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Physically Confined But Spiritually Free

My story is only one of many.

It is written not to draw attention to myself; rather, it is written as a testimony to what faith in Allah can do to a person physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

I pray that my story inspires others to study the signs of the Creator so that they may recognize the Truth and live in accordance with it.

I was first introduced to Islam in 1984. At that time, I was only a boy of 11 years and did not understand what exactly I was hearing.

I was told that Muslims pray to only one God and do not eat pork. I was also told that Islam is a religion truly for the black race and that any other race could never really be Muslim. All of this was strange to me.

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I was raised in a Baptist family and was taught that the only way that I could be saved was to believe in Jesus while also recognizing that the only way that I could talk to God was by praying to Jesus.

I was told that I was a sinful person by nature and that the only way that I could be purified was through the “blood of Christ.” These contradictory philosophies only served to confuse my young mind even more. So in response to this mental onslaught, I chose to ignore both.

During my teenage years I attended neither church, mosque, nor any other type of religious institution. Instead, I devoted myself to preparing for my worldly future: I dedicated myself to my country. I entered the ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) program at my high school and excelled.

I was told that there was no greater calling than to stand up and fight for one’s country. To this ideal, I put forth all of my efforts. It was also during this time that I started to fall prey to street life. I soon gained a reputation as a tough guy, and while it earned me a lot of respect from others on the streets, it also led to my downfall.

On August 26, 1990 I was arrested and charged with “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon” as well as “accessory to murder.” Being highly publicized, my case sent shockwaves through the community. Most of my co-defendants were good students who were expected to succeed in whatever they chose to do. Thus, many people were baffled as to how all of this happened.

On July 21, 1991, I arrived at my first unit of assignment, the Clemens Unit in Brazoria, Texas. This unit was nicknamed the “Burning Hell.” My first cell partner called himself Mac-T. He attempted to lay down the rules of the cell immediately: 1- take off your shoes before entering the cell, 2- clean the floor before you leave the cell, and 3- no noise when he is praying.

Thinking that I was tough, I really did not try to listen to what he was saying. So needless to say, we did not stay in the cell together longer than a day. Only in later years did I learn that he was a Muslim.

Soon after that, I started to assimilate into the prison culture: fighting, stealing, gangbanging, and getting drunk at every chance. Anything to try to forget my wasted life and shattered dreams. I left Clemens in December of 1991 so that I could attend college at the Hughes Unit in Gatesville, Texas. My journey was just beginning.

In 1993 when my father died, my life spiraled completely out of control. In my eyes, I had nothing to live for – my one source of stability was gone. It was during this time that I met three brothers who would have a huge impact on my life. One was named Yaqub, another Kareem, and the other Wadi.

These were three of the most disciplined people I had ever met. They were devout Muslims whose sole purpose in life was to please God. Often times, they would invite me to the Islamic services, but with my gangster persona and corrupted mentality, I would decline and go on about my mischief.

By this time, I considered myself an atheist. The only thing I worshipped was power; the only thing I believed in was myself. It was in that state that I was to meet a young man who would inspire me to return to the one thing that had been missing from my life for years: God.

It was 1995, and I was working in the kitchen as a diet cook. My job was to ensure that the food was up to dietary standards and that each person on the approved list received their tray during mealtime.

My assistant was a young man named Haywood. He was a Muslim and went by the name Mustafa. We were good friends and would talk about everything: politics, education, and even religion. And so one day, while he was studying, I asked him what he was reading. He replied, “This does not have anything to do with drinking or killing – you wouldn’t be interested.” I bothered him until he finally let me see what it was that he was studying: he was teaching himself Arabic.

When he asked if I knew what it was and I said yes, he didn’t believe me. I told him that I had seen it when I was introduced to Islam in 1984. I told him that I could even learn it if he taught me the letters. He said, “NO WAY!” so I tried to bet him that I could learn it, but he told me that Muslims do not gamble.

I resolved to learn Arabic just to prove to him that I could. He taught me the letters and around 20 minutes later, I had them memorized. The feeling of accomplishment was incredible! When he saw that I had committed them to memory, he gave me a short list of words to learn, thinking that I could do nothing with it. I really do not blame him for feeling that way – I know that I would have felt the same way about me. After learning the word list, I needed another way to study Arabic. Little did I know that my next decision would change my life forever.

On a whim (or perhaps by inspiration), I decided to ask a Muslim named Faheem for a copy of the Quran, Islam’s sacred Book, to aid me in my study of the Arabic language. He gave me one saying: “God-willing, you will become a Muslim.” I did not think so but I thanked him anyway. My next step was to start trying to read the Arabic in the Quran.

As I was reading, some of the injunctions and stories in the scripture caught my attention. They touched me in a way that is hard to describe, and after a few months of studying, I told Faheem that I was thinking about becoming a Muslim. He encouraged me and gave me a lot of advice.

In my studies, I reflected upon the actions of Yaqub, Wadi, and Kareem. These were three brothers who had endured the brutality and hopelessness of prison life for decades and still held their heads up high with the knowledge that all things are in the hands of Allah.

No matter what man tried to do to them, they maintained their faith in the doctrine that there is no might or power except the Power of the One True God, Allah. And so it was, with these thoughts in my head, that I continued my journey.

The final piece fell in place on a Friday night. The next morning I was supposed to pick up a package of illegal contraband that I had been waiting for. As I sat in my housing area that night, I decided that I would read from the Quran. As I opened the Book, the words of a particular verse jumped out at me.

The words shook my very soul such that I decided not to go to my meeting the next morning. I prayed for forgiveness of my sins and bad conduct; I prayed for guidance and mercy from the God I had turned my back on. I decided then and there that I wanted to dedicate my life to doing good and pleasing God.

When I took this good news to Faheem, he sat me down and asked me if I was resolved on my decision. When I told him yes, he began to educate me on the basic beliefs and teachings of Islam.

I was ready to take my Shahadah (public declaration of faith), but I still had one piece of unfinished business: I needed to disassociate myself from my gang. By that time, I had a lot of rank and influence in my organization so I thought that there would be no problem with me walking away. I thought wrong. They say that with knowledge comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes accountability. As such, people wanted me to be held accountable for my actions, so they came up with a plan to take me out. I had decided to call a meeting of the other leaders of my organization to let them know what it was that I was doing and why.

During the meeting, certain inmates who were trying to get rank within the organization proposed that I should be beaten and/or killed. This was all discussed while I was present! I was outraged but not shocked.

Many people in prison look at Islam like it is just another gang. Thus, to the spiritually-blinded eyes of many of my former gang mates, I was changing my loyalty from one gang to another. There was one man, however, who understood the difference. His name was Willie, and he was as wild as they come. Thus, imagine my shock when he said the following words:

“How can we even sit here talking about doing something to this brother just because he wants to give his life to God.” He went on to remind the members of the meeting about all of the things that I had done to help many of my fellow gang members. In the end, they recognized the truth of his words and decided to leave me unharmed.

Years later, some of the same brothers would embrace Islam in much the same way that I did. Allah touches the hearts of men in ways that we do not perceive. It is only later that we comprehend and recognize the wonderful plan of the Creator.

The next night, I declared my Shahadah in front of all of the community that was present at the Islamic teaching service. I cannot express the feelings of love and joy that I felt when I publicly declared my belief. This was a new beginning. I had little idea of where my journey was taking me, but I was nevertheless glad to be going.

I started using an Arabic/English dictionary to understand the Arabic text of the Quran. I had been misled and duped by the translators of the Bible my whole life, so I was highly skeptical of someone else’s translation of the Holy Quran.

My goal became to not only read and write Arabic, but also to be able to understand and translate the Book on my own. I had no instructor, but I did have determination, faith in Allah’s Power, and a will to succeed.

I would often pray to Allah to lighten the load of my intensive studies. I did this until I came across the verse in which Allah tells the believers that He has imposed no difficulty upon them in their religion (22:78). This greatly lifted my spirits and gave me the strength to carry on. So, within six months after taking my Shahadah, I was teaching the beginning Arabic class.

As I became more spiritually aware, I began to see the value of true Islamic knowledge. I started studying the books of Hadith. I became familiar with the different authors of the major canonical books of Traditions. Next, I sought out a deeper and better understanding of the fundamentals of faith.

I strove to recognize the spiritual meanings of the physical acts of worship that we perform every day. I also turned my attention to the science of Quranic exegesis. I studied the works of Ibn Kathir and Jafar As-Saddiq in order to get a richer understanding of the different schools.

Soon after, I was asked to start giving lectures at our teaching services. I tried to stay away from frivolous topics and discussions so as to give a clear and correct view of Islam. My objective was to establish the basics and stay away from the different ideologies and fractionalization. Once I began to speak, Allah opened up for me many doors of knowledge and understanding. I still continued to focus on perfecting my knowledge of the Arabic language and the Islamic sciences.

On June 17, 2003, I was released from prison after almost 13 years of incarceration. While some say that my time in prison was a waste of life and potential, I look back on it as a blessing from a Most Merciful God. I used to ask myself:

“What would have happened if I had never come to prison?” This was something that bothered me all of the time until I read in Surah 64:11: {No affliction comes about but by Allah’s permission; and whoever believes in Allah, He guides aright his heart; and Allah is Cognizant of all things.}

This helped me to understand that my going to prison was only a trial from Allah. It helped me to recognize my error and amend my life.

And while I missed out on a portion of the life of this world, insha’ Allah (God willing) I gained a much greater portion of the Hereafter.