Photograph courtesy of Khalid Ashraf

Khalid Ashraf Q&A: ‘Some people in mosques say it’s not allowed to use sign language’

Photograph courtesy of Khalid Ashraf

The co-founder of Deaf Muslim UK on making Islam more accessible to people who are hard of hearing, and why we should all learn to sign

Khalid Ashraf, from Leeds, was born hearing but suddenly lost his ability as a young child. Now 56, he is the co-founder of Deaf Muslim UK, the country’s first organisation dedicated to assisting and advocating for Muslims who are hard of hearing in the UK and around the world. 

Ashraf was one of the first ever deaf Muslims to complete an MA in Islamic Studies at Markfield Institute of Higher Education in 2018. He is also involved in a number of other organisations, including sitting on the board of trustees for the UK Council on Deafness. Here, he speaks to Hyphen, using British sign language and an interpreter, about the difficulties he’s faced, how he has overcome them and why encouraging both deaf and hearing people to learn sign language could change the world.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You lost your ability to hear in early childhood. Do you know how that happened?

I was born hearing but became deaf when I was three. I don’t know what caused the deafness. I was told different stories growing up. Some of my family said it was from a fall, but I don’t know about that. My sister’s daughter — my niece — was also born hearing and is now deaf, so I’m not really sure. 

How did being deaf affect your family life and education?

I don’t think my mother knew what to do. It’s not something the Pakistani community speaks about. Back then there wasn’t much awareness. I didn’t know I was deaf until I was eight years old, which delayed my education. I was behind in school and didn’t have access to any information. Then a teacher recognised it would be better for me to go to a deaf school. When I moved, I started to understand and develop my language. My mother became very supportive after seeing my progress. She told me I could do the same things as hearing people.

How did people treat you as a deaf Muslim?

When I was growing up, some people used to make fun of me. They’d make silly hand gestures, making fun of sign language. I felt ashamed at the time because in the 1970s and 80s it was difficult to be proudly deaf. Similarly, with my Muslim identity. It felt embarrassing to be public about it, so I felt discriminated against for both. When I went to the shops I’d take off my hearing aids, put them in my pocket and put them back on when I returned. One time, on the way back home, I crossed the road and got hit by a motorbike because I didn’t hear it. From that moment, I realised I needed to put myself first and wore them all the time. 

Tell us about your role at Deaf Muslim UK… 

As I became closer to Allah and wanted to learn more about my religion, I found there was a lack of information to help deaf people. In 1994, I established Deaf Muslim UK in Leicester, alongside my co-founder Owais Murad. We deliver seminars, lectures and workshops, and provide translations and learning resources in British sign language. We travel to different cities every month to spread knowledge about Islam to deaf Muslims. Over the years, our most exciting events have been a deaf umrah and a national football tournament. We are all volunteers for the organisation.

How do you feel deaf people are viewed in the south Asian Muslim community?

A lot of people put deaf children in the corner. They tell them not to sign and leave them isolated, but my mother was different. She let me sign in public and didn’t tell me to hide. Many people, when they see a deaf person they like to patronise and pity them. They don’t realise we want to be treated the same as a hearing person. In the deaf community we don’t see ourselves as disabled people, we see ourselves as an ethnolinguistic group, which is why we spell ‘Deaf’ with an upper case ‘D’

According to official statistics 151,000 people use BSL in the UK and 87,000 of them are deaf. There are, however, just 908 registered sign language interpreters. Why do you think there’s such a shortage of skilled BSL interpreters?

We’re a minority and that’s why there is a lack of awareness. The conditions of a lot of people in the deaf community are at different levels, so they might not need to sign. A lot of them lipread and most people have access to technology. The problem stems from education. The system doesn’t promote sign language for people with mild or moderate hearing ability, only for those who are severely or profoundly deaf.

Are there enough accessible Islamic resources for deaf Muslims?

At the moment I am still working on completing a translation of the Qur’an in British sign language. There is no complete translation right now. We also want to provide additional commentaries to explain the text and are working with Islamic scholars to do so. 

There are a lot of big gaps between the hearing and the deaf because of communication. Mosques should have interpreters. The problem is that they don’t have enough money. We also have limited resources for Qur’an translations and other Islamic information. I can’t read Arabic well, which means that I first have to translate it into English accurately, then figure out how to translate it into BSL. 

What is your experience of attending mosque as a deaf person?

Most of the time in the mosque I sit there bored. Sometimes my sister and my son will interpret for me if they’re there. If I find another deaf person we can sit together and sign, but some people say that it’s not allowed during the khutba. That’s why at Deaf Muslim UK we understand it’s important to have good relationships with mosques. I am a regular goer of Leeds Grand Mosque as they have always been very supportive towards me.

What changes would you like to see in the future?

I want to see better access to Islamic information for deaf Muslims, so they can understand Islam and feel the beauty of it. I also want to see better education and job opportunities. If everyone knew sign language things would be completely different.

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