July - Sept 2002, Stories

My Acceptance Story

From the Book of Genesis to Surah Al-Fatihah
By Kenny Yusuf Rodriguez

There is no god but Allah, the One and Only God who was worshipped by Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad and all the prophets (peace be upon them). There is nothing in the earth nor in the skies, whether seen or unseen, large or small, that is deserving of worship other than Allah.

As logical as I see that now, that wasn’t always so clear to me.

Growing up in the middle of New York City in a predominately Latino neighborhood, and at the same time being a byproduct of the 80s generation, I was raised by my mother, my father, and to tell the truth, by what I saw on television. Like most people in our neighborhood, my family and I were nominally Catholic. We would go to church about once a year (if that), and my mother would keep a picture of the Virgin Mary on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen. That’s about the extent of our piety. I once heard someone use the term “Christmas Christians”, and that’s what we are; when it came time for December 25th everybody exchanged gifts and cards, but for the rest of the year religion wasn’t a thing spoken of at the dinner table.

Most of my friends were about as religious as we were. Many of them would defend the Bible and the Church to the death if pushed, but secretly many admitted that they had never even picked up and read a copy of the Bible on their own. Their whole idea of Christianity was formed from what they were taught in Sunday school as little kids, or from whatever they saw on the boob tube.

At around age 14, I became interested in this thing called “Christianity” that everyone around me believed in so much, but nobody ever talked about. When I first began to read the Bible, I noticed something peculiar: many traditions and rituals that were commonly labeled as being “Christian” were nowhere to be found in the Bible. One prime example: many people that I grew up with believed that when a person passes away, after being buried, he or she grows little wings and floats up to heaven as an angel in a sparkling white robe, with a golden harp in hand. That’s what always happened on TV, so it had to be true, right? Come to find out, there is no such phenomenon ever described in the Bible. This perturbed me. Why was this being taught to me both by television and by my elders, when this was nowhere to be found in any religious text, especially in the Bible?

I began to ask people about it, and many of my older friends who happened to be Christian would tell me a totally different story. “When we die, that’s it,” they would say. “There’s nothing else. We get buried in caskets, and we go to sleep for the rest of eternity in our comfy coffins.” Now I was even more confused than before. Both of these descriptions of the afterlife were coming from people who have been Christians for their entire lives, and yet they were totally the opposite from each other. Not only that, but I was totally thrown off when I would open the Bible and read descriptions about the Day of Judgment that had no correlation to the aforementioned stories. So one group said one thing, another group said another thing, and the Bible said something else. What was going on? How could two people who believe in the same religion have totally different pictures of the same event? Shouldn’t the Bible have the final word in the discussion?

It would be years before I would read the following verse in the Qur’an which explained it all to me: “And most of them do not follow (anything) but conjecture; surely conjecture will not avail against the truth. Surely God is aware of what they do.” (English translation, 10:35-36)

Disheartened by the whole thing, I started to read the Bible on my own and I tried my best to follow it word-for-word; I conducted all of my religious practices according to what I found in it. I began to set aside certain days for fasting (Matthew 6:16-18, Acts 12:2-3), I stopped eating pork (Deuteronomy 14:8, Leviticus 11:7-8), and I began to teach myself rudimentary Hebrew to better understand the original language of the Bible. When it came time to go to a church service, I was reluctant to wear a suit and tie. My argument was that Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) never wore suits and ties, so why should I? If anything, he wore a long shawl and sandals when he would visit the temples and synagogues during his time.

Before I ever heard of the Islamic terms “Sajdah” or “Rukoo”, which are commonly translated as “prostration” and “bowing” respectively, I used to prostrate to God with my forehead on the floor when I prayed, because according to the Bible that is how the prophets in the past did (Genesis 17:3, Number 20:6, I Kings 18:42).

Jesus didn’t celebrate Christmas, nor did he tell his followers to do so, so I refrained from it. In fact, he did didn’t even call himself a “Christian”; he was a self-professed follower of Judaism and the laws of Moses established centuries before. If Jesus is the best example to follow, shouldn’t I do the same? As a result, I began to pattern my life after Jesus “the Jew”, as opposed to Jesus “the Christian”.

After doing this for about a year or so, I started to reflect on my situation. I couldn’t be the only Christian in the world that regularly fasts, can I? Am I the only one that doesn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter? I researched the hundreds of Christians sects that exist, from the most orthodox to the most liberal, but none of them appeared correct to me. It seemed like everyone was simply following his or her own ideas of what Christianity was or whatever their parents followed, but not what was in the Bible itself.

I continued in this confused state for a little while longer, until one afternoon when I came across a book that led me to my first step towards Islam. It was a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that my older brother had purchased a couple of years beforehand for a college course. For some reason, the book jumped out at me. I was never one to read anything other than what was assigned to me in school, so I am still not sure what attracted me to the book. Whatever the reason was, I ended up reading it.

I was pessimistic when I first began, trying to find any excuse not to continue on. But with due time, I become intrigued by Malcolm X’s accounts of New York City in the early half of the 20th century, as well as his eventual rise from a street criminal to a world-renown spokesperson against oppression. Reading his descriptions of his pilgrimage to Makkah was my first taste of Islam.

On completing the book, my curiosity led me to research the history of this strange religion I had scarcely known anything about. After reading up on the basics of Islam, and going through a couple of books on the subject, I quickly came to the conclusion: if I want to truly follow the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, I have to become a Muslim! It sounded self-contradictory to me at first, because I was always taught to equate Jesus with Christianity not Islam. However, it all came together like the pieces to a puzzle. Jesus fasted, and Muslims fast. Jesus never ate pork, and Muslims don’t eat pork. Jesus used to prostrate on the floor when he prayed, and Muslims do the same. In fact, many Muslims even dress like Jesus centuries ago! Islam was the only religion that kept the rituals and teachings of the Biblical prophets alive in practice.

To my surprise, I soon noticed that virtually all Islamic practices can be found in the Bible, including ablution before prayer (Exodus 30:17-21, Acts 21:26) and even the veil of women (I Corinthians 11:5-6). Although these practices were often skewed and abandoned after centuries of neglect, they were all there.

It didn’t take long for me to come to the realization that Jesus was simply a messenger in a long series of prophets, from the first prophet Adam to the last prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them all). They were all sent by Allah to teach the same basic message, that is, the oneness of Allah and the teachings of how we as humans should live our lives in order to please Allah and worship Him in the best manner.

Allah states it best in the Holy Qur’an: “The Messiah, the son of Mary, was no more than a messenger: many were the messengers that passed away before him. His woman was a mother of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. See how Allah makes His signs clear to them; yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth.” (English translation, 5:75)

Two years later on December 24th 1999, I officially declared Shahadah at a local mosque, but Allah knows best when I truly professed the Shahadah in my heart.

Praise be to Allah, most of my friends and family were very accepting of my choice, and many noticed the positive change in my attitude and actions right away.

I still remember the first time I entered a mosque. Coming from a Catholic background and attending church services where everyone was either Puerto Rican or Dominican, and to now attend Friday congregational prayers at a mosque where no one is from the same country is quite a change. In my opinion, the best feeling is to walk into a mosque and not know where everyone is from. I have yet to find a place more diverse than a mosque. Only there will one find brothers from the Philippines, Senegal, Bangladesh, Brazil and Palestine, all praying side-by-side to the One God, in the same language, with the same beliefs. The fact that I could pray alongside a person who doesn’t even speak the same language as I do moves me. It shows me that Islam truly transcends culture, language, class, race and any other artificial divisions that humans tend to set up amongst themselves.

Mankind as a whole can benefit from accepting Islam and following the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. I believe that doing so makes one realize that he or she is special; not because of his or her physical looks or financial status, but because one becomes aware that he or she was created by Allah, and specially chosen to be a Muslim. Allah guides whom He wishes to the straight path. I could be anywhere right now, but Allah has willed that I am a Muslim. What a blessing, indeed!

In addition, Islam places a great emphasis on truth and justice, self-discipline, and the pursuit of knowledge; these principles would appeal to anyone.

I am a 20-year-old first generation Dominican-American, and I am currently in my 3rd year in Utica College of Syracuse University. I officially took my Shahadah at age 18 in 1999, but I really became a Muslim at age 15 in 1996.