Behind Bars – Islam Inside and Outside Prison
By Dawud Burgess
Many have written and talked about what it is like to live inside a prison.
Nonetheless, a great number of these authors have never lived in one of these institutions, or even seen the inside. While numerous letters have been written about prisons, and many theories abound on what the prison experience is like, very few of us know first hand what it is like to live inside a prison cell. Very few prisoners talk about the things they saw in that place. To understand what it means to be a Muslim while doing time, or what it means when a prisoner converts to Islam while behind bars, we must understand what happens inside so many of the prisons in the U.S.
A prison, for the most part, is a place where some of the worst people in society are allowed to victimize each other. Firstly, things that are frowned upon in the free world are common occurrences in this place of pure hatred and segregation. Drug use, homosexuality, gang violence and racism are no longer vices, but simply a way to survive. While a man locked up for rape is shunned by society, an inmate who rapes another is often looked up to or feared. Fights, stabbings and harassment from the correctional officers happen everyday in prisons across the nation.
At the same time, of all places in America, it is in the prisons that you can find some of the strongest and most knowledgeable Muslims. Here, you will find men who stand up against the norms of the prison culture to practice a completely alien path. They leave behind the state of ignorance which had plagued them to embark upon the road to true guidance. As stated in the Holy Qur’an, “And Allah guides those whom He wills, and lets go astray whom He wills (6:88).”
Many comment that it is amazing that Muslims who are incarcerated can take up the task of learning a new language and memorizing the Qur’an. In and of itself, this is not amazing — what is amazing is the fact that many of the “free” Muslims are not doing the same thing. For the Muslims in prison, Islamic knowledge is a priority. For the Muslims who are free to study, Islamic knowledge is a hindrance and something that is left for the elderly. It is truly sad that the Muslims who are free in this society do not seek out scholars, yet for many incarcerated Muslims a scholar would be seen as a blessing from Allah.
It is in prison that groups of people come together simply for the pleasure of Allah, with no concerns of race and creed. To do so, they must battle not only the negative environment around them, but also a prison administration that often wants to destroy them. On the other hand, we have Muslims who are free to practice Islam as they wish, disregarding other Muslims or Islam as a whole, and divided by nationalism, race, ethnicity and cultural differences. Yet does not Allah say in the Qur’an, “We have created you into nations and tribes not that you may hate each other, but so you may know and love each other? (4:13)”
I became a Muslim inside of prison. It was not only the words of Allah that attracted me to Islam, but also the brotherhood that I saw. From the moment that I made it known that I wanted to learn more about Islam, I was welcomed. Normally, this would not need to be mentioned, except for the fact that I am a white American who was entering a predominantly African-American community. This was something that was looked upon unfavorably by both sides, to say the least. Yet these same men took me in as one of their own, risking their lives to teach me about Islam.
I wish I could say the same about how I was treated when I walked into a mosque for the first time. I was stared at, ignored, and betrayed. I had to wonder if the Qur’an I had been reading was actually a whole different book.
When I left the prison and those brothers who had become my family, I was sad. I know that I would not see most of them again in this life. I left there making a promise, that I would not forget what I had learned. I haven’t. Often I am reminded of those bars and the brothers that I left behind.
The saddest part of leaving prison was entering a community of Muslims where most people have a chip on their shoulder. While I read verses of Qur’an about brotherhood and unity, what I saw in many a case was a look of pure hatred when a “brother” looked into my face, if he even bothered.
In a way, I had expected such treatment. While I was locked up, I had written many letters to mosques trying to get Islamic literature. More often than not, I would not even get a response. I had been unable to understand this considering the Qur’anic verses regarding treatment of those who have migrated to Islam. With all the knowledge and resources at hand, those who were free ignored my pleas for help. When I was released, I came to find out that many others like me had gone through the same thing.
For some reason, people who were raised as Muslims by their parents cannot figure out that there are many hardships that come with separating oneself from the beliefs of one’s parents. Those who are locked up are often abandoned by their family and friends. Worst of all, when they are released, these people who fought for their Islamic identity find themselves shunned by the free Muslim community.
As Muslims, we have no right to look down on anyone. It is an injustice to the Muslim Ummah (global Muslim community) and to Islam as a whole to isolate or ignore any person just because of where he is from or who his parents are.
I did not choose the religion of my parents. None of us chose the land in which we are born or the color of our skin. These matters are from Allah, the Creator of all things. Do any of us know better than the One who has created us?
We as Muslims have the duty to form a unified Ummah. We can not truly call ourselves Muslims, or say that we love each other, if we separate ourselves from each other. In the relationship between those who are imprisoned and those who are not, as Muslims, we must come together. Not only is it important that communities visit the Muslims in prison, they must also form a support system within the community that can give these new Muslims a chance to reenter society after their release. After all that Muslims must battle in prison to simply be Muslim, it is not right for them to have to fight for the respect of their brethren.
As to those who are imprisoned, learn as much as you can and stick together. Learn from and love each other. You can succeed but you must strive continuously to move forward –never retreat, never surrender. Ignore all of the people who say anything negative, and never give up hope in the strength and mercy of Allah.
Originally published in “Al-Talib: The Muslim Newsmagazine” at UCLA, July 1999, p. 21.