Global Deaf Muslims organized an event in Northern Virginia to raise funds for what they hope will be the first American Sign Language video translation of the Qur’an. Above, GDM organizers communicate with hearing Muslims through an interpreter. Photo courtesy of GDM.
“Hard of hearing people people have been able to do more to be religious...but as deaf people...[we] are not able to hear anything. We must sit there and act as if we understand—but we really don’t.” said the the president of Global Deaf Muslim, Nashiru Abdulai through an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter at a fundraising dinner held in Herndon,VA on December 11.
In hopes of making the audience realize how cut-off deaf Muslims feel from the greater Muslim community, Abdulai illustrated the frustration he and others felt so often when trying to take part in Islamic gatherings, “when I go, I would like to be able to understand but, instead, I have to ask other people what’s going on and a lot of times I just decide I won’t go because I really won’t be able to understand anything.” He recalled how he and deaf Muslim college friends would skip events they had originally planned to attend because they would lose hope of ever being any more than outsiders looking in. Isolated and unable to benefit from the knowledge and camaraderie of hearing Muslims, they would sit with each other to hold on to their Muslim identity.
As perhaps many who hear do not realize, lip-reading is very difficult, and many deaf have not mastered it. Written text can also be hard to follow because most deaf do not develop a strong reading vocabulary. Unable to hear words, even their own, speaking properly is also a great challenge for the deaf.
Most are comfortable with sign language, a system of hand movements and other gestures to communicate thoughts. There are many sign languages throughout the world. American Sign Language is dominant in the United States and Canada. ASL is also used in other parts of the world.
Parents of deaf Muslims often neglect their children’s religious education. And since the Quran and Sunnah are not translated into ASL (or any other sign language) nor are most Islamic events and Friday Khutbahs interpreted, deaf Muslim Americans have very limited access to Islamic teachings. Learning about Islam can be an even more daunting task for converts and non-Muslim deaf.
“So, many times we just go through the motions but don’t understand what is behind those motions” said Abdulai.
“Their knowledge of Islam is poor no doubt, to say the least” Dr. Muhammad Alvi told The Muslim Link. “For a simple reason—nobody tells them anything” he explained. Dr. Alvi teaches Islam to a group of 15 to 20 metro area deaf Muslims at Adams Center in Herndon, VA, many of whom attended the dinner.
Global Deaf Muslim is an advocacy group based in Bethesda, MD. The group organized the event to raise money for a project to present a video translation and commentary of the Quran in ASL.
“There are about 500,000 to 2 million people in the United States that are using ASL...so if we can produce the Quran in sign language, I’m sure it will reach lots and lots of hearts and they will come to Islam, too.” Dr. Alvi speculated.
GDF has global ambitions and a few high-level connections. It was announced during the event that Rashad Hussain, known as President Obama’s special envoy to the Muslim world, was working to set up a Global Deaf Muslim forum in Qatar for 2012. Another of GDF’s projects aims to analyze the sign languages across the Muslim world to create a universal hand sign system for Islamic words and concepts.
Many deaf people in the U.S. and elsewhere have developed their own culture due to their lack of full integration with the hearing world, separate system of communication and distinct views on deafness. “Deaf” with a capital “D” is preferred by those who embrace this culture. Most deaf people in the U.S. consider themselves a part of the Deaf community. GDF mostly presents the views and interests of Muslims who are a part of this culture. (We have mostly used “deaf” in this article for simplicity.)
“Deaf people have their own traditions” Maher Esghi, a professor at Towson University who teaches ASL and himself is deaf, told the audience. “We actually have a large culture. We have lots of jokes and humor and idioms within our language. But hearing people aren’t exposed to that.”
Prof. Esghi spoke, through an interpreter, about misconceptions hearing people have about the deaf. He said many deaf Muslims don’t think of themselves as lacking something or having a problem, “we accept deafness...Allah blessed me with this. We take it as a whole. It’s a different perspective.”
Several deaf Muslims could be seen throughout the evening energetically running the event in a sort of noble silence which was, however, frequently broken by those quick, coded hand gestures which inevitably make one long to learn sign.
Yet, you would not have been able to tell from their appearances that the deaf attendees were challenged by a disability. They are so often among us without our notice.
The bright-eyed, enthusiastic men and women—many young, some new to Islam and a few obviously not very knowledgeable on religious matters—sat together, signing away to each other throughout the evening. And, irony of ironies, one sometimes felt a yearning to be included in their circle.
The dinner seemed a success. Though a bit short of the stated goal, thousands of dollars were raised during a call for donations by Dr. Altaf Husain of the Islamic Circle of North America.
All speeches by the hearing were interpreted in sign. There were deaf panelists sharing their thoughts and experiences. It was an evening when deaf Muslims could tell non-deaf Muslims about their pains and struggles, their hopes and dreams. It was their night, their event.
At one point, guest speaker Daoud Nassimi called on all deaf to stand up to be recognized. And as they rose, surrounded by a crowd of their hearing brothers and sisters, it was as if close family members, long absent and nearly forgotten had, at last, come home.