National Edition

Global group helps deaf Muslims embrace their faith

By Shelina Jaffer, for the Deseret News National

Published: Monday, Aug. 11 2014 5:45 a.m. MDT

Daoud Nassimi, a professor of Islam at Shenandoah University and Nova College who is helping GDM to translate the Quran into ASL, says the main obstacle deaf Muslims face is the general lack of awareness of their existence.

Even religious leaders, or Imams, are under the impression that there could only be a few deaf Muslims in their community. But Nassimi points out that even when leaders are aware of their existence, they are not aware of their needs.

“The first thing that they need is interpreters,” he says.

Universal challenges

While there are interpreters around the United States, very few Muslim interpreters have an understanding of the vocabulary of the faith. Moreover, leaders need to be convinced to hire interpreters for Friday sermons (Khutbah), talks, classes and other occasions for the deaf community.

“They need to be convinced that many deaf members exist in their communities, and those members cannot come and benefit from the mosque and programs unless there are interpreters available,” Nassimi says. “They should be convinced that the money that they would spend on hiring the interpreters is really worthy of this important cause.”

Carol Stokes has worked with deaf Catholics since 1970 and speaks of some of the same challenges in her faith community. In 2010, she became the coordinator of deaf ministry in the Archdiocese of Toronto, in which she estimates more than 500 Catholics are not practicing their faith because of a lack of nearby interpreted services.

“It’s a problem, I think, not only in the Catholic Church but in all churches, really,” she said.

Inadequate numbers of interpreters is not the only challenge to serving the deaf. Most interpreters are not taught how to sign religious terms. An interpreter may be able to sign basic concepts, like God or Jesus, but not signs that connect to the teachings and practices of a particular faith.

To address that issue in Islam, the Qatari Social and Cultural Center for the Deaf presented delegates at the first international conference on deaf Muslims last November with a 376-page Islamic sign language dictionary developed with other Arabic signing communities.

But the problem for Americans is it was in Arabic Sign Language. Most Americans use American Sign Language. Any dictionary of Islamic terms must be universally accepted by deaf Muslims everywhere, Abdulai says.

Abdulai has also faced critics who believe the Quran shouldn’t be translated into sign language at all. Since the Quran is considered by Muslims to be the word of God, some Muslims are against any form of translation. They recommend the deaf should learn from their heart, instead.

Still, many clerics will probably encourage sign language translations so that deaf Muslims can receive the word of God on the same terms as anyone else, explains Salah Basalamah, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation.

“There is a kind of acceptance right now in translation that there is absolutely no way that you could just simply always find an ideal translation to anything,” he says.

Grass-roots efforts

While deaf Muslims await the slow progress of an ASL Quran, other independent efforts are taking shape that have the potential to bring thousands of worshippers back to their local mosques and participate in their local faith communities.

“Deaf people can do anything except hear,” says Sarah Tisdale, GDM’s 26-year-old international coordinator, based in Sacramento, California.

Tisdale, a Muslim, isn’t deaf and hadn’t thought much about her deaf co-religionists before learning about their experiences at an Islamic conference in Chicago in 2009. That conference prompted her to learn ASL. Now she teaches viewers how to sign key Islamic terms, such as Insha’Allah — if God wills — on YouTube.

Those kinds of grass-roots tools are what changed Farishta’s religious life in Canada. Once, she prayed for help to learn the Quran, because she couldn’t study it the way that hearing people could. Then she started finding videos online.

Last September, Farishta Normohamad stepped into her first religious education class for deaf Muslims in Toronto.

Suddenly, she could express herself in her religion, and ask questions freely. “It was the first time where I could be amongst people in a mosque and feel 100 percent comfortable,” she says through a translator.

Shelina Jaffer is a fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Email: shelina.jaffer@mail.utoronto.ca; Twitter: @JafferShelina

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