Free men: imprisoned, exiled, or dead – an accurate description of the Libyan situation during the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the mid-2000’s Gaddafi’s regime started changing faces, trying to improve its international relations, but that did not change the brutal reality of the police state in Libya.
Thousands of men were killed in Gaddafi’s prisons, and many more were tortured. Prisoners of conscience were placed under inhumane conditions and treated with far more severity than actual criminals. These harsh experiences, like any difficulty, expose people’s weaknesses and strengths and highlight the value of blessings often taken for granted.
Below is an account I received first-hand from a Libyan man’s experiences in Gaddafi’s prisons. An alternate name was used to protect his real identity. He was rounded up in 1989, along with hundreds of other young men. They were all imprisoned indefinitely, and without trial. All communication with family was cut off for the first 2 years. The imprisoned men came from various educational, ideological, and social backgrounds. The only common factor was that they were independent thinkers or had inquisitive minds and loved to read, or that they were associated with one of the afore mentioned groups. Guilt by association was the law. During the first two years of imprisonment, Gaddafi’s regime did not differentiate between any of the prisoners – they were all tortured equally. Afterwards, some of the more “dangerous” prisoners were kept under harsh treatment, while others of lesser “crimes” were given more privileges and relative comforts.
Muhammad Ali spent 6 years in Gaddafi’s prisons, from 1989-1995. Muhammad described his experience:
“We were placed in underground cells where we did not see sunlight for 2 years [straight]. The only way we could keep track of time was by hearing the athan (call to prayer) from a local mosque. Even in the cells we were kept in, there was no light. Sometimes there was a faint light from the hall way, but they mostly kept us in complete darkness, and often in isolation.
Different forms of torture were practiced on us, including severe whipping, blindfolding and gang-beating, and forcing prisoners to sleep on ice-cold cement floor during the winter without covers or blankets. Some of the infamous practices included lifting the prisoner upside down and whipping his feet until they were so swollen and torn that he could not walk for weeks or months. Other practices included hanging prisoners up by their arms or tying them up to the cell bars for days on end such that their arms would become stiff in that position and they could not move their arms for days or weeks after being released [from that position].
We were starved and given just enough food to keep us from dying. … After two years of this harsh treatment, they were planning to allow family visits and calls, but they needed to fatten us up before our families saw us because they knew families would be horrified if they saw their sons in the state we were in. To fatten us up, they gave each man half a loaf of bread every day. [That was his only meal the entire day.] Inmates were so excited: They were actually feeding us! They also started allowing us to go out into the sunlight for 1-2 hours every week…
While undergoing all of this torture, the prisoners were not allowed access to any books, especially the Holy Qur’an… We had one smuggled copy of the Qur’an that we shared on the prison floor that had a total of 180 prisoners… The copy was not our usual-looking, bound copy of the mus-haf, but rather pieces of papers rolled up in a way that can be smuggled from cell to cell. Each prisoner had only a few hours at a time with this mus-haf before it had to be passed on to the next inmate. Those few hours were his chance to read as much as he wanted to or memorize as much as he could, for this dose of Qur’an would have to keep him going for another couple of weeks [of underground torture and starvation until his turn came around again with the smuggled-in mus-haf.]
Prisoners started teaching each other the verses they knew. They shared whatever education they had with their inmates. Many of the prisoners were language, humanities and science professors, so many of the inmates learned foreign languages and material that would qualify them to get a college degree in various fields. The prisoners also included scholars in the Islamic sciences: Qur’an, Hadith, fiqh, and tafsir. I memorized a quarter of the Qur’an in 2 different qiraa’ahs and learned how to read a third. I memorized hadith with sanad and got ijazahs in the qiraa’ahs and classical books… Many of my inmates encouraged me to finish memorizing the entire Qur’an. I could have easily done that, but I chose not to because I knew that once I was released from prison and got back into normal life routine, I would not be able to maintain my memorization. So I stuck with the quarter of Yaasin because I could maintain it even after my release…”
Subhanallah, how many copies of the Qur’an do we have in our homes, bags and purses, cars, computers, phones and ipods? And yet, how do we appreciate the words of Allah? Do we take advantage of having easy access to the Qur’an by reading it daily and learning its meanings.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) said, “Two blessings many people are envied for are health and free time.” (Tirmidhi)
The prisoners in Libya took advantage of blessings we take for granted: time, moments of comfort and knowledge. They learned from the various scholars and professors whenever they could. How seriously do we take our studies? What is the ratio of time we spend on studying and on entertainment or other distractions? We have comfort, health, and free time. How do we use them?
The Prophet ﷺ said, “Take advantage of five before five: your youth before old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation, and your life before your death.” (Sahih according to Hakim)
Also, narrated Abu Burzah al-Aslami that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “The feet of a slave [of Allah] will not move on the Day of Judgment until he is asked about his age and how he finished it, about his knowledge and what he did with it, and about his money, how did he earn it and how he spent it.” (Tirmidhi, Hasan Sahih).
Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (Glorified is He) has granted Muslims around the world, and especially in the West many opportunities to learn and earn a comfortable living. As American Muslims, we enjoy freedoms and privileges that many of our brothers and sisters elsewhere aspire to achieve. With these privileges comes a responsibility to utilize our time and resources in the best manner that pleases Allah (swt).
Unfortunately, sometimes we are blind to the blessings we have: the freedom to choose what to do every morning, the blessing of feeling the warmth of the sun in the daytime and seeing the serene moonlight at night, the ability to attend classes in colleges and institutes, masajid (mosques) and halaqas (study circles). Taking a moment to remember the less fortunate helps us recognize Allah’s bounties on us and strengthen our determination to continue seeking His pleasure. It is also a reminder to us: Do we need to be forced into extreme hardship before learning to benefit from the opportunities around us? Or will we be from the saabiqoon (forerunners) who take advantage of Allah’s blessings on us to develop ourselves and our societies, despite the distractions of society and the desires of our self?
“Do they think that what We extend to them of wealth and children Is [because] We hasten for them good things? Rather, they do not perceive. Indeed, they who are apprehensive from fear of their Lord And they who believe in the signs of their Lord And they who do not associate anything with their Lord And they who give what they give while their hearts are fearful because they will be returning to their Lord – It is those who hasten to good deeds, and they outstrip [others] therein. And We charge no soul except [with that within] its capacity, and with Us is a record which speaks with truth; and they will not be wronged.” (Qur’an, 23:55-62)
We ask Allah to alleviate the pain and oppression our brothers and sisters face around the world, and we ask Him to make us from His righteous and thankful servants.