Islam, July - Sept 2002

Fitrah and Muslim Recidivism: On Faith and Behavior

By Caterina Barone

Fitrah can be described as our innate moral sensibility. Allah, swt, has given us all this gift to guide us against falling into moral depravity. It is our fitrah that allows us to recognize the difference between what is right and wrong. It is what keeps us from succumbing to our base desires. So recognizing that we all have this feature, why is it that some of us fall victim to the whispers of Shaytan, and others are able to stay on the straight path? Is it at all reasonable to assume that when one declares his faith in Allah, he is better able to listen to that moral compass that is our fitrah?

Those who break Allah’s Covenant after it is ratified and who sunder what Allah has ordered to be joined and do mischief on earth: These cause loss (only) to themselves. 2:27

The Jihad of the American convert is in struggling to remain a good Muslim. Here in North America, we live in a society that is broken. Drug use is rampant, pride is instilled in homosexuality, fornication is viewed as a recreational activity, adultery is not shameful and divorce and single parent families are incredibly common. In becoming Muslim, most converts have to leave behind the cultural norms of drinking, dancing and dating. Many do so without much difficulty, but being a student of behavior change, I know that many more struggle with making such a change permanent. Many Muslims, whether born Muslim or convert, struggle with submitting to our natural fitrah.

For nearly a dozen years, I have worked as an HIV counselor and health educator. From my experience I recognize that behavior change is very difficult. People consistently fall into old, comfortable behaviors, even when they are aware that continuing that behavior is detrimental to the body, spirit and soul. At some level, the undesirable behavior has to be satisfying for them to continue. While every Muslim should strive to be the best Muslim, it goes against what we know of human nature to expect someone to become a good Muslim after taking shahada, especially if they have negative behaviors that are ingrained in them and are used to ignoring their fitrah.

I now do this kind of work in the world’s largest penal colony. A great many of the inmates here claim their faith as Muslims. While it has only been a couple of years that I have been in this environment, I have already seen Muslims who have been released from jail, only to return again after a very short period. Of course, this is in no way true of all incarcerated Muslims, but it happens regularly enough to wonder why, in fact, that is.

Behavior change is very difficult and its difficulty should not be underestimated. Western societies and American society in particular is not based on discipline. That is, we are a society that actually condones ignoring our fitrah. We live in a society that says, if you live within certain parameters, you will be left alone. Personal freedoms are valued above the common good. This can not be seen as entirely negative since we all enjoy this freedom in that we are free to practice Islam in whatever way we choose (whether a sect of Sunni, Shia, Salafi or Sufi). It is easy in such a society, however, to succumb to all sorts of bad influences and not be called to task on it. Those of us who can resist temptation are rewarded, while those of us who cannot are punished, incarcerated and sometimes shunned by other Muslims.

It is widely acknowledged in the jail community that inmates declare themselves Muslims for a variety of reasons. Most do so from true belief in Allah and the truth brought by the Prophet, saws, however it is also true that there are others who say that they are Muslims because of the protection it offers, or for better meals or other benefits that are afforded Muslims. Among Correction Officers, Islam is known to have the most outwardly recognizable rituals, so many C.O.s will say that there are Muslims who are just jailhouse Muslims. Says, C.O. Robinson, “You can see that the guys who read the Quran, pray and participate in Ramadan services and eat off the halal trays are Muslim. Others are just using Islam as a protection.” This is nothing new, and had been occurring since the time of revelation. In the introduction to Surah Al-Baqarah, Maududi has this to say about the Muslim societies of Mecca and Medina at the time of revelation:

During this period, a new type of “Muslims,” munafiqin (hypocrites), had begun to appear. Though signs of duplicity had been noticed during the last days at Makkah, they took a different shape at Al-Madinah. At Makkah there were some people who professed Islam to be true but were not prepared to abide by the consequences of this profession and to sacrifice their worldly interests and relations and bear the afflictions which inevitably follow the acceptance of this creed. But at Al-Madinah different kinds of munafiqin (hypocrites) began to appear. There were some who had entered the Islamic fold merely to harm it from within. There were others who were surrounded by Muslims and, therefore, had become “Muslims” to safeguard their worldly interests. They, therefore, continued to have relations with the enemies so that if the latter became successful, their interests should remain secure. There were still others who had no strong conviction of the truth of Islam but had embraced it along with their clans. Lastly, there were those who were intellectually convinced of the truth of Islam but did not have enough moral courage to give up their former traditions, superstitions and personal ambitions and live up to the Islamic moral standards and make sacrifice in its way.

In his book, Struggling to Surrender, Jeffery Lang states: “Our spirituality would stagnate without the potential for error, realization and reform. So vital are these to our development in this earthly stage, that the Prophet reported that if mankind ceased sinning, God would replace it by another creation that would continue to sin and repent and gain His Forgiveness, (Muslim)” p.57

This is interesting because as Muslims, we very often criticize each other for doing things that are wrong or sinful, when in fact it is part of our very nature. While it is important to be self-critical of our community, we sometimes get bogged down in the minutia of the practice. However, there are really very serious problems that face our communities that get little or no attention. Domestic violence, homelessness and drug abuse are all areas that deserve our attention as they have the potential to scourge the American Muslim community. Drug addiction, in particular, is an enormous problem facing recently released Muslims.

Imam Luqman Abdush-Shahid, former director of Ministerial Services at Riker’s Island says that drugs are primarily responsible for the recidivism among Muslims. “I would say that maybe 95% of the inmates that return have a problem with drug use. Even if they were picked up for a robbery, they stole because they were high or wanted to get high.” The statistics for incarceration throughout New York State would certainly support this. In New York, Black and Hispanics make up over 80% of the entire prison population. The same groups comprise over 90% of those committed for drug offences. The difficulty in overcoming a physical addiction, like drugs, alcohol and tobacco, has been well documented. It is compounded by what I would loosely term a psychological or cultural addiction.

Many of those men and women who go in and out of jail, Muslim or not, have very little life skills and are undereducated. It is staggering how many inmates have never held a job, have never balanced a checkbook, have never filled out an application or had a healthy relationship of any length. Many do not have coping skills to deal with life’s ups and downs. Yet it is expected that an inmate leave jail and lead a productive, and for the Muslim, moral life. I see a great percentage of inmates who just want to escape from their feelings and will “self-medicate” with substances or sex or food or crime. It seems that we engage in all sorts of detrimental behavior in an effort to ignore that irritating pull on our fitrah, that nagging feeling that we know we should be seeking out Allah and living a righteous life.

Sr. Aisha, the Administrative Chaplain at the female facility at the complex, feels that Muslim inmates return to the jail environment because they need help in maintaining their Islamic identity in the outer world. Many of the women have no support on the outside and sometimes, the only loving environment they have ever had is in the sisterhood that they find among other incarcerated Muslims. “Regular meals and a safe place to sleep. It is certainly better than some shelters.” Sr. Veronica Hill, a substance abuse counselor at the jail took her shahada while she herself was in prison. “I learned Islam from a sister I knew, and she is doing 25 to life.” The peace that Islam has brought into this sister’s life is evident from her face as she talks about getting closer to Allah, swt. “I love to pray. I love to pray. I just love it.” Like many people, she says that Islam saved her from her former life. Now that she works in a jail, she has made observations about the incarcerated Muslims we encounter here. “They are like to think that they are a better Muslim than so and so. They return to jail often because on the outside, they feel that is expected for them to be perfect Muslims. When they can’t be, they give up and go back to their old ways. Eventually they end up back here, where they can be the “best” Muslim.” It is this drive that I have to be the best Muslim or I shouldn’t try to be Muslim at all mentality gets many converts into trouble. It is very easy to slide down that slippery slope into ignoring that moral guidance that Allah, swt, has given us.

As a Muslim community, we should try to develop programs for recently released inmates. The first three years of an inmate’s release has been shown to be the most vulnerable, especially so for a Muslim. In a 15 state study of prisoners that were released in 1994, 47% were convicted of a new crime and 52% returned to prison or jail. What is interesting to note is that most of these ex-offenders are arrested within 36 months of their release. In a report by Kathleen Murphy of Stateline.org, she quotes Jeremy Travis of the Urban Institute as saying that these figures show that, “states must still focus on behavior when prisoners come back to the community, particularly in the early months after their release.” 2

So what does that mean to us as Muslims? Every day, many Muslim men and women are released from jails and prisons around this country, the vast majority of whom (>80%) are African-American and Latino. What can be done to help recently released Muslims continue to practice the deen to the best of their ability I the outside world? Surely, there will no longer be someone to tell them when to sleep, when to rise, when to pray and eat. It is much more difficult to maintain a Muslim way of life when there are no imposed safeguards. Newly released Muslims need a great deal of support and education. Peter Rabassa, a Latino Muslim correction officer said that the most useful class he has ever taken at Alianza Islamica was a course in Fitrah. “Most people who take shahada have a heart disease and it isn’t cured by saying shahada. Of course Allah wipes it clean, but it can only be cured by changing your moral code and coming nearer to Allah, swt.”

One of the more reliable workshops that I do is called “Temptation vs. Discipline.” It is really an exercise in recognizing our fitrah. There is a popular image of making decisions with an angel on one ear, encouraging right action and a devil on the other, using persuasion to tempt the subject. In the workshop, taught to me by a co-worker who does many discipline-building exercises with inmates, I have one inmate who sits in front of a group and I give him a situation where he must come to a decision. The object is to have other inmates who choose to, go to his right or his left giving him ways to rationalize that decision. The situations range from fairly innocent: “Should I stay home an extra half hour to watch my favorite TV show when I know my boss will be upset if I am late.” To: “I know I should be faithful to my wife, but my co-worker wants to sleep with me.” The ones to the right represent that inmate’s fitrah, while the one on the left represents the whispers of shaytan. It never fails that more inmates will get up to literally “play devil’s advocate” It is unerringly easy to rationalize the less moral choice. If people are unable to reason how to do good, how then can we expect them to make good decisions in real life?

The Muslim community has to, for the sake of the future of the ummah, provide new Muslims and those recently released Muslims, with programs aimed at making a satisfying transition into the community. It has to recognize that it takes practice to learn to listen to our fitrah and heed its call. It is human nature to sin and in doing so, Allah, swt, gives us the opportunity to learn. Behavior change is a long and sometimes painful process. The important thing to know is that it is possible and necessary for human development.

Works used in preparing this article:

Donde Esta la Justicia? A call to action on behalf of the Latino and Latina Youth in the U.S. Justice System http://www.buildingblocksforyouth.org/latino_rpt/fact_eng.html

State Prisoners Often Return, Report Says Kathleen Murphy, Stateline.org http://www.stateline.org/print_story.do?storyId=240988

Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, June 2002, NCJ 193427 revised 7/19/02 U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Statistics Special Report http://www.usdj.gov

Yahiya Emerick, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam. IN: Alpha Books, 2001

Yahiya Emerick, What Islam is All About. NY: International Book and Tape Supply, 1997

Jeffery Lang, Struggling to Surrender: Some Impressions of an American Convert to Islam. Maryland: Amana Publications, 1995.