Incarcerated Muslims: Radicalsor Reformers?


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


One of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire teaching career has been the 14 years I have spent teaching Islam to Muslims in prisons throughout the United States. As the founder of The Tayba Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to providing Islamic education to inmates for their own spiritual nourishment and character rectification, I have seen how Muslims in prison have been at the forefront of many great initiatives. Yet there is still so little known to the public about Muslims in prison or about prison in general, for that matter. I strongly believe that every American has the duty to know what is going on with incarceration in our country. In addition to the civic duty of knowing about and working for the betterment of the system of incarceration in our country, Muslim citizens in particular have the added religious duty of helping the incarcerated.

Many Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are relatively unaware of the history of incarceration in the United States. Starting in the 1980s, various policies that were part of the “Tough on Crime” and “War on Drugs” approaches increased the U.S. incarcerated population by an overwhelming 500 percent. Today, there is a total of 2.3 million people in jails and prisons across the country—many convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. One of Tayba’s best students, for example, was given three life sentences as a juvenile for a nonviolent drug offense. This individual, who became a Muslim while incarcerated, served 22 years in prison for possession of less than one gram of crack cocaine, while there are still other offenders who have never been convicted, or serve less time, for far more heinous crimes.

In addition, the deinstitutionalization of the state mental health asylums in recent years has significantly impacted the dramatic rise in the U.S. incarcerated population, leading some to call it the “criminalization of mental illness.” More concerning, however, is that the Thirteenth Amendment—which abolished the institution of slavery—still allows for slavery to be used as “a punishment for crime.” The use of prisoners for cheap, often forced, labor has been a practice that has existed since the Civil War. Today, prisoners will receive hourly wages ranging anywhere from 25 cents to $1 an hour for their labor.

Unfortunately, one of the realities for prisoners in the United States today is the high likelihood of returning to prison after their initial release. It is estimated that a startling 70 to 90 percent of prisoners are likely to return to prison at least once in their lifetime. However, studies have shown that access to education while in prison plays a major role in reducing the recidivism rate and lessening the likelihood of repeat incarceration.

Still, the government is content with spending an average of $30,000–60,000 per prisoner each year even though in-prison programs, such as education, that can reduce incarceration and recidivism, would never get approved.

At the Tayba Foundation, we have made it our mission to provide proper Islamic education at the postsecondary level to prisoners in the hopes of reversing this trend. The Qur’an teaches Muslims of the importance of caring for prisoners. This is seen in verse 76:8: “They give food, for the love of Him, to the needy, the orphan, and the prisoner.” The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) gave further emphasis to this in a Hadith, narrated by Tabarani, that reads, “I enjoin you to treat the captive well.” This deeply profound guidance is what forces us to remember the humanity of prisoners and maintain their inherent rights, even though they may have wronged us. Perhaps what is most important is that this guidance urges us to always look for ways we can reform (tawbah), while reminding us to never give up on anyone. This guidance has served as a constant reminder for us to not forget to show mercy to others, even those who have committed crimes.

In other words, the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) not only teach, but also command Muslims to show mercy toward all humanity. Qur’anic scholars have also noted that God’s instructions to “give food” should not preclude us from giving anything else that is needed, especially spiritual nourishment. The Tayba Foundation is dedicated to doing just this by providing high-quality authentic Islamic education to Muslim prisoners through distance and correspondence learning programs. And although our main focus is on authentic Islamic education, we strive to assist our students in their pursuit for other degrees or certificates whenever possible.

However, we cannot overlook the many misconceptions held about Muslims and Islam in prison, which are being spread throughout the American public using what some refer to as a rhetoric of Islamophobia. One particular scare tactic relates the number of incarcerated Muslims in America to statistics showing that 30,000 to 40,000 people convert to Islam each year. However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons identified 9,000 Muslim prisoners in 2004 (6 percent of the total prison population),4in 2008 the New York State prison system identified 7,825 (12.5 percent of the total prison population)5and in 2007 California identified 4,159 (2.4 percent of the total prison population).

From my 14 years of experience, I have found that such claims are nothing more than scare tactics used to convince the public that our prisons foster an environment that is rampant with “radical Islam,” or that they are flooded with converts to Islam who in some way pose a danger to our society. While some may be concerned about the fact that conversion to Islam is increasing, I have found that it has actually become a powerful force that has helped many prisoners become better people. It is more troubling that many of the inflated numbers come from articles that are not research-based and cite nongovernmental data—and in some cases are what informs policies and legislation.

In addition, another misconception is that prison, or simply an individual’s conversion or practice of Islam, creates a “fertile ground” for terrorism. But according to Dr. Mark S. Hamm’s extensive research on the subject of radicalization in prisons, only “a very small percentage of converts turn radical beliefs into terrorist action.” Radicalization is a very complex societal ill that manifests in all sectors of society, prison included, but Muslims in prison should not be singled out and made to seem as if they are part of some sort of epidemic.

Sadly, the instances where an individual went on to commit a terrorist act are due, in part, to an absence of proper Islamic education, as well as an overall misuse of the religion. This unfortunate phenomenon has occurred both within and outside of prisons. It is for this reason that I strongly believe that one of the greatest resources we have to protect against radicalization and the misuse of the religion is a sound Islamic education. This was echoed by a survey we conducted at the Tayba Foundation, which found that the foremost religious need of Muslims in prison was access to curriculum and teachers. The Tayba Foundation began its program for Islamic education by distance and correspondence, and committed itself to maintaining this service for Muslim prisoners. We are dedicated to shedding light on how our religious texts are being misused and abused, and providing the proper education of Islam that serves to bring harmony and tolerance for all of humanity.

And the results are telling. Many of the recent major legal precedents for prisoners’ rights were actually spearheaded by Muslim inmates. Many Muslims inmates are at the forefront of a number of programs to help others, including successful inmate-led rehabilitation groups that were founded by Muslims.

In fact, two of our Tayba students co-founded one of these programs and went on to not only turn it into their own non-profit organization, but are now in contract for a creating a transitional house in the State of California. Some of our other students are now involved in non-profit work and teaching, some now attend graduate school, and some have even gone on to start their own businesses. Above all else, each and every one of our students has gone on to become active and engaged members in the communities in which they live. The potential here is endless. It is the very same potential that someone saw in Malcolm Little when he was in prison and chose to aid him on his journey for knowledge: the potential that transformed Malcom Little into Al Hajj Malik El Shabazz (more commonly known as Malcolm X), one of the greatest figures in the spread of Islam in the United States who helped so many others out of the darkness of ignorance.

During my time with the Tayba Foundation, I am constantly reminded of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), narrated by Sahih Muslim: “People are like ores, like the ores of gold and silver, the best of them before Islam [jahiliyyah] are the best of them in Islam if they gain understanding [fiqh].” My experience working with prisoners has made me a firm believer in the power of education to dramatically transform the dynamics of prisons in the United States today. I have seen the endless possibilities that emerge when men and women are given the proper tools, time, and space to learn. I have also seen theconfidence and steadfastness that education has provided these men and women when they return to their communities. At the Tayba Foundation, we see it as both our religious and civic duty to provide prisoners with the necessary resources and education so that they may access this potential. We pray to continue to be able to provide this education and we look forward to collaborating with other organizations focused on making education available to prisoners.