Jailed and Yet Free

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Published February 8, 2023

By Sh. Suleiman Hani

Some people are in jail and yet free – free by holding onto the one thing that they were created for and leads to Allah’s pleasure and success in the afterlife — their surrender to Allah SWT. Free by refusing to be consumed by the trials of this world, the shackles of oppression, or the desire to give up.

Some people are jailed and yet free, and others are free and yet jailed by shackles they’ve allowed to control them, from desires, to chasing after this life — disconnected from Allah and the afterlife. They are legally free and yet jailed by their addictions to materialism, consumerism, and living their lives for the sake of other people. They are free and yet jailed by their desire to show off, waste time on meaningless entertainment, and contribute nothing to positive change in the world.

Are You Jailed and Yet Free? Or Are You Free and Yet Jailed?

Imprisonment is a trial many innocent people are tested with in this life for various reasons. Among them are many scholars, students of knowledge, activists for causes of justice, journalists, those who defend their homes, and those who are imprisoned for their religion or due to their race or skin color or ethnicity. There are many examples of this in our ummah.

One example is that of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (r). He was tested under the Abbasid caliphs al-Ma’mun and al-Mu’tasim during an era in which their government administrations were significantly impacted by the newfound ideology of the Mu’tazilites. The rulers started an inquisition (al-mihna), and in summary there was a requirement of all scholars, including Imam Ahmad, to profess publicly a heretical view about the Qur’an, but he refused. They demanded that scholars of the Sunnah proclaim that the Qur’an was created, but as it’s the attribute of Allah, it cannot be created, as that contradicts the Qur’an itself in numerous ways. Therefore, Imam Ahmad refused.

Imam Ahmad was threatened, then arrested, brought in chains before the court, and imprisoned, and he was tortured for many years. But he refused to compromise and change the truth no matter what punishments he experienced. Let me mention, for those who may not know, Ahmad bin Hanbal is one of the greatest scholars of hadith and arguably one of the greatest scholars of Islam. His gatherings would remind other scholars and students of the afterlife, and the scholars themselves testified to his great knowledge and piety, including Imam al-Shafi’i, Abu Dawud, Ali al-Madini, and others.

Eventually he was free from that inquisition when it ended, and Allah SWT raised his status in the ummah and he was vindicated. Imam Ahmad was concerned about the truth throughout his imprisonment. If he remained silent and the masses did not know, then how would the truth spread?

Unfortunately, he was not the only one tortured and/or imprisoned. Fast forward to the great polymath Ibn Taymiyyah, he was imprisoned six times and for the duration of twelve years! He was optimistic in a manner that inspires all believers after him. Ibn al-Qayyim reported that Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyyah, once said to him,

“What can my enemies do to me?
My paradise and my garden are in my heart wherever I go.
They are with me and never leave me.
If I am imprisoned, it is seclusion for worship.
If I am killed, it is martyrdom.
If they expel me from my land, it is tourism” (al-Wābil al-Ṣayyib).

He was behind bars and yet it seems like he was freer than the freest of people. He was behind prison walls and yet he was more optimistic than some of the wealthiest and well-off people in the world. He was oppressed as a prisoner and yet his faith in Allah SWT was unwavering and stronger than ever. The Prophet (s) said: “Allah wonders – in a manner befitting to Him —at people who enter Paradise in chains” (Bukhari). As Ibn al-Jawzi said, this hadith refers to those who are taken prisoner and restrained, but when they recognize the truth of Islam, they embrace it willingly and enter Paradise. Other scholars said this hadith refers to Muslims who died in imprisonment.

Today, this applies to Muslims in Palestine and Muslims in East Turkistan – the Uighurs — who have been imprisoned numerous times, many of whom have been tortured. Many have vanished, and others died in prison in front of their fellow inmates. There are hundreds of scholars in countries that have opened the floodgates to immorality and anti-Islamic values, and yet they’ve oppressed many innocent scholars in those same lands behind prison walls. No one is guaranteed in this life that they won’t be physically jailed – one’s life can change in a split second. But you are guaranteed spiritual fulfillment and optimism and resilience if you choose to have a strong connection to Allah SWT, whether you are in the comfort of your own home or in the hardships of a jail cell.

Many who are reading this are likely free in a legal sense. And yet – at times we choose to be imprisoned by our desires. Abdullah ibn Mas’ud (r) said, “By Allah, besides whom there is no God, nothing on earth is in greater need of a lengthy prison sentence than the tongue” (al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr). How many times have we fallen into the major sins of backbiting, slandering, and lying? Despite praying, fasting, and giving charity, some people will become broke on the Day of Judgment because they are shackled by the sins of their tongue in this world. Be careful with your words, verbal or written, for they are simultaneously being written in your record.

Prophet Yusuf (a.s.)

The wife of Al-Azeez tried to seduce Prophet Yusuf (a.s.), as is mentioned in the Qur’an. What did he do when a woman tried to tempt him to commit a major sin – one of the worst sins? Allah says, “They both raced for the door…” (12:25). She was racing to sin and he was racing away. She was racing to her shackles, and he was racing to freedom. She was racing to hellfire, and he was racing to Paradise. Later she pointed him out to the women of the city who mocked her. She said, “This is the one for whose love you criticized me! I did try to seduce him, but he saved himself. And if he does not do what I order him to, he will certainly be imprisoned and of those who are disgraced” (12:32). “He said, ‘My Lord the prison is dearer to me than what they call me towards’…” (12:33). Allah SWT saved Yusuf (a.s.) with prison. Imprisonment was better for him than falling into sin.

Run away from sinfulness and you’ll be the freest of people. Restrain your desires and you’ll be the most liberated of people. Destroy the shackles that hold you back from Allah SWT’s pleasure and you’ll find yourself safe and secure with regards to your afterlife. You may be behind prison walls, but if you’re upon the path of truth then there is no wall or barrier between you and Allah.

Restrain Your Desires!

Allah SWT says, “And as for those who were in awe of standing before their Lord and restrained themselves from the vain desires, Paradise will certainly be the refuge” (Naze’at, 79:40-41). Know that you will likely face a lot of challenges in trying to be a free believer, free of worldly shackles, but opposed by society, the devil, and your desires. But who is more free, the one who is shackled by worldly ideologies and postmodern thought or the Muslim who controls his/her desires for Allah’s sake?

Who is more free — the one who submits to Allah SWT fully or the one who is afraid of human beings – so they do whatever pleases people?

Who is more free — the one killing time chasing after the dunya with no preparation for the afterlife, or the one who lives each day meaningfully and repents to Allah regularly?

Who is more free — the one who feels that her self-worth and value is through less clothing, or the one who wears proper hijab for the sake of Allah, and despite the world claiming that she’s oppressed – she is the most free of people.

Live sincerely for the sake of Allah (SWT) and you will be resurrected among the happiest of people.

Remember These 5 Principles to Build Your Legacy 

1. No matter how strong you feel your desires are, you are stronger.
2. No matter how busy you are in life, seek knowledge regularly.
3. No matter what sin you commit, return to Allah immediately.
4. No matter how much effort it takes, stay away from bad company.
5. No matter how tempting this world is, work towards Jannah productively.

A noble legacy to leave behind for those who come after you is to be liberated spiritually and religiously wherever you are. A noble legacy is to be consistent in your devotion to Allah SWT whether you are legally free or behind prison walls. A noble legacy is to free yourself of any worldly shackles and to consistently seek a sensible and temperate detachment from this life. Some people are jailed and yet free, and others are free and yet jailed. Free yourself by submitting to Allah and you’ll be the happiest and most successful of people.

May Allah grant justice to the oppressed, and martyrdom to those who died innocently behind prison walls; and grant those who are free true freedom from worldly shackles, and attach our hearts to Him, and grant us the eternal bliss of paradise.

Avatar photo Sh. Suleiman HaniAuthor Imam Suleiman Hani is the Director of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib Institute and a research scholar for Yaqeen Institute. He has master’s degree from the University of Jordan’s College of Shari’ah and a master’s degree from Harvard University.

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