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From Juan to Shafiq

By Juan Alvarado

uan Alvarado

My parents came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the 60's, an era of repression, persecution, and uncertainty. They came looking for better opportunities. They landed in the South Bronx at a time when there was lots of work available. I was later born in the Bronx, New York. Typical of most other Latinos, I was born into the Roman Catholic faith. My parents were faithful Catholics, who went to church every Sunday. Likewise, I learned to be a faithful Catholic. My childhood memories include catechism classes, public school education, and lots of family. My immediate family gave refuge to friends and other family members who were also immigrants from the Dominican Republic. Hence, I learned early on to look out for others less fortunate.

Ever since childhood I always noticed that I was "spiritual" to say the least. For some reason, I found myself unlike the other children around me and because of it sometimes felt alienated. At age ten, I even had a vision of what at the time I thought was the Virgin Mary. However, looking back I now think the vision I had was a lady in hijab - the traditional covering of a Muslim lady. Could it be a sign?

As a youngster, I went through the motions of what it means to be Catholic. I was baptized, did my communion and confirmation. I was even an altar boy at one point. But by the time I was a teen, I was growing impatient with Catholicism and started exploring different forms of spirituality. Specifically, I felt strongly against the concept of Catholic sainthood and that there is so much written in the Bible that is not followed by that church. By 16, I can confidently say that I renounced Catholicism, although I still considered myself "Christian." I visited different churches of different denominations but just could not feel that sense of belonging. Also, one of the things that I did not like was the interdenominational bickering. Another thing was the complexity of Christianity, or so it seemed to me. I considered myself "Christian" but I had renounced some of its pagan roots - specifically its practices of Christmas and Easter.

During my search, I found an interest in other religions. Specifically, I looked into Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Santeria, and various New Age or Occult movements. I liked Judaism but could not deal with life without Jesus. Buddhism seemed too esoteric and even too bland. Hinduism's caste system and a vast number of gods/goddesses just repelled me. Both of these religions, however, influenced me to become a vegetarian for many years. Santeria was interesting in a historical sense but its secrecy and concept of gods repelled me. The many New Age movements just seemed too complicated and did not get a hold of my full interest.

By the time I was 19, I renounced Christianity once and for all and continued my search. This search led me to read on a non-stop basis, something that I still do. At 20, a friend of mine gave me a book on Islam or what I thought was Islam. He gave me a book that the Ansar Cult published. To sum up their ideas, I would say that they mix authentic Islam with Black Nationalism. It has gone by different names: Ansaru Allah Community and Nuwaubian Nation, among others. After reading up on them, I decided to become "Muslim" at 23. As a matter of fact, I do consider that I was Muslim then but that I was astray. I believed wholeheartedly in the absolute unity of God (tawheed) but had some other ideas that were not on a par with authentic Islam. Because of my intense reading background, I always noted the many mistakes in the Ansar doctrine but I guess I just put up with it because there was something there that I related to. I always noted too that the leader of this movement always changed his beliefs and doctrines every so often, which I found to be strange.

My parents did not like the idea that I became Muslim. I don't think they had the impression I was interested in it. My father thought that having gone to college influenced me in some way. My mother did not mind so much but was afraid I would become the victim of a crime or discrimination. Alhamdulillah, they gradually have come to accept my choice. Unfortunately, their acceptance is merely an acceptance of convenience - as they still cling to their old ways, some of which is haram (prohibited).

After about two years of going to the Ansar mosque, I started going to mainstream mosques as well and noted the differences. One day, while at the Islamic Cultural Center of NY on 96th Street and 3rd Ave., I met a Hispanic brother who noticed that I was 'into' the Ansar movement (he saw that I wore their insignia) and cared enough to give me a book called "The Ansar Cult in America" which set my mind free once and for all.

He introduced me to some brothers in a Hispanic Islamic movement called Alianza Islamica. They were located on Lexington Ave. at the time in the Barrio part of Manhattan. I realized my mistaken ideas and took shahadah with Alianza Islamica. I was 25 then. By God's grace, this only happened because of my habit of reading and because of a brother that cared. I always noted that there were some very dramatic differences between what was written on Islam and what the Ansars wrote and did. In the end, like I said, I pronounced the testimony of faith among the Sunni and so far that is the end of my spiritual story.

It is hard to say precisely what it is that I liked about Islam that attracted me to it because I like it all. If I had to say what initially drew me to Islam, I'd say that Islam's insistence on God's unity would be on the top of the list. I'd also say that Islam's golden history made a lasting impression. This history made me aware that I may possibly have had ancestors that were Muslim because of the Islamic empire within Spain.

Lastly, with regards to my quest, I still love to read but I am no longer searching. I have found what the truth is.