Historically, people with disabilities have been prey to society’s misconceptions, stereotypes, labeling, and prejudices in many different ways. Such attitudes have led to exclusion, mistreatment, and deprivation of their rights to equal opportunities for education, jobs, and essential services. It is also a fact that the low participation rate of people with disabilities in society and the workforce is linked to their exclusion from the educational system. Many positive measures have been taken and research carried out in various countries recently to develop methods and strategies for welcoming and including people with disabilities into schools and communities. These concepts accord with Islamic principles of inclusion. To illustrate Islamic attitudes towards people with disabilities, we will refer to the Qur’an, and the life example of Prophet Muhammad and his sayings, which are called hadith.
In the dictionary, the term “inclusion” is defined as “the act of including or the state of being included.” (1) Miller and Katz (2002) presents a common definition: “Inclusion is a sense of belonging: feeling respected, valued for who you are; feeling a level of supportive energy and commitment from others so that you can do your best work.” In special education, inclusion is the practice of placing children with disabilities (be these physical, emotional or other) into the general classrooms either all or most of the time and educating them with their non-disabled peers by using special teaching approaches, equipment, and care. In a broader sense, inclusion means being included in life and participating using one’s abilities in day to day activities as a member of the community. It is being a part of what everyone else is, and being welcomed and embraced as a member who belongs. Inclusion can occur in schools, communities, religious activities, playgrounds, work, and recreation.
Islam opposes prejudice against and exclusion of any group of people. The Qur’an addresses all of humanity in this way: “O mankind, We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other [not that you may despise each other]. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is [he who is] the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted [with all things]” (49:13). In this revelation God is telling us that He created us from one man and one woman meaning then that we are all equal and that all human beings are created through the same process, not in a manner in which some are created better than others.
The scholar Fethullah Gulen says, “Islam promotes equality as the will of God Almighty and requires mutual respect of fellow human beings. Islam embraces every individual and every group with the same equality and warmth. It responds to the expectations and the needs of everyone in the same way. As if shouting at the top of its lungs that no one is superior to another human being, it frequently emphasizes equality and equal opportunities.”(2) Islam teaches us that everyone deserves love, care, and respect, and this fact does not change when a person is impaired. What really matters is his or her heart and conduct. We are enjoined to be accepting of all people regardless of their disability and include them amongst us and support them by addressing their needs. In one of the hadith, our Prophet said, “God the Merciful shows mercy to merciful people. Show mercy to those on earth so that God shows mercy on you” (Abu Dawud). It is the duty and responsibility of everyone to serve the needs of others, and Divine mercy and blessings will be showered on us.
Islamic history has a shining record of many examples of people who, while having some kind of disability, were included and had prominent status in society. Abdullah ibn umm Maktum, who was blind, was among the first to accept Islam. He was devoted to the Prophet and extremely eager to memorize the Qur’an. When the Prophet arrived in Medina, he appointed Abdullah to be one of the muezzins (calling the Muslims to prayer five times a day). On several occasions, the Prophet placed Abdullah in charge of Medina in his absence. This is a remarkable example of inclusion that shows how people with disabilities are looked upon and treated in Islam. What we learn from this outstanding act of our prophet is that we should not belittle disabled people or make superficial judgments because although people have certain disabilities they might be capable of doing great deeds, and it is also important to delegate leadership responsibilities to disabled people when they are capable of such duties.
The story of Julaybib, one of the contemporaries of the Prophet, is another vivid example of inclusion. In addition to being poor, Julaybib had an unpleasant physical appearance and nobody wished to let their daughter marry him. Upon the Prophet’s request, a noble family gave him their daughter in marriage. Later on, when Julaybib was martyred in a battle, the Prophet put his hand on his knee and said: “This one is of me and I am of him.” This humane gesture of the Prophet was a powerful demonstration of the principle of inclusion. It was a dramatic act of advocacy, in word and action, on the part of a community leader to educate his people about the importance of accepting others for what they are. (3)
On another occasion, God’s Messenger met a woman who complained that she suffered from epileptic fits. She expressed concern that her body would become exposed during such episodes. Prophet Muhammad 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 to pray that her body might no longer become exposed to the view of strangers. This story brings out 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 the support which the wider community is expected to provide to the individual. (4)
Also, during the high centuries of Islamic civilization a significant number of blind, deaf or physically disabled people played notable roles as philologists, transmitters of the law, teachers, poets, and social commentators, outstanding among whom were 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. Atta Ibn Abi Rabah, who was black, lame and partially paralyzed, was known as the greatest Mufti in Mecca.
Later, at the Ottoman court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, deaf servants taught their sign language to courtiers and sultans when it became a recognized 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. (5)
Contemporary attitudes to people with disabilities
It is very pleasing to see global efforts and mobilization to protect the rights of people with disabilities nowadays. In many developed nations, where the concept of inclusion is almost new, many efforts are being made to ensure that disabled people have full access in education and other life activities. A lot of research and practices which accord with Islamic teachings have been carried out in recent years to provide an inclusive education and environment for children with different special needs. In response to the ongoing disability rights and parents’ movements through which disabled people have claimed their human rights, many economically strong governments have taken great steps to promote social and educational inclusion with legislation to protect the rights of the disabled, development agencies, health organizations, and service providers. In Western Europe, North America, Canada, and Australia extensive educational systems are in place for most individuals with disabilities. Some nations integrate these students in general classrooms and others provide specialized classrooms or schools. In the USA, for instance, due to the continuous demand of people with disabilities and their advocates for equal access to education, federal legislators enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975. This law was to make sure that all children with disabilities had the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education in the “least restrictive environment.” (6) The law has since been revised many times over the years and the most recent amendments were passed by Congress in December 2004, with final regulations published in August 2006.
The following is one of the findings of the American Congress held in 2004: “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”(7) To sum up the other findings of this Congress, education of children with disabilities can be done more effectively by providing special education and other necessary services for such children in the regular classroom by using assistive technology, training parents and teachers about disabilities, implementing adaptations and modifications to support them in the regular classrooms, and writing individual education plans to meet their needs in the “least restrictive environment,” (8) defined by the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004) as “to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children are educated with children who are not handicapped, and, that special classes, separate schooling or other removal of handicapped children from the regular education environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services can not be achieved satisfactorily.” (9)
Islam gives guidance and knowledge to mankind in all aspects of life, and research-based findings in different fields of life are proving this day by day. According to the Islamic teachings which have their source in the Qur’an and life examples of Prophet Muhammad, we are to respect and support all human life, however it presents itself and to value the potential of every individual. Centuries ago God’s Messenger showed us how to deal with this important social issue. People with disabilities are part of our society and have their rights to participate fully and equally in all kinds of activities. Education is the best place we can start because children who have been separated at school tend to be kept separate as adults through work and all fields of life. Through an inclusive education children with disabilities remain on a route that leads to an adult life as an active member of society. Meeting all their needs together increases their ability to achieve academic and physical growth to their potential, and it improves their overall quality of life and social status.
Hurisa Guvecin is a Special Education and ESL teacher in Dallas, Texas.
2. http://www.fethullahgulen.org/content/view/1983/14/ (Fethullah Gulen, Theme: Islam and dialogue, a message addressed to International conference of Islam April,29–30, 2005)
3. http://www.icv.org.au/news.shtml (Disability and Islamic Insight by Sheikh Isse A. Musse)
6. Anne M. Beninghof, Ideas for Inclusion, pg 3 (“What’s happening?”) 1993.
9. Anne M. Beninghof, Ideas for Inclusion, pg 8. 1993