“For some, this period [of religious development] was characterized by increased insularity, intolerance, and estrangement, sometimes from family…At the time, this felt right…But a curious thing happened to many of us as we aged…We began to see ourselves as individuals rather than members of homogenous 'whole'. And, of course, this led to friction as others saw us change, evolve and grow in ways they had not expected. Or, in more painful examples, the trauma had a negative impact on our practice of Islam which, in turn, led to even greater friction and estrangement from those we had once felt so close to. These are the sisters I term the 'walking wounded'.”
—Na'ima B. Robert, “Editor's Space,” SISTERS Magazine (March 2013)
UZ: What went wrong? That's the question I ask when I look around me and see so many wounded brothers and sisters struggling to hold on to their Islam, some who've simply let go. It's a question I even ask myself when I'm deeply pained by my own experiences with Muslims and our never-ending quest to champion 'pure Islam' in the world.
Na'ima, when I read your editor's note in the March issue of SISTERS, it brought tears to my eyes; maashaAllah, may Allāh bless you for writing it. I think so many of us, whether we were born into Muslim homes or accepted Islam later in life, can understand the profound implications of 'walking wounded'—sometimes on a very personal level, within our own lives or the lives of those we love.
Can you explain this term 'walking wounded' and what inspired you to use this vivid analogy?
NB: JazakAllahu khairan for your kind words about the editorial. I was inspired to write it after learning of some severe trials that some sisters I knew were facing. Now, the thing with trials is this: if you encounter them when your īmān is relatively strong, they can actually serve to make it stronger. Greater reliance on Allāh , increased supplication, a reminder of the true nature of this world; these are some of the positive side-effects of experiencing trials when your īmān is in fairly good shape. On the flip side, if your īmān is already weakened, these trials may wear it down even further, leading us to question our beliefs and doubt in Allāh's wisdom. Often, in these cases, there are feelings of disappointment or anger and these are directed at the Muslims who have either not helped the person who is suffering, or made the situation worse in some way. This translates into a generalised feeling of disillusionment and distrust of Muslims.
UZ: How common is this 'walking wounded' experience for Muslims today?
NB: I think there are a lot of Muslims hurting, a lot of Muslims suffering in their own quiet ways. And I am not referring here to suffering brought on by political upheaval. I'm talking about ordinary Muslims, in everyday life, suffering. And for me, what makes their pain all the more poignant and unsettling, is that, as far as we were concerned, it was never meant to be this way. You mentioned 'pure Islam' earlier and I read that with a wry smile. We thought that, once we accepted Islam, and did our very best to practice it according to the Sunnah etc, life would be better. Not perfect, because a perfect, happy life is reserved for Jannah – may we all meet there, āmīn. But sisters were prepared to sacrifice, to 'downsize', especially within marriages. We were prepared to give up work, to obey, to concentrate on the home, on childrearing and, for quite a few, accept polygamy and all that that entails. But, in return, I think we hoped for a good, honest life, a life of dignity, yes, we expected that, as sisters. And, from what I see today, it is the gap between those hopes and expectations and the reality that many sisters have had to face, that has led to the 'walking wounded' phenomenon. I think a lot of married sisters are hurting, I think a lot of divorced sisters are hurting, but there is no way for them to address these feelings in our communities. There is no way for them to demand justice from within the community. And this is not confined to sisters. Brothers have faced it, too, with other brothers who they came to rely on or with their families. I am thinking in particular of brothers who have not been allowed access to their children after divorce. A recent Facebook post brought this matter to my attention and, subḥānAllāh, so often we think that the brothers can't be hurt, that they have the upper hand in all situations. This discussion on custody opened my eyes to the fact that this is not always the case and that sisters can also be vindictive and manipulative, when it suits them.
UZ: What do you believe is leading to such a dramatic shift from a spiritual high to spiritual trauma? Is there something we as individuals or communities are doing wrong? Was there something wrong in how or what we learned about Islam in our formative years of seeking knowledge?
NB: There are a few things to consider here: firstly, I think our expectations were perhaps too high. But then again, if you can't expect a lot from the Muslims, 'the best nation', who can you expect it from? But maybe what we wanted 'the community' to deliver, especially in communities with a high convert/ returnee population, was unrealistic. I think that, in an ordinary Islamic context, much of the support that we feel we need from the masjid is supposed to come from the family. And if that support isn't there, we feel the failings of the masjid all the more keenly. I also think that, in some communities, there is too much emphasis on outward conformity to Islamic rules, and not enough on building a sincere and rich relationship with Allāh and cleansing ourselves, looking inward. The two sides are needed for a balanced Islamic identity. For many, it is easier to cloak oneself in the garb of piety than to strive to truly embody it. The only trouble with that is, when your conviction is tested for one reason or another, you often don't have the spiritual fortitude to withstand the trial, and Allāh knows best.
UZ: When I talk to some sisters who are on the verge of leaving Islam, I notice that for the vast majority of them, they are so deeply hurt by what they've experienced that there is strong aversion to being around Muslims or hearing Islamic lectures or talks. Have you noticed anything similar? What is your perspective on why this happens?
NB: I have definitely noticed this and, again, I put it down to the disillusionment and disappointment felt by such sisters. It's like, 'Yeah, I heard all that talk before but I know the reality now.' For instance, if you feel that the Muslims have failed you as a woman, the last thing you want to hear is someone talking about how Islam honours women. If you have been denied your rights, the last thing you want to hear is a lecture on women's rights in Islam. I feel that there comes a time for realness. And that realness is acknowledging the gap between the ideals that Islam holds and the reality that Muslims face. By all means, call to Islamic ideals, teach them, remind the Muslims about them. But you can't stop there. If you do not deal with the reality on the ground, the truth that people are living and tasting every day, you are doing the community a disservice and mocking the idea of 'living Islam'. Because it's much harder to deal with those truths, much harder to come to terms with those uncomfortable realities. But we must or those wounds will continue to fester and start to infect other parts of the community. This is me talking about translating Islamic ideals into practical solutions that will impact people's lived realities.
UZ: So often when there are spiritual crises amongst Muslims, a lot of blame is placed on masjids and communities as a whole. But on an individual level, how can brothers and sisters help stop or lessen spiritual trauma amongst fellow Muslims?
NB: As far as I am concerned, it is upon those of us who have been blessed with the ability to practise Islam to develop empathy. We are so cold, so unfeeling, so aloof. This allows us to distance ourselves from the wounded ones, to point fingers and sit in judgement. It is one thing to see or hear of someone's sin and, privately, seek refuge in Allāh from falling into it, or thank Allāh that He has not tested us with that. We make a private judgement about that action: do we hold it to be halal or haram for ourselves? Every Muslim must do this so that we can remain unequivocal about Allāh's laws. However, when it comes to the person who has committed that sin, our judgement should become empathy, seeking to understand, to support, to help them through it, guiding and advising them through word and deed. We give 'naseehah' – reminders, ayat of Qur'an or ahadith – because it's easier. To me, I have come to see this as shorthand for 'It's easier for me to remind you of a hadith than get involved in the mess of your life or actually be there for you in any meaningful, practical way.' That may sound harsh but, often, this is the way it comes across to the person being 'advised' in this way.
UZ: I agree. I too have noticed this. I think those who are blessed with the ability to practice Islam but do not have empathy for others are neither practicing Islam nor understanding it. So perhaps, the vast majority of us are in one way or another 'walking wounded'—some of us through imagining that we're practicing Islam when we're not, and others through consciously giving up on “doing right” due to spiritual exhaustion and confusion.
And Allāh knows best.
May Allāh purify our hearts and return us to true faith such that our belief in Him heals any wounds we may experience on this difficult journey toward meeting Him.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novels Realities of Submission and Hearts We Lost. She is now writing juvenile fiction stories under the name Ruby Moore. To learn more about the author, visit themuslimauthor.com or join her Facebook page.
Na'ima B. Robert was born in the UK and grew up in Zimbabwe. She embraced Islam in the UK and now lives in Cairo. She is the author of 'From my sisters' lips' and several books for children and young adults. She is also founding editor of SISTERS, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women and Discover, the new magazine for curious Muslim kids.
WRITTEN FOR MUSLIMMATTERS.ORG