Inconveniencing the disabled

My work as a delivery driver often requires me to lift heavy items up several flights of steps, repetitively. It’s a huge inconvenience and annoyance, and the buildings involved are often quite new, leading me to wonder why on earth the buildings don’t have lifts. Recently I had to deliver several large bottles of water to Kingston train station, and there was a stairlift, but I was told that my colleagues usually bump the barrow, with four 19-litre bottles of water on it, up the stairs. The lift was only for wheelchairs, and they told me I might not be able to use it (although I eventually was). However, it more often works the other way round: there is a goods lift which is not made available to the disabled for reasons such as insurance. Given that many disabled people are obviously much better suited to desk work than most physical jobs, it must be highly frustrating to find that many offices are actually in inaccessible parts of buildings, for example, in factories above the area where the machines are, with no lift. It left me wondering how people got away with erecting buildings like this for so long.

Given how difficult life can be for a disabled person, it’s depressing that someone should, out of sheer ignorance, end up slamming the door in the face of a blind person, but that is what one Muslim sister has done. A message was posted on an Islamic discussion forum yesterday about a blind man who was told he could no longer take his guide dog to college after a Muslim woman took exception to it. The man ended up taking the same course in a different city, requiring a two-hour journey each way.

The author wrote that he had seen correspondence from the college (which he did not name) to the blind man, which contain a supposed extract from the Qur’an and three ahadeeth which are clearly sourced from the young woman who complained, and in any case do not give any weight whatsoever to her demand that the dog be removed from class. Has this woman never travelled by bus on which people brought their pet dogs, or entered a shop where there was a dog? The fact is that anywhere you go in any modern western city, you will be in proximity to dogs, to say nothing of other types of impurity one might come into contact with.

And most of these dogs are nowhere near as well-trained as any guide dog. Where I live, there are footpaths and dirt tracks on which people let their pet dogs walk and run, and they allow them to leave their excrement in the middle of the pathways, because there is nobody around to see them. They run free and harrass pedestrians and cyclists. Guide dogs, on the other hand, do not harrass anyone when in harness, and this is recognised to the extent that they are allowed into restaurants and other environments where dogs are normally banned. I am actually really quite surprised that a college would make an exception to this rule on the basis of an objection from one person. Muslims have never made an issue in the past of people bringing guide dogs into public buildings used by Muslims.

The most exacting position on the impurity of dogs is that of the Shafi’i school of thought (to which only a small minority of Muslims in this country belong; most Indo-Pak Muslims are Hanafi, and most African Muslims are Maliki). This school requires that, if anything comes into contact with any moisture emanating from a dog, that it be washed seven times, including a wash with water mixed with earth. None of the other schools require this. Even then, however, something is only deemed impure if one knows for a fact that it is impure. Shaikh Nuh Keller, in a talk on waswasa (obsessive doubts, particularly about purity) given to some of his students in England a few years ago, told us that the only najasa (filth) that the early Muslims protected themselves from was what they could actually see, to the extent that, for example, that they ate bread made from grain which had been dehusked by animals walking on it (as was the norm then), despite the fact that the animals may well have urinated on it. Tanning and dyeing were (and in some places still are) processes which employed filth, yet the salaf wore clothes and shoes made of dyed cloth and tanned leather. Two opinions from Shaikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti ([1], [2]) were posted in response to the guide dog issue, salient points from which were extracted:

1. “the original state of anything pure is the absence of anything impure. So since the original state of anything is pure until it is contaminated by anything impure, then you judge by what is originally there (that it is pure) unless if there is something to qualify this judgement, such as 100% certain knowledge that the thing is now impure. Even when the dog roams freely inside and outside of the house, it is most likely dry, most of the time. We have a good example of how our fuqaha’ went at length to point out that we should not hastily judge something that is originally pure to be in a state of impurity, as long as the possibility of it being pure exists.” 2. “A sensible precaution you should take when you are in your mother’s house is to use the Muslim prayer mat [sajjada] when you pray in order that your heart be at ease and to prevent such waswasa [the whisperings of Shaytan or some devilish insinuations and misgivings, or simply paranoia] come to you… These, and other common sense precautions, if taken, will not only save you from a lot of worry but will even make it feasible without much difficulty for someone to live with a person who owns a dog. 3. “After taking all the sensible precautions, it is even workable to live with someone who owns a dog since all things are judged to be in their original state until there is some qualifying factor that will change the original state and that factor must be yaqin, certain, and indubitable. This rule applies whether you take the alternative opinion or not; therefore this is crucial. If you reflect upon this carefully, it is this rule (and not actually the Qawl Marjuh) that will make the difference between whether it is going to be ‘easy’ or not for you; for it is this judgement on your part that is going to decide whether you have to wash the Mughallaza in the first place.”

Note that the shaikh did not tell the questioner simply never to enter the building where there was a dog! If one’s person or clothing becomes sullied with any moisture emanating from the dog, then it must be washed as directed; otherwise, it is pure. So even the seat in the lecture theatre which the blind man sat on is deemed pure unless you find anything you know to be impure.

One might ask where the sister got the impression that she should demand that the guide dog be removed from class, or if she asked anyone with authority what she might do. Sadly there are too many Muslims who are ready with opinions but short on knowledge, and there are more of us who perhaps think that the opinion one imam, or one group of scholars, gave us is the only valid one (the attitude of some Indo-Pak Muslims to Muslims of other regions who do not share their position on beards is a typical example). There have even been scholars (among them Sayyid Mutawalli ad-Darsh, an Egyptian imam at London Central Mosque who died in 1997, and Umar Abdullah) who gave the opinion that it was permissible for a blind Muslim to keep a guide dog, though in the latter case, the Muslim in question was a convert who already had the guide dog. The problem is that you will find a lot of Muslims who will tell you that following a school of thought, despite it having been the norm among Muslims for centuries, is impermissible and that one must follow the “strongest ruling in every issue”, ultimately leading to following the opinion of a much less learned contemporary scholar.

Of course, Muslims generally have a great aversion to dogs and always have had; it is simply not usual for Muslims to keep dogs in their houses, and the use of dogs to guide blind people and for similar assistance purposes is a very recent western invention. I spoke to one blind woman, a Sudanese (and therefore Maliki) who had lost her sight gradually due to retinitis pigmentosa, and she told me that she would never acquire a guide dog. From a purely practical and social point of view, I would still not advise any blind Muslim who does not absolutely need one to acquire a guide dog. However, no Muslim should refuse to enter a room where such an animal is in use, because it is not unlawful in itself and the chances of being affected by any impurity from it are negligible. The responses on this forum were entirely supportive of the blind man.

The community does not share this woman’s objections to a man with a guide dog being in her class, which are based on ignorance. If she had consulted with a reputable authority, she would have been told that she had no reason to object to the dog. It is the sort of action which could expose the community to yet more ridicule and endanger far more worthy accommodations to Muslim needs. Given how hostile the reactions were to supposed Muslim objections to piggy banks and Christmas, the reaction to blind people being refused college places because “Muslims objected” does not bear thinking about.

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