This reflection is part of Sapelo’s Ramadan 2020 series. To read other reflections in the series click here.
By Latasha Rouseau
In the name of Allah, The Beneficent The Merciful
All praise and gratitude belong to Allah Subhanahu wa ta ‘ala (Highly Exalted and Glorified is He)
A recurring theme within the Qur’an is justice. Individually, we may have different perspectives on what justice looks like, but the Qur’an is clear, emphasizing that upholding justice should be a priority of a Believer. While reflecting on Juz’ 12 (11:6–12:52), I noticed that an overwhelming sense of equity prevailed throughout. In Surah Hud, Allah recounts prophets Nuh, Hud, Saleh, Lut, Shu’aib and Musa (may Allah bless them and grant them peace) as they warn their people to give up their idols and worship Allah (swt) alone. Each prophet focused on their community, those who persistently denied the Oneness of Allah, choosing instead to continue on in their vain pursuits. When Allah appointed a time for their destruction, save a few Believers, there was no way to avert it, and Allah removed them and made it appear as “... if they never flourished there” (11:95). This was the justice of Allah for what their hands and hearts committed. In Surah Yusuf, Allah recounts the story of Prophet Yusef (Joseph) who was wrongfully imprisoned, subsequently released and later given an honorable position within the king’s court. That too was justice.
Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with Br. Ricardo Williams, the first Muslim to receive support from the Muslim-led organization Believer’s Bail Out (BBO) in Ramadan of 2018. BBO takes up our responsibility to fight for justice by working to “… bail out Muslims [held] in pretrial incarceration and ICE custody…and seeking to create sustainable change in our society” by fighting against “the prison-industrial complex, anti-Muslim racism, and anti-Blackness.” Ricardo shared his story in an effort to help others acknowledge the realities of the criminal justice system and highlight the complexities of mass incarceration. My reflection on Juz’ 12, begins first with recounting Ricardo’s story, and then draws parallels to the Story of Yusuf (AS) as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
Ricardo shared his story in an effort to help others acknowledge the realities of the criminal justice system and highlight the complexities of mass incarceration.
On March 30, 2018, in Chicago, Ill., Ricardo was driving with his 18-year old brother in his newly purchased 2016 BMW 750 coup when he was pulled over by the police. The officers told Ricardo that he was “blue-lighted” because he did not use his left turn signal. Ricardo knew that was false but was not surprised because the police in that area of Chicago were known to harass the African American community. He was sure that he was being targeted and was stopped for two reasons: (1) because he is Black and (2) he was driving a luxury vehicle.
Police forced Ricardo and his brother out of the car and when they searched found a handgun, which belonged to Ricardo’s brother. At the time, his brother was on parole which meant that if he were charged with a weapon’s offense it guaranteed him a prison bed for the next several years. Therefore, to protect his brother, Ricardo said the weapon was his. He was subsequently charged and taken to Cook County Jail to await his court hearing. At the hearing, bail was set at $5,000 but having just spent the last of his savings on his BMW, Ricardo couldn’t pay the bond. Therefore, Ricardo had to remain in jail until his trial, which in Cook County could mean anywhere from 9 months to 3 years. This was Ricardo’s first charge and while in jail he “psychologically broke down” solemnly stating, “They know you will take anything [plea] to get out.”
Ricardo spent three months in jail without being convicted of any crime — three months too many yet months below the city’s average, due to BBO’s work on his behalf. Fortunately, once out on bail, Ricardo was able to return to work quickly because he possessed a Commercial Driver’s License. Had he been employed in another line of work, it is very likely that he would have lost his job. Stable employment is one of the key factors that increases the likelihood of a successful defense. While incarcerated, BBO sent Ricardo money to purchase items and books to read which enhanced his knowledge of Islam; and, after release, BBO volunteers regularly checked in on his well-being and offered assistance in resolving his case. In the end, Ricardo took a plea and received a 10-month prison sentence followed by 1 year of parole. Although this was not justice in its truest sense, it was a much lesser sentence than Ricardo would have gotten had he gone to trial and been found guilty. He didn’t want to take the chance. At the time of this interview, Ricardo was still on parole. Recalling that he initially claimed the gun as his own to save his brother from a lengthy prison sentence, Ricardo stated, “I was a blessing to someone and they [BBO] were a blessing to me.”
Ricardo spent three months in jail without being convicted of any crime — three months too many yet months below the city’s average…
I found many parallels with the story of Joseph (AS) as I listened to Ricardo recount the ordeal that he faced, which is the story of so many of our fathers, sons and brothers and our mothers, daughters and sisters as well. Joseph, a prophet, endured a number of difficult circumstances in his life, including the deception of his brothers, the absence of his father, servitude, slander and, ultimately, imprisonment for a crime that he did not commit. How many of our young men today have dealt with similar forms of trauma, only to be accused, judged, and sentenced by a system that is all too quick to place the culpability on those who have no way to properly defend themselves? How many scenarios have we heard that take the form of Prophet Joseph? Of Ricardo?
There are so many lessons that we can glean while reading the story of Joseph (AS). The Qur’anic scripture allows us to understand that Joseph, “...would have inclined toward her, had he not seen the proof of his Lord.” (12:24) This verse refers to the Aziz’s wife who attempted to seduce him, and Joseph’s ability to resist her because he had witnessed a “proof” from Allah that would have made it impossible for him to commit such a sin. Of course given Joseph’s prophethood, his proof would not be comparable to what we will receive from Allah. But do we not have our own proofs that would direct us to the Oneness and certainty of Allah? And it is our duty as Believers to hold fast to the rope of Allah at all times by recalling His proofs, just as Joseph (AS) did. But what of those who do not know Allah? How can a young man, dealing with the adversities that Joseph dealt with, overcome such temptations if he does not have the knowledge of Allah to sustain him?
But do we not have our own proofs that would direct us to the Oneness and certainty of Allah? And it is our duty as Believers to hold fast to the rope of Allah at all times by recalling His proofs, just as Joseph (AS) did.
As Muslims, we have to reflect on the examples provided by the prophets in this juz’, by always calling others to be upright and fair, whether it is a person or an establishment. But we must know that Allah is Al-Adl, the One who wields justice. He is the controller of the seen and unseen. Therefore, we should not be deterred from seeking justice on behalf of our sisters and brothers in any circumstance. Just as Hud called out to his people of ‘Ad imploring,
“Seek forgiveness from your Rabb and turn to him in repentance. He will send you from the sky abundant rain and He will add strength to your strength. So do not turn away like criminals.” — 11:52
Indeed, we must not turn away, lest we become criminals. On the contrary, it is our obligation as Muslims to seek balance on this earth for all of humanity. To allow others to know Allah as we know Him, so that they too can depend on the proofs of their Lord.
May Allah grant us all the privilege to reach the end of Ramadan, and may our prayers, sacrifices, good deeds and repentance be accepted.
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Ricardo Williams attended The College of Office Technology and learned how to rise above being a product of his environment. He grew up in the Robert Taylor projects on the Southside of Chicago, IL. Williams writes poetry. He is a motivational speaker and a Bg artist for Fox 32. He converted from Christianity to Islam.
Latasha Rouseau, Sapelo’s Administrative Coordinator, is a writer and youth advocate, specializing in areas of criminal justice. Striving to empower and support the most vulnerable groups in our communities, she has worked with assisting youth and their families within the juvenile justice system for over a decade.