The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan coined a phrase that says simply “self improvement is the basis for community development.” There is so much packed within such a concise and seemingly self-evident maxim that volumes could be written on it. In fact this maxim serves as the title of the Self-Improvement Study Guides authored by Minister Farrakhan, which contains 21 volumes. This rich series of study guides covers many pertinent topics such as Building the Will, Building Human Potential, Overcoming Difficulty, Respect for Authority and Rising Above Emotions.
I begin my thoughts on fatherhood for incarcerated dads by citing this course of study and the overarching idea that it enshrines, because the idea of fatherhood or fathering connotes normally an external exercise. But in reality fatherhood begins and involves heavily the internal development of a man so that he is able to transfer not only his genetic material to his offspring but also the requisite knowledge and personal example so that his progeny’s life eclipses his own in every positive way.
Fatherhood must be understood then as that which is natural to human life and if it is natural to human life it is considered from the Islamic perspective as being sacred. This sacred office of fatherhood must never been taken lightly or dismissed as irrelevant to proper childhood development. As men we must be actively involved in the lives of our children. This begins by being present. We can’t do this if we are locked away for criminal activity. No man can be an effective father in prison. I repeat, no man can be an effective father while in prison. A classic truism is cited here that states “ 90% of success is in showing up.” If we as men continue to live careless lives in the midst of the many negative forces arrayed against the Black community then we can’t show up for our children. Christian brothers and sisters often give testimony of overcoming difficulty by thanking God for ‘showing up and showing out.’
Minister Farrakhan has taught us that the study of God and His relationship to humanity is how we should study to be not just a good father, but the ideal father. The religion of Christianity is popular for its description of the Creator as ‘God- The Father,’ so it might be easy to understand the Minister’s point from a Judeo-Christian perspective. But this description of God as ‘Father’ is frowned upon by Muslims. Nevertheless, Islam does carry a rather complimentary idea in its theology. In the Holy Quran Allah (God) is described by one of his attributes Rabb. Rabb is an attribute or name of the divine supreme being which describes Him as nurturing, nourishing, and evolving creation stage after stage until it reaches its eventual perfection and completion. This definition is consistent with the primary responsibility of fathers in the lives of their children. This attribute is used to describe Allah (God) some 960 times in the Holy Quran.
If you are someone that is incarcerated or you are reading this and planning on sharing this with an incarcerated father then know that I have known men who have been very active in their children’s lives while they are incarcerated. The admirable men that I have known all shared similar values and characteristics. I offer them now as points of advice for those who remain locked down.
STAY OUT OF JAIL: Recidivism is an on-going problem; its statistics reveal the frequency with which offenders are released and return to prison. Let the fact that you have children who will fail in life if you are not present to protect them, guide them, teach them and love them serve as a motivation to get out and stay!
MAKE SELF-IMPROVEMENT A HABIT: You must recognize that as a father you are to further your children’s knowledge. Every child deserves to be able to point to or recall pearls of wisdom that they were taught by their father.
RESPECT AND HONOR THE MOTHER OF YOUR CHILDREN: This is a top requirement for those incarcerated men with children and all men in reality. Utilize whatever legitimate means available to pay respect, honor and kindness to your children’s mother. If you work in prison jobs, ensure that you gladly participate in have something sent to help care for the physical needs of your children.
READ, READ, and READ: Many of the men that I encounter as a chaplain are functionally or completely illiterate. Historically prison has been a place where men develop a high I.Q. through developing reading as a pastime. This enables them to sharpen their mental faculties and even in some cases use knowledge of the law to unravel and overturn false convictions involving themselves or other inmates.
COMMUNICATE THROUGH LETTERS: Writing, just like reading, are core competencies that time in prison can help you master. Establish, with the help of your children and their mother, an appropriate frequency with which to send letters to your child.
ENROLL IN AN EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM: In recent times funding for educational programs for inmates has suffered losses, but seek out and enroll in whatever prison classes that you can. In many federal prisons, inmates even have the opportunity to learn trades and become certified as professionals in those trades. If you have a school age child then your own time in school or classes will help you relate to him or her in a very meaningful way.
BUILD A RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD: I will end with this but it is definitely not last in terms of importance. Most men are conscious of what they need in terms of creature comforts or biological needs. Too many of us fail to consider the need for a strong relationship with our Creator. I encourage men behind bars to participate in the various religious services programs that are offered. Learn how to pray and do it often. Study the word of God and pass on what you are learning to your children in the letters that you send. Don’t try to preach or lecture them, because jailhouse religious conversions are not popular and are not really respected. But gently offer and share your faith with your children as the opportunities present themselves. Once you return home and have full freedom to demonstrate that you have a real relationship with God you will win over all your detractors.
The above is not an exhaustive list but just some thoughts and practical applications for brothers who sincerely want to be fathers from behind bars. If you notice the theme is not the outward exercise of fatherly authority over your children. The theme is the improvement and development of self. If you will develop yourself while you are incarcerated you can regain or maintain the love, trust and respect of your children. The key of course will be getting out and living the kind of life that makes incarceration the least likely of all outcomes. May Allah (God) bless us all to be to our children what He has been to us.
As Salaam Alaikum,