This is the First Chapter of my book “Searching for God, and Finding Allah”. I am still writing and hope to be finished in the next few months. It is also available on my Blog in Indonesian language with the title: Mencari Tuhan, Menemukan Allah (link at the bottom of this page).
SEARCHING FOR GOD AND FINDING ALLAH:
The Spirtual Journey Of A Convert To Islam, Who Compared Christianity And Islam In A Search For Truth
By Gene Netto
1. About Me
2. Wanting To See God
3. A Chain Of Prophets
4. A Sign From God
5. Followers Of Jesus
6. Followers Of Jesus, Followers Of Muhammad
7. The Truth Of Islam
8. This Is What Allah Says About The Qur’an
9. A Logical Religion
10. Our Spiritual Needs And Allah’s Solution
11. You Decide What Happens Next
1. ABOUT ME
Assalamu’alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Almost every time I meet someone and have a conversation about Islam, I am interrupted. Everyone wants to know the same thing: how did I become a Muslim? I have been living in Indonesia since 1995, and so most of my conversations are held here, mostly in Indonesian language, but occasionally in English. I then get further questions about how I learned Indonesian so well and how did I come to live in Indonesia. In this chapter, I will answer those questions so that I can move on to a discussion about Christianity and Islam. In this book, I would like to explain why I consider Christianity unacceptable from a logical perspective and how I have learned that Islam is a very logical religion that cannot be denied.
On the 28th of April, 1970, I was born in Nelson which is a small city in the South Island of New Zealand (near Australia). My parents met in the city of Nelson, close to where my mother was born, but quite far from where my father was born in Burma (also called Myanmar now). My grandfather left Burma a few years after World War II ended, and after a couple of years in Australia he settled in New Zealand. My parents met, got married and had three children. My brother and sister both have blue eyes but mine are a mixture of brown and green, so it seems I was already “different” from birth.
When I was a child I did not always feel comfortable in New Zealand. My family was Catholic and my mother had white skin, so that should have been okay, but I remember people would often ask me where I was from or where my parents were from. My brother and sister could blend in more easily because they had blue eyes. With my darker eyes and darker hair, I looked more different than they did. I always felt like I was not really a white person, but I was not Asian either. So what did that make me? This played on my mind from time to time. I thought a lot about the world, about different countries, cultures and religions, and perhaps that was because I did not feel like I belonged to any of them.
As I got older, I began to think a lot about more serious topics: the pyramids, dinosaurs, different civilizations, the whole world, religion, the stars and the universe. I remember staring at the stars in the sky and thinking about where they all came from. I was about 9 or 10 years old and I wanted to know everything. At that time, the movie “Jurassic Park” had not been made, and I think I was the only kid in my class who was interested in dinosaurs. I could not understand why no one else was interested. Dinosaurs were cool! I wanted to know where they came from and why they had disappeared. I was generally a very curious boy.
Like most kids, I had to learn about religion as well. I remember going to Sunday School, but not for very long. I had to learn all of the standard Bible stories about Abraham, Moses and Noah. It always seemed strange to me that Noah could get so many animals into a boat. And how did he get the giraffes from Africa to come over? And where did he put the poisonous snakes? A lot of things were confusing, but Noah was the least of my concerns.
Whenever I asked questions about religion, I was not really satisfied with the answers. But I did not always push for more. I was old enough to sense when an adult was having trouble answering a question and therefore feeling embarrassed. So, I got confused, but did not talk about it much. I wanted to understand, but it was not that easy.
I learned that there was a Trinity. That God was also Jesus and also the Holy Spirit. They were separate, but they were also one. Three, but one. They were all God, the three of them, but there was only one God. God became a man (Jesus) and that man was the Son of God, and also God. That man died, but God cannot die. But that man is God. He died. But God cannot die. But he is God. So, he died, even though he cannot die. He is both immortal and mortal at the same time. I found that quite confusing.
I also had trouble when thinking about the role of a Catholic Priest in forgiving someone for his or her sins without discussing it with God. What if the priest got it wrong and my sins were not erased? Could I get some written proof from God that my sins had been forgiven? What if I met God on Judgment Day and found out, that the priest had made a mistake and that all of my sins still existed? If I protested and pointed to the priest who had convinced me that all of my sins were forgiven, then all God would have to say to end the discussion would be “Who told you to believe him?” Who would be able to save me if the priest was wrong and my sins were still counted by God? Unlike God’s Prophets, priests are not appointed directly by God. They are just a bunch of fallible human beings who tell us things and then (often) tell us not to question them or the Church.
I began to think about how I could get a clear answer to all of the religious questions that were bothering me. Finally, I figured out how to get some answers: I would have to speak directly to God. Only God could answer all of my questions.
One night, I waited until late at night when everyone was asleep. I sat up in bed and prayed to God. I told Him to appear in my bedroom so that I could see Him with my own eyes. I told Him that I was ready to believe in Him if I could just see Him one time and get some answers to my questions. I was always told that “God can do anything” and so of course He should be able to appear in my room when I told Him to. That should be easy for Him to do. I prayed and stared at my bedroom window, expecting to see a “light” or some type of “Godliness”.
I waited and waited. 10 minutes. 20 minutes. Where was God? People said that God was “All Hearing” so He should have been able to hear me. I waited some more, still staring at the window. Why had God not come? Was He too busy? Was He stuck in a traffic jam? I kept staring at my window. I waited and waited, giving Him a fair opportunity to show up. But, it seemed that He was too busy that evening because He never came.
That made me confused. I had already promised to believe in Him, and all He had to do was show up in my room and prove to me that He existed. That was fair, wasn’t it? The next day I tried calling on God to show up again. Maybe He really had been busy and so I should be fair and give Him one more chance. I should not just give up on Him like that. However, the result was the same: He did not come.
At that time, I decided that there was only one course of action left for me: I had to declare myself an atheist and not believe in any gods at all. That would really make God feel upset when He found out about that. I told God (in my heart) that there was no such thing as God and that anyone who believed in Him was a fool who was just wasting his time. I was actually telling God off, and giving Him a piece of my mind. I wanted Him to know for certain that I did not believe in Him anymore.
In the days that followed I waited for a response. I gave God time to come to me and apologize for not turning up to see me in my room. I had made my position clear and now it was up to God to respond. I was not going to do anything else until I got an apology or an explanation. As days weeks and months went past without any response from God, I finally came to the conclusion that God did not exist! I had proven it “scientifically”. If God really existed, then He would have heard my prayers and He would have appeared in my bedroom when I told Him to come. The fact that He did not come was proof that God did not exist. It was true. It was logical. It was scientific. I had proven it. I was ten years old.
I continued passing through various grades at school and did not make a big deal of the fact that I did not believe in God. If anyone ever asked what religion I was, I just said Catholic so that I did not have to explain being an atheist. During the rest of primary school, junior high school and high school, I didn’t waste much of my time studying religion (meaning Christianity), except to look for the flaws in it. I was certain that studying religion, any religion, was just a waste of time because God was not real. After I finished high school, my parents decided to move to Brisbane in Australia. I was asked if I wanted to come with them or stay in New Zealand, so I decided to go for a while and see what Australia was like.
In Brisbane, I decided to study psychology at university. I wanted to be a child psychologist but my application was not accepted because my grades were not high enough and psychology was a very competitive faculty so it was not easy to get in. As a second option, I was offered a place in Asian Studies at Griffith University. I was told that I could do Asian Studies for 1 year, improve my grades, and then reapply to study Psychology. That sounded like a good plan and so I accepted a place in the Faculty of Asian International Studies at Griffith University, with the intention of transferring to psychology after one year.
In the first year of Asian Studies, every student had to take an Asian language for one year. The choices were Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Indonesian. I chose Indonesian because it seemed the easiest of the four and I was only planning to do it for one year anyway. Within 6 months, I was getting some of the highest scores in my class. Suddenly, we were informed that scholarships were available for three students to study in Indonesia for 6 months. I did not take part in the selection process because I was planning on leaving Asian Studies and joining Psychology. After three students were chosen, one of them suddenly had to withdraw. The selection process was opened again, but now there was only one place available. One of my lecturers called me into his office and asked why I had not applied for the scholarship. I explained my intention of changing to another faculty at the end of the year. He suggested that I continue with Asian Studies and Indonesian language as he could see that I had talent for languages.
I gave it some more thought and based on his advice I decided to stay in my faculty, and I also decided to put my name forward for the scholarship to go to Indonesia. I won the scholarship and would go to Indonesia the following year, in 1991. Now I became more serious about my studies because my goal was clearer.
One day the Indonesian Club on campus held a barbecue and invited all the Australian students who were learning Indonesian as well as all of the overseas students from Indonesia who were studying at Griffith. An Indonesian man came and sat next to me and began to chat. He asked if I was studying Indonesian and I said yes. Then he suddenly asked me something that I did not expect; he asked me if I had learned anything about Islam. I told him that, of course, we had to learn the basics of all major religions in Asia in one of our courses.
Then he really shocked me. He said: “Gene, do you know that in Islam only God can forgive you for your sins? There are no priests that can forgive you!” I did not know what to say. I still remember sitting there on that bench, with a hotdog half way into my mouth. I just froze. Time seemed to stand still for several seconds. Then I suddenly realized that he had given me the logical answer I had been looking for during the previous ten years. In Islam, only God could forgive you for your sins. That was logical. Was it possible that there really was one religion based on logic after all? Was it possible that Islam contained teachings that I could analyse critically without getting confused? Was it possible that Islam could give me real answers to my questions about religion? Was it possible that one of the religions in this world that I had rejected actually contained absolute truth? Could that really be possible?
This was the spark that got me started. I began to read books about Islam and started looking for Indonesian Muslims to talk with. Slowly, I started to build up more and more knowledge about Islam by asking questions, thinking, reading and then asking some more. I really set out to find out if it was possible that this religion made sense or not.
In 1991, I left for Indonesia to start my scholarship. I was sent to Atma Jaya, a private Catholic university in the heart of Jakarta. While I was studying at Atma Jaya for 6 months, most of my friends were Muslims! I watched my friends doing salat (the 5 daily prayers) and began to ask questions about their religion. I wanted to know what they were doing, why, and what they believed as Muslims.
When I returned to Brisbane after 6 months, I had become a much more fluent Indonesian speaker. Because of that, I found myself hanging out with Indonesian Muslims more and more. I was not actively studying Islam on a regular basis, but I was already interested. Whenever we had to write an essay at university, I looked for a topic that was somehow related to Islam. Usually there was one in a list of several topics. In order to write my essay, I would have to read dozens of books and articles about some aspect of Islam in Indonesia. The more I read, the more I was able to think deeply about Islam.
Even though I could see that there were many positive aspects to Islam, I was still secretly looking for a fatal flaw. I was sure that sooner or later I would find something that would convince me that Islam was not correct. I wanted to find something that proved Islam was not the logical religion that I had previously thought it might be when I had met the Indonesian man at that barbeque. I was sure that there had to be something wrong with Islam and I was determined to find out what it was.
When I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree, I studied for an extra year to get a Graduate Diploma of Education which made me a foreign language and history teacher. Then I found out about another scholarship that was available from the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee. This scholarship was only for one person and it was for a whole year in Indonesia.
Once again, I won the scholarship and spent 1995 at the University of Indonesia. And once again, as with my time at Atma Jaya, I spent my time with Muslims and watched what that they did.
In February of 1995, I was sitting on the floor late at night, watching Salat Tarawih on television, live from Mecca. (Salat Tarawih prayers are optional prayers performed at night during the fasting month of Ramadan). I listened to the commentators speaking Indonesian. That year, there were approximately 3 million people in the mosque and surrounding areas (which included the outdoor courtyard, the nearby streets, and even some hotel lobbies), and they were all doing salat (prayers) together. Three million people, all doing the same prayer, facing the same direction (kiblat), following one leader (imam), praying with the same words, in the same language, at the same time and all of them were praying to the same God. I began to think, “Where is there anything like this in the west?” If people gather for a soccer match, then the most that can be in one stadium is around one hundred thousand. I had never seen so many people in one place, doing the same thing, at the exact same time, in the same language and all moving in unison. This was a truly unparalleled sight. Until now, I still have not found anything similar in the western world.
I began to wonder about how many people could gather in one building to hear the Pope speak. I wondered if all of them would be able to understand what he was saying because there is no unifying language for Christians from all over the world to pray together in. There was no comparison in Christianity with what I was watching on television from Mecca.
For one year, I continued to learn bits and pieces about Islam, not in a formal or serious way, but just by paying attention to what I saw around me. When Islamic clerics gave short speeches on television, I would listen. I thought about what they were saying. There was nothing that I could find fault with. Slowly, I began to understand more and more about Islam. By the end of 1995, I was finding it harder and harder to refuse Islam. I kept searching for a logical flaw in the basic teachings of Islam but I simply could not find one. Islam was just too clear, too logical and was obviously based on common sense.
Finally, I felt like I had no choice. I could not keep denying what I had learned about Islam. I made a decision. I had to become a Muslim. But that made me think about my future. My time at the University of Indonesia was almost over. I would have to go back to Australia and work there. Could I learn about Islam if I lived there? Would I be able to find a teacher? Would I be able to find somewhere to pray? How many mosques were there in Brisbane? How would I cope with being a Muslim by myself? The more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that I had no choice but to stay in Indonesia so that I could be surrounded by Muslims. At last, I made a choice: I was going to become a Muslim and live in Indonesia. Now that I had made my decision, I just had to work out the details.
In February 1996, I said syahadat and became a Muslim. I forget when exactly I told my parents that I had become a Muslim. But I do remember that it was not until a few months afterwards, and by that time, I was already committed and able to pray by myself. I am sure they must have thought that I had lost my mind. But alhamdulillah (thank God), they accepted my decision and never said a bad word about Islam to me. I was still considered a member of the family and they did not do anything to make me feel unwelcome at home. That was quite different from the numerous stories I had heard in Indonesia about Christians who converted to Islam, and then were beaten up, thrown out of their house and disowned by their own family. My family probably thought that I was “crazy”, but the same thing was also said about the Prophet Muhammad SAW by the Quraish tribe of Mecca, so in that context, being called “crazy” would be more like a compliment.
Since 1995 I have been living in Jakarta and working as an English teacher (after I finished studying at UI). Many westerners that I have met here did not understand why I would choose to live in a country that is poor, dirty, full of corruption, and so on. Their general view of the negative aspects of Indonesia is correct, but I also see mosques on every street, people praying everywhere, adzan (the call to prayer) five times a day, al Qur’an in every house, halal food in many restaurants, young people who reject sex outside of marriage, reject abortions, reject alcohol and drunkenness, reject drugs, reject gambling, and so many other negative things because they lead a religious life and so they turn their back on those things which are not approved of in their religion. Because of those things that I see, the problems that westerners mention about Indonesia become small by comparison. These problems do need to be dealt with, but the sum total of religious life for the good Muslims I know in Jakarta is far more significant than the small number of serious problems that have not been addressed yet. The beauty and truth of Islam cannot be destroyed by the actions of some human beings in this country.
Alhamdulillah (thank God), I have some of the best friends in the world to keep me company here. For me, their friendship and their behaviour as Muslims is proof of the correctness of Islam. It is also a source of great comfort to me to have them around. They are like my family, and they also treat me like their own family just because I am a Muslim. They help me to remember how to be a good Muslim by giving me a good example everyday. And alhamdulillah, in Jakarta I have also found some excellent teachers who insya Allah (God willing) have good knowledge and understanding of Islam. The teachings that I have received from them are always logical and that fact proves to me that Islam was created as a blessing for all of humanity.
My primary teacher until 2007 (when he passed away) was Kyai Haji Masyhuri Syahid, MA., who treated me like his son. Kyai Masyhuri, aside from being a member of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (the Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars), was also the Head of the Daarul Qur'an Islamic Boarding School for Orphans (Pondok Pesantren Yatim-Piatu Daarul Qur'an) which is located in Tebet, South Jakarta.
In writing this book I would like to comment on what I have observed and learned about Christianity and Islam. Many people here have told me that I view religion very differently to them because they were all born as Muslims and have never known any other life. Unlike these people, I had to analyse Christianity and Islam and make a choice. I had to find logic in Islam before I could accept it. Perhaps after reading my thoughts, some Muslims will see a different side to Islam that they did not think about before, and if that happens then I hope they will become stronger in their faith. And perhaps some Christians will become more open and welcoming of Islam once they understand that Islam is simply the continuation of everything that Jesus AS taught.
I want to explain what I have learned and I hope that it gives some benefit to Muslims in their process of understanding Islam and Christianity. Both the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad SAW said that all Muslims are one big extended family, but we do not act that way; we act as individuals. Too many Muslims think that the knowledge, wealth and power that they have is all for their own benefit, and so they do not want to share it with anyone else. I do not have much wealth or power, but I would like to share the knowledge that I have gained because I hope it will bring benefit to others.
I have lived in Indonesia since 1995 and have seen the best and worst of Muslim behaviour. Sometimes I feel sad when looking at society here because the behaviour of some Muslims is not very Islamic.
If we think about ourselves as “salespeople” and what we are “selling” is “Islam” then I would be surprised if anyone would want to “buy” what we are “selling”. In other words, we often fail in our job of “marketing” Islam so that it is easily acceptable to others who do not understand it. If a westerner wants to debate with me about the truth of Islam then he only has to point out the high level of corruption in Indonesia and say “Doesn’t this prove that your religion is no good?” Of course, what he is pointing at is human behaviour and not part of Islam, but convincing him of that is quite difficult.
Therefore, I see that as Muslims, we have an obligation to explain Islam in the best way possible to others who want to understand it, and the easiest way for us to do that is to demonstrate Islam through our own behaviour. If we can do that, then people may begin to think more favourably about Islam because they will see the correctness of Islam portrayed through our own actions. In addition to that, we need to explain very clearly why we believe in Islam and explain what Islam teaches about other religions, especially Christianity as it is the closest monotheistic religion to Islam. In order to do that, Muslims must understand the problems with Christianity so that they can have a constructive discussion about both religions. If we succeed in “marketing” Islam in this way, then Islam may end up with fewer enemies and a lot more friends.
My journey from New Zealand to Australia to Indonesia is obviously in accordance with the Will of Allah. I do not know why Allah bought me to Indonesia and gave me the ability to speak Indonesian so well. What does Allah want me to do? Is Allah expecting me to do something with the knowledge and the language skill that I have?
I do not have the answers to these questions. I do not know what I am “supposed to be doing”. I do not know if occasionally giving speeches about Islam or meeting Indonesians and westerners who want to ask questions about religion is enough. I do not know if I should be doing more. I am certain that my knowledge of Islam is still quite basic. Some people think I am a religious teacher just because I sometimes give speeches about Islam but I definitely feel more like a student than a teacher.
I hope that Allah will protect me and guide me and that I will be able to learn more about Islam because of what I write. I hope that this book will bring benefit to all of us and become rahmat (a blessing) from Allah for all of ummat Islam (the Muslim community).
Amin, amin, ya robbal alamin.
Wassalamu’alaikum warahmatullhi wabarakatu.
First Two Chapters of My Book
The first two chapters of my book are available on my blog in English and Indonesian languages. Hopefully I will be able to publish this book soon, and continue with writing others.
Searching For God and Finding Allah (unpublished)
Chapter 1: About Me
Chapter 2: Wanting To See God
Mencari Tuhan, Menemukan Allah (belum terbit)
Bab 1: Tentang Saya
Bab 2: Ingin Melihat Tuhan