What's with all the blind Muslim clerics?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 20 2006 7:30 PM

What's With All the Blind Clerics?

Vision and the Muslim world.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here. The Explainer now has its own free daily podcast; click here to learn more.

Omar Abdel Rahman: the blind bomber. Click image to expand.
Omar Abdel Rahman: the blind bomber

The Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri denied preaching racial hatred in a British courtroom on Thursday. Al-Masri has been linked to the would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid and stands accused of starting a terrorist training camp in Oregon. Most news reports also mention that al-Masri has only one eye and no hands. It seems like we're always hearing about blind or half-blind Muslim clerics—what's the deal?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

There is a pattern of the blind leading the not-blind in modern Islam. (For an annotated list of some important blind clerics, check out this sidebar.) A traditional Muslim education in some ways favors the blind, since it proceeds largely through the repetition and memorization of sacred texts. Children chant Quranic verses until they know them by heart; those who learn the whole book often receive advanced religious training. Blind kids—who often make up for their disability with a finely tuned sense of hearing—tend to do quite well at this.

Advertisement

Children who can't see may also get pushed toward the clergy by their parents. Clerics often preach through the artful recitation of the Quran—something a blind person can learn to do as well as anyone else. The same child would be at a severe disadvantage in a conventional classroom, and he'd have a harder time holding down a regular job.

Muslims have revered blind clerics for over 1,000 years. In one scene in the Quran, the Prophet frowns and turns away from a blind man, only to have Allah castigate him for rejecting a spiritual seeker. The man, called Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum, became an important early follower of the Prophet. (The tradition of blind religious figures extends back to early Judaism and Christianity as well.)

Today, some in the Muslim world use religious appellations to describe a blind person, regardless of his training. In Egypt, blind men are sometimes described casually as moulanas, a term of respect given to Muslim scholars. *

Another factor in the prevalence of blind clerics may be the high rates of blindness in Arab countries. A 2002 study, for example, reveals a dire situation in Lebanon, Oman, and Morocco, where more than 5 percent of the people over the age of 50 couldn't see.

The blind clerics most often mentioned in the Western press are radical jihadis like Abu Hamza al-Masri or Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman—the "blind sheik" accused of  masterminding the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. But blind clerics are just as likely to be moderates. The revered Saudi Abdelaziz ibn Baaz, for example, renounced violence in the name of installing Islamic governments. He also issued a fatwa allowing Muslim men to take Viagra.

In fact, blindness could be a liability within the most militant sects of Islam. In the 1980s, members of the Egyptian jihad movement debated whether Abdel Rahman's blindness made him a poor operational leader. The strongest voice opposing him belonged to Ayman al-Zawahiri, now thought to be al-Qaida's No. 2 figure.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Richard Antoun of the State University of New York, Mahmoud Ayoub of Temple University, Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence, and Valerie Hoffman of the University of Illinois.

Correction, Jan. 24, 2006: This piece originally said that Turks refer to a blind man as a hafiz—meaning one who has completely memorized the Quran—whether or not he has earned the title. This practice is not widespread.(Return to corrected paragraph.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The End of Pregnancy

And the inevitable rise of the artificial womb.

Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola in New York City

How a Company You’ve Never Heard of Took Control of the Entire Porn Industry

The Hot New Strategy for Desperate Democrats

Blame China for everything.

The Questions That Michael Brown’s Autopsies Can’t Answer

Foreigners

Kiev Used to Be an Easygoing Place

Now it’s descending into madness.

Technology

Don’t Just Sit There

How to be more productive during your commute.

There Has Never Been a Comic Book Character Like John Constantine

Which Came First, the Word Chicken or the Word Egg?

  News & Politics
The Slate Quiz
Oct. 24 2014 12:10 AM Play the Slate News Quiz With Jeopardy! superchampion Ken Jennings.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 5:53 PM Amazon Investors Suddenly Bearish on Losing Money
  Life
Outward
Oct. 23 2014 5:08 PM Why Is an Obscure 1968 Documentary in the Opening Credits of Transparent?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 6:55 PM A Goodfellas Actor Sued The Simpsons for Stealing His Likeness. Does He Have a Case?
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:47 PM Don’t Just Sit There How to be more productive during your commute.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 23 2014 5:42 PM Seriously, Evolution: WTF? Why I love the most awkward, absurd, hacked-together species.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.