Friday, June 4, 2010

'Freedom Behind the Razor Wire'

'Freedom Behind the Razor Wire'
('What It's Like' pt.4)

At this moment, I can glance out my window and see a 60-ft. stretch of grass patches, dirt, sunflowers, and gravel that ends at the perimeter fence. At various times of the day, droves of small birds swoop down onto the grass before my window, hopping around from one place to another while rapidly pecking the ground with their beaks. They keep at this for maybe ten minutes before flying off in the same formation they landed in.

To be able to witness their grace and beauty is a treat in here, thanks to Allah. But more significant in my mind is the fact that they were choosing to land here, of all places. These creatures possess the wings to carry them soaring heights and great distances to land on any plot of land they so choose. Human beings that we are, we have no such wings and are here against our choosing. Yet, the birds make a daily choice to land behind the razor wire, on prison grounds.

There must be a sign in this ...

By definition, prison is a tool of confinement. the sovereignty of its inhabitants is usurped. It is characterized by limitation. It is not designed to offer much to those who it swallows into its cold, gray belly ... conventionally speaking. For certain people, however, there is an exception to this. For certain prisoners, there is a treasure hidden here that only they can find; it is a treasure that, when found, turns this institution of confinement upside down and inside out. It is the treasure of the very freedom that was intended to be usurped - rather, a freedom greater than the one intended to be usurped. This treasure, when found , can transform a tool of confinement into a tool of liberation, as Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah realized on his way into prison while recitingL { " ... inside, it will be mercy, and on the outside, it will be torment." } from Surat al-Hadid, v.13.

When he was in an Egyptian jail in the city of Alexandria, Ibn Taymiyyah began one of his letters with the verse from Surat ad-Duha: { " And mention the bounty of your Lord." } He then proceeded to do so: " I would like to inform my companions that I am in a state of bliss the like of which I have never experienced or seen. Allah has opened wide for me the gates of His endless bounties. These blessings by Allah will only be tasted by those who have acquired insight into the realities of faith and Tawhid ... The subsequent pleasure and happiness, total joy and excitement, that are difficult to describe are all found in the knowledge of Allah, belief in Him, and true worship of Him, alone. " And we all know of his golden statement that is repeated often today hundreds of years after he uttered it: " What can my enemies do to me? My paradise and garden are in my chest, going with me wherever I go. My imprisonment is a time of privacy with Allah. My deportation is tourism for me. My execution is martyrdom. So, what can my enemies do to me ... ?" It is this same spiritual freedom that Sayyid Qutb found in prison that led him to pen these poetic verses:

"Brother, you are free behind these walls,
Brother, you are free in these shackles;
If you stick firmly to Allah,
Then how can the plots of people harm you?
Brother, the armies of darkness will vanish,
And a new dawn will shine on the world;
So, let your soul shine,
And you will see the dawn come to us from afar ... "

The above is simply a conveyance of the freedom these men found in regards to their own selves. The freedom that their imprisonments granted to the world, however, was far wider and greater. Their writings, their teachings, the stands they took, and their circumstances of imprisonment inspired and liberated the hearts and minds of all who came across them while writhing in the abyss of ignorance and inferiority complex. They did not merely disperse knowledge - they shaped personalities! And this liberation was born through their captivity.

On p. 174 of his autobiography, Malcom X said: " Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I've said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. this impression is due entirely to my prison studies." On p.176, he explained: " I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge ... Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up until then, I never had been so truly free in my life. " And on p.183: " I don't think any body ever got more out of going to prison than I did. In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college. "

The above words are of one who entered prison as a thief, pimp, and street hustler who could barely read or write ... The prison within whose walls he devoured book after book in a process that taught him his history, expanded his vocabulary, reformed his morals, and transformed him into an unparalleled orator who shook the world with nothing more than the power of his words. Behind those walls of the Norfolk State Prison here in Massachusetts - just 45 minutes from where I sit and write you these words - Malcolm X was able to liberate his mind in a manner that made him a liberator of the minds of so many others. (By the way, I've spike with several inmates here who had previously been held at Norfolk, and they informed me that the gigantic library that Malcolm was transformed by has since been removed.)

Nelson Mandela is considered to be the world's most famous former political prisoner. He spent 27 years under lock and key because of his refusal to renounce the right of South Africa's blacks to struggle against the racist apartheid government that kept them in a state of subjugation. He spent more time in prison than I've been alive on this Earth, yet that time behind bars had the opposite of its intended effect. Each minute he spent at Robben Island Prison was a testament to the undying will of a symbol of resistance. This imprisonment of Mandela and his colleagues set in motion a chain of events that, after nearly three decades, forced the DeKlerk government to seek negotiations with the ANC and (at least officially) put an end to apartheid. This imprisonment of Mandela and his colleagues resulted in an entire country being freed from the evil of institutionalized racism (although there is much left ot be done in this regard in South Africa).

About ten minutes from my home, there once lived an author (about 200 years back) named Henry David Thoreau. This man was so disgusted by America's unprovoked invasion of Mexico, as well as the continued practice of slavery, that he refused to pay his poll tax. He was then thrown in jail, where he remained until a friend stepped in to pay the tax for him against his will. In his famous essay 'Civil Disobedience,' Thoreau reflects: " The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the state by here own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there ... on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her - the only house in a Slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. " Of his own freedom that he experienced in prison, Thoreau described: " I saw that if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was still a more difficult on e to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. "

Subhan Allah, look at how his conviction in the righteousness of his cause turned his prison into, as he described it, "more free and honorable ground" than what was outside it. He felt freer than his townsmen because out of them all, he was the only one who was willing to make a material sacrifice for what many of them believed in but were too afraid to step outside their comfort zones for. This is why when his friend and fellow author, Ralph Waldo Emerson, visited him in jail and asked him: "Henry, what are you doing in there?" Thoreau responded by peering out from his cell and simiply asking: "What are you doing out there?"

And al-Maqdisi wrote the following poetic verses to his mother from the depths of prison:

"... Here, I am free despite my chains,
Their ringing fills all corners of my heart;
My honor is here, my freedom is here,
My shackle is my honor and my injury is my pride;
I will say to the prison that has adopted me,
Tighten your shackles and do not release them;
Here, I am free, and outside these chains,
Are people who kneel down in treachery;
O prison, I long for my chains,
These chains and shackles are my weapons;
O prison, I am part of my cell,
These cells and their darkness are my cloak;
I am lofty and honored in your shackels,
And the 'free' beyond your walls are happily enslaved ..."

Frankel, who was held at Auschwitz, wrote: "As much as he sinks deeper and deeper into prison life, the prisoner also obtains a longing for the beauty of art & nature in a way he never experienced previously. Their effect would allow him to forget, sometimes, his stressful conditions. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to Bavaria when we saw the Salzburg Mountains, with its peaks visible in the foreground in front of the Sun, through the few tiny holes poked into the walls of the boxcars, they would never believe that these were the same faces of those who had previously lost all hope of life & freedom. Despite this, or because of it, the beauty of nature overtook our hearts after we had been deprived of it for such a long period of time, " and he went on to describe: "We observed the clouds fading in the sunset, with the sky filled with these clouds as they continuously changed form and color - from grayish-blue to blood red. One prisoner commented: "How beautiful the world can be ..." "

Back in the 70s, a woman named Assata Shakur ( a member of the Black Panthers) penned the following poetic expression of the freedom she maintained while behind bars:

" ... I have been locked by the lawless,
Handcuffed by the haters,
Gagged by the greedy;
And if I know anything at all,
It's that a wall is just a wall,
And nothing more at all.
It can be broken down ... "

So, these prisoners - with all of their various religious beliefs, political affiliations, geographic locations, and ethnicities - despite being chained and locked in tiny, suffocating cells, were able to turn their prisons from tools of confinement to tools of liberation. Prison became for them a vehicle of freedom for themselves, and at times for millions around the world whose hearts and minds they touched.

Looking, then, at these birds as they hop around before my cell window, it makes perfect sense that they would choose to land behind the razor wire: they find a freedom here on these grass patches. No human being walks these patches, so they are free to poke their beaks into the ground and seek out the straw and insects it has to offer them. Yes ... it should be clear now that like the aforementioned prisoners, these birds find a certain freedom behind the razor wire that keeps them coming back day after day. They swoop down, gather what they need, then fly off.

Trying to pinpoint what freedom I have found behind these walls, I think back to a day when I was laying in my cell reading, only to see a visiting official of some sort peering in as he walked around the unit. He said to me: "What a depressing place, " to which I replied by standing aside and pointing back, saying: " This is where I worship my Lord."

Although it is difficult to adequately express in words, the conditions of prison - while having obvious downsides - are ideal for freeing oneself from worldly distractions and turning fully to Allah. Three weeks before I was arrested, I was reading an essay on Tawhid & shirk by on eof the scholars of Najd, I cam e across a sentence in this essay that made me stop. He was defining the term 'hanif' that is mentioned repeatedly in the Qur'an, and he said: "Hanif means to turn fully towards Allah while turning away from everything else." So, I thought to myself: 'Imagine if I can reach that state, where I can focus fully on Allah and not be distracted by anything else ... '

Here, I have the two factors to facilitate this: peace of mind & and time. I don't do anything in here that I didn't do on the outside, but the difference is in the quality, depth, enjoyment, and relaxation that was difficult attain at the masjid or at home. The outside world bears fruit, and prison bears another fruit. Both have taste, but they are distinct form one another because of the difference in conditions under which each fruit grows. I'll give a few examples:

The Prophet (صلي الله عليه و سلم) said: " For me to sit with people remembering Allah from dawn until Sunrise is more beloved to me than freeing four slaves of the Children of Isma'il. " This is because freeing a slave results only in the freedom of the body, but the remembrance of Allah at this time of the day results in a freedom which is far greater and sweeter—the freedom of the heart and soul. Like most of you, this period during the day was usually spent preparing for and driving to school or work an hour away. I could sporadically take proper advantage of this time, but would usually miss out due to life's demands. In here, nothing is required of me by others. The only time when I even have to communicate with anyone is when my cell is being searched, which only occurs monthly, anyway. So, this time in prison is my time - every second of it - in which I can do what I want, when I want (of course, within the capacity of choices). I can now sit each day after praying Fajr and slowly and calmly proceed through a solid list of adhkar & ad'iyah until I see the Sun rise. If you find the time in your own day to do this, start by opening up 'Fortress of the Muslim' and reciting #75 daily. Week by week, work you way up until you find yourself going through #75 - 98 on a daily basis. Try to incorporate it into your daily routine such that it becomes an inseparable portion of your day, like food and sleep. In here, I enjoy this practice each day for as long as I choose, without having to worry about time constraints. I know now what Ibn Taymiyyah felt when he referred to this as the early morning sustenance without which he would have no strength during the day.

Unlike other parts of the prison, the isolation unit is generally silent and calm. The only sounds to be heard are the occasional mechanical whirring of doors being slid open/ shut, and the voice of whoever is out on rec speaking on the phone. Otherwise, there is a constant, eerie silence. There are no blaring televisions, inmate fights, and everything else that would occur in the population units. So, my remembrance of Allah is conducted with full focus on the meanings of what I'm uttering. I can go through them slowly and calmly in total concentration without any background noise to spoil the moments. When I'm finished, I get up to pray the Duha prayer. The Prophet said: " ... each tasbih is charity, each tahmid is charity, each tahlil is charity, each takbir is charity, enjoining the good is charity, preventing the bad is charity, and this is all completed by praying two rak'at of Duha prayer."

My cell is at the eastern-most edge of the prison, with my window on the eastern wall of my cell. So, I pray in the direction of the open view of the grass, sunflowers (in warmer weather), fence, and trees i mentioned previously. And whenever I get some sunlight, it enters through that direction as well. So, I have quite a serene qiblah to pray towards, by Allah's Grace alone. It could've been otherwise, with me having to pray towards my rusty blue cell door covered in graffiti, but I was given the best wall in here to be east. So when I stand up and begin to recite, I have the closest thing to a scene of natural beauty I can before my eyes. This, when contrasted with the blandness of the remaining three walls, automatically induces a sense of khushu' from the start, which is only amplified by the silence around me. I can recite with full focus and concentration on the meanings of the verses. pausing at each one, asking for Paradise when I come across mention of it, seeking refuge from Hell when coming across mention of it, and I can recite for as long as I wish without having to rush. I have all day, after all. It was the Prophet's sunnah that he would not recite portions of chapters in each rak'ah, and would rather recite them in their entirely - sometimes even reciting more than one complete surah in a rak'ah. I can do that now, while I rarely could on the outside because of the interference of time. And really, I think you all find your salah more fulfilling when you stand longer, and the Prophet said that this type of prayer is the most beloved to Allah.

I want to pause and briefly comment on having the Qur'an with me in here. It has amazed me how many verses I would recite on the outside without having fully grasped their significance, only to come here and repeatedly say: 'How could I have missed that?' When I suddenly had more time to dedicate to the Qur'an, words and concepts began popping out at me that I had previously glossed over on the outside, and i've had many 'Aha!' moments where the hairs on my arm would stand on end. In here, I've developed a very personal bond with the Qur'an. More than ever, I see it as 'my' guide, 'my' companion, 'my' book, that speaks both to me and for me. With hours a day spent reading & exploring it, I've become more familiar with it than I was on the outside; I have come to know its character, its nature, its unique dimensions. There is just something about reading it in this environment that causes me to feel each verse's impact in a more direct manner that is unfiltered by the distortions of the outside world. I've always said that in here, I have the two things I need most always at arm's length: a faucet to make ablution from, and a Qur'an to read from.

The Prophet said: " The closest the worshipper is to his Lord is while he is prostrating to Him. So, increase your supplication in it," and he said: "... as for the prostration, exert yourself in supplicating during it, because you're most likely to be responded to." Knowing this valuable virtue of the time spent in sujud during the prayer, ask yourself how long your average sajdah is. I know that my own on the outside were not nearly as long as they could've been, and I would encourage you - even if you don't have the time and peace of mind that I have been blessed with here - to elongate it. Repeat the tasbih slowly, with concentration, travel with your mind to the Throne of Allah high above the sky; there are some narrations that the Salaf would make the tasbih ten times or more during the average sajdah. Try to maintain this, and follow it up with a lengthy list of supplications, as this is time allotted for you to ask for whatever you wish! I can tell you that one way I've been able to spend longer times in sujud in here is to go into the sujudslowly and calmly, with tranquility. Usually, the way you initiate the sajdah determines how you continue it. The volume of your voice should be just above a whisper, and your forehead, nose, hands, knees, and toes should be planted firmly and symmetrically in the ground and be as comfortable as possible for you to take as much time as you can. Such moments, especially during the late night hours when the entire unit is dark and asleep, are golden for me.

More liberating than these outer physical actions, however, has been the effect of the environment on the actions of the heart. Picture yourself living in a concrete box, forbidden from being in the same room as another human being (except your attorney) for months at a time. A guard rushes by every half hour during his rounds, trying to avoid having to stop for any reason. You sporadically converse for no more than five minutes at a time with passersby from behind the metal door of your box. Besides this, you sit in that box in silence and solitude. You will barely notice that there are others in the building, mainly because you have no access to them. After living in such a state for months at a time, you cannot help but attach less significance to the abilities and presence of others. For all intents and purposes, you are on your own. If you were to have a heart attack sitting in that concrete box of a cell, nobody would know about it until they were to eventually find you on the ground during their bi-hourly rounds. The subconscious reliance you had on people throughout your days outside is now shifted to the only other presence you have with you in that cell: Allah. You are now forced to direct whatever pleas, complaints, and concerns you may have in a single direction. You have seen how easily people come and go, and you are now being taught in raw terms how to put your reliance in the right place. You now know the secret behind the Prophet taking an oath from 'Awf bin Malik to "not ask anyone for anything." For the Salaf, true Tawhid was in depending on Allah in all matters instead of others. This concept looks me in the eyes every second I spend here in this concrete box ... this box that is freeing my reliance from other than my Creator. Ibn al-Qayyim said: "What will cut down your concern with what is with others is to simply bear witness to reality, and this is to see that everything is from Allah, by His permission, in His grasp, and under His authority. None of it moves without His movement or power, and nothing benefits or harms without His will. So, how can you be concerned with the creation after witnessing this?"

This reality has helped in making supplication much more enjoyable. See, the more needful the heart is of Allah's bounty, the more tender it will be. Du'a' is best made at those moments when the heart is most tender. You often find that those with the hardest hearts are those who place the least reliance on Allah and are always trying to take advantage of others, and vice versa. Think back to how 'Ikrimah, the son of Abu Jahl, accepted Islam. He was escaping from Makkah by boat the day it was conquered, and the boat got stuck in a storm that was sure to drown everyone on board. At this moment of dire need, 'Ikrimah's heart became tender and he supplicated: "O Allah, I promise that if You deliver me safely from this, I will go and put my hands in those of Muhammad, and will find him full of mercy." As Ibn Kathir related, they made it through the storm, and 'Ikrimah went to the Prophet to announce his Islam. So, that one moment of dire need perfected his supplication such that it was responded to on the spot. Prison is 24-hour boat ride through a storm, and the nature of it frees your supplication from the barriers to acceptance. This is one reason why the supplication of the oppressed is accepted.

A large number of the inmates held here are awaiting trial. Observing them when I can, I cannot help but be reminded of the Day of Judgement. Most of those guys admit that they actually did something, but hope to find one technical error, one loophole in the system, some way out of where their choices have brought them. They sit day and night poring over their collections of case studies, spending long hours in the law library, preparing motions and arguments and statements in hopes of squeezing whatever mercy they can from the judge! Please! Just one more chance! Have mercy! Lighten the sentence! If I go back, I will never return to what I was doing (see surat al-An'am, v.27)! This is judgement day for them, as their deeds have caught up with them, and one judge will determine their fate based on those deeds. I wish each and every reader of these words could witness this spectacle for themselves, as it will serve to pull the wool from over many eyes as to the reality of this life in relation to the next. This is the scene we will all one day face before the Ultimate Judge - One Who cannot be swayed by closing statements, cannot be overruled by hidden loopholes, and Who is more aware of our deeds than we ourselves are. To watch these desperate souls fighting their cases is a liberator from the procrastinative illusions of everyday life ...

Finally, I can say that every aspect of my surroundings is a reminder of my freedom. My very presence here is a reminder of my freedom. Let's be clear: I am not in prison because I ever engaged in some "terrorist act." Not even my lying accusers have charged me with ever having attempted to hurt a soul. Surely, then, I am no more of a 'threat to society' than the rapists, home invaders, and heroin dealers who are released from here daily with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Rather, I am here because of my holistic belief in the tenets of Islam at a time when there is unrelenting pressure from the powers of the world to redefine it according to their whims and desires. I am here because in the so-called 'battle for hearts and minds,' I have, by Allah's grace, kept my heart and mind free from becoming casualties. So, everything I lay my eyes on in here - the rusty door, the metal sink/ toilet combination, the concrete walls, my orange jumpsuit, the annoying Flexipen I'm using to write this - is a stark reminder of my freedom, not my imprisonment, despite the undesirable nature of it all. This is a raw freedom that can unfortunately rarely be found outside these types of walls.

... 'Freedom' carries different meanings for different people. The absence of an agreed on definition for it, though, is an indication of how universally sought after it is. It is a goal that people will even risk their lives to attain! I just completed a book discussing the Revolutionary War. Long & bloody battles were fought by Americans to free themselves from the yoke of British domination, just as battles are being fought today by those who wish to free themselves from American domination. It touches every aspect of our lives: food (menus give you freedom of choice), marriage (represents the freedom to express love), government (people generally wish to be free of government interference, hence the calls to do away with big government), and so forth. Everyone talks about it, everyone wants it, but everyone differs over its definition. However, I believe that I and many others behind bars have confirmed for ourselves what ultimate freedom is. I will suffice by quoting Babar Ahmad: "True freedom is not the ability to go where you want, disobey your Lord when you want, and think how others want you to think. Rather, true freedom is the freedom to live for one's religion, beliefs, and principles." The one who has this is free even if he is in the depths of a prison, and the one deprived of it is imprisoned even if he has never set foot in a prison.

This freedom is buried as a hidden treasure deep within concrete walls. It cannot be unearthed without swooping down behind the razor wire, just as those birds do outside my window day after day.

Your brother in the orange jumpsuit,

Tariq Mehanna
Plymouth County Storage Facility
Isolation Unit - Cell #108
Monday 3rd of Jumada ath-Thani 1431
17th of May 2010

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