Making the Individual Feel Worthy

Making the Individual Feel Worthy

It is narrated on the authority of Anas (Allah be pleased with him) that a woman, somewhat mentally defected, said, “O Messenger of Allah! I have a need that I want you to meet. He responded, “Ya Umm Fulan (O mother of so and so), choose the way you like to walk in so that I may know your need and meet it.” He walked with her in some route until she had her need fulfilled.[1]

This narration is profound in many ways and provides us with much to think about in relation to our dealing with others, such as men and women we might encounter who have suffered with some mental illness or who know others who have. The woman who came and approached the Prophet (peace be upon him) came with a request that the Prophet (peace be upon him) tend to one of her needs. What stands out at the beginning is the way the Prophet (peace be upon him) addressed that woman. There is something ennobling in the Prophet’s opening address. He addressed her, “Yā umm fulan”. What this seems to connote is a positioning of the woman in a frame of worthiness and respectability. The woman was already someone important, someone to be dependent on, valued and who had already gained importance. She was a mother and a mother before she might have been considered less or different because of her mental disability. Addressing others with titles of respect is an essential feature of politeness and etiquette in conversation.

Using words such as “sir” “madam” or “ma’am”, or to politely ask the addressee their name, and to call them by their name followed by “if I may” opens up an air of politeness and respect between you. This allows us to humanise one another and personalise our interaction.

Even if the conversation at times becomes impassioned on either side, repeated use of “sir” or “madam” or “ma’am” can help to calm any tension because it asserts that respect and dignity stand at the footing of any human encounter.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) then asked the women to choose which way she liked to walk. Again to offset any sense of Othering of the mentally challenged, the Prophet (peace be upon him) accorded the woman a power of choice, granted her an opportunity to make her own decision about going where she felt most comfortable. It is this spirit of understanding and compassion that should prevail between us. Dehumanisation is moral disengagement and this can quite easily take place when we create our own in-groups of the healthy bodied, mentally fit, intelligent, and beautiful. Oftenly, the perceived “lesser” groups, such as the disabled, crippled and deformed are devalued in our societies and are prejudiced against due to the negative evaluation or judgment ascribed to them based on their group membership. The Prophet (peace be upon him) taught us a remarkable lesson about what true disability means in a metaphysical sense namely, judgement belongs solely to Allah. Once, when arranging to visit a blind man in Medina, he told his companions that the man instead was not in fact altogether blind:

“Jabir bin ‘Abd-Allah (Allah be pleased with him) said, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said. “Take us to the man with vision who lives in Banu Wagif so that we can visit him.’ And that man was blind.”[2]

The tradition is insightful for what it reveals of the way the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not recognise the man through his disability, but instead inverted our understanding of what the disability means in the first place. The vision referred to is the man’s accurate spiritual vision; his spiritual eyes were unclouded though his physical eyes were blind.

Though the man was indeed blind, he was not to be castigated as such or looked down upon because of it. The Prophet (peace be upon him) showed that not only are differences we observe in this life temporal in relation to how things will fare in the next life, but that there is a more profound way by which we can recognise and make sense of our differences. Allah in the Qur’an says:

“Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth, letting their hearts gain wisdom, and causing their ears to hear? Yet, verily, it is not their eyes that have become blind but blind have become the hearts that are in their chests!” (Qur’an 22:46)

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him) was once ridiculed by others because of the thinness of his shin. The Prophet (peace be upon him) reminded them that they ought not to measure physical appearance merely by the standard of the present world:

Umm Musa said, “I heard ‘Ali (Allah be pleased with him) say that the Prophet (peace be upon him) commanded ‘Abdullah ibn Mas’ud to climb a tree and bring him something from it. His Companions looked at ‘Abdullah’s shin and laughed at its thinness. The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Why are you laughing? ‘Abdullah’s foot is heavier in the balance than the mountain of Uhud.”[3]

Humans speak different languages of emotion. These emotions can be simultaneously felt, exhibited and witnessed. How these different strands manifest themselves are relative to time and place and in turn make each experience entirely unique. It is not, however, the displays that are altogether unique, but the emotions of the giver and recipient that are entirely bound up by distinctive experiences, senses, fears, hopes and anticipation.

In the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a bedouin named Zahir bin Hizam (Allah be pleased with him) would bring gifts for the Prophet (peace be upon him) from the desert where he resided to the city of Madinah where the Prophet (peace be upon him) resided. The interchange of people and space between desert and city is greatly reflective of the way a spirit of belonging, compassion and community is embraced irrespective of small differences between us. Zahir could not compete with the gifts of the city dwellers who would bring clothing and food for the Prophet (peace be upon him). He instead would oftentimes bring small inexpensive presents like food items such as cottage cheese or butter – gifts from his home in the desert. Zahir held a deep-seated place in the collective memory of the inhabitants of Madinah and most importantly, in the heart and mind of the Prophet (peace be upon him). As he was leaving, the Prophet (peace be upon him) also gave him presents, and told him: “Zahir represents us living in the desert and we represent him living in the city.” Although he, like Julaybib, was perceived physically an unattractive man, but the Prophet (peace be upon him loved him dearly and taught others, as he did when noticing the deceased body of Julaybib, that each man has his place and such a construct of ‘place’ is not identified solely through the ‘self lens, but through a profound cognisance of true worth found in and through another. Any boundaries of Self and Other come to coalesce in the desert dwellers and city folk.

Once, while Zahir was trading, the Prophet (peace be upon him hid himself behind him and covered his eyes with his blessed hands. Zahir recognized the Prophet (peace be upon him) from his beautiful scent and the softness of his skin. Thereupon the Prophet, in a moment of merriment asked, “Who is going to buy this slave?” Zahir replied:

The Prophet replied: “But with Allah you are not a cheap merchandise. With Allah you are precious.”[4]

Zahir, irrespective of his physical appearance, of his poverty, of his peculiarities, was a man of worth and inner beauty like the others. He too was comforted and embraced by the Prophet (peace be upon him), who taught us through this desert dweller, that no-one in his immediate or distant societies should ever be devalued and prejudiced against.

The attitude of the Prophet (peace be upon him) was a testament to the fact that true worth and human greatness transcends smaller physical and geographical differences between people. The Prophet (peace be upon him) once asked his companions what they thought of an individual who was passing before them. They said, such a person was privileged; he was from the noble class of people; if he spoke, people would listen to him; if he sought marriage, he would easily marry and if he interceded on behalf of someone, it would be readily accepted of him. A man from the poor inhabitants of Medina then passed through and the Prophet (peace be upon him) asked the same question: “What do you think of such a person?” They said that if such a person addressed the community none would listen to him: if he sought marriage no-one would marry him and if he interceded on behalf of someone, it would not be accepted of him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) then said, “This (poor) person is better than such a large number of the first type as to fill the earth.”[5]

The narration emphasises that we cannot judge an individual based purely on what is perceived of them from their appearance. In our world, there are those who might relish in their successes and those successes will be outwardly shown. However, the Prophet (peace be upon him) showed in this narration that a person’s external condition or social position does not equal success, and a man’s true worth is not based on the extent to which he or she is recognised or held in high esteem by others. It might well be that the one held in low esteem (or even belittled and disparaged by others) is the one who lives by a higher value system, or is the most humble, grateful, and therefore more honoured with Allah. Allah mentions that after Prophet Yusuf’s betrayal by his brothers he was found in the well they cast him in and sold for a worthless amount, as revealed in the following verse:

“and then sold him for a small price, for a few pieces of silver: so little did they value him.” [Qu’an 12:20]

The travellers looked upon Prophet Yusuf’s external, perhaps disheveled state, his clothing perhaps soaked in water and dirt and clearly not realising the true worth of his very being he was sold for an insignificant amount. In drawing a lesson from this, sometimes we might turn away immediately upon seeing someone who does not conform to our social standards though we might not be aware of his or her true worth.

In R. Loydell’s poem “Tramp’, the poet describes the attitudes and perceptions of a wealthy family towards a homeless man. The man is peculiar in his behaviours and not in keeping with the family’s social expectations. For that reason, the man is ostracised and Othered. It is not on account of his character or personality that the family stay away from him, but only on account of his appearance. The poet describes:

“Our uneven stares dissuade approach.

We fear him, his matted hair, patched coat, grey look from sleeping out.

We mutter amongst ourselves and hope he keeps away.

No place for him in our heaven, there it’s clean and empty.”

Distance between the ‘tramp’ and the family is extended. There is no place for bridging and belonging between them since the man does not belong in their ‘heaven’. The Muslim must always remember that he or she is not the gatekeeper of heaven. Allah brings into His Mercy whoever He chooses and such choosing is not dependent on social status, wealth, demographics or physical appearance. Islam instead is a call to the hearts of mankind. The Prophet (peace be upon him) once asked his companions:

“May I tell you of the people of Paradise? Every weak and poor obscure person whom the people look down upon but his oath is fulfilled by Allah when he takes an oath to do something. And may I inform you of the people of the Hell-Fire? They are all those violent, arrogant and stubborn people.”[6]

[On Being Human by Dr. Osman Latiff, p. 37 -42]


[1] Sahih Muslim 2326.

[2] Al-Bayhaqi, as-Sunan al-Kubra 21372.

[3] Adab al-Mufrad 237.

[4] Ahmad. Tirmidhi, 1176.

[5] Sahih al-Bukhari 6447.

[6] Sahih al-Bukhari 4918

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