Muslim ignorance about intellectual disabilities

Yesterday was World Autism Day.

Muslims have abandoned their responsibility towards people with intellectual disabilities, writes Amar Alam.

Children and adults with intellectual disabilities, as well as their families, suffer unprecedented levels of prejudice and discrimination throughout their lives. Such individuals are frequently victims of aggressive abuse, hostility, humiliation, conflict, teasing and stares.

They also experience social isolation, lack of support from their extended families, and problems accessing education, employment and healthcare services. These cases of discrimination are not limited to non-Muslims, but are also prevalent within the Muslim community.

Despite rising cases of Muslim children being born with intellectual disabilities – by 2021 it is estimated that up to 7% of children with intellectual disabilities in the UK will be Muslim – limited awareness and understanding of intellectual disabilities still exists within the Muslim community today.

Misconceptions amongst Muslims

The prevalent belief among Muslims is that intellectual disabilities are caused by mental illness, possession by Jinns, supernatural phenomena and punishment for previous sins. However, such beliefs are borne out of ignorance, and only serve to reinforce stigma, negative attitudes and discrimination.

This not only has the potential to limit the quality of life of those with intellectual disabilities, resulting in low self-esteem and negative self-evaluations, but it also impedes their inclusion and social acceptance into mainstream society. To tackle this problem there is a vital need for greater awareness and understanding of intellectual disabilities, especially focusing on the impact they have on individuals and their families within the Muslim community.

An intellectual disability is defined as a significant impairment in intellectual functioning and socially adaptive behaviour, which has an onset before adulthood. It can take the form of a number of conditions, some of which are autism, down’s syndrome, asperger’s syndrome and fragile X.

These are primarily caused by biological factors, either through genetics, brain abnormalities or complications at birth, none of which necessarily have theological or supernatural foundations.

Ruqya is spiritual healing.
Ruqya is spiritual healing.

However, there has been a long history of families being exploited within the Muslim community by “spiritual healers” (rāqīs), who falsely claim that these disabilities are curable through spiritual healing (ruqya).

For financial gain and out of pure ignorance, many spiritual healers fail to explain to families that intellectual disabilities are biological conditions that have no known cure.

Holding onto the belief that intellectual disabilities are curable can be extremely detrimental to the people affected. It not only gives parents false hope that their children will one day be cured, but there is a major risk of their children not being given the social and developmental skills specific to their disability to prosper and lead independent lives.

In essence, the only difference between them and non-disabled people is that they are programmed differently and thus, are no different to their non-disabled counterparts in every other way. If given the opportunity and right support, they can live extremely happy and independent lives and in some cases, outdo their non-disabled peers in different facets of their lives.

However, a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to break preconceptions regarding intellectual disabilities encourages acts of discrimination towards them, reducing them and their parents to the fringes of their Muslim communities.

Muslim intolerance

Being a parent of a child with an intellectual disability is extremely challenging.

On a daily basis they go through great hardship, and sacrifice a large part of their lives to take care of their children. Many parents have to stop visiting family to protect their children from misinformed attitudes and bullying that is rife within the Muslim community.

They are told they have brought shame to the wider family network for giving birth to a “different” child and are constantly bullied, mocked, cursed, called derogatory names and looked down upon. Additionally, due to the constant intolerance and abuse they suffer, many parents feel the need to hide their children from the community, in order to protect them. As a result, Muslim parents often have to look for help from non-Muslims, who they find to be far more tolerant of disabilities.

Muslim parents tend to hide their children with intellectual disabilities from the community.
Muslim parents tend to hide their children with intellectual disabilities from the community.

In light of these problems and challenges, it is imperative the Muslim community understands the implications their words and actions have on families and their children with intellectual disabilities.

While most people will only see such children for a few minutes in their daily lives, parents have to see their children grow up with these conditions. They also have to face up to the reality that they will face a great deal of discrimination in their lives, and will not be able to have the same future as other children.

Additionally, taking care and managing the behaviour of children with these challenges is not an easy task, and one that is both emotionally and physically demanding. In many instances parents who have children with learning disabilities have to cope with their own mental health issues or an intellectual disability.

Just like their children, they are also greatly disadvantaged in terms of access to education, employment and healthcare and can easily fall through the cracks of a system that should provide them with the support they require.

Islam

In relation to the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, there is much that can be learned from the Qur’ān and the Sunnah.

Allāh (swt) has made it an obligation upon Muslims to take care of vulnerable individuals and treat them with kindness. During the time of Prophet Muhammad (saw), many of the Sahāba (ra) suffered from a range of disabilities.

Abdullāh b. Ummi Maktūm (ra) was blind, Amr b. Jamūh (ra) suffered from a severe limp and Julaybīb (ra) was described as being deformed and “repulsive”. Unlike what we may see in the Muslim community today, they were not neglected or abused by their fellow Muslims, nor were they ostracised from the community.

Instead, the Prophet (saw) made every effort to accommodate them and made them feel a part of the Ummah. Furthermore, the Sahāba (ra) made great efforts to take care of disabled members of their community and even competed with each other to do so.

Umar bin Abdul Aziz (rh) was considered the fifth rightly guided caliph by many of the ulama.
Umar bin Abdul Aziz (rh) was considered the fifth rightly guided caliph by many of the ulama.

To further point out Islām’s stance towards disabled people, and the care and support they received when Muslims were the leading nation in the world, it is important to draw attention to one of the greatest Caliphs in Islamic history, Umar b. Abd al-Azīz (rh).

Whilst today the Muslim community lags behind the rest of the world in their treatment of the disabled, Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Azīz (rh) established legislation that made it obligatory for the community to take care of disabled people. Such laws were so influential that they were embraced and implemented much later by the West, leading to laws such as the Equality Act 2010 in the UK.

Much of what is done for the disabled and the care given to them in the West today originated from the laws he pioneered, using the Qur’ān and Sunnah as a framework. Under his rule, the disabled were given a companion who would be responsible for them, in the same way care workers today are given the role of taking care of a disabled person. That was the condition of the Muslims during that period in Islamic history, a stark contrast to the ignorant, individualistic attitudes much of the Ummah has adopted today.

It is precisely because of this example set out for Muslims by these early Caliphs of Islām that a far greater effort needs to be made by the Muslim community to help children and adults with intellectual disabilities. A conscious effort also needs to be made to create awareness of intellectual disabilities within the Muslim community. This can be done in a number of ways, such as lobbying our Muslim leaders to highlight this issue during khutbahs, lectures and religious gatherings.

However, the responsibility does not lie solely on the shoulders of leaders and Imāms, but it lies with the Muslim community as a whole.

It cannot be reiterated enough that serious intellectual disabilities are nothing to be afraid of. They are conditions that Allāh has given to thousands of children and adults in the UK, and thus, the Muslim community should be the first to embrace, support and love them and their families.

It is hoped that such changes in the outlook of the Muslim community will lead to greater levels of social acceptance and inclusion of individuals that, still unfortunately, remain on the fringes of the Muslim community today.

Amar Alam has studied an undergraduate Psychology degree and recently completed an MSc in Research Methods in Psychology at UCL. He has worked in the mental health and intellectual disabilities field with a leading children’s charity for a number of years. He has also had academic articles published in medical journals and regularly writes articles on various Islamic topics using a social framework for a number of media outlets

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