tolerant, peaceful, harmonious, and law-abiding vision for humanity.
"With regard to the recent ‘Jane Doe’ lawsuit that was filed against Imam Zia: Imam Zia looks forward to responding to the allegations against him through the process of the pending litigation. He is confident that the evidence will establish that the lawsuit against him lacks merit.”
The Islamic Center of Irving did not respond to requests for comment.
In the spirit of the #MeToo Movement, FACE is hoping others will be encouraged to report incidents involving religious leaders.
In a statement to the community, Alia Salem, president and founder of FACE, said, “There is no room in our religious tradition for ethical violations by religious leaders to go unchecked. We have a moral obligation to make sure our sacred spaces and community institutions are safe from predators and ethical violators. It is critical for the safety and health of our community that we, ourselves, take meaningful steps to hold leaders accountable.”