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The Myth of the Depression-Proof Muslim

Zeba Khan

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There’s this article I haven’t written yet, the one where I confess to struggling with depression.

In that soul-baring masterpiece I finally admit to sleeping too little and breaking down too often. I talk about having a child with autism, a rare genetic disease, and the heart-breaking pain of watching my children develop the same disease too.

I cry while writing it, you cry while reading it. Its completion gives purpose to my years of private struggle but – but I haven’t written that one yet. So I’m writing this one instead.

We Muslims have some pretty ridiculous myths about depression, and the worst is that somehow there is “no depression in Islam.”

O mankind, there has to come to you instruction from your Lord and healing for what is in the breasts and guidance and mercy for the believers. – Qur’an 10:57

Allah calls the Qur’an the healer of hearts. If depression doesn’t exist, is Allah referring to coronary heart disease?

This myth’s existence is based on the idea that depression is a form of ingratitude or low faith. Therefore, a person in depression mustn’t be “in Islam” so to speak.

Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested?  Allah asks this of us in Surah Anqaboot. You think being a believer means never being stressed? Wrong.

We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false. – Qur’an 29:2-3

Allah tested believers before, and He’ll test believers now. To say that depression is a sign of weak faith is to imply that those with bad lives are guilty of being bad Muslims, and this completely contradicts what we know about the most righteous people. In fact, the more righteous you are, the more likely you are to be tested.

Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqaas, may Allah be pleased with him, once asked, “O Messenger of Allah, which of the people are most sorely tested?”

The Prophet ﷺ said: “The prophets, then the next best and the next best. A man will be tested in accordance with his level of religious commitment. If his religious commitment is strong, he will be tested more severely, and if his religious commitment is weak, he will be tested in accordance with his religious commitment. Calamity will keep befalling a person until he walks on the earth with no sin on him.”

For as long as people have been unhappy, the human mind has struggled with understanding the difference between a test and punishment. A person can suffer and instead of seeing their suffering as temporary opportunity, they wonder what they did to deserve such punishment.

Shaitaan loves this train of thought, because it travels due south. I’ve done everything Allah asked me to. I know I’ve messed up, but I said I was sorry. Why is He is doing this to me? Either Allah’s not fair or Allah’s not really there. Either way, this sucks and I don’t wanna do this anymore.

That’s a dangerous ride to take, and if you don’t change direction before going too far, your options become limited to loss of faith or loss of life. You either give up on Allah and find other reasons to continue living, or discontinue living entirely.

No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.  – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Life is painful and unpredictable and complicated, so when it comes to knowing the difference between a punishment and a test, all you have to remember is this: How are you reacting to it?

If you find yourself faced with depression and you fight it with the help of Allah and all the means He puts at your disposal, it is a test and you have passed it even if you NEVER fully defeat depression. As long as your keep your faith and stay patient, you have shed sins the way a tree sheds its leaves in fall. You trade some pain in this life for reward in the next, that other believers will be halal jealous of.

However, if you find yourself faced with depression and you resent Allah for it, allowing your state to push you farther from Him and closer to any sinful thing you can use to distract yourself from it, then your test has become your punishment. Your response increases your pain in this life AND the next.

Say: “Nothing shall ever happen to us except what Allah has ordained for us. He is our protector.” And in Allah let the believers put their trust. – Qur’an 9:51

A dear friend of mine called me once, knowing that I was struggling. She had been taking a class on the names of Allah, and when she read up on Al-Jameel, she just had to tell me about it.

“Zeba listen!” she said excitedly, “Allah is Al Jameel, He is Beautiful! He creates beautiful things! He loves Beauty!”

I thought of flowers and fractals and fish. I didn’t see the relevance. “And?”

“Don’t you get it? Al-Jameel wrote your Qadr with beauty too. He wrote autism into your son’s Qadr. He wrote beauty in all of it, even in your pain.”

If that hit you in the heart the way it hit me, make dua for Mona. I think of that phone call often, because it was the first time I began to see pain as part Allah’s plan, rather than my own failure at the emotional invulnerability that I believed all good Muslims were supposed to have.

I wasn’t hurting because I was a bad Muslim, badly managing Allah’s punishment for my badness.  I was hurting because Allah was allowing me to experience hurt, and hurt forced me to seek Allah out for healing.

How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for his affairs are all good, and this applies to no one but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is thankful for it and that is good for him. If something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience and that is good for him. -Prophet Muhammad ﷺ

Being depressed feels like sitting underwater in the bottom of a well, hating the darkness but starving for the air and strength needed to swim toward the surface. It’s cold and lonely and desperately hopeless down there. Depression feels so very far away from Allah, but it forces me to fight my way closer to Him. And I feel safer and less afraid knowing that Allah put me at the bottom of the well the same way He put Yusuf down there, peace be upon him.

Allah knows I’m  down here. He knows I can make it out. I don’t have to know everything that He knows, I just have to trust Him.

In my other article- I’ll write it one day maybe – I have this totally neat, emotionally satisfying and perfectly well-rounded conclusion. I put depression in its proper context by calling it a test, not a punishment or curse for weak Muslims. I let on that I was depressed before but I’m ok now, and if I can make it out of depression then you can too.

That’s in my other article though. In this one, I’ll be frank. I get sad sometimes, I get really, really sad. And then, I feel guilty for feeling sad. Not because I’m blaming myself for not being “Muslim enough” to get happy already, but because I when I look at my first world life and my first world problems, I feel as if I am making a big stink. Like oh pity me, I’m chronically sick but happily married, well supported, and have a good healthcare plan that covers most of my deductibles and I also don’t live in a war zone. 

None of my self-deprecating objectivity seems to work. I can imagine all the children dying in Syria and Palestine and Burma and South Sudan, but when mine cries in my lap because she’s not feeling well for the 99th day out of the last hundred, I feel like my heart is broken.

I’m trying to remember that my heart is NOT broken though. It’s working perfectly well and doing the things my heart is supposed to be doing. It is aching out of sympathy for the love of my children, because they too are being tested by the will of Allah. My heart is struggling and in pain, and I will use that pain to seek healing by the will of Allah. Because that is what my heart is supposed to do. Hearts are supposed to hurt.

Because Allah has promised to heal them.

Zeba Khan is the Director of Development for MuslimMatters.org, as well as a writer, speaker, and disability awareness advocate. In addition to having a child with autism, she herself lives with Ehlers-Danlos Sydrome, Dysautonomia, Mast-Cell Activation Disorder, and a random assortment of acronyms that collectively translate to chronic illness and progressive disability.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Samir

    March 14, 2017 at 7:33 PM

    You’re not alone sister. I was seeking knowledge in the East, praying all my prayers in congregation, reading Arabic books in Islamic knowledge when I was hit with panic/anxiety and almost fell into depression as I was upset about being unable to study at the level I was before.

    Although I’m not as familiar with depression as I am with anxiety and panic, the key to remember is that these mental disorders have a biological component as well and are related to your nervous system. It’s not purely spiritual.

    A big mistake in thinking among many Muslims, even some du’āt and scholars is that depression and anxiety disorders can be cured by just fixing one’s spiritual habits.

    There is some truth in this, not being alone with your problems and keeping righteous company helps A LOT, as well as just slowing down and taking the time to have ikhlās and khushū in your daily actions, spending more time in tawakkul and sujūd and less worrying/ruminating etc.

    But the biological component of these disorder is still there, as well as the psychological. It is highly imperative to be able to speak to someone qualified to counsel you. I highly advise you to find a good therapist (preferably one with personal experience with depression and who is understanding of your need to be a faithful Muslim). If not, or if it doesn’t help much then medication is plan B.

    Do not continue on your own. Seek help, seek understanding and righteous company, and seek professional treatment. It’s been just over a year for me and I’m almost out of mine alhamdulillah.

    • Avatar

      MalikSaabSays

      March 15, 2017 at 8:20 PM

      As a healthcare Pro, the “medication” isn’t really medicinal, and proof of it is in the cure rates after accounting for other variables.
      The power of belief reigns supreme. Belief can effectively ​bring about physical and biological changes – and it does. Neurotransmitters start depleting when negative & irrational trains of thought are left unchecked. Those who check and remove them (whether by self or through help) their neurotransmitters get back up to speed again.

      Brain, mind. The One who designed it hasn’t left it without a service manual. And for sure we did not design it, nor it designed itself, and for certain it’s degree of specificity and precision is not a product of randomness …

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:45 PM

      JazakAllahuKheiran for sharing your experience Samir. You’re 100% right about there being two parts to depression, one that we can influence through our spiritual input, and one that’s plain ole biology. Having strong religious practices certainly can’t prevent depression, but it definitely helps mitigate it. :)

  2. Avatar

    dhaakirah

    March 14, 2017 at 9:17 PM

    I thank you for sharing your heartfelt thoughts with us. jazakillahu khairan.

    We have all been created unique & different and so our struggles & tests are also unique and tailormade for us. Our syrian bros and sis’s have their own tests, as do our Burmese, Palestinian, Sudanese and all the rest of humanity. They may see our struggles in the ‘free’ (non war-torn) world and be thankful for theirs while we see them and may feel guilty about ours. But Allah knows us all, every single one of us and so has gifted each of us with our very own personal pains that we can bear and overcome…(no soul is burdened with what he cant bear).
    (O Allah let them overcome their soon aameen).

    The Best of Planners has a plan for you and your family and maybe part of that is for you to get close to Him in this way, after feeling so far away, so that your children will emulate you and thus leave a beautiful legacy for yourselves.

    I recently learned that everyone in Jannah will each be there for a unique and different deed – maybe this is your unique path to Jannah.

    Imagine the unique depression of Yunus AS in the depth of the ocean and darkness of the whale when he made his dua of desperation, and then he is saved. I find that incident so inspiring and encouraging whenever I feel like I’m slipping into the proverbial well.

    Make dua the rest of us quickly find the direction on our paths and we meet among the Gardens.

    Sincere duas for you all from across the pond :)

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:47 PM

      This was a lovely thought and I will definitely hold on to this: “I recently learned that everyone in Jannah will each be there for a unique and different deed – maybe this is your unique path to Jannah.”

      And I love the mental image of Yunus AS in his darkness. I can only imagine what must have been going through his mind. May Allah have mercy on us all.

      • Avatar

        N

        March 11, 2018 at 5:54 AM

        I’ve tried to understand it but I can’t. How can you feel hopeless if you trust Allah, if truly internalise it its impossible. There’s a difference between sadness and depression. Depression is a hopelessness and that is why Yunus A.S made taubah a hundred thousand times for his hopelessness. If you believe your negative thoughts shaitan wins. I hate negativity. Know Allah and know happiness.

  3. Avatar

    Sofekul Allum

    March 14, 2017 at 9:40 PM

    Aa, A very interesting and beneficial article. The articles benefit me greatly in understanding mental health, depression etc.

  4. Avatar

    Alia

    March 14, 2017 at 11:09 PM

    Jazaki Allah Khair sister. I’m feeling your pain and I’m glad I read this. But Allah also asked us to take care of our health which includes our mental and emotional health. And our beloved prophet Asws “Tadawoo” use medication to heal. It’s obvious you are going through enourmous stress and sadness and it’s important that you seek professional help. It’s part of faith to care for yourself. I love you.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:47 PM

      Jazakillah sis :) I love you for the sake of Allah, and ask that Allah make you among those most beloved to Him.

  5. Avatar

    Saara

    March 14, 2017 at 11:41 PM

    insh’Allah may He give you the ease after your hardship. I relate to what you wrote so much.
    Depression among other mental illness has a biological component, so I hope you know that prayer helps us deal with going through life with illness but it’s definitely not a because of a lack of faith. We don’t say that about other illnesses I hope the Ummah comes to know this about mental illnesses too.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:49 PM

      You know Saara surprisingly sometimes we do say the same about other illnesses… and it’s not great there either. I’ve been told that if I made more dua my son wouldn’t have autism anymore. It’s important to recognize that people mean well, even if they are accidentally tearing holes in your heart without realizing it. Alhamdulillah. :)

  6. Avatar

    Shine

    March 15, 2017 at 12:46 AM

    Asalaamualaikum… Hey sister you are not alone. i have been there. And i admit i do sometimes revisit that well again and again. But as you said it should take you closer to Allah swt not away from Allah swt. It doesnt matter whether it is trail or punishment, what matters is how we deal with it.. What matters is the consolation that it was written in our Qadar. And we muslims believe in Qadr. What is apparently bad to us has many hidden dimensions that are known only to Allah swt. And we have this consolation that overall whatever Allah swt plans for us is the best. We may not always know the wisdom behind the trails, but we need to be assured that all trails have deep wisdom behind them. Sister nothing that happens in this world is futile, nothing is redundant. Everything that happens, even the leaf that falls has a deep wisdom behind it. You see Allah swt is not concerned with end results. You and i are depressed, thats perfectly okay but inspite of that even if we try to come out of it and struggle to fight it .Even if you may not come out of it but you tried and struggled with it . Thats called effort. and thats what Allah swt values. He values efforts rather than end results. I am sure sister you know all this but we need to keep reminding ourselves again and again because REMINDER BENEFITS THE BELIEVER. In the end we all need reminders sometimes even those that were written by us only.
    http://www.abezsez.com/2013/11/dear-not-a-loser/
    I pray May Allah swt ease our trails and give us best in this Life and Akhirah. Aameen

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:56 PM

      Hey sis, of course I remember you! < > Jazakillah for the reminder, reminders are awesome.

  7. Avatar

    Ali Saeed

    March 15, 2017 at 10:06 AM

    So much truth in your powerful ending: “Hearts are supposed to hurt….Because Allah has promised to heal them.” – makes you wanna cry in sajdah

  8. Avatar

    Mariam

    March 15, 2017 at 5:06 PM

    I hope you also get to finish your other article with a good ending inshaAllah. And also an ending with a never-ending joy and contentment of the Hereafter, ameen.

  9. Avatar

    Mubashira Ajmal

    March 15, 2017 at 6:49 PM

    Assalamualaikum

    Jameel..also, as in, Sabrun Jameel.. a beautiful patience. Duas for u, ur little one, n those fighting the hard times everywhere

  10. Avatar

    Zenubia

    March 15, 2017 at 11:48 PM

    If the believers didn’t feel sad or depressed there wouldn’t be a chapter in the seerah called Aam Ul huzn – the year of sadness.

  11. Avatar

    umm ismael

    March 16, 2017 at 1:11 AM

    Asslam u alaikum
    May Allah Alleviate your burdens and May He Make ease in your affair and may He Grant you from His endless bounty. May He Heal and cure you and Provide you from where you did not even imagine ameen

  12. Avatar

    Waffles

    March 16, 2017 at 2:23 AM

    I loved that you shared this. I think as Muslim communities, we always share good things or accomplishments. I think it’s harder to share loss, grievances, or just daily struggles. But this is what Muslims are about. We are there for each other thru thick and thin. More than that, we believe Allah is there thru it all.
    Thank you for your beautiful words and pointing us all back to Allah (swt).

  13. Avatar

    Amatullah

    March 16, 2017 at 2:35 AM

    Your fear for your children reminds me of Yaqoob AlayhiSalaam. He was so much in depression after the temporary loss of his child – Yusuf AlayhiSalaam. He cried until his eyesight got weak. But Allah delivered Yusuf AS “beautifully” back to his father, SubhanAllah.
    La Ilaha Illa Anta Subhanaka Inni Kuntum Minazzallimeen.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 18, 2017 at 4:58 PM

      Beautiful reminder Amatullah- Yaqoob, may Allah bless him, lived for years in sadness and cried until he went blind and of course he was a proper Muslim, he was prophet of Allah!

      SubhanAllah :)

  14. Avatar

    Simeen

    March 16, 2017 at 12:30 PM

    Subhanallah, Zeba! This is so beautiful, I’m lost for words. Barakallahu feeki. May Allah ta’ala bless you and your family With His best both in this life and The Hereafter.

  15. Avatar

    Farah

    March 16, 2017 at 6:55 PM

    JazakAllah so much for sharing your thoughts and story. You are so strong. May Allah make all your hardships easier, may He give you sabr through the hard days and the ability to find little precious joys amidst the sad moments. May Allah grant your children health amd happiness and guide them to all that is right and good. Ameen.

  16. Avatar

    amtullah

    March 17, 2017 at 4:28 AM

    New Atheist Fantasyland?
    Quick question before I start exploring your blog: U an atheist?

  17. Avatar

    Abu Aaliyah

    March 22, 2017 at 8:10 PM

    I am a Psychiatric Social Worker and can confidently state that there is no such thing as a depression-proof Muslim. Anxiety and Depression are very common in the Muslim community. Thank you for taking the courage to write about your experience and raising self-awareness on this issue. Thank you for being vulnerable and using it as a tool to let others connect with your experience(s). I want to share with you an article on vulnerability that you may find useful.

    http://www.thismuslimreads.com/read/daretobevulnerable

  18. Avatar

    Mahmoud

    April 19, 2017 at 1:30 AM

    Dear Zeba,
    As said by others, your will not walk alone. Once in a while i do get down for no reason. But possibly worth sharing is that i have been struggling with an anxiety disorder for over 30 years. My outsider demeanor is that of a calm and composed Muslim but inside there is periodic storm! Though i am aware, Alhamdulillah, about my excellent articulation of of issues, speaking publicly coherently is a arduous task, not withstasding the pounding heart. It may sound ridicuous even after self positive talk about the absurdity of that current emotional being.To flavour the challenge, there is this ringing ear (tinitus) which occassionally roars.
    This is part of the tests we will all be subjected. In sha Allah, as one sister mentioned it may be the ‘dog’ that will propel you to Jannah.

  19. Avatar

    Maria

    September 25, 2017 at 7:15 AM

    Thank you sister for this article.
    I thought I was the only one who thought that being depressed is unislamic and proof of my weak eeman, being ungrateful for what I have and that my anxiety issues are a result of little tawakkul. It turns out I was wrong.
    May Allah bless you and give you lots of strength.
    P.S.
    What I found hugely helpful was a self help book “Manage your mood” by David Veale & Rób Willosn. It’s about using Behavioral Activation techniques.

  20. Avatar

    craig turton

    December 7, 2017 at 9:26 PM

    You are right, I too have experienced what you have. But what has lead us back, our-believe in the God of Abraham, brings us back and stronger!

  21. Avatar

    anne

    March 21, 2019 at 5:53 PM

    This has helped me so much. I am feeling so lonely at the moment.
    I am married, have good healthy kids Alhamdolillah, not going through what you are with your child, and not living in abject poverty or in a war zone, but I am so terribly in a bad place, that there are times where I will sit alone and stare into space, not wanting to do anything.
    Maybe I have depression, but why? What have I got to be depressed or sad about?
    Yet here I am, day after day, wondering why am I sleeping so much, always feeling tired and lethargic, and I don’t even know what am I feeling sad about.
    I have this feeling of my own personal black cloud filled with gloom hovering over my head. Everyone seems to be getting on with things, but I am feeling useless. I get invited to places, but the mere thought of attending fills me with anxiety and stress. I feel I have to act happy and the effort to do small talk with others fills me with dread.
    I have such low esteem, and I don’t know how I can get my confidence back.
    I feel I am no good at anything. I miss my parents and siblings who live quite far from me, but yet I have a husband and children, so nothing to really be complaining about.
    I listen to Islamic talks whilst I am alone at home, am chirpy and smiley when I do meet people, but it is just a mask.
    I feel all alone. Your article has given me hope that maybe this is only a test, and I should be optimistic that it will be my turn to shine one day. I don’t feel I am of any real use to anyone anymore. If I cry I chastise myself for feeling sorry for myself when I should not have any real reason to cry. I can’t talk to anyone because they too will think it strange, when I have nothing to feel depressed about. I am grateful for everything I have but am stuck, like you described, on the cold floor at the bottom of a well, peering through the blurry water, but not making any progress to rise above it.
    Everyone tells me to get a job or a hobby or do something, I wish I could.
    The first step seems to be the hardest hurdle, I feel I need to do something, but cannot motivate myself to do anything.
    So I will carry on, being the stay at home mum that so many will envy. You are so lucky they say, and I am, so why am I still feeling sad and unfulfilled? Am I so ungrateful? I don’t want to be.
    I hope this feeling passes, and until then, I will just put on my happy mask for my kids sake, and hope for the true healing of my heart, and all of yours too.

    • Zeba Khan

      Zeba Khan

      March 27, 2019 at 4:46 PM

      Anne habibti, I feel you. Depression doesn’t make sense and it’s not the same as being sad because you lost something or you’re missing someone. It’s something your brain does regardless of whether there’s a reason to or not, and maybe that’s your jihad. Allah reward you for the struggle and the patience, Ameen! < <>>

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#Life

Why I Turned to Tech to Catch Laylatul Qadr

Make sure you maximize your sadaqah

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By Ismael Abdela

My life, just like yours, is sooo busy. So naturally, as the tech nerd I am, I turn to tech to help me manage my regular routine including project management apps to manage my daily tasks. I even have a sleeping app that wakes me up at the optimum time (whatever that means!). But even though tech has changed everything in all sectors and helped make efficiencies in my daily life, it had had little impact on my religious activities.

A few years ago, whilst I was preparing for the last 10 nights of Ramadan, it hit me – why doesn’t something exist that automates my donations during these blessed nights to catch Laylatul Qadr. Rather than putting a reminder on my phone to bring out my bank card every night and inputting it into a website – why doesn’t something exist that does it for me, solving the problem of me forgetting to donate. After all we are human and it’s interesting that the Arabic word for human being is ‘insan’ which is derived from the word ‘nasiya’ which means ‘to forget.’ It is human nature to forget.

So the techie in me came out and I built the first scrappy version of MyTenNights, a platform to automate donations in the last 10 nights of Ramadan (took two weeks) because I wanted to use it myself! I thought it would be cool and my friends and family could use it too. That same year, nearly 2000 other people used it – servers crashed, tech broke and I had to get all my friends and Oreo (my cat) to respond to email complaints about our temperamental site!

I quickly realised I wasn’t alone in my need  – everyone wanted a way to never miss Laylatul Qadr! Two years down the line we’ve called it MyTenNights, and our team has grown to 10, including Oreo, senior developers, QA specialists, brand strategists, creative directors and more. It fast became a fierce operation – an operation to help people all over the world catch Laylatul Qadr!

Last year alone we raised almost $2 million in just 10 days – and that was just in the UK. We’ve now opened MyTenNights to our American, Canadian. South African and Australian brothers and sisters and we’re so excited to see how they use it! We’ve made it available through all the biggest house name charities – Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Helping Hand, Penny Appeal, you name it! All donations go directly to the charity donors choose – all 100% of it.

Looking back at the last couple of years – it feels surreal: The biggest charities in the world and tens of thousands of users who share my need to be certain they’ve caught Laylatul Qadr. Although I hear many impressed with the sheer amount MyTenNights has raised for charity (and that excites me too!), it’s not what motives me to go on. What excites me most is the growing number of people who catch Laylatul Qadr because we made it easier.

I often tell my team that the number of people that use MyTenNights is the only metric we care about, and the only metric we celebrate. It makes no difference to us whether you donate $1 or a million – we just want you to catch Laylatul Qadr and for you to transform your Akhirah, because (after Allah) we helped you do it.

To catch Laylatul Qadr with MyTenNights, visit their website MyTenNights.com

Ismael Abdela is a Law & Anthropology graduate from the London School of Economics. He spent some years studying Islamic Sciences in Qaseem, Saudi Arabia. He is now a keen social entrepreneur. Ismael likes to write about spiritual reflections, social commentary, and tafsīr. He is particularly interested in putting religion in conversation with the social sciences.

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#Life

How Do Muslims Plan for Disability

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Families with children with disability have an extraordinary set of challenges and blessings.  Disability (or special needs) is a broad term.

Many disabilities will prevent what we often think of as “normal.”  It may hinder or prevent educational opportunities, and employment. Many people with “special needs” can get educated, get married and live long and productive lives.  The problem for many parents of younger children with special needs is that they typically have no certainty about their children’s future needs. Even if the situation looks dire, it may not stay that way.  

How do parents plan for a world where they may not be around to see how things will end up for their special needs children?  What can they do to help their children in a way that does not violate Islamic Inheritance rules?

Certain types of disability, especially the loss of executive decision-making ability, could also happen well into adulthood.  This can be a threat to a family’s wealth and be the cause of internal conflicts. This is the kind of thing every adult needs to think about before it happens.  

The Problem

The issues are not just that parents believe their special needs child will need more inheritance than other children. Muslim parents usually don’t think that. Some parents don’t want their special needs child to get any inheritance at all.  Not because of any ill-will against their special needs child; just the opposite, but because they are afraid inheritance will result in sabotaging their child’s needs-based government benefits.    

Many, perhaps most special needs children do not have any use for needs-based benefits (benefits for the poor).  But many do, or many parents might figure that it is a distinct possibility. This article is a brief explanation of some of the options available for parents of special needs children.  It won’t go over every option, but rather those that are usually incorporated as part of any Islamic Estate Planning.

Please Stand By

Example:  Salma has three daughters and two sons.  One of her children, Khalida, 3, has Down Syndrome.  At this point, Salma knows that raising Khalida is going to be an immense challenge for herself, her husband Rashid and all the older siblings.  What she does not know, however, is what specific care Khalida is going to need through her life or how her disability will continue to be relevant. She does not know a lot about Khalida’s future marriage prospects, ability to be employed and be independent, though obviously like any parent she has nothing but positive hopes for her child’s life.   

In the event of her death, Salma wants to make sure her daughter gets her Islamic right to inheritance.  However, if Khalida needs public benefits, Salma does not want her daughter disqualified because she has her own money.

Her solution is something called a “stand-by special needs trust.” This type of trust is done in conjunction with an Islamic Inheritance Plan and is typically part of a living trust, though it could also be a trust drafted into the last will.  I will describe more about what a special needs trust is below. For Salma, she is the Trustee of her trust. After she dies, she names her husband (or someone else) the successor Trustee. The trust is drafted to prevent it from becoming an “available resource” used to determine eligibility for public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid and other benefits that go with that.

If it turns out that Salma passes away when Khalida is 5, and her assets are held in trust for her until she is 18 and her Trustee determines she does not need a special needs trust, she will get her inheritance precisely like everyone else based on their Islamic right.  If she does need benefits, the Trustee will only make distributions to Khalida that would not harm her eligibility.

This way, there is no need to deny Khalida her inheritance because of her disability, and she is also making sure giving her daughter inheritance would not harm her daughter’s healthcare or other necessary support.  

Munir Vohra is a special needs advocate and an athlete

The Shape of Special Needs Trusts

A stand-alone Special needs trusts, which is sometimes called a “supplemental needs trust” the kind without the “stand-by” variation I described above, are a standard device for families that have children with special needs. A trust is a property ownership device. A Grantor gives the property to a Trustee, who manages the property for the benefit of a beneficiary. In a revocable living trust, the Grantor, Trustee, and Beneficiary are typically the same person.  

When the trust is irrevocable, the Grantor, Trustee, and Beneficiary may all be different people. In a special needs trust, the person with a disability is the beneficiary. Sometimes, the person with a disability is also the Grantor, the person who created the trust.  This might happen if there is a settlement from a lawsuit for example and the person with special needs wants it to be paid to the trust.  

In many if not most cases, the goal may not be to protect the beneficiary’s ability to get public benefits at all. Many people with a disability don’t get special government benefits.  But they do want to protect the beneficiaries from having to manage the assets. Some people are just more susceptible to abuse.

The structure of the arrangement typically reflects the complexity of the family, the desire of siblings and extended family to continue to be involved in the care and attending to the needs of the person with a disability, even if they are not the person directly writing checks.   

Example: Care for Zayna

Example: Zayna is a 24-year-old woman with limited ability to communicate, take care of her needs and requires 24-hour care.  Zayna has three healthy siblings, many aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her father, Elias, earns about $70,000 per year and is divorced. Zayna’s mother Sameena cannot contribute, as she is on social security disability. However, Zayna’s adult brother and sisters, brother in laws, sister in law and several aunts, uncles want to help Zayna meet her needs E.lyas creates a third party special needs trust that would ensure Zayna has what she needs in the years to come.

Zayna receives need-based public benefits that are vital to her in living with her various disabilities and her struggle to gain increasing independence, knowledge and dignity.  So the trust needs to be set up and professionally administered to make sure that when Zayna gets any benefit from her trust, it does not end up disqualifying her ability to get any needs-based benefit.  

Contributions to the special needs trust will not go against Islamic Inheritance rules unless made after the death of the donor.

If Zayna dies, her assets from the special needs trust will be distributed based on the Islamic rules of inheritance as it applies to her.

When disability planning is not about Public Benefits

Perhaps most families with special needs children do not use any needs-based public assistance.  They are still concerned about special needs and planning for it.

Example:  Khadija, 16, is on the autism spectrum. For those familiar with the autism spectrum, that could mean a lot of things.  For her parents, Sarah and Yacoob, other than certain habits that are harmless and easy to get used to, it means Khadija is very trusting of people. Otherwise, she does well in school, and her parents don’t think she needs way more help than her siblings and she has just as good a chance of leading a healthy and productive life as any 16-year-old girl.  

The downside of being too trusting is that the outside world can exploit her.  If she ends up getting inheritance or gifts, she may lose it. The parents decide that when she gets her inheritance, it will be in a trust that would continue through her life.  There will be a trustee who will make sure she has what she needs from her trust, but that nobody can exploit her.

In some ways, what Khadija’s parents Sarah and Yacoob are doing is not so different from what parents might do if they have a child with a substance abuse problem.  They want to give their child her rights, but they don’t want to allow for exploitation and abuse.

Considering your own needs

There are many people who are easy marks for scammers, yet you would be unlikely to know this unless you are either a close friend or family member, or a scammer yourself.  While this often happens to the elderly, it can happen at just about any age. Everyone should consider developing an “incapacity plan” to preserve their wealth even if they lose their executive decision-making ability.   

There is this process in state courts known as “conservatorship.” Indeed, entire courtrooms dedicate themselves to conservatorships and other mental health-related issues.  It is a legal process that causes an individual to lose their financial or personal freedom because a court has essentially declared them not competent to handle their affairs. Conservatorships are a public process.  They can cause a lot of pain embarrassment and internal family strife.

One of the benefits of a well-drafted living trust is to protect privacy and dignity during difficult times.

Example: Haris Investing in Cambodian Rice Farms

Haris, 63, was eating lunch at a diner.  In the waiting area, he became fast friends with Mellissa; a thirty-something woman who was interested in talking about Haris’s grandchildren.  The conversation then turned Melissa and her desire to start a business selling long distance calling cards. Haris was fascinated by this and thought it made good business sense. Haris gave Mellissa $20,000.00. The two exchanged numbers. The next day, Mellissa’s number was disconnected.

Haris’s wife, Julie became alarmed by this.  It was out of character for her husband to just fork over $20,000 to anyone on the spur of the moment.  What was worse is that the business failed immediately.  

Three months later,  Haris meets Mellissa at the diner again.  She then convinces Haris to invest $50,000 in a Cambodian rice farm, which he does right away.   His wife Julie was pretty upset.

How living trusts helps

As it happened though, Haris, a few years before, created a living trust.  It has a provision that includes incapacity planning. There are two essential parts to this:  The first is a system to decide if someone has lost their executive decision-making ability. The second is to have a successor Trustee to look over the estate when the individual has lost this capacity.  This question is about Haris’s fundamental freedom: his ability to spend his own money.

If you asked Haris, he would say nothing is wrong with him.  He looks and sounds excellent. Tells the best dad jokes. He goes to the gym five times a week and can probably beat you at arm wrestling. Haris made some financial mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes.

Julie, and his adult children Haroon, Kulsum, Abdullah, and Rasheeda are not so sure it’s just a mistake.  The living trust created a “disability panel.” This panel gets to vote, privately, in if Haris should continue to act as Trustee of his own money.  If they vote that he should not manage his own money, his wife does it for him.

The family has a way to decide an important and sensitive issue while maintaining Haris’ dignity, privacy and wealth.   Haris’s friends don’t know anything about long distance calling cards or a Cambodian rice farm; they don’t know he lost his ability to act as Trustee of his trust.  Indeed the rest of the world is oblivious to all of this.

Planning for everyone

Islamic inheritance is fard and every Muslim should endeavor to incorporate it into their lives.  As it happens it is an obligation Muslims, at least those in the United States, routinely ignore or deal with inadequately.  However, there is more to planning than just what shares go to whom after death. Every family needs to create a system. There may or may not be problems with children or even with yourself (other than death, which will happen), but you should do whatever you can to protect your family’s wealth and dignity while also fulfilling your obligations to both yourself and your family.

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Should Spiritual Leaders Who Violate Our Trust Be Forgiven?

Some people want to move past the indiscretions of community leaders quickly as though they never occurred while others wish to permanently blacklist them. This article examines a third option between the two that can be a win-win for the fallen leader, the victims, and the community.

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In the past couple of years, a number of simmering scandals among spiritual leaders became public knowledge and the subject of vigorous and often painful public debate.  As someone who has worked in the community dawah space the past 15 years, often acting as a bridge between past and present microcelebrity as well as non-celeb teachers to the community at large, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly – should community leaders who violate our trust be forgiven?  I’m often asked by people who aren’t fanboys / fangirls taken by microcelebrity dawah culture or wearing spiritual blinders for non-celebs, and often don’t even understand what has occurred.  Below I share answers I have heard as well as what I believe is fair and pragmatic in many (not all) situations.

Answer #1:  Yes, We Must Forgive Them

One group of people argue we should completely forgive them. No one is perfect, everyone is human and makes mistakes.  If we assume the mistake was truly made, then we should also forgive them and move on. Our faith is replete with statements about Allah’s Mercy, and if we want His Mercy, surely we should also give it to others. Oftentimes, members who fall into this group don’t actually believe the person in question is at fault and are trying to convince others either on the fence or against the individual to let it go. Of course, there are some who believe the violation occurred and not think it a big deal, while others may think the violation indeed was a big deal, and should still be forgiven. I can agree with some aspects of this, but not completely.

Answer #2:  No, They Should Never Be Forgiven

Another group believes that once a person commits a violation of trust, they are no longer to be trusted again. They should leave their positions and be ostracized from the community permanently. They are to be tarred and feathered and made an example of for life.  Members within this group oftentimes don’t need to wait for evidence to arrive at any conclusion – they were judge, jury, and executioner well before there was a trial.  Not all members are like this, of course – some waited for evidence and then reached their conclusions that the gravity of the charges was too much and therefore the person should never be forgiven.

Answer #3:  It Depends – Forgive Them If They Take Ownership and Make Amends

In my view, the problem with the first group is they don’t often see that the person did anything wrong, or if they did, it’s trivial relative to the khayr, the good and benefit they bring to the community. They keep citing that Allah is forgiving, so we should forgive automatically, but in their haste, they forget that part of the process of making restitution is first sincerely regretting what one has done.

To sincerely regret, one must also move out of denial and into acceptance that they made a mistake. Once one admits failure, they can then ask to be forgiven, and then the aggrieved party is in a position to grant it. The community forgiving and re-integrating a person who refuses to take responsibility for their wrongdoing does neither them, their victims, nor the community any good. We continue to distrust the person and they continue to believe they can get away with whatever they wish because they are “special”. Victims fear community integration, everyone becomes cynical about religion, and the cause of calling people to become better worshippers of Allah is harmed.

On the flip side, the second group is far too extreme in their view of justice. To ostracize that person and leave them no path of return means they have no means to redeem themselves, and de facto their families are casualties who must deal with the fallout of being pushed out of the community. I agree that none of us are perfect, and we all often make egregious mistakes. In my own experience, there are many instances where activists who advocate publicly for better are often involved privately in worse than those they go after.

That being the case, there is no person that can’t be forgiven, and I would say we shouldn’t leave aside this possibility in our dealings with those who fail us just as we expect it when we ourselves fall short, sometimes seriously so. I would add that we would lose the skills and talent of that person – if we believe in allowing people with criminal histories back into the general population and providing them with opportunities to become productive, reformed citizens, I don’t see why we wouldn’t offer the same to our community and religious leaders.

The key I believe is in following a process which includes the following for the individual:

  1. Taking ResponsibilityThey own responsibility for the mistake and acknowledge it was made.  No amount of denial, minimization, and spin will suffice.
  2. Make Restitution:  First and foremost, they apologize and make amends as best they can with the victims.  If the issue went public, then they should apologize to those they were serving as a leader for their mistake as well. This includes handling financial compensation.
  3. Remediating Oneself:  Enroll in counseling, therapy, mentorship, and / or group support programs to help them overcome their issues.
  4. Being Held Accountable:  Work with others on concrete milestones of both behavior and programs that demonstrate their commitment to change.  Be able to show the community that they take reformation seriously and are committed to coming out of their mistake a better person, one who can even advise others of the mistake and how not to repeat it.

As someone who has worked in dawah and supported the ascension of numerous modern-day microcelebrity spiritual scholars and teachers, I and others like me act as a bridge between them and the community.  I do not speak for all of them, certainly, but I know that any leader who tries to re-integrate into the community without taking responsibility will continue to find that many will not support them. Most, in this case, feel a sacred duty to oppose their elephant-in-the-room integration to protect the community at large.

Likewise, I know that many like myself would be willing to overlook and forgive such individuals if they took responsibility for their behavior and demonstrated they were taking concrete steps to make amends for their mistakes.  The month of Ramadan is upon us, and sometimes one just has to rip the band-aid off, go through the process of feeling the pain of scrutiny for owning up, and then moving forward to forgiveness.  I won’t promise it’s easy or that everyone will change, but I can at least say many of us would have an easier time accepting individuals back into the community.

What’s your view on these situations?

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