the Watchtower to the Minaret
He sends down from the sky mountain masses [of clouds] wherein is
hail: He strikes therewith whom He pleases and He turns it away
from whom He pleases. The vivid flash of His lightning well-nigh
blinds the sight. (Qur'an
by Raphael Narbaez,
forty-two-year-old Latino, Raphael is a Los Anodes-based comic and
lecturer. He was born in Texas, where he attended his first Jehovah's
Witness meeting at age six, gave his first Bible sermon at eight,
tended his own congregation at twenty, and was headed for a position
of leadership among the 904,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in the United
States.1 But he traded in his Bible for a Qur'an after having braved
a visit to a local mosque.
On November 1, 1991, he embraced Islam, bringing to the Muslim community
the organizational and speaking skills he developed among Jehovah's
Witnesses. He speaks with the urgency of a new convert, but one
who can make immigrant Muslims laugh at themselves.
He told his
story mimicking a cast of characters.
I remember vividly
being in a discussion where we were all sitting in my parents' living
room and there were some other Jehovah's Witnesses there. They were
talking about: "It's Armageddon! The time of the end! And Christ
is coming! And you know the hailstones are going to be out here
as big as cars! God is going to use all kinds of things to destroy
this wicked system and remove the governments! And the Bible talks
about the earth opening up! It's going to swallow whole city blocks!"
there are 4.5 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide.
I'm scared to
death! And then my mother turned around: "See what's going
to happen to you if you don't get baptized, and if you don't do
God's will? The earth is going to swallow you up, or one of these
huge hailstones is going to hit you on the head [klonk], knock you
out, and you will not exist ever again. I'll have to make another
I wasn't going
to take a chance being hit by one of those big hailstones. So I
got baptized. And of course Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in
the sprinkling of the water. They submerge you completely, hold
you there for a second, and then bring you back up.
I did that at
the age of thirteen, September 7, 1963, in Pasadena, California,
at the Rose Bowl. It was a big international assembly. We had 100,000
people2. We drove all the way from Lubbock, Texas.
2. 118,447 people
.mended the public talks; 2,496 people were baptized.
started giving bigger talksten minutes in front of the congregation.
And a circuit servant3 recommended me to give the hour lectures
that are done on Sunday when they invite the general public. They
usually reserved those [sermons] for the elders of the congregation.
[In an authoritarian
voice:} "Sure he's young. But he can handle it. He's a good
Christian boy. He has no vices, and he's obedient to his parents
and seems to have pretty good Bible knowledge."
So at the age
of sixteen I started giving hour lectures in front of whole congregations.
I was assigned first a group in Sweetwater, Texas, and then eventually
in Brownfield, Texas, I got my first congregation. At age twenty,
I had become what they call a pioneer minister.
have a very sophisticated training program, and they also have kind
of a quota system. You had to devote ten to twelve hours a month
to door-to-door preaching. It's like sales management. IBM has nothing
on these guys.
So when I became
a pioneer minister, I devoted most of my full time to doing the
door-to-door ministry. I had to do like 100 hours a month, and I
had to have seven Bible studies. I started lecturing other congregations.
I began to get a lot of responsibility, and I was accepted at a
school in Brooklyn, New York, a very elite school that Jehovah's
Witnesses have for the creme de la creme, the top one percent. But
I didn't go.
A few things
no longer made sense to me. For example, the quota system. It seemed
like every time I wanted to turn a corner and get into another position
of responsibility I had to do these secular material things to prove
my godliness. It's like if you meet your quotas [his month, God
loves you. If you don't meet your quotas next month. God doesn't
love you. That didn't make very much sense. One month God loves
me and one month He doesn't?
The other thing
I starred noticing is tunnel vision. Jehovah's Witnesses are the
only ones who are going to he saved in God's new order, nobody else,
because all of them are practicing false religions. Well, I thought,
Mother Teresa's a Catholic. That's our dire enemy. So I said, Wait
a minute. Mother Teresa has spent her entire life doing things that
Jesus said: take care of the poor, the sick, the orphans. Bur she's
not going to have God's favor because she's a Catholic?
the Catholic Church because they had a man, a priest, whom they
had to confess to. And we'd say, "You shouldn't have to go
a man to confess your sins! Your sin is against God!" And yet
we went to a Body of Elders. You confessed your sin to them, and
they put you on hold, and said [Elder as telephone operator:] "Hold
on Just a minute . . . What do you think, Lord? No? . . . Okay,
I'm sorry, we tried our best but you're not repentant enough. Your
sin is too big, so you cither lose your fellowship in the church
or you're going to be on probation."
If the sin is
against God, shouldn't I directly go to God and beg for mercy?
nail that hit the coffin was that I noticed that they started reading
their Bible less. Jehovah's Witnesses have books for everything
that are put out by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.4 The
only people on the entire planet who know how to interpret Bible
Scripture correctly are that group of men, that committee in Brooklyn,
who tell Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide how to dress, how to talk,
what to say, what not to say, how to apply Scripture and what the
future is going to be like. God told them, so they can tell us.
I appreciated the books. But if the Bible is the book of knowledge
and if it's God's instructions, well, shouldn't we get our answers
out of the Bible? Paul himself said find out for yourself what is
a true and acceptable word of God. Don't let men tickle your ears.
4. The publishing
arm of the organization. The Watchtower, its bimonthly magazine,
has perhaps the highest circulation of any religious periodical16,400,000
copies, printed in 112 languages.
I starred saying,
"Don't worry so much about what the Watchtower says read
the Bible for yourself." Ears started to prick up.
drawl:} "I think we got us an apostate here. Judge. Yup. I
think this old boy's one taco short of something."
Even my father
said, "You better watch it, young man, that's the demons talking
right there. That's the demons trying to get in and cause division."
I said, "Dad,
it's not the demons. People don't need to read so much of these
other publications. They can find their answers with prayer and
in the Bible."
I no longer felt at ease. So in 1979, knowing that I could not make
headway, 1 left, disgruntled and with a bad taste in my mouth, because
all my life I had put my soul, my heart, my mind into the church.
That was the problem. I didn't put it in God. I put it in a man-made
I can't go to
other religions. As a Jehovah's Witness, I had been trained, through
the Scriptures, to show that they are all wrong. That idolatry is
bad. Trinity doesn't exist.
I'm like a man
without a religion. I was not a man without a God. But where could
In 1985, I decided
to come to Los Angeles and get on the Johnny Carson show and make
my mark as a great comedian and actor. I have always felt like I
was born for something. I didn't know whether it was going to be
finding the cure to cancer or becoming an actor. I kept praying
and it got frustrating after a while.
So I Just went
to the Catholic church close to my house, and I tried it. I remember
on Ash Wednesday I had that ash cross on my forehead. I was trying
anything I could. I went for about two or three months, and I just
couldn't do it anymore, man. It was:
your tongue out.
You got a lot
of exercise. I think I lost about five pounds. But that's about
it. So now I'm more lost than ever.
But it never
passed through my mind that there is not a Creator. I have His phone
number, but the line's always busy.
I'm doing my
little movie shots. A film called Deadly Intent. A telephone commercial
in Chicago. An Exxon commercial. A couple of bank commercials. In
the meantime I'm doing construction work on the side.
on this mall. It's the holiday season, and they put these extra
booths in the hallways. There was a gal at one, and we had to pass
right in front of her. I'd say, "Good morning, how are you?"
If she said anything, it was ''Hi." And that was it.
Finally, I said,
"Miss, you never say anything. I just wanted to apologize if
there was something I said wrong."
She said, "No,
you see, I'm a Muslim."
Muslim, and Muslim women, we don't talk to men unless we have something
specific to talk about; otherwise we don't have anything to do with
She said, "Yes,
we practice the religion of Islam."
do you spell that?"
At the time,
I knew that Muslims were all terrorists. She doesn't even have a
beard. How could she possibly be Muslim?
this religion get starred?"
there was a prophet."
I started some
research. But I just came from one religion. I had no intention
of becoming Muslim.
are over. The booth moves. She's gone.
to pray, and asked why my prayers weren't being answered. In November
of 1991, I was going to bring my uncle Rockie home from the hospital.
I started to empty his drawers to pack his stuff and there was a
Gideon Bible. I said, God has answered my prayers. This Gideon Bible.
(Of course, they put it in every hotel room.) This is a sign from
God that He's ready to teach me.
So I stole the
I went home
and I started praying: O God, teach me to be a Christian. Don't
teach me the Jehovah's Witness way. Don't teach me the Catholic
way. Teach me Your way! You would not have made this Bible so hard
that ordinary people sincere in prayer could not understand it.
I got all the
way through the New Testament. I started the Old Testament. Well,
eventually there's a part in the Bible about the prophets.
I said, Wait
a minute, that Muslim lady said they had a prophet. How come he's
not in here?
I started thinking,
Muslimsone billion in the world. Man, one out of every five
people on the street theoretically could be a Muslim. And I thought:
One billion people! C'mon now, Satan is good. But he's not that
So then I said,
I'll read their book, the Qur an, and I'll see what kind of pack
of lies this thing is. It probably has an illustration on how to
disassemble an AK-47. So I went to an Arabic bookstore.
"What can I help you with?"
for a Qur'an."
we have some over here."
They had some
very nice onesthirty dollars, forty dollars.
I just want to read it, I don't want to become one, okay?"
we have this little five-dollar paperback edition."
I went home,
and started reading my Qur'an from the beginning, with Al-Fatihah.
And I could not get my eyes off of it.
Hey, look at
this. It talks about a Noah in here. We have Noah in our Bible too.
Hey, it talks Lot and Abraham. I can't believe it. I never knew
Satan's name was Iblis. Hey, how about that.
When you get
that picture on your TV set and it's got a little bit of static
and you push that button [klop\fine-tune. That's exactly what
happened with the Qur'an.
I went through
the whole thing. So I said, Okay, I've done this, now what's the
next thing you got to do? Well, you gotta go to their meeting place.
I looked in the yellow pages, and I finally found it: Islamic Center
of Southern California, on Vermont. I called and they said, "Come
Now I really
start getting nervous, 'cause now I know I'm going to have to confront
Habib and his AK-47.
I want people
to understand what it's like for an American Christian coming into
Islam. I'm kidding about the AK-47, but I don't know if these guys
have daggers under their coats, you know. So I come up to the front,
and sure enough, there's this six-foot-three, 240-pound brother,
beard and everything, and I'm Just in awe.
I walked up
and said, "Excuse me, sir."
"Go to the back!"
He thought I
was already a brother.
I said, "Yessir,
I didn't know
what I was going back for, but I went back anyway. They had the
tent and the rugs were out. I'm standing there, kind of shy, and
people are sitting down listening to the lecture. And people are
saying. Go ahead, brother, sit down. And I'm going. No, thanks,
no, thanks, I'm just visiting.
So finally the
lecture's over. They're all lined up for prayer and they go into
sajdah. I was really taken aback.
It started making
sense intellectually, in my muscles, in my bones, in my heart and
So prayers are
over. I say, hey, who's going to recognize me? So I start to mingle
like I'm one of the brothers, and I'm walking into the mosque and
a brother says, "Assalaamu alaikum." And I thought, Did
he say "salt and bacon"?
guy who said "salt and bacon" to me.
I didn't know
what in the world they were saying, but they all smiled. Before
one of these guys noticed that I was nor supposed to be there and
took me to the torture chamber, or beheaded me, I wanted to see
as much as I could. So eventually I went to the library, and there
was a young Egyptian brother; his name was Omar. God sent him to
Omar comes up
to me, and he says, "Excuse me. This your first rime here?"
He has a real strong accent.
And I said,
Yeah, it is.
good. You are Muslim?"
just reading a little."
are studying? This is your first visit to a mosque?"
let me show you around." And he grabs me by the hand, and I'm
walking with another manholding hands. I said, These Muslims
So he shows
of all, this is our prayer hall, and you take your shoes off right
are little cubicles. That's where you put your shoes."
because you're approaching the prayer area, and it's very holy.
You don't go in there with your shoes on; it's kept real clean."
So he takes
me to the men's room.
here, this is where we do wudu,"
I didn't read anything about voodoo!"
because I saw that stuff with the dolls and the pins, and I'm just
not ready for that kind of commitment yet."
He says, "No,
wudu, that's when we clean ourselves."
you do that?"
when you pray to God, you have to be clean, so we wash our hands
So I learned
all these things. He let me go, and said, Come back again.
I went back
and asked the librarian for a booklet on prayer, and I went home
and practiced. I felt that if I was trying to do it right, God would
accept it. I Just continued to read and read and visit the mosque.
I had a commitment
to go on a tour of the Midwest on a comedy circuit. Well, I took
a prayer rug with me. I knew that I was supposed to pray at certain
times, but there are certain places where you are not supposed to
pray, one of which is in the bathroom. I went into a men's room
on a tourist stop and I laid out my carpet and I started doing my
I came back,
and when Ramadan was over, I started getting calls from different
parts of the country to go and lecture as a Jehovah's Witness minister
who embraced Islam. People find me a novelty.
likes apple pie and he drives a Chevy truck. He is a red-blooded
American boy. He was a Jehovah's Witness."
people that come in the morning?"
let us sleep on Sundays?"
this guy was one of them. Now he's one of us."
would come up to me and say [Pakistani accent],
your talk was so good. But you know, in the Shafi'i school
The only thing
I could do was turn to them and say, "Gee, brother, I'm so
sorry, I wish I knew about that, but I don't know anything about
Islam except what's in the Qur'an and Sunnah.
Some of them
are taken aback and say, ''Ha-ha! Poor brother. He doesn't know
anything. He only knows the Qur'an."
what I'm supposed to know. And it's been a very loving protection.
I think it's all in God's hands.
hajj in 1993.
Taken from the
American Jihad: Islam after Malcolm X
Steven Barboza, 1995