This topic got my attention when I saw an article about K.V. Rabiya, an Indian Muslim woman who received the Padma Shri, that country’s fourth-highest civilian award. This award is the equivalent of the OBE (Order of the British Empire) or the President’s Volunteer Service Award. These awards are designed to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions in their field, in this case, social work. Ms. Rabiya worked tirelessly to improve literacy among the poor in her home district. This sacrifice is so outstanding because she had to deal with polio, cancer, and a broken back during her life.
Born in 1966, Ms. Rabiya has been a wheelchair user since she was 14 due to polio. Nevertheless, in 1990, she launched a campaign for adult literacy. Her success has resulted in six schools for disabled children and programs to empower women in some of the poorest areas of India. In 2000, she was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent chemotherapy while also arranging for medical facilities to be built to treat other cancer patients in her district. Once healed, she went to Saudi Arabia on the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage every Muslim is urged to take at least once. In 2004, she broke her back, reducing her ability to move. While she had many obstacles in her path, her determination to help others created her momentum, and her country recognized and awarded her for that determination.
The character of a society or civilization can be accessed by looking at how the people and their government treat their poor, their elderly, and the disabled throughout their ranks. In other words, were the people who could not fend for themselves taken care of?
Disabilities have been with humans from the earliest stages of civilization. There is evidence indicating that Neanderthals in 28,000 BC had disabilities. The Hellenistic world was typical of how children with disabilities were handled. Plato indicated that the person with a disability is a burden to his state. Moreover, Aristotle advised the parents not to raise a child with disabilities. Consequently, infanticide or death by exposure were widespread practices in ancient Greece.
Other early societies were not benevolent towards the disabled. For example, early Bible verses seem to discriminate against people with disabilities. In the Bible, we learn that people with types of disabilities, namely, the “blind” and the “lame,” could not enter the temple (2 Samuel 5:8). In addition to blindness and mobility impairments precluding entry into the temple, reproductive incapacity or “barrenness” could also prevent a person from entering the sanctuary space (Deut 23:1; Gen 25:21-26; Judges 13:2-25; 2Kgs 4:8-37). In these early times, disabilities were attributed to God as punishment for an individual’s particular sin. In these passages, persons with disabilities were excluded religiously and socially. However, great leaders, Jesus in this case, were known for showing compassion and even healing the disabled (John 5:3-14).
The Story of Julaybib
While the Arab society was similar in their dealings with people with disabilities, there is a short hadith by Tafsir Ibn Kathir that shows exemplar leadership by Muhammad.
His name was unusual and incomplete. Julaybib (Radhi Allaahu Anhu) means “small grown,” being the diminutive form of the word “Jalbab.” The name is an indication that Julaybib was small and short, even of dwarf-like stature. More than that, he is described as being ‘damim,’ which means ugly, deformed, or of repulsive appearance. Even more disturbing, for the society in which he lived, Julaybib’s lineage was not known. There is no record of who his mother or his father was or to what tribe he belonged. This was a serious disability in the society in which he lived. Julaybib could not expect any compassion or help, any protection or support from a society that placed a great deal of importance on family and tribal connections.
The disabilities under which Julaybib lived would have been enough to have him ridiculed and shunned in any society, and in fact, he was prohibited by one person, a certain Abu Barzah of the Aslam tribe, from entering his home. He once told his wife: “Do not let Julaybib enter among you. If he does, I shall certainly do (something terrible to him).” Probably because he was teased and scoffed at in the company of men, Julaybib used to take refuge in the company of women. Was there any hope of Julaybib being treated with respect and consideration? Was there any hope of his finding emotional satisfaction as an individual and a man? Was there any hope of his enjoying the relationships which others take for granted? And in the society emerging under the guidance of the Prophet, was he so insignificant as to be overlooked in the preoccupation with the great affairs of the state and in the supreme issues of life and survival which constantly engaged the attention of the Prophet?
Just as he was aware of the great issues of life and destiny, the Prophet of Mercy was also aware of the needs and sensibilities of his most humble companions. With Julaybib in mind, the Prophet went to one of the Ansar and said: “I want to have your daughter married.” “How wonderful and blessed, O Messenger of Allah, and what a delight to the eye (this would be),” replied the Ansari man with obvious joy and happiness. “I do not want her for myself,” added the Prophet. “Then for whom, O Messenger of Allah?” asked the man, obviously somewhat let down. “For Julaybib,” said the Prophet. The Ansari must have been too shocked to give his own reaction, and he merely said: “I will consult with her mother.” And off he went to his wife. “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, wants to have your daughter married,” he said to her. She, too, was thrilled. “What a wonderful idea and what a delight to the eye (this would be),” she said. “He does not want to marry her himself, but he wants to marry her to Julaybib,” he added. She was flabbergasted.
“To Julaybib! No, never to Julaybib! No, by Allah, we shall not marry (her) to him,” she protested. As the Ansari was about to return to the Prophet to inform him of what his wife had said, the daughter who had heard her mother’s protestations asked: “Who has asked you to marry me?” Her mother told her of the Prophet’s request for her hand in marriage to Julaybib. When she heard that the request had come from the Prophet and that her mother was absolutely opposed to the idea, she was greatly troubled and said: “Do you refuse the request of the Messenger of Allah? Send me to him, for he shall certainly not bring ruin to me.” This was the reply of a truly great person who had a clear understanding of what was required of her as a Muslim. What greater satisfaction and fulfillment can a Muslim find than in responding willingly to the requests and commands of the Messenger of Allah! (credit to Alim.org)
While the hadith shows compassion for one disabled, the Arab tribal behaviors, like those of other societies, mainly were intolerant of disabled people up until the last 50 years.
Science reveals the facts
In a study by Drs. Mourad Ali Eissa Saad and Beata Borowska-Beszta, the phenomena of disabilities in the Arab world are revealed from different perspectives. Their study, “Disability in the Arab World: A Comparative Analysis Within Culture,” was published in August 2019 in the International Journal of Psycho-Educational Sciences (8:2) pp 29-47.
Some of the findings of this study are interesting to note:
The prevalence of disabilities in the 14 Arab countries surveyed ranges from 5 percent of the population to .2 percent. These rates are considered low compared to those in other regions. The Arab people are relatively young and less likely to have disabilities. Disabilities increase with age. In most Arab countries, men are more likely to have disabilities than women.
There are three general causes of disabilities: congenital, illness, and accident. Congenital is usually genetically induced either by marriage in close-knit families or underage girls. Ailments ranging from malaria to long Covid have left people disabled, matching results in the rest of the world. Car accidents are the most common form of disability-causing accidents, while work accidents are also significant. Another source of disabilities is war. This region has numerous ongoing conflicts that cause disabilities among the armed forces.
The most common disabilities are seeing and hearing impairment, mobility, cognition, self-care, and communication. Educational attainment while disabled is significantly impaired. While Arab countries give lip service to putting disabled persons in the labor force, the statistics prove otherwise.
The authors conclude that Arab societal view of people with disabilities did not change until the mid-1960s because social knowledge was fraught with confusion, misunderstanding, doubt and despair. The reason for this confusion was the tribal misunderstanding of the real causes of disability, as there was doubt because of the ambiguity surrounding the leading causes, the inability to deal with disabled people with disabilities their psychological, social, behavioral and emotional disorders. While Islam brought attention to the plight, societal norms did not change until the last 50 years.
Photo credit: Islamic Voice