Islam and the African American Prisoner

Many African American prison inmates are attracted to Al Islam because it provides the remedy to a host of problems and destructive influences that led them to a lifestyle which provided the justification to incarcerate them.

Typically, African Americans take on a criminal mind-set and become involved in criminal pursuits because of a sense of hopelessness and despair. Their lives seem to be without purpose, meaning and direction, and they become ensnared in a superficial, destructive process where they imitate the behavior that appears to result in economic and social prosperity for those who aggressively acquire the trappings of prosperity through whatever means, whether fair or foul. This selfish, opportune conduct is not limited to the Black, the Brown or the impoverished, but cuts across all economic/ social levels and is engaged in by people who manipulate the highest reins of political and economic power which in turn infuses it with the stamp of legitimacy and approval.

There are, in addition, other factors that impact upon the African American spiritual and mental proclivities and warp their sense of human values and impede their desire to develop and to sustain the full range of the qualities of excellence inherent within. One is the ingestion of a polluted and poisonous food stuffs.
In the United States (and beginning with the abduction and enslavement of Africans some 400 years ago) he/she has been forced-fed a bleached out, nutrition-deficient hodgepodge of junk foods which retard spiritual, mental and physical well being and slowly and methodically plague him/her with a host of debilitating sicknesses and ailments. Heart disease, cancer, arthritis, cataracts, strokes, depression ,and mood swings are but a few. This nutritional/ starvation diet also plays a part in the mental and spiritual imbalances which lead to crime and anti-humanistic thoughts and behavior.

The corporate ruled society ignores the obvious connection between diet and mental and spiritual health in an effort to sell the cheapest and most deficient food products for the most money and to monopolize the food market and (in the process) treat the American consumer not much different from the livestock it keeps warehouse away in tiny stalls and stuffed with a steady diet of anti-biotic and growth hormone laced feed.

The African American (caught in a maze of social, economic and nutritional destruction, and unable in most instances to tap into the superior and vibrant life- energy and power within) turns to elements outside of himself to find meaning and purpose as well as a semblance of peace and solace.

Many seek to escape the seemingly bleak reality of their lives through drugs and alcohol. Others may seek out women (or men) believing that they are the solution to their problems. They become involved with as many sex partners as possible and these relationships, because they are based on lust and fantasy, usually end in disappointment or in despair. Many others are attracted and bowled over by flashy material goods, such as jewelry, shiny cars, expensive gaudy clothes, etc. All of these things are manufactured and mass produced by corporate conglomerates and made desirable by an incredible onslaught of mass media hype, brainwashing and manipulation to dupe the consumer into thinking that the acquisition of these products are synonymous with status, happiness, and achievement. And prompting millions of economically destitute African Americans to turn to crime and brave jail, prison, or a policeman’s bullet to have them.

Yet when the African American prisoner is introduced to Al-Islam, he (or she) discovers the fullness, the completeness that they had been searching for their entire lives. And they find that the precepts of Al-Islam addresses all those concerns, deficiencies, problems and challenges which had circumvented them and overwhelmed them for so long.

If he was placing too much emphasis on the fallacies and illusions of this world, the deen of Al Islam calls him back to the exclusive worship of his Lord and Fashioner with the declaration of the purest monotheism, ‘there is none worthy of worship except Allah (God).’ If he is in need of a shining example of how a human being should live, he is introduced to the sublime and August personage of prophet Muhammad. And if he is deluded into thinking that this mundane existence is all there is of life, he is reminded of the Afterlife, and the eternity of bliss which is reserved for those that are faithful to their Lord and live a righteous life, and warned of the terrible fate of the heedless.

Also, those philosophical barriers and theological misunderstandings and disappointments are traversed and (in the process) vigorous optimism and understanding rejuvenates his life and charges him with resolve and energy.

Those who had been conditioned through mis-education and illusion to believe that there is no god, are liberated with the Islamic creed that emphasizes the eternal reality of ‘there is no god but God.’

When the African American begins to study Islam, something stirs in the recesses of his consciousness. It is like the awakening of a distant memory which, although long neglected, begins to clear a path through the cobwebs and the shadows of the mind. The knowledge of Al-Islam is also the knowledge of himself, for all are born Muslim, (obedient to God) it is their environment that seduces them from their true nature and re-makes them into something other than what Allah (God) intended.

He studies the Qur’an and the life of the prophet, and the answers to questions that had eluded him are spelled out and illuminated in the most concise and beautiful manner. Why are we here? Why was the universe created? What is our purpose on this revolving sphere called earth? Which avenues should we pursue and which should we avoid.? Was life given to us solely so that we can avail ourselves of sport, amusements and the gratification of frivolous whims and desires?

The human being places himself in a extremely dangerous and futile position when he seeks after the trinkets and baubles of creation to the denigration of his Creator (Allah). For the heart will always attach itself to what it is most fond of and it is the gravest of sins to be enamored with any part of the creation while ignoring the Creator that fashioned it, or while neglecting the One who blessed him with the very powers and faculties that he foolishly abuses and misuses.

Life is a very complicated and often mysterious journey. There are, of course, numerous perils and pitfalls, and there are decisions and evaluations which must be made constantly. When the right choice is made, it not only benefits the individual but is beneficial to the society as a whole. Likewise, if the wrong choice is made there can be adverse consequences for not only those directly involved, but for the society in general. It is important that a religion (or way of life) provide for its adherents a structure for success. It must provide the guidance that will empower the individual with the mental and spiritual ammunition to make the right choice and to choose the best path.

The African American gets into trouble when he thinks he can find the correct way on his own, without any help or direction from the divine source. And he is led astray by the system of mis-education that prompt him to believe that there is no god. He looks around his world and sees unimaginable cruelty, poverty and neglect and wonders how a beneficent all powerful deity can decree such misery. Moreover, even the supposedly learned scientists, philosophers, scholars and intellectuals spout empirical theories of dialectical materialism and the self perpetuation of matter which serve to underscore his belief in the futility of life and influence him to worship only that which crosses his vision or that which can conceivably fall within his grasp.

Slowly, regardless of his religious up-bringing, he is bamboozled into thinking of the objects of materialism as his god. And he is snowballed into perceiving the world solely through the physical senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and scent. Yet while these faculties perform admirably in perceiving the base and the mundane, they are miserably inadequate in deciphering the higher spiritual qualities and manifestations. Thus, unable or unwilling to comprehend the higher spiritual realities and sublime purpose and ideals, he mistakenly believes that they have no intrinsic value or validity. Moreover the distractions of life on the street in the guise of women, drugs, entertainment and a avalanche of non-stop amusements continues to impede his search for spiritual completeness and fulfillment and to bedazzle him into believing that there is nothing worthwhile outside of what his five physical senses present to him in a corrupted temporal world. Yet, when he is arrested and thrown into the bowels of a prison cell, when the mirage of the material enticements are pushed into the recesses of consciousness, and when those he considered his friends and help-mates abandon him, laugh at him, and turn their backs on hom,; he reaches within to harness the human and spiritual essence which he had (for so long) neglected. Islamic scholar, Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari explains:

“When a person is pressed by hardship and overwhelming problems, when material factors turn their back on him, when he has no access to any of the resources of life and is drowning like a straw in a maelstrom of vicissitudes and death is but one step away- then an inward motive guides him instinctively to a non-material source of support. He seeks help from One whose power is superior to all powers, and he understands that it is that compassionate and all-powerful Being who can succor him with His extraordinary power and save him. Because of his perception, with all of his strength he seeks the aid of that most sacred being to save him from danger, and in the sanctum of his heart, he feels the power and strength of that being at work for his salvation” [1]

Despite its oppressive anti-human conditions and programs, the prison environment can serve as kind of monastery or sanctuary away from the litany of vices and distractions of the outside or so-called free world. Thus, the cage and the concrete and steel cubicle is transformed through the longing of the soul, into a place of quiet solitude and reflection where the African -American prisoner tunes into the yearnings of his inner being.

Within the stillness of his soul and with the desperate honesty that he wills himself to muster, he realizes the futility and hollowness of his unprincipled and unguided life. He re-lives the wasted days and fear struck nights and cringes at the shallowness of his unprincipled and unguided life. He reflects on the shallowness of his “street life” and cringes in pain and in shame when he recalls the harm and stress he has placed on loved ones and family members.

He contrasts his flippant, wayward lifestyle with that of fellow African American Muslim prisoners and he is impressed by their discipline, intelligence and adherence to sublime and clear principles. He procures a Qur’an (the Muslim holy book) and reads it in the wee hours of the night or in the cool tranquility of the early morning and he senses a marvelous vista opening before him. Soon a joy stirs within him that is not connected to the acquisition or pilfering of the trinkets of material possessions or the seeking of a “thug” or “gangster” status based the proliferation of senseless violence and rooted in self-hatred.

Contrary to his former perspective, when he viewed the world in fragments, he begins to view it as an integrated and harmonious whole. And instead of citing mischief and evil in the world as proof of the absence of an All-Powerful and Benevolent Creator, he sees them as evidence and validation that man has gone far astray from God and His purpose.


[1]. Sayyid Mujtaba Musavi Lari ” God And Hid Attributes,” Islamic Education Center (1989) p. 23