Islam in Prison

Prison has the Body, but Allah has the Spirit
(An excerpt from the NY Times, July 2, 1992)

Beacon, NY - The criminals faced Mecca, staring beyond the window bars and glittering rolls of razor wire lying between their basement prison mosque and the world outside.

As they prayed, a blue jay burst freely above the sharply bladed gyres and out toward a cow herd grazing by an interstate highway that laced across the horizon, a teasing reminder to the prison Muslims of how sweetly meandering freedom can be.

"That is all irrelevant," insisted Hamza Abdul Aziz, the mosque's leader. "This is only a place that keeps you locked up spatially," the 32 year old convict said. "I don't have bars and razor wire blocking my mental life. I'm in a state of peace."

... Islam has been claiming its institutional role behind bars, with New York State now employing 31 Muslims for its 171- chaplain corps and looking for more, and with a prison population that is 17 percent Muslim.

"When I started in this department 32 years ago, there weren't that many Muslims in the prison system and they were unrecognized," said Dean R. Riley, the Fishkill prison superintendent. "Today, they are probably one of the most supportive groups among themselves and within the system, too. They take care of their own. It certainly has been in the department's interest to recognize them."

The superintendent said it used to be far different. "Muslims were seen as a militant group at first, but not today," he said, drawing concurrence from Salahuddin M. Mohammed, the prison's Imam, an Islamic chaplain, making his busy rounds among the Muslims here and in two other prisons.

"Black nationalism and all that, that's out the window," said the Imam, a 41 year old clergyman who turned to Islam as a Harlem teenager interested in his African ancestors and the cultural implications of slavery.

"Prison is slavery," said the Imam, whose friends from the housing projects near Amsterdam Ave and 125th St turn up on his prison rounds. "The men feel that sense of slavery and they discover that Islam can offer a sense of freedom."

Among the 1800 Fishkill inmates, there are 200 congregants in the masjid, or mosque. Most of them are from the prison's nearly 50 percent black population.

"They are beautiful Muslims," said Sofyan Saleh, a believer serving 10 to 25 years for manslaughter who was born into the religion 35 years ago as a native Yemenite.

In the mosque, Islam's comforts appear to go beyond the relaxed solidarity and seclusion the prisoners indulge. "It's the whole ritualistic concept," said Zaki Fatim, a 30 year old native of New York City...Wearing a yellow kuffee, or prayer cap with his green prison garb, Mr. Fatim seemed eager for the mutual respect and group worship of his peers kneeling on the simple blankets covering the mosque floor. "I feel human, more than human," he said hesitantly. "I even feel love."

"... I already know that when I'm back outside, this will play a big part in my life," he said, counting on Allah in the face of the devilish recidivism rate of former convicts. "I understand the nature of man better. A religion requires discipline and raises the level of self-esteem."...

"To be able to rise above the madness," said the Imam, summarizing the mosque's focus. "The general mood among incoming prisoners is 'The world is cruel and you have to get yours.' I talk beyond their sense that they are the scum of the earth; talk to the dignity that I know exists in all men. I teach them that if they do bad things, they 'swag,' or steal, here, they'll be doing it on the streets and eventually they must face Allah on Judgment Day."

One of the critical elements in the state's coming to encourage the Muslims faith behind bars, the Imam said, is that the prison-chaplain system maintains its own Council of Imams, who, he said, reflect urban black inmates' preference for the Sunni sect.

"... ours is a very radical message: telling the individual to point the finger at himself and take responsibility instead of looking for scapegoats."

The Imam speaks from some terrible personal experiences of his youth. The many young men he saw become enmeshed in the criminal culture eventually included his brother, still doing long prison time.

"There was a world of nothing but trouble, and most of the guys I grew up with are gone now," he said, speaking of their death as both victims and criminals in assorted forms of violence.

Mr. Aziz, the mosque's elected inmate leader, has discovered that, with Islam, he can adapt the street devotion that made him a force to reckon with as a member of the Savage Nomads gang in the Bronx 17 year ago.

"I was very serious into what I was doing there, a leader," he said. "And now I'm a leader in a better cause. Before, I was cold in the world, and I only cared about putting on my gang jacket and feeling good. But when you face 25 years to life inside, you know you have to change your life sooner or later."

As he talked resolutely, the outside world still eluded him beyond the mosque bars and the razor wire. The day seemed to glow from afar with freedom as the congregants in the Fishkill masjid worshipped...


The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186

September 1992
Safar 1413
Note from the Editors
Appeal to the Readers
Islam in Prison
Muslims Teach
in Church
Libraries Receive Qu'rans
Ohio, "Islamic Day"
Why I Embraced Islam
Islamic Dietary Laws
Prayer (Salat)
Women in Islam
The Kid's Corner
Qur'anic Miracles
The Prophet Ya'qub (Jacob)
Stories of the Sahabah
Sayings of the Prophet
Awards Ceremony