Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Re-thinking Disability in Islam

This article was first published on Jan 10, 2020, in Beyond The Hijab.

My sister, Syiqah, gets around on a wheelchair. As kids, we used to attend weekend madrasah classes in a mosque. Every Sunday, we gathered two or three young men to carry her wheelchair down three big steps to the classrooms, before rearranging the wall panels to let her into the classroom. This process was reversed after class. Many thanks to these young men, but sometimes I wished that we didn’t have to make such a grand entrance into class every week.

I often wonder though, how the people who worked at the mosque and madrasah viewed my sister. To start with, I will look at discourses and examples of how people with disabilities (PWDs) have been represented in Islamic theory and practice, both in history and in the contemporary period. I then turn to the Qur’an to come up with a nuanced interpretation of disability. Finally, I will build on some of Syiqah’s experiences to provide insights and suggestions on how to embrace PWDs in our communities.

Islamic discourses on disability

One of the dominant discourses in mainstream Islam is that PWDs are “special” or closer to God as they have no capacity to do wrong. This logic states that they will always remain innocent, child-like, and cannot be accountable for their actions. However, this discourse should differentiate physical from intellectual disabilities, since accountability requires mental capacity.

Another discourse is that they are “imperfect”, but this is also similar to being “special”. This logic states that there is a perfect model of a human body, created by Allah, and a disability is thus a deviation from the norm. It may also imply that when someone is deprived of a certain ability, they may have other, different abilities as compensation. For example, someone who is visually impaired may have more sensitive hearing. 

In the Malay archipelago, there are several well-known dua related to children. This supplication found in Surah Ali-Imran [1] stands out: 

At that, Zakariya called upon his Lord, saying, "My Lord, grant me from Yourself a good offspring. Indeed, You are the Hearer of supplication." (Qur’an, 3:38)

This verse describes Prophet Zakaria’s supplication God for offspring that is tayyib (good, righteous, or pure). Tayyib is used in the Qur’an to describe land (34:15), Paradise dwellings (61:12), food (2:57), properties (4:2), upright men and upright women (24:26), as well as an abstract concept that is the opposite of evil (3:179, 5:100). 

However, in Malay translations of this verse, tayyib is often translated and explained as sempurna (perfect or complete) or tidak cacat (not imperfect). Muslim parents-to-be may also be taught a dua asking God for protection from Shaitan harming one’s baby. This logic implies that foetuses or newborns with a defect or disability are the result of Shaitan’s influence. [2]

In many cultures, mental illnesses are likely to be viewed as supernatural possession by jinn. It remains a controversial topic among Muslims globally. PWDs with mental illness or intellectual disabilities may have grown up being exempted from fasting, prayer, or going to the mosque because in mainstream jurisprudence, ‘aql or a rational state of mind is required for acts of worship to be valid.

Although PWDs are not actively discouraged from taking part in communal Muslim life, physical barriers often stop them from doing so. In Singapore, mosques (as any other building) built after 1990 must be made fully accessible, while older mosques are being renovated to include lifts and ramps. Despite these improvements, some mosques in older or historic neighbourhoods remain inaccessible. Sometimes, having lifts may also reinforce segregation of prayer spaces, delegating entire levels to women and children, when it could have been more flexible before, due to the need to accommodate different circumstances.

Organisations that work on providing religious access have varying degrees of success, depending on their country’s levels of infrastructure and awareness. For example, Al Fitrah Foundation, a Malaysian non-profit organisation for visually impaired Muslims runs a Braille Quran Initiative, [3] but it relies on small-scale private donations. However, in countries with more developed infrastructure for the disabled, organisations like Kitaba (United Kingdom) and Dirasa (Norway, Denmark, Sweden) have been producing and teaching in Braille and audio, as well as even organising assisted umrah trips. [4]

Malay Islamic discourses blend different ideas from various Islamic cultures when it comes to the perception of PWDs, their characteristics and life purposes. A look at mainstream Islamic history helps us to enlarge our perspective on this topic.

Stories of disabilities in Islamic history

Julaybib was one of the Ansar, the first community of Muslims surrounding the Prophet Muhammad in Madinah. The name Julaybib means “small-grown”, suggesting that perhaps he had dwarfism. He was also described as being damim (“ugly” or “deformed”). His most serious limitation was that his parents or lineage was not known, since he could not expect any support or protection in a society that heavily stressed family and tribal connections. 

Julaybib was ridiculed and shunned to the point of being prohibited by a certain Abu Barzah of the Aslam tribe, from entering his home. However, the Prophet being aware of Julaybib’s needs and sensibilities went to one of the Ansar and suggested that his daughter marry Julaybib. While her parents protested, the Ansari girl trusted the Prophet’s decision-making process and married Julaybib. She is lauded by scholars for having ‘readily agreed to be the wife of a physically unattractive man’. [6] However, the reverse – encouraging able-bodied men to marry Muslim women with disabilities – rarely happens as reproduction heavily stressed in marriage. 

Historically, there was even a religious position which favoured those with visual impairment. In Egypt, before the advent of loudspeakers in the 1950s, such men were deliberately employed as mu’azzin to give the call to prayer from the minarets. Their disability was an advantage: they preserve the privacy of surrounding houses as they cannot look into these courtyards. Could it be possible that since no one reaches out to engage PWDs, today’s mosques may have overlooked accessibility in not just designing but organising their spaces?

As the acceptance of PWDs in practice is fluid and changes across time and space, it is always useful to go back to our basic source of divine knowledge.

Disability in the Qur’an

The Qur’an gives us a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of disability. The general reference is al-darari (4:95), translated as ‘disabled’. Coming from the root d-r-r (ض ر ر), it can connote ‘harm’ or ‘suffering’. Humans can suffer or be harmed, but this only occurs with God’s permission. [6] The actions of shaitan, hypocrites, disbelievers, or disobedient believers (e.g. use of black magic) cannot harm us (2:102). This already counters the common idea that mental illnesses and associated disabilities are the cause of jinn possession or black magic.

The form ud’turra means ‘force’ or ‘compulsion’. Doing something forbidden by force or by necessity has no sin. [7] Another form, darraa, which connotes ‘affliction’, ‘hardship’ or ‘adversity’, is also a kind of compulsion because it comes from God and it not under our direct control. 

And [mention] Ayyub, when he called to his Lord, "Indeed, adversity has touched me, and you are the Most Merciful of the merciful." (Qur’an, 21:83)

Prophet Ayyub acknowledges that his adversity, which included a painful physical disability, comes from God and that only God can remove them. [8] The Qur’an reminds us that everyone will experience hardship and ease, it’s only whether we realise it or not (7:95). Times of hardship are meant for us to remember and call on God (10:12, 16:53, 30:33, 39:8) and be patient (2:177) because it is just a trial (2:214, 39:49) aimed to humble us (6:42, 7:94). God only gives us what we can handle, and even provides supplications for us (2:286).

Taking all these nuanced meanings into account, al-darari (4:95) can be considered a person who has been has either been hurt, harmed, or born with a disability. These may be considered adversity or hardship because society generally caters to the able-bodied and the neurotypical. However, they are certainly not forbidden or necessarily exempted from striving in the way of God, as shown by the historical example of Julaybib: in a battle he managed to kill several before dying, which so moved the Prophet that he prepared Julaybib’s grave himself.

My sister

My sister has a genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy. This is a group of inherited diseases that cause muscle damage and weakness, which worsen over time. This condition was also only recognised in medical texts in the last 20 years, so when she was younger, my family went to different people to try and find a cure. I remember a bomoh, or a traditional healer, performing rituals combined with Qur’anic recitations in my home. At the same time, she went for physiotherapy sessions.

My parents used to exempt her from fasting or praying, saying that she didn’t have to. However, as she got older, she became more interested in attending seminars, conferences and additional classes on Islam. We did start attending one class together in a mosque, but stopped going when we realised that the bus was not accessible.

My sister wears the hijab because she believes that is part of being a good Muslim. She once told me that she would like to get married and have a family someday, but she realises that her disability does stand in the way of how men perceive her.

Most importantly, she says she does not feel disabled because she was born with her disability. To her, asking if she would like to walk is like asking if we would like to fly. She has been able to excel in her studies, her work, her sport, and the various languages she learned along the way. She works and supports our family, travels independently, and has a thriving social life – pretty much what most of us want anyway.

Rethinking disability

PWDs are not a homogenous group: family support and financial ability to provide caregiving and transport matters. Physical and intellectual disabilities must be differentiated, and yet, many PWDs are eager for a sense of community, too.

The low visibility of Muslims with disabilities is probably because of the predominant ideas about them and their spiritual capabilities. Hence, there is still a dearth of critical conversations around disability. For example, would a Muslim using a guide dog be allowed in religious spaces?

Saying that all Muslims with disabilities are ‘special’ and do not need to fulfil religious obligations is counterproductive for inclusion. Even as it helps Muslims with disabilities connect, the widespread availability of Islamic knowledge, seminars, sermons, and even Friday prayers online should not prevent mosques and religious spaces from being fully accessible with ramps, lifts, railings, larger toilets and ablution areas, Braille Qur’an, or television screens to visualise the khutbah.

… "[A]dversity has touched us and our family, and we have come with goods poor in quality, but give us full measure and be charitable to us. Indeed, Allah rewards the charitable." (Qur’an, 12:88)

If a Muslim with a disability expresses their wish and interest to participate in a Muslim community, it becomes our duty to make things easier for them. A masjid should be a refuge, and not a place that causes divisions (9:107). 

Ultimately, the empathy we cultivate for Muslims with disabilities should extend to empathy towards other marginalised Muslims. Let’s make sure we are not overlooking an integral part of our community.


[1] This article uses the Sahih International translation of the Qur’an, available at





[6] Qur’an (5:76, 6:71, 10:18, 10:106, 13:16, 20:89, 21:66, 22:12, 25:3, 25:55, 26:73, 34:42, 48:11)

[7] Qur’an (2:173, 5:3, 6:119, 6:145, 16:115)

[8] Qur’an (10:12, 10:107, 17:56, 21:84, 36:23, 39:38)

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Blackface and brownface in Indonesia and Singapore

This article was first published in ERIF Sinterklaas Brand & Product Study 2020: 5 Years of Monitoring Blackface in the Market, 2020. 

On a clear day a decade ago [2009] in East Java, where my grandparents were from, I found myself watching a carnivalesque procession of floats and performers of all ages, dressed up in marvellously colourful and shiny costumes. Behind a truck carrying a dozen heavily made up secondary school students were a group of men, painted shoe-polish black, with fabric leaves around their waists. I asked a relative beside me to explain this: “This group represents the transfer of mysteries from Irian Jaya,” he said, and I remained mystified.

A reog procession in Ponorogo, East Java in 2009.
Photo by author.

Only a year later, I would arrive to study and live in the Netherlands, discover the ‘tradition’ of Zwarte Piet. I did not make the connection until one day, at the annual concert of my academic institution, a group of students from Indonesia performed a variety of ethnic dances from their archipelago. Decked in costumes borrowed from the embassy, they demonstrated dances representing Sumatra, Java and Bali.

From video 'Yamko Rambe Yamko'

For their final piece, four male students appeared in pitch black full body leotards and paint marks on their faces, accessorised with raffia skirts. Halfway through, I realised that the grunting dance was meant to represent Papuans. An Indonesian friend who witnessed this performance too later told me that every 5th of December, people in her hometown in Ambon – who speak a creole inflected with Dutch words – dress up as Sinterklas, Suarte Pit (also known as Om Pit (Uncle Pete) or Pit Hitam (Black Pete), fairies and clowns (see Goppel, 2016 for a video).

From video 'Sie Gins Kom de Stoomboot - Sinterklaas Op De Molukken: Ambon'

In 2008, I was attending a conference on critical Islam when the conversation veered to the colonisation by Muslims of other peoples. I asked an Indonesian man in our group about colonisation of Papua and incidents of forced conversion happening there. His defence: “But they are a little primitive, backward, you know?”

Blackface and brownface in Asia

In American cultural history, blackface is used to portray racist stereotypes of African Americans through performances. As a representation of a ‘subservient black body’ lacking in intellect, coordination and other virtues, blackface is an ‘imposed conceptualising representation’ that has travelled across the globe (Reyes, 2014).

Ad for Dunkin Donuts in Thailand

In Asia, some recent incidents of blackface in print and television advertisements in Thailand (Dunkin Donuts in 2013), Japan (Astigu pantyhose in 2014) and Malaysia (Watsons in 2017) caused major backlash online. In Japan, African-American writer Baye McNeil led a campaign to remove blackface performances in 2015. In each incident, the initial defence was that the ‘local’ use of blackface does not having racist intentions, but a look into the country’s history reveals economic and political connections with colonial powers.

The Euro-American discourse on Black people has shaped the discourse in Asia more than actual encounters with Black people (Fukushima, 2011). This is seen in the influence of European and Hollywood films and minstrel shows in different countries. As cuisines from the colonies transferred to the metropole (Kuipers, 2017), cultural influences like Zwarte Piet and minstrel shows travelled to the colonies. In 1887, the year of the 50th anniversary of the accession of Queen Victoria, one of the celebrations in the British crown colony of Singapore was a costume race that included racial caricatures of ‘native’ communities of Chinese, Malay and Tamils as well as blackface.

A 1935 photo of Singaporeans in blackface republished in a 1980 Straits Times column.
National Library archives.

 Minstrel parties and groups were common in the 1930s. Each neighbourhood had their own minstrel group that performed at events, parties and weddings. Until the late 1980s, American and British minstrel performances were popular, available ‘live’ in theaters and on television, and described as “good family entertainment” (Kaur, 2019).

Closely related to the practice of blackface is brownface: the portrayal of racist stereotypes of Indians and other ethnic minorities by artificially darkening the skin, using visible ethnic or religious markers such as the turban, and adopting an “Indian accent” which involves head-shaking and rolled ‘R’s. The diversity of Indian ethnic groups like Punjabis, Bengalis, and Tamils are all collapsed into a homogenising, offensive stereotype.

Some Singaporeans had taken great offense at the use of brownface in the film Gunga Din (1939) and comedy Short Circuit (1986). However, in the last decade, there have been incidents of brownface that included corporate Bollywood parties, YouTube channels, and state media (Veerasamy, 2019). These have mostly gone unchallenged, and brownface was declared by government bodies to be “insensitive” but not illegal (Kaur, 2019). Tradition is not innocent either: in Malay folklore exists a blackface bogey man called Orang Minyak (‘oily man’), who commits voyeurism and abduction of young women under the cover of night.

Performing racial supremacy and inferiority

Showing minority populations with a history of racial oppression as varying combinations of primitive, backward, stupid, ignorant serves the discursive strategy of keeping them subordinated. The same processes occur globally, whether as a result of information flow and exchange with former or current colonising countries, or as a proven technique for keeping minority populations subordinated and establishing racial superiority both “on and off-stage” (Reyes, 2014).

The racial dynamics of non-White societies such as those in Latin America, the Caribbean (see Bonilla-Silva, 2004). and most of Asia, has gone largely unstudied and unanalysed. Within a discourse of white supremacy, the “reality and politics of a middle-racial category” can show us new ways of identifying and analysing racial interests.

Because the discourse of a ‘Black-White’ racial order is so pervasive, one of the common defences of societies without any majority White populations is that racism simply does not exist. However, the examples above have shown that while White racial supremacy exists globally, a similar, parallel process manifests in different forms as linked to local racial interests. Hence, the dominant group in a society will often enjoy economic, political, social and cultural privileges – all while also being linked to how near to Whiteness they can attain i.e. honorary White (Bonilla-Silva, 2004).

Just as the historical legacies of Black peoples are marked by “slavery, gender-specific servitude, conquest, legal segregation, colonisation, and socioeconomic peonage” (Reyes, 2014), so are the bodies of Brown and other racialised groups today in different ways and to different extents according to their contexts.

The colonised colonises: case of Indonesia

The Indonesian case illustrates all the above processes. Under Dutch colonisation, the practice of blackface was documented in the 1890s when a Malay-language commercial theatre group Komedie Stamboel performed stories from A Thousand and One Nights, which included a ‘black-amoor’ character meant to represent an African slave. As this actor announced the next night’s play (as per theatrical tradition), he used “broken Dutch mimicking an African” mixed with malapropisms, Malay and low Javanese words (Tjerimai, 15 November 1893; in Cohen, 2004).

In 1945, the new Indonesian republic declared independence from the Netherlands and claimed the entire territory of the former Dutch East Indies. What was Western New Guinea remained under the Dutch until the mid-1960s, when a controversial referendum resulted in the Indonesian annexation of the region. Thus in 1962 with the New York Agreement it became the province of Irian Jaya and was later renamed to Papua and West Papua in 1999 (the eastern half of the island being independent Papua New Guinea). Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement, or OPM) was established by West Papuan nationalists, who rejected the compromised referendum.

Blackface and racist stereotypes of Papuans justify economic exploitation through extraction of natural resources. Papua houses Grasberg, the world's largest gold mine and third largest copper mine. It is operated by Freeport Indonesia since 1973, a subsidiary of US-owned Freeport McMoran Copper and Gold. The mine dumps waste in the deltas and rivers, destroying food sources and degrading the environment. Military and police oppression, kidnapping, torture, and surveillance of religious and local leaders are all attempts to contain any protests or demands for self-rule. The profits of mining are not channelled back into the province, where Papuans live in poverty in addition to dealing with Indonesian settlers from other islands.

In the national discourse, the province is seen as valuable to the country because of natural resources and biodiversity. However, Papuans who study and work in cities on the major island of Java face racial discrimination from both the general public and the police. In August this year, Papuan students in several cities protesting the 1962 agreement were accused of vandalising the Indonesian flag and were arrested, sparking protests in West Papua demanding justice for the students with banners saying ‘kami bukan monyet’ (we are not monkeys) and social media hashtags #papuabukanmonyet.

Demasking blackface

[…] all people are defined according to a set of terms that are constructed as mattering by those in positions of power or by those with investments in maintaining social hierarchies. To “see” “racial difference” is thus not to actually see differing bodies, but to see bodies as fundamentally marked by a particular way of viewing, with a particular emphasis on certain aspects of embodiment. (Riggs, 2008)

What does it take to demask the harms of blackface and brownface, when they are often hidden under the guise of humour? The first step is to make the connections between what seems like ageless cultural traditions and transnational flows of conceptualised representations. What seems to have always been there needs to be situated in a historical context. Excavating the past may also reveal more a history of progressive action and refusal of blackface and brownface.

Next is to understand that the performative use of blackface and brownface creates and reinforces racial hierarchies in a society. While in some contexts, brownface is used with reference to local dynamics while blackface to global dynamics, both build on each other and have a shared goal of dehumanisation, subordination and oppression in the service of larger economic ends. Finally, as culture is dynamic, it is always possible to create or bring back alternative performances that humanise historically marginalised peoples.


Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2004. “From Bi-Racial to Tri-Racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 27 (6): 931–50.

Cohen, Matthew Isaac. 2004. “Thousand and One Nights at the Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theatre and Travelling Stories in Colonial Southeast Asia .” Middle Eastern Literatures 7 (2): 235–46.

Fukushima, Yoshiko. 2011. “Ambivalent Mimicry in Enomoto Kenichi’s Wartime Comedy: His Revue and Blackface.” Comedy Studies 2 (1): 21–37.

Goppel, Daan. 2016. “Sie Gins Kom de Stoomboot - Sinterklaas Op De Molukken: Ambon.” YouTube. 2016.

Ho, Michelle H.S. 2017. “Consuming Women in Blackface: Racialized Affect and Transnational Femininity in Japanese Advertising.” Japanese Studies 37 (1): 49–69.

Kaur, Sharan. 2019. “Everything Old Is New Again: Singapore’s Long History with Blackface.” Coconuts Singapore. 2019.

Kuipers, Matthijs. 2017. “‘Makanlah Nasi! (Eat Rice!)’: Colonial Cuisine and Popular Imperialism in The Netherlands During the Twentieth Century.” Global Food History 3 (1): 4–23.

Reyes, Angelita D. 2019. “Performativity and Representation in Transnational Blackface: Mammy (USA), Zwarte Piet (Netherlands), and Haji Firuz (Iran).” Atlantic Studies : Global Currents 16 (4): 521–50.

Riggs, Damien. 2008. “How Do Bodies Matter? Understanding Embodied Racialised Subjectivities.” Darkmatter. 2008.

Veerasamy, Visakan. 2019. “It’s Time for a History of Singaporean Chinese People in Brownface.” Twitter. 2019.