The idea that people of standing, intellect, honour and godly commitment may also be neurodivergent isn’t hard to understand or accept, except amongst those who have no experience. It’s ONLY the insular or those with little exposure to neurodivergence that make assumptions on what it is (and the most negative assumptions at that).

There is no standardised definition of neurodivergence, but it’s basically someone who thinks behaves/differently from the the majority of people. It’s a concept that describes individuality and uniqueness in cognitive functioning. In more recent years it has been used to describe those who think, behave, and learn differently to what is typical in society. Being neurodivergent should not be considered an inherent deficit but simply a difference in processing the world around us. It can be argued that it is the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome, and can be a competitive advantage in the right environment.

Individuals who are described as neurotypical can generally navigate complex social situations, have good communication skills, establish social connections like friendships more easily, and can function in distracting or stimulating settings without becoming overloaded by stimuli. Sometimes an individual can experience an overlap in what is considered neurodiverse and neurotypical, such as a difficulty comprehending math but a precocious ability with language. Everyone is to some extent differently abled because we are all born different and raised differently. Our ways of thinking result from both our inherent “machinery” and the experiences that have “programmed” us.

Individuals who are described as neurodivergent (in the context of this post) generally have intense focused interest (hyper-focus) usually on an object or subject, fixation on certain routines or rituals, think outside of the (“normal”) box, a great eye for detail and problem solving, and greatly creative. They generally have inability to initiate or hold a conversation, intolerable of crowds, loud noises, or being too hot or too cold and very slow or unable to adapt to change. However, not all neurodivergence is the same and we mustn’t overgeneralise when each neurodiverse condition is unique and complex, but the amazing thing about neurodiverse individuals is that they often have really significant strengths. For example, neurodiverse people with autism can be extremely thorough, while people with dyspraxia often have great creativity. As a neurodivergent executive from Metro Bank put it, “It’s like having a superpower and a missing leg”.

My own experiences with neurodivergent believers: four went to Oxbridge, four have PhDs (history, theology, physics, engineering), two are entrepreneurs (and millionaires), ten memorised the Quran, four graduated from Al Azhar in Shari’ah or Usul-Din. All are stout believers, of upstanding character and deep godliness. For me, the idea that a leading religious figure (like Imam Ahmad) may have been neurodivergent is not only uncontroversial, it makes sense of the summation of reports about him (of which there are many!). Of course, I’m fully aware that I’m relying on reporters who narrated what they did for particular reasons, offering their subjective opinions and depictions of what they deemed special behaviour. So I would never say anything about past people for a fact, and always caveat a historical analysis with “I think it’s reasonable to conclude/say…” because the truth is that’s as much as we can intellectually affirm about the past. This doesn’t only go for past figures like Imam Ahmad, but everyone. I’m also aware that I’m using modern descriptions to describe the past, so I do so with caution, but what’s interesting is that the same people who have a problem with this do it all the time and across the board with many things!

But if it is reasonable to conclude that some of the early Islamic scholars were neurodivergent (albeit with all the necessary philosophical caveats of interpreting historical sources) it shows us:

  1. What the neurodivergent can achieve given the right environment
  2. Neurodivergence gives some of us certain skills to get specific jobs done that otherwise wouldn’t be achieved
  3. We ought to be mindful of how we treat neurodivergent people. If we acknowledge neurodiversity, we wouldn’t react negatively to people and be more understanding of difference
  4. That ALL things are not for ALL people no matter how perfect one might believe someone to be, so it’s important to know what they might be imitated in, and what’s not a good idea. (But that goes for everyone except the Prophets.)