...First of all, it is clear that the prison system here is inept. They call this place a 'correctional facility', but I see very little correction of anyone going on around me. Most of the prisoners I've had the chance to speak to are repeat offenders, meaning they were previously jailed here, released, committed more crimes (often the same one), and were brought back. Some have been brought back so many times that they consider this home, and they consider release to be a temporary visit to some strange place. I can't deny that some are beyond hope, but the point is that people are pulled off the streets and brought in here, and nobody makes a single serious effort to get them to change their ways or give them hope of an alternative lifestyle. For example, I was in the prison van yesterday on my way back from court and struck up a conversation with a guy next to me who was losing it. So, I calmed him down, and told him to stay positive, and use his time here to clean his heart and mind, get stronger, and learn more about himself and his purpose in life, and that way he could gain more from prison than he ever would outside. he just looked at me and said, "That's the first time anyone has said something like that to me since I got here," and my words were quite simply and easy...
There are roughly 1,700 prisoners here. The only rehabilitation programs here take 50 prisoners every four months--combined! So, the remaining 1,650 are being "corrected" by people who for the most part are just here to finish an 8-hour shift and go home without a headache, and couldn't care less about the futures and interests of those they are responsible for. It's a real shame, because the way I see it, a lot of good can be done by just passing each prisoner's cell and sitting down for a short chat to let him know that he can make better choices in life, he should keep his head up, etc. Such simple, brief exchanges can go a long way in changing someone's life, if only this was the purpose of such a facility. Society in general would become much better if this approach were taken by prison staff. If you've ever seen the movie 'American History X', the turn of events there is a good example of how this can come about.
Another concept that has been reinforced in my mind is that no matter how bad things may be going for a given person, there is always someone worse off. There is always that one person you meet who gives you a reality check that reminds you that even though you are in prison going through hardship, etc., there are still things that you can take for granted. Case in point: a fellow prisoner I learned of who was just moved into the isolation unit a few cells down from me, who I had a chance to speak to when he was being moved. He told me his story, and I asked him how often he called his family, to which he replied that his mother literally told him to never contact her again until he was out. He was nearly in tears--a grown man--while questioning how a mother can turn away from her son in such a manner at his greatest time of need. After I spoke to him, I tried to put myself in his shoes, and I came to realize that despite whatever I'm going through, I never once had to worry about my family forsaking me or abandoning me. In our culture, it's generally unfathomable. However, it is these reality checks that clarify that what might be guaranteed for some isn't guaranteed for all, and we should thus realize at all times that no matter how bad you may have it, you have things that grown men will cry for. So, thanks and praise to Allah for giving us what we have.
Another example that just popped into my mind is something I read in the newspaper today. It was about a woman who had been attacked by a chimpanzee weighing 200 lbs coming on TV and showing what the chimp had done to her face: her eyes were so severely attacked that she is now blind. A flap of skin now sits where her nose used to be. Her cheeks are a series of tears, gashes, and scars. She is unrecognizable, and can only eat through a straw. I just read that, shook my head, and realized that something as basic as having an intact face, having a nose, being able to see--these were luxuries I have that this woman is now deprived of.
Another benefit of being here is that you come to realize that the Muslim's relationship with Allah is one of give and take, and good and desirable things don't come easy. If you want something valuable, you have to be able to come up with money for it. We sometimes will wish for something, make du'aa' (supplication) that it comes to be, have high hopes, but our level of faith, worship, and attachment to Allah isn't changed at all, because we don't tend to these while making the du'aa' (supplication) for what we want. As a result, we don't achieve the desired outcome.
In the Hadith Qudsi, Allah says, "Whoever shows hostility to a Wali (friend) of Mine, I will declare war on him." So, we often pay attention to the entire sentence except for the 'Wali' part, as well as what comes next. A person reaches this level of closeness to Allah by performing many nawafil (extra) deeds--praying more, fasting more, giving more charity--so much so that Allah becomes his hearing, seeing, etc. Instead of just praying his normal twelve extra rak'aat (units of prayer), he prays twenty. Instead of praying a third of the night, he boosts it up to half the night. He makes his sujood (prostration) longer. He reads two two Juzz of the Qur'aan a day instead of his regular one juzz! He fasts four days a week instead of two. He makes his way through a series of adhkaar (formulas of remembrance) that is twice as long as what he would normally do--basically, he puts in more of his time and energy to worship Allah, and shows Him that he truly wants to become close to Him, truly wants His wilaayah (friendship, guardianship), truly loves Him, truly sees himself as a slave who is broken, humbled, weak, and is simply manifesting the reason he exists. Such a person wants to dig deeper into the treasures of faith, worship, and attachment to Allah. He knows that attachment to Allah is of levels, and he doesn't rest and is not satisfied with himself until he reaches the highest level that he can of this attachment. Only then can we complete the Hadeeth (Prophetic Narration) and say, "...If he asks Me, I will give him what he wants, and if he asks for My Protection, I will Protect him."
Reaching this level isn't easy. It takes sincerity, persistence, resolve, conviction, true certainty that Allah will give you what you want if you reach the finish line, and it requires consistency. We can't be like the people Allah describes in verse 12 and verses 22--23 in Surat Yunus, who reach this level of humility and need before Allah, get the relief they want, and then go back to the way they were before they needed relief from Him.
The point is that the deeper you go into these levels of servitude to Allah, the more evident and swift your need will be met. The level of certainty Prophet Musa had standing before the Red Sea splitting, the level of humility and need Yunus felt when he was released form the whale's grasp, the lengthy du'aa' (supplicattion) the Prophet Muhammad made before the Battle of Badr--all of these are examples of a deep level of attachment to Allah that went beyond what would exist on a daily basis while we're living in comfort, ease, and security, and this is part of the reason the response to their distress was quite literally miraculous. We can achieve the same to some extent if we reach deep enough into those treasures. And we can do that now, whether or not we are in dire need of something from Allah at the moment. And we are all in need of Him...
These are just a few of the thoughts that have occupied my mind lately. I would like to close this letter by mentioning an incident with Babar Ahmad that I have heard shortly before I was arrested. In it, he says that a fellow prisoner was about to be released. So, Babar said, "I want to apologize to you before you leave." The man asked, "For what?" Babar replied,
"When I was free, I saw your story on TV. However, it meant nothing to me, because I never thought it could happen to me. So, I did nothing for you. Now that I am in prison and it has happened to me, there are people who heard about my story and will think nothing of it, thinking it will never happen to them. Once it happens to them, others will think nothing of it and do nothing, etc..."
So, if you feel that you can just sit back and read about all these cases and do nothing to repel this injustice and that it can never happen to you, think again.
26th of Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1430 / 14th of November, 2009.
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