"Disabled." It’s a word we use to describe those with some kind of physical or mental ‘difference’ - those who don’t fall under what we think of as ‘the norm’: people who are ‘different’, who are ‘other’, whom we can’t quite understand or accept as being just like us.
Muslims like to say that under Islam we’re all equal, that in the Sight of Allah I the only thing that matters is taqwa. Our reality is usually not as rosy and innocent.
Those suffering from mental illness or extreme physical ailments are often treated shamefully by fellow Muslims. Many times, they are overtly excluded from being a part of the Muslim community; whether it's looking at them askance, avoiding talking to them (or worse, talking to them in a condescending, demeaning or rude manner) or not making an effort to make our masajid and Islamic centres wheel-chair friendly, our behavior is in direct contradiction to the Sunnah of RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam).
We tend to use the term "disabled" to describe people who have been tested by Allah in terms of their physical or mental health - yet what we don't realise is that in many cases they are actually far more "enabled" than the rest of us are. Our brothers and sisters in Islam who are experiencing these trials in their lives often display greater levels of patience and strength in the face of hardship than most of us who enjoy good health throughout our lives do.
Umm Zafar al-Habashiyyah (whose name is said to have been Su’ayrah or Shuqayrah), better known as 'the Abyssinian woman', who suffered from epilepsy in the time of RasulAllah r was such a person. Though epilepsy was, at the time (and still is, in many parts of the world), considered to be something severe, strange and even shameful, she bore her test with a strength, patience, and dignity equal to that of any mujahid on the battlefield.
Ibn `Abbâs once said to `Atâ b. Rabâh: "Shouldn't I point out to you a woman of Paradise?"
He replied: "Indeed. Do so."
Ibn `Abbâs said: "Do you see that black complexioned lady? She approached the Prophet r and said: 'I suffer from epilepsy and during a fit, my body becomes exposed. So please supplicate Allah on my behalf.'
Then the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said to her: 'If you choose, you might rather bear it patiently and you will attain Paradise on account of it. Or if you like, I will beseech Allah to cure you.'
She said: 'I will bear it patiently. But my body gets exposed, so please beseech Allah that my body will no longer be exposed.'
The Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam) beseeched Allah for this. [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (5652) and Sahîh Muslim (2576)]
As a result of what many of us would consider her ‘disability’, Umm Zafar was blessed with the greatest gift of all: her entrance to Paradise.
It is worth noting that in Muslim communities there are many children and adults alike who are experiencing mental or physical illnesses and yet they are rarely treated with the same sense of warmth and welcome as others are. Autism, Down’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, bi-polarism, deafness and blindness are all conditions that are quite common within our communities. Yet the majority of people in our masajid and Islamic centres either act as though these individuals are invisible or as though they are carriers of some contagious disease and remain as distant as possible. Little effort is made to welcome and cherish these precious members of the Ummah, let alone engage them as active members in our communities.
Few of us recognise or realise the fact that the young autistic boy whose incomprehensible wails fill the masjid also has the ability to memorise the Qur’an with startling speed and beauty; that the deaf girl who struggles to read lips while you make no effort to learn how to sign has a passion for studying ahadeeth; that the middle-aged man with Down’s Syndrome innocently loves to sit with the toddlers and soothe them with gentle murmurings.
Every single Muslim and Muslimah whom we categorise as ‘other’ because of their perceived ‘disabilities’ is, in fact, ‘different’ – not because they are ‘sick,’ but because so many of them have met the challenge that Allah has placed before them with such strong eman, patience, and strength, that they may be amongst those guaranteed Jannah.
Indeed, those suffering the greatest personal tests in physical and mental health are also amongst the greatest of the heroes and heroines of Islam.