Behind the Walls Dealing in Deen
Ama F. Shabazz
O ye who believe! Fear Allah, and believe in His Messenger, and He will bestow on you a double portion of His Mercy. He will provide for you a light by which you shall walk straight in your path, and He will forgive you your past. For Allah is Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Qur'an, 57:28)
Brother Umar Abdulraheem, one of the few Muslim Chaplains employed in the US Federal Correctional Institutional (FCI) System, arranged the following interview with three Muslim brothers incarcerated at the Butner, North Carolina FCI with the cooperation and assistance of the institution's administration, especially Ms. Robin Pitcairn, Executive Assistant. Brother Umar Abdulraheem has worked at the Butner facility for the past six years where he is fondly referred to as "Brother Shaykh." Brother Abdulraheem's training includes three years of study at the University of Malik Sa'ud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Throughout his years of serving an average of about 30 Muslim inmates per year at Butner, he has only witnessed four Muslim brothers return after being released. In each of those cases, the brothers were not involved in haraam activities but had missed some parole requirements such as reporting when they lost their jobs. Right now, there are 35 Muslims in the medium security division, and 15 in the light security camp. The interview participants were: Malik Zaire Abdullah (Michael Cunningham) age 35 who has been Muslim for 15 years, Shaheed Talib Abdul Khaliq (Nathaniel Grant) age 39, a Muslim for 17 years, and Hakeem Salaam age 26, a Muslim for seven years. All three brothers have been pillars of the community here, Jamaat ul Mukhliseen.
Ama Shabazz: What circumstances led to your decision to embrace Islam?
Shaheed Talib Abdul-Khaliq: Being reared in a Christian environment, living in this country, and having a lot of questions and being dissatisfied with a lot of things that did not make much sense to me, and being involved in crime and all sorts of things led to me searching and finally coming to the conclusion that Allah (SWT) had opened my breast to the truth of this Deen. Fortunately, it was presented to me in a comprehensive form by the brother who gave Dawah to me. His presentation helped me to accept Tawheed (the Oneness of Allah) and implement what I had learned of this Deen in my life, Alhamdulillah.
Malik Zaire Abdullah: There was a brother whose name was Muhammad whose character was so beautiful. I didn't really know at the time that he was a Muslim. All I knew was that everyone respected him and he was always in a good mood, and he displayed strength. So as I watched him, I decided I wanted to be like that brother. So he said, "Why don't you come to Jumah?" The more I watched him and followed his example, the next thing I knew, I found myself taking shahadah.
Ama: Why do you prefer Islam over other religions?
Hakeem: I was raised as a Christian, but I was never committed to it, even as a child, because I did not agree with a lot of what I saw that was going on. I thought a lot of it was just acting, and I didn't see real religion there. I always wanted to know who this Jesus was since I kept hearing his name. So I studied, but from what I studied, he wasn't who they said he was. So I said, "Well, I need to find the truth." So I went into other directions. And a lot of the directions that I went were not the right direction. But it was a beginning of a learning process. So it took me a while, but finally, I sat myself down and said "Well, this is what I need to do and once I started looking into Islam, it didn't take very long. I mean I would study and say, "Well, wait a minute, this is what I was talking about. This sounds right, and this sounds right. And everything started adding up. Then I would get daleel (evidence) from different brothers. There were two brothers from Libya, Al-hamdulillah, who were very instrumental in helping me to gain a lot of my knowledge of the Deen. Because they would pull me in the room and say, "Look, if you want to learn this Deen, we can give it to you." So Al-hamdulillah, after I got all that together, I said to myself, "This is the truth; this is where I need to be."
For me, Islam was consistent with my heart. With Islam, I didn't have to be arrogant or boisterous. I wanted to be humble. I wanted to be a good brother, and I wanted to help people. Islam was consistent with me because it respected me as a Black person. Where other religions would kind of make me feel inferior, Islam taught me that there is equality in everything and there is no superiority between black or white.
Ama: Could you describe the relationship among the Muslim brothers here at Butner FCI?
Hakeem: A group of us, well, for the majority of us, we're like a family. Nothing goes on with any of us without all the brothers knowing it. It's like we walk hand in hand. A lot of things that have happened here - I mean the rules of the institution and the different moves - have made it harder for us to be together than before. Now we have to make special times to see each other. But when we catch up with each other on the compound, it's great. I love all my brothers, and there's nothing I wouldn't do for them, and I want for them what I want for myself. I guess that's why we get along so well. Another beautiful thing about this Deen is that if you really fear Allah, then a lot of things that you used to do, you won't do now. Like two Muslims aren't supposed to go at each other and fight. That's a real discipline because you're not used to that. You're used to just, you know, "handling your business." But now, I fear Allah (SWT) and, you know Allah gives us three days as a cooling off period. So that makes the difference. Al-hamdulillah.
Malik: I love all my brothers and it's no fuss here. I can tell them I love them. I can tell each of these brothers that I love him and I can tell the shaykh that I love him. You know formerly, in the past, I couldn't tell a man that I loved him. They'd think I was funny (homosexual) or something. But the beauty here is that because we love each other, we try to strengthen each other. A lot of us go through trials. We might have a death in the family, or sickness, or some brothers find out that they may not ever go home. But we try to encourage each other. We say that as long as we've got each other and we've got Allah, we're all right. So I feel comfortable around them, and I love them. And if I'm in error, they will admonish me. But they'll be mindful of my feelings as a human and my feelings as a Muslim. Sometimes if a brother goes a little off, we try to talk to him about the Deen and try to bring him back. Our love makes this a special jamaat, because even brothers from the street have come in - and the shaykh will verify this- they come here and say, "I can sense the closeness with you brothers here, even more than in other institutions."
Shaheed: I agree with both of my brothers, but there's something I would like to add. There's no question in the minds of the Believers as to how we should relate to one another. But this is not the ideal situation being in prison. And this is a reality. And like the brother alluded to earlier, if we depend on Allah as we should, we have taqwa and we strive to act fee sabeelillah then Allah has promised us success. But because of this particular situation and the idea of reform, we get the news of how we are perceived as Muslims in these institutions, and it's because we are so involved in Deen that we don't allow that to affect us. We go on ahead with our duties as Muslims, and we have an understanding, Al-hamdulillah.
Ama: There's a genuine respect that the brothers and sisters get now from the institutions because you have set a good example, for the most part. I know this from personal experience. Years ago, when I was single, a man broke into my apartment and threatened to rape me. I told him, "If you touch me, my brothers will get you." I guess Allah guided me to say that because I didn't even understand what that meant until much later. But as soon as I said that, the man stepped back and said, "Are you a Muslim?" And I said "Yes! Audhu billahi min as-shaytanir rajeem." Then he said, "Well, since you're a Muslim, I'll let you slide," and he walked out. That's how I know that you brothers command respect both in here and on the outside, and I fully appreciate that.
Ama: Do you have any activities, besides sports?
Umar: Well, of course, we have salatul jumah which is a priority. Also, we have various classes. I teach two classes a week. Brother Shaheed teaches one class which is the beginning Arabic. Brother Malik has taught akeedah classes in the past and a class in salaat. Then we have an extra class on jum'ah after the salaat. Then too, we have a library, and we encourage the brothers to read....
Ama: Especially read The Message magazine, right?
Malik: Of course, you better believe it!
Ama: Did you find any difference in the way the staff and the guards treated you after you became Muslim as compared to before you were Muslim?
Hakeem: Well, here, nearly everyone always knew me as Muslim. But there were some that didn't know. When a brother gave me the name Hakeem, everyone started calling me Hakeem. So a staff lady heard that and she said to me, "Are you Muslim? I didn't know you were Muslim." Now that hurt me because she was supposed to know by my character. And that just made me rock back to where I was supposed to and examine my character, because evidently I was doing something wrong. Otherwise she was supposed to at least have an idea that I might be Muslim. So ever since that experience, it's been keeping me trying to stay more on the siratul mustaqeem.
Malik: I find that they expect more out of you. For example, if they see you smoking, they'll say, "You're not supposed to be smoking, aren't you a Muslim?" That's the first thing they'll say. Or they'll say, "You're not supposed to be cursing, aren't you a Muslim?" So with the title of Muslim, comes a lot of responsibility. From my personal experience, I think they have expected a lot more out of me as a person in terms of decency and hard work. In our unit, out of a hundred men there are only about five of us who are Muslims. All of the Muslims earned an outstanding rating in terms of their workmanship; they all have good rapport, and they're reliable. So when the staff sees that you're a Muslim, they expect that. This is no exaggeration. In fact, with one Muslim, Brother Amin, they never gave anyone a "Grade One" before for this particular job, but this Muslim went over there, and he worked hard everyday. He always had a good attitude. The non-Muslims even told him, "Hey, slow down. You're making us look bad." But this was a Muslim determined to do what was right. And they gave him a "Grade One" though no one else had ever gotten that grade in that particular job.
Ama: We know that life behind bars is very difficult. How does Islam help you to cope with this situation?
Hakeem: Islam helps me in every way. There is no way that it doesn't help. I remember when I first started doing time I got in trouble a lot, and I always ended up in the hole (solitary confinement). Before that, I always found an excuse to miss salaat. You know, I'd say, "Something's wrong with me," or "I'm busy doing such and such," because I didn't know how important it was for me to make salaat. But Al-hamdulillah, Allah set me down in the hole three times and that made me study. So I studied and got myself together and said "Okay, this is what I have to do."
Shaheed: Well, for myself, I do a lot of intensive studying of the political aspects of this country and by experiencing some of the things I've been through that led me to this prison life, I have a lot of resentment. But I accept responsibility for some of the things that I have done that caused me to get here. But the point is that there's still a problem with these systems which they're erecting all over the country, and they're throwing people in here in hoards and they do not have even the least amount of compassion so as to at least try to deal with us in a humane capacity. I'm saying it can get real wicked up in here sometimes. A lot of people don't know. They can have general lock-downs if something goes on in the yard that they don't like; or they can just lock you down at will. They can change the construction or the operations of these institutions at will. We can wake up one day, and they may tell us, "Well, you can't go outside because we're doing this or we're doing that...." And there's no reform. We are the only ones who reform because the Deen helps us to cope. So we reform ourselves, Al-hamdulillah, through this religious way of life. But without Islam, you have some young men out here now, and all they do is sit in front of the television or play games or concentrate all their efforts on insignificant things. And you can see the jahiliyyah that is attached to that. I hope that this will soon change along with the laws of this country, Insha'Allah.
Malik: Being behind bars has affected me somewhat differently than some of the other brothers. I feel like everything is about what you're doing while you're here. I'm like Rip Van Winkle sometimes because I stay so busy. I'm going to college as well, so the time goes by before I know it. There's not enough time in the day for all the things that I'm trying to acquire, and I get tired, but I keep going on. But sometimes we get lonely. I don't want to make a smoke screen about it, like everything's hunky dory. It's not like that. We have been deprived of the most beautiful things that Allah has blessed us with in this life, in terms of our children and our wives, and all of those kinds of things. So we have to deal with that. And a person can never understand how much you can miss those beautiful things of life until they get taken away. But I stay occupied and I just keep on moving, because it hurts me sometimes. For example, I haven't seen my mother in years, and some of these things do take effect. And some people in here, they're just cold because that's the way they are, and they make bad judgment calls all the time. A lot of us, we've made mistakes, but most of us are decent people who usually try to do the right thing, given the right opportunities. And regardless of what we did in the past, everybody makes mistakes. And if they see that I'm paying for my mistakes, then why do they keep trying to punish me for the mistakes that I've already made? So it's not a picnic, but Insha'Allah, I'll weather it with this Deen.
Ama: One last question. Would you like to offer any advice to the Muslim youth - say between the ages of 11 and 21?
Hakeem: I would tell them, "Please, please listen to your parents and follow the Qur'an and Sunnah while you're young. Because that is the best way to experience it, while you're young. I know that to learn the Arabic language, I found myself having to go back to study the basic alphabet like a kindergartner, and I said, "Wait a minute, do I have to go back this far?" So it's much easier to learn these things while you're young, and Insha'Allah, if your parents are giving you good examples as Muslims, then follow them.
Shaheed: The youth must understand the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and with the Sunnah comes the hadith that the non-believer says, "Give me success in this life," the dunya. But the believer adds, "Give us success in the hereafter and save us from the fire." So we must understand that it's not the life of this world that matters most. But the youths of this country get drawn to what's being propagated out there, the things of this world are being dangled in front of their eyes -the expensive tennis shoes, the cars, and all these things, but Allah says the things of this world are fleeting and will pass away in no time. So if they can get a firm grip on this, then they won't lose their religion. And they can look at the situations of Muslims all over the world. Nowhere in the world right now is there a truly Islamic country because many Muslims are just tossing their Deen away. So for the youths, I want them to get a grip on what is actually going on, to give them success by following the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
Malik: My advice for the youth is to learn what you were created for, do what you were created for, and then you will be successful; and that is to worship Allah. You can't have more success than that, because you can't be more successful than by doing what Allah created you for.
Ama: Brothers, we really appreciate your help and your wonderful words. They're very inspiring. You've made my job easy. Jazakullah Khair.
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