by Brother Alex X
Muhammad Mosque No. 7C Brooklyn, N.Y.
“The word is so strong it goes behind prison walls. … And it converts the man behind a prison wall and makes him stand up in a cage, facing the Devil every day.” —Table Talks of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad
It’s been said that everywhere the Honorable Elijah Muhammad walked, he left something for those that would follow. “Walked” in this regard means the places wherein he lived. For four years, he walked within the federal prison system. Although prison is an unlikely place to leave gifts, I, along with thousands of others, can bear witness that he did just that.
I once asked our National Prison Reform Minister, Abdullah Muhammad, “Why is it that on the back page of The Final Call newspaper, it reads: “We want Freedom for All Believers of Islam now held in Federal Prison?” I was serving a 10 year sentence in federal prison at the time and I wanted to know why freedom for only “Believers in Federal Prison?” I asked, “What about the city jails and the county lock ups? What about the state pens?” His answer came clear and without hesitation: “Because when you say ‘Federal’, you’re dealing directly with Pharaoh.”
In 1942, it was that same Pharaoh that had imprisoned the Hon. Elijah Muhammad (with Allah’s (God’s) Permission). It was that same Pharaoh who in 1988 was locking up thousands of young Black men under Crack Cocaine Laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. Their plan was to use and build prison houses for those that the crack, guns and AIDS had not swallowed up.
Their desire was the wholesale handout of lengthy sentences that left thousands to rot inside of cages. But if you catch a fruit when it’s ripe, you can save it from becoming rotten, and Allah (God), in His Mercy and Wisdom, was able to pick some of us from the hanging tree of prison so that we would grow into our own. So just as Master Fard Muhammad went out into the world and made “friends” for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, He allowed His Messenger to be taken into federal prison wherein he made friends for us before we’d even arrived.
Within the federal prison system are people from all over the world. It’s like a roll call of all the characters you see in the movies and in the news: The Columbian Drug Lord, The Mafia Crime Boss, The Irish Gangster, The Nigerian Swindler, The Islamic Terrorist, The Kingpin, Corrupt Politicians, The Aryan Brotherhood, Skinheads, etc.
Certainly not all these men were good, and some seemed as if they had no good in them at all, but then there were others: The men of faith, the Muslims. Men who’d followed the Hon. Elijah Muhammad but, for whatever reason, had been in prison for the last 10, 15 and sometimes over 20 years.
These were the gifts waiting for us as we were sent up the road, they were the fathers and big brothers some of us had never known.
They reminded me of dinosaurs, preserved and hard, like they’d been carved out of stone. Their skin was tight, their faces shined and they almost never smiled. They were fearless, no nonsense brothers that would hurt you (quick) over any sign of disrespect—especially any disrespect of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. They stuck out. They weren’t loud. They looked different, even though they wore standard prison issue, they moved, talked and acted like they had somewhere to go, even though they were prisoners like everyone else.
These were the men that became our teachers, our guides into the Faith.
It was a meeting made in hell that The Devil never saw coming. A time bomb Master Fard Muhammad had started ticking since 1942. So while these men were doing their time, we were running wild in the streets, and taking penitentiary chances with our lives. But while we were engaged in the destruction of ourselves, the music of Public Enemy, Rakim and others was providing the soundtrack to our madness.
Most of us, at the time, didn’t know anything about Min. Farrakhan, but we’d all heard Chuck D of Public Enemy say, “Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you ought to listen to.” And the first time we’d heard the voice of Brother Khallid Muhammad was not at a mosque meeting or during a lecture. We heard him on “Night of The Living Baseheads” by Public Enemy. As an 18 year old working in a crack house, I’d learned “the greetings” from a crack addict named “Mo” (short for Mohammad). My only reason for hearing him out was that rapper Big Daddy Kane had said, “Hold up the peace sign, As Salaam Alaikum” at the end of “Ain’t No Half Steppin.’ ”
In New York, you had the added ingredient of the Five Percent Nation. “The God’s of The Ghetto,” as they’d been called in a newspaper article, were like stars in the 1970s and early 1980s before crack arrived. So, the lingo of the Five Percenters along with the flashes of light that was layered in the music was a litmus test I used once I was sent to prison. I would sift through all of the various fractions of Muslims, and what they had to say, listening for the familiar frequency that resonated with the sounds of my youth.
The Hon. Elijah Muhammad taught that Islam Comes After All Else Fails, and there is nothing like a cell to inform you of all your failures. Not your family, your friends, your road dogs nor your cut buddies, could free you. Some couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even come see you. You found out that your guns weren’t big enough; your money wasn’t long enough and that all of your plans had been shot straight to hell. Everything that you thought you had was not enough to keep you out of the last place you wanted to be. So there you are, sitting in a cell, like a man dropped in the center of the ocean, looking for something to grab hold of.
And these solid brothers with their old school, jail-hardened Islam were like flashing fog lights on a dark night, and we swam towards them.
Many of these brothers were nearing the end of their sentences and had worked their way down to the lower level institutions where a lot of the newly incarcerated, like myself, were initially sent. So these old Muslims, on their way home after doing lots of time, were mixed in with us, the young brothers just coming in with lots of time. A divine moment in time was created courtesy of the United States Government unknowingly working as agents of the Best Planner.
Soon they had “mosques” (or Houses as we called them) popping up all over their precious prisons. Houses where there had been no Houses before. It was like we’d been transformed overnight from drug dealing hoodlums into Muslim Pioneers.
We grew like righteous weeds. At one point, we’d grown to the point where we were 30-strong, brothers lined up in ranks, waiting for Brother Abdullah to arrive. When he walked in and saw the Young Men of Faith, standing at attention with polished boots, pressed khakis and serious faces, he pulled me to the side and said, “Look like y’all got an army up in here!”
In those early days of incarceration, tapes, lectures and even The Final Call newspaper were not in all the institutions. It was almost two years before I even saw a picture, much less heard the voice, of Min. Farrakhan.
So we began “pooling our resources” instead of waiting for the “quarterly allotment” the institution gave to all the religious groups. We started buying our own books and videotaped lectures, which we read and watched every day. We’d wake up early, study, and work out together. Afterwards we’d study some more, then we’d eat together and fight with those that fought with us, together as well. Over time, because of the circumstances we all had to endure, we became something more than brothers; we became true Brothers in the Faith.
(Look for part 2 of this article in an upcoming edition of The Final Call.)