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Shelina Jaffer
Faith

Global group helps deaf Muslims embrace their faith

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.

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