Islamic Perspectives

ISLAM IN THE U.S. PRISONS - ii

Continued from the previous issue

7.  From which ethnicity do the most people convert to Islam?
The greatest number of converts to Islam is African-Americans. And by the way, most of them are Sunni Muslims and not followers of the Nation of Islam. We are also seeing a steadily increasing number of Latino and white converts.
 
8. Have you found that faith helps the prisoners? What are the main reasons most of the converts chose Islam?
Islam is a binding force as a brotherhood. Muslim inmates in the prison systems stick to one another, help, guide and teach each other about Islam, peace, harmony and good manners. It improves their mental and spiritual state, in addition to creating a healthy surrounding in which they can live in peace and harmony with each other.  People are converting to Islam for a number of reasons: some do so for mostly personal reasons, while others become Muslims on the basis of the cultural, social and spiritual characteristics of Islam. The following are some key aspects that draw many people, particularly Christians and Jews, to Islam:
* Conversion to Islam is relatively simple, involving only Shahadah, the declaration of Faith, i.e., saying that “There is no God except Allah; Muhammad is Allah’s Final Messenger”. People find it much easier than a lengthy process of religious education and series of formal rituals.
* Islamic supreme authority is the Holy Qur’an. It is brief and to the point, yet holds details of every subject related to the daily life on earth and beyond. With translations available in most modern languages now, the Qur’an is easy to read and straightforward to understand, making it simple for newcomers to comprehend.
* Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) holds a paramount position in Islamic Faith. Yet he is not viewed as a god. His place in Islam is rather that of a man, a Messenger and a Servant of God. People therefore see the Prophet as a perfect example to follow, without having to aspire to some form of divinity.
* Islam is monotheistic religion. It calls upon people to believe in one True God only. People are told in the Qur’an: “Say: He is Allah, He is One; The Self-Sufficient, The Eternal God; He begets not, nor was He begotten; There is none equal to Him.” [Surah 112:1-4]. Many find the Christian concept of the Trinity confusing and thus the idea of One God appeals to them.
* Also, the significance of Jesus for Muslims as a human and his important place in Islam as a prophet of God rather than as a divine figure appeals to those who find the Christian concept of the Trinity too confusing to understand or too difficult to believe in.
* Islam’s basic beliefs are relatively straightforward and easy to understand as well as to perform, compared with other religions fundamental precepts. For example, the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah, Obligatory five-times daily Prayers, Fasting in the Month of Ramadan, Paying Zakat (Charity) to the poor and travelling to Makkah to Perform the Hajj once in a life-time. Even younger followers can comprehend these beliefs without any hardship or confusion.
* Islam is the faith of equality and justice for all. God says in the Holy Qur’an: “O you, who believe, stand firmly for justice, as witnesses before Allah, even if it be against yourselves, or against your parents or your (close) relatives, and whether (it be against) rich or poor. God can best protect both. Do not follow the desires of your hearts, lest you swerve (from the truth) and if you distort your testimony or decline to do justice, verily Allah is fully aware of all that you do.” [Surah 4:135]. This concept of equality is appealing to many who have been disenfranchised.
* Islam’s great civilization and rich history certainly has an attractive and intellectual appeal for many people. Converting to Islam means they also become part of the worldwide Muslim Ummah, giving those who are outcasts in society a sense of belonging.
* Islam’s emphasis on the importance of family life and social value is one of the key aspects that attract men and women from various cultural backgrounds, particularly those serious about true and traditional family values and moral teachings.
* Islam is not only a religion but also a complete way of life, where everything is detailed in the Holy Qur’an very clearly, and further explanation is available through the Hadith and Sunnah (sayings, teachings and actions) of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh). Many find the clear guidance in everyday matters appealing.
* Many of the prophets and stories found in the Bible, both the old (Torah) and the new testament (Injeel), such as the creation of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah and the flood, the events in the life of Abraham and his sons, the Psalms of David and the kingdom of Solomon, the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt led by Moses, Jesus preaching the Injeel (Good News) to the world - are present in the Holy Qur’an as well. Christians and Jews who convert to Islam often comment that they are attracted to the Muslim faith partly because of its similarities to Christianity and Judaism in general; the common basis between the three great Abrahamic religions is One Almighty God (Allah).
 
9. Have any converts faced discrimination or have themselves discriminated against prisoners of other faiths in the prisons?
Because of media projection of Islam, especially after 9/11, there are suspicions about the Muslim community in the prison system. Muslims are watched very carefully and are no doubt sometimes victims of discrimination, both by other inmates and staff. Although there are ways to file grievances, most of the inmates are reluctant to file them because they are afraid of retaliation. Naturally, there is a reciprocal suspicion in Muslim inmates about the other inmates.
Religious discrimination in prisons, including the role of faith-based rehabilitative programs, was the subject of a recent briefing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is examining the topic as part of its annual report to Congress and President George W. Bush to be submitted later this year.? Speaking at this briefing, Abu Qadir Al-Amin, an Imam with the San Francisco Muslim Community Center (MCC), said that religious discrimination in prisons ranges from institutional rigidity to flagrant abuse. He noted, “documented cases of racial intolerance along with religious intolerance that have involved Muslim Chaplains being escorted off of the institutional grounds in a very humiliating and demeaning manner.”
 
10. Do most converts in prison keep up with Islam once they leave?
On release from a prison, the inmates are sent to a Halfway House, where they are allowed to practice their religion. It is generally recognized that the rate of recidivism among Muslims is low and a majority are far less likely to become repeat offenders. Sadly, however, after their release, only about 25 percent of them continue to pursue their Islamic practices with any regularity. One reason often cited is that most of their time is taken up by employment needs and the need to deal with bills for expenses incurred by the family while the inmate was incarcerated. There is little time available to visit Islamic centres and/or meet with the community. Another oft-cited reason is the lack of an Islamic community once outside the prison. Their family and friends often abandon many who are locked up. When they are released, many are then shunned by both the Muslim community and the public at large. These Muslims lack a support system as they reenter society after their release. About 70-80 percent of parolees come back to the prison because they cannot make it outside and are attracted by free food, free accommodation, and free medical assistance, in addition to other benefits, offered by the prison systems.
 
11. What are some of the major problems facing prisons in the United States today, specifically relating to religious freedoms in prison?
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood quite clearly that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. After all, religious freedom is the main aspiration that sent America’s founders searching for independence from England. This is also why the Framers included free exercise of religion in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Under the laws of the United States, the Muslim inmates are allowed to wear Kufi (prayer cap), pray at the appointed times, observe fasting during the month of Ramadan and enjoy at least one feast at the time of Eidul Fitr (on completion of fasting during Ramadan) and/or Eidul Adha (on the Day after the day of standing at the plains of ‘Arafat during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to Makkah.
 
12. Are prison converts on average more or less orthodox in their belief than people born into the religion? In fact, do you find converts generally to be more observant?
According to my personal experience, about 50 percent of the Muslims at the SCI in Laurel Highlands, PA, and SCI, Somerset, PA, follow the traditional Islam according to Imam Abu Hanifah as practiced on the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent including Bangladesh, while the rest of the population follows the Shafi’i and Maliki schools of thought as practiced primarily in Middle East and North African countries. I have also found that the new converts are more sincere observant of Islam than the immigrants from Indo-Pakistan sub-continent, including Bangladesh, and the Middle East countries. Because the inmates read a lot of books on Hadith, they are usually strict followers of the Sunnah (the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Some of them earnestly try to learn the Arabic language so that they can read the Holy Qur’an.

Mahmood A. Qazi, the Muslim Chaplain (Imam) at the Cambria County Prison, Ebensburg, PA, Cresson Secure Treatment Unit (CSTU), Cresson, PA, and Torrance State Hospital, Torrance, PA, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, USA, has been preaching Islam to people in the United States for more than thirty years. He is also the President of the Chicago-based Kazi Publications, Inc. established in 1972.

 
Concluded

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 April 2013 on page no. 20

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