Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What Attracts Inmates to Islam?

("Shahadah" - Image from Islamicfinder.org)

In my previous post, Mezba commented that he is curious about what attracts inmates to Islam. Mezba: I thought that your question merits a post of its own.

Why inmates "convert" to Islam or any other religion is a complex issue. Insha Allah I can attempt to address a few of the factors here.

When people come to prison, many, for the first time in their life, are presented with opportunity. They can take a good look at themselves and gain insight into why they ended up in prison. They can then take advantage of the programs that are available in many US prisons. I am aware of the fact that many prisons have no programs or other means of improvement for inmates, but most prisons have some. And practically all of them have a chapel or a chaplain.

Where I work (state prison), we have an awesome chapel program, Alhamdulillah. If inmates are committed to a prison where there is a Muslim chaplain, part of the Muslim chaplain's job is to "be there" for all inmates, regardless of their faith group, or even if they have no faith group. The Muslim chaplain often develops deep relationships with non Muslim inmates, so it is natural that some inmates may become attracted to Islam through their relationship with the Muslim chaplain. State and federal prisons are a little different than city lockups and county prisons because inmates are incarcerated for longer periods in the state and federal facilities. Thus, inmates have an opportunity to be exposed to Muslims and Muslim chaplains.

In city lockups or county prisons, inmates are usually exposed to Islam and Muslims through other inmates, or programs provided by outside Islamic groups. Sometimes, inmates come to chapel programs and activities for something to do, and then Allah (swt) touches their hearts, and they give Islam a closer look.

In a state or federal prison, inmates sometimes come to Islamic chapel activities (Jumuah, tahleem, Arabic classes, etc.) to get out of their cells, or to be with their friends. Sometimes, inmates come to Islam because they want to participate in the Eid feast. Many Muslim chaplains have observed that inmates desiring to be Muslims increases during Ramadan. In women's prisons, some inmates will desire to be Muslim so they can have a hijab. Further, some inmates want to be part of the "other." Some inmates see Islam as an anti-establishment religion, and want to be part of it.

But, those are some of the nefarious reasons. For the most part, inmates change their religion because they are seeking. Because they are lost in life.

Many inmates (and even people in the general public) have problems with the religion they were born into. When an inmate tells me that they want to change their religion, I ask them why they want to leave their own religion. Sometimes, people have had negative experiences as a child with religion. Many inmates reject the tenants of their own religion. For example, many tell me that "I never did believe that Jesus was God anyhow."

Inmates have challenges in all major areas of their lives, and the spiritual area is no exception. Some inmates believe that changing their religion is the answer to their problems. Some don't realize that if they don't change themselves, they merely enter their new religion carrying all of their baggage from their lives into the next faith tradition.

Islam can bring structure and discipline into a person's life. It also affords a person an opportunity to accept personal responsibility for their life. The very essence of tawheed is the Believer's direct relationship with Allah (swt) with no partners, intercessors, or helpers. In Islam, a person is only responsible to Allah (swt).

But - the biggest reason that inmates are attracted to Islam?

It is because inmates give dawah! Big time, Alhamdulillah! Either directly, or indirectly by example.

Some inmates give dawah by setting a positive example of being a Muslim. Believe it or not, many non Muslim inmates never really knew any Muslims well before coming to prison and ending up being cell mates with a Muslim. If the Muslim inmate is a person that exhibits good Islamic character, prays five times a day in the cell, etc., where the non Muslim can observe all of this, well, it makes the non Muslim see Islam and Muslims in a different light - perhaps for the first time in life. It provides the non Muslim with an opportunity to ask questions.

Why are inmates (or anyone else for that matter) attracted to Islam? Well, as Muslims, we know that Allah (swt) makes Muslims. A person can give all the dawah he wants, and if Allah (swt) puts a veil over the person's eyes, ears, and understanding - well, that person is lost.

Whatever reason, the Muslim chaplain is blessed to be in the unique position to see the miracle repeated over and over again, Alhamdulillah.


mezba said...

Wonderful. Thank you for this - a very interesting and informative read.

Ultimately it's Allah who choose whom to guide and we are just a happy medium.

iMuslimah said...

Assalamu alaykum sister-

Wonderful and insightful post. I read an article recently in NY that eluded to the fact the inmates are attracted to Islam because they are angry/violent. Bunch of hogwash. It upset me, and I wish I would have written to the author.

I really liek what you said about change occuring from within, otherwise baggage is carried over to the new faith tradition. Very wise. it is clear you spend a lot of time and put a lot of car into what you do.

This muslim, sitting in fron of her laptop like a potato, thanks you.

BTW- did u hear? We are aunties! LOL.



Safiyyah said...

Salaams iMuslimah:

Yes, I heard we are aunties, Alhamdulillah!!!!!!

Anyhow, there is a small element of truth to the anger thing. Many inmates do see Islam as the "other" religion, i.e., one dominated by non-whites, and all the issues that go with the legacy of slavery in America.

However, many inmates (African-Americans) were born into Islam, Alhamdulillah. So, many are angry for other reasons.

Many incarcerated Latinos are also attracted to Islam.

But, the media, not understanding all of the delicate sides of the issue, does try to blow up the anger/violence thing and then trying to use that for basis that Muslim converts in prison are ripe pickings for recuitment to terrorism, Astaghfirallah.

Rene´s Bare Essentials said...

Excellent post!

How long have you been working in the Prison? Sounds like a very challenging job. Ive always wanted to work with inmates. I also feel the best dawah is made in prisons and to homeless people. I would encourage all muslims to organize sisters to visit women in prison and brothers to visit brothers in prison to make dawah to them and show them the beauty of islam!

Ida Bakar said...

Dear Saffiyah,

Is there a dispropotionately high numbers of muslimah inmates? If so why? You also mentioned that about African-Americans who are already muslims ending up in prison. Why is that the case?

As for your media saying that muslims plus prison equals breeding grounds for terrorism; we in the UK still laughing at the Fox News reiteration that the National Health Service (which we are proud of) breeds terrorism.

I am rubbing my (muslima) hands with glee at the thought of that 'journalist' ending up in my Emergency Department.