How the Prophet Treated those with mental illness, disabilities and special needs.

'Anas reported that a woman had a partial derangement in her mind, so she said: Allah’s Messenger, I want something from you. He said: Mother of so and so, see on which side of the road you would like (to stand and talk) so that I may support you. He stood aside with her on the roadside until she got what she needed.'

Now we look at how the Islam has very beautifully taught us that society has an obligation towards each and every one of its citizens; having disabilities or special needs does not deny a person justice within an Islamic framework.

When we look at the attitudes within pre-Islamic Arabia, we find that the Arabs used to associate people with special needs with curses and bad omens. The Prophet Muhammad came and changed this entire outlook by insisting that his Companions should eat with those who have special needs or disabilities because they were wrongly viewed as being a burden upon society, and even cursed. People would stay away from those with special needs and would never invite them for a meal as they believed that they might be afflicted by a curse.

This attitude, however, was not limited to the Arabs, but also the Ancient Greeks and other civilisations. Plato, for example, said that they are a malicious category constituting a burden on society and a damaging factor to a Republic. A much later example is from the English philosopher Herbert Spencer who lived in the nineteenth century; he called on people to deny those with special needs any kind of help, and he claimed that this category of people constituted a useless and heavy burden for society to carry. By delving deeper into the history of the West and how it treated those with disabilities, we find that there was blatant neglect and persecution of those with special needs and it even led to the killing of disabled babies in some European societies.

The practice of the Prophet Muhammad was the opposite, I have mentioned the Companion named Julaybeeb in a previous chapter; he was deformed and as a result of this, he was bullied and ostracised by society. However, the Prophet Muhammad made it a point to treat him well, eat with him and referred to him as his family. The Messenger of Allah taught us how to be a society that treats people with disabilities or special needs, and these lessons factor into the discussion of social welfare within our current societies. It was not just seventh century Arabia, these views still exist today among many cultures, even among some educated communities.

The Hadith that I have chosen for this chapter is narrated by Anas, may Allah be pleased with him: “There was a woman who had a mental disability, she shouted to the Prophet, ‘Allah’s Messenger, I want something from you.’ He said, ‘Mother of so-and-so, see on which side of the road you would like (to stand and talk), so that I may support you’ He stood aside with her on the roadside until she got what she needed.” It can clearly be seen from this Hadith that the Prophet responded to her in a way that dignified her, and he did not dismiss her by asking someone else to take care of her.

The Messenger of Allah stopped whatever he was doing previously to listen to the woman and do whatever he could to help her, even though she was in a difficult mental state. Anas reports that she did not even have a particular direction in mind that she wanted to take and the Prophet walked various routes with her until she was satisfied. He demonstrated mercy and compassion so that we could take heed and follow in his footsteps; acting with justice is the minimum that is asked of us in Islam, whilst mercy is something that we should all aim to achieve.

As a leader, the Prophet understood his responsibility as a shepherd to his flock, or followers, and he showed humility and care towards every person, no matter what their needs or mental state. Rulers, or leaders, are obligated to take care of people with special needs – whether that be for social, economic, psychological or physical reasons – and to take time out to understand and fulfil their requests.

There is a lesson on this in the Qur’an also; a famous story involving Abdullah bin Umm Maktum whereby Allah sent down a revelation for the Prophet. While the Messenger of Allah was preoccupied in trying to reach and persuade the chiefs of the influential tribe of Quraysh with his message, Abdullah bin Umm Maktum unknowingly and unintentionally interrupted the Prophet. Abdullah was a poor blind man, he could not perceive what kind of gathering was taking place at that time, and so he approached the Prophet to ask, “Teach me from what Allah has taught you.” The Prophet Muhammad frowned (the word that is used to describe this frown indicates that he did not make any sound out of anger or sadness, but he simply moved his eyebrows closer to each other which formed a wrinkle on his forehead), and he turned away to carry on speaking to the Quraysh.

Allah then revealed in Surah ‘Abasa 80:1-4: “He (the Prophet) frowned and turned away, because there came to him the blind man (interrupting). But what would make you perceive (Oh Muhammad), that perhaps he might be purified or be reminded, and the remembrance would benefit him?”

If we had been observing the situation we may not have even considered that the Prophet had done anything wrong; he did not rebuke the man or physically remove him, he did not even sigh or make a sound. A wrinkle appeared on his forehead and he simply carried on with what he was doing. Furthermore, since the man was blind, he would not have even seen the frown himself. However, through this revelation, Allah wanted the Prophet to understand that he should not discount Abdullah’s spirituality and his access to spirituality, even though it would have little or no tangible benefit on society. Allah wanted His Messenger to know that a man of his calibre should have a much higher standard of mercy and compassion, as he was a mercy to all of the world. After this incident took place, the Prophet Muhammad would greet Abdullah bin Umm Maktum by saying, “Welcome to the one for whom my Lord rebuked me.” The fact that Allah admonished the Prophet on behalf of Abdullah, made the Prophet treat him better, he ensured that he never felt excluded and he appointed Abdullah as the caller to prayer when they migrated to Madinah. The Prophet also placed Madinah under Abdullah’s authority when he was absent on several occasions.

What we learn here is that a disabled person should not be deprived of spiritual purification; acts of worship should be made accessible to them and they should not be forgotten. People should be given proper access to the Masjid, including the two Holy Mosques of Makkah and Madinah (Haramain) so that they can perform umrah and Hajj. We do not have the right to judge or decide who deserves spiritual nourishment. In another Hadith the Prophet said, “The mosque is the house of every believer,” and this also includes those with disabilities.

We can find another powerful example in the incident with ‘Itban bin Maalik, who was also a blind man but belonged to the community of Madinah (Ansar). ‘Itban said to the Prophet Muhammad  “I wish that you Oh Messenger of Allah, would come and perform salah in my house so that I would take it as a place of prayer.” In reply to this, the Prophet promised to visit him and perform a prayer in his house saying, “I will do, if Allah so wills.” ‘Itban then reported, “Allah’s Messenger and Abu Bakr came early in the morning. Allah’s Messenger asked for permission to enter, which I gave. Without sitting, he immediately entered and said, ‘In which part of your house would you like me to pray?’ I pointed to a certain place in the house, so the Messenger of Allah stood and started praying, and we, in turn, stood and he lined us in a row. He performed two rak’ah prayer, ending it with taslim.”

The Prophet Muhammad honoured the request of ‘Itban as the lack of eyesight put ‘Itban in a situation than made it difficult for him to go for prayer in the masjid on a regular basis. The response of Allah’s Messenger showed the love and attention that he gave to those who were disabled; he did not discount ‘Itban’s spirituality or his access to spirituality, and accommodated his request for assistance.

Another lesson that Islam teaches us regarding those with special needs is that they are privileged and loved by Allah. There is a Hadith reported by Anas in Sahih Bukhari: The Messenger of Allah said, “Allah said, ‘If I afflict my servant in his two dear eyes and he remains patient, then he will be compensated for them with Paradise.’” Blindness was common during that time, and hearing that showing patience whilst being afflicted with blindness will lead to Paradise was a big comfort and motivation for people.

There is also a further Hadith reported by ‘Ata bin Abi Rabah: “Ibn Abbas once said to me, ‘Shall I show you a woman of the people of Paradise?’ I said yes. He said, ‘This Abyssinian lady came to the Prophet and said, ‘I get attacks of epilepsy and my body becomes uncovered, please invoke Allah for me.’ The Prophet said to her, ‘If you wish, be patient and you will have Paradise, and if you wish, I will invoke Allah to cure you.’ She said, ‘I will remain patient,’ and added, ‘But I become uncovered, so please invoke Allah for me that I may not become uncovered.’ So, he invoked Allah for her.” In another narration of the same incident, the Prophet said, “If you wish, be patient and you will not have any reckoning.” To which she said, “I’ll be patient, and not have any reckoning!

Society unfortunately, automatically treats those with special needs as inferior and the Prophet Muhammad wanted to rid society of this approach. In one narration, Sa’ad bin Abi Waqqas felt that he was more entitled to the Prophet as he was so close to him, but the Prophet said, “If you want to find me, find me amongst the weak, because you are not given victory or aid from Allah except by the way that you treat those who are weak and oppressed.” If we want the help of Allah, we must look at how we treat the weakest in our society; those who are oppressed or those with special needs. Often they are the most neglected, yet they are an asset to the Muslim community. The way in which we treat those with special needs reflects what we are able to receive from Allah.

One Hadith is extremely powerful in getting across the message of mistreating someone with special needs, “Cursed is the one who misleads a blind person away from his path.” This narration is both for the individual and a community; a community that does not respect or care for those with special needs, will ultimately be cursed.

Having a particular disability does not mean that a person is fully disabled or incompetent and that they should be disregarded. On the contrary, it may be that they have been blessed with a special ability in place of that disability. Many people with physical disabilities have a special and advanced form of comprehension; they can view matters from a light that others cannot. Making assumptions about people is wrong and we must not deem those with disabilities as worthless in society. Muhammad Ali the boxer, may Allah have mercy on him, said that people assumed that his mind and mental capabilities deteriorated due to him suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but he was in fact able to fully comprehend everything that occurred around him. The disease did not affect his cognitive function, but instead affected his speech and body, making him speak and move slowly, yet people were quick to assume that his mental capabilities had reduced. The Messenger of Allah  made this a specific point to mention to the Companions, and showed through his own actions that a person with a certain disability should not be seen as fully disabled; they can still have something to offer through other abilities.

Abu Hurairah reported: “A blind man once came to the Prophet and said, ‘Oh Messenger of Allah, I have no one to guide me to the masjid.’ And so, he asked the Prophet  for a concession to pray in his home and he was given the concession. When he turned away, the Prophet  called him and said, ‘Can you hear the call to prayer?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ The Messenger of Allah replied, ‘Then respond to it.’”

We can see from this Hadith that the Messenger of Allah was gently saying to the blind man that he is still regarded as a full member of society and he would be rewarded for the extra struggle to answer the call to prayer in the mosque, but at the same time, the concession was still valid and he would get reward for praying at home. Having a disability does not put a person in a disadvantaged position in regard to gaining rewards, Islam caters for their needs and they do not become ineligible for the rewards that others gain. Another Hadith that further solidifies this is narrated by Zayd bin Thabit:

“When the verse from Surah an-Nisa 4:95 was revealed, Those of the believers who sit behind… are not on an equality with those who strive in the way of Allah with their wealth and lives..', Abdullah bin Umm Maktum stepped forward as the Messenger of Allah  was dictating this verse, ‘Oh Messenger of Allah, if I was capable of jihad. I certainly would have.” Then Allah revealed, ‘Except those who have a disability.’” Allah says clearly that those with a disability are not punished, nor are they exempt from receiving a reward, in fact they are fully rewarded.

Despite Abdullah bin Umm Maktum being specifically exempted due to his disability, and despite him being the one who earnestly asked Allah through the Prophet  for this exemption, his ambitious spirit was always driving him forward to seek greatness and to take part in battles. He was eventually martyred in battle against the Persians during the Caliphate of Umar bin al-Khattab, and he was found on the battlefield firmly grasping the banner of Islam.

Similarly, another Companion named ‘Amr bin al-Jamuh had a crippled leg and so had difficulty walking. He once came to the Prophet Muhammad  before the Battle of Uhud to complain about his sons,

“My sons want to prevent me from going out to fight with you, but by Allah, I wish to step with this crippled leg of mine into Paradise!” The Prophet  said to him, “Allah has excused you, you are not obligated to engage in Jihad.” Then the Prophet  also turned to the sons of ‘Amr to say, “Do not hold him back; perhaps Allah will grant him martyrdom.” So, ‘Amr went out to fight, barely being able to walk and was martyred during the Battle of Uhud. The Messenger of Allah  passed by his body and said, “It is as if I can see you walking with that leg of yours, and hearing it, in Jannah.”

We find that the Prophet Muhammad  reassured his Companions and did not allow them to feel guilty for not being able to do things the same as others. We should also ensure that we are considerate towards others; a person may not be able to fast during the long summer days because of their old age or other health issues and they should not be made to feel guilty. They should also not be made to feel as though they are missing out on reward, rather we should reassure them that Allah has excused them due to their circumstances and they are not at a disadvantage. Allah is fully aware of what acts of worship a person would be doing had they been in better health.

Islam does not allow the burdening of people who are in difficult situations; we therefore, have no right to burden people or make them feel as though they are ineligible for reward. Under normal circumstances, we pray standing up, but the Prophet Muhammad  was aware that certain health or physical ailments could make it difficult for some people to pray standing up:

“Whoever amongst you can pray standing up, should do so, and if you cannot pray standing up, then you can pray sitting down, and if you cannot pray sitting down, then you can pray lying down.”

The Hadith clearly caters for people of different abilities and there is no difference mentioned in the reward that they will receive. However, in another narration the Prophet Muhammad did make it a point to mention that there is a decrease in the reward for voluntary prayer if someone who is able to pray standing up, chooses to pray sitting down (for example the Qiyam, voluntary night prayer). The difference being in their ability to stand but choosing to sit down instead. I also had a beautiful encounter with a brother who had unfortunately become paralysed from the nose down; he only lived for another nine days or so after becoming paralysed but he made every effort to offer his five daily prayers with the movement of his eyes. He was unable to even lift a finger, yet he was conscious of the time and he offered his prayers with his eyes. And knowing that Allah is the most Merciful and Compassionate, it is not far-fetched to hope and believe that such a person will be rewarded a lot more for his prayers because of his situation.

It is also worthwhile mentioning some jurisprudence (fiqh) issues in regard to this topic. We know that Allah does not burden a soul more than it can bear, and so He has absolved those who are blind from duties that necessitate eyesight. Allah has excused those who are sick or weak from fasting. Allah has excused people with specific conditions from certain obligations or actions that could make their condition worse. We find in the example of the life of the Prophet (Sunnah) that the Prophet very clearly said that a person who is mentally incapable of fulfilling Islamic obligations is excused and that there are no sins written for them. This can bring a sense of comfort to those who are caring for or are related to individuals who not mentally capable of understanding their obligations as Muslims. Yet, the ease does not end at this point, those who are caring for others are also absolved from fulfilling certain obligations too, for example if you are helping someone with a disability to perform Hajj, both the disabled person and yourself, can leave Muzdalifah early. Another example would be someone unable to attend Friday (Jumm’ah) prayers due to sickness or disability, their caretaker can, and should, also stay home to look after them properly.

The Prophet Muhammad  did not limit this caring attitude for the disabled to the Muslim community, but he extended it to those who were not Muslim. One such example can be found in an incident reported by Ibn Kathir: When the Prophet headed along with his army toward Uhud, intending to pass by a farm owned by a blind hypocrite, the hypocrite insulted the Messenger of Allah  by picking up a handful of dust and saying, “By Allah, if I am certain that none but you will be affected by it, I will definitely throw it at you.” The Companions of the Prophet  were about to punish the blind hypocrite, but the Prophet  forbade them saying, “Leave him alone.”

The Messenger of Allah  did not take advantage of the fact that the hypocrite was blind and punish him, in fact he ordered his Companions not to kill or even harm the man in any way. The situation at the time was very tense, emotions were running high as they were about to engage in a fierce battle, but the Prophet showed calmness and did not allow anyone to take their anger out on the blind man, even though he was a hypocrite.

In a narration found in Bayhaqi, al-Hasan bin Muhammad said, “I entered upon Abu Zayd al-Ansari, who called out the adhan and iqamah whilst he was sitting.” He added, “A man advanced and led us in prayer. That man was lame, whose leg was hit in the Cause of Allah, the Exalted.” Such narrations give us a wonderful insight into the society that Prophet Muhammad  created, allowing those with illness, disabilities or special needs to take part in and even lead in acts of worship.

The Prophet’s  society was one that was marked by mutual support and co-operation, as well as unity in honouring and respecting those with special needs. He led by example by showing mercy and compassion in the way that he dealt with those who had special needs.‘Ataa bin Abi Rabah was the first Mufti of Makkah, and not only was he black, but he was also blind and paralysed from the waist down. The fact that ‘Ataa was the first Mufti speaks volumes about the culture of Islam. Neither racism nor prejudice towards his disabilities stopped him from becoming such a great scholar and renowned figure in that society.

When we look at the rule of Umar bin Abdul Aziz, we learn that he instructed his governors from each province to send him the names of all the people who were blind, or crippled, or too chronically ill to pray in congregation. After he had received the names of all these people, he ordered that every person be assigned an assistant to look after them, and that a servant would be assigned to every two people in order to ensure that they were taken care of properly.

Another beautiful example is of al-Walid bin Abdul Maalik, he was the first person to establish care centres for people with special needs. He fixed stipends and hired doctors and caretakers in these care centres to look after those with special needs. Not only this, he also allocated special allowances for people with special needs, and assistance was sent to those who had a need such as the disabled, blind or ill.

These changes were revolutionary and early Islamic culture paved the way for a more caring and just society towards those with special needs. It is then not an exaggeration to say that we should go out of our way to help those in need. When a person is ill, they are attended to by the angels. And a well-known Hadith of the Prophet  is that when we visit someone who is ill, we are accompanied by seventy-thousand angels, and they are still with us when we leave. Showing compassion to someone who is ill or disabled will reap many benefits and rewards, and if we want to have angels in our presence and our communities, we must dedicate ourselves to taking care of those who are ill or have special needs.

May Allah allow us to appreciate the ill and disabled in our families and wider communities and allow us to be of service to them. May Allah reward those with illnesses and disabilities for showing patience and strong-will. Amin!

This Chapter is from 40 on Justice - Imam Omar Suleiman

9781847741431 - Kube Publishing