The world stopped for Emir Abdur Rahim in 1993. Actually, I knew him by a different name before he converted to Islam and yet our lives have followed parallel paths. For example, we both have found ourselves in positions of leadership in our respective religions despite our best efforts.

I am a proponent of prisons, as punishment as well as a place for rehabilitation. However, far too often in practice, it ends up dehumanizing most people – nobody ought to be able to put you in prison, torture you, and diminish your capacity for forming social relationships.

And I hate the way Muslims are generally branded. As Christians, we hate it when the actions of a few define us as a whole. Be it scandals (money or sex) or fundamentalists (protests, hate-filled pronouncements, or other acts of extremism), we fight to make sure those things don’t become our public face. As Black people, we hate how we are often depicted on television or movies, portrayed in the news, or portrayed in hip-hop.

So one reason why Abdur and I came together was to engage in conversations, but it also reminded me that religion without transformation is worthless. That when the church is not doing its job of making disciples and transforming lives, one of the consequences is people left without a sense of community (and them seeking to find it wherever they can). When prisons don’t offering much by way of redemptive rehabilitation, it leads to recidivism.

All this to say here’s my latest INtake article. “Celebrating Al-Fitr.

11-16-06 – Celebrating Al-Fitr.

I was invited up to the Indiana State Prison to celebrate Al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast by my friend, Emir Abdur Rahim.  The occasion is usually held the day after Ramadan (which was on that Monday), but due to their circumstances, held it on the following Saturday.  Part of what we wanted to do was challenge each other in our faiths and learn from one another.  There is much that the Muslim faith has in common with the Christian tradition, much of which has been obscured due to the current climate.

My favorite comments came from Mutiah Abdul Basit (formerly Raymond Powell) whose name means “obedient servant of the Expander”(the Expander is one of the attributes of the Creator).  He spoke on how ignorance has many of us locked into oppression, echoing the sentiments of Maya Angelou when she said “I wish I’d known better so I could have done better.”  He went on to meditate on how people need to be able to unlock information; how, unless one pursues education, it is easy for people to get over on you.  Then we’re left with Too Short’s lament from “The Ghetto”:  “Cause when you’re ignorant, you get treated that way/And when they throw you in jail you got nothing to say.”

In our rush to put criminals in prison and throw away the key in an effort to make us feel safe, we conveniently forget that these are human beings, not beyond redemption.  Warehousing is not enough.  Rehabilitation is getting on the right track, but it too is not enough.  There must be transformation.

Neither Abdur nor Mutiah were the men they were when they went into prison.  Too bad it took incarceration for them to be put on a spiritual path.  If Abdur and I were to spend our time together trying to convert each other, we would have missed the point of being together.  Instead, we started with what we had in common, rather than focusing on what separated us.

We are brothers on a spiritual journey who believe in peace and who want to serve God whole-heartedly.  That’s how bridges are built.