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Islam and Jail: the Prophet Used Wives' Houses and Mosques as Prison Facilities

Islam and Jail: the Prophet Used Wives' Houses and Mosques as Prison Facilities

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Wednesday 14 March 201809:26 pm
Not only was Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Medina a mosque and a meeting point of the Prophet and his companions, but it was also a jail where prisoners were tied to pillars. Thumamah bin Uthal (580-629), the chief of the principal Arab tribe of Banu Hanifa, remained locked up inside Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi for three days, according to scholar Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani's book "Fath Al-Bari Sharh Al-Bukhari (Victory of the Creator: Commentary on Bukhari). Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) apparently wanted to detain Thumamah inside Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi in order to introduce him to Muslim worship, daily routine and social life; praying apart, the mosque was a place where Muslims regularly met and interacted. Indeed after three days, Thumamah announced his conversion to Islam -- according to Hassan Abou-Ghodah's book titled "Prison Sentences and Treatment of Prisoners in Islam" -- a move that was regarded as a huge gain for Muslims. What is more, the Prophet used houses as prison cells. It was narrated that Suhayl ibn Amr was confined in a room inside the house of Hafsa bint Umar, Muhammad's wife, after he was held captive in the Battle of Badr in 624. Muhammad also imprisoned some Jews from Banu Qurayza tribe in Nusaybah bint Al-Harith's house, which according to professor Hassan Abou-Ghodah seemed vast and accommodated a large number of captives. Ibn Kathir mentioned in his book "The Beginning and the End" that another group of prisoners from Banu Qurayza were jailed in Usama ibn Zayd's residence in Medina. During wars, the Prophet would keep captives in tents, like what he did during the Battle of Badr for three days before taking them to Medina, Abou-Ghodah narrated, adding that generally there were cells designated for women. Safana bint Hatim Al-Tai was detained in a barn attached to the Medina mosque after she was captured during the Muslims' victorious battle against Tayy in Hail. Also, the male and female captives of the Expedition of Al-Muraysi were segregated, with juveniles joining the women. In general, periods of detention would not last for long; only until a captive's fate was determined.

Pre-Islam Prisons

Prisons appeared amongst Arabs before Islam, according to research conducted by Hani Aboul-Rab. Al-Harith bin Abd bin Omar bin Makhzum was imprisoned in a jail in Mecca. Hujr bin Al-Harith Al-Kindi, father of Imru' Al-Qais, also incarcerated in a jail some of the elitists of Iraqi tribe Banu Asad ibn Khuzaymah, including Abid ibn Al-Abras, after they rebelled against him. In the Levant, Amr bin Jaffna Al-Ghassani along with other people from Quraysh were put in prison upon the order of Uthman ibn Al-Huwayrith Al-Asadi, as Quraysh opposed his installation as its king under the auspices of Julius Caesar. In Iraq's Kufa, the Lakhmids imprisoned people including renowned poet Antarah ibn Shaddad.

The Rashidun Caliphs

Imprisoning captives in mosques and houses lasted under Abu Bakr, the first caliph after Muhammad. But when Umar ibn Al-Khattab succeeded him, he bought a house located behind Dar Al-Nadwa (a place where the of wise men and sheikhs of Quraysh used to meet) from Safwan ibn Umayyah for four thousand dirham, and transformed it into a permanent jail. Abou-Ghodah has described the house as a vast space surrounded by rooms and facilities. It was well ventilated and sunlit, overall a healthy place to be. Prison facilities were established under Ibn Al-Khattab, even though Islam does not state imprisonment as punishment for crimes or violations. Speaking to Raseef22, professor Alaa Rizk says Muslims usually punished those who committed crimes such as fornication in accordance with the Islamic Sharia, with penalties normally executed straight away. Back then, a prison in Iraq attached to the palace of Saad ibn Abi Waqqas (595-674) was built. Mughira ibn Shu'ba, then governor of Kufa, incarcerated Ma'n ibn Za'ida Al-Shaybani in a prison made of cane for forging the stamp of Bayt Al-mal, meaning house of money, the financial institution managing taxes and funds in Islamic states. Uthman ibn Affan followed in the footsteps of Ibn Al-Khattab, especially amid the expansion of the Islamic territories. He established a jail facility in Medina where Dabe' bin Al-Harith Al-Tamimi -- a poet and a bandit -- was jailed. Abdul Rahman Al-Gamhi was also incarcerated in a prison established by Ibn Affan in Khaybar for invective-filled poetry. Meanwhile, Ali bin Abi Talib was the first to build a prison in Kufa. It was made of cane and was called Nafan. But the breakout of a group of thieves from the jail urged him to construct a facility built of clay and rocks; it was named Makhisan. Afterwards, he established a prison in Basra.

Reasons for Imprisonment

Defendants at the beginning of the era of Islamic prisons would be incarcerated until they were either found guilty or innocent. According to Rizk, imprisonment was used as a sanction for crimes that were not mentioned in the Quran. The spread of prisons stirred up controversy among Islamic scholars over whether a ruler is legitimately entitled to designate a place as a jail, even though they agree on the legitimacy of imprisonment as punishment. Abdel-Wahab Mostafa Daher explained in his book "The Architecture of Prisons" that some scholars believed no ruler should have built prisons "because he was not the Prophet or his successor Abu Bakr". On the other hand, another group of scholars vouched for the opposite, citing Ibn Al-Khattab.

Umayyad Caliphate

As a result of the Islamic state's expansions east and west following the era of the Rashidun Caliphs, rulers increasingly established prisons. They wanted to control soaring crime rates as well as rising opposition political movements. It is believed that Muawiyah I (602-680) was the first to establish prisons in the standard form known today and appoint wardens. Abdullah ibn Al-Zubayr built a prison in Mecca behind Dar Al-Nadwa, which was known as Arem and shut down after his killing (624-692). According to Aboul-Rab, the Umayyads established jail facilities in the Hijaz, and turned the house of Abdullah bin Siba Al-Khuzai into a prison that was named after him. The same happened with Ibn Hisham in Medina in the dying days of the Umayyad Caliphate. During the rule of Caliph Hisham ibn Abd Al-Malik, a prison was established in Asfan, situated between Mecca and Medina, and another in Tebala near the Saudi city of Taif. Also, another two facilities were established in Banu Uqayl's territory and in Al-Yamama.

Political Reasons

Crimes like murder, battery, blocking roads, embezzlement, stealing and counterfeiting saw a lot of people sent to jail; a killer would be imprisoned until either retribution was attained -- the defendant be executed, in other words -- or he walked free in case the family of the victim pardoned him or accepted blood money. It is worth noting that masters who killed their slaves were jailed, not executed. Apart from felonies, politics posed an adjacent path that would lead to jail. Joining opposition movements such as Khawarij or Shia, taking part in uprisings and insulting caliphs were all acts that merited prison time. According to Aboul-Rab, "Walid ibn Utbah, Medina governor during the rule of Yazid I, imprisoned both Abdullah bin Motie Al-Adawy Al-Qurashi and Mosab bin Abdel-Rahman bin Ouf Al-Zahri because they liked Ibn Al-Zubayr". The latter incarcerated poet Abu Sakhr Al-Hudhali in Arem prison in Mecca because he praised the Umayyads and heaped scorn on him in his presence. Al-Walid I (517-668) transferred Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Al-Hanafiyyah, also known as Abu Hashim, from Medina to Damascus where he locked him up for promoting himself as a leader; he already had followers in Iraq who regarded him as Imam and were handing him their alms. Aboul-Rab said caliph Hisham ibn Abd Al-Malik (691-743) had sent to prison poet Al-Farazdaq for praising Ali ibn Hussain Zayn Al-Abidin (658-713). The state also jailed some people for attempting to assassinate a caliph or a governor. Under Muawiyah I, Marwan I (623-685) imprisoned a man who tried to assassinate him with a knife while he was praying in Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi. People who participated in revolts that erupted against the state were imprisoned. Abdullah ibn Al-Zubayr put his brother Omar in Arem prison for the rest of his life for leading an Umayyad army to kill him. Accomplices met the same fate, including Zeid Muwla Bani Zahra, yet other sources said he was whipped to death and crucified. The state also jailed some of its governors and employees on embezzlement charges. In one instance, Ibn Al-Zubayr charged his son Hamza with squandering public funds, putting him in Arem prison. Hisham ibn Abd Al-Malik also accused one of his employees of the same crime and jailed him as a result. Furthermore, Ibn Al-Zubayr sent Mohamed ibn Al-Hanafiyyah and 15 men from Banu Hashim to Arem for refusing to proclaim allegiance to him, a crime that led many to prison. During the rule of Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan, Hisham ibn Ismail Al-Makhzumi jailed governor Said ibn Al-Musayyib in the year 705 because he did not proclaim allegiance to Abd Al-Malik's sons, Al-Waleed and Suleiman. Abou-Ghodah has explained that occasionally, individuals who committed crimes that Islam states punishments for would still be imprisoned, saying Islamic teachings on their own were not enough to protect the society from dangerous criminals.

Prison Management

Each prison had its own administration headed by a warden, who was responsible for supervising inmates' behavior, receiving newcomers in the facility and preparing a file for each prisoner, according to Aboul-Rab. Within the prison staff, there were employees tasked with escorting prisoners to jail, and others with chaining inmates while in cells until they were allowed to walk free. There were also bakers and cooks to prepare food for prisoners, and imams to lead their prayers. According to Abou-Ghodah, prisons for a while operated under judges' jurisdiction. However, some managerial changes increased the governors' prerogative at the expense of judges, with the former becoming entitled to look into accusations and imprisoning defendants. Judges, meanwhile, looked into lesser crimes and civil disputes.
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