The early-afternoon light casts a pale glow into the theater at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. More than 100 blue-garbed inmates, kneeling barefoot on blankets spread over the concrete floor, bow east toward Mecca. Not a sound is heard.

At the head of the group kneels Muhammed Firdausi, a prison chaplain who ministers to Stateville’s Muslim population. Firdausi holds services every Friday, but at this time of the year, during the holy month of Ramadan, they take on a special significance. The month of Ramadan–this year March 17 through April 15–requires Muslims to fast and reflect on their faith. What better place to meditate on good and evil than inside a state penitentiary?

After everyone has risen from the floor and an inmate has uttered a short chant in Arabic, Firdausi takes his place beside a wooden podium. A bearded, genial man of 49, Firdausi says he wants to talk more about last week’s topic–fasting. During Ramadan the Muslim residents of Stateville breakfast before dawn and sup after the sun has set.

“Fasting is a shield, a protection from temptation,” says Firdausi. “Fasting can save you from abusing someone, from fornication, from backbiting. When Satan asks you to do something you shouldn’t, you can always say ‘Today I am fasting.’ And there are rewards for going without food and drink. Breaking the fast brings the enjoyment of the bounty you have been without, and in the hereafter there is the pleasure of meeting Allah.”

Firdausi moves on to his topic of the day, the doctrine of “taqwa,” which he defines as “God consciousness, that divine spark that is in all of us.”

“Taqwa is beyond not eating and drinking,” he says. “It’s beyond saying no to Satan. Smile, is what I tell you. Share. Be generous. Offer your open hand. Educate a brother. Teach a brother how to pray. Richness has nothing to do with money and cars and big houses. If you are rich here”–Firdausi grasps his chest–“you are rich of heart.”

A native of Pakistan with a background as an educator, Firdausi became a counselor at Stateville in 1979. Soon after, he volunteered as a part-time chaplain in Islam. His lack of formal religious training posed no impediment, he says: “In Islam there is no such thing as an ordained ministry. Whenever a prayer time comes, whosoever is the most qualified in terms of piety and knowledge takes over. It’s a very decentralized system.”

It was tough going at first, since most Stateville Muslims were urban blacks who had little use for him. “In the beginning there was some reaction against me,” he admits. “The prisoners said they’d like a black chaplain. They were very direct about it. For a while I withdrew from conducting the large Friday services, because I felt I was doing a disservice. But gradually they listened to me–and listened good. They came to trust me.”

A few years ago Firdausi felt comfortable enough to become the Muslim chaplain. The prison administration has been delighted with Firdausi’s tenure, since he is driven only to dispense the word, not the politics, of Islam. “When he gets people together, he talks about the faith and that’s it,” says Thomas Roth, the Stateville warden. “He has a difficult time with those who abuse the opportunity of worship.”

“My lessons are geared to the everyday,” Firdausi explains. “I stay with the basics, the dos and don’ts of Islam and the message in the Koran.”

By “dos,” he means fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day, and reading the Koran, the Islamic holy scriptures. Among the “don’ts” is the consumption of pork, or, for that matter, any animal not slaughtered in the name of God, a stricture that proves rather tricky behind bars, since Stateville doesn’t provide an alternative menu for Muslims. Drinking is prohibited, as is sex without marriage. “There are some reported homosexual activities in prison,” allows Firdausi, “but I can’t vouch that they take place. Anyway, I’d be the last to condone them.” Also out is damage to property or “any killing or harming.”

Most of Firdausi’s flock, of course, were sent to prison for precisely those last offenses. Many of the people the chaplain sees, he says, are members of the El Rukn gang. Yet he remains untroubled by the backgrounds or persuasions of his followers.

“When a person comes to God, he comes as a person,” he says. “We should look beyond what he is, or has been. We want to fend off the negativism of gang activity, and religion can do that. Sure, we have people here convicted of murder and rape, but what I care about is that they accept Islam now, that they adopt the principles of peaceful living, of nonviolence and brotherhood.

“Islam is so misunderstood,” he says. “The media calls us madmen and terrorists.” But what rankles him most is the antiwhite polemic associated with Elijah Muhammad (the Nation of Islam leader who founded the group’s Chicago church) and his disciple Louis Farrakhan. “Elijah Muhammad said the white man is the devil,” says Firdausi, “but true Islamic teaching does not condone separatism. I make that position clear.” He is heartened by the more temperate philosophy espoused by Elijah Muhammad’s son Wallace.

Firdausi appears to have found an audience at Stateville. His Ramadan sermon goes on for nearly an hour, and while some worshipers take the occasion to nap, the bulk of them listen intently. Bernard Taylor, a Chicagoan in his late 30s incarcerated for a narcotics crime (and the only inmate who will talk for the record), calls Firdausi “a very good man. He has showed us the right path.”

Along with the Friday services, Firdausi executes his ministry through classes on Islam and confidential chats. “If people have family differences, they talk to me,” he says. “A couple weeks ago one guy took something out of my office, and he came back to confess.”

Firdausi is troubled that there are so few chaplains like himself. Only three of 23 Illinois penitentiaries– Stateville, Pontiac, and Joliet–employ full-time Muslim clerics. He estimates that 95 percent of prisons nationwide lack regular Islamic chaplains.

“The worst of it really is that there is no literature available,” he says. With a small contribution from Islamic centers in Chicago and Villa Park, he produced a free, 12-booklet correspondence course in Islamic studies that he mails to inmates all over the country. He is pioneering computer-based religious instruction and is soon going to start writing a course to foster “social skills” in ex-offenders.

“I want people, when they get out of prison, to respect others and be able to earn a livelihood,” Firdausi says. “I’m trying to eliminate hatred and prejudice. That’s the idea of what I do.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.