Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Island in a Sea of Ignorance

7. Island in a Sea of Ignorance

Dimensions of the Prison Mosque

Robert Dannin

with photographs by Jolie Stahl

“Islam allows you to look beyond the wall.”

The spatial metaphors in the title and epithet above suggest significant dimensions of the role of Islam in the lives of African-American prisoners. Islam, unlike the “sea of ignorance,” offers an autonomous source of education and discipline in all aspects of life. Islam, moreover, situates the prisoner not only in the context of the controlling prison but in a context that reaches, ultimately, worldwide—“beyond the walls.” At its best, Islam has provided prisoners with order, community, and purpose.

In 1992, the New York State Department of Corrections (DOCS) counted 10,186 registered Muslim inmates in eighty-two different prisons, annexes, and reception centers, a significant increase over the 7,554 counted only three years earlier. African-American Muslims constitute more than 16.9 percent of the total state prison population of more than 60,000, and more than 30 percent of all incarcerated African-Americans.[1] In other populous states, such as New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, and California, one can confirm the same trends toward Islamic conversion and its institutionalization in the form of permanent mosques, special dispensations for the faithful, and the professionalization of a corps of Muslim chaplains paid by the state to assist with counseling and services.[2]

Green Haven is a maximum security prison located 80 km north of New York City in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Rising from the abundantly lush slopes of upstate farmland to disrupt the traveller’s gaze, the fortresslike prison evacuates its surrounding ecology. The rectilinear form signifies an urban intrusion. Once inside its tomblike labyrinth, sectioned by iron gates, one confronts the reality of Foucault’s “complex social machine” defined by the principles of labor, detention, and surveillance. According to a former inmate, the prison is designed to subjugate the prisoner totally. He is fixed within an architecturally determinate structure of corridors, yards, blocks, and cells, where all quotidian movements are programmed months or even years in advance.

But if one tries to extend the Foucauldian idea of the prison as a simulacrum of the medieval monastery (Foucault 1979), there is a realization that something has changed, because this architecture conducive to introspection and Christian rebirth has increasingly become a place of mosques and communal prayers. The predictable monastic effect has been achieved, but somewhere its content has been subverted. As late as the 1930s, when the access and flow of information could be restricted, it might have been possible to influence the spiritual conduct of inmates and perhaps to limit their acquaintance with anything but the most traditional Western religions. However, by most accounts the Islamic din is now entering its fourth decade in American penal institutions. The significance of this is that the ideals of rehabilitation have been changed by those inside prisons. This is a radical departure from previous models of reform by even the most liberal criminologists (Baker 1964; Brody 1974).

Islam offers a counterdiscipline, a counterforce to the prison’s own ideal of stringent discipline (Cloward et al. 1960). In the words of a young Los Angeles gangbanger:

Islam has changed my life tremendously. It has caused me to be disciplined to an extent I never thought possible. I came out of a culture that reveled in undiscipline [sic] and rebelliousness, so to go the opposite direction was major for me.…I firmly believe and see that for the 1990s and beyond, Islam will be an even more dynamic force and alternative for many prisoners, especially the confused youth, who are more and more receptive to the teachings of Islam and the self-esteem it provides them in abundance, not to mention the knowledge.[3]

This attractiveness of the “discipline” of Islam in the context of a repressive mechanism conforms to Foucault’s understanding of the fluidity of power—its direction never quite corresponds to the purpose for which it was initially employed. Islam’s popularity in the prison system rests in part on the way in which qur’anically prescribed activities structure an alternative social space that enables the prisoner to reside, as it were, in another place within the same confining walls.

Masjid Sankore: “Medina” for New York’s Prisons

Founded in 1968, Masjid Sankore became the first recognized Islamic institution in a New York prison. Its founders were several African-American converts who in the late 1960s collectively sought assistance from Muslims outside the prison in a crusade to ameliorate their conditions of worship. They turned particularly to the leaders of Brooklyn’s indigenous Dar ul-Islam movement, who soon were making regular visits and offering assistance in negotiating with the prison administration, as well as with the outside world. Eventually, the Muslims won the warden’s approval to establish a permanent prayer hall and named their mosque after an ancient African center of Islamic teaching in Timbuktu, Mali.

Sankore rapidly outgrew its initial cramped space, eventually taking over the prison’s old tailor shop, a comparatively spacious area with real pillars. The prisoners devoted much time and effort organizing the space into a genuine masjid and a place of refuge from the drab confines of the rest of the prison. “When you walked in there, it was another world. You didn’t feel like you were in Green Haven in a maximum security prison. Officers [guards] never came in. It was like going into any other masjid on the outside; you felt at home,” commented Sheikh Ismail Abdul Raheem, one of the first emissaries from the “Dar” movement to visit Sankore. The door to the mosque announced a transition to a different space (fig. 23). Once inside, it provided space for quiet, interaction, and, above all, communal prayer (fig. 24).

Figure 23. Door to Masjid Sankore at Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.
Figure 24. Friday prayers at Masjid Sankore, Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.

Sheikh Ismail also recalled that, in the early years, both the Sunni Muslims and the Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) practiced a cadenced march through the corridors as if to mark out their own militant counterdisciplinary tradition. That was the only thing they shared, however. The Nation sought and demanded its own mosque, which after 1976 became the American Muslim Mission Mosque (fig. 25), known as the Masjid ut Taubah (the Mosque of Repentance). Today, the American Muslim Mission and the Nation of Islam compete fiercely with the Sunnis for new initiates at Green Haven. Because of official policy, life-sentence prisoners as well as those viewed as potentially disruptive to the prison regime are transferred every few years in and out of the ten different maximum security prisons in the state. Thus as time went on, alumni of Sankore spread their Islamic fervor throughout the correctional system. Simultaneously, the Nation of Islam and orthodox Sunni groups like the Dar ul-Islam Movement won further concessions on behalf of Muslim inmates. In these negotiations with authorities, the Dar’s “Prison Committee” used Masjid Sankore as the standard against which Islamic religious freedom in prison was measured.

Figure 25. The American Muslim Mission mosque, the Masjid ut-Taubah, in Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.

By 1972, the official status of Muslim inmates was further enhanced by the role they had played during the bloody Attica uprising of the previous autumn. Contrary to their image as militant radicals, the Muslims in Attica protected their guards and used their power as a disciplined, self-governing inmate organization to reestablish order during a period where the entire prison society was threatened with permanent anarchy. For the first time in history, inmates formed a disciplined syndicate, visibly identifiable by their prayer caps (kufa) and manicured beards, whose outlook was linked neither to the old criminal subculture nor to the rebellious militant ideologies of the epoch. Consequently, the embattled Department of Corrections offered them a modicum of legitimacy and surrendered some of its own power to govern the prison in a tacit alliance with the Muslims.

Following the Attica riot, DOCS designated Green Haven, the scene of similarly explosive tensions, a “program facility,” where emphasis was placed on learning and rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. College courses, vocational training, substance-abuse programs, work release, and family-reunion visits resulted directly from a negotiation of inmate demands and the actions of newly appointed liberal administrators. Muslims were situated at the center of these activities and forced the administration to submit to literal interpretations of laws pertinent to religious freedom for prisoners. During this period, they asserted the right to perform daily salāt, and they even achieved relative financial autonomy by importing and selling legal commodities from the outside. Masjid Sankore instituted classes in qur’anic instruction and Arabic. Prisoners throughout the state referred to Green Haven’s masjid as the “Medina” of the system—a place of hijra in the sense of retreat, refuge, and reconstruction. According to records from the Islamic Center, Sankore had more converts to Islam than any other mosque in America during the years 1975 and 1976. Some of the converts were outside guests or even corrections personnel, who would often volunteer to work Sankore religious events without pay (Mustafa et al. 1989). Other successful prison mosques were eventually started in Attica, Auburn, Clinton, Comstock, Elmira, Napanoch, Ossining, Shawangunk, and Wende. A family reunion visit at Wende is shown in figure 26.

Figure 26. Shu’aib Adbur Raheem, a former imam of Masjid Sankore, and his wife during a family reunion visit at Wende Correctional Facility, N.Y. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.

The Conversion of Black Power Militants

If Attica provoked a period of liberalization inside these largely uncontrollable institutions, it also stimulated intensification of the covert domestic war led by the FBI against black revolutionaries, who were held responsible for the prison uprisings, as well as for waves of bombings and armed attacks on government targets. In New York, at least a dozen Black Panthers were jailed with sentences of 25-years-to-life. The decapitation of the entire political spectrum of the black movement, including the assassinations of Malcom X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, led to a general crisis of demoralization among urban blacks. Aided by the Islamic conversion of H. Rap Brown, the imprisoned leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee,[4] an alternative began to attract numerous revolutionary figures whose apprehensions about religion were assuaged by the teaching that “Islam was not inconsistent with their revolutionary goals.” Like Brown, who changed his name to Jamil Al-Amin, they turned their grassroots skills for mass organizing toward Islamic da‘wa (propagation) and soon began to offer the Qur’an to fellow inmates as a substitute for revolutionary or African nationalist literature. The programs of former militants came to envision personal rebirth as a prerequisite for social transformation, a position supported by the passage, “Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves with their own soul” (Qur’an 13:11 or 8:53).

The tremendous effect of these words on Black Power advocates is reflected in the testimony of a member of the Black Liberation Army, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1973:

I was a very determined socialist when I was placed in jail with another black leader. He had already accepted Islam, and I was confronted by his daily prayers. At first I could not understand why he was praying to a god who, I felt, had abandoned black people. We argued and battled, but eventually Islam helped me become more relaxed. It relieved a burden because I had become frustrated by the failure of the political movement. And then you read the ayat in the Qur’an where Allah told the Prophet, “Maybe we might show you a victory in your lifetime. Maybe we won’t, but you must keep striving.” So then you start to see things in a broader perspective, outside of yourself as an individual. It was then that I realized that black revolutionaries didn’t suffer a major defeat, but that we were part of an ongoing process that would eventually culminate in victory.[5]

Prison, it can be argued, is a bizarre and violent “university” for those who reach maturity behind bars. There the brutality and corruption of the street are magnified to gargantuan proportions. Even to the extent that he complies with the rules of incarceration, the prisoner becomes entangled in a world of material desires and moral prostitution. From the lowly prisoner up to the warden, by way of the prisoners known as “big men,” snitches, guards, program instructors, and bureaucrats, prison is a pathological society asserting a unique institutional order. This regime codifies various methods used to alter and perhaps destroy the inmate’s physical and psychological integrity. It forces him to regiment his personal habits and behavior in accordance with the social ecology of the prison. In preparation for his eventual release on parole, the inmate studies a “curriculum” of ruse and discipline. He learns few of the many skills necessary to lead a law-abiding life back on the street. Even worse, as part of his daily transactions in the prison environment, the prisoner is subjected to a hierarchy of physical brutality, psychological manipulation, and frequent homosexual rape. The prison is an administrative-bureaucratic space that marks every aspect of the inmate’s existence unless he can use his minimal rights to circumscribe an autonomous zone whose perimeter cannot officially be contested.

A New Pedagogy of the Incarcerated

Acting through the principle of freedom of worship, Islam meets these conditions and shows a remarkable capacity to redefine the conditions of incarceration. A new Muslim repeats the attestation of faith, the shahada, before witnesses at the mosque. His Islamic identity then means a fresh start, symbolized by the choice of a new name, modifications in his physical appearance, and an emphasis on prayer. He is linked to his Muslim brothers worldwide, as suggested by frequent representations of Mecca in the mosque’s decor, for example in the mosque shown in figure 25 above. More immediately, he is linked to his fellow Muslim prisoners. Inmates like those at Masjid Sankore, thanks to communal prayer, qur’anic and Arabic scholarship, and invocation of shar‘ia have been able to exercise significant group control over their fellows. Historically, Christian prison reformers envisioned conversion as cloistered reflection or silent prayer. Islamic teaching, however, changes self-image and social relationships primarily through communal prayer and qur’anic recitation, which establish ties of identification and action between the Muslim believers and the sacred texts of the Qur’an and Sunna. Through religious practice,[6] the prisoner distances himself from the outside world, conceptualized as dar al-harb, and migrates (hijra) toward the ideal of dar al-Islam, defined not by territory but by Islamic practice. The greater the capacity of the prison jama‘a (congregation) to establish the privilege of congregational prayer, the greater the potential effect upon the individual Muslim. It is an impressive sight to see 50 or 100 prisoners bowing and kneeling in prayer in the middle of a prison exercise yard or in a room isolated within a maze of corridors and cells, as in figure 24, above. Since 1973, after consulting the Islamic Center in New York, DOCS has recognized four holidays: Hijra (New Year’s Day), Maulid al-nabi (the Prophet’s birthday), ‘Id al-fitr (feast commemorating the end of the Ramadan fast), and ‘Id al-adha (feast of the sacrifice). During the Ramadan fast, Muslims can requisition halal meat and are permitted to use the kitchen to prepare iftar meals. For breaking the fast, they are also permitted exceptionally to take some of the food back to their cells.

The Muslim’s cell can be recognized by the absence of photographic images and the otherwise ubiquitous centerfold pinups of naked women. When a man becomes a shahada (convert), he gradually learns the proper etiquette for a Muslim inmate. To reorganized personal space corresponds a changed attitude toward his body for the new Muslim. He tries to avoid pork and other non-halal foods; some prisoners even object to the use of utensils that have touched forbidden foods. The issue of providing halal diets to Muslim prisoners in New York State has been in litigation for many years, with the state now using the excuse of budgetary constraints to refuse. The convert also becomes concerned with wuzu (ablution), here transformed into a code of personal cleanliness and grooming. In addition to their kufa (skullcaps), beards, and djellabah (long shirts), the Muslims are usually well scrubbed, and, as advised in the orientation booklet, often wear aromatic oils when entering the mosque. The use of personal toiletries defines the Muslim’s body as different from the sweaty, disciplined body of the ordinary prisoner. Cigarette smoking is also frowned upon among orthodox Muslims.

In respect to a prisoner’s repressed sexual desire, the Islamic regime acquires double significance in its strict opposition to homosexuality. Certainly, it upholds qur’anic injunctions and encourages the sublimation of desire into a rigorous program of study and prayer. More subtly, however, a man’s adherence to these injunctions illustrates counterdisciplinary resistance to one of the more overt dominance hierarchies encountered in prison life. Sexual possession, domination, and submission represent forms of “hard currency” in prison. Thus by asserting the distinction between halal and haram, between what is permitted and what is forbidden, the Muslim community simultaneously follows Islamic law and negates one of the defining characteristics of prison life.

The most contentious issue regarding the prisoner’s body involves surveillance and personal modesty. For example, during the 1970s, the Prison Committee worked with the state to arrange special times for Muslims to shower as a way to ensure privacy. Eventually, DOCS designated Thursday nights for Muslims to coordinate showers among themselves. A related yet unresolved issue is the “strip search,” when men are forced to strip naked and submit to an inspection of their body cavities. Many prisoners refuse to undergo this procedure. Consequently, they file grievances, risk being “written up,” sent to the “hole,” or even beaten if they refuse too vehemently. Lawsuits have been filed, but the courts have backed up the wardens, who insist that security issues take precedence over freedom of religious expression.[7]

The Muslim community generates a certain degree of physical, emotional, and even biological relief from the grinding prison discipline. This extraordinarily synthetic capacity to alter the cognitive patterns of an inmate’s world may even carry over into the realm of taste (halal diet), sight (reverse-direction Arabic script, calligraphy, absence of images, geometrical patterns, etc.), and smell (aromatic oils, incense). By staking out an Islamic space and filling it with a universe of alternative sensations, names, and even a different alphabet, the prison jama‘a establishes the conditions for a relative transformation of the most dreaded aspect of detention—the duration of one’s sentence, the “terror of time.” No other popular inmate association has proved itself capable of redefining the prison sentence in such a long-term way, for in its most successful manifestation, Islam has the power to reinterpret the notion of “doing time” into the activity of “following the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad.”[8] Prisoners spend much of their time engaged in qur’anic study, conducted according to a nationwide curriculum, moving through various levels from elementary instruction in beliefs and behavior (‘aqida and adab) to advanced scholarship in law, qur’anic commentary, and theology (fiqh,tafsir, and kalaam). There is even a course in leadership training to prepare prisoners for their roles as imams in other jails or on the street.

Materials for these classes, including cassette and video tapes and books, were initially donated by concerned Muslim organizations, but for the past ten years, Muslim inmates themselves have earned surprisingly large amounts of cash through their monopoly of the distribution and sale of aromatic oils, incense, and personal toiletries throughout the prison system. These funds are also used for the elaborate carpentry and calligraphic painting that is done in their mosques, as well as for the catering of ritual feasts for the Muslim ‘Id-al fitr and ‘Id al-adha holidays. They contribute to the sponsorship of intramural cultural events, which are often staged for the purpose of da‘wa. Sankore even published a critically acclaimed newsletter, Al-Mujaddid (The Reformer), which has found its way to important readers throughout the Muslim world sparking international concern for Sankore’s inmates, as well as donations in the form of Qur’ans and other literature, from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Sheikhs, diplomats, and other emissaries from Muslim countries traveled to Green Haven to visit Sankore. Even the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, met with Green Haven’s Muslim community to thank them for the hospitality extended to a Jewish inmate who was welcomed to conduct Hebrew prayers in a corner of the mosque after being ostracized by his own synagogue. The prison mosque is not only the center of religious instruction but also serves as an alternate focus of authority within the prison. Its power is determined mainly by its large membership, who legitimize the influence of their chosen leaders with respect to the larger inmate hierarchy, encompassing representatives of powerful ethnic gangs such as the Mafia and the Chinese triads, or white fascist parties such as the Aryan Brotherhood and the Ku Klux Klan.[9] For example, in the late 1970s, Sankore’s inmate imam was Rasul Abdullah Sulaiman, who came to prison already possessing some of Malcolm X’s charisma because he had been a prominent member of the latter’s entourage. He quickly rose to such a powerful position within the prison that he had his own telephone and traveled around the place at will, accompanied by a corps of surly bodyguards. He arranged the visits of outside Muslim dignitaries, brought family and friends of the prisoners into the masjid for prayer every Friday, and reportedly even constructed a network of small bunks inside the mosque for conjugal visits after jum‘a (Friday prayer).[10]

This was the period when Sankore achieved its reputation as the most important center for Islamic da‘wa in America. Before his release in 1980, Rasul married the mother of a fellow inmate, and his new “stepson” was elected imam. This union resulted in the effective and orderly transition of power in the mosque after Rasul’s release on parole. “Sheiks” who study tafsir, fiqh and Hadith, moreover, use these skills to play a role in councils (majlis) to resolve conflicts and keep the peace (fig. 27). They challenge the secular jailhouse standard of status based on physical strength or a manipulative intellect.

Figure 27. The Majlis ash-Shura, or high council, of Masjid Sankore at Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y., with the author, 1988. Photograph by Jolie Stahl.

It is possible to explore the deeper implications of the Islamic pedagogy of African-American prisoners if we look at the process of Islamization as a negotiation between the prison authorities and the Muslim inmates where the state’s logic of institutional order meets the fundamentalist doctrine of Pax Islamica, according to which the world consists of only two domains, the dar al-Islam, literally, the House of Peace, and the dar al-harb, the House of War, which is identical with non-Muslim territory. The reorientation and purification of personal space is made possible for the Muslim prisoner through a serious counterdisciplinary regime. Once he is known as a Muslim, the prisoner has little choice but to follow this new set of rules or else he risks at least the disapprobation of his fellow inmates and possibly a physical lashing. Non-Muslims who have been around long enough to understand the alternative set of rules will even admonish the novice convert (mubari) if he is derelict in performance of his obligations.

As enforced by the incarcerated community in general, the shar‘ia becomes an autonomous self-correcting process administered by and for Muslims. “A Muslim’s blood is sacred. We will not allow anyone to shed a Muslim’s blood without retaliation. The prison population knows this and would prefer for us to handle our situation.”[11] So widespread is the fierce reputation of the incarcerated Muslim that the most ruthless urban drug dealers carefully avoid harming any Muslim man, woman, or child lest they face extreme prejudice during their inevitable prison terms.

If this capacity to purify and control Islamic space is remarkable in its consistency, it is not without problems. Inmates may come to Islam merely for protection, not to find a new life. Or they may mistakenly believe that they can absolve past misdeeds and change themselves simply by changing their names and reciting the kalima shahada. They then give the outward appearance of devotion but end up returning to prison having committed the same crimes. Generally, however, low recidivism rates and success in the rehabilitation of drug and alcohol addiction, win tolerance, even approval, for Muslims (Caldwell 1966).

The numbers of practicing Muslims remain significant and their influence continues to rise among the transient populations who fluctuate between prison and the devastated streets of America’s urban ghettos. This calls to mind a comment to the effect that all African-American youths have at least some familiarity with Islam, either through a personal encounter, a relative, a friend, a fashionable item of apparel, or, as is more frequently the case today, in the form of rap music poems.[12] Islam constitutes a cultural passport, whose bearer may exercise the option to depart the anomic zone of ghetto life for destinations mapped out by the Qur’an and Sunna. Nowhere is this option more evident than inside a maximum security prison, where the literal interpretation of the Prophet’s hijra functions as a utopian itinerary and an alternative vision of truth and justice. It insulates the prisoner against the dulling experience of incarceration by inducing him to a regime of five daily exercises (salāt), consisting of a series of obligatory prostrations, that not only transforms the physical relationship to his immediate personal space but also restructures time according to a daily, weekly, and annual calendar of rites that correspond neither with the prison nor with American society at large.

In this sense, Islamic pedagogy has an invigorating effect upon the prison convert. The Qur’an becomes his instructional manual of counterdiscipline. Its study opens more than new scriptural potentials and interpretive traditions, more than simply a new grammar, phonetics, and vocabulary (Arabic), but also an impenetrable code whose messages elude all but the most devout. As a consequence, this counterculture is not simply a ritual of distraction but an ontological reconstruction occurring within a well-defined space, dar al-Islam, characterized by a common set of sensory values evident in smell (aromatic oils, incense); sight (elimination of literal and plastic art forms, elevation of figurative and stylized forms); sound (qur’anic recitation), taste (halal diet) and touch (promotion of strict interpersonal modesty). New intellectual values focus upon the Islamic sciences, particularly fiqh, and new ideas about geopolitics and history from an Islamic perspective.

These values have compelled many African-Americans to review traditional interpretations of their ethno-history, literature, and folklore. Through the prism of Islam, the African-American Muslim invokes a new hermeneutic of power: historically captured, enslaved, and transported to the New World, then miseducated and forced to live an inferior existence, the African-American must enshrine powerlessness even in the act of remembrance, celebration of, or reverence for his ancestors. But his conversion to Islam adds new dimensions to that history, particularly as it emphasizes the presence of African Muslims and nonslave populations, as well as evidence of resistance to Christianization.

Islam symbolizes the aggregate value of authentic African-American culture. In the past, dance, music, fashion, narrative, and even certain forms of Christianity (e.g., Afro-Baptism) have served to mediate, if not transcend, social, racial, and economic oppression. As revealed through the experience of prison da‘wa, Islamic discipline has the power to effect this ontological transformation through a series of counterdisciplinary measures. In terms of social relations, Islam teaches that those who lack the power to transform their material conditions need only reflect upon the ideal qur’anic past in order to see themselves as contemporary actors in a world whose rules of social distinction are neither tangible nor fixed unless they are divine. In this way, Islam deals with class, ethnic, and racial differences—even those as widely divergent as between freedom and incarceration—by collapsing the past, the present, and the future into a simultaneity of space and identity. To the extent that Islam succeeds in America’s prisons, it offers a closed but definitive response to the modern dilemma of justice in an unjust world.

By instituting a strict code of behavior and by networking with other prisoners, the Sunni Muslims established a unique identity. While they are predominantly African-American in membership, there are now a few Arabic- or Urdu-speaking prisoners, and more recently a handful of Senegalese Muslims. Green Haven today, however, as noted above, is divided between two mosques, Sankore and ut-Taubah. The Muslims at ut-Taubah have pledged bay‘a to Warith D. Muhammed, whose imams are always the civilian chaplains appointed by DOCS.

In Attica Prison, the Muslim communities united in 1985 under the aegis of a strong Sunni presence, but there, too, the administration is seen as fomenting disputes, and the community remains unstable because of ongoing differences between Sunnis and members of Farrakhan’s resuscitated Nation of Islam. The Sunni Muslims, who labored to unify Islam under a homogeneous practice, are seeing their space fission once again. “The Nation of Islam has recently been restructured and separated from the Sunni community.…There are approximately three hundred Muslims in the facility” (Rahman 1989). Less than twenty-five miles from Attica at Wende Correctional Facility, similar issues plagued the unified jama‘a (Raheem 1991).[13]

For all these problems, the goal has always been to create a territory that is neither “of the prison” nor “of the street” but a “world unto itself” defined by the representational space that is common to Muslims worldwide. The profundity of this spatial vision is evident in the metaphor, quoted in the title above, used by one prisoner serving a 25-years-to-life sentence: “In here the Muslims are an island in a sea of ignorance.” Islam’s attraction for prisoners lies in its power to transcend the material and often brutally inhuman conditions of prison. Although it may seem to some just another jailhouse mirage, the Muslim prisoner sees entry into that space as a miracle of rebirth, and one that may even spread from the prison to the street.


1. The prisons we visited during this study with their 1992 Muslim populations (1989 in parentheses) were Sullivan 84 (112), Green Haven 348 (286), Auburn 310 (234), Attica 388 (327), Wende 125 (74), and Eastern 175 (135). We did not include Riker’s Island, with its active Muslim missionary activity, nor the some 305 Muslims registered among female inmates at various institutions.

2. There are an estimated one million African-American Muslims in the United States today.

3. Letter from Mujahid al-Hizbullahi, 1991.

4. By the late 1960s, SNCC was militant and advocated armed revolution despite its name. H. Rap Brown was the alleged author of the famous phrase, “Violence is as American as apple pie.” He was hunted down and shot by New York police under the same conspiracy law that produced the famous Chicago 7 trial.

5. Interview with Sheikh Albert Nuh Washington on April 11, 1988.

6. Our formulation of the notion of “counterdiscipline” relies on the ideas expressed by De Certeau, especially his discourse on the impact of scriptural recitation.

7. One might argue that the prevalence of advanced electronic detectors, used especially to screen incoming visitors to the prison, obviates the need to continue the strip search unless it is being retained for its general disciplinary effect of symbolic submission and acknowledgement of the state as the ultimate authority over a prisoner’s body.

8. Such formulas are not uncommon in our own secular experience. For example, the practice of substituting an odometer (which measures distance or space) for a chronometer is common during long-distance commercial air travel. An airline pilot rarely mentions travel time. Usually, he refers to time only immediately after takeoff and just prior to landing. On the other hand, he may refer to visual landmarks periodically throughout the flight as a way of representing the distance traveled. Obviously, this practice evolved as a way of easing the journey by relieving the passengers of the “terror of time.”

9. Ironically, the KKK has become a model for cooperation between white prisoners and guards. It is often referred to as the guards’ “labor union.”

10. In the course of this study, we have met at least three children who were conceived inside Green Haven prison.

11. Remark by Jalil A. Muntaqim, a former member of the Black Liberation Army and akhbar (secretary of information) of Sankore.

12. A sampling of the fusion of Islam, the prison experience, and early rap music can be heard on tracks such as “Blessed Are Those Who Struggle” (The Last Poets, Delights of the Garden [New York: Celluloid Records, CEL 6136, 1987]), “Oh My People” and “Hold Fast” (The Last Poets, Oh My People [New York: Celluloid Records, CEL 6108, 1987]), and “Time” (The Last Poets, The Last Poets [New York, Celluloid Records, CEL 6101, 1984]). Another recording, Hustler’s Convention (New York: Celluloid, CEL 6107, n.d.), develops the classic prison “toast,” the prisoner’s autobiographical narrative.

13. For background on the Nation of Islam, see Marsh 1984; Jamal 1971; Malcolm X and Alex Haley 1966; Perry 1991.

Works Cited

Baker, J. E. 1964. “Inmate Self-Government.” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science 55, 1: 39–47.

Brody, Stuart. 1974. “The Political Prisoner Syndrome.” Crime and Delinquency 20 (April): 102–11.

Caldwell, Wallace F. 1966. “A Survey of Attitudes Toward Black Muslims in Prison.” Journal of Human Relations.

Cloward, Richard A., et al.1960.Theoretical Studies in the Social Organization of the Prison. New York: Social Science Research Council.

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books.

Jamal, Hakim. 1971. From the Dead Level: Malcolm X and Me. New York: Random House.

Malcolm X, and Alex Haley. 1966. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.

Marsh, Clifton. 1984. From Black Muslims to Muslims. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.

Mustafa, Khalil, et al.1989. “Overview Revealing the Premeditated Overthrowing of the Sankore Masjid Green Haven Correctional Facility and Those Similarly Situated Throughout New York State Correctional Facilities.” Unpublished report.

Perry, Bruce. 1991. Malcolm. Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill.


Raheem, Sheikh Ismail Abdul. 1991. Interview with the author, Brooklyn, N.Y. February 12.

Raheem, Shu’aib Abdur. 1988. Interview with the author, Alden, N.Y. November 26.

Rahman, Da’ud. 1989. Interview with the author, Attica, N.Y. July 17.

Island in a Sea of Ignorance

Preferred Citation: Metcalf, Barbara Daly, editor. Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.