Sundays tend to be quiet at Al-Farooq Education and Community Centre, a mosque in Glasgow’s south side. But there’s a buzz whizzing through this beautiful church conversion on this particular Sunday- September 16th. It’s a landmark day for those gathered in the lofty and well-appointed prayer hall. An occasion for this group to savour and one that could signal a whole new beginning for them. It’s the inaugural lesson of a new Islamic Studies course aimed specifically at the deaf community, the first of its kind in Scotland.
By Ameen Rabbani
Inside the main prayer hall all eyes are fixed on the lecturer, Imam Sohaib Hussain, as he tells a story about Prophet Muhammad. Either side him are British Sign Language interpreters translating to the 20 or so young men and women in attendance. The natural echo of the building and constant hand movements make it seem almost theatresque. It’s a riveting experience for a group that has felt neglected and isolated for so long.
A gauge of how engrossed the students are is how often they interrupt to ask questions and seek clarification. Some have a grounding in basic Islamic knowledge, most however admit to understanding very little about the religion.
That’s precisely why Al-Farooq has taken the initiative before any other religious institute in Scotland, to finally cater for a lost community in desperate need of guidance. Earlier this year, the mosque also became the first in Scotland to provide a BSL translation service for its Friday sermons which is still ongoing.
Imam Sohaib has had this vision for some time which he explains: “I had initially seen the Friday sermons translated into BSL in a mosque in Birmingham. From there I had this desire to bring something similar to Scotland and the more I researched it I found that there was a great need for it.
“We’re an organisation that stands for equal opportunities so we wanted to give out the right message to people who have disabilities and who have previously been left out. Sadly the Muslim community has lacked in providing services like these but we have to start somewhere so we have taken the initiative and we want to be an example for other organisations and motivate others to carry out similar projects.”
Despite the course being targeted towards young adults, the curriculum offers a much more basic insight into Islam. One of the things that stands out from the first session is the slow pace of the lecture. Every 15 minutes there’s a break which gives the group a chance to ask more questions. As a collective the class could be considered to be at an early beginners level.
Imam Sohaib says: “Even though the students come from Muslim families and backgrounds, many don’t know the basic and fundamental principles of Islam which is sad to see and it’s no fault of their own. But it’s motivation for myself to continue doing more and to try to expand the project so we can help as many people as possible learn about their religion. And once they do then it will hopefully be life-changing for them.”
The impact of having a lack of Islamic education on the deaf students shouldn’t be underestimated. Some students reveal the hardships and lonely journeys they’ve been through to seek knowledge. Others tell of negative family experiences that have prevented them from obtaining a better understanding of the faith. Most feel sad at being unable to teach their children about Islam.
Saima Shafaatulla gives an insight into the frustration, neglect and isolation that has built up inside of her because of the countless stumbling blocks she’s faced. “I’ve felt really angry, depressed and alone for so long because I’d ask for help to learn about Islam but no one has had the time for me. I’ve tried to learn myself by reading books but I only got more angry because everything was so complicated. BSL is my first language but nobody has had the patience to go over the basics with me.”
Another student, Riaz Rafiq, also adds: “I used to go to mosque and I would ask my father what the Imam was saying but my father would never tell me. I thought ‘what’s the point of going to mosque if I can’t understand what’s going on?’ I got bored and stopped going. Now my children attend mosque and they ask me certain things about Islam but I feel embarrassed because I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Saima’s sister, Shereen Shafaatulla, offers the point of view of a family member who feels hurt knowing that her family hasn’t been given the support they need. She says: “Islam can be hard for those with hearing to understand so just think of the difficulties for a deaf person. Nobody had the patience to work with my sister. She was definitely neglected in terms of Islamic education. I went to mosque and if Saima had also gone she would have sat in isolation. She’s only been given very basic second hand knowledge.”
Shereen adds: “This is a generational problem. When I speak to my mother and my mother’s friends, they say they had no help learning BSL. No support whatsoever and this has had a huge impact because they don’t know approved sign language. It’s not the fault of the parents or the deaf individual, it’s the fault of society. We have to make a change for future generations so they have the foundations that will make it easier for them to go on a religious journey.”
Among the group there’s also a strong sense of disappointment with religious bodies in Scotland who they feel have failed to acknowledge their needs. They point to England where there’s a stronger and consistent presence of BSL services in mosques across a number of cities. A few of the students travelled down south to take part in classes but couldn’t keep it up due to the costs of travel and accommodation.
“Whenever we’ve asked mosques in Scotland to bring in BSL translators we get told ‘we can’t help because we don’t have the money’” Riaz says. “It’s always funding problems, that’s all we ever get told. They have money for everything else but no money to help the deaf.”
Despite all that, their determination and passion for Islam hasn’t waned. Past experiences may have completely curbed the students’ enthusiasm but their presence on this course speaks volumes about their character. With Al-Farooq committed to providing services in the short and long term, it’s the first time in their lives that the students can feel optimistic about learning Islam and the potential life-changing experience it can be.
Saima says: “The start of the classes have shown us how difficult the journey is going to be but the Imam has promised to help us and we feel secure knowing that he is committed. The more understanding we have the more our lives will improve.”
Riaz also says: “This is definitely the right step for Glasgow. There’s a population of deaf Muslims who need services like these. There are some who are hard of hearing and some who can lip read easily but people like myself who are fully deaf need a sign language interpreter so coming to this course will be very beneficial.”
The class gives Shereen hope too. Having witnessed her sister endure so much frustration, she already sees a positive change in Saima’s- and the class’s- outlook. She says: “You can see the group finally have a sense of belonging. They’re also thinking, ‘is this too good to be true? But you can already see the happiness on their faces.”
It’s understandable that the students have concerns about the long-term. As Shereen points out “they are used to being let down.” Imam Sohaib’s dedication to this cause is unwavering though. “In the future we’d like to start a children’s class,” he says. He adds: “We’d like to take the current group on a practical journey through their religion, for example, going to Hajj or Umrah (Pilgrimage) and explaining how to perform each of these. That would be something special if it could happen.”
It’s taken time but good things come to those who wait. Finally, there’s a religious organisation tackling the problems faced by the Muslim deaf community when it comes to learning about Islam. Al-Farooq Education and Community Centre are leading the way and changing lives for the better.
Find out more about the Al-Farooq Education and Community Centre here: http://www.afecc.co.uk/