Wheelchairs in the Mosque
October 23, 2019
Friday, October 10, 2019. Mingling with the roar of airplanes, Azan, the call to prayer, pours forth from the Jami’ Al Akbar Mosque at the Yogyakarta International Airport complex. Amidst the congregation of Friday worshippers, Bahrul Fuad sits quietly in his wheelchair. Until recently, a scene like this was almost impossible to imagine: Bahrul’s wheelchair would have been barred from the mosque.
Islamic thought has long treated shoes and sandals—and wheelchairs—as bearers of impurities from the street that must not be allowed to pollute a place of worship. Like shoes and sandals, wheelchairs must therefore be parked outside, leaving those worshippers to crawl or be carried into the mosque. Yet on this day, Bahrul was able to worship from the dignity of his wheelchair. The ban on wheelchairs entering the mosque has been lifted, and Bahrul played a central role.
The key that opened the door to change was fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. While divine law is immutable, fiqh is the realm of human interpretation that applies the law to morals, rituals, and social legislation. Fiqh is considered to be changeable, and, at times, fallible. It is often used as an example of how Islam encourages continuous inquiry, ijtihad, to adapt principles of justice to new contexts and circumstances. Bahrul was instrumental in assembling a group of Indonesian Islamic scholars to reconsider the Islamic jurisprudence of disabilities. The results of their work are changing the way the government and society view people with disabilities, especially their equal right to worship.
Bahrul’s success had a special sweetness for those who supported his long effort, among them The Asia Foundation. “When he first approached us for support,” recalls Sandra Hamid, the Foundation’s director in Indonesia, “we were skeptical of the efficacy of developing Islamic jurisprudence to address the problem of marginalization. I asked Bahrul why the Islamic texts should be explored to construct a new framework, when being kind to people with disabilities is already part of religious teaching.”
Bahrul argued that, while “kindness” for people with disabilities was abundant, it was expressed, for example, by carrying wheelchair-bound worshippers up the stairs. Meanwhile, access for wheelchairs, and dignity for those who use them, was denied because of prevailing perspectives on “purity.” Bahrul wanted to engage Islamic scholars to deconstruct these perspectives, and he argued that Islamic teaching offers different ways to look at purity. “The Asia Foundation was really taken by his argument,” says Hamid, “and we offered our support.”
Initial research, conducted in three districts of East Java by Brawijaya University’s Center for Disability Studies and Services, found that more than 90 percent of the mosques there were not accessible to worshippers with disabilities. Not only did they ban wheelchairs, but many had long staircases and lacked elevators, while the ceremonial place of ablution was often located in inaccessible areas. Despite the religious belief that Friday prayers are accepted by God only if the congregation “hears” and receives the preaching, there were no sign-language interpreters for deaf worshippers.
The research, which involved people with disabilities, Islamic scholars, government officials, and community representatives, continued for about 15 months. The Islamic scholars found that, in many ways, the Islamic texts they were examining could be interpreted to allow exceptions for people with disabilities. After long deliberation, they announced a new fiqh on disability issues: in 86 separate articles, the decision called for ending the stigma on disability and declared inclusion and accessibility an obligation, including wheelchair access, sign-language interpreters, and prohibiting harassment of people with disabilities.
The researchers submitted their recommendations to the national assembly of Indonesia’s Nahdhatul Ulama, the largest Islamic mass organization in the world, which formally endorsed the new fiqh. Later, the fiqh was adopted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, elevating disability issues to the national mainstream. For Indonesia, this is big progress!
This past August, Eid al-Adha, a holiday celebrated each year by Muslims worldwide, marked the implementation of the fiqh, starting at the Great Mosque of Istiqlal, Indonesia’s most important mosque and a point of reference for other mosques in the country. For the first time, wheelchairs were allowed to enter the mosque, and a special place was reserved for wheelchair-bound worshippers in the front row. Two large screens and television monitors in each corner displayed sign language during the sermon. The mosque also mobilized volunteers from Istiqlal Youth and the Cross-Faith Youth Community, who showed up at 3:00 in the morning to help worshippers with disabilities perform their Eid al-Adha prayers.
“I prayed in tears, remembering that for 11 years I could only follow the prayers in Istiqlal on television,” cried Syaiful, a worshipper who uses a wheelchair. “Unbelievable! Today I was inside!”
Another worshipper said he usually prays at a mosque near his house, where he leaves his wheelchair outside and then crawls into the mosque. A deaf man said this was the most impressive Eid ever, because for the first time he could understand the preaching through the sign-language interpreters.
The feelings of joy and emotion that colored those faces quickly spread across the country as the Eid ceremony was broadcast on television and drew nationwide media attention. The new Islamic jurisprudence of disability is not just about wheelchairs; it is a recognition of the dignity of all human beings.
Ade Siti Barokah is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Peduli Program, a social inclusion program supported by DFAT in Indonesia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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