you give them an inch,
and they take your soul.
There were many moments that my heart hurt as I sat listening to Sakinah “The Muslim Hippie” recount the painful experiences that she shared with me for the book No One Taught Me the Human Side of Islam: The Muslim Hippie’s Story of Living with Bipolar Disorder. I often fought back tears and went home with a heart so heavy that I had to lie in bed until the strength came back to my limbs.
In one particularly emotional session, she said to me, “I didn’t become Muslim to be abused.”
These words were so profound that it took me a moment to regain my train of thought. The words hit a part of my heart that I didn’t even know was there. It was as if the words were spoken from my own wounded spirit.
The following is an excerpt from the book spoken in the voice of Sakinah, “The Muslim Hippie”:
“I’m sorry, Sakinah,” Halimah said again after explaining the reason for her apology. “I shouldn’t have accused you of being paranoid.”
Halimah explained how she had gone to the Muslim school for an event and when she walked inside, a well-known member of the community was talking about me to another woman, saying terrible things. Even though Halimah and others were present, they made no effort to conceal my identity or hide my faults. Halimah ultimately spoke up and defended me, saying, “You know, Sakinah has an excuse.” At that, one of the women was overcome with so much shame that she sat down and stared off into space as if the possibility had never occurred to her.
Halimah didn’t tell me what was said exactly, and she didn’t reveal to me who the women were. She had merely shared the story so that she could seek my forgiveness for accusing me of being out of touch with reality when I said people were backbiting me. Halimah herself was so disturbed by the incident that I started comforting her. From her reaction, I knew that whoever was involved were not just average community members. These were people whom she, as well as other community members, had held in high regard.
Halimah was having a difficult time reconciling their good reputation and high standing with the public discussing of my faults. It was one thing to backbite someone privately while venting to a friend (which in itself was sinful), but it was another thing entirely to use a place designated for the remembrance of Allah to publicly malign a believer. They already knew I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so what was the point?
Days later I was still infuriated by what had happened. Not only was I enraged at the audacity of their unapologetic backbiting of me, but I was also enraged at what they had done to my friend. In some ways, I felt worse for Halimah than I did for myself. I was long past my “honeymoon period” of imagining I’d found a spiritual family and a “model Muslim community” after converting to Islam. From everything that had happened when I was accused of using “bipolar” as an excuse to sin, I already knew that I was disposable and devalued by many members of the Muslim community. The hurt I had felt after I realized just how little I meant to them was excruciating, and I didn’t wish that suffering on anyone. So it was difficult to witness that painful realization sinking in through the suffering of my close friend.
Like myself, Halimah had converted to Islam and had no Muslim family, so having a Muslim community to call her own was crucial to her spiritual well-being and emotional comfort. I hated that this fairytale had to be destroyed through her overhearing fellow Muslims talk so horribly about a friend she loved and cared for.
Though I felt some sense of vindication in realizing that I was not being paranoid in imagining that the Muslims were talking about me, this realization only exacerbated my real paranoia. How could I ever know reality from imagination if I was continuously surrounded by people who didn’t care for me and who saw no problem with assassinating my character, both privately and publicly?
I Can’t Blame Them?
I didn’t become Muslim to be abused. This is what my heart said over and over as I fought the rage I felt at the mistreatment I experienced from the Muslim community during my bipolar episodes.
“You can’t blame them,” some friends have said in defense of the Muslims who abandoned me and spoke negatively about me during my illness. “They’re not doctors, so you can’t fault them for not knowing what was going on with you.”
I’ve thought on this point myself many times, but it offers me little solace and relief. I understand ignorance. I really do. I myself was ignorant of my illness for many years. But I honestly don’t believe ignorance is what inspired their mistreatment of me. Ignorance inspires a complete loss at what to do, not a deliberate decision of mistreatment. Ignorance might even incite some innocent carelessness, but it never incites cruelty.
Stigma. That’s what was underlying much of their mistreatment of me. Because I was suffering from behavior that allegedly took away my right to be treated kindly, they felt completely free to talk negatively about me and treat me harshly. It didn’t hurt that I was also an American convert (i.e. not one of them), so that made me doubly stigmatized.
Sakinah knows exactly what she’s doing. This is what I’d hear over and over in my mind as I struggled with manic and depressive episodes. Knowing the non-Muslim social worker’s positive conclusion about me helped tremendously, but unfortunately, it was not enough to silence the self-doubts incited by the Muslim community’s negative assessment of me.
When I stood before a judge who was to determine whether or not I was eligible for disability due to my mental health struggles, I began to explain to her some incidents that had occurred during my bipolar episodes. I started to tell her of some of my errant behavior and the things said about me in the community. I’d imagined that it was only fair that she heard all the perspectives concerning me. At the time, I was unsure whether or not the community had been correct in stating that I knew what I was doing.
However, the judge wanted to hear none of it. She was interested only in my medical records, my hospital stays, and what my doctors had said about me. Though today it seems a rather obvious approach, at the time, I was surprised that the judge wasn’t interested in the circumstantial accounts of those who had delivered their assessment on me for years.
It was at that moment when I was declared legally disabled by the judge that I think I began to really understand the significance of the gifts Allah had given me through Dr. Saleem (my Muslim psychiatrist), my closest friends, and the compassionate social worker who spoke well of me—and even through the book [about mental health in Islam] I’d found on Amazon. This understanding gave me a determination to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in the Muslim community, and I would use this clarity and inspiration to inform my mental health advocacy work.
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Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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