The Case For Religious Education For Incarcerated Muslims


The United States is infamously known for their rates of mass incarceration, especially when considering how the United States makes up more than twenty percent of the world’s prison population, but only about five percent of the global population.1 In 2020 alone, the United States had over 1,200,000 individuals held in state and federal prisons2, with around 350,000 of those individuals being incarcerated Muslims. When considering the ratio of Muslims in prison to Muslims within the general population, there is clearly an over-representation. This is not necessarily due to higher conviction rates, but due to the fact that Islam is the fastest growing religion within prisons in the United States. In fact, there are estimates that of the incarcerated individuals who seek faith, approximately eighty percent turn to Islam3, totaling around 300,000 conversions within the last decade.4

Regardless of the amount of conversions that have taken place, incarcerated Muslims are the most under-served religious group within prisons in the United States. Thus, this paper recommends that religious education for incarcerated Muslims should be taken more seriously, especially when considering the positive influence religion has on individuals who are Muslim when entering prison and individuals who convert to Islam while in prison.

Religious Education

Bell Hooks5 describes religious education as healing, wholeness, empowerment, liberation, and about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world. Religious education is a right incarcerated individuals have due to the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The First Amendment protects the right of detainees and prisoners to receive a reasonable amount of expressive material and RLUIPA protects the religious freedom of prisoners by barring policies and actions that impose a substantial burden on their religious exercise.6 These rights result in all incarcerated individuals who are in the general prison population having the opportunity to attend religious services.7

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With these rights in mind, previous studies have found that religious education has surpassed education as the most frequently represented program in prison throughout the United States8, demonstrating why religious education is a right to be granted and considered. Religious education can be implemented in various ways with the intent to develop spiritual knowledge that stems from divine revelation and spiritual experience. Within prison, many Muslims are allowed to study the Quran and the Arabic language, to have a space for prayer and religious services, and to attend Friday prayers.9 These forms of religious education and religious practices then serve to transform the individual who is sincerely participating in them.

Brown10 claims that education is a practice of freedom and religious education is both an academic and spiritual practice aimed at ethical and moral instruction. Religious education can also extend as a practice of freedom, especially when considering how Islam has impacted the inner freedom individuals acquire. Spearlt11 mentions the way Islam helped those without freedom find inner freedom. For instance, one convert admits he has no regrets about going to prison as that is where he found Islam and learned how to become a free man. In this instance, religious education serves as a practice of freedom in that those who find Islam find freedom through the academic and spiritual practice Islam presents. It is the ethical and moral instruction of Islam that serves to change an individual for the better, contributing to their freedom as an individual. Within prison, the freedom Islam provides through religious education is a place for hope and growth.

In addition, it is imperative that religious education acquires more consideration and incarcerated individuals are provided with guidance and support, especially when accounting for the lack of religious leadership for Muslims within prisons. Spearlt12 highlights that much of the development for Islamic religious programming and education falls on the shoulders of other incarcerated individuals, while prison personnel lack a basic understanding of Islamic beliefs and practices. For religious education to benefit those who convert to Islam while in prison, it is essential that they are provided with religious education through religious leaders, scholars, or chaplains. If there is a gap in leadership, such restrictions can force incarcerated individuals to serve as leaders, which reduces the authenticity of leadership and may increase the risk of exploitation and ideological extremism within prisons.13 This is important to acknowledge as gaps in leadership strip incarcerated Muslims of authoritative and authentic guidance.

Such guidance is a crucial element for those who convert to Islam. Of the chaplains who work with incarcerated individuals, Pew Research Center14 found that nearly three-quarters (seventy-three percent) say they consider access to religion-related programs in prison to be absolutely critical for successful rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals. This in turn is useful in reducing the rates of recidivism.


Religious practice within prison gives incarcerated individuals various forms of guidance such as motivation, direction and meaning for life, hope for the future, peace of mind, positive self-esteem, and an overall change in lifestyle.15 The outcomes that stem from religious education serve as different forms of guidance that help incarcerated individuals in numerous ways. As mentioned earlier, incarcerated Muslims are deprived of authoritative and authentic guidance when there are gaps in leadership. As a result, religious education is important in not just providing Muslim converts with resources while they are incarcerated, but by ensuring their religious freedoms are met. This includes providing incarcerated Muslims with various resources to meet their religious needs such as arranging access to religious leaders, scholars, or chaplains.

Religious leaders, scholars, or chaplains can ensure that the religious education incarcerated Muslims receive is reliable, accurate, and is relayed from individuals with proper Islamic knowledge that has been accumulated through Islamic scholarship. The guidance that incarcerated Muslims can acquire from such individuals stems from religious education and serves as a way to improve their situation through spiritual development. Islam has been found to transform and motivate individuals within the prison system16 and as Dammer17 affirms, religion provides hope for those who are incarcerated.

Islamic Values

As mentioned earlier, guidance presents itself in various forms. One way incarcerated Muslims act upon the guidance they are exposed to is through the Islamic values they implement. For those who convert to Islam within prison, Islamic values have the ability to present new ways of living that offer individuals with support through healthier self-conceptions.18 This form of support is transmitted through religious education and benefits the individual when taught through dependable individuals such as religious leaders, scholars, or chaplains. While there are different Islamic values incarcerated Muslims learn and act upon, a common Islamic value is justice that expands into protecting other fellow Muslims.

Justice is an important Islamic value that incarcerated Muslims implement from religious education. In the Quran, Allah (God) says “O believers! Stand firm for justice as witnesses for Allah even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or close relatives…” [Quran 4:135], “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just”[Quran 5:8], and “Indeed, Allah orders justice and good conduct…”[Quran 16:90]. Within prison, justice is exercised through protection. For instance, Dammer19 found that protection provided by Muslims within prison was specifically for those who were treated unjustly. He also mentions that a Muslim who is acting in accordance with the teachings of Islam found it their responsibility to assist and protect their fellow Muslims. In this instance, incarcerated Muslims act upon justice by protecting those who are treated unjustly within prison. This Islamic value is taught through the religious education provided to incarcerated Muslims and is present with those who convert to Islam within prison.

The Islamic value of justice does not just extend to fellow Muslims, but extends to all those who are treated unjustly. For example, incarcerated Muslims played a large role in the prison rights movement in the 1960s as they helped ensure incarcerated individuals are granted their religious rights.

Prison Rights Movement

Muslims have played an important role in the development of constitutional law for prisoners20 and incarcerated Muslims are responsible for contributing to the jurisprudence of prison law by using courts to establish Islam as a legitimate religion and advance the religious rights of people from other faiths.21 It is the prison rights movement in the 1960s which reinforced and granted incarcerated Muslims and those from other faiths their religious rights. When considering why this movement took place, it is clear that incarcerated Muslims were motivated by the Islamic value of upholding justice. For example, the prison rights movement emerged as incarcerated Muslims looked to correct the injustices happening within prison due to the inhumane treatment and institutional racism present within the system.22

While the prison rights movement seems far removed from religious education, the movement was initiated through justice, an Islamic value that incarcerated Muslims become accustomed to through the religious education they acquire. In addition, it is important to consider that the religion itself encourages incarcerated Muslims to contribute to prison law and ensure their religious needs are met, especially when considering the benefit Islam has on positively transforming an individual.

As incarcerated Muslims strive for justice, they also benefit individuals from other faiths. Their religious education, which makes them sincerely practice their faith, led them to advance the religious rights of Muslims and those from other faiths. The prison rights movement led by Muslims exemplifies what incarcerated Muslims learn and establish through religious education, and that is the Islamic value of justice.

Reduced Recidivism Rates

A goal to consider when incarcerated individuals leave prison is ensuring a reduced chance of recidivism. This can be achieved through proper religious education that benefits the individual by providing academic and spiritual practice aimed at ethical and moral instruction.23 As touched upon earlier, religious education is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world.24 For incarcerated individuals who re-enter society after their time in prison, this is a goal that can be developed while incarcerated through proper access to religious education. Spearlt25 highlights that Islam helps inmates improve recidivism rates more than other groups statewide and nationwide, proving that there is a benefit from religion. He also highlights that Islam has been found to help inmates realign their lives and contributes to a more orderly prison, which is closely linked to reduced recidivism rates.

While the direct influence on religious education for incarcerated Muslims is understudied, the benefits of religion can be understood and seen in the way those who convert to Islam realign their lives both in and out of prison.


In conclusion, religious education is a right all incarcerated individuals deserve access to. Religious education has often been overlooked within prison, but I contend that it requires serious consideration when accounting for the amount of individuals who convert or find faith within prison. For those who find faith while incarcerated, approximately eighty percent turn to Islam.26

Islam has shown to have a positive influence on individuals who convert while in prison and it is important that this positive influence is reinforced through religious education and guidance from religious leaders, scholars, or chaplains. Incarcerated Muslims have been the most undeserved within prison and it is essential that more is done to provide reliable religious education at a time when religion can benefit an individual. Religious leaders, scholars, or chaplains are necessary in providing authentic guidance to incarcerated individuals. Their teachings through religious education is what helps provide ethical and moral instruction27 that benefits incarcerated Muslims.

While religious education teaches many Islamic values, a consistent one found in prisons is justice and protection that comes about when justice is being implemented. Justice is an important Islamic value and signifies ethical and moral instruction as it works to ensure people are not wrongfully harmed and their rights are being met. This extends to the prison rights movement and how incarcerated Muslims are responsible for contributing to the development of constitutional law for prisoners and advancing the religious rights of people from other faiths28.29 Religious education for incarcerated Muslims is not just beneficial for themselves, but for others as well. As Hooks30 describes, religious education is healing, wholeness, empowerment, liberation, and about finding ourselves and our place in the world.

This is a right everyone deserves.


Related reading:

The Premonitions Of Prisoners

The Premonitions Of Prisoners

The Guards Who Became Muslim After Guantanamo

The Guards Who Became Muslim After Guantanamo