I have now spent nearly an eighth of my life in prison. Life in prison is a journey into the unknown. Unlike other journeys it is one of those things that you can never plan ahead for. You don’t plan to have a car accident. You don’t plan to get cancer. You don’t plan to die. And you don’t plan to go to prison. Prison is just one of the many tests that you must pass in order to succeed in life.
The Prophet (saw) said, “There is some magic in words.” Tyrants use the magic in words to control people’s thoughts and deeds by making evil appear acceptable to them. So kidnap is known as “arrest”, brutality becomes “reasonable force” and torture is nothing more than “enhanced interrogation.” When an innocent man is kidnapped from his home by bearded Arab gunmen and locked indefinitely in a room he is a “hostage.” But when an innocent man is kidnapped from his home by uniformed white gunmen and locked indefinitely in a room he is a “terrorist.” The world causes uproar over the former but is silent over the latter.
“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,”
observed Martin Luther King.
Fear is a disease that consumes the soul of the one who embraces it. Man’s total capacity to fear is fixed: the more he fears one thing the less he fears another. People fear standing up to a tyrant because they are afraid of some harm that he ‘may’ cause them, even though that harm is limited to the life of this world. Such people have little or no fear for any harm that Allah will cause them in the Hereafter.
However, if these same people were to fear the Day when they shall return to stand before the Lord of the Worlds, they would not fear any tyrant on the face of the Earth. “Do they fear them? Allah is more worthy for you to fear if you are indeed believers.” (Quran 9:13)
We survive in life by wearing a variety of faces that disguise our true inner selves. We have one face for our families, a face for our friends, a face for our colleagues, and a face for strangers. Since we are always switching between faces others hardly get to see who we really are. Sometimes we ourselves forget who we are. The harsh reality of prison life relentlessly files away at your external faces and personae to reveal the true you. There are no secrets in prison. Sincerity, hypocrisy, bravery, cowardice, good, evil – all are laid bare. Prison brings out the best, and worst, in people.
Prisoners undergo such a concentrated experience that they develop intensely deep personalities. We interact with each other heart-to-heart, not face-to-face. Our conversations frequently revolve around hope. No man, let alone a prisoner, can live without hope: hope that there is indeed a dawn at the end of this long, dark night. What else do you say to a man facing life in prison?
People are like “metals”, according to one narration of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). Some people are like a cheap bracelet plated in gold: the smallest crisis files away the fake gold to reveal the cheap metal underneath. Others are like a gold bracelet covered in rust: hardship rubs away the rust to bring out the gold below to the surface. And a third type are solid gold, inside and out: calamity just polishes the gold so it sparkles from near and far.
During the last four years I have personally witnessed the worst of men turn into the best of men. I have seen gangsters, drug barons, armed robbers and murderers, of all faiths and races, convert to Islam in prison. I have always been inspired by converts since every conversion is a miracle, but seeing a hardened criminal accept Islam is something else. Only the true religion is able to cause genuine, lasting change in an individual in a short space of time.
The first word revealed in the Quran was “Read!” There is no life without reading. Reading beneficial writing is one of those pleasures that makes you forget you are in prison. During the last four years in prison I have travelled back in time and all over the world. I have visited Jerusalem during the Crusades. I have lived in Muslim Spain. I have accompanied African slaves as they were kidnapped by European slavemasters. I have shared in the suffering of the Native Indians in North America. And I have lived with leaders, hostages, death row inmates and journalists as their writings narrated to me their stories.
Yet all of these writings amount to nothing compared to the one book that has helped me through my ordeal the most: the Glorious Quran. It is my breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I do not read my daily portion at dawn, my heart feels heavy by mid-morning. The Quran is not just a book that mentions stories which are centuries old: it is a book that mentions the present. “We have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention. Will you then not reason?” (Quran 21:10)
Whosoever reads the Quran and reflects on it will find himself and his situation mentioned therein. This is only one of its many miracles.
Prison teaches you not to be judgemental of others, but to treat everyone at face value. When you deal with fellow prisoners you must deal with their present, not their past. That is the only way you will get through prison. Prison hardens you in some aspects, and softens you in others. It humbles you: laying bare your shortcomings. Since much of prison time is spent reflecting on your own past, all of your life’s wrongs come to the surface. Man cannot progress in life until he acknowledges his weaknesses and mistakes. Acknowledging that a problem exists is half of its solution.
Prison has taught me that there is a part of you that no-one can ever take from you, and that is your heart. For the heart is where true happiness resides. When you reach the stage where you are content with your destiny you have defeated your captors and become the most powerful prisoner in the world. This is what belief in Divine Destinyis all about. It is to be happy with whatever Allah has decreed for you: to be happy with your life, to be happy whether you are rich, poor, tall, short, dark or fair. When you are satisfied with your lot in life, you have won.
Every hardship is like being in prison. People feel imprisoned by ill-health, marital discord, financial insecurity, family disputes and other problems. To anyone who feels imprisoned by life’s problems I would say: be content with what you already have and never lose hope of things getting better. Be happy with your share because this is a quality of someone who truly loves Allah. When the Companion Muadh ibn Jabal (ra) was undergoing the pangs and agonies of death, he cried out,
“O Allah! Bear witness that I love You, so do with me whatsoever You wish!”
I would never have wanted to come to prison, but, looking back at these four years, I am glad that I did. I have ventured close to breaking point but due to Allah’s Grace and the support of some wonderful people I have not yet crossed it. My ordeal has been harsh, difficult and exhausting, but it has also been an adventure. Some of the happiest days of my life have been in prison. I have had experiences in prison and met people that I will never forget.
The writer Mustapha Sadiq Ar-Rafei wrote,
“When I looked into history I found a small number of individuals whose lives mirrored the lifecycle of a grain of wheat. They were torn from their roots, then crushed, then ground in mills, then kneaded with fists, then rolled out and baked in ovens at high temperatures… just so they could provide food for others.”
Patiently persevere in the face of hardship hoping for a good outcome because you never know how many dead hearts you will bring to life in the process. No hardship lasts forever. There is always an end.
(Babar Ahmad is a 34 year old British Muslim and the longest detained-without-charge British detainee held as part of the global ‘war on terror’. In December 2003 Babar was arrested at his London home under anti-terror legislation. By the time he reached the police station Babar had sustained at least 73 forensically recorded injuries, including bleeding in his ears and urine. Six days later he was released without charge.
Babar then filed a formal complaint that he had been subjected to horrific physical, sexual and religious abuse by the arresting police officers. An IPCC supervised investigation later dismissed his complaint and even “commended” one of these officers for his “great bravery” in arresting him. Babar is currently suing the Metropolitan Police for assault.
In August 2004 Babar was re-arrested in London and taken to prison pursuant to an extradition request from the US under the controversial, no-evidence-required, Extradition Act 2003. The US has alleged that in the 1990s Babar was a supporter of “terrorism”. Babar denies any involvement in terrorism. He has now been in prison for four years even
though he has not been charged in the UK.
Babar’s family, friends and campaigners have mounted a high profile campaign for his release. He recently appeared in the news when it was revealed that the police had bugged his prison visits with his MP, Sadiq Khan (Labour-Tooting). His final appeal against extradition is at The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which is due to decide on it shortly. If extradited he faces the rest of his natural life in solitary confinement in a maximum security US ‘Supermax’ prison. Further details on his case are at www.freebabarahmad.com.)