Convert or Revert? The Muslim War of Words
‘Life is the first gift, love is the second, and understanding the third,’ goes one saying. The Qur’an honours those Who listen to the word and follow what is best in it. Those are such whom God has guided, such are men of understanding. [39:18] Sound cognition and understanding is seen as a divine gift, in a way flawed or fallacious understanding isn’t. In one hadith we learn: ‘Whosoever God intends to show goodness to, He grants him the understanding of the religion.’1
The American literary critic, Anatole Broyard, wrote that: ‘To be misunderstood can be the writer’s punishment for having disturbed the reader’s peace.’ In one sense, all communication is a sort of “disturbance of the peace,” for joy or for woe, and is open to being misunderstood and misconstrued. Misunderstanding occurs when what the speakers intends to express differs from what the listener actually believes has been expressed. Sometimes the misunderstanding stems from the speaker’s inadequacy of communication; sometimes through the listener’s simple misconstruction; at other times, through the listener’s shallow understanding. Indeed, there are even some that make it their commitment to misunderstanding you. The nafs is a most troublesome thing – God save us!
Some misunderstandings are harmless, others devastating. Some may be overlooked between people, others wreak havoc on relationships. Some are easily clarified, others seep into the social fabric, giving birth to bid‘ah.
Below is rather a common misunderstandings which has found its way into popular Muslim discourse, regrettably regarded as creed in many a preacher’s catechism. And while, from one angle, the misunderstanding is fairly innocent; from another, it raises some serious questions:
‘He is a revert to Islam, not a convert!’ How many times has someone insisted on this “correction” in a gathering, quite often with great gusto. The argument for it runs like this: Muslims believe that all people are born with an innate sense of God, or rather a natural faith in God, called fitrah. A hadith says: ‘Every child is born upon the fitrah, but it is his parents that make of him a Jew, Christian or Magian.’2 Islam has not been mentioned as one of the religions, since it is implied by the term fitrah. Conversion to Islam is thus seen as a “return” back to the original, primordial faith. For this reason, they insist that one has “reverted” – returned to a former condition or belief – rather than “converted” to Islam.
As appealing as this logic sounds, it does not have the support from scripture. It is a case of one plus one equals three: the ingredients on one side of the equation are fine, but the end result is not. Droves of people accepted Islam in the Prophet’s lifetime, peace be upon him, and at his hands. His call to them was simply: aslim – “enter into Islam,” “submit,” “become a Muslim”. He never asked them to “re-enter” Islam!
For example, Anas narrates: ‘A young Jewish boy used to serve the Prophet, peace be upon him, and he became ill. So the Prophet, peace be upon him, went to visit him. He sat by his head and said: “Become a Muslim (aslim)!” The boy looked at his father, who was with him and who said to him: Obey Abu’l-Qasim. So he embraced Islam (fa aslam).’3 Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’4 Again, he did not say: since the time that ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘accepted Islam a second time.’
Perhaps there is room in English for the term convert, as well as revert (even if the first is far more theologically correct). Perhaps one shouldn’t make too big a deal out of it. Perhaps this misunderstanding would be harmless enough, if only the revert “posse” would stop insisting how wrong the word convert is. For the discourse has reached a stage in which, at the mere use of the term convert, a long finger-pointing lecture can often ensue, where simple scriptural history is drowned out by self-styled logic. There is also the concern that when such self-styled logic begins to reinterpret other aspects of scripture, where will it all end!
1. Al-Bukhari, no.3641; Muslim, no.1037.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.1358; Muslim, no.2658.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.1356.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.