The sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is filled with stories about compassion, mercy, and attention to the needs of his community. There are stories about sahabah who had physical impairments or were blind, community members who had mental challenges, and more. The general treatment of those who were considered disabled at that time on the Arabian peninsula was horrific. And the considerate and considerable treatment that was offered in the form of Islamic guidance was a sea-change.
There is an organization working to capitalize on that foundation. MUHSEN (Muslims Understanding & Helping Special Education Needs) was founded in 2014 and is on a mission to “establish an inclusive and accessible environment for individuals with disabilities and their families.” With a small staff they lead the way to spotlight the topic of inclusion, something rarely spoken about in the Muslim community. That is unless your family has experienced the trauma of being turned away.
Identifying the Hardship
The idea for the organization was spawned during a conversation at umrah between Sheikh Omar Suleiman and Joohi Tahir, whose daughter is on the autism spectrum. The two commiserated about the insensitivity, inaccessibility, and environment of intolerance that permeates masjids in the U.S. Buoyed by their determination to change that dynamic, they got to work building the organization from the ground up. And it is still growing.
A small paid staff runs a full menu of services that generally fall into three areas: advocacy and education, training, and implementing programs and services across North America. There are six chapters that are leading efforts in Louisiana, Texas, California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and in the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia metropolitan area) and hundreds of volunteers who are also passionate about lending support.
Holding the Community Accountable
The biggest area of focus is the MUHSEN Masjid Certification program. According to Project and Certification Coordinator Belal Elkadri, “that is where the real work of breaking barriers in the community starts.” There are ways to determine if a masjid is welcoming to everyone, a place where people “feel accepted, comfortable, and welcomed.” MUHSEN evaluates the environment with a comprehensive, three-tiered checklist that includes the various ways that a masjid can be accommodating to special needs individuals and their families. The tiers and their main areas of focus include:
Silver Level (conduct needs assessment, ensure physical accessibility, hold awareness events)
Gold Level (Silver + sign language interpreter, parent/caregiver and sibling support groups, youth training, specialized childcare)
Platinum Level (Gold + accessible playground, closed captioning on message boards, community service projects, special needs Islamic studies classes)
There are currently 70 masjids in the U.S. and Canada who have been MUHSEN certified (including 9 at the gold level but none yet at platinum). The process often starts when a family contacts MUHSEN to complain about ill-treatment or lack of accessibility. When staff members get involved, they emphasize that lack of information or resources is not an excuse to stay stagnant and insensitive to the needs of the entire community. And much of the support and assistance they can provide is free of charge.
Courtsey of Muhsen Website
Support Services Are
There is also attention focused on implementing support services such as:
- Respite Care to give parents and caregivers a break from the stress of daily caretaking responsibilities
- Weekend School programs complete with curriculum, teacher training, and one-on-one assistance
- Support Groups for parents, caregivers, and siblings
- Convention Services to ensure accessibility for various special needs
- Umrah Trip that supports a family trip of a lifetime
One of the organization’s latest creative efforts is the publication of a children’s book called, The Four Friends Next Door, written and illustrated by Nabila Qadri, MUHSEN’s Respite and Volunteer Coordinator. The book celebrates the very special skills of four friends who have four different disabilities. When the friends lose their way after a full day of play, each contributes to the problem solving that is necessary for them to return home safely. The moral of the story: “Allah made every single person unique, without everyone’s strengths, the world would truly be bleak!” For a fuller book review, read Sound Vision’s book review by Wendy Díaz. [Link Book Review Here]
MUHSEN has accomplished quite a bit but has a long way to go. Belal Elkadri hopes for much growth in the next 5-10 years. “Continuing the conversations and raising awareness have to lead the way and give voice to those who have felt uncomfortable and unwelcomed.” He hopes that individuals and families will find comfort in not being isolated and alone.
The website also includes important resource information for individuals and families with special needs including a National Resource Guide, general information about accessibility and all types of disabilities, matrimonial services, and a service provider directory. For more details visit https://muhsen.org/.
You, Too, Can Help
Change in this area will require all of us to pay attention and embrace inclusion. When asked how individuals can get involved, Elkadri suggests a personal assessment. Are you on the boat? What can you do to contribute? There is a way to help through raising awareness and understanding. By advocating for the special needs of individuals with disabilities in your community. By volunteering to provide assistance as a respite caregiver, teacher or tutor. By offering professional skills such as behavioral, occupational, or speech therapy. And also, by making a donation.
Turn back to our rich Islamic history as a reminder and for inspiration. Not only in our Prophet Muhammad’s, peace and blessings be upon him, seerah but to other prophets who had their own physical ailments – Prophet Musa’s speech impediment, Prophet Ayyub’s skin condition, and Prophet Yaqub’s blindness, peace be upon them all – were unique tests and also lent strengths and rewards to their experiences. If we live up to this legacy and Allah’s guidance, we can eliminate the stigma for special needs in our community and embrace the whole of it. And we all will be better for it, inshaAllah.