A Filipino Computer Engineer
Many people came to Saudi Arabia primarily for financial gains. There was, however, something else in store for them. Joe Paul Echon was one of them. His story is full of cultural and spiritual conflicts and their step-by-step solutions. Intelligence, hard work and sincerity of purpose always lead to enviable triumphs. The road to success is very long. More hard work brings about more firm faith and lasting success. Exploration and sound knowledge produce sound results. Ignorance and guesswork leads to a very fragile foundation. In fact, seeking knowledge with an open mind wins half the battle of life. The other half is won through courage and honest commitment to the call of one’s conscious.
Joe belonged to a very strict religious family. He participated in church activities from childhood and was always proud of it. He described his Christian training and background as follows.
I was born in a Roman Catholic family and we attended church services very regularly. As an elementary school student, I was the volunteer child who cleaned the chapel. I was also the assistant to the priest during the communion. As a high school student, I was a choir member who played the guitar and sometimes the piano. I was also a member of the Legion of Mary, which is a group that discusses how to love and worship Mary. We had different statues of Mary; for example, Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Immaculate Conception, etc.
During religious gatherings, our priest used to read the Bible and we simply listened to it. I always wondered why we were not allowed to participate in reading the Bible.
First Major Change in My Life
As a college student, there was a big change in my life with regard to religion. One of my classmates invited me to a non-sectarian group for observation of their activities. It was not easy for me to understand what they were doing and what they were preaching. In my church the priest held the Bible and read it to us. In this Protestant Christian group every member had a Bible in his hand to read. To my surprise, the Bible stressed over and over again not to worship any statue or idol. This was a major lesson for me. I, therefore, switched from being a Roman Catholic to being a Protestant Christian to avoid worshipping any statue. I was the first Protestant Christian in my family. My family also started exploring the teachings of Protestant Christianity and they readily accepted them. We were very active in this church. I started my formal training as a preacher of the Bible. In this way I acquired a sound knowledge of the Bible and was like a small pastor or priest.
The Image of Muslims in the Philippines
I had no idea about Islam. During my school life I did not recognize any Muslim child probably because they were not practicing Islam and hence, could not be distinguished from others. I had a few Muslim teachers during my college life, but they were also just Muslims by name only. I did not care for Muslims since the media had painted a very bad picture of them. For example, they are terrorists. If one Muslim committed a crime, the media used to blame all the Muslims. We were told not to cross in front of Muslims because they might kill you. We were also advised not to deal with Muslims since they are bad persons. I must add here that our priests and pastors never said anything about Muslims since they were always busy criticizing other Christian sects.
My Work Experience
After completing a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Computer Engineering, I joined a company called Intel in the Philippines. We manufactured chips for computer hardware. After a month I shifted my job to another computer company where most of my schoolmates were working. It provided me with professional growth and valuable experience. After five years, I decided to open my own company in a partnership with four other individuals. The company, however, failed because it was run inefficiently. I was the first to resign and leave this firm.
New Job Hunting
A friend suggested that we should try to find a job in Saudi Arabia in order to get more capital. After a few years we would be able to start our own business. We contacted an agency. It had demands for computer engineers from a Saudi Arabian Bank and the manager happened to be in Manila for recruitment. Shortly thereafter, an interview was arranged for us. We were accepted but the salary was not attractive. I declined the offer. The agency kept calling me again and again. Finally, my friend compelled me to join him in this adventure. Thus, I accepted the offer to show respect to my friend and we went to Saudi Arabia.
My Initial Impression of Saudi Arabia
I did not know Arabic and I didn’t like it because I thought it was not useful for the world. Likewise, I did not want to learn Arabic since all my colleagues spoke good English. Regarding our new job, we maintained the computers and the communication’s network for a bank in the Eastern Region of Saudi Arabia. I lived with a Filipino group in an apartment. The life in Saudi Arabia was very different; it had many social restrictions imposed on us even though we were non-Muslims. Thus, I experienced great stress and felt homesick.
One day I rented a cab in Dammam and agreed to pay fifteen Riyals. The cab driver was well dressed and had a large beard. He changed his mind during the journey and demanded more money from me. At the end of the journey, he again insisted that I pay him more money. It annoyed me. I jumped out of the car and asked him, “Don’t you pray five times a day?” He immediately said, “Please give me fifteen Riyals only.” I gave him fifteen and he left quietly. I started reflecting on this incident. I concluded that this cab driver must have a good heart. This was my first positive experience. I started thinking that Saudi’s are basically very good people. It was like a silver lining in a dark cloud.
Another positive thing that happened was related to food. I never tried Saudi food. One time we were in a remote area to complete a project. We were very hungry. There was no chance to get any Filipino food. I ate kabsa(chicken and rice) for the first time. It was very delicious. I was always looking for places that served kabsa. It developed my taste for other Saudi dishes.
Abdullah Al-Amar was my Saudi supervisor in the bank. He had good English skills since he was trained overseas. He was also very talkative. He started telling me a story. During his speech the word Jesus(pbuh) came out of his mouth. I told him, “Stop, just stop here. Jesus(pbuh) is my God. How come you know about him?”
This was the first time I heard the word Jesus(pbuh) from a Muslim. It shocked me. During my two-year stay in Saudi Arabia nobody ever talked to me about Jesus(pbuh). Since my childhood, I believed that the sun is the god of the Muslims because they worship when the sun rises. Similarly, they worship when the sun sets and they also worship when sun is high up in the sky.
Abdullah paused momentarily. He then started sharing the names of various Prophets with me, including Noah, Abraham, Moses and others. He said, “They are our Prophets as well.” I knew the names of these Prophets from the Bible. On hearing this I realized that the Jews, Christians, and Muslims must have some connection.
Investigation of Islam
At this point in time, I started investigating Islam and the religion of Abdullah. I went to Jarir Bookstore in Dammam to buy some books regarding Islam. I started browsing all the bookshelves. I was surprised to see many books on comparative religion, including books on Christianity. The title of one book surprised me a lot. Its title was ‘Jesus, not God, son of Mary’. I bought at least five books on comparative religion and went home to study them. The books had many quotations from the Bible. Soon after that, I asked Abdullah, “Is there any Islamic propagation center in this town?” He pointed one out, which happened to be very near to my home. I went there to see and observe. It seemed to be a new Islamic Propagation Center, so I just stopped in for a while and went back home. Al-Khobar City in the Eastern Region of Saudi Arabia has a very high concentration of Filipinos. Once I went there for window-shopping and learned through a Filipino that there was also an Islamic Center in Khobar. I found this center easily and decided to buy some more books since I had finished the other books. I saw many books on comparative religion in the Islamic Propagation Center that I wanted to buy. The receptionist there told me that these were free for non-Muslims and new Muslims. I insisted to pay for the books. He tried to give me the books as a gift. I again insisted to pay for them. They accepted the money and I walked out of the Center with the new books. I rushed home to investigate their contents. I wanted to discover the twists and tricks they were playing in quoting the Bible in their literature. I had my Bible with me. I hurried to crosscheck the first quote. To my surprise it was correct. I thought it was only to trick me. I compared other quotations one by one. All of them were exactly the same as given in my Bible. This puzzled me. I was still not convinced about Islam. I, however, visited the Propagation Center again. One gentleman invited me to watch a video of Ahmad Deedat. I had decided to be fair in viewing this video. I said to myself that in no way I shall exercise any prejudice. In this video there was a debate between a Muslim scholar and a Christian scholar. Clearly, the Christian scholar failed to defend his faith. After viewing the video, I asked myself, if this famous Christian scholar could not defend his faith, what about me? I am only a follower. At that moment my faith started to collapse. It was as if I had lost a great battle and did not know where to run for help.
There’s No Compulsion in Religion
One day I was playing darts with a Filipino friend who happened to be a Muslim. His name was Radwan Abdus Salam and he was the only Filipino Muslim I knew. I briefly asked him about Islam in a corner while the rest of my friends were busy playing. He did not give me a long lecture. I accompanied him to his home and he gave me an English translation of the Qur’an and a few brochures on comparative religion. My Filipino Muslim friend did not try to persuade me to embrace Islam. I must also add that Brother Abdullah never persuaded me to accept Islam either. Similarly, nobody at the Islamic Propagation Center ever tried to convince me to change my faith. Everybody provided me with the information and left the choice up to my heart and mind. In this way I felt comfortable interacting with Muslims. Had they forced the teachings of Islam on me, I would have been driven away from the Muslims. Nevertheless, I wondered why nobody had ever talked to me about Islam during my first two-year stay in an Islamic country like Saudi Arabia.
The Call of My Conscience
Through extensive study and investigation, three things became very clear to my mind.
(a) Jesus is not God.
(b) The Bible is not in its original form. It is corrupted because of many contradictions. My religion was based on book information. I wondered, if the book is corrupted, how can the religion be correct? If I tried to resolve the contradictions, it would become more complex and confusing. Hence, the religion of Christianity was like a dogma; take it as it is without any ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ about it. This confusion created an internal pressure on my mind.
(c) The statement, ‘There is no god worthy of worship except one God’ was very simple, straightforward and extremely easy to understand. It removed all the pressure from my mind and I felt like a free man. This ease and comfort enabled me to reflect on it again and again. I was pondering over it in my room and also during long distance drives in my car. I used to listen to various cassettes, which I bought from the Islamic Propagation Center. The idea of the Unity of God was becoming more and more clear to me. An internal force was telling me again and again to make a conscientious decision. The truth was so clear to my mind that I did not care what friends and family members would do to me. All I wanted to know was how to become a Muslim. Therefore, I went to the Aqrabiya Islamic Propagation Center in Khobar to accept Islam. As I entered the center, Islamic lectures were in progress in different rooms and in various languages. I joined the Filipino group. Brother Fareed Oquendo was the lecturer. After his lecture I asked him “How can a person become a Muslim?” He asked me, “Do you want to become a Muslim?” I promptly said, “Yes, indeed.” Everybody was surprised since it was my first time to attend an Islamic lecture at this center. Mr. Fareed asked me, “Are you sure you want to accept Islam? Have you read enough about Islam?” I said, “Yes, I have.” I was again surprised that nobody was forcing me or trying to talk me into embracing Islam. I came across a Saudi brother there. He said to me, “Your face is that of a Muslim.” Mr. Fareed gathered the participants of all the lectures and instructed me, “Please repeat what the Saudi brother says in Arabic. It will then be repeated in English announcing that there is no god but One God and Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is His Messenger. This simple statement makes you a Muslim.” After this brief and simple ceremony all the participants made a line and hugged me one by one and congratulated me from the core of their hearts. They were saying loudly over and over, Takbir! Allahu Akbar, i.e., God is the Greatest, God is the Greatest.
When Joe was describing this incident to me, he was crying with happiness. He said, “I never expected anything like this to happen to me. This sweet and peaceful remembrance of the past always touches my heart. All praise is due to Allah, since Satan was not able to scare me away from saying the testimony to become a Muslim because of any bad reactions that might occur from friends or family members.”
After the shahada or the above pronouncement, Brother Fareed asked me, “What Muslim name would you like to have?” I thought to myself that I would like to have the name of the person who talked to me about Islam during my first visit to this center. This person was very polite, logical and informative. He impressed me by his manners, brief presentation and precise explanations. I did not know his name. I, however, recognized the person I argued with to pay for some books and cassettes. I asked him, “What was the name of that person who talked to me after purchasing the books from you?” He said, “I recall that he was Sheikh Saleh. I told them that Saleh would be my name from now on. The brother instructed me to go home, take a bath and supplicate to Allah to show my gratitude to Him.
My First Salat (Prayer)
I took a bath that evening and had a sound sleep. I went to the mosque for Fajr Prayer the next morning. I was shy to enter the mosque since I did not know what to do. One Sudanese brother passed near me and noticed my hesitation. He said to me, “Come right in. What’s stopping you?” I told him, “I became a Muslim last night. I don’t know how to pray.” He said, “Come in I shall show you.” He explained how I should clean myself in the toilet. He also demonstrated how to make ablution. He added, “Just follow us in salat and make a dua'(supplication) at the end.” When I made my first sojood(forehead touching the floor while kneeling down), I felt so great that I could never explain that feeling again. I always pray to Allah to give me back my first sojood. Since that day, I’ve been performing my sala five times a day.
I started going to the Islamic Propagation Center regularly every evening. I learned the Arabic alphabet and how to read and write Arabic. Gradually, I started reading the Qur’an. The primary goal of my life was to learn how to read the Qur’an correctly and fluently. I also learned the Pillars of Islam and the Pillars of Faith in detail. General lectures were very inspiring. Brother Ahmad Ricalde was our teacher. He made the lectures interesting and fascinating. I did not like to disrupt these educational activities. I, therefore, postponed my vacations to visit parents and my homeland. Among many other things, it was made clear to me that involvement in usury in any form is forbidden in Islam. It is also prohibited to eat any meals upon which any kind of supplication is made to other than Allah. I took all the teachings of Islam very seriously and I tried my best to follow them. I was content and was very proud of my lifestyle. However, my colleagues and housemates did not know about this big change in my life.
A Funny Accident
One day our Supervisor, Mr. Abdullah, assigned a job to us in a remote area. We were supposed to go home, eat lunch and proceed to the site of the project. I slipped away and did wudhu(ablution) to offer the afternoon salat. On the way I ran into Mr. Abdullah. He saw my hands and face wet with water. He asked me, “What is this?” I told him that I did wudhu to offer salat. He asked me, “Are you a Muslim?” I said, “Yes.” He was overjoyed. He told me not to go to the project and see him in the office after salat. Mr. Abdullah called his family on the phone to break the news. He took me with him to his home and there was a big celebration with his family. I immediately felt like part of the family.
Reaction of Friends
I was living with five other Filipino friends in a house. Two persons shared every room. I shared a room with my close friend and classmate from college. All of us cooked and ate dinner and lunch together. Two incidents took place during this time.
My friends were celebrating New Year’s Day and so a sumptuous dinner was prepared. I was invited to join in on the dinner. However, I put a condition on my participation. I demanded that they not pray during the dinner. They agreed. I, however, noticed that they prayed before the dinner, as is done in the Christian faith. They broke the promise they made with me. I, therefore, walked out of the dinner.
Another similar incident happened. As I mentioned earlier, we used to eat lunch together. I, however, used to slip away to perform my afternoon prayers and join them a bit late. One day I was later than usual. They finished their lunch. I only saw my roommate there. He asked me jokingly, “Were you praying?” I told him, “You really put me on spot. Yes, I was praying.” He said, “Are you kidding?” I told him, “I am a Muslim.” He spread the word among our Filipino friends. It caused a big change in my friendship with my housemates.
All of them gathered in my room and the first thing they said to me was that I was a backslider. Then they asked me the usual questions one is asked as a new Muslim. What is Islam? How did you find it? Whatever they asked me, I opened the books and shared the answers with them. This was my first experience of talking to others about Islam. They were trying to revert me back to Christianity. I answered their questions nicely and without any annoyance. Finally, one person closed his Bible and said to me, “What are you trying to prove?” I told them, “It is clear that Islam is the true religion. It is also true that Jesus(pbuh) is not God but a messenger of Allah.” Consequently, they left since they were disappointed. There was no more discussion among us. They were always going together for their activities. I was left alone. I, therefore, started looking for my Filipino friend, Abdus Salam, but he changed his residence. I discovered his new home through some contacts, so I visited him. Abdus Salam had just returned from Hajj. I said salam(peace) to him. He was surprised. I told him that I embraced Islam and suggested that we share a room to lead an Islamic life. Abdus Salam’s roommate was a non-Muslim, so Abdus Salam found a new apartment and we moved there immediately. We were friends and enjoyed our life there. We used to go to the Islamic Propagation Center together for education and advancements. We supported each other as true brothers.
Dream Came True
Our teacher for Quranic recitation at the Propagation Center was Mr. Mohammad, a middle-aged Egyptian brother. This was his volunteer job. He was working full-time as an office boy with a firm to make both ends meet. One day Abdus Salam and I paid him a courtesy visit. We found that he was living in a very tiny room with very deplorable conditions. We also noticed that one wall of his room was full of Quranic cassettes stacked on various shelves. We suggested and requested him to move into our room. There would be no rent or utilities for him. He should, however, promise to teach us Quran. Brother Mohammad eagerly accepted the offer. He was teaching us Quran every day after Fajr. In this way we learned the recitation of the Quran from a professional reciter. Thank God our dream came true.
I used to play and sing with the guitar since elementary school. I also learned how to play piano when I was in high school. I had my guitar and mouthpiece instrument with me in Saudi Arabia. I had a large collection of music recorded on high-quality cassette tapes. On top of this I was a chain smoker. I voluntarily stopped smoking as soon as I embraced Islam. One day I saw one person smoking at my job. My tongue curled inside my mouth and tempted me to taste a cigarette. I, however, did not touch one for fear of Almighty Allah. I sold my guitar and cassette tapes for petty coins, since I wanted to get rid of these as fast as I could. One person pointed to my mouthpiece instrument. I told him that he could have it free. Now I had more time to devote to my Islamic growth.
First Visit to Parents
I was planning to visit the Philippines during my vacation. Abdus Salam informed me that his wife and daughters had accepted Islam and that I should visit his family during my stay in the Philippines to impart some Islamic education to his family. When I arrived to Manila, my parents received me. Christian priests had taught us to put the hand of each parent on our foreheads to show respect to them. I did not do it when I met my parents at the airport. Alternately, I kissed their foreheads. They were surprised. We, however, drove home in high spirits.
My father was a former military man and always wore a serious face. He was somewhat reserved in his disposition. My mother was a college graduate and worked as a teacher. It was usually easier to talk to my mother. I said to my mother, “I am a Muslim and I shall not eat pork.” It was a big surprise for my parents. They told me that they had especially bought pork ribs for me. Pork ribs are considered a great delicacy in the Philippines.
It would not be inappropriate if the writer described one of his experiences with pork ribs. I was a mathematics teacher in America and my students used to ask me the difference between Islam and Christianity. I told them, “Apart from other things, Muslims do not eat pork.” One of my students said, “Mr. Ahmad, you don’t know what you’re missing. Pork barbecue ribs are finger-licking good.” After this remark, all of them laughed boisterously and kept saying, “Mr. Ahmad doesn’t know what he is missing.”
Saleh’s faith was very strong. He flatly declined pork and pork products. Saleh said to me, “My parents had no other choice but to give me halal (Islamically permissible) food.”
During my stay in the Philippines I tried to impart Islamic teachings to my parents and other relatives. I was very aggressive and wanted them to see the truth very quickly. It created a lot of arguments and the climate in my house remained tense throughout my stay there. I was an inexperienced preacher and wished to have quick results. I realize now that my approach was wrong. I really feel sorry about it since I put them through much aggravation due to my faulty approach. Furthermore, the success of guidance is according to the Will of Allah and not the preacher. Thus, the preacher should not be upset.
I did visit Abdus Salam’s family and shared with them what little I knew. On my return to Saudi Arabia I advised Abdus Salam to relocate his family near the Islamic Propagation center in Cavite City near Manila. In this way his family would be able to receive Islamic teachings and it would be easier for them to practice Islam in an Islamic environment. Abdus Salam liked the idea and moved his family near this center.
Second Visit to the Philippines
The next year Abdus Salam and I went to the Philippines at the same time. I was very happy to see that his family had acquired a lot of Islamic education. This time I noticed that his wife and daughters were wearing the Islamic veil and displayed a great deal of advancement in practicing Islamic teachings. So much so that Abdus Salam asked me to marry his daughter. I told him that I would give him an answer soon. Unfortunately, the environment in my house was so tense that I could not return to brother Abdus Salam’s house in time. He left for Saudi Arabia. I told his wife, “I accept the proposal but give me one year.” I called Abdus Salam in Madina Munawwara, Saudi Arabia and explained to him the reason of my inability to see him before his departure from the Philippines. I also told him that I accepted the proposal and, God willing, the marriage would take place next year.
Dialogue with Pastors
My mom was trying her best to revert me to Christianity. She invited a pastor to our home and I had a lengthy dialogue with him. He failed to convince me.
My mom invited another pastor and sat with us to hear the arguments. My father was watering plants nearby and simultaneously listened to our dialogue with a keen ear. I gave answers to the pastor from my books on comparative religion. He had no sound argument. He left saying that he would bring a senior pastor with him. I told him, ” I am waiting anxiously for your visit.” They never returned. My father walked up to my mother and said, “Your son has more knowledge than your pastor.” I told my father politely, “Perhaps he needs to collect his facts and figures together.” I said this to not hurt her feelings since he was her pastor and teacher of religion.
Priority of My Life
The priority of my life at this time was not marriage. My first goal was to quit my job with the bank. I sought advice from many scholars. I appreciated their excellent counseling. They said, “Make the sincere intention for a change to a more suitable job, but don’t quit the present job now. In that case, you would have to leave the country and we would lose you. Look for a new job and make the change as soon as possible.” I looked for advertisements in the Arab News. There was a job for a Fax operator. I went for the interview. The interviewer asked me why I left the present job since it offered me much more salary. I told him that it was a personal reason. He told me that I was over qualified for this job and so he rejected me.
Another company was hiring support engineers. The salary was again less than my present salary. I went for an interview and told them that I shall not argue about salary. I just need a change for a personal reason. I was accepted and moved to this new company. It was a great blessing in disguise since I started working as a maintenance engineer in one of the most holy places on earth, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madina, Saudi Arabia.
After one year Abdus Salam and I went to the Philippines together and the marriage took place. I explained to my parents and other relatives that it would be an Islamic marriage. They agreed to take part in it. The formal marriage ceremony took only five minutes. After that, I told my parents that is it. My grandmother said very loudly, “I have not yet seen the bride and the bridegroom together as in a Christian marriage.” My mother pacified her stating that it was an Islamic marriage. My parents became much more understanding. I was still in the Philippines during a few days of Ramadhan. My mother was cooking food for me to break my fast.
After my vacation I left for Madina and my wife joined me there. Allah has blessed us with two daughters, Safa and Marwa.
At present, I have a full-time job and I attend the Islamic Propagation Center in Madinah as a volunteer to help new Muslims. May Allah accept my humble contribution and strengthen my iman(faith) and make, my wife, children and me God fearing.