For years Nashiru Abdulai sat on the sidelines of his faith.
Unlike his non-Muslim classmates at a school for the deaf, his local mosque didn’t offer interpretation services or other accommodations to help him participate in Islamic worship.
He gave up trying to access the mosque for a time. “Every time I’d go to a mosque, I’d sit there and I’d just watch the speaker and I couldn’t understand a word that person was saying,” Abdulai said through an interpreter.
But the 38-year old Ghanaian-born Virginian, who has been deaf since contracting meningitis at the age of 10, also made a promise to other young Ghanaians before moving to America at age 19 that he would establish an organization for deaf Muslims.
Abdulai made good on that promise in 2005 by co-founding Global Deaf Muslim — a growing movement trying to make inroads to the community that had marginalized them from even the most basic Muslim rituals. They’re working on translating Islamic terms into sign language, partnering with other Muslim groups to make community events accessible, and sponsoring Muslim education for the deaf. Late last year the group met in Qatar with delegates from over 50 countries to start opening Islam to the deaf — the first international conference of its kind, to his knowledge.
If successful, the opening of Islamic prayer to the deaf could be one of the largest, if most subtle, changes that Islam has seen in recent years, in terms of people affected. As many as 55 million Muslims may be hearing impaired, Abdulai says — a conservative estimate, considering that Muslims account for 23 percent of the world population, according to the Pew Research Center, and the World Health Organization counts 360 million hearing-impaired people worldwide.
But the effort also touches on some of Islam’s most complex debates: How should one translate the Quran and its terms? Should deaf Muslims study holy texts in Arabic Sign Language, hewing closely to the original words, or American Sign Language, which is more widely used in North America? Should the Quran be translated at all?
Awareness and inclusion
While attending the National Technical Institute for the Deaf — part of the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York — Abdulai joined other deaf Muslim students there to form Global Deaf Muslim in 2005. GDM now has chapters in California, Virginia, Minnesota, Illinois and Texas — as well as in Canada and Ghana.
GDM has one overarching priority: Translating the Quran itself into sign language — a task that is anything but straightforward. It means offering the Quran through video, breaking a tradition of translating the holy revelations in book form. It also requires a unique full-time team of two Islamic scholars, two American Sign Language interpreters, five deaf Muslim signers who work in American Sign Language, and three video technicians. GDM is now raising $480,000 to fund the effort.
Because Muslim worship relies heavily on oral teaching of the Quran and oral prayer, many deaf people have long felt isolated. “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,” GDM explains on its website — describing the situation as a “systematic exclusion of Deaf Muslims” from mosques and Islamic organizations.
Farishta Normohamad, a 20-year old, hearing-impaired Canadian, has felt the consequences personally. She had to teach herself to read the Quran, her twin sister Palvasha recalls. Indeed, added Abdulai, many deaf Muslims have been taught hardly anything about Islam at all, and may not even know the ritual prayers that many Muslims recite five times daily.
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