Doing Time: Jailhouse Reflections on Surat al-`Asr

by Tricia Pethic

“By time, indeed, mankind is in loss, except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience” (Qur’an, 103).

Like many of you, I recently recited these words in my prayer. However, unlike many of you, as I recited them the image of women in county jail uniforms came to my mind. I meet with these inmates once a week for a support group led by a former drug addict, herself. These women are not Muslim but are starving for any spiritual teachings shared with them. Maybe they came to my mind because they often speak of how much jail “time” they were doing; or maybe it was to give me a greater understanding of what I was reciting.

I thought about a person, deprived of freedom of movement, who experiences “time” as a punitive measure.  “Time” is not kind to them. The passage of time is celebrated as one gets closer towards freedom. One day an inmate peered out the window and asked me, “What’s it like?”

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“The weather, what’s it like?”

I was both touched and saddened by her innocent question. What a thing to be deprived of! I swallowed my emotions and suddenly felt privileged to say, “Well it’s actually chilly, even though the sun is still out.” As I pitied this woman, I remembered how we all do our “time” here on Earth, and how none of us asked to be brought here but God willed it.  However, we are free to make choices that restrict our freedom, such as going to jail. While the crime we did to get there was a loss to us, time is still not lost to us. How we use our time can still be pleasing to God.

What does it mean for those of us who are not in a prison or jail cell? We may pity those who have five or 50 years in prison, while we ourselves are at a loss in the midst of our freedom. When I shared this insight with the inmates, one of them asked me, “What do you mean people out there can be at a loss?”

I thought for a moment and responded,”Distractions.”

They nodded their heads, seeming satisfied with the explanation.

God does not care about the physical spaces we inhabit, so much as the mental spaces we inhabit. “Allah does not look at your appearance or your possessions; but He looks at your heart and your deeds” (Muslim). It should be sobering for us to think that a criminal who reforms himself can be gaining, while we whose records are clean are at a loss. We ask Allah (Exalted is He) to hand us our record of deeds in our right hand on the Day of Judgment – a record few of us will find “clean.”

Tricia Pethic is an aspiring chaplain in Hartford Seminary’s Islamic chaplaincy program and holds a Master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies. She was a board member of the Islamic Center of Tucson, 2006-2007. She maintains a blog,

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