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Convert or Revert? The Muslim War of Words

misunderstanding‘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.

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7 thoughts on “Convert or Revert? The Muslim War of Words

  1. R. Usman on said:

    MashAllah! Another vital & very true point that should always be observed, as its precisely these habits that turn the positive into negative so often. Quite rightly, the point of practising different madhabs & also not being qualified or informed enough of Islamic law, leads many to confusion & some speakers to even sin.
    Allah guide & forgive us all. Ameen.
    Jzk brother for addressing all these common issues that are perceived as wisdom.

  2. Amin to your du’a, br Usman.

    May Allah guide us all to realising our boundaries, so as not to overstep them (but that must not stop believers having lofty aspirations).

  3. well they say you have to learn something new every day, from Allah! today is no exception….since 2008, i believed a revert sister, was one that other sisters thought was a person who was going back to their original birth faith! silly me……noone had ever explained the word..because i never asked….i quess i am a revert sister…for ever…..xx

    • Revert, convert. You’re still a sister mashallah. And may Allah bless you.

      I have been meaning to respond to an earlier email you sent. Please forgive me for the delay and give me a little more time to do so.

      • Does the fact that reversion in the English language is usually a passive process and often a degenerative state not factor into the equation?

  4. As-salamu ‘alaykum! As a convert, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced (or seen) Muslims “correct” people when they use “convert” instead of “revert”. Even as a new convert, I viewed “revert” as essentially a shallow marketing slogan that tended to confuse non-Muslims rather than enlighten them regarding some deep spiritual secret about Islam.

    Thanks for saying that “revert” “does not have the support from scripture”…since I feel that’s the worst part about this issue–that some Muslims think “revert” is supported by scripture (i.e. by the authentic hadith literature). My experience over the years…since 1992…is that Muslims sometimes…quite often actually…misquote the hadith and say that “everyone is born ‘Muslim'” rather than “born in a state of fitrah.”

    As I sometimes explain, when one embraces Islam, it’s true that one’s slate of bad deeds is wiped clean (and that’s a matter of ghayb that the hadith informs us of, it’s not based on personal and felt experience), but that does NOT mean one “reverts” to a state of fitrah–like returning to how pure, naive, and unscarred they were on the day they were born.

    Sure, even though one often has a very positive, uplifting, and peaceful spiritual feeling upon taking Shahadah, and high himma (spiritual resolve) as well, that does not mean all of one’s life experiences, emotional scars, and heartfelt anxieties disappear upon saying the Shahadah with conviction…since they don’t. That being understood, it’s a relief that the hadith literature makes no such claim.

    • Abu Aaliyah on said:

      Wa ‘alaykum as-salam wa rahmatullah.

      Bless you for sharing your wonderful and insightful comment.

      Would I be right in thinking that you are the same Abdurrahman Squires who, along with his young son, used to attend the Saturday evening circles in Green Lanes mosque, Birmingham, back in the early nineties? Or am I confusing you with another Squires?

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