Lessons From Safiya Bukhari: Islam and Revolution are Complementary 

“The discipline of making salat five times a day and having Allah constantly in your remembrance is a wonderful thing, because it enables you to deal with the madness around you”

Safiya Bukhari was a Black Muslim organizer, political prisoner, and revolutionary activist who dedicated her life to fighting for justice and self-determination. She was a member of both the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army and played a vital role in defending the rights of political prisoners and the incarcerated for many years. Bukhari’s autobiography, “The War Before,” chronicles her journey as a revolutionary, and has become an important resource for those interested in exploring the intersection of revolutionary activism, dedicated organizing, and principled struggle. Moreover, the book is incredibly introspective and personal, with constant reflections on her Islamic faith, her deteriorating health, and the very physical and mental personal tolls that dedicating her life to struggle took on her body. 

In chapter 7, titled “Islam and Revolution” Is Not A Contradiction,” Bukhari deftly explores the relationship between Islam and her revolutionary politics. Though the exact date is unknown, the editors suspect the essay was written in the late 1980s, just a few years after she was released from prison in 1983. During this period, she worked as a social worker for the Legal Aid Society, helped found the Jericho Movement and the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Movement, and married fellow political prisoner and radical organizer Ashanti Alston. 

As a Black Muslim organizer myself, the themes in this chapter deeply resonate with me, and the tactful way that Bukhari demonstrates that Islam, rather than contradicting her revolutionary organizing, actually strengthens it. Moreover, in recent weeks we’ve seen the Muslim world (Muslim-majority countries) make several moves which lend themselves to the potential re-emergence of a multipolar world, in many different regards. As Zionist forces have commenced their annual bloody assault on worshippers inside Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, several organizations within occupied Palestine such as Hamas and the Lion’s Den have engaged in ongoing armed resistance against the colonizers, creating several martyrs in the process. Elsewhere, rockets were launched from Syria and Lebanon, with Hezbollah calling on the Muslim world to unite to defend Al-Aqsa and the Palestinian fight for liberation, stating “Support for the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause is not confined solely to the Palestinian nation, and all Muslims are duty-bound to do so.” Even the politically regressive, right-wing Turkish president Erdogan was once again forced last week to call for the Muslim world to “be united against Israel’s attacks in Palestine”, if for nothing more than to maintain appearances.

In the same week, China boasted its role in diplomatic and peace-making efforts, having helped broker a historic cease-fire between Yemeni and Saudi Arabian forces, in what appears to be an end to the decade-long, genocidal assault by Saudi and U.S. forces which has killed at least 200,000 Yemenis. Within the same 48 hours, Saudi officials had arrived in Tehran to discuss the re-engaging of diplomatic relations between the two Muslim heavyweights, which had been ruptured in 2016 following U.S.-instigated tensions and the storming of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. In a similarly historic fashion, Syria and Saudi Arabia have also moved to restore consular services between the two countries, and to begin the slow process of easing back into diplomatic relations. 

With China playing an important role at each step of these diplomatic innovations, baseless narratives spread by the West of China’s internal “anti-Muslim genocide” fall apart at the seams even more, as they show a decisively different engagement with the Middle East and Muslim world than the staunch warhawk ‘diplomacy’ of the U.S., which has deliberately resulted in further tensions and the death of millions of Muslims. While China’s actions in themselves may not necessarily be guided ideologically by anti-imperialist ideals, they still may signal the beginnings of a new era of genuine anti-imperialist struggle on the global scale, when the larger potential implications for the Global South are taken into account. 

Clearly, in many regards, Islam itself remains a potent ideological and spiritual vessel under which progressive movements of people are mobilizing; a vessel which states and organizers genuinely wishing to engage in the creation of a multipolar world must respect. While there is nothing ‘inherently’ politically revolutionary about Islam itself — there are countless interpretations found underneath its banner, ranging from exploitative and problematic to communal and even revolutionary formations — Safiyah’s words help us make sense of how it can strengthen one’s revolutionary spirit on an individual level. And in times like this, when across the Global South the Muslim majority are in movement against the same violent forces of the West which we here in the belly of the beast must work to defeat, understanding the individual resolve given my Islamic principles is extremely important. 

“I became a Muslim (one who submits to the will of Allah) while in the Black Panther Party,” Bukhari says, explaining the roots of her spiritual journey. “And as a result of defending the rights of members of the New York Three.” Her understanding of Islam and revolutionary politics centers around self-determination, which she asserts by questioning, “How can we talk about self-determination if we would deny someone their freedom to determine whether or not they want to believe in the existence of God?” 

For Bukhari, Islam and revolution are intrinsically linked, as both are rooted in struggles for freedom, justice, and self-determination.

Bukhari’s study of the Qur’an further solidified her commitment to Islam and revolution. She discovered that to be a Muslim, one must have the intention and determination to struggle in the way of Allah. This understanding is exemplified in the Qur’anic verse she cites that admonishes Muslims to “fight in the cause of God those who fight you … and fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression … for tumult and oppression is worse than slaughter.” (2:190-193). Bukhari’s revolutionary convictions were strengthened by these messages found within her faith, as she recognized the importance placed on fighting against oppression and tumult. In another translation, this verse is read as “Fight in the cause of Allah ˹only˺ against those who wage war against you, but do not exceed the limits. Surely Allah does not like transgressors.”

Throughout her life, Bukhari faced challenges as a Muslim, a woman, and a revolutionary. She encountered revolutionaries who had problems with her being Muslim, revolutionaries who had issues with her leadership as a woman, and Muslims who demanded she denounce the Black liberation movement in order to receive their support. Despite these challenges, Bukhari says, she maintained her commitment to both Islam and revolutionary politics, understanding that her faith and political convictions were not mutually exclusive but rather complementary forces in her life.

For Bukhari, the disciplinary aspects of Islam (which in many ways resembled the discipline enforced by the Black Panther Party, which she wrote extensively about) were incredibly important sources of political development and persistence:

“Prior to becoming Muslim I ate whatever I felt like eating, had the foulest mouth in town, and had no qualms about exercising my authority over others. Even after becoming Muslim I still had something of a “God complex.” I had a tendency to demand that people live up to my standards for their life, and if they didn’t, I relegated them to the backseat of life. There was no gray in anything, only black or white. There were no excuses for not living up to my expectations. I was the judge, jury, and executioner. I had learned that there indeed was a God and Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (glorious and exalted) was He, but I had not learned temperance, compassion, or forgiveness. 

Then, on January 25, 1975, while a member of the Amistad Collective of the Black Liberation Army, I was involved in a shoot-out in Norfolk, Virginia. One of my comrades was killed, another was shot, and I was captured. My bail was set at one million dollars on each of five counts, and on one of the counts I was facing the electric chair. While the shoot-out was occurring and the capture was going down, I was on autopilot. I didn’t have time to think, only to react. But when I finally had time to reflect, what kept going through my mind were all the things I had read in the Qur’an about the intentions of the heart and how, if those were correct, Allah would allow you to be victorious.”

“Being a practicing Sunni Muslim in prison was not easy. Being an orthodox Muslim, a political prisoner, and a woman was unheard of,” expresses Bulhari, demonstrating how Islam helped her manage the complexities and ‘madness’ of her situation. “When I arrived at [Goochland prison] I was placed in maximum-security confinement, on the pretext that there was no space available for me on the quarantine hall, where new prisoners were normally placed. The discipline of making salat five times a day and having Allah constantly in your remembrance is a wonderful thing, because it enables you to deal with the madness around you. It worked for me in the Norfolk City Jail, and it continued to work for me in Goochland. I could take time out from the insanity of prison life to communicate with the things that centered me.”

In essence, Bukhari’s faith provided a basis for her to maintain her revolutionary principles even within the destitute conditions of Amerika’s racist prison system. Her struggle for both political and personal spiritual liberation was further tested by the lack of adequate medical care she received in prison, which exacerbated her health issues. In this difficult period, she says turned to Allah for guidance, showing once her deep reliance on her faith to help her navigate adversity. Her struggle for justice extended beyond her political activism to include fighting for the rights of herself and the other women inside the prison to receive proper medical treatment, and to fully practice their religion, such as observing Jummah and maintaining a halal diet:

“Over the next two years, both my political and my spiritual beliefs were to be tried by fire. In addition to being in prison with a forty-year sentence, I was also in constant pain from fibroid tumors. During my sojourn in the city jail awaiting trial, I had repeatedly been denied medical care. I’d been told that I would be taken care of when I arrived in the state system. During my initial examination upon arrival, a doctor told me the tumors were the size of oranges and asked me how long my sentence was. I told him forty years; he told me to come back to see him in ten. I had learned to incorporate Allah into every facet of my life, so I turned to Allah for guidance on this. My answer was, “You go as far as you can in fighting this battle for medical treatment and I will handle the rest.” So I followed the prison’s rules. I filed a grievance. In response, I was told that the lack of medical treatment constituted a difference of opinion between myself and the doctor on whether treatment was needed at this point. 

On the spiritual front, I was struggling to get a halal (permitted foods) diet, to observe Jummah (Friday prayer), and to fast for the month of Ramadan. There were women in the institution who considered themselves Muslims but had never observed Ramadan because they were followers of the Nation of Islam. They also did not observe Jummah or a halal diet. They also, for the most part, practiced homosexuality. What was I to do in this situation? Maintain the deen (Islamic way of life)! Judge not the workings of others, but pull their coattail to what Allah says in al’Kitab (scripture), and maintain the deen. Allah alone makes Muslims. I informed the institution of the requirements in practicing Islam, and I continued to do what was required of me.

The first year, I observed Ramadan in my cell. I was not allowed to have any meals after sundown or prior to sunrise. I purchased necessities from the commissary and as the women in the institution observed my practice, they began to make things available to me. The next year, the institution made arrangements for me to observe Ramadan. It’s extremely hard to maintain your principles, politics, and beliefs when all around you others are compromising and giving in to temptations. I watched as women who came into the institution at the same time I did, who had never been involved in relationships with women before, began to get involved. I, too, might have succumbed if it had not been for the mercy of Allah.

Obviously one can condemn Bukhari’s negative attitudes towards same-sex relationships within prison by today’s stands and ideas surrounding this topic. As the introduction from Safiya’s dear comrade and book editor Laura Whitehorn notes:

“As I typed and edited, I often talked aloud to Safiya, telling her how badly I miss her and how badly the movement misses her, and sometimes arguing with her about things she’d written. Transcribing her essay on Islam and revolution, for example, I came across her comment about resisting the “temptation” of homosexuality in prison and chastised her for failing to update the essay to reflect her own changing attitude about this issue. “I know you don’t think that way anymore,” I argued, wondering how I would make it clear to readers that this negative connotation doesn’t represent what Safiya believed in the years before her death. I knew this from my own comradeship and talks with Safiya, but also because so many of us have evolved in our thinking from some earlier rigid and limited viewpoints.”

What’s more important to me in regards to this section, however, is not to examine the merits of Safiya’s then-homophobic attitudes and positions from today’s social lens, but rather to consider the wider context in which such statements were made. As she notes, several women who came into prison without prior ‘homosexual tendencies’ turned towards these practices to deal with the isolation found within the prison walls. For Bukhari, this was seen as yet another way that the prison system coerces one into positions or practices in which they otherwise wouldn’t endeavor. What’s more, regardless of any contemporary understandings of sexuality, it was something that she did not want for her own life; a liberty of choice which for her Islam granted. Facing challenges like Ramadan in solitude or lack of halal food options, this ‘temptation’ for her was simply one more challenge presented by the prison which she had to overcome.

Not only did her faith provide her with a sense of purpose and strength; it also taught her important lessons about love, fear, and trust in Allah. She recounts in detail her struggle with an irrational fear of snakes, which threatened to undermine her commitment to both her faith and her revolutionary politics. Her “real” fear of snakes was “all-consuming”, to the point where she’d been plagued her entire life with nightmares of them. Her biggest worry was not the death penalty looming over her head, nor the hostile prison environment around her, but rather how she “would handle it if they attempted to use my fear of snakes to obtain information about my comrades and activities in the Black Panther Party or Black Liberation Army.”

After being re-captured following her escape from the prison and returned to the isolation inside the maximum-security prison, she was immediately faced with this fear, while locked alone inside of a recreation room (behind a metal door) she was trapped with a snake in the room. She reacted “totally on instinct,” screaming, lunging for the locked door before crouching into the fetal position on the ground in fear. 

“I had sunk into the darkest recesses of my mind in an attempt to protect myself from my worst fears,” she says. “My fear of snakes was clearly greater than my belief in and love of Allah.”

Two problems were presented in this situation, both of which offered her solutions to this fear: first, that she’d now revealed her greatest fear to the pigs who run the prison facility. Second, that she was lying when she said that she only feared Allah, a major admission.

“Was not this fear, at its very essence, saying that snakes had a greater power over my life than Allah?” Bukhari asks herself. “How could I rationalize this fear of snakes without ascribing a partnership to God in this snake, or without deifying this snake itself? The resolution of this spiritual and intellectual conflict would do two things for me. It would deal with my fear of snakes, and it would resolve my problem of shirkism.”

Prior in the chapter, she speaks at length about the Islamic concept of shirk:

“There was one more thing I had to learn as a Muslim—and as a revolutionary. From the day I became Muslim, I had been told about shirk, the assigning of partners to Allah (polytheism). There is no greater sin than shirk—believing that there is someone or something more worthy of worship or fear than Allah. I thought I had that one down pat. I knew that there was no other God but the one God. Inshallah illallah illallah. I bear witness that there is nobody worthy of worship or of fear but Allah. The problem was that I also had an overwhelming fear, an uncontrollable and irrational fear. This fear superseded and overshadowed even my faith in Allah. “What could that be?” you ask. I was scared beyond reason of snakes.”

Through deep reflection and introspection, Bukhari was able to overcome this fear and recognize that her belief in Allah should supersede all other fears. This development, for her both spiritual and political, was the consequence of deep and principled analysis:

“Over the next month, I went back and forth between reading the Qur’an and making salat over this issue. I studied hadith (written traditions of the prophet Muhammad) on shirk. I read the Qur’an on faith and the oneness of God. I wrestled with my belief. Finally, on a basic level, I concluded that nothing happens to us without the permission of Allah. This may sound simple and matter of fact, but it’s not. There was an entire analysis and process I went through before this became real to me. For me as a revolutionary, death was something I lived with daily and constantly. I enunciated clearly the concept that “wherever death may surprise us it will be welcome, as long as this our battle cry reach some receptive ear and another hand reach out to intone our funeral dirge with the staccato of machinegun fire and new cries of battle and victory.” In dealing with the government of the United States of America, I was very clear that they were just men and women, while Allah was God. Him alone should I fear.”

This concept of shirk, and not attributing any masters above or beside Allah, has historically lent itself ideologically and spiritually towards revolutionary actions. During the Maafa (Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) for example, Spanish and English authorities were consumed with anxiety by enslaved Africans who were Muslim, who they believe were ‘more likely to revolt.’ This anxiety went so far as to force the Spanish king to ban “slaves suspected of Islamic leanings” from entering the Americas as commerce, though the ban had little effect, since Muslims from West Africa tended to be more skilled than others and therefore desirable by enslavers. 

They had good reason to fear us: one of the first recorded large-scale slave revolts in the Americas was carried out in Hispaniola by a group of Muslims, who freed themselves along with several native Americans, taking the lives of many colonizers in the process; following this, a decree was given that no Africans ‘of Moslem blood’ should be imported to the Americas. In Brazil, the now famous Malê Uprising (“malê” a Yoruba word for a Yoruba Muslim) took place during the last 10 days of Ramadan, during which around 600 Muslim-majority Africans, many of whom wore prayer beads and traditional Muslim headwraps while slashing the necks of colonizers and mulattos alike; during this time, enslaved and free Africans who were the majority in Bahia were open to the teachings of the Qur’an, which explicitly expressed support for marginalized groups, and the rebellion led to a harsh crackdown on Islam in Bahia and other areas, resulting in the confiscation of all Arabic-written and other Islamic-related items.

Several Spanish and English accounts document slave revolts led by Muslims on the middle passage, while hundreds more of such accounts exist all across the Americas; these instances led to the early mass banning of Muslims in both Spanish and British holdings, but did nothing to stop the revolts. During the 16th century in Panama, for example, escaped African slaves established their own settlements and engaged in a prolonged guerrilla conflict against the Spanish, forming what some historians call a ‘multi-religious’ society in which African Muslims played an important role. Significant uprisings with influence of African Muslims against the oppression and shirk of enslavement were also documented in Mexico, Cuba, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela, later Guatemala, Florida, and Chile. It has even been suggested, with limited evidence, that two architectural leaders in the Haitian Revolution, Macandel and Boukmen, were Muslim, using Arabic as a secret language for communication among the revolutionary leadership. 

The history of rebellion by the enslaved Africans is long and extensive, and my point is not to exceptionalize Islam within a larger context of spiritual practices and oppression; rather, it is to illuminate that the inherent emphasis Islam places of liberation from oppression, community education, and this concept of shirk lends itself to revolt against colonizers and oppressors. So much so, in fact, that sweeping mandates were dispersed across the colonized world in an attempt to stop the spread of Islam among the enslaved. Similar to Bukhari’s personal battle with shirk in the tale of the snake, a slave master or colonizer preaching their superiority and dominion over you would be an ultimate example of shirk, which we are commanded to combat. 

Another of the key tenets of Islam is the emphasis on the importance of empathy and solidarity within the Muslim community. This emphasis is exemplified in the following hadith:

Nu’man bin Bashir (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said, “The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”

Safiya Bukhari’s unwavering commitment to fighting for the rights of political prisoners and the incarcerated resonates deeply with the principles outlined in this hadith. She recognized that those who are imprisoned, particularly political prisoners, are often left behind and abandoned by society — they are the most vulnerable in every sense of the word, and their abysmal conditions represent a suffering “limb” in the body of Islam. In her activism, Bukhari took it upon herself to become a source of support and solidarity for those facing injustice, embodying the spirit of mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy that the hadith describes; while paradoxically herself being a compliment of this community of vulnerable and oppressed incarcerated people.

Bukhari’s own struggle with her health further illustrates her embodiment of this hadith. Despite her personal pain and suffering, she made her disability political by fighting for her right to adequate medical care in court, a legal win which would in turn have a positive impact for all of the women incarcerated alongside her. In doing so, she not only demonstrated her resilience and determination but also highlighted the systemic injustices faced by the incarcerated: her own ailment in itself became a political weapon in the Muslim hands of Safiya Bukhari. 

Understanding the nature of this hadith also helps one understand the longstanding fortitude and solidarity we’ve witnessed from the Muslim world — from states, organizations, and individuals alike — with the Palestinian struggle against Zionist colonizers. Within the larger global Ummah (community of Muslims), the Palestinians represent yet another vital limb of the body suffering at the hands of oppression, which we’re commanded to extend our support to and struggle against. The cardinal importance of community forged through mutual struggle is at the base of most interpretations of Islam, regardless of sect or culture, and may also explain to a limited degree the massive desires to end the bloody assault on Yemen, for example. Within the same fortitude that Safiya found sanity ‘within the madness’, bodies of Muslims may converge under anti-imperialist, or at least anti-Western, banners.

The story of Islam inspiring Safiya’s perseverance within the deathly prison walls is not a singular story, and in fact is quite common (outside of the exceptionally political elements of her journey, of course). 

Islam has become increasingly important for survival in U.S. prisons, particularly among Black and Latin prisoners, with an estimated 350,000 incarcerated Muslims residing in U.S. prisons. In fact, Islam is the fastest growing religion in U.S. prisons, with the number of Muslim prisoners increasing dramatically over the past few decades. According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, Muslims make up about 9% of the U.S. prison population, up from about 1% in the 1970s. This rise of Islam among prisoners coincides with the era of mass incarceration we remain in, and the growth can be attributed to a number of factors, including the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latin people. Many current and former high-profile political prisoners, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jalil Muntaqim, Imam Jamil Al-Amin, and Safiya Bukhari herself of course, also turned to Islam, at times infamously, which has helped to raise the political and principled profile of Islam within prison communities over the years. Many see what Islam did for the lives of these figures and many others — former gang members turned imams, ‘criminals’ turned to community stalwarts — and seek out a similar transition.

For many prisoners, Islam provides a sense of community, purpose, and discipline that is often lacking in the harsh and dehumanizing environment of prison: as Bukhari noted, the practice of making salat five times a day provides a structure and routine that can help prisoners cope with the stress and isolation of prison life, while the sense of community gained through conversion becomes a lifeline for many. Sharing of commissary food, support for various illnesses, de-escalation and mutual respect are all results of Islamic conversation that have been communicated directly to me over the years through many incarcerated pen pals.

Islam has become a method of survival and sustenance for many prisoners, particularly those who are marginalized or oppressed, because it instills that same aforementioned fortitude which provides much-needed principles in the worst conditions possible. As with Yoruba practices in Cuba, for example, Islam provides a connection to a rich cultural and spiritual heritage, one that comes with a strong community and new collective identity, all of which provides strength. For Black and Latino prisoners, in particular, Islam has become a way to connect with their cultural and spiritual roots, which have been suppressed or erased by the colonizer’s culture. By embracing Islam, these prisoners are able to reclaim an identity that’s both politicized and historic, and thus resist on some levels the dehumanization of the prison system.

The growing popularity of Islam in U.S. prisons underscores the importance of religion as a means of coping with the trauma and hardship of incarceration — a lesson from Safiya Bukhari which remains relevant and shouldn’t fall on deaf ears. It highlights the ongoing resilience and resistance of prisoners, particularly those who are Black and Latin, who are finding ways to survive and thrive. Whether within the walls of imperial prison cells, under sieges of imperialist rocket fire, or struggling to advocate for bodily autonomy and health, the Hadith remains a crux of fortitude: “…compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.”  This method of survival is one which elevates struggles, both in daily life and through rigorous organizing, to the larger global struggle of Muslims against Western forces of colonizers; our ummah is a global one which must remain dedicated to ridding the world of oppression where we can, and continue feeling the fevers of our ailing siblings. 

Bukhari’s journey as a Muslim and a revolutionary ultimately demonstrates that there is no inherent tension between Islam and revolutionary politics, which so many proclaimed “radicals” and “revolutionaries” themselves at times claim. On the contrary, her Islamic faith served as a vessel that helped strengthen her commitment to fighting for justice, freedom, and self-determination. As a Black Muslim organizer, I see Bukhari’s story as a powerful reminder that we have the choice to determine whether our faith can empower and inform our activism, reminding us of our ultimate goals and the importance of standing up against oppression, or if we will let it be an opiate of docility to the ills of the world. In the former lies our clear command from The Most High, in the latter we succumb to the dunya. 

In the often quoted, near-cliché words of revolutionary Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Bukhari’s life, faith, and activism exemplify the spirit of this quote, all the while living a profound life which nurtured a deep love and support for her community.

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Musa is a cultural worker, community organizer, and independent researcher. They are a member of the Walter Rodney Foundation, and host of the Groundings podcast.