Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.
I was around 19 years old the first time I met someone who was a victim of domestic violence.
She had shown up to class with some bruises on her face and had tried to cover it up with make-up. When I asked her what happened she said that she had tripped and fell into a wall. The bruises were definitely not those that would come from falling into a wall and so for some reason I pushed her to tell me what had really happened. She said her father had hit her in the face a few times the night before and that her brother had eventually stepped in to stop him, but not before her face was bruised. She told me every detail of how it happened, what it felt like emotionally to have your father strike you, went back and forth in blaming herself and blaming him for it, crying at times and yelling at others, until she asked me what she should do. And I had no idea.
So many of us live a sheltered lifestyle. One in which we are not attuned to the lived experiences of anyone other than our own. We don't know what life is like outside of our little bubble, and so we don't really provide adequate support and care needed to those who are around us. Mostly because we aren't aware of what their lives must be like. In my house, there was no domestic violence. But does this justify my not being aware of its existence in a real way until someone close to me went through it?
Ramadan brings in people from everywhere. At a cursory glance, most would say that the new faces belong to individuals at different levels of religiosity. This may or may not be true. There is a diversity in terms of life experience though and a huge opportunity for those who run communities to learn about their constituents' respective stories so that they can be better served. These past few weeks, I have been able to sit down with many people new to the community and just listen to what kind of things they go through. This is helpful to them because they have an opportunity to unleash at times years of doubt, anxiety and pain that was built up because they had no one to speak to before. It's also helpful to me though because it provides me with a deeper understanding of how different life can be for some people, and my experiential knowledge is not enough to provide a basis for community development and engagement.
"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted." ~ The Holy Quran, 49:13
Knowing one another means beyond simple acquaintanceship -- you need to know people deeply. People go through some real tough things and even if it doesn't seem like it's that serious to us, pain is very subjective. What hurts me is what hurts me -- you don't get decide if it makes sense or not. In the last 5 years I've sat with men and women of various ages, races, and ethnicities who have been victims of domestic violence, rape and molestation, have had a variety of mental health disorders, issues with depression and anxiety, substance abuse, relationships, sexuality, suicidal ideation, grief, and much more. Why should they not be given an entry point into a community just because those who are running it don't know what it feels like to have gone through what they have or are going through? Or that those who are running it can't see beyond black and white?
The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a person that anyone could come and speak to about pretty much anything. In our tradition, we see men and women, young and old, across ethnic and cultural divides, who came to him and spoke without hesitation about heavy matters that they were carrying in their hearts. They knew that he would listen to each and every word without interruption, more eager to hear as opposed to speak, and then help them on an individual reach their potential best despite that which they had done that was plaguing them. We've left behind this part of the prophetic legacy and character and we need to get it back.
We have to start supporting institutions that provide social services in a more thought-out and mindful manner. As of now, the main access point to a Muslim community is the imam. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which is the Imam is not always trained to provide pastoral care, especially to a community that is diverse. Invest in some counselors and mental health professionals that know how to relate to people or tell your Imam and masjid staff they have to undergo diversity training as well as take classes in counseling and mental health taught by professionals in each field respectively before they will be allowed to counsel anyone. There's only so many times you can tell a person to be patient and what they are going through is a test from God. We can be better than that.
Funding becomes a huge issue. Muslims don't give -- at least not in NYC. It breaks my inside every time a young woman comes to see me whose house is not a home and it is unsafe for her to be there but there is no place else that she can go, both in the immediate or in the long term, because we haven't built that shelter for her. Our orphans are not being looked after, our elderly are not being taken care of, our needy are not being provided for, and not knowing can no longer be an excuse. Because to the person who is going through it all it doesn't seem like you don't know, rather it seems like you don't care to know. If you aren't good at listening to someone's issues or get uncomfortable at the idea, help financially empower those that are. Volunteer your time in a different capacity and show that you appreciate the security and comforts that you have been given by doing your best to provide the same for someone who wanted to dream the same dreams you do, but can't because their reality is so much different than yours is.