An American Prisoner’s Journey to Islam
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
You hear many times about men entering prison and accepting the religion of Islam. Some say that it is a unique phenomenon particular to the black inmate population, male as well as female. The truth of the matter is that many prisoners of diverse backgrounds make the reversion to Islam. My story is only one of many. It is written not to draw attention to myself; rather, it is written as a testimony to what faith in Allah can do to a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I pray that my story inspires others to study the signs of the Creator so that they may recognize the Truth and live in accordance with it.
I was first introduced to Islam in 1984. At that time, I was only a boy of 11 years and did not understand what exactly I was hearing. I was told that Muslims pray to only one God and do not eat pork. I was also told that Islam is a religion truly for the black race and that any other race could never really be Muslim. All of this was strange to me. I was raised in a Baptist family and was taught that the only way that I could be saved was to believe in Jesus while also recognizing that the only way that I could talk to God was by praying to Jesus. I was told that I was a sinful person by nature and that the only way that I could be purified was through the “blood of Christ.” These contradictory philosophies only served to confuse my young mind even more. So in response to this mental onslaught, I chose to ignore both.
During my teenage years I attended neither church, mosque, nor any other type of religious institution. Instead, I devoted myself to preparing for my worldly future: I dedicated myself to my country. I entered the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program at my high school and excelled. I was told that there was no greater calling than to stand up and fight for one’s country. To this ideal, I put forth all of my efforts. It was also during this time that I started to fall prey to street life. I soon gained a reputation as a tough guy, and while it earned me a lot of respect from others on the streets, it also led to my downfall.
On August 26, 1990 I was arrested and charged with “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon” as well as “accessory to murder.” Being highly publicized, my case sent shockwaves through the community. Most of my co-defendants were good students who were expected to succeed in whatever they chose to do. Thus, many people were baffled as to how all of this happened. In September of that year, our charges were upgraded to “organized crime conspiracy to commit murder” and “organized crime murder.” I was then placed in solitary confinement because I was considered a threat to the security of the institution. In April 1991, I was formally sentenced to 20 years in prison for the part I played in those crimes. I would like to think that I was a man at that time; but in reality, I was still a boy trying to act like a man. And so in this self-deluded state, I was thrust into an environment that I was totally unprepared to deal with.
On July 21, 1991, I arrived at my first unit of assignment, the Clemens Unit in Brazoria, Texas. This unit was nicknamed the “Burning Hell.” My first cell partner called himself Mac-T. He attempted to lay down the rules of the cell immediately: 1- take off your shoes before entering the cell, 2- clean the floor before you leave the cell, and 3- no noise when he is praying. Thinking that I was tough, I really did not try to listen to what he was saying. So needless to say, we did not stay in the cell together longer than a day. Only in later years did I learn that he was a Muslim. Soon after that, I started to assimilate into the prison culture: fighting, stealing, gangbanging, and getting drunk at every chance. Anything to try to forget my wasted life and shattered dreams. I left Clemens in December of 1991 so that I could attend college at the Hughes Unit in Gatesville, Texas. My journey was just beginning.
Upon my arrival at the Hughes Unit, I immediately recognized the complete difference in the environment. Where as in Clemens everyone was about the same age as me, in this new unit most people were 15 to 20 years older than I was. My reputation preceded me to Hughes, so I was forced to live up to it. A few of the older men saw what I was doing and tried to warn me that this was not the way to do my time. Nonetheless, the cycle that I had started in Clemens came back in full swing. I fought a lot, drank a lot, and did everything I could do to break the rules of an establishment that I saw as corrupt.
In 1993 when my father died, my life spiraled completely out of control. In my eyes, I had nothing to live for – my one source of stability was gone. It was during this time that I met three brothers who would have a huge impact on my life. One was named Yaqub, another Kareem, and the other Wadi. These were three of the most disciplined people I had ever met. They were devout Muslims whose sole purpose in life was to please God. Often times, they would invite me to the Islamic services, but with my gangster persona and corrupted mentality, I would decline and go on about my mischief. By this time, I considered myself an atheist. The only thing I worshipped was power; the only thing I believed in was myself. It was in that state that I was to meet a young man who would inspire me to return to the one thing that had been missing from my life for years: God.
It was 1995, and I was working in the kitchen as a diet cook. My job was to ensure that the food was up to dietary standards and that each person on the approved list received their tray during mealtime. My assistant was a young man named Haywood. He was a Muslim and went by the name Mustafa. We were good friends and would talk about everything: politics, education, and even religion. And so one day, while he was studying, I asked him what he was reading. He replied, “This does not have anything to do with drinking or killing – you wouldn’t be interested.” I bothered him until he finally let me see what it was that he was studying: he was teaching himself Arabic. When he asked if I knew what it was and I said yes, he didn’t believe me. I told him that I had seen it when I was introduced to Islam in 1984. I told him that I could even learn it if he taught me the letters. He said, “NO WAY!” so I tried to bet him that I could learn it, but he told me that Muslims do not gamble.
I resolved to learn Arabic just to prove to him that I could. He taught me the letters and around 20 minutes later, I had them memorized. The feeling of accomplishment was incredible! When he saw that I had committed them to memory, he gave me a short list of words to learn, thinking that I could do nothing with it. I really do not blame him for feeling that way – I know that I would have felt the same way about me. After learning the word list, I needed another way to study Arabic. Little did I know that my next decision would change my life forever.
On a whim (or perhaps by inspiration), I decided to ask a Muslim named Faheem for a copy of the Qur’an, Islam’s sacred Book, to aid me in my study of the Arabic language. He gave me one saying, “God-willing, you will become a Muslim.” I did not think so but I thanked him anyway. My next step was to start trying to read the Arabic in the Qur’an.
As I was reading, some of the injunctions and stories in the scripture caught my attention. They touched me in a way that is hard to describe, and after a few months of studying, I told Faheem that I was thinking about becoming a Muslim. He encouraged me and gave me a lot of advice. In my studies, I reflected upon the actions of Yaqub, Wadi, and Kareem. These were three brothers who had endured the brutality and hopelessness of prison life for decades and still held their heads up high with the knowledge that all things are in the hands of Allah. No matter what man tried to do to them, they maintained their faith in the doctrine that there is no might or power except the Power of the One True God, Allah. And so it was, with these thoughts in my head, that I continued my journey.
The final piece fell in place on a Friday night. The next morning I was supposed to pick up a package of illegal contraband that I had been waiting for. As I sat in my housing area that night, I decided that I would read from the Qur’an. As I opened the Book, the words of a particular verse jumped out at me: Surah 3, verse 103, which reads, “and you were on the brink of a pit of fire, then He saved you from it, thus does Allah make clear to you His communications that you may follow the right way.” These words shook my very soul such that I decided not to go to my meeting the next morning. The next day, I found out that the person who I was supposed to meet had been apprehended. I was so taken aback by this that I did something that I had not done since my youth: I prayed. I prayed for forgiveness of my sins and bad conduct; I prayed for guidance and mercy from the God I had turned my back on. I decided then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to doing good and pleasing God.
When I took this good news to Faheem, he sat me down and asked me if I was resolved on my decision. When I told him yes, he began to educate me on the basic beliefs and teachings of Islam. When other Muslims saw this, some encouraged me while others, familiar with my ways, told the brothers that they were wasting their time. I would not be denied, however. As I learned the Prayer, a whole new world opened up to me that I had never seen before. In this world was peace, contentment, and most importantly, a sense of completeness. The lessons that I was learning about Tawheed (Unity and Oneness of God) touched my soul. By the Grace of Allah, and with the help of the Muslims that were in the cellblock with me, I learned very quickly.
I was ready to take my Shahadah (public declaration of faith), but I still had one piece of unfinished business: I needed to disassociate myself from my gang. By that time, I had a lot of rank and influence in my organization so I thought that there would be no problem with me walking away. I thought wrong. They say that with knowledge comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes accountability. As such, people wanted me to be held accountable for my actions, so they came up with a plan to take me out. I had decided to call a meeting of the other leaders of my organization to let them know what it was that I was doing and why. I owed no one an explanation, but I wanted to be up front with them in order to make a clean break. I was oblivious to their plotting against me, thus I naively went to the recreation yard to meet them. Allah says in the Qur’an in Surah 3, verse 55: “And they planned and Allah (also) planned, and Allah is the best of planners.”
During the meeting, certain inmates who were trying to get rank within the organization proposed that I should be beaten and/or killed. This was all discussed while I was present! I was outraged but not shocked. Many people in prison look at Islam like it is just another gang. Thus, to the spiritually-blinded eyes of many of my former gang mates, I was changing my loyalty from one gang to another. There was one man, however, who understood the difference. His name was Willie, and he was as wild as they come. Thus, imagine my shock when he said the following words: “How can we even sit here talking about doing something to this brother just because he wants to give his life to God.” He went on to remind the members of the meeting about all of the things that I had done to help many of my fellow gang members. In the end, they recognized the truth of his words and decided to leave me unharmed.
Years later, some of the same brothers would embrace Islam in much the same way that I did. Allah touches the hearts of men in ways that we do not perceive. It is only later that we comprehend and recognize the wonderful plan of the Creator. The next night, I declared my Shahadah in front of all of the community that was present at the Islamic teaching service. I can not express the feelings of love and joy that I felt when I publicly declared my belief. While I had been saying my Shahadah in my ritual prayer for weeks, it was not the same. It felt like a massive burden had been lifted off of my back. For the first time in my life, I was truly free. It was like I had been born again – returned to the natural state of my early childhood. This was a new beginning. I had little idea of where my journey was taking me, but I was nevertheless glad to be going.
The next few months were spent in intense studying. I wanted to learn everything at my disposal about Islam. My studies were aided by four brothers who helped me greatly: Faheem, Shafiyq, Malk?ilm, and Ismaiyl Shareef, a.k.a. “The Minister.” These four were instrumental to my intellectual and spiritual growth as a Muslim, and I thank Allah every day that He allowed me to cross paths with them. Malk?ilm and Shareef were concerned with studying Arabic. Shafiyq was into hadeeth (Prophetic traditions), and he never passed up the chance to share something with me. Faheem was my partner, my confidant, and my biggest supporter.
I started using an Arabic/English dictionary to understand the Arabic text of the Qur’an. I had been misled and duped by the translators of the Bible my whole life, so I was highly skeptical of someone else’s translation of the Holy Qur’an. My goal became to not only read and write Arabic, but also to be able to understand and translate the Book on my own. I had no instructor, but I did have determination, faith in Allah’s Power, and a will to succeed. I would spend up to 10 hours a day learning the words of Surah 2. As I familiarized myself with the words, I would commit the verses to memory. It was a hard and long process that definitely took its toll on me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I would often pray to Allah to lighten the load of my intensive studies. I did this until I came across the verse in which Allah tells the believers that He has imposed no difficulty upon them in their religion (22:78). This greatly lifted my spirits and gave me the strength to carry on. So, within six months after taking my Shahadah, I was teaching the beginning Arabic class. Al-Hamdu lillah li dhalik (Praise be to Allah for that).
As I became more spiritually aware, I began to see the value of true Islamic knowledge. It is reported in a Tradition: “Seek knowledge even as far as China.” Thus, my immediate task became to acquire all of the Islamic knowledge that I could obtain through my limited resources. I started studying the books of Hadeeth. I became familiar with the different authors of the major canonical books of Traditions. Next, I sought out a deeper and better understanding of the fundamentals of faith. I strove to recognize the spiritual meanings of the physical acts of worship that we perform everyday. I also turned my attention to the science of Qur’anic exegesis. I studied the works of Ibn Kathir and Jafar As-Saddiq in order to get a richer understanding of the different schools.
I next turned my attention to Islamic history, while trying not to confine myself to a particular author or school of thought. I read the works of Ibn Atheer, Muhammad Hykal, al-Ameen al-Amilee, and Ameer Ali. The more that I learned about the “Golden Age” of Islamic history, the more my faith in the future of humanity grew. Allah the, the Most High, tells us in His Book that we must reflect on the generations that passed away before us. By studying the actions of the Ummah (Islamic nation) of the past, we see what sincerity of faith and dependence on Allah can accomplish. Similarly, I recognized what disunity can do to the Ummah. Petty hatreds and grudges can destroy the oneness of the Muslims. With this knowledge, I then sought to inspire others to open their minds to the Truth and to embrace Islam wholeheartedly, without any reservations.
Soon after, I was asked to start giving lectures at our teaching services. I tried to stay away from frivolous topics and discussions so as to give a clear and correct view of Islam. My objective was to establish the basics and stay away from the different ideologies and fractionalization. Once I began to speak, Allah opened up for me many doors of knowledge and understanding. I still continued to focus on perfecting my knowledge of the Arabic language and the Islamic sciences.
In July 1999, I was transferred to the Beto Unit in Palestine, Texas to attend another college. As I settled in, I began to teach Arabic once again but this time at the advanced level. The regional Islamic Chaplain, Imam Abdullah Rasheed, asked me to participate in handling the Islamic affairs, so I was appointed to the Majlis Al-Shura (decision-making council) and acted in that capacity for two years. The experience and knowledge that I gained working under Imam Rasheed and his successor, Imam Omar Rakeeb, helped me to grow not only mentally, but it also made me aware of my moral duty as a Muslim.
On June 17, 2003, I was released from prison after almost 13 years of incarceration. While some say that my time in prison was a waste of life and potential, I look back on it as a blessing from a Most Merciful God. I used to ask myself, “What would have happened if I had never come to prison?” This was something that bothered me all of the time until I read in Surah 64, verse 11: “No affliction comes about but by Allah’s permission; and whoever believes in Allah, He guides aright his heart; and Allah is Cognizant of all things.” This helped me to understand that my going to prison was only a trial from Allah. It helped me to recognize my error and amend my life. And while I missed out on a portion of the life of this world, insha’ Allah (God willing) I gained a much greater portion of the Hereafter.
Allahu Akbar! Relating to the Abu Sufyan post, whatever past one may have, this clearly shows you can always change. Allah (S.W.T) is always there for us and we need him. Inshallah this will help you all as it helped me.