Taken from Newsweek
The Guard Who Found Islam
Terry Holdbrooks stood watch over prisoners at Gitmo. What he saw made him adopt their faith.
From the magazine issue dated Mar 30, 2009
Army specialist Terry Holdbrooks had been a guard at Guantánamo for about six months the night he had his life-altering conversation with detainee 590, a Moroccan also known as “the General.” This was early 2004, about halfway through Holdbrooks’s stint at Guantánamo with the 463rd Military Police Company. Until then, he’d spent most of his day shifts just doing his duty. He’d escort prisoners to interrogations or walk up and down the cellblock making sure they weren’t passing notes. But the midnight shifts were slow. “The only thing you really had to do was mop the center floor,” he says. So Holdbrooks began spending part of the night sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to detainees through the metal mesh of their cell doors.
He developed a strong relationship with the General, whose real name is Ahmed Errachidi. Their late-night conversations led Holdbrooks to be more skeptical about the prison, he says, and made him think harder about his own life. Soon, Holdbrooks was ordering books on Arabic and Islam. During an evening talk with Errachidi in early 2004, the conversation turned to theshahada, the one-line statement of faith that marks the single requirement for converting to Islam (“There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet”). Holdbrooks pushed a pen and an index card through the mesh, and asked Errachidi to write out the shahada in English and transliterated Arabic. He then uttered the words aloud and, there on the floor of Guantánamo’s Camp Delta, became a Muslim.
When historians look back on Guantánamo, the harsh treatment of detainees and the trampling of due process will likely dominate the narrative. Holdbrooks, who left the military in 2005, saw his share. In interviews over recent weeks, he and another former guard told NEWSWEEK about degrading and sometimes sadistic acts against prisoners committed by soldiers, medics and interrogators who wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks on America. But as the fog of secrecy slowly lifts from Guantánamo, other scenes are starting to emerge as well, including surprising interactions between guards and detainees on subjects like politics, religion and even music. The exchanges reveal curiosity on both sides-sometimes even empathy. “The detainees used to have conversations with the guards who showed some common respect toward them,” says Errachidi, who spent five years in Guantánamo and was released in 2007. “We talked about everything, normal things, and things [we had] in common,” he wrote to NEWSWEEK in an e-mail from his home in Morocco.
Holdbrooks’s level of identification with the other side was exceptional. No other guard has volunteered that he embraced Islam at the prison (though Errachidi says others expressed interest). His experience runs counter to academic studies, which show that guards and inmates at ordinary prisons tend to develop mutual hostility. But then, Holdbrooks is a contrarian by nature. He can also be conspiratorial. When his company visited the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Holdbrooks remembers thinking there had to be a broader explanation, and that the Bush administration must have colluded somehow in the plot.
But his misgivings about Guantánamo-including doubts that the detainees were the “worst of the worst”-were shared by other guards as early as 2002. A few such guards are coming forward for the first time. Specialist Brandon Neely, who was at Guantánamo when the first detainees arrived that year, says his enthusiasm for the mission soured quickly. “There were a couple of us guards who asked ourselves why these guys are being treated so badly and if they’re actually terrorists at all,” he told NEWSWEEK. Neely remembers having long conversations with detainee Ruhal Ahmed, who loved Eminem and James Bond and would often rap or sing to the other prisoners. Another former guard, Christopher Arendt, went on a speaking tour with former detainees in Europe earlier this year to talk critically about the prison.
Holdbrooks says growing up hard in Phoenix-his parents were junkies and he himself was a heavy drinker before joining the military in 2002-helps explain what he calls his “anti-everything views.” He has holes the size of quarters in both earlobes, stretched-out piercings that he plugs with wooden discs. At his Phoenix apartment, bedecked with horror-film memorabilia, he rolls up both sleeves to reveal wrist-to-shoulder tattoos. He describes the ink work as a narrative of his mistakes and addictions. They include religious symbols and Nazi SS bolts, track marks and, in large letters, the words BY DEMONS BE DRIVEN. He says the line, from a heavy-metal song, reminds him to be a better person.
Holdbrooks-TJ to his friends-says he joined the military to avoid winding up like his parents. He was an impulsive young man searching for stability. On his first home leave, he got engaged to a woman he’d known for just eight days and married her three months later. With little prior exposure to religion, Holdbrooks was struck at Gitmo by the devotion detainees showed to their faith. “A lot of Americans have abandoned God, but even in this place, [the detainees] were determined to pray,” he says.
Holdbrooks was also taken by the prisoners’ resourcefulness. He says detainees would pluck individual threads from their jumpsuits or prayer mats and spin them into long stretches of twine, which they would use to pass notes from cell to cell. He noticed that one detainee with a bad skin rash would smear peanut butter on his windowsill until the oil separated from the paste, then would use the oil on his rash.
Errachidi’s detention seemed particularly suspect to Holdbrooks. The Moroccan detainee had worked as a chef in Britain for almost 18 years and spoke fluent English. He told Holdbrooks he had traveled to Pakistan on a business venture in late September 2001 to help pay for his son’s surgery. When he crossed into Afghanistan, he said, he was picked up by the Northern Alliance and sold to American troops for $5,000. At Guantánamo, Errachidi was accused of attending a Qaeda training camp. But a 2007 investigation by the London Times newspaper appears to have corroborated his story; it eventually helped lead to his release.
In prison, Errachidi was an agitator. “Because I spoke English, I was always in the face of the soldiers,” he wrote NEWSWEEK in an e-mail. Errachidi said an American colonel at Guantánamo gave him his nickname, and warned him that generals “get hurt” if they don’t cooperate. He said his defiance cost him 23 days of abuse, including sleep deprivation, exposure to very cold temperatures and being shackled in stress positions. “I always believed the soldiers were doing illegal stuff and I was not ready to keep quiet.” (Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, said in response: “Detainees have often made claims of abuse that are simply not supported by the facts.”) The Moroccan spent four of his five years at Gitmo in the punishment block, where detainees were denied “comfort items” like paper and prayer beads along with access to the recreation yard and the library.
Errachidi says he does not remember details of the night Holdbrooks converted. Over the years, he says, he discussed a range of religious topics with guards: “I spoke to them about subjects like Father Christmas and Ishac and Ibrahim [Isaac and Abraham] and the sacrifice. About Jesus.” Holdbrooks recalls that when he announced he wanted to embrace Islam, Errachidi warned him that converting would be a serious undertaking and, at Guantánamo, a messy affair. “He wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into.” Holdbrooks later told his two roommates about the conversion, and no one else.
But other guards noticed changes in him. They heard detainees calling him Mustapha, and saw that Holdbrooks was studying Arabic openly. (At his Phoenix apartment, he displays the books he had amassed. They include a leather-bound, six-volume set of Muslim sacred texts and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam.”) One night his squad leader took him to a yard behind his living quarters, where five guards were waiting to stage a kind of intervention. “They started yelling at me,” he recalls, “asking if I was a traitor, if I was switching sides.” At one point a squad leader pulled back his fist and the two men traded blows, Holdbrooks says.
Holdbrooks spent the rest of his time at Guantánamo mainly keeping to himself, and nobody bothered him further. Another Muslim who served there around the same time had a different experience. Capt. James Yee, a Gitmo chaplain for much of 2003, was arrested in September of that year on suspicion of aiding the enemy and other crimes-charges that were eventually dropped. Yee had become a Muslim years earlier. He says the Muslims on staff at Gitmo-mainly translators-often felt beleaguered. “There was an overall atmosphere by the command to vilify Islam.” (Commander Gordon’s response: “We strongly disagree with the assertions made by Chaplain Yee”).
At Holdbrooks’s next station, in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., he says things began to unravel. The only place to kill time within miles of the base was a Wal-Mart and two strip clubs-Big Daddy’s and Big Louie’s. “I’ve never been a fan of strip clubs, so I hung out at Wal-Mart,” he says. Within months, Holdbrooks was released from the military-two years before the end of his commitment. The Army gave him an honorable discharge with no explanation, but the events at Gitmo seemed to loom over the decision. The Army said it would not comment on the matter.
Back in Phoenix, Holdbrooks returned to drinking, in part to suppress what he describes as the anger that consumed him. (Neely, the other ex-guard who spoke to NEWSWEEK, said Guantánamo had made him so depressed he spent up to $60 a day on alcohol during a monthlong leave from the detention center in 2002.) Holdbrooks divorced his wife and spiraled further. Eventually his addictions landed him in the hospital. He suffered a series of seizures, as well as a fall that resulted in a bad skull fracture and the insertion of a titanium plate in his head.
Recently, Holdbrooks has been back in touch with Errachidi, who has suffered his own ordeal since leaving the detention center. Errachidi told NEWSWEEK he had trouble adjusting to his freedom, “trying to learn how to walk without shackles and trying to sleep at night with the lights off.” He signed each of the dozen e-mails he sent to NEWSWEEK with the impersonal ID that his captors had given him: Ahmed 590.
Holdbrooks, now 25, says he quit drinking three months ago and began attending regular prayers at the Tempe Islamic Center, a mosque near the University of Phoenix, where he works as an enrollment counselor. The long scar on his head is now mostly hidden under the lace of his Muslim kufi cap. When the imam at Tempe introduced Holdbrooks to the congregation and explained he’d converted at Guantánamo, a few dozen worshipers rushed over to shake his hand. “I would have thought they had the most savage soldiers serving there,” says the imam, Amr Elsamny, an Egyptian. “I never thought it would be someone like TJ.”
With Dina Fine Maron in Washington
Swallowing Your Pride For A Moment Is Harder Than Praying All Night | Imam Omar Suleiman
Iblees was no ordinary worshipper. He worshipped Allah for thousands of years with thousands of prayers. He ascended the ranks until he accompanied the angels with his noteworthy worship. Performing good deeds was no issue for him. He thanked Allah with his prayers, and Allah rewarded him with a lofty station in Paradise. But when Adam was created and given the station that he was, suddenly Iblees was overcome by pride. He couldn’t bear to see this new creation occupy the place that he did. And as he was commanded to prostrate to him, his pride would overcome him and doom him for eternity. Alas, swallowing his pride for one prostration of respect to Adam was more difficult to him than thousands of prostrations of worship to Allah.
In that is a cautionary lesson for us especially in moments of intense worship. When we exert ourselves in worship, we eventually start to enjoy it and seek peace in it. But sometimes we become deluded by that worship. We may define our religiosity exclusively in accordance with it, become self-righteous as a result of it, and abuse people we deem lesser in the name of it. The worst case scenario of this is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said about one who comes on the day of judgment with all of their prayers, fasting, and charity only to have it all taken away because of an abusive tongue.
But what makes Iblees’s struggle so relevant to ours? The point of worship is to humble you to your Creator and set your affairs right with His creation in accordance with that humility. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said that whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in their heart would not enter paradise. The most obvious manifestation of that pride is rejecting the truth and belittling someone else. But other subtle manifestations of that pride include the refusal to leave off argumentation, abandon grudges, and humble yourself to the creation in pursuit of the pleasure of the Creator.
Hence a person would rather spend several Ramadan’s observing the last 10 nights in intense prayer seeking forgiveness for their sins from Allah, rather then humble themselves for a moment to one of Allah’s servants by seeking forgiveness for their transgressions against him, even if they too have a claim.
Jumah is our weekly Eid, and Monday’s and Thursday’s are our weekly semblances of Ramadan as the Prophet (s) used to fast them since our deeds are presented to Allah on those days. He said about them, “The doors of Heaven are opened every Monday and Thursday, and Allah pardons in these days every individual servant who is not a polytheist, except those who have enmity between them; Allah Says: ‘Delay them until they reconcile with each other”
In Ramadan, the doors of Heaven are opened throughout the month and the deeds ascend to Allah. But imagine if every day as your fasting, Quran recitation, etc. is presented to Allah this month, He responds to the angels to delay your pardon until you reconcile with your brother. Ramadan is the best opportunity to write that email or text message to that lost family member or friend and say “it’s not worth it to lose Allah’s forgiveness over this” and “IM SORRY.”
Compare these two statements:
The Prophet said: “He who boycotts his brother for more than three days and dies during this period will be from the people of hellfire.”
He also said:
“I guarantee a house in the suburbs of Paradise for one who leaves arguments even if he is right.”
Swallowing your pride is bitter, while prayer is sweet. Your ego is more precious to you than your sleep. But above all, Allah’s pleasure is more precious than it all.
Can I Give My Zakat To An Islamic Educational Cause?
As Ramadan nears its end, many Muslims are thinking about paying their zakat in the last ten nights. But what is a worthy cause to which we can give our zakat and, in particular, what do the scholars have to say on this issue?
A number of Islamic educational and media institutions in the West have in recent years been highlighting their ‘zakat-eligible’ status. The list of these institutions is quite long. In the US, they include this website, the al-Madina Institute, the Yaqeen Institute, Zaytuna College, and the Ta’leef Collective. In the UK, they include Cambridge Muslim College. Some of these institutions focus on covering the cost of tuition for students who would otherwise be unable to pay, but others are focused on running an institution whose raison d’etre is Islamic education.
But some might wonder how such institutions can receive zakat? A common belief is that zakat is meant only for the poor and destitute and that such institutions would, therefore, be ineligible. This is sometimes reinforced by the way that a minority of scholars, including learned ones, might deal with these issues.
Last year in the UK, a respected scholar stated emphatically that “none of the scholars” in Islamic history until modern times had ever said one can give zakat to causes like supporting institutions that promote Islamic education. He asserted that only modern scholars permitted the spending of zakat on such matters in the name of the fī sabīli-Llāh category (which I will explain below). The same British scholar reiterated a similar view in the past couple of weeks, but this time said that his view was the opinion of the “vast majority of scholars”.
The average Muslim may find such conflicting claims confusing. How is it that some scholars say zakat cannot be given to Islamic educational causes, while a large number of prominent Islamic educational institutions, presumably led by Islamic scholars, are directly soliciting zakat funds?
The main reason for this is the existence of difference of opinion (ikhtilāf) among scholars regarding who or what is deserving of zakat payment. The Qur’an (9:60) sets out eight categories of zakat-eligible recipients. While people today often think of zakat as being due to the poor and needy, they only explicitly form two of these categories.
The basis on which many of the aforementioned scholarly institutions claim zakat-eligible status is the category of fī sabīli-Llāh which translates to “in God’s path.” Historically, the more dominant interpretation of this zakat-eligible category was that it referred to jihād in God’s path, i.e. zakat was to be given to people engaged in military expeditions on behalf of the Islamic community.
However, some medieval scholars, and a remarkably large number of modern scholars, appealing to the fact that the Prophet highlighted that jihād was ultimately for the sake of making God’s word prevail (li-takun kalimat Allāh hiya al-‘ulyā), have argued for a far broader understanding of this zakat-eligible category.
Jihād, as a concept, is of course incredibly broad in Islam. For example, one finds in a sound hadith that the Prophet said: “Engage in jihād against the polytheists with your wealth, your lives, and your tongues.” Additionally, some of the verses in the Qur’an that enjoined jihād were revealed in Mecca where military jihād was not yet permitted.
Because of this, a minority of medieval scholars argued that the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat recipients could entail payments made to support any righteous acts, while others argued that the category was ultimately about upholding and strengthening Islam specifically through da‘wa initiatives that cause God’s word to prevail of which education is one of the most effective tools.
Indeed, giving seekers of sacred knowledge (ṭullāb al-‘ilm) was deemed a legitimate form of zakat payment according to all four schools of law. Clearly, the respected British scholar cited above was inaccurate in his claim that “none of the scholars,” or only a small minority of them, viewed the fī sabīli-Llāh category as referring to anything other than military engagements.
Among modern Arab ulama, the view that the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat recipients can apply to Islamic da‘wa and educational initiatives has perhaps become the dominant position on this issue over the last one hundred years. This is true of all major ideological orientations, whether Salafi, Neo-traditionalist, or Islamist.
Thus, for example, arguably the most important Salafi scholar of his generation, the first Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm Āl al-Shaykh argued that the most deserving recipient of the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat was the cause of da‘wa, and responding to sources of doubt about Islam. Reportedly it is also the final opinion of his most important successor, Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. Bāz. Among living Salafis, this is the position of senior scholars outside the Saudi religious establishment as well, such as Shaykh Salmān al-‘Awda and Shaykh Ṣāliḥ al-Munajjid (may Allah liberate them from their unjust imprisonment).
It is also the position of senior scholars of the Azhar and Egypt’s Grand Muftis for many generations from the 20th and 21st centuries. In our own time, this includes Neo-traditionalist scholars like ‘Alī Jum‘a and Abdullāh b. Bayyah. While the latter prefers a more restrictive interpretation for the category, he permits the more expansive interpretation in his fatwas.
Among Islamist (Ikhwān) oriented scholars, one finds Shaykh Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, author of what is perhaps the most comprehensive work to be written on the fiqh of zakat in Islamic history, promoting such an understanding as well. His two volume work, which addresses the major debates surrounding the fī sabīli-Llāh category in great detail, has also been translated into English. Among younger Islamist-leaning scholars, the encyclopaedic Mauritanian scholar and master of the Sharia sciences, Shaykh Muḥammad al-Ḥasan al-Dadaw argues that the fī sabīli-Llāh category may even be used in the establishing of educational endowments.
The above is only a selection of voices among those who are supportive of promoting Islamic educational causes on the basis of the fī sabīli-Llāh category of zakat. With due respect to scholars who would argue otherwise, it is clear that this is not only a legitimate legal opinion on this question but may well be the dominant view of many of the leading scholars of modern times.
Our communities are best served by an Islamic discourse that acknowledges the richness and diversity of our great religious tradition rather than restricts it to a narrow range of opinions. As the Prophet said to the Bedouin who prayed for God to exclusively show mercy to himself and the Prophet, “You have constricted what is vast!” (laqad ḥajjarta wāsi‘an).
Since there are a very large number of scholars who have recognised initiatives that promote the sound understanding of Islam to be eligible for receiving zakat, our community is best served by the accurate portrayal of the valid difference of opinion on such matters in which members of the community may legitimately seek to follow either opinion without claiming that the position adopted by others is illegitimate.
In an era in which the sound understanding of Islam is threatened by Islamophobic forces from without and extremist forces from within, we all recognise the importance of Islamic education as a central concern for contemporary Muslims to prioritise. May we all support this cause, whether through zakat or by some other means.
#UnitedForOmar – Imam Omar Suleiman Smeared by Right-Wing News After Opening Prayer at US House of Representatives
Sh. Omar Suleiman delivered the opening prayer in the US House of Representatives yesterday, May, 9th, 2019 at the invitation of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Dallas.
Immediately since, right wing media platforms have begun spreading negative coverage of the Imam Omar Suleiman – calling him anti-semitic, a common tactic used to discredit both Muslim activists as well as criticism of Israel policies.
News outlets citing the criticism have pointed to a post from The Investigative Project on Terrorism or ITP, as the source. The ITP was founded by and directed by noted Islamophobe Steven Emerson. Emerson’s history of hate speech has been documented for over two decades.
Since then, the story has been carried forward by multiple press outlets.
The immediate consequence of this has been the direction of online hate towards what has been Imam Omar Suleiman’s long history of preaching unity in the US socio-political sphere.
“Since my invocation I’ve been inundated with hate articles, threats, and other tactics of intimidation to silence me over a prayer for unity,” Imam Omar Suleiman says. “These attacks are in bad faith and meant to again send a message to the Muslim community that we are not welcome to assert ourselves in any meaningful space or way.”
MuslimMatters is proud to stand by Imam Omar Suleiman, and we invite our readers to share the evidence that counters the accusations against him of anti-semitism, bigotry, and hate. We would also encourage you to reach out, support, and amplify voices of support like Representative E.B.Johnson, and Representative Colin Allred.
You can help counter the false narrative, simply by sharing evidence of Imam Omar Suleiman’s work. It speaks for itself, and you can share it at the hashtag #UnitedForOmar
At an interfaith panel discussion, three North Texas religious leaders promoted understanding and dialogue among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Amid a vexed political and social climate, three religious leaders in North Texas—a priest, an imam, and a rabbi—proved it’s possible to come together in times of division. Source: DMagazine.com
The congregation, led by Imam Omar Suleiman, penned more than 150 cards and letters. source: WFAA News
“We must recognize that the white supremacy that threatens the black and Latino communities, is the same white supremacy that spurs Islamophobia and antisemitism,” -Imam Omar Suleiman
Source: Bend The Arc
“When any community is targeted, they need to see a united faith voice — that all communities come together and express complete rejection of anything that would pit our society against one another more than it already is.” -Imam Omar Suleiman
Source: Kera News
Source: The Carter Center
Imam: After devastating New Zealand attack, we will not be deterred
“My wife and I decided to take our kids to a synagogue in Dallas the night after the massacre at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh to grieve and show solidarity with the Jewish community. My 5-year-old played with kids his age while we mourned inside, resisting hate even unknowingly with his innocence…” Source: CNN