Book Review: Rispler-Chaim, Vardit 2007. Disability in Islamic Law

werner [at]

Vardit Rispler-Chaim is a professor of Arabic studies (language and literature) at the University of Haifa. Her field of research includes the legal provisions of Islamic legislation and their ethical implications. Her publications relate to practical areas of law such as human rights (1992), medical ethics (1993), women’s rights (1995), genetic research (1998), abortion (1999), and people with physical or mental disabilities (2007). As a yield for missiology, her research broadens the view on other religions with regard to the social position there and the ethical ideas on this latter group of persons.

In 96 pages, she describes Islamic jurisprudence with regard to people with disabilities. It subdivides into the exercise of religious duties by people with limitations (pp. 19-40), the position of the same with regard to jihad (pp. 41-46), the moral-ethical opinion on marriage with regard to people with physical or mental limitations (pp. 47-68), the legal perception of intersexual people (hermaphrodites; khunta; pp. 69-74), and finally the deliberate or unconscious injury/mutilation by people (pp. 75-92). A detailed appendix contains all the important fatwas (binding legal information) on the above-mentioned areas (pp. 97-134). An index to disabilities, to the Islamic-Arabic terminology used, and to the personalities mentioned in the book (pp. 163-171) are rounding up her research.

In her introduction, Rispler-Chaim addresses the perception of people with physical or mental disabilities in the public sphere and their social position with regard to human rights. She relates Islamic terminology used in religious Arabic to currently known limitations (pp. 3-5; e.g., marid pl. marda “sick person” vs. marad “disease”). Her ethical-medical debate is based on the widely used medical model in disability studies, but she is aware of the social and cultural model (pp. 16-17). Her research also includes AIDS and intersex people (see below; pp. 10, 17), two areas on which there are a lot of fatwas. Homosexuality and AIDS are considered in Islam as a consequence of ethical and moral rejection.

World religions are similar in their social structure. There are the insiders and outsiders, the pious laity and the religiously responsible leaders (monks, clerics, etc.). Besides, people with physical or mental limitations generate in religious people the overall question of the meaning in life (theodicy). God, gods or divine powers have to be brought in line with the deviation from the normal (as also for diseases and catastrophes). In Islam, the cause of all deviation is causally founded in Allah; at the same time, it is up to the believer to seek blame not in Allah, but in himself (pp. 8-9). Reason (kafa’a, ‘aql) plays the basic prerequisite for meeting the religious demands of the religious communities (p. 20). Lack of reason excludes from or limits religious responsibility (e.g., leadership responsibility; p. 25).

Ritual purity (tahara) performs the foundation of the five Islamic religious obligations/pillars: the confession (not discussed), prayer five times (30:17; pp. 23-27), fasting (pp. 27-33), pilgrimage (pp. 34-37), alms tax (pp. 37-38).

Ritual ablutions for prayer are based, among other things, on the Qur’anic saying “In it [the Moschee. EW.] are people who like to purify themselves, and Allah loves those who purify themselves” (9:108; p. 19). People with limitations often cannot comply. Islamic jurisprudence therefore provides for exceptions. Rispler-Chaim emphasizes that each Islamic school of law has its own interpretation on this. The violation of the ritual purity commandment concerns above all the contamination by body fluids (urine, saliva, blood, menstruation, and sperm). Natural or also artificial exits are to be kept pure and closed during the prayers, e.g. by tampon, bandage, medical closures. Generally exempted are people with mental impairment, epileptics and unconscious people (p. 20). The Hanafites equate the former with children and enjoin them from the cleanings. If a person with disabilities (e.g., mobility impairment) finds help for ablution, he may use it. Alternatively to water sand is possible (special clay, dirt; p. 21, Fatwa 1996 of Mufti ‘Atiyya Saqr; 4:43; 5:6 and 2:267). There are also exceptions and recommendations for the prayer movements of kneeling, standing, lying (rak’as), such as leaning against the wall or objects. The obligatory prayer with its movements is recommended by fatwa as a rehabilitation measure (p. 27). Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi (2000) ordered the translation of the Friday prayer for the deaf through sign language, which triggered fierce backlash as it distracted all believers (p. 2).

A role as imam is only possible to a limited extent for people with physical or mental disabilities (p. 25). Conceivable, but not preferred, are imams with limitations for the group of people they belong to (blindness, deafness, incontinence, castration).

Fasting is generally not recommended for people with paralysis in order to spare the heart. People with skin impairments, on the other hand, are advised to fast as a rehabilitation measure (p. 33).

The pilgrimage is recommended only for people who have no mobility impairment and no psychological impairment (e.g., 2:196). For those who perform the pilgrimage with assistive devices, become ill in the process, or overcome their impairment after the journey, it is not valid and should be repeated (Mufti ‘Atiyya Saqr and ‘Abd al-Qadir in 1993).

People with impairments are partially exempted from alms tax. They are compared to children who are also exempt (p. 38). As recipients, mentally impaired people in particular benefit from the tax under the aspect of poverty and need of help (9:60).

According to the interpretation, “the blind, the sick and the crippled” (24:61) are excluded from jihad, as are the mentally ill (pp. 42-43). The legislation provides exemptions for non-Muslims under Islamic rule for the disabled, as they fall under “the weak” and are considered harmless.

Rispler-Chaim discusses marriage requirements for people with disabilities, infertility, and genetic impairments (pp. 59-61). In Islamic soteriological terms, beauty, wealth, and childbearing capacity are especially rewarded (health remains unmentioned; pp. 49-52), which often generally excludes people with limitations. Since adoption is forbidden in Islam, Rispler-Chaim argues, medical methods for determining infertility or genetic defects are particularly sought after in Islam (p. 60).

Rispler-Chaim discusses intersexual people in great detail (pp. 69-74). Gender reassignment surgeries are approved by many fatwas if the “benefit” has been examined by experts (pp. 73-74). What is left open is what constitutes a “whole” man or woman.

Rispler-Chaim’s research provides deep insights into ethical and moral aspects of Islam, which are particularly evident in the treatment of people with disabilities as social indicators.