All praise be to Allāh, and may peace and blessings be on the messenger, his family, and companions.
When al-Mamun, the Abbasid caliph, imprisoned Imām Aḥmad b. Hanbal and tortured him in order to compel him to accept the heretical belief in the ‘createdness’ of the Qur’ān, Imām Aḥmad refused and preferred death to uttering the heretical doctrine. The real victory for Imām Aḥmad was to remain steadfast in believing that which pleases Allāh. In effect, it was the victory of principles and ideas. History has recorded thousands of prisoners who have spent decades in prison where they preferred to die rather than accept defeat.
Syed Qutb, the great Egyptian Muslim thinker, was one of those who preferred death and torture to renouncing what he had declared. It is to him that the powerful and profound statement is attributed of him saying, “the finger that testifies that there is no god but Allāh refuses to testify for other than Him.” As a result of his commitment, he was promptly hanged. He wrote in Milestones,
“The highest form of triumph is the victory of soul over matter, the victory of belief over pain, and the victory of faith over persecution […] In the incident described above, the souls of the Believers were victorious over fear and pain, over the allurements of the earth and of life, and they gained such victory over torture which is an honour for all of mankind and for all times – this is true victory. All men die, and for various reasons; but not all gain such victory, nor reach such heights, nor taste such freedom, nor soar to such limits of the horizon. It is God’s choosing and honouring a group of people who share death with the rest of mankind but who are singled out from other people for honour – honour among the noblest angels, nay, even amongst all mankind, if we were to measure them by the standards of the history of generation after generation.”
He also famously said,
“Indeed our words remain dead until we die in their cause, and then they become alive to remain amongst the living.”
As Muslims, achieving our aims is far easier than those of tyrants. When the disbelievers of Makkah thought that they had defeated the Muslims at the Battle of Uḥud, pride and arrogance made them blind to seeing the truth. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) taught us the crux of the matter: ‘our dead are in paradise and your dead are in the hell fire’. There are countless stories of a similar nature where physical strength won the battle but ultimately led to losing the war. Willpower and resolution normally destroys physical power – this will being determination and a strong belief in a cause. It is the result of a high standard of morals and ethics.
The Briton Babar Ahmad and the American Tarek Mehanna are just two examples of the struggle between the power of determination and oppression. Irrespective of what they are accused of, the unjust treatment, decisions and statements are enough to consider them martyrs and heroes of their determination and conviction.
I think it is time for us to face reality and stop shedding tears for shameless British, American, and Western injustices. America, the state that has killed and will continue to kill millions of people whilst prosecuting similar numbers, will fight for its interest in imprisoning people in solitary confinement until they die. They feel no shame in doing so and, unfortunately, our country feels no shame in following them as a poodle follows her master. Whatever the case may be, injustice leads to destruction. This is proven by history and mere common sense.
The arrogance these countries have acquired has also turned them blind, and so they pay no attention to wise voices, failing to realise that they are hastily destroying themselves. The moral decay that is self-evident will inevitably lead to the collapse of society and eventually the state itself. We must protect these societies from destroying themselves as there are many people turning to Islām and submitting to their Lord. Victory lies with the true ethical code and thus with Islām. The Qur’ān defines victory in different ways and in different places, yet the reality it establishes is one. Allāh says,
“So do not weaken nor grieve, and you will be superior if you are [true] believers. If a wound should touch you – there has already touched the [opposing] people a wound similar to it. And these days [of varying conditions] We alternate among the people so that Allāh may make evident those who believe and [may] take to Himself from among you martyrs; and Allāh does not like the wrongdoers. And that Allāh may purify the believers [through trials] and destroy the disbelievers. Or do you think that you will enter Paradise whilst Allāh has not yet made evident those of you who fight in His cause and made evident those who are steadfast?”
Having said that, we need to remind Babar, his colleagues, Tarek Mehanna, and all Muslim prisoners and families that this life is nothing but a test. Allāh says in the Qur’ān,
“Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried?” But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allāh will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.”
Besides from the benefits associated with the individual, there are numerous benefits of such trials on a societal level. It purifies society from hypocrites and those who put their faith in the state. It strengthens the bond of unity between the members of the community as it encourages people to help each other. Moreover, it prepares society to take on leadership.
Practical steps to overcome similar trials
The more a person thinks of the Hereafter and the more his heart is attached to Allāh, the more such tests pass by easily. As just said, prisons are educational and training institutions in which Muslims learn and train in many things that they cannot study outside. It is the school of Prophet Yūsuf whom Allāh mentioned in the Qur’ān,
“And he said to the one whom he knew would go free, “Mention me before your master.” But Satan made him forget the mention [to] his master, and Joseph remained in prison several years.”
It is amazing that Allāh did not give us many details about the life of Yūsuf as a prisoner. In fact, He glosses over it as if it was not significant. The only thing the Qur’ān considerably addresses is the call to tawḥīd Yusuf (ʿalayhi al-Salām) made to his fellow inmates.
While Muslims are obliged to help their prisoners, it will help the prisoners not to think of being freed; perhaps they shouldn’t even fight for it. Many people who have been inmates confirm this and suggest that the person should accept prison as a new lifestyle expecting to die behind bars. Furthermore, as an inmate one should plan his life accordingly. For example, he can plan to memorise the Qur’ān in one year and then plan to finish reading the Qur’ān once every three days. He may also challenge himself to complete the Qur’ān a thousand times and repeat the pledge once achieved.
The prisoner may consider fasting every other day, the fast of Dāwūd (ʿalayhi al-Salām) which is the best fast. He might even fast consecutively as some of the scholars of the first generations did so. Other challenges the person can initiate is to memorise Saḥīḥ Bukhāri or Muslim, although it is unadvisable unless the individual knows that he will leave the prison – otherwise the best thing is to spend time in earning good deeds. A religious personality who, after more than a decade was released, recently stated that, although he was unaware of his crime, he never made duʿā’ that Allāh release him from prison as it was an enjoyable time for him and went by very fast. This reminds us of what Sheikh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyyah would say:
“What can my enemies do to me? Paradise and gardens are in my heart and do not leave me. Imprisonment is i’tikāf (seclusion with Allāh). Death is martyrdom, and exile is to visit foreign attractions. If the people who imprisoned me were given the equivalent of this prison in gold, it would not do them as much good as what Allāh has given me with this prison.”
If possible, the prisoner may engage himself in authoring books or reflections on the Qur’ān. Many du’āt have written books whilst in prison and missed such activities when they were released. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote a number of books and treatises in his cell, all of which testify to his profound depth of Islamic knowledge.
The prisoner should not think much of his wife and children as such thinking might be a cause of mental torture for him. It is narrated that the Abbasid caliph al-Mansoor sent word to those of Banū Umayyah who were in prison to ask them: What is the hardest thing for you in this prison? They said: What we have missed out on in raising our children. However, the person must put trust in Allāh that He will take care of their families. The story of the two young children mentioned in the Chapter of the Cave reminds us of how Allāh will look after the children of the righteous. In the story, Allāh inspired al-Khidhr to rebuild their collapsing house despite the people of that town refusing to host him and Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām). Allāh says,
“And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was beneath it a treasure for them, and their father had been righteous. So your Lord intended that they reach maturity and extract their treasure, as a mercy from your Lord. And I did it not of my own accord. That is the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience.”
The books of history confirm that Prophet Ibrāhīm left his son Ismāʿīl in the desert for years, and Prophet Yūsuf was raised away from his father Prophet Yaʿqūb, and so on.
It is also advisable that the imprisoned gives his wife the choice of divorce as it not from the Sharīʿah to leave her in a tentative state for a long period of time.
The prisoner should also avoid thinking bad of others if they did not put enough effort to help him. He should be careful not to let arrogance and pride overcome him with the view that he is being tried and others are not. An amazing story about one of the early scholars is that of Ibrahim b. Yazeed b. Shuraik al-Taimi (52 – 92 AH). The tyrannical ruler, al-Hajjaj, commanded his guards to arrest Ibrahim b Yazeed al-Nakha’i, another scholar, but the guards went to Ibrahim b Yazeed b Shuriak al-Taimi and asked him whether he was Ibrahim b Yazeed to which he replied in the affirmative. They took him to prison and, although he knew that they were looking for the other Ibrahim, he found it immoral to lead them to al-Nakha’i. They imprisoned him in the desert where there was neither shade from the sun nor any protection from the cold weather at night. They would chain him regularly. This continued until he became weak and changed so much so that his mother could not recognise him. It was not long until he died an inmate still under forty years of age.
It helps the prisoner to think of those who were tested by more difficult, but similar, trials. Some of our old du’āt mentioned a story that was narrated by some elders that the communist Chinese would torture Muslim leaders and once they arrested one of them and placed him in a big hole in the road. They forced Muslims to bring their defecation and throw it in that hole until the defecation drowned him and he died. Jamal Abdul Nasser, the former president of Egypt, would enjoy torturing scholars and religious personalities from the Muslim Brotherhood as well as those who would sympathise with them such as the notable Azhari scholar of ḥadīth, Muhammad al-Awdan. When arrested he was over seventy years of age. He would wear false teeth and when they arrested him he asked the guards to get it for him. They brought it and then damaged it in front of him causing him to suffer when eating the prison’s food. What was even more shocking was the way they imprisoned him – they put him in a very small cell along with a number of dogs where the dogs would consume his food and drink before he was able to eat anything. What was far worse than that was that they locked him up along with the dogs in that cell and never let them out for a long period of time. The dogs would defecate and urinate on him until the smell of the cell was unbearable. The dogs themselves became sick and some of them lost their limbs due to damp, filth and absence of sun and air. Once the smell was unbearable, the prison guards had no choice but to vacate the cell but they could not come close to him due to the smell. Shaikh al-Awdan was later released and moved to Saudi Arabia. A few months later, in 1967, he died in Makkah and was buried in Madinah. Hundreds of stories can be told, but the reality is that imprisonment should be expected by any person who calls for the way of Allāh and hence he should be ready for it.
In conclusion, we would like to remind all of our brothers and sisters who have been imprisoned unjustly that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,
“Trials will continue to befall the believing man or woman in himself, his child and his wealth until he meets Allāh with no sin on him.”
“When Allāh wills good for His slave, He hastens the punishment for him in this world, and when Allāh wills ill for His slave, he withholds the punishment for his sins from him until he comes with all his sins on the Day of Resurrection.”
“And among mankind is he who worships Allāh as it were upon the edge (i.e. in doubt): if good befalls him, he is content therewith; but if a trial befalls him he turns back on his face (i.e. reverts to disbelief after embracing Islām). He loses both this world and the Hereafter. That is the evident loss.”
Whatever happens to the Muslim prisoners, the end result is that they managed to expose the hypocrisy of western justice and that is a great victory for them (and us). The Muslim ummah should realise that it will not be victorious until it is tested and stands up to these tests. Imām al-Shafi’i (raḥimahu Allāhu) was asked: Which is better, patience, trials or prevailing? He said:
Prevailing is the level attained by the Prophets, and there can be no prevailing except after trials. If a person is tried he will become patient, and if he remains patient he will prevail.