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Sermons on the Island : Muslim Chaplain Gives Guidance to All Faiths at Prison

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man in a spotless white shirt and khaki pants stands barefoot on a large rug, holding his hands at his ears and calling out in rhythmic Arabic.

“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,” he repeats, his face turned respectfully toward the northeast as he chants the Arabic prayer announcing Allah’s greatness.

Other men enter the room and gather around him, kneeling, closing their eyes and whispering quiet supplications. As they finish, a Muslim spiritual leader, or imam, Abu Ishaq Abdul-Hafiz, begins a sermon urging them to take the worst of life and become better people for it.

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Unfortunately, these men--inmates at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution--know all too well how bad life can be.

Abdul-Hafiz--one of eight full-time Muslim imams serving as a chaplain in the federal prison system--has chosen to spend his days in a place where those he counsels can only count the years until they leave.

“I couldn’t foresee anything but another sensation through heroin,” inmate William Walker, 44, said of life before prison. But then came Abdul-Hafiz, who “inspired me to find another way. . . . I don’t know what my path would have been if I hadn’t been incarcerated and found Islam.”

The prison on Terminal Island, isolated on an industrial peninsula built out into Los Angeles Harbor, houses about 1,200 inmates. About 50 are practicing Muslims.

In 1984, responding to a surge of interest in Islam among black inmates, the federal Bureau of Prisons hired its first full-time imam to serve as a chaplain at Lompoc Federal Penitentiary. When he left in 1987, administrators recruited Abdul-Hafiz, who had just returned from a six-year Muslim study program in Saudi Arabia.

He became the second imam to work full time in the federal prison system.

Born Albert Eugene Simms Jr. in Gary, Ind., Abdul-Hafiz, 41, discovered Islam during his junior year at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

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“One of my African history professors was a Christian . . . teaching us the basics of Islam in Africa,” Abdul-Hafiz said. “He said they believed in Jesus as a prophet of God, not God incarnate, and I thought: ‘Wow! All my life I’ve been thinking that. . . . This makes sense to me.’ ”

In prisons throughout the United States, Abdul-Hafiz said, the lack of regular Islamic education led to misunderstandings.

“When there wasn’t an imam in the prison system, the religion developed without any direction,” he said. “Ideas became extremist and they adopted practices which were not accepted in the faith.”

Some African-American inmates, tracing their heritage to West African slaves who were Muslim, adopted Islam as their religious affiliation but insisted that membership should be limited only to blacks, he said.

About 10 years ago, he said, Muslims began to worry about what was happening in the prisons. “We wanted to be able to make sure the religion is exposed for what it really is--peace and harmony, for all people,” Abdul-Hafiz said.

Because he must serve all faiths, Abdul-Hafiz’s job appears well-suited to getting that message across. “All religions actually are from one source and really are the same,” he said.

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The small prison chapel serves as a church for Christian groups, meditation center and shrine for Buddhists, synagogue for Jews, and mosque for the Muslims.

But many non-Muslims were suspicious of him at first.

“When I first knew we would be getting an imam, I think: ‘Oh, boy. We have a problem. I can’t talk to him,’ ” said Avi Zalcaia, 41, a Jewish inmate.

When a group of Jewish inmates asked him to help bring Jewish literature into the prison, they did not expect success, Zalcaia said.

Within a week, the books were there.

Inmates of all faiths say they can relate to him.

“Without him, we could not exist as a Buddhist group,” said Warin Sae-Heng, an inmate from Bangkok.

Before Abdul-Hafiz arrived, Sae-Heng said, the prison’s 30 Buddhist inmates scarcely practiced their religion. Now, with regular visits arranged by Abdul-Hafiz of Buddhist monks and nuns from a Hacienda Heights temple, the group is flourishing.

After studying several religions, Abdul-Hafiz took his Islamic oath of faith in 1971 and then took his Arabic name.

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He was a news director and reporter for an Alabama radio station for six years, then returned to Indiana to take part in an intensive Islamic training program. In 1980, he won a scholarship to study in Saudia Arabia, where he also worked in Saudi radio.

When he returned to the United States in 1986, he knew what he wanted to do. “I wanted to give back some of the great experiences that I had,” he said.

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