I recently came across an article entitled ‘Marriage – a ‘disabled’ option for the disabled?’ by Klaudia Khan in the May 2013 issue of Sisters. While it touched on an important topic that is often dismissed abruptly by many – the whole idea of marriage for a person living with disability – as a woman born with physical disability, I felt a need to address certain points that I did not agree on.
The main point that I feel should be addressed or made clear in this response is the difference between the teachings of Islam and inherited cultural ideas and traditions. Although the article recognises that some of these perceptions and thoughts are of individuals and not based on religious values, the ‘solution’ that is suggested is to accommodate the existing prejudices rather than challenge them.
Marriage undoubtedly is a blessing, like anything that comes from Allah (SWT), such as wealth, health, children, job and so on. Many people dream of becoming married, but not everyone does and some people go on to have long and happily married lives while others return to being single.
Is marriage obligatory?
Khan’s article left me with the notion that the Muslim world regards marriage as an essential element of one’s existence. However there are prerequisites to marriage including recognition between the partners of physical ability/health, hence this is why disabled people are excluded to a certain extent.
Marriage, like any other aspect of life, is an ‘option’ and should not define your personality or how religious you are. We should not support this cultural teaching by attaching an Islamic tone to it, instead we must seek to change attitudes, educate people about disability and raise awareness of what life with disability entails. After all, Islam is a religion that promotes knowledge, education and equality.
It is important to learn from historical facts to understand our present and develop our future. Looking specifically at Muslims and disability, during the high centuries of the Islamic civilisation, a significant number of blind, deaf or physically disabled people played notable roles as philologists, transmitters of the law, teachers, poets and social commentators. They included Abu’l Ala al-Ma’arri, Abu Uthman Amr bin Bahr (Al-Jahiz), Bashshar ibn Burd, Ibn-Sirin, Qatada ibn Di’ama al-Sadusi, Muwaffaq al-Din Muzaffar and Thalab and all were important contributors to our modern civilisation.
Later, at the Ottoman court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, deaf servants taught sign language to courtiers and sultans when it became a recognised means of communication; this was during a period when Western Europeans were still debating whether deaf people were capable of learning anything or thinking as rational beings.
How did views and treatment of persons with different abilities change so dramatically with the years and why does the idea of marriage for someone with disability cause more of a problem in an Islamic society than in the non-Muslim world?
I have grown up repeatedly hearing: “Getting married is completing half of the deen”. I can’t verify the authenticity of this hadith, however the way that I commonly heard this hadith interpreted – as if one must marry to complete half their deen – made me feel that I must be lacking half of my faith. Surely whatever comes from Allah (SWT) is a blessing and if some blessing is not written for you then that should not reflect your devotion to Islam; simply, it means that is not where your blessings lay.
Marriage is inherently a protective ‘tool’ that stops people from pursuing sexual desires outside of wedlock; committing a big sin in Islam. Muslims are encouraged to marry in many ayat in the Quran, yet simultaneously there are ayat that warn people about marriage, their partner and of their children. ‘O you who believe! Verily, among your spouses and your children there are enemies for you; therefore beware of them’ (At-Taghabun:13).
I come from a family that does not see marriage as a necessity. In fact, I was brought up with aunts who have stayed single out of choice. I never viewed marriage as an essential element of life or a ‘dream’ that is out of reach.
Seeing many single, independent and deen-conscience women around me erased any thought of being either different or deprived of an opportunity because marriage is not for everyone whether you are disabled or not. Marriage, like any feature of this life, is a test. As is staying single. The action of each individual is what really matters and plays the decisive role in marriage being a completion of ‘half the deen’ or a source of danger as the Qur’an warns: “Your wealth and your children are only a fitnah, whereas Allah! With Him is a great reward” (At-Taghabun:14). It is important to recognise every individual in their own right, whether they have a partner or not, will be questioned about their actions on their own on the Day of Judgement.
Inclusion should not be coerced
Khan’s article talks about marriage as a form of ‘institution’ that is governed by faith, culture and tradition. She addresses it in a match making/arranged form and goes on to say that for disabled people marriage is “an impossible dream as they are virtually excluded from mainstream matchmaking.” Non-disabled people can also be excluded from or choose to partake in such events, but still don’t get married. Alternatively, a disabled person might meet their future spouse by pure accident without even searching for marriage. We can seek wealth, jobs, marriage or any other opportunities but we shall only get what Allah (SWT) has planned for us. While no one should be excluded from opportunities, we must recognise that not everyone wants or needs the same things.
While it is logical to choose someone who has similar ways of thinking, personality and beliefs to ourselves, again, the Qur’an does not state that we should marry people who are the same as us; in fact, it encourages us to mix with people of different social status. While it does not mention people with disability specifically the idea still prevails that wealth, ability and appearance should not be the basis of our marriage choices: “They may marry the righteous among your male and female servants, if they are poor. God will enrich them from His grace. God is Bounteous, Knower.” (24:32) It is society that dictates rules and unfortunately invokes the feeling of superiority in individuals, who view themselves as ‘better’ than some. The Muslim world almost punishes people who are ‘different’, an act that goes against the principle teachings of Islam. Khan’s article seems to almost condone this by suggesting marrying ‘disabled’ people to people with similar abilities, whereas we should reject and change these attitudes through education. Segregation is not an Islamic principle.
A history of inclusion
The Prophet’s (SAW) behaviour towards disabled people is an example for us to follow, as well as is the shining record of Islamic history’s many examples of people who, while having some kind of disability, were included and had prominent status in society. Consider the figure of Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, who was blind and was among the first to accept Islam and was devoted to the Prophet (SAW). Abdullah was appointed to be one of the muezzins. On several occasions, the Prophet (SAW) placed Abdullah in charge of Medina in his absence. This is just one example of inclusion that shows how people with disabilities are looked upon and treated in Islam. Atta Ibn Abi Rabah, who was Black, could not fully walk and was partially paralysed, was known as the greatest mufti in Mecca. Inclusion was offered to everyone regardless of their physical ability. Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum’s and Atta Ibn Abi Rabah’s abilities were not seen as hindrances; rather they were recognised for their true abilities, not their physical disabilities.
I often hear people claiming to be following the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) yet they are very selective as to which aspects they follow, forgetting that the Prophet (SAW) married someone older than him, who was richer than him and had married before. In our current time and among our society this is rarely seen. Marriage is often used as tool to maintain or improve our position in the status quo.
There are many cases of people getting married to a person of similar background and ability then going on to suffer from domestic violence or other abuse, surely in such scenarios being single is a better option. Choosing someone similar to you does not guarantee compatibility and happiness. Furthermore, to suggest, as the writer did, that the best and practical way of introducing marriage to people with disability is for the “deaf to marry deaf and blind to marry blind because it would be difficult for a deaf person to communicate with a non-deaf person” is just something that I can’t accept. If you love someone surely learning sign language should not be an issue? In fact, you would do anything to enter their world.
As I read Khan’s article I considered who would make my ideal husband, something I have never thought about before. I could not imagine. No matter how hard I tried to envisage a figure, I was unable. Maybe I shall find my soul mate with someone disabled and may be not, but I will not let it be a factor in my judgement.
I do recognise that tradition and culture make marriage, for disabled people, a difficult concept because of misled assumptions, such as that a disabled person might not bear children and if they do the child might be disabled, forgetting that everything in life is a risk. Who is to say that any person will bear a healthy child?
Another cultural idea is that marriage relies on two finite roles: a provider and someone who takes care of the home, so people assume that whatever role you take, a disabled person might be limited in both. In marriage, people complete each other, who is to say a disabled and a non-disabled person don’t complete each other. Where one may be strong physically the other is emotionally/mentally strong. We must look beyond appearance and recognise that all people are of differing abilities.
The Prophetic prescription
The Prophet (SAW) met a woman who complained that she suffered from epileptic fits. She expressed concern that her body would become exposed during such episodes. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) offered the woman two choices: he could either pray to God that she could have access to Paradise if she patiently resigned herself to her condition or he could ask God to heal her. She opted to continue to bear her condition with patience but also asked the Prophet (SAW) to pray that her body might no longer become exposed to the view of strangers.
This story highlights three important points. First, it illustrates the value of forbearance on the part of the person with the disability. More importantly, it affirms the right of individuals to draw attention to their special needs and to speak out for their rights as a matter of social justice. Finally, the story points to the important role of advocacy and support, which the wider community is expected to provide to the individual.
We need to move away from cultural habits and views, leaving prejudice and discrimination behind and instead focusing on our own individual acts and collectively as a society to make ourselves and the world better. Reflect on some of Islam’s teachings in seeking knowledge, promoting equality and showing compassion: ”…men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember – Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (Al-Ahzab:35) What matters most is what we do with the life we are given – married or not.
Education based on firm belief in Allah (SWT) and righteous actions based on it is the key that made Islamic civilisations the greatest, but unfortunately even Islam-based education has fallen prey to prejudice, cultural and traditional teachings and misguided views. A simplified solution such as marrying off different-abled people to those of similar ability suggests that every person should marry someone of similar situation. This solution would then put us back a few decades to the days of racial segregation! Where is the co-existence? Is this justice?
Sa’diyya Nesar shares her experience as a newly married person with disability.
Raya Al Jadir is a freelance translator, writer and proof-reader, she has also taught English to refugees and migrants as a volunteer at The Migrants Resource Centre and worked at both Amnesty International and Equality and Human Rights Commission. Raya is a keen blogger and campaigner for disability rights issues and has her own site ‘Careless’. Her main interest is promoting disability awareness especially among Arabs and Muslims. You can read more by Raya at www.accessless.com and join her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Accessless