Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the fifth year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
Last night, two of our community members at the Islamic Center at New York University spoke to a crowd of 150 or so in our prayer room about their experiences with alcohol and drug addiction prior to our breaking our fast. One was male, one was female.
They opened up to us with a courageous vulnerability about their respective lives, how they roller-coastered through ups and downs for years, and the impact it had on them and others.
They spoke about what it felt like to be drunk and high and everything that came along with it — the people they socialized with, the places they frequented and the eventual damage it caused.
They described looking for ways out, but not finding too many, having good days and bad ones, and the challenges of finding supportive spaces and services, eventually ending up in Alcoholics Anonymous and shifting in a new direction.
They concluded on self-acceptance and validation, faith and spirituality, and how forgiveness and God played a role in helping them get to where they wanted to be — sober now for 5 years and 3 years, respectively, and still going strong.
They shared in a way that most in the room had never heard before or been privy to, about occurrences that most had never experienced, and in a way that left every soul in that room inspired, impacted and a little more healed in regards to their own life’s challenges.
We found ourselves in their story, and through their story, we became more connected with ourselves. It was one of the best experiences I’ve personally had in a long time, and one that I wish many more people could have experienced.
Sometimes when we think about creating inclusive spaces, we think about how those dealing with life’s challenges and struggles will benefit from space provided to them. We need to start thinking about how we will also benefit from their presence. Not one person who attended last night’s program said that the people speaking were lucky to have a space to go to. Rather, the sentiment was that we all were lucky to be able to benefit from them and their stories.
The discussion that followed wasn’t about haraam or halal, but about healing and recovery. I watched as heads nodded in agreement in the audience as the two of them described how they struggled with forgiving themselves. Each heart listening found solace and comfort in how tough forgiving yourself can be sometimes. One young woman broke down in tears, saying that she was so grateful to hear their stories — that she herself feels isolated at times and knows that by societal standards she is somewhat “eccentric”, but hearing their words helped her understand that it’s ok that she’s not perfect. And we all felt a little better at that time about not being perfect and closer to understanding that God’s love is perfect because it understands and embraces our imperfections. He is Al-Wadud, the source of Love.
When I see the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, I see people who had flaws and challenges. They struggled in their own right with many of the things that we struggle with today, both inwardly and outwardly. I also see that they had space to navigate their challenges and people to lean on and learn from. They took not only from their own challenges but the challenges of those around them or, when they failed to do so, the Prophet Muhammad made it clear to them that they were missing out.
The Prophet Muhammad had a companion by the name of Abdallah who he was quite close to. There are narrations in our Tradition that finds the two of them laughing together. Abdallah was also known for having a drinking problem and amongst the narrations that discuss this, their is one in which another companions speaks poorly of him and how habitually he drinks. The Prophet Muhammad rebukes that man, saying “Do not curse him, for I swear by God, if you only knew just how very much indeed he loves God and His Messenger.” He then added: “Do not help Satan against your brother.”
Do I believe that most mosques today would let recovering alcoholics and drug addicts speak to their congregations? Probably not. Do I think there is a problem with that? Yes, definitely. Aside from the fact that we are leaving a lot of people hanging, our failure to engage diversity in our communities, inclusive of diversity in terms of life experience, leaves us potentially stunted in our individual and communal growth. My role is to serve in the way I know best and not be reactive or seek validation from existing apparatus alone. Rather, it is to dig deep into a 1,400-year tradition that expands on the teaching of the Quran by showing me how it’s meant to be lived. I know somewhat, and am constantly learning as I am blessed to be in this role, the reality and needs of my community. And I know that many of them have pain in their hearts and last night those who attended were met with a remedy through perspective I could never share with them as a Chaplain or Imam, but only those who were speaking could administer.
Our teachers can be many more than we realize. With humility we have to admit that. Over the years at our center we have learned from the experiences of survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and forced marriage. We’ve grown by listening to the stories of converts to Islam and how hard it was for many to find a place in the Muslim community. We’ve coordinated forums around race, ethnicity and social class and heard from people that we call “brother” and “sister” what its like to really be a Black person. We’ve had experts and professionals speak on a variety of issues related to mental health, emotional care, and physical well being. But it is not frequent or regular enough. We’ve only just started and none of this is happening as often as I would like, but our growth and, in turn, ability to impact, has been distinct as we learn from those that many unfortunately look over. We are better because of each story that we have been blessed to hear. There is no doubt in mind about that.
Please pray for the two who spoke with us last night. May God continue to make them a source of illumination for all those whom they meet. Ameen.
Follow Imam Khalid Latif on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/KLatif