Disability and Reform under Modern Islamic Thought

This article explores the development of the disability rights discourse and its evolution in ‘Modern Islamic Thought’. It answers the following questions:

  • How has Islam perceived/engaged with disability and the wider disability rights discourse?
  • How is this evolution impacted or shaped by Western evolution in the disability rights discourse?

The article will first contextualize the perception of disability, followed by an explanation of Islamic Reform’s engagement or role within the wider discourse. Traditionally, disability in Islam is perceived as either an inevitable expression of God’s will or an uncomfortable reality (resulting from a sin). On the whole, one can make the argument that there is no such thing as a broader disability rights movement in the Islamic context and that in light of other issues, reformers have not focused significantly on this issue. However, as a consequence of the wider disability rights movement in the West, this conversation has reemerged in Islam and the narrative is beginning to change. However, rather than the development of a larger focus on the question of reform, the discourse is very vernacularized and focuses more on shaping collective perceptions of disability and individuals with disabilities instead of being a political cause.

The engagements of Islamic scholars with political movements, specifically with the disability rights movement, are peculiar because their lens of looking at disability is not only shaped by religious perceptions of disability, but also cultural stereotypes and stigmas. In some instances, the cultural perception of disability is so interwoven with religion that it is hard to distinguish the origins of certain stereotypes and framing.[1] It is important to note that there is no singular Islamic perspective of looking at disability because each individual’s narrative is shaped by own gender, caste, class, nationality, or religious orientation.[2] This contextualization of how disability is viewed is essential because it shows that on the whole disability rights are viewed as a non-issue which is why perhaps Islamic scholars have not delved into this reform prior to the Western focus. Islam primarily refers to people with disability as ‘disadvantaged people’.[3] Islam acknowledges disability to be a natural part of the human existence and then offers a number of legal rulings to deal with this phenomenon and support people with disabilities.[4] In the early years of Islam, a precedent for welfare was established which recognized the specific needs of its disabled citizens and accommodated them accordingly. For example, Umer Ibn Khattab (RA) was approached by a father of a blind boy who could not independently come to the mosque because he lived far away. To accommodate his needs, Umer provided them with a house close to the mosque. Similarly, Walid ibn Malik from the Umayyad dynasty was the first to establish a group home for individuals with cognitive impairments and also provided them with personal caregivers.[5] Such accommodations are significant in their historical context and even today represent an early emphasis on giving people with disabilities an opportunity to live with dignity and maintain autonomous choices. This article ultimately argues that Islamic Reform has not evolved with the Western evolution of the disabilities rights discourse, but this does not mean that there has never been any focus on disability or disability rights as explained by the earlier contextualization.

There are two primary lenses of analyzing the existence of disability for Muslims. On one hand is the notion of qadar (preordination). This means that God created disabilities and that they were meant to occur in a certain way, shape or form, hence Muslims have no choice but to accept them and accommodate them because they are manufactured with the consent and will of Allah.[6] This perspective of looking at disability frames it in such a manner that questioning the purpose/existence of disability becomes obsolete as questioning or criticizing disability seems to be criticizing Allah which is inexcusable for a Muslim. This means that reformers shall then grapple with questions of how to accommodate people with disabilities and include them at a mainstream level. This is because the disabilities are not in any way caused by people with disabilities, hence the scholars need to think of them as they would think of any other innate human issue or concern.

On the other hand, another perspective of looking at disability is that it is merely a test because individuals will be rewarded or punished for the life they live and the hurdles they face. In this context, disability becomes another hurdle to overcome for the sake of ‘reward’ and paradise. Despite the obstacles that disabled individuals face, they must stay steadfast in their convictions even if they have to go through different trials and tribulations because they are eventually being prepared for a greater reward. Perhaps this is why Islamic scholars do not generally think of reform in connection with Islamic thought because after all disability and the challenges that comes with it are a test from God which must not be interfered with. Perhaps scholars may have internalized the position of people with disabilities and believe that they must somehow bear with some suffering if they wish for greater reward in the hereafter.[7] In any case, able-bodied individuals must be cognizant of both the aforementioned perspectives of looking at disability because the disabled individual is a byproduct of Allah’s will and should not be ridiculed or disrespected.[8]

In many cultures, people with disabilities began to be labeled as ahl al-balāʾ (people of affliction).[9] It represented individuals who experienced hardships in their everyday existence, particularly perceived as a “test (ibtilāʾ) of their faith and trust in God”.[10] Such perspectives regarding people with disabilities, through a religious lens, began to clash with traditional cultural conceptions as muṣība (affliction/calamity) and sayyiʾa (misfortune).[11] It led to the creation of a clash between the traditional perceptions of disability as a curse and its religious justification from a moral perspective. Rather than addressing such a dilemma, society began to utilize both perspectives depending on the situation. If someone who was labeled to be a deviant had become disabled or had a disabled family member, it was considered a curse or punishment. However, if someone who was traditionally perceived as pious or helpless had acquired a disability, it was considered merely a test from God and an expression of His will. The two warring conceptions increased the stigma surrounding disability and served to further exclude disabled individuals from their mainstream normative conception of a ‘normal/acceptable’ individual.

Despite the sustained discussion regarding terminology and the origins of disability, further progression of the political and social implications of having a disability has been limited in jurisprudence and theological discourse. There is no specific periodical or school of thought which focuses on disability-specific research or responses to the queries and issues faced by disabled Muslims. Disabled Muslims only become part of a larger conversation when the question of excusing people from specific religious obligations (pilgrimage, fasting etc.) comes up.[12]

The discourse of adaab (belles-lettres/Arabic literature) highlights some aspects which include some stories and biographies, etc. of disabled individuals. Prominent writers within this discourse include Al-Haytham b. ʿAdiyy and Al-Jāḥiẓ who have written stories of different experiences of disability.[13] The problem with this representation, especially when this is the only representation, is that these stories, etc. are written with societal stereotypes and biases integrated within them, hence, they do not support reform in Islamic thought or ideology in any way whatsoever and are thus not relevant to the larger academic discourse on disability rights.

As a consequence, society developed two main perspectives of dealing with disability. The first interaction was through spiritual medicine and the second through Islamic scientific medicine.[14] Both interactions aimed at finding a cure for disability in order to eradicate the phenomenon from society on a grassroots level. It set a very dangerous precedent because as soon as a disability had been identified, there was no effort or hope to come to terms with it or find inclusion for it. Moreover, there was no legal reform or protection which people with disabilities could turn to for social security. The option of finding a spiritual cure began to look more attractive and many crooks even exploited the increasing desire for spiritual healing to gain prestige and make an income. In certain cases, people began to discount the impact of medical advice altogether and looked only to spiritual healers because of their perceived connection to God. Parents tend to take their young children to these shrines and pirs in the hopes that they will find an answer or some sort of a communication from God. In some instances, people have spent their entire lives chasing after these groups in the hopes that they will eventually find some sort of a relief from their afflictions.[15] The cure seems to dangle in front of them, just out of reach, guarded enticingly in the arms of the pirs motivating them to put their fortune, prayers and respect at their disposal. Even when they do not find a cure or answer to their prayers, the pirs exploit the notion of disability as being a musiba, playing upon cultural biases to disguise their lack of authenticity. This means that the pirs continue with their exploitation by arguing that even if they cannot cure a specific person, they need to continue the spiritual healing of the family to prevent further disabilities. This also gives them another avenue to continue their exploitation because now they are not only responsible for helping find the cure but also a solution for the problem which led to the existence of the musiba (disabled individual). It seems as if reform in Modern Islamic Thought has offered no reprieve from this. Particularly in the South Asian context, nothing is being done to counter this exploitation at a grassroots level. Even when scholars deny the impact of so-called pirs, it is never done in connection with disability or the lack of power to cure the condition.

In the West, the disability rights movement solidified into the first concrete legislation in 1990 in the form of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States.[16] The Equality Act in the UK and the Ontarians with Disability Act in Canada further continued with the effort to define the legal rights and protections of people with disabilities. Later on, some Islamic countries including Pakistan, Egypt, Qatar and UAE ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons (CRPD) 2006.[17] However, the internal laws of these countries do not reflect these changes. While previously written laws have been updated with the specification that the CRPD must be followed and the laws have also reflected some linguistic changes suggested by the CRPD, the content and provisions of these laws reflect the same rights with the same opportunities as they did before the official ratification of the CRPD. Even if these laws guarantee and uphold the same rights as the CRPD, it has nothing to do with the Islamic perception of disability rights or evolution in the Islamic disability rights movement. In fact, many activists call for these Western laws to be transplanted in Islamic countries because it is felt that such legislation has been moderately successful in tackling the problems faced by people with disabilities. However, this part of the movement has not gained a lot of traction and support. The Western movement has been shaped by progression from the medical to the social model of disability.[18] Grassroots level activists have started to fight back against the traditional politics of cure.[19] In the Muslim context, on the other hand, the movement is only now beginning to focus on the equality of people with disabilities and the importance of inclusion socially, politically and economically.[20] In the Western context, grassroots level activists are engaged with the politics of cure, the intersection with queer studies and the intersection with disability studies, while in the Muslim world, grassroots level activists are, at the most, talking about the disabled individuals’ right to education and the fact that public spaces, such as restaurants, etc. must build accessible bathrooms and ramps. Scholars are trying to use Islam to explain the notion of disability itself and the place of disabled individuals in the mainstream society. Organizations like Mohsin have emerged which aim to make society more inclusive and the Islamic world more cognizant of this part of their population. Even now, at a grassroots level, there is no conversation about Islamic Reform on a political level.

The disability rights discourse in Modern Islamic Thought has seen a considerable amount of evolution. This may not be the same as the political movement of the West but is nevertheless an important stepping stone for the conversation in the Islamic world. Perhaps this conversation has stagnated because of what are perceived to be more pressing issues faced by the community (such as Islamophobia, terrorism, etc.). Disability rights were overlooked during the period of reform because the reformers had been focused on other political and social issues. However, the fact remains that the retraction of focus leads to further stigmatization of disabled individuals in the Islamic world. The theological understanding of disability has also not been focused upon. The disability rights discourse today is predominantly a result of the movement in the West. The rise of individual-focused disability rights organizations such as Mohsin and the Yakeen Institute perhaps do reflect the larger trend in Islamic movements i.e. which is focused more towards individuals and their personal/spiritual growth. But in order to guarantee the rights of disabled individuals and explore their true position in Islam, Islamic reform must be broadened to address all questions and scholars must make them a part of the mainstream discourse. 


[1] Hiam Aoufi , Nawaf Al-Zyoud, and Norbayah Shahminan, “Islam and the cultural conceptualisation of disability.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 17, no.4 (2012), 205-219.
[2]Hiam Aoufi , Nawaf Al-Zyoud, and Norbayah Shahminan, “Islam and the cultural conceptualisation of disability.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 17, no.4 (2012), 205-219.
[3]  Bazna, S.M., & Hatab, T.A, “Disability in the Quran: The Islamic alternative to defining,viewing and relating disability.” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 9(1), (2005), 5 – 27.
[4] Ibid 206
[5] A. Aljazoli,  “Islam position on disability.” Morocco: ISESCO (2004).
[6] Rooshey Hasnain, Shaikh, L.C., & Hasnan Shanawani, “Disability and the Muslim perspective: An introduction for rehabilitation and health care providers.” Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. (2008). Retrieved from http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/culture/monographs/muslim.pdf
[7] Muna Hadidi, “Educational programs for children with special needs in Jordan.” Journal of intellectual & Developmental Disability, 23(2) (1998), 147 – 154.
[8] Hiam Aoufi , Nawaf Al-Zyoud, and Norbayah Shahminan, “Islam and the cultural conceptualisation of disability.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 17, no.4 (2012), 205-219.
[9] Mohammed Ghaly, “Disability In the Islamic Tradition.” Religion Compass 10,no. 6 (2016), 149-162.
[10] Ibid 154
[11] Ibid 154
[12] Mohammed Ghaly, Islam and Disability: Perspectives in Theology and Jurisprudence (London: Routledge, 2009).
[13] Mohammed Ghaly, “Disability In the Islamic Tradition.” Religion Compass 10,no. 6 (2016), 149-162.
[14] Mohammed M. Ghaly, “Physical and Spiritual Treatment of Disability in Islam: Perspectives of Early and Modern Jurists.” Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 12, no. 2 (2008), 105-143.
[15] Iftekhar Ahmed Charan, Shen Xin, Wang Zezhuang, & Yao Dewei, “Rethinking Efficacy: People’s Perception of Ritual Healing and Trance Religious Practices at Shrines in Pakistan.” Asian Journal of Psychiatry (2020), 102020.
[16] Nate Herpich, “30 years of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” July 30, 2020. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/07/at-30-americans-with-disabilities-act-continues-to-grow/
[17] “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).” Retrieved December 14, 2020 from http://www.un.org/development/desa/disbailities/convention -on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disbabilities.html
[18] Tom Shakespeare, “The social model of disability.” The disability studies reader 2 (2006): 197-204.
[19] Eli Clare, Brilliant imperfection: Grappling with cure. (Duke University Press, 2017).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Khansa Maria

Author: Khansa Maria

The writer is a Rhodes Scholar from Pakistan pursuing MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Oxford. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Qatar with a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service and a concentration in Culture and Politics. She has also served as an intern at Courting The Law and is passionate about advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and designing accessible communities in an effort to ensure inclusivity. She can be contacted at [email protected]


Very thorough…giving light to all the many perspectives existing in society today so as to do justice to the claim made in the very start of the article. In many places, the opinion is very bold and straight forward- especially the comparison of the contemporary disability rights movement in west and its much stagnant counter part in paksitan or Islamic countries.

Very well written giving a Perspective, history and thoughts on how to move the conversation forward.

Very impressive. A very important topic has been highlighted which has been misinterpreted in our society.

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