Why Islam Can Liberate the Souls of Prisoners: Lessons Learned from the Life of Ahmed ibn Taymiyya
“How many of us would be able to overcome our desires and resist the temptation of sin? How many of us even lower our gaze when we look upon something that we are not supposed to? The real prisoner is the one whose heart has been kept away from remembering his Lord, and the real captive is the one who has been captivated by his whims and desires.”
This profound statement by the eminent scholar Ahmed ibn Taymiyya encapsulates the essence of Islam and continues to apply to life today in the same way it did when it was first said over 800 years ago. How could a man who spent considerable time in prison away from his home and family be content at a time when most would be depressed? This was the remarkable personality of ibn Taymiyya, who liberated his soul from the physical confinement in which he spent six years of his life.
He was born in 1263 CE (661 AH) in a socio-political context strikingly similar to that of the modern world. He was born in an age of great cultural and political upheaval–only five years prior to his birth, Baghdad was ravaged and mercilessly destroyed by the Tartars. Similarly today, Baghdad has once again been criminally destroyed by the American military. Raised with a deep hatred of oppression due to Tartar invasions that caused his parents to migrate to Syria, ibn Taymiyya unfalteringly stood for the truth, often holding opinions opposing those of rulers or other prominent organizations, and thus was many times forced unjustly into prison. Despite such setbacks, he persevered and used his time wisely to benefit himself as well as the world. Ibn Taymiyya was able to overcome the agony of unjustifiable sentences by correctly implementing Islam in his life. As he understood correctly, it was Islam that provided a means for the heart to exist in a state of tranquility and harmony albeit in a physically confined state.
How is it that Islam liberates the souls of imprisoned individuals whereby they are able to think clearly, be content and progress in their personal development, and even be beneficial to the larger global community? The major Islamic concepts of remaining optimistic, accepting the decree of Allah (qadr), and believing in the afterlife give hope and anticipation of good things to come to incarcerated Muslims all over the world, regardless of their conditions, duration of the imprisonment, or the loss of any worldly pleasures. Realization of these Islamic tenets applies both to people who actually committed a crime and repented for it, as well as to those who were wrongly imprisoned. In Islam, the ideologies of optimism and contentment with the decree of Allah go hand in hand. Consider the following verse about understanding the divine decree:
“No disaster strikes upon the earth or among yourselves except that it is in a register before We bring it into being – indeed that, for Allah , is easy – In order that you not despair over what has eluded you and not exult [in pride] over what He has given you. And Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful.” (Qur’an, 57:22-23)
Ibn Kathir relates in his commentary on the Holy Qur’an that Allah makes it clear in the first verse above that He has complete control of all affairs in the universe and that He has recorded everything that will happen to anyone at anytime. Furthermore, Allah puts forth tribulations for people in order to test them; this assertion is found in many other verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sal Allahu `alayhi wa sallam – peace be upon him). The second verse then gives a beautiful reason why we should be cognizant of Allah’s plan for us: he has recorded everything that has happened and will happen to us, regardless of the time of occurrence. Allah shows us His mercy in telling us that, as He claims, “In order that you not despair….” This instruction to practice patience and gratitude helps bring a grieving inmate out of his misery as he understands neither to grieve over hardship nor to be arrogant of the good that has befallen him. In fact, when an individual understands that each trial is a test from Allah to see how strong his faith is, it then becomes easier for him to be content with life. How then did ibn Taymiyya understand this concept and allow his heart to be at peace? Reflecting upon the verse that was recited by ibn Taymiyya while entering the Citadel prison in Syria in 712 clearly reveals his optimistic mindset and that he was clearly not sad nor in low spirits:
“And a wall will be placed between them with a door, its interior containing mercy, but on the outside of it is torment.” (Qur’an, 57:13)
Ibn Taymiyya felt that prison would be a safe haven for him rather than what others would have considered a gloomy dungeon. How and why did ibn Taymiyya view prison in this way? Obviously he did not want to go to prison, as he always attempted to defend his opinions, yet he never complained when imprisonment did befall him. His greatest student and one of the foremost scholars in the history of Islam, ibn Al Qayyim Al Jawziyya, reported that ibn Taymiyya used to say, “What on earth can my enemies do to me? My Paradise is in my heart and accompanies me wherever I go. My imprisonment is seclusion which helps me to worship Allah better, my killing is martyrdom, and my deportation from my country is seeing the world.” Ibn Taymiyya’s depth in comprehending and understanding how Islam freed him of complaining over any calamity or hindrance allowed him to maintain his composure and happiness. He also saw prison as a blessing which would allow him to engage in serene worship of Allah free from the distractions of life. If others were to also have such an understanding of life, they could not possibly be broken down or humiliated. Hence, physical confinement cannot truly confine anyone, as long as the heart and mind are free.
A look into what ibn Taymiyya did while in prison demonstrates that he followed his thoughts with actions. While imprisoned in Alexandria in 709 AH, he met several philosophical thinkers. Although he had earlier been convinced of the flaws of the philosophers, while in prison he decided to write a refutation of logic, which he understood to be the ultimate source of the metaphysical doctrines espoused by the philosophers. Multiple scholars noted that the work he compiled, Refutation of the Logicians, was one of the most devastating attacks leveled against the logic upheld by early Greeks and their followers. Any subsequent lessons derived from his refutation goes back to Allah’s wisdom in having ibn Taymiyya spend time in that specific prison at that point in time. It is only through Allah’s will that ibn Taymiyya happened to meet people during his imprisonment with flawed philosophical ideas, which led him to produce one of his greatest works.
Evidently, ibn Taymiyya always understood this blessing, as he told his mother in a letter he wrote from prison in Egypt, “Yet it was not our choice to be far from you. Had birds been able to carry us, we would have come to you. But the absent One [Allah] has His reason; and had you been able to look deeply into the affairs of the Muslims, you would not choose for me another place to the one I am in now.” This was the understanding ibn Taymiyya possessed of accepting the decree of Allah and optimism in Islam, and this ultimately allowed him to be effective for the ummah (Muslim community) and exalted in his character.
Another thought for an imprisoned individual to be productive is the realization that, after death, everyone will be held accountable for his or her deeds and be given a final eternal abode. If a person truly believes that he will be rewarded and granted Paradise if he abides by the bounds defined by Allah, he will be willing to do anything in this temporary life to achieve that goal, even if it means spending time in prison. Prophet Yusuf (`alayhi assalam – on him be peace) exemplified this trust in Allah, as he said:
“My Lord, prison is more to my liking than that to which they invite me. And if You do not avert from me their plan, I might incline toward them and [thus] be of the ignorant” (Qur’an, 12:33).
Here, Yusuf (as) refers to his refusal to have illicit relations with his master’s wife as she tried to seduce him. In his heart, he truly believed that prison would be better for him than succumbing to the evil commands of the king’s wife. Only a God-fearing person who was aware of the rewards that Allah has prepared for the afterlife would be willing to make such a sacrifice and be content with it.
Ibn Taymiyya was caught in a similar situation in 705 AH when he was confronted about his religious beliefs and subsequently put in prison. After a year in prison, with much external pressure, he was offered to be set free if he renounced his beliefs. The offer was made to him as many as six times, but he always refused, saying, “The prison is dearer to me than what I am asked to affirm.” Once again, ibn Taymiyya demonstrated his deep-rooted faith in Islam, as he knew Allah would reward him for adhering to his belief, even if it meant spending time removed from the freedom of this life. It is with this lucid vision and sincerity that ibn Taymiyya became one of the most liberated men in the world, despite his many years and eventual death in prison in 728 AH (1328 CE).
Ibn Taymiyya’s experiences show that when one puts his whole trust in Allah, barriers—even prison walls—can be overcome. Although ibn Taymiyya lived over 800 years ago, his experiences are still applicable today; belief in Allah transcends time. Even in the past 50 years, incarcerated Islamic personalities such as Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Imam Jamil of America prove the universality of Islam as a solution for all people until the end of the time. The lives of these individuals and countless other people hold valuable lessons; they show that Islam guides people to worship Allah and free themselves from their carnal desires and passions. It is only through such a divinely revealed way of life—manifested all over the world—that true liberation can occur.