I began my prison outreach work long before I even realized it. I had returned to the United States in the winter of 2000 on my yearly visit to my family. I was studying abroad in Mauritania in the Mahdara (college) of Murabit al Hajj. Zaytuna Institute had recently purchased a property in Hayward, CA and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Muhammad Yaqubi were giving classes there. During one class, Shaykh HamzaYusuf requested that I teach a basic fiqh course. I then set up a time to come weekly to teach the Abridgment of al-Akhdari. It took some time for a small group of students to form and have a dedicated study group. I remember one time waiting 45 minutes for the first student to show up. I waited in my older brother Faisal’s white Jeep Cherokee that he had graciously loaned me to use during my 3 months stay until I returned to Mauritania.
There was one brother who came consistently and was very serious about his studies. I don’t remember his name, unfortunately, but I will never forget him. He was an older man who had become Muslim while in prison and had been recently released. He was staying in Oakland, California and would come to class on his ten-speed bike he bought second-hand and would ride the BART train with it. It took him about an hour to get to class. He was always very engaged in the discussions and had very deep questions that he was sincerely looking for answers to. He would share with me stories of how Islam is spreading in the prisons and how the Muslim community in prison was doing. This was my exposure to the spread of Islam in prisons other than knowing about the life of Malcolm X.
I remember one day he was headed home and I offered to give him a ride. He said he had a bike and I told him not to worry as I had a Jeep (courtesy of my older brother). As we began the ride, he told me to take highway 17 north from Hayward to Oakland. It was at this point that I was first impacted by the toll that prison has on a person. For those readers familiar with the San Francisco Bay Area, you know why I was shocked. The highway that the brother was referring used to be called State Route 17 but was changed to I-880 in 1984 and it was now the year 2000. I politely told the brother of the change and he didn’t seem to make much of it. I don’t really know how he felt about not realizing the change, since there were so many more things that had changed as well and maybe this was insignificant to him. But to me it was a very deep realization and I remember the whole scene very clearly.
It was if he was in a time capsule and when he emerged so many things changed without him even realizing it. Since then, I have been in other situations where released inmates are amazed by the things they see; cordless home phones, music playing at the gas station, new styles of cars like the Cube, and many other things that most of us don’t even pay attention to. I don’t think that the impact that prison has on a person can be quantified and then fully understood by others. We can never fully understand the experience of any person other than ourselves, not matter how hard we try to empathize or ‘put ourselves in their shoes.’ What we can have is a mere glimpse into the lives of others. How does it feel to wake up and find the whole world had passed you by? We all know the feeling of being left behind at some point in our life. We never liked it when it happened to us and all we may have missed was a party, fieldtrip, or a dinner. What if we were left behind for 20 or 30 years?
The positive side to being left behind sometimes is that it may be that what saves our life or our afterlife. My wife’s cousin once overslept and missed his flight. The flight he was supposed to be on went down in the Atlantic Ocean and had no survivors. In Sura al Kahf in the Quran, the story is related of a group of young men who went into hiding in a cave to escape religious persecution. They woke up 309 years later and found that everything changed around them and they were noticed when one of them tried to purchase food with coins that were minted during his time. The society had changed and the people were now all believers with a righteous king. Being left behind saved them. In the story of Prophet Yusef (Joseph), he was left behind by his brothers in the well, then later left in the prison by the king, then left behind by the man who was supposed to remind the king about him. But in the prison Yusef, peace be upon him, found a space to not have to deal with the trials of society and an opportunity to console the poor souls left behind in prison. By being left behind he was saved and then elevated to a high place in the world by being put in charge of the agricultural ministry of Egypt. So too, many people who go to prison today and are left behind and avoid many of the trials of society. They then find an opportunity to redeem themselves and many people find their faith while in prison, and thus are elevated to a high spiritual position.
When Yusef, peace be upon him, left the prison finally he wrote the following message on the door to the prison: “This is the grave of the living, the cause for one’s enemies to rejoice, and a test of whom one’s true friends are.” May Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, give us all the ability to be the true friends of those left behind by society.