Photo by Rawan Yasser on Unsplash

When I became a Muslim in the summer of 1997, my first experience of Ramadan was an exciting one. Where I was housed, Muslims were exhilarated that the holy month of Ramadan had arrived. All day long greetings of “Ramadan Mubarak” (Ramadan is blessed) and “Ramadan Karim” (Ramadan is generous) could be heard. 

Being a new Muslim, I had yet to understand why everyone was excited about Ramadan. Why were so many incarcerated men filled with so much joy and jubilation about depriving themselves of food and drink during the longest days and shortest nights in the hottest time of the year? 

Then I attended my first evening service in the chapel where the community elders taught Quranic studies and led prayer classes for those who didn’t know how to pray or correctly recite the Quran. 

From time to time, the imam, or the Muslim chaplain, would stop in to drop off prayer oils, dhikr beads, kufis, prayer rugs and books. The service concluded with stories from the life of the prophets, fast-breaking, and congregational prayer. The gathering was always peaceful, and we never had a problem — not even from the guards who were always courteous and respectful toward Islam and the Muslims back then.

Then 9/11 happened, and all those things went away. Ramadan changed. The imams changed. The entire corrections deparment changed in the way they treated Muslim inmates, our Jummah Friday services and especially our Ramadan. 

Prison guards immediately became hostile, and they began to scrutinize us and block our services. The imams grew distant and withdrew their help from us. They stopped working for us. The lavish banquets we used to have on Eid got replaced by bland, sugar-free cake with no icing and cold water. 

For decades, incarcerated Muslims had been a privileged group, and now that privilege was stripped away. I fear that, by the time the next Ramadan rolls around, there will be nothing to look forward to — no evening services, no congregational prayer or fast-breaking and nothing for Eid but disrespect.

A lot has changed in the last 30 years. The point of Ramadan is to please Allah and earn his mercy in this life and the hereafter, but the effects of all this change weigh heavily in our hearts and minds as we contemplate how to do our duty to Allah and meet these challenges in our diminished state, a shell of its former self. 

Still, we trudge onward. Never daunted, always determined, full of light, hope and faith until the help of Allah comes. Until then, Ramadan Mubarak!

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.

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Sean "Sharif" Neal

Sean "Sharif" Neal is a writer incarcerated in California.