Saum, or fasting, is one of the four pillars of Islam and also one of the most essential principles for a Muslim to develop self-restraint, purify the soul and achieve nearness to Allah. Fasting is a way to help one remain truly obedient to Allah, to defeat the shaytan (Satan) by abandoning one’s carnal desires and appetites, strengthen the angelic qualities in man and illuminate the soul.
Fasting during Ramadan demonstrates one’s sincerity to Allah. It is meant to increase and intensify the direct act of worship while minimizing and giving up trivial activities, so one may develop spiritually and repair the damage caused by engaging in the trivial and harmful throughout the previous 11 months.
By depriving oneself of his appetite and engaging in as many acts of worship through the day and night, one can accomplish the greatest goal: drawing near to Allah. Fasting also gives one the opportunity to experience thirst and hunger and appreciate, empathize and sympathize with the plight of the poor and destitute.
There are so many wonderful virtues, blessings and mercies in the month of Ramadan that you can feel the excitement in the air as the brothers begin making their preparations. It is like preparing for your best friend to come and visit.
At the same time, for those of us observing the fast in prison, there is also an air of apprehension — not for the fast, but the challenges presented by prison officials. Despite the incredible joys of unity and brotherhood — and the tranquility and satisfaction we achieve through worship — the hate, bias and prejudice that meet us are undeniable.
The following are interviews with three Muslim brothers and their experience observing Ramadan in prison. N.A. is 43 years old and from Saudi Arabia. He has served 21 years of a life sentence. H.A. is also from Saudi Arabia. He is 53 and has served 17 years of a six-year sentence. Finally, S.K. is from Senegal. He is 64 years old and incarcerated for 24 years of a life sentence. Responses have been lightly edited.
Q: What has your experience with Ramadan been like while in prison?
N.A.: It’s had its ups and downs. It all depends on the prison. Every year we struggle just to get our basic needs met. You just have to focus on your fast, and if you are able to, avoid dealing with the staff altogether.
H.A.: It has been a strange experience because of the constant opposition and biases that manifest itself in the behavior of the institution. I remember when I first came into the system, I arrived during Ramadan, and I was denied food for two days. If I didn’t eat the food during lunch and dinner time, I would not be able to have food to break my fast. But I wasn’t allowed to keep food in my cell, so I went for two days without food, even though I was registered as a Muslim. I guess they found it fun to mess with this religious holiday. The bottom line is that it has been painful to fast in prison.
S.K.: Terrible. They don’t feed us right and have no respect. My experience is bad because when I first came to prison, COs (corrections officers) didn’t know what was going on. When we tried to explain, they didn’t want to listen and we had to go back and forth with them.
Problem number one was they didn’t know when we ate or broke fast and they didn’t care. Problem number two was they didn’t bring the food for us until well after the time we broke the fast. Sometimes they forgot to even bring the food at all and they didn’t care. During the late 1990s and 2000s, they refused to celebrate Eid. Now it is in the rules, but in the meantime, they still don’t give us the food we need.
Most of the time, my family and friends send money to help me support my fast so I don’t have to deal with it.
Q: How does it compare to being at home?
N.A.: For one, the food is better at home. I have the ability to make the tarawih prayers (special Ramadan night time prayers), and if I wanted to make Umrah (Islamic pilgrimage), I can. Watching the tarawih, it just gives you the spirit … I guess that is what’s missing here. In a sense, the spirit is missing.
H.A.: It’s as different as the distance between sky and earth. You are not a pariah. There is prayer solidarity. It is a magnificent experience spiritually and socially. Prison is the opposite of that.
Q: Though prison is a hardship, how has it helped your faith, especially during Ramadan?
N.A.: It has made my relationship better with Allah. It has helped me work on my patience, how to treat others, how to be a better Muslim.
H.A.: The essence of Ramadan is to get close to God and elevate your soul, and the Ramadan experience in prison empowers my connection and closeness in the Quran and my relationship with God.
S.K.: First of all, my faith is my number one thing. Nothing else. Too many things go on in here, and my faith is what keeps me grounded. It has grown a lot since I’ve been incarcerated. I feel I pay greater attention to the spirit of Ramadan and that draws me closer to Allah.
Q: How has observing Ramadan changed during the pandemic?
N.A.: We are unable to gather in the mornings for suhoor (an early-morning meal before the fast) and pray together. We couldn’t have the Eid prayer, feast or celebrate together. Just a lot more isolation.
H.A.: It’s more isolated. Honestly, it’s more peaceful. We can avoid all of the abusive behavior that the institution is sometimes filled with, whether it’s the COs filled up with bias or inmate behavior.
S.K.: It has become more isolated and restricted. At the time of breaking fast, the meals would come late and sometimes they would forget. We are unable to pray together, have the Eid prayer together, and really get the experience of unity that this month usually brings.
Q. How supportive or accommodating are prison administrators?
N.A.: They are still set in their old ways. We are in 2022 and they refuse to update their policies toward Ramadan. For example, they set a date of when the fast is going to start and end months in advance instead of basing it on the moon sighting. A lot of the times they get it wrong, but they won’t change the date that they set.
H.A.: They are not supportive at all. Every Ramadan is worse than the one before. They are willing to accommodate other faiths, but when it comes to the Muslims, there is an undertone of prejudice. We get the worst food and our prayers are not accommodated properly. The dates they give us are the dates we would give to the animals in Saudi. They are not fit for human consumption. Ramadan is a serious issue wherever you go. There is constant hostility.
S.K.: For the most part, not at all. For example, I have seen the menu they have set, and it’s inedible. In all my years, the only administration that has done things right with respect to Ramadan is Limon Correctional and Fremont Correctional, and I have been at just about every facility in the state. They just don’t give a damn about the Muslims and Ramadan.
Q: Do you have any amazing or inspiring stories involving Ramadan?
N.A.: When somebody converts to Islam during the month of Ramadan, and it takes a while for his name to be added to the system list, the brothers go above and beyond to help the new brother with food, or they go speak with administration to speed up the process. Also just seeing the love and unity, when breaking the fast; how brothers share their food with each other and others whether they are Muslim or not.
H.A.: The most exceptional story that happened to me in Ramadan was when one of the facilities allowed us to have the night prayer the whole month. This was the first and last time, but experiencing the brothers coming across the yard at 3 a.m. and the spirit of them was exceptional.
S.K.: I used to love Ramadan in Limon Correctional. It is inspiring for me to see the Muslims praying together.
As a Muslim who embraced Islam while in prison, I haven’t had the shared experience of fasting Ramadan in the free world. I can only imagine the beauty of what that is like. However, while I experience the negativity, bias, prejudice and hatred that we encounter every year during this month, my experience has also been filled with amazing and wonderful memories that I will forever cherish.
There is nothing like the joy of sharing this month with your fellow Muslim brothers and sisters. The intense love and warmth you get when you fast together, eat together, pray together and celebrate Allah together, there is nothing like it in the world. And there is nothing like the spiritual state of closeness and “with”-ness of Allah that sets your whole being aglow. This is what we all look forward to despite our circumstances and the challenges that come with it. May Allah forgive us, have mercy upon us, and grant us tawfiq (fortune) in this blessed month of Ramadan.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.