Navigating Islam as a Deaf Muslim

Friday prayers interpreted in British sign language. Photo: Muslim Deaf UK

The call to prayer, issued five times in day in cities across the globe, is one of the most beautiful, spiritually uplifting sounds, regardless of whether one is Muslim or not. The sound even inspired Irish Catholic actor Liam Neeson to consider converting to Islam. He describes the sound as “the most beautiful, beautiful thing.”

But many Muslims around the world will never hear the beauty of the call. Although there is no official estimate of the number of deaf Muslims, the World Health Organization estimates that about 275 million people worldwide (Muslim and non-Muslim) have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears.

While a lack of resources to support the deaf is certainly not limited to Islam, in a religion where sound is so important (think about the call to prayer or the recitation of the Qur’an), deaf Muslims often find themselves without the resources to fully engage with the religion. Valerie Shirley, the mother of a deaf child says that her son often feels socially excluded, as sign language interpreters are rarely available at jummah prayer, Islamic conferences, Eid prayer, or Muslim student organization meetings. She says:

Imagine being at a community gathering with your family. The gathering lasts for hours. Everyone is laughing, clapping and seemingly enjoying themselves, but you have no idea what’s going on. You are isolated, despite the fact that you are in a room full of family and friends. This is the reality for many deaf people, including deaf Muslims.

According to Global Deaf Muslim (GDM), a non-profit organization that addresses the needs and rights of deaf Muslims around the world, “information about Islam is seldom available in sign language making it difficult to educate deaf Muslims about Islam and for individuals to conduct their own research.”

But the organization and others like Muslim Deaf UK are working to create resources for deaf Muslims. GDM has a video section with various jummah prayer sessions and works with Muslim organizations to increase interpreters in mosques around the country. They aim to establish uniform hand signs for key words and concepts in Islam, create sign language video narrations of the Qur’an, and support parents with deaf children. Muslim Deaf UK also provides a number of instructional videos.

GDM makes it very clear they are looking to empower the deaf, not to garner sympathy. Nashiru Abdulai, founder and president of the organization says:

Deaf Muslims don’t want pity, don’t pity us, work with us, we need hearing Muslims to interact with deaf Muslims, learn sign language, become interpreters.

Appeals like Abdulai’s have had some success in mobilizing the Muslim community to support the deaf. Ashia Ahmed, a sign language instructor in New Jersey, for example, has taken it upon herself to sign the call to prayer to catch the eye of passing deaf Muslims. She has also trained others to help out.

While their grassroots efforts are certainly having an impact, there needs to be more attention paid to accommodations that would help deaf Muslims engage with the religion. After all, the Qur’an has been translated into virtually every language. Shouldn’t sign language be next?

Do you think there are enough resources for deaf Muslims to engage with the religion and community? Do you have any suggestions for resources for deaf Muslims? Do you think deaf Muslims are at a particular disadvantage because of the importance of sound and word in Islam? We welcome your thoughts and comments below.

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