Prison Da’awa in Full Swing: Recruiting Hardcore Criminals for the Jihad
Inmate Abu Hamza
“Inmates find Islam while incarcerated”
By Zaid Shakur, Staff Writer Â
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“In the hectic pace of the world today, there’s no time for meditation or deep thought. A prisoner has time he can put to good use. I put prison second only to college as the best place for a man to go if he needs to do some thinking. If he is motivated in prison, he can change his life.” Â — Â El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)
Abdullah, a 39-year-old African-American Muslim, wakes up early for Fajr prayer each morning. Â Despite the high price of gasoline, he drives one-half mile from his home to the nearest San Diego area mosque to pray in congregation.
“The rewards for praying in Jamaat (congregation) are 27 times greater than praying at home,” he says with grave sincerity.
Islam is a serious business for him. Abdullah accepted Islam five years ago while incarcerated in a California penitentiary, and he has practiced with mercurial zeal ever since. Â
He is just one of the estimated 30,000 inmates who embrace Islam every year from behind the bars of federal, state and local prison and jail cells in the United States.
The figure is staggering. Experts acknowledge that finding religion in jail has always been a popular, though not necessarily rehabilitating, diversion for felons serving time. Â But Islam is spreading so rapidly in the nation’s penal system that even Muslim leaders and scholars have been startled by the rapid pace of inmate conversions.
In what may be the most striking example, one researcher on religion in prison says the majority of inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex â€” the largest in the country â€” are Muslims who embraced the faith while imprisoned.
Experts say there is no doubt that Islam has become a powerful force in America’s correctional system.
The United States Senate Judiciary Committee has published findings that indicate approximately 350,000 Muslims are currently in federal, state prisons and local jails. This means that about 5 percent of all Muslims in America are locked up in penitentiaries and that more than 10 percent of the more than 2 million U.S. prison population are Muslims. The great majority of these inmates came into prison as non-Muslims but then converted.
Da’wah in prisons is so strong that out of all inmates who seek religion while incarcerated, 80 percent of them select Islam. It is an oft-repeated mantra that Islam is the fastest growing religion in America, and these statistics from the correctional industry indicate that prison conversion is the major contributing factor to this phenomenal growth.
Conveying the message
Islam was first introduced into American prisons during the Nation of Islam era of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
More of a pseudo-Islam in reality, it almost exclusively attracted African-American inmates. Now, although blacks still predominate, more Hispanics and whites are converting, too. The Nation of Islam’s influence has diminished drastically over time, with Sunni and Shi’a traditions gaining substantial ground.
The American Muslim Society, the organization established by Elijah Muhammad’s son, Imam Warithudeen Mohammed, was the first Sunni organization to pick up the mantel of preaching to and providing for incarcerated Muslims through their chaplaincy programs. The Islamic Society of North America and Islamic Circle of North America began bringing prison chaplains and volunteers together in 1998 at their annual “Islam in Prison” conference to deliberate on various ways to service Muslims in custody by supplying free Islamic literature and other educational materials and performing the congregational Friday prayers.
As the number of Muslims in prison increases, so does the need for Muslim chaplains, which consequently increases the number of people who can be exposed to Islamic doctrine, thus increasing the number of those embracing the religion.
“We, in Islam, call it a ‘reversion’ â€“ that is, going back to a natural state under the laws of God,” said Imam Frederick Thaufeer Al-Deen in an interview with PBS. Thaufeer is the former supervisory chaplain of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
“Once you become Muslim, you’re born again. Once you’ve said ‘I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and that Muhammad is His messenger’ with knowledge and understanding, we believe that everything you did before that moment has been wiped away and you’re a new person. When that happens, you see people acting differently, you can see some pretty wonderful things happen.”
Nabib, 47, an African-American, was sentenced to five years for a robbery he committed in 1990.
“One of the slick homeboys had taken Shahada, probably by accident, during Ramadan services, and sent word to me to come over and listen to the message,” he said. Â “I went over just to hang out with the homies, but Allah opened my ears and heart. Islam gave me a perspective concerning how life should be lived and the value of good conduct.”
Hamza, 27, son of a Black Hebrew Israelite father, accepted Islam in 2000 during Ramadan at Ironwood State Prison Â in Blythe, Calif.. Convicted of assault, he was released in 2001. Subsequently, he has attended a center to memorize the Qur’an, studied fiqh (jurisprudence) and is now enrolled in college courses to master the Arabic language.
“I’m learning Arabic with the intention of working on the translation of classical Islamic books into English,” he said.
Hamza smiles when asked about his life before Islam.
“I used to be in the streets, running around wild and being disrespectful to my parents,” he said. Â “But since I’ve become Muslim, Alhamdullilah, my mother has also accepted Islam because she knew how I was before and the only thing she sees now is that I have good character. I started helping with responsibilities around the house and did everything I was asked. The only thing she could attribute that to was Islam. It was easy to see the contrast.”
Some of the more well-known prison converts to Islam include former heavy-weight boxing champ Mike Tyson and Jamil Al-Amin, a civil rights activist formerly known as H. Rap Brown.
It is easy to conclude that without proper learning materials and spiritual guidance, eager converts thirsting for faith may get hold of materials that can lead them in a direction not in keeping with true Islamic tradition.
Much has been written since 9/11 about the alleged ‘radicalization’ of Muslim inmates by extremist chaplains. Ex-Watergate felon Chuck Colson has written extensively about how groups like al-Qaeda have been supposedly recruiting disgruntled prisoners as homegrown terrorists. And it is indeed difficult to forget that in 2005, California prosecutors uncovered Jamiyyat UI-Islam Is-Saheeh, a prison-originated terrorist cell working out of Torrance, Calif.
When Abdullah received his sentence for selling drugs, he spent his five-year term being shuttled to various state institutions, including Chucawalla and Corcoran. He scoffs at the idea of ‘jihadist recruitment.’
“In all the time that I did, and in all of the institutions, I never heard one anti-American word from any chaplain,” he said. Â “They may have said some things that were anti-materialism â€” and since American society is based on that, it could be perceived threatening â€“ but that goes for all societies, Muslim societies as well. We simply learned how to be better people, regardless of society.”
“Invite to the Way of your Lord (i.e. Islam) with wisdom and fair preaching…” (Qur’an, 16:125)
Most Islamic scholars have classified da’wah, or inviting people to the religion, as mandatory for Muslims, a kind of collective obligation. But despite this ruling and the massive number of inmates who yearn for Islamic guidance, groups and volunteers coming forward to do this work are grossly inadequate.
Abdul-Wahab Omeira is a Syrian-born Muslim Chaplain working at the California State Prison in Lancaster since 1993. There are roughly 170 Muslims inmates there. He is sounding an alarm to the broader community that seems to be falling on deaf ears.
“I am really distressed because there is no help for all the chaplains,” Omeira says. “We need Qur’ans, and we don’t have them. We need translated materials on how to pray, and I’m running out. The community spends millions on other things, but when it comes to parting with their money for da’wah, there is nothing. If I can’t give an inmate a Qur’an when he asks for it, and you have pallets and pallets of Bibles and other stuff for them, then where is Islam in the equation? Â It’s a shame that there are 300 volunteers of Christian origin in my institution, and I have none for Islam.”
Many in the broader Islamic community feel that prison da’wah is a waste of time. Statistics show that 75 percent of the inmates who embrace Islam in prison abandon the religion within two years of their release. Many return to prison on new criminal charges. These grim numbers can create doubt as to the genuineness of these conversions.
“You can’t remake people when their heart is rotten to the core,” says Washington, D.C.-based Imam Daayiee Abdullah, who has had experience working with ex-cons in the past. “Rarely do people make dramatic changes of this nature, and I have found that providing them exposure to other ways of life does not necessarily convince them to push for such growth and development.”
This viewpoint is not shared by those working currently behind the walls. Omeira has a catalog of success stories.
“I remember one time I met a former inmate at the Islamic Center of Southern California and he saw me and he said that he’d went into a store to buy a pin because his sleeve was torn and he went to salesperson and asked her if he could just buy one pin because he couldn’t afford the $1.35 to buy the whole pack. She said that if she opened the pack she’d have to throw the rest away,” Omeria recalled. Â “He said that at any other time he would have taken the whole thing and placed it in his pocket and walked out, but he remembered talking to me and my words chastising him to worship God as if you see Him, because if you don’t, He sees you. He said he was just amazed at himself for then dishing out the $1.35 for the whole package. ‘This would never have happened before,’ he said,” Omeira concluded.
“These brothers are practicing the deen as best they can, sometimes better than we are out here on the outside,” Dr. Adam Jeffers relays from personal experience.
Jeffers is a volunteer at Donovan Prison in San Diego.
“They have these communities that focus on certain aspects of the religion that we may not even look at out here,” he says. “They’re kind of super-Muslims, and those that get out will have a high level of iman. Whether or not they cultivate that when they leave has been the problem.”
Statistically, 52 percent of all convicts released from prison nationally will be re-convicted on new charges and sent to prison within three years of their release. Â Detailed studies show that Muslim inmates do have a significantly better chance of staying free. Â But what about remaining Muslim? Â What about becoming a regular, active and upstanding member of the community?
“You have Christian men coming out of prison, and you have the Christian Fellowship Ministry, and they give them a place to stay, will help him find a job, will be a base of support for them,” Omeira says. “But when a Muslim brother comes out from inside, he doesn’t have anywhere to go. We need to have a base of support for these brothers if we really want them to keep their faith and do well. We should be ashamed.”
Abdul-Majid Askia, a national lecturer, teacher and prison advocate agrees.
“It’s an extreme challenge to become successful and overcome all the odds, because once you leave the institution, there’s already a negative image of you,” Askia says. Â “You’re already considered a misfit or person with ulterior motives, a con-man who is presumed to fail.”
It is almost unanimous among both professional workers and volunteers that more is needed in the way of setting up organizations for Muslim men and women returning home from prison as believers. Â The areas of assistance most frequently noted include a place to worship and religious guidance for those who, though they declared their faith, may not have sufficient knowledge or experience in the religion to successfully navigate through their 24-hour-a-day lives on the street.
Housing is another critical issue, with many new Muslims leaving Islam because Christian half-way houses are the first to offer help.
Substance abuse treatment, family unification, counseling, food, clothing, transportation, as well as employment and vocational training are all areas of concern.
Abdullah in San Diego found help through a Salvation Army program, but still managed to maintain his commitment to Islam.
“It was tough,” he admitted. Â “Some other brothers I know have accepted Jesus as Savior. I couldn’t turn back. Allah guides who He Wills.”
If you would like to help make a difference in the lives of new prison converts here are the major organizations serving this burgeoning segment of the American Muslim population:
Inner-City Muslim Action Network
3344 West 63rd Street
Chicago, IL 60629
Islamic Correctional Reunion Association
PO Box 774
Tinley Park, IL 60477
Muslim Re-entry Initiative
P.O. Box Lincolnton Station
New York, New York 10037
Islamic Society of North America
PO Box 38
Plainfield, IN 46168Â