Something powerful, beautiful and truly unique took place in Glasgow this week. As a disabled person, this was of the few times where I felt like a complete and full part of the Muslim community. It seemed as if people saw through my wheelchair and my disability to the person. No longer did I feel uncomfortable, excluded, different, special or even disabled. I was just a normal person, attending an event to remember an immense personality, who still manages to influence my life. It is testament to the character of the man being honoured on the 5th of October 2009 at the Destiny Centre, that I felt such hope, inspiration and peace.
The person I am referring to is my friend, colleague, brother and teacher, Imran Sabir. Imran was a disabled Muslim, born and raised in Glasgow who developed a rare genetic condition known as ‘logic syndrome. The condition brought with it a visual impairment, mobility/breathing and communication difficulties and issues with walking long distances. The little known nature of Imran’s impairment resulted in limited treatment, and a chronic inability on the part of service providers to deliver the appropriate tailored support, accounting for Imran’s ethnic, Cultural and physical needs, but he didn’t allow any of this to stand in his way.
Imran went on to become a powerful advocate for social justice and the wider disability movement, setting up 2 user lead organisations based on his own experiences and the barriers he faced when attempting to engage with service providers. Ethnic enable is a user lead organisation with a national remit, designed to support minority ethnic disabled people from across Scotland. They do this through creating social opportunities, providing welfare rights information, access to direct payments and sign posting to other relevant stakeholders and DPOs. Kitaba is the most recent of Imran’s ventures, and arguably the one most close to his heart. Set up in 2007, the organisation aims to provide Islamic educational support to visually impaired people, through translating books, making religious institutions accessible and providing disability equality training to faith leaders, teachers and other community activists.
Despite there being an estimated 11000 disabled Muslims across the UK, and even larger numbers of minority ethnic disabled people in Scotland alone, the needs of the community are all too often ignored or misunderstood, both by minority ethnic support organisations and by DPOs alike. Torn between mythical culture fuelled misconceptions, and a range of multiple yet complex stigma which have come to surround disabled people in the Asian community, disabled people often remain isolated, stuck at home, ignored and cut off from the religious and cultural life of the community. It is taken as a matter of course that a disabled person will not be able to study, to work, to live independently, and certainly never to marry for fear that more disabled children will result from the union.
Imran’s work was the first of its kind in the country; it was unique, not just in its style in content, but because it dared to challenge these prejudices and, for the first time, offer disabled Muslims a ray of hope, and a glimpse of another life. Kitaba in particular, was born out of Imran’s despair and frustration when attempting to seek Islamic knowledge. After being turned away by a multitude of teachers and mosques, Imran sought refuge in radio ramadhan, and a wealth of other internet resources. These ultimately lead him to Glasgow’s own Shaykh Abdal Aziz, who would later become Imran’s spiritual teacher, thus beginning a beautiful friendship and partnership. Imran knew that not every one would have this opportunity, and so wanted Kitaba to act as a vehicle to take Islamic knowledge to those disabled Muslims who needed it most. He also wanted the project to empower mainstream faith leaders in order that they could better support disabled people, thus creating truly inclusive communities.
Given the pioneering nature of Imran’s work, his colleagues and family felt it was important to chart his unique journey and how this influenced the formation of his organisations. ‘Living with Blindness, Lessons from the life of Imran’ compiled by Shaykh Abdal Aziz Ahmed. The book celebrates Imran’s innovation, determination and strength as he battled discrimination in a community still very reluctant to embrace disability equality. Glasgow’s played host to the first of 3 national events to commemorate Imran’s life and the launch of the book.
The evening began fittingly with a speech by sister Roshni Hafeez, a long time friend of Imran with a visual impairment. She is well aware of the issues around disability and marginalization and is a vocal, committed and passionate activist for change; who works within a number of innovative projects. She talked about some of her memories of Imran, and about growing up with a disability. She said “In Islam there are no barriers..; when we change our mindsets the concept of disability ceases to exist”. She encouraged the audience to use their spheres of influence to change society for the better.
There was then a moving tribute by Abdal Aziz Ahmed, Kitaba chair person. He reduced some of the audience to tears; as he spoke about Imran’s final breaths in the hospital. There were also presentations from Ethnic Enable and the Kitaba project. The evening ended with a powerful lecture by Imam Zaid Shakir of the US who talked about the minorities within the Muslim minority and how important the role of faith communities ought to be in terms of eradicating stereotypes, discrimination and ignorance. He focused on the hadith that “None of you truly believes until you love for your brother what you love for yourself”. Until we practice this on a practical level, things will not change in society.
All of the speakers were in agreement that we have marginalised huge cross sections of our population, either because we don’t agree with their viewpoints, or because fear leads us to believe we cannot support them, so to shut the door on them is easier than moving outside of our own comfort zones. Above all to support and to empower the marginalised is not about doing people a favour, it is simply about being true to our own rights and responsibilities, while at the same time, taking steps towards a truly inclusive umma as existed during the life of our Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
Imran passed away at the beginning of March this year, leaving an invaluable legacy, but also leaving a great void in the lives of those who knew and loved him. His brother’s remarks will remain with me for a long time. He said, “some people have said that you are now relieved of your caring burden, but the way we feel we, have been robbed of a blessing”. We hope that the book and the series of programmes being held in his memory will go some way to continuing the equality work Imran was so passionate about, do remember his family in your thoughts and prayers, and support his organisations in any way you can.
One of Imran’s most notable pieces of writing is ‘a disabled society. Biographical in nature, it talks about the challenges facing Minority Ethnic disabled people, and is in many ways, a manifesto for the inclusive objectives Imran was fighting for. (reproduced below).
A Disabled Society
Born eighteen years ago
To a Scot and a Pakistani,
First cousins vowing to be true,
Joined in holy matrimony.
His coming having no portent—
All being well in his infancy.
Only a couple of years later
Realising his pathology.
Parents seeking treatment near and far.
Yet finding its incurability.
Only then becoming distraught
At life’s apparent duplicity,
Ending joyous expectations
Seeing his growing dependency.
Hearts shredded asunder
At his decay and atrophy.
The father withdrawing into work,
Disappointed and angry.
Unable to face the truth.
Hiding away from reality.
Knowing no English or sources of help,
Having no coping or caring strategy,
The mother laboured on,
Through love and maternal duty.
Mother and child unsupported
By friends or family.
Some comment on their special ness
And their chance to gain piety,
Others whispered at a hidden truth
At some long passed infidelity.
The supposed sins of the father
Punished by the mighty deity.
Not accepting a disabled child,
Or any responsibility.
Leaving love and self-respect
Guided not by rationality
He left wife and son to start afresh
To prove his masculinity.
Mother and child living off the state,
So close to poverty.
Seeking assistance for her child—
From any statutory body.
Communicating without English
Only leading to ambiguity.
Their impersonal services
Just Promoting conformity—
At school and home
Facing true marginality,
Colour and creed making him distinct
From the white majority.
Situation separating him
From the disabled minority.
Impairments causing rejection
From his own ethnic community.
All attempts at participation—
Feared and stigmatised—
Shunned by peers and society.
Thinking his condition contagious
They show only animosity.
His difference too strange—
An unsurpassable enormity.
Turning to service providers—
Main stream and voluntary—
Experts and places of worship—
Or those working for equality—
Despite the child’s clear-cut needs
Or personal priority
They single out impairment,
Culture or ethnicity
Now, at the doorway of death,
At the threshold of maturity,
Unable to communicate,
And with breathing difficulty—
Requiring constant ventilation
And remedial therapy.
Confined, restrained, straight-jacketed
By his muscular dystrophy.
Bedridden hours expended
In examining history.
He tries hard to understand
Life’s justice and equity.
Seeking meaningful answers,
Solace and serenity,
Yet ever returning to despair,
Wholesale regret and uncertainty
The barriers posed by impairment
And an indifferent society—
Invisible but hard as concrete
Abounding in their multiplicity,
Nurturing rejection and isolation
And all manners of impropriety.
Conveying the world’s begrudgement
Of deviance to normality.
Barriers restricting life’s joys—
Life unfulfilled incomplete empty,
Time spent in futile struggles
In seeking meaning and identity.
Not belonging to any world,
Lacking wholeness and integrity,
That is the lot of a south-Asian
Person with a disability.
To purchase copies of ‘lessons from the life of Imran Sabir in a variety of formats, log on to www.kitaba.org
Posted by Asif Ali and Roshni Hafeez