Photo: Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Every day before dawn around 4 a.m. I wake up suddenly as if awoken from within. A silent call beckons me to open my eyes. It’s an angel’s whisper.

You see, I don’t have an alarm clock and I have to wake up at that time to eat my early breakfast, because around 4:20 a.m. it will be time for morning prayer, and I have to start my daily fast. Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. My 19th behind bars but one that is very different this time around.

COVID-19 has ushered in a “new” everything, and a “first” of everything as well. We human beings are adaptable creatures so we conform to the changes around us. But some alterations are more irksome than the others.

I remember my very first Ramadan behind bars. It was 2002 and I was imprisoned inside the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey. It was a very tough one. It had been one year since the Towers fell on 9/11 and no one really wanted to give a crap about anything related to Muslims. Yet, even inside, I was able to find some pleasure in Ramadan because of three young Muslim brothers who made it every bit a brotherly affair. It’s a memory I shall cherish for the rest of my days.

For me, one constant theme about Ramadan is family. Although it is a religious exercise, it also has a lot of social aspects as well. The camaraderie it engenders is in itself a unique experience for Muslims. I think there is something about people breaking bread together, in general, but the idea of syncing our entire daily routine from before dawn until the sunset as a community is something every Muslim feels special about. The entire ritual, by design, is geared towards unity, communal harmony, and empathy for people around the world who are struggling.

It’s no different in prison.

Some of that sense of brotherhood helped sustain me during Ramadan inthe subsequent years I’ve served behind bars. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramadan was an easy affair in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) in Trenton. There is a huge population of Muslims in here and the congregation is well established and run by a NJDOC Imam with the help of older prisoners. A special work crew is assigned for the kitchen detail for the Muslim prisoners who prepare the meals for the entire Muslim population in NJSP.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslim prisoners would normally gather in the South Compound Visit Hall around 5:30 p.m. and remain there until the opening of the fast. The prison food service would provide dates, chips and some fruit and juices for us to open our fast at sunset.

The arrival of Ramadan in NJSP would always be a major occurrence, something to look forward to for the Muslims inside. A sense of calm would take over the whole prison. Even the guards and other prisoners notice it. Everyone agreed that it is the most quiet and peaceful time in NJSP.

This year, however, it’s completely different.

Around March 12, 2020, NJSP was placed under lockdown due to the COVID-19 crisis. Gradually all movements and services were cancelled. For the first time in two decades I fasted alone. Muslim prisoner volunteers, even under these conditions are preparing meals for their fellow brothers in faith and we are getting our readymade trays on our housing units.

Yet, there is a pall on the whole festivity. Without the whole congregation opening their fasts together, the entire event seems almost diminished. Religiously too, there are more blessings to be had when we perform religious rites together. So, sitting in the cold cell it seems almost surreal to have to experience this blessed month alone.

So I try to get my sense of community in those moments when I help distribute the food to the other Muslim brothers in the white clam-shell trays. It’s a small way for me to find my blessings from within. But it’s not the same.

And speaking to my family members outside, it seems they too are feeling the isolation. I don’t know but it feels like the entire Muslim world is in collective shock.

But, I do believe in the Mercy of The Almighty. Remembering God in solitude has its own serenity. Seclusion from gossip and banter of the everyday life provides a unique avenue for spiritual growth. Self-reflection is an immensely humbling and gratifying feeling but requires tranquility. The COVID-19 restrictions, with God’s Grace, provided call of that and more.

I really believe that we Muslims are a resilient bunch. Insha’ Allah (God Willing), we shall endure this with God’s benevolence as well. Things will get better. There is a bright day after a dark night.

In fact, there is a verse in the Qur’an which I read often. In my dreary days, and the bleakest of nights, repeating this verse fills me with hope and a promise of a better day: “Verily, along with every hardship is relief!” (The Noble Qur’an 94:5)

That’s a promise from God that I hold onto tightly every day.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Tariq MaQbool

Tariq MaQbool is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project and maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. He was convicted of double homicide in 2005 and is serving 150 years at the New Jersey State Prison. His work has been published in The Marshall Project and The News Station.