Ayesha Ahmad: Spirituality in Conflict

This is a story about spirituality in conflict. As with all stories, there are two sides to the tale. There is, on one side, the battle to find and keep the spirit during conflict, when lives and worlds and families and homes are falling apart and disappearing. On the other side, there is the spirituality that emerges and grows and finds roots in conflict; not to celebrate or rejoice in the suffering of the human condition, but to create an unshakeable foundation for life. This is the story about spirituality in conflict that will be told.

With each person journeying from their conflict-ridden nation is a chronicle of past, present, and future narratives. These are both the most fragile and the most strong because they represent suffering and hope. These narratives originating from a traumatic experience are “beyond the psychological dimension of suffering that it involves, suggesting a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it; that immediacy, paradoxically, may take the form of belatedness” (Cathy Caruth, in ‘Unclaimed Experience’).

In medicine, the art of the doctor is to find the story, and treatment stems from the honouring of a story. Trauma, though, is a deeply distressing and emotionally painful experience. Trauma does not cease when the boundaries of the conflict are exited. Trauma continues to manifest all the while until there is a new sense of the surrounding world; “trauma events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but because they overwhelm the ordinary adaptations to life” (Judith Herman, in ‘Trauma and Recovery’).

Trauma performs through rupture, paradox, semantic reduction, and deconstruction of identity and in direct conflict with the ability to narrate.

How can we heal stories? How can we heal through our stories? These are questions that medicine must now confront on a cross-cultural and global scale.

Broken bones, broken bodies, broken hearts, but what about broken spirits? Medicine is akin to a healer of the human condition, but in times of war and conflict, we see suffering spill its blood into the ground, the land, and the soil of our origins and identities and how, during these times, can medicine cure?

The intricate web of humanitarian crises emerging from conflict are mirrors that illustrate we are part of a global body, and we are all patients of humanity. We have different ways of conceptualising, creating narratives, and forming language to reflect and communicate between the patient and the doctor. Our “travelling cultures” (Ayesha Ahmad, 2013) represent the pluralism of value-systems inherent in a multi-cultural society, challenging the treatment of both the body and the mind as a universal structure.

Furthermore, the assumptions premised in medical practice are moral reflections of our human condition. There is a current challenge now, as the humanitarian crisis of conflict is a global epidemic, to create a greater dialogue to reach suffering. Medicine can achieve this by creating space through the concepts that embrace each person when he or she becomes a patient. 

Our stories need to be found, not feared; to be born, not buried, and to be received, not rejected.

Correspondence to: Dr Ayesha Ahmad

a.ahmad@ucl.ac.uk