The Importance of Belonging

Jan 21, 2024 11:32:00 AM / by Taymullah Abdur-Rahman


Prison abolition is not about getting rid of all prisons; it’s about getting rid of the conditions that make prison necessary. We believe that American poverty is manufactured, which in turn creates an exploited class of people—people who are mentally and emotionally affected by severe deprivation, which causes maladaptive behavior.

Prison abolition imagines a world where the “breadbasket of goods”—proper health care, education equity, and adequate housing—is available to this exploited class. And it also imagines a society where people who violate the public social contract are treated with mental and emotional rehabilitation that restores fractured hearts and minds back to health.

But for that to happen, American policymakers must not only see value in Black and Brown lives but, believe it or not, they must find gratitude for the rich cultural contribution they’ve made to the fabric of American society.

Ibn Qayyim wrote that the foundation of worship is love. He didn’t mean a sentimental love but instead love as an internal variant of gratitude. I believe that teaching and counseling are also connected with love, and so is healing. That’s why it’s so difficult for the prison population to truly become rehabilitated. They’ve been shown no love because few see their value. You can only love someone when you understand their value, which in essence, is being grateful for their existence. When you’re grateful for other identities you make them feel a sense of belonging. Black people are always made to feel like orphans, both in America and in Islam.

I really came to appreciate how much belonging mattered after a friend of mine from Facing History, Jody Snider, a producer on a 2023 Oscar-nominated documentary called Stranger at the Gate, invited me to the premiere. I initially thought it was just another film about inter-religious relations. Nevertheless, I attended because I was honored that she would think enough to invite me. As the half-hour film unfolded, I found myself wiping tears away from my face in the dark. I don’t like to cry in front of white people.

The true story is about Richard McKinney, a trauma-affected American war veteran who, because of his hatred for the Muslims he fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, decides he’s going to blow up a masjid in America, “his” country. He surveils one particular masjid and then enters as a stranger “interested” in Islam, to assess the logistics of where to put his bomb. Eventually, he returns a few times and is so overwhelmed by the compassion and hospitality he receives, he converts to Islam.

In this author’s humble opinion, Mr. McKinney’s conversion wasn’t because he discovered how great Islam was. He converted because those immigrant Muslims in the masjid loved on him. He was desperately in need of public tenderness.

If he’d entered a golf club and they made him feel loved, he would’ve become a golfer. I don’t want to insult his faith. I have met Mr. McKinney, and I do consider him a true Muslim. But the point I’m trying to make is that helping people through their personal struggles of isolation, depression, and self-hate with a gentle smile or small gesture of public love can be far more effective than the dissemination of dogma about religion.

I cried involuntarily because I thought about my incarcerated brothers. Prison is the only place they feel truly accepted. In retrospect, it is the only place I feel truly accepted. In fact, I would say that I’ve never felt as safe in my entire life—not even tucked away in my own bed—as I have when sitting in a circle of incarcerated Muslim brothers.

There is something so meaningful about feeling loved and accepted by your peers that surpasses any value that intellectual principles bring. I miss prison. Because I miss being loved in that way by those men.

I disagree that the popular correct religious methodology should be believe, behave, then belong. I believe it should be belong, behave, then believe.

Kindness is not overrated. People want space to be made for them, so they can feel warmly owned by something greater than themselves, before you can assume they will behave according to your expectations and then believe as you believe. We are a human race in reckless need of being adored.

Names, divisions, and categories of people do matter. This is not a dismissal of our individual beliefs and identities. While I don’t mean to trivialize our differences, I want to highlight how our lives and views are shaped by our experiences.

My story is about being touched by so many different hands along the way, until I could no longer see who touched me first, or for the longest. But it’s also about those who haven’t been touched by others and how that shapes their worldview and actions, whether bigoted religious types or criminals who have never had anyone lift them up as children.

For me—whatever Paradise looks like, I hope that I might be in the company of my brothers who were incarcerated in Concord and Shirley. Those were the safest moments of my life. The greatest moments. The most profound and spiritual.

In the early 1990s, Notorious B.I.G. rapped in one of his songs that, “Being broke at thirty, give a n$#$a the chills.” I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my friend Cheddar’s Volvo and listening attentively. It was profound. We were trapped by the trappings of the Trap. At the time we heard it we were barely twenty years old. But we took that quote, and later drank Mad Dog 20/20 to it, and plotted how we would avoid having the chills by thirty years old. It was the type of vulgar hope we needed.

But today, after living longer than many of my childhood friends, I know differently. I watched my buddies be killed off in rapid succession: first Jeff, then Joel, then Ronni, then Twon, then Booga, then Tommy, then my cousin Rizz, then Mike, then Boo, and I could go on . . .

As I write this, I’m a forty-seven-year-old father of nine children. I’ve got almost five decades of stress, pressure, responsibility, and Black anxiety on my dead friends. They weren’t privy to what forty-seven years of life experience brings. I know now that it’s not the absence of money at thirty years old that gives a man the chills; it’s the absence of a sense of purpose that does.

Allah says:

We have commanded people to honor their parents. Their mothers bore them in hardship and delivered them in hardship. Their period of bearing and weaning is thirty months. In time, when the child reaches their prime at the age of forty, they pray, “My Lord! Inspire me to always be thankful for Your favors which You blessed me and my parents with, and to do good deeds that please You. And instill righteousness in my offspring. I truly repent to You, and I truly submit to Your Will.”

A person at forty no longer prioritizes the horizontal plane. Priorities begin to shift to the legacy self—that piece of your existence to be left behind and inherited by your progeny and embraced by the world. What color shirt matches with what shoes starts to matter less than the mistakes you’ve made in raising your children, and the grace you’ve given others.

I’ve welcomed this period. My life is not how I imagined “better” would look. I pictured yachts in Miami, not snow in Massachusetts. But my life is even better than yachts in Miami. Allah has given me everything I ever wanted, but he’s also held me accountable along the way. Which makes me think he loves me. I pray that he does.

My story is not about me at all, but about the goodness of people. People are at the heart of all our successes. They lift us up and some even carry us until we can find the strength to carry ourselves. They are the superheroes I dreamed of becoming as a child.

The words of my mother encouraging me to work hard to become a superhero still linger. She was right. There is a mystery I could unlock if I worked hard enough. There are real superheroes. And there is someone who chooses others to become super. Those sentiments have stayed with me, tucked away in my heart even as I write these words. I’m still working hard, waiting to be chosen.


This is an excerpt from American Imam chapter 8, “Gratitude: People Are at the Heart of the Matter.”

Topics: Excerpt

Taymullah Abdur-Rahman

Written by Taymullah Abdur-Rahman

Taymullah Abdur-Rahman (Tyrone Sutton) is a Black Muslim thought leader, social entrepreneur, educator, and prison abolitionist. He holds a certification in Islamic studies from Al Baseerah International Institute and a master's in Global Interreligious Leadership from Andover Newton Theological School. He spent a decade as a prison chaplain and was the first paid Muslim chaplain at Harvard University. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate for Transformational Leadership at Boston University's School of Theology and a senior educator in Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Hebrew College. He is creator and host of the American Muslim Daily podcast and mobile app, and founder of Spentem, a prison abolition and direct sales company for youth. He lives in Massachusetts.

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