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Islam and Human Rights ( 14 Dec 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslim Prison Writers

By Ahsan ul Haq Magray, New Age Islam

14 December 2020

    Prison has always been spaces for total constraint, restrictions, and dislocations from the comfort zones of prisoners. And the body of literature written by a writer during incarceration is called Prison Literature. Imprisonment includes jail, prison, or even house arrest.

    From across the world, many Muslim writers have been incarcerated due to different social, political and religious discord. Nonetheless, a great number of Muslims writers, philosopher, and poets when imprisoned have produced a large body of literature.

     A large number of Muslim writers when incarcerated were kept in a solitary cell, to cut them off from family, friend and society at large even in sometimes deprived of reading and writing materials. Their window panes were smeared so that even the daylight will not enter their cells. They were tortured, harassed, humiliated and beaten. Some of the worst sentences include hanged upside down, bathed in subzero degree, an electorate with high velocity etc. Outside communication was strictly prohibited. All the techniques were applied to mum them and have stopped their thinking power-- a blockade of ‘thought control’ in the words of Michael Foucault.

    Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was arrested by British Raj and sent to Ahmed Nagar fort. Azad, a man gigantic intellectuality, who remained the main figure in freeing India from British Colonialism. Being treated as a threat to colonialist, the Britishers wanted him to silence him behind the high impregnable fortress-like walls. But for Azad this proved only physical restriction, his high ideals and morale never bowed in front of the oppressive regimes. He started writing in wee hours of morning letters to his family, friends and colleagues. These letters were addressed to one of his friends Habib -ur -Rehman Sherwani which was never posted. When freed, he took this twenty-three letters with himself and were later published as ‘Ghubar-e-Khatir’ published in 1946. The collection is one of the great letters written in world history. The collection was translated in English as “Sallies of Mind”. This is one of important document in world Urdu literature. Azad tried to kill the loneliness and seclusion of prison cells while penning down something which letter proved an immense storehouse of knowledge. Azad discusses different issues ranging from personal, social, political, religious and philosophical.

    Shoresh Kashmiri (1917-1975) jailed by Britishers tried to defeat these opponents by writing an important tract of Urdu titled ‘Pas Deewar-e Zindnan’. Scholars in Urdu Prison literature documented Mirza Ghalib imprisoned for some time. Ghalib was incarcerated for not paying his debts. He wrote down a Persian poem of eighty-four lines inside the four walls of the prison.

From Egypt, several Muslim leaders known as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-ul-Muslimoon of Egypt) were imprisoned by the different Egyptian presidents. Syed Quatab Shahid, one of the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood spent several years behind the prison bars. His imprisonment was one of the most heart-wrenching episodes in world prison literature. He was tortured, beaten humiliated up to the worst of conditions, but no power could break his commitment to the cause. Despite all the worst conditions he managed to compose some of the best works in prison-like the “Jadwa-e Manzil.

     Zainab Ghazali (1917-2005) the Egyptian women leader of Muslim brotherhood composed his memoir ‘Zindan ki shub 0-Rooz’ based on his prison experiences. This is one of the most heart-wrenching prison experiences one has faced in the world. She was tortured while upside down, his clothes were torn out, were bather in subzero degree water, electorated, dogs were set to bite her. All the techniques were used to surrender her strong will and ideology. However, she remained stood to her cause and defeated the opponents.

     Prominent progressive Urdu poet Ali Sardar Jafari (1913-2000) was jailed twice: by the British during 1940-41 for sedition charges against them. He was expelled from Aligarh Muslim University in 1936 and imprisoned in Lucknow for opposing the war in 1940. Secondly in 1949 by govt of Independent India for advocating the cause of socialism and sentenced six months hard labour in jail in Banaras. But neither British nor Indian govt could make him feeble in his commitment.

     Renowned Turkish poet, novelist, playwright Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963) is often called ‘Romantic Communist’. He was arrested and imprisoned many times for his poetry. The last charges against him resulted in 28 years of long imprisonment in 1938 for inciting mutiny in navy.  However, he was released in 1950 with the passing of general amnesty. Human Landscaped from my Country: An Epic Novel in Verse (1938) is written by Hikmet during world war second while a thirteen years imprisonment as a political prisoner.

     Izetbegovic Alija (1625-2003), Bosnian politician, lawyer and author and who in 1992 became the first president of presidency of the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1946 just twenty-one-year-old time he was arrested the first time.  Alija was sentenced to jail for several cases for membership in an organization fighting for human and religious rights. Originally he was sentenced to fourteen years than reduced to twelve years and finally was released after five to eight years. The book he composed during incarceration is a valuable contribution to Muslim Prison Literature. He wished to have a physical escape from prison as he writes in his Notes from Prison 1983-1988. He writes as “What the reader is about to embark upon (and perhaps read) is my escape to freedom. To my regret, this, of course, was not a real escape, but I wish it were. This was the only possible escape from the Foca prison, with its high walls and iron bars — an escape of mind and thought. Had I been able to escape, I would have given preference to the real, physical escape.”

     Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), the famous Urdu poet was arrested and imprisoned by Pakistani government twice for four years and six months respectively. He tried to kill his loneliness while composing some of the best poetry in prison. He wrote prison poem collections viz Dast-e-Saba and Zindnan Nama. He was deprived of pen and paper and put in solitary confinement. He famously proclaimed:

What if my pen and paper have been snatched away from me?

I have dipped my fingers into my heart’s blood

What if my lips are sealed?

I have lent my tongue to each link in the chain.

      Another famous Egyptian Muslim Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013) was imprisoned multiple times for his outspoken and criticizing powerful Egyptian Presidents He in total spent eighteen years of his life behind the different Egyptian prison. A poor and orphaned boy at the age of six hardly went to school beyond informal Madrasa. It was in prison which made him a poet. He had composed a large body of prison poetry. He was called A Rebel, the people poet, Uncle Fouad and many other famous names. One of his famous prison poems was sung of millions of protesters in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution in a famous Tahrir Square:

The brave men are brave

The cowards are cowardly

Come with the brave

Together with the square

There is a long history of Muslims imprisoned by regimes in different corners of the world. These are only a few literary gems briefly exemplified here, nonetheless, the list goes on.  The present write-up has tried to documents some of the great literary persons jailed in different socio-political and religious reasons. Moreover, there is a large body of non-literary texts produced by muslins in different world prisons, thereby making it an interesting site for research and study. To imprison is colonize the body when the body is colonized language and everything is colonized. To write is resist subvert this design.


Ahsan ul Haq is pursuing PhD from Deptt: of the English University of Kashmir Srinagar. His research area/interest is Prison Literature.


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