by Sya Taha
Disability and Islam
My sister, Syiqah, gets around on a wheelchair. When we used to attend Islamic classes in our younger days, the mosque we went to was not accessible. We had to gather two or three young men each week to carry her wheelchair down three big steps to where the classrooms were, before rearranging the wall panels to let her into the classroom. This process was reversed after class. Many thanks to these young men, but sometimes I wished that we didn’t have to make such a grand entrance into class every Sunday.
I often wonder though, how the people who worked at the mosque and madrasah viewed my sister. To start with, I will look at discourses and examples of how people with disabilities (PWDs) have been represented in Islamic theory and practice in history, and also in the contemporary period. For a basic understanding, I then turn to the Qur’an to come up with a nuanced understanding of disability. Finally, I will take Syiqah’s experience as an example to provide insights and suggestions on how to embrace Muslims with disabilities in our communities.
Ideas about disability in Islam today
In mainstream Islamic discourses, people with disabilities (PWD) are often said to be “special” or closer to God, with the reason given that they may never have the capacity to do any wrong. While disability is often not differentiated, accountability requires mental capacity. Hence, this should only apply to those with mental disabilities, and even then, only some types. This logic states that some of them will always remain in an innocent, child-like state, and therefore cannot be held accountable for their actions.
However, there is also the notion that they are “imperfect” or “special”, but this is often two sides of the same coin. This logic states that there is a perfect model of a human body, created by Allah. A deviation from the norm is what is often identified as a disability. Nevertheless, it implies that when Allah deprives a person of a certain ability or gift, Allah may bestow upon them other, special gifts to compensate for this imperfection. For example, those who are deprived of sight may have ears that are so sensitive they can hear very low beats or movements around them. They are given excellence in many other abilities to compensate for their imperfection.
In the Malay archipelago, there are several dua related to children that are taught to parents. This supplication from Surah Al-Imran, in particular, stands out:
At that, Zakariya called upon his Lord, saying, “My Lord, grant me from Yourself a good offspring. Indeed, You are the Hearer of supplication.” (Qur’an, 3:38)
This verse describes Prophet Zakaria’s supplication God for offspring that is tayyib (good, righteous, or pure). Tayyib is used in the Qur’an to describe land (34:15), Paradise dwellings (61:12), food (2:57), properties (4:2), upright men and upright women (24:26), as well as an abstract concept that is the opposite of evil (3:179, 5:100). However, in Malay translations of this verse, tayyib is often translated and explained as sempurna (perfect or complete) or tidak cacat (not imperfect). In parallel, Muslim parents are also taught a dua before having sexual intercourse asking God for protection from Shaitan harming one’s baby. Following this logic, disabled or deformed newborns are seen as a trial or burden from God for the parents, or the result of Shaitan’s influence in the womb or at conception.
Mental illnesses, in particular, are the most susceptible to being viewed in many cultures as possession by jinn. Although this has no basis in the Qur’an, it remains a controversial topic among Muslims globally. My deceased niece had schizophrenia and many relatives used to speak of her as being possessed before she was given medication. In mainstream jurisprudence, ‘aql or a rational state of mind is required for acts of worship to be valid. Hence, those with mental disabilities growing up in Muslim families are often exempted from fasting, prayer, or going to the mosque.
PWDs are not discouraged from taking part in communal Muslim life, but physical barriers often stop them from doing so. In Singapore, mosques (as any other building) built after 1990 have to be accessible, and older mosques are being slowly upgraded to include lifts and ramps. However, there are still some mosques in older or historic neighbourhoods that remain inaccessible. The second oldest mosque in Singapore provides a tent-like, fully-curtained space outside the male main prayer space for women who cannot climb two flights of stairs to the women’s space. But Muslims who cannot even climb the stairs to enter the main prayer hall will have no way of accessing the mosque at all.
The success of organisations that work on providing religious access to the blind depends on their country’s infrastructure and levels of awareness. For example, Al Fitrah Foundation, a Malaysian non-profit organisation for visually impaired Muslims runs a Braille Quran Initiative, but dependence on private donations means that it will be some time before every blind Muslim in Malaysia can have access to one.
However, in countries with more developed infrastructure for PWDs, organisations like Kitaba (United Kingdom) and Dirasa (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) have been producing and teaching in Braille and audio, as well as even organising assisted umrah trips for Muslims with visual impairments and other Muslims with disabilities.
Malay Islamic discourses have a certain perception of PWDs with regards to their characteristics and life purposes, and these are often a fusion of pre-Islamic culture and Islam. A look at the perspective mainstream Islamic history helps us to enlarge our perspective on this topic.
Disabilities in Islamic history
Julaybib was one of the Ansar, the first community of Muslims surrounding the Prophet Muhammad in Madinah. The name Julaybib means “small-grown”, suggesting that perhaps he had dwarfism. He was also described as being damim (ugly, deformed, or of repulsive appearance). Most importantly, his parents or lineage was not known – a serious limitation. He could not expect any help, protection, or support from a society that heavily stressed family and tribal connections.
His physical and financial difficulties meant that Julaybib was ridiculed and shunned, to the point of being prohibited by a certain Abu Barzah of the Aslam tribe, from entering his home. However, the Prophet being aware of Julaybib’s needs and sensibilities went to one of the Ansar and suggested that his daughter marry Julaybib. While her parents protested, the Ansari girl trusted the Prophet’s decision-making process and married Julaybib. She is lauded by scholars for having ‘readily agreed to be the wife of a physically unattractive man’. While this is indeed an honourable attitude to emulate and promote to Muslim women, the opposite does not often happen today. The emphasis on the reproductive abilities of Muslim women could partly explain the dearth of marriages between Muslim women with disabilities and able-bodied Muslim men.
Historically, there was even a religious position which favoured those with disabilities. Blind men were deliberately employed as mu’azzin in Muslim-majority countries to give the call to prayer from the minarets of mosques. Their disability was an advantage: they could preserve the privacy of surrounding houses as they could not look into these courtyards. After the advent of loudspeakers in the 1950s, being blind was no longer a requirement for mu’azzin. Could it be possible that since no one reaches out to engage PWDs, today’s mosques may have overlooked accessibility in designing, building and organising their spaces?
As the acceptance of PWDs in practice is fluid and changes across time and space, it is always useful to go back to our basic source of divine knowledge.
Theoretically speaking: A Qur’anic analysis
The Qur’an gives us a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of disability. I did a search in various translations of the Qur’an for any verses that made a reference to PWDs. A general reference was al-darari (4:95), or ‘disabled’. Coming from the root d-r-r, it can connote ‘harm’ or ‘suffering’. Humans can suffer or be harmed, but this only occurs with God’s permission because only God can harm or benefit us. The actions of shaitan, hypocrites, disbelievers, or disobedient believers (through magic for example) cannot harm us (2:102). This already clearly counters the idea that mental illnesses are the cause of jinn possession or black magic.
The form ud’turra means ‘force’ or ‘compulsion’. Doing something forbidden by force or by necessity, such as eating forbidden food, has no sin. Another form, darraa connotes ‘affliction’, ‘hardship’ or ‘adversity’ is a type of force or compulsion because it comes from God and it not under our direct control.
And [mention] Ayyub, when he called to his Lord, “Indeed, adversity has touched me, and you are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” (Qur’an, 21:83)
Like Prophet Ayyub, we should acknowledge that adversity in the form of disabilities as an example, as coming from God. It is helpful both for those with disabilities and those without to remember that only God can remove afflictions from people.
For those of us with disabilities, we may interpret that when God gives us hardship, it is meant for us to remember and call on God (10:12, 16:53, 30:33, 39:8) and be patient (2:177) because it is just a trial (2:214, 39:49) aimed to humble us (6:42, 7:94). God only gives us what we can handle, and even provides supplications for us (2:286). Everyone will experience hardship and ease, it’s only whether we realise it or not (7:95). If we are in the position of ‘ease’ in that we are healthy, we should be empathic towards those in the position of ‘hardship’, because it can easily come to us someday.
Taking all these nuanced meanings into account, al-darari (4:95) is thus a person who has either been hurt, harmed, or born with a disability, making her unable to fight in the way of God by necessity. These conditions are a kind of adversity or hardship in their lives because society is mostly adapted and geared for the able-bodied and the neurotypical.
However, being exempted from striving in the way of God does not mean that they are forbidden, as shown by the historical example of Julaybib. Julaybib contributed in his own way to the cause of Islam, managing to kill several in a battle before dying. The Prophet was so moved by his contribution that he prepared Julaybib’s grave himself.
My sister was born with a genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy. This is a group of inherited diseases that cause muscle damage and weakness, which worsen over time and eventually lead to death. She has Type II, which means that her condition was not apparent until she was about a year old. This led my family to think that something had happened to her because she appeared healthy until that age. This condition was also only recently recognised in medical books, so when she was young, my family went to different people to try and find a cure.
I remember a bomoh, or a traditional healer, performing rituals on my sister in my home. In the Malay culture, traditional healers may combine Qur’anic recitation with other pagan practices, making this practice perfectly acceptable to many Muslims. At the same time, she also went for regular physiotherapy sessions.
Eventually, when she was in junior college and researching her medical condition, she read about the disease’s shortened life expectancy. From then on, she decided to make full use of her life. She has been fortunate in this respect because my parents supported her fully. My mother used to carry her to the bathroom, wash her, and dress her. From primary school to university, she always had a friend to help her with taking out her homework, pencils, or bringing her specially-made table around to the next classroom. My father advocated for her to enter a high-ranked school (which she was not eligible to enter) because it was the only one that had a lift, provided the financial means for her to go to school in a London taxi that could accommodate her bulky power wheelchair. They also later hire a domestic helper to help her with caregiving at home.
My parents used to exempt my sister from fasting or praying, saying that she didn’t have to. However, as she got older, she became more interested in attending seminars, conferences and additional classes on Islam. We did start attending one class together in a mosque, but stopped going when we realised that the bus between the mosque and home was not accessible. (We could take the train, but that took too much time.)
My sister wears the hijab because she believes that is part of being a good Muslim. She also told me that she would like to get married and have a family someday, but she realises that her disability does stand in the way. The right partner would have to be willing to take care of her, and any future children, because she cannot do any of the physical care herself.
Most importantly, she says she does not feel disabled because she was born with her disability. To her, asking her if she would like to walk is like asking us if we would like to fly. Today, she leads the best life she can, in the present. She has been able to excel in her studies, her work and her sport. She works and supports our family, she can get around on her own, and have a social life.
Firstly, there needs to be nuance when thinking of PWDs, because they are not a homogenous group. There is the matter of family support and financial ability to provide caregiving and transport. There also needs to be a differentiation between physical and mental disabilities. Many PWDs are eager for a sense of community, too.
The visibility of Muslims with disabilities, in general, is low. This is probably because of the predominant ideas about them and their spiritual capabilities, as discussed above. For example, using a guide dog to help them live independently is something virtually unheard of in the Muslim community. It would effectively bar the person from entering religious spaces. Another possibility is that of overworked caregivers, who may place going to the mosque as low on the priority of needs.
Saying that all Muslims with disabilities are ‘special’ and do not need to fulfil religious obligations is counterproductive for inclusion. How many mosques are accessible with ramps, lifts, railings and larger toilets and ablution areas? How many mosques have Braille Qur’an, or television screens to visualise khutbahs?
… “[A]dversity has touched us and our family, and we have come with goods poor in quality, but give us full measure and be charitable to us. Indeed, Allah rewards the charitable.” (Qur’an, 12:88)
When a PWD expresses their wish and interest to participate in a Muslim community, it becomes our duty to be charitable, to make our best efforts in making things easier for them. In particular, a masjid should be a refuge and not a place that causes divisions (9:107).
Today, there is the widespread availability of Islamic knowledge through online Qur’an and hadith databases, as well as live-streaming of seminars, sermons, and Friday prayers. More than ever, those with disabilities can connect with other Muslim communities across the world.
Ultimately, the empathy we cultivate for Muslims with disabilities should extend to empathy towards other marginalised Muslims. Let’s make sure we are not overlooking an integral part of our community.
Sya Taha writes about the media representation of Muslim women through race, disability and other intersectionalities. Her current research looks at Malay women’s experiences of maternity care. She has facilitated workshops on gender, interfaith and human rights issues.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu