One evening a few months after I was imprisoned, I gathered in another prisoner’s cell to pray. We were at HM Prison Woodhill in Milton Keynes, central England.
About six of us managed to squeeze into a cell. This was before the three-prisoner rule was introduced, limiting the number of prisoners who could pray salah in a cell to three.
Apparently, some faceless official sitting behind a desk somewhere in the country had come up with the bright idea that if more than three Muslim prisoners were to pray salah together in one cell, then that could lead to their “radicalisation” – whatever that means.
The eldest Muslim prisoner amongst us, a man who had already been in prison for six years without trial by that point, ushered a young man to lead the prayer.
The salah should be led by the individual who has memorised the most Quran.
He chose this young man because he was a “hafiz” of the Quran, one who had memorised the entire Quran.
He was not only a hafiz, but he was also a trainee scholar who had studied Islam for years and knew Arabic. For years he had led hundreds of worshippers in Ramadan Taraweeh prayers at mosques in his hometown of Gloucester.
He would also teach students and lecture others about Islam at the Dar-ul-Uloom Islamic seminary in Blackburn.
In other words, the young man seemed to be the most suitable among all of us to lead the prayer.
As he took his position in front of us, someone handed him a prayer mat.
With a stern face, he turned the prayer mat over so that the side that normally goes on the floor was facing upwards and the glossy side that normally faces upwards, was down towards the floor.
He held the view that the bright colours on the prayer mat might distract him from his humility during the salah, and so he turned it over.
I remembered that because I had never seen anyone give this level of importance to salah before.
The young man turned around to inspect his congregation.
“Stand in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet,” he instructed, still with a stern face and a strict voice. “Don’t leave any gaps.”
As he glanced around the room his eyes caught sight of something in a corner of the room that caused his face to frown in displeasure.
It was an envelope with a postage stamp on it – probably a letter recently received by the prisoner whose cell we were in.
“Turn that envelope upside down,” he ordered with a dismissive ushering of his hand. One of the prisoners immediately obliged.
Apparently he felt that the outline of the Queen’s face on a small postage stamp in a corner of the cell might have deprived our salah of its validity.
The Prophet (pbuh) once said that angels do not enter a house with pictures displayed.
What this means has different interpretations but in general if there is a photograph of a human or animal somewhere in the direction of where Muslims wish to pray, they will remove or cover it before they commence.
I did find it odd that in this case, the postage stamp (not a picture or photograph) was behind us so it was already behind out arc of sight.
But who was I to question a hafiz of the Quran and a trainee scholar (“talib ul ilm” – student of knowledge)? I remained silent.
A few months later this man pleaded guilty in court to plotting an attack that would kill about 300 passengers on an aircraft, including women, children, elderly, disabled and even Muslims.
And many years later it was revealed in open court proceedings that during the time he was leading us in prayer at HMP Woodhill, he was actually secretly giving evidence against others, including all of the people whom he led in prayer that night.
In other words, he was a rat.
When he was caught in the midst of plotting his attack, instead of being a man and accepting responsibility for it, he became a rat and sought to point the finger of blame on everyone else.
“He brainwashed me. That man manipulated me, it’s all his fault” the Rat testified. “I was young, naive and vulnerable.”
Several innocent people were sent to Guantanamo Bay as a result of this Rat’s testimony, some were even sent to black CIA torture sites. Some are serving life in prison today as a result of his lies.
When I first found out about this, my mind went back to my memories of the Rat.
All the times he used to sit with the other Muslim prisoners and talk, laugh and joke with us on the prison dinner table.
The times he trained with the Muslim prisoners at the gym. The times he trained with me. The day he led me in prayer. Yet all along, he was a Rat.
In other words, a Rat led me in prayer.
I wondered: is a greater sin to pray in a room with a visible postage stamp in a corner, or to give false testimony against other Muslims as a result of which they spend the rest of their lives in prison?
Sometimes, people appear outwardly religious, “extreme” or strict as a front to hide their sinister true inner self.
I saw a handful of Muslim prisoners in prison whom I had seen on television fearlessly “speaking the truth.”
Judging by their outward appearances, one would think that they were the strongest of Muslims, modern day sahabah (Companions of the Prophet pbuh).
Yet in prison they became smaller than mice and did their time by testifying against others and surviving anti-depressants to handle the reality of prison.The phrase, “Empty vessels make a lot of noise,” comes to mind.The biggest criminals and gangsters that I met in prison – and I met and lived with some real ‘Mr. Bigs’ from the criminal underworlds of Britain, United States and Latin America – were also the quietest ones.They did not have to prove anything to anyone who or what they were. Their reputations, not their mouths, preceded them.
The morale of the story is never to be fooled by people’s appearance because people are not always what they appear to be.
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