By JoAnna Boudreaux-
For English language speakers, the term “convert”, is commonly understood as an individual who has entered a new religious faith and practice from a previous religious faith and practice, such as a Jewish convert or a Christian convert. According to Merriam-Webster, “convert”, as a transitive verb, is defined as “to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another”.
Thus, a religious “convert” is understood as one who has undergone religious “conversion”. This definition sparks criticism and rejection from many Muslims who argue that “Muslim Convert” is inappropriate and the more correct term is “Muslim Revert”. Merriam-Webster defines “revert” as an intransitive verb which means “to come or go back (as to a former condition, period, or subject)”. Those who believe that “Muslim Revert” is the most appropriate term argue that all individuals are “born Muslim” and the condition of their religious faith is only changed by their parents and society. Debates about which term is the most appropriate to use wage on social media and many Western Muslims report stories of being verbally reprimanded for using the term “Convert” and corrected by other well-meaning Muslims who have told them that “Revert” is the most appropriate term. I would like to take a closer look at the argument surrounding each of these terms and make a case that neither term is necessary or appropriate.
What is a “Convert”?
Muslims who prefer the term “Convert” argue that it is a familiar, commonly used English language term which causes less confusion among Western people. I have heard from some Muslims who noted that they use the term “Convert” when speaking to non-Muslims, but the term “Revert” when speaking to other Muslims. There are many Muslims who have less ambiguous feelings and feel that “Convert” is the most appropriate term. These Muslims argue that their decision to leave the practice of a previous faith and identify as Muslim was a conscious, affirmative decision which becomes negated by the term “revert”. Furthermore, some argue that the term “Revert” discounts previous life-experience, cultural traditions, and former faith practice, as though these factors never mattered nor had any role in shaping the individual’s spiritual identity. Proponents for the term “Convert” also point out that the term “Revert” is especially insulting to non-Muslims because it implies that they have left the “true”, “natural” religion of their birth and are now astray. These Muslims argue that insistence on using the term “Revert” can be read as a passive-aggressive insult to our non-Muslim family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
What is a “Revert”?
Muslims who argue for the term “revert” make the case that every individual is “born in Islam” or rather a “natural faith in God” and become changed only by their parents and society. “Revert”, they argue, is the most correct term because an individual who begins to practice Islam later in life is simply returning to their natural state. These Muslims strongly defend their argument by citing a mistranslation of the following hadith:
The Prophet (PBUH) also said, “Each child is born in a state of “Fitrah”, then his parents make him a Jew, Christian or a Zoroastrian…” (Collected by Al-Bukhaaree and Muslim).
The word in dispute is the Arabic word “Fitrah”. Proponents for the term “revert” translate this hadith as meaning “Each child is born in a state of Islam, then his parents make him a Jew, Christian or Zoroastrian…” These Muslims see their new practice of Islam as a return to a “former condition”, or rather, the original, pure state of faith which they held during infancy and toddlerhood. New Muslims are literally likened to newborn babies who enter the world in a state of sinlessness. These Muslims equate “fitra” and “Islam” as being one and the same. I argue that the “fitra” has a unique definition that is separate and distinct from the word “Islam” and the two words should not be used interchangeably.
Defining the “Fitra”
Fitra” is an Arabic word that does not have any exact English equivalent although it has been popularly translated as “primordial human nature” or “human intuiti”.
In his commentary of ‘The Abridged Sahih al-Bukhari’, Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq explains that while ‘fitra’ is the original natural, pure and uncorrupted state of the child, this state is not Islam
There is a hadith of Saheeh Muslim which helps clarify this issue. The hadith is as follows:
Once the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) was on a journey and they heard a shepherd calling out and they heard him calling out ‘Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar’. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said ‘He is upon Fitrah’. The man then said the shahadah (testimony of faith). The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said ‘Now he has saved himself from the fire’.
The first statement did not make him a Muslim. It was the natural instinct which stirred within him when he declared ‘Allah is the Greatest’. It is the second statement, the testimony of faith, which made him a Muslim.
Argument for rejection of the term “Revert”
While it is most linguistically correct to explain that one “converted” for the sake of clarification, I object to the term “convert” when used as a descriptive noun. I also argue that the term “convert” cannot explain all spiritual journeys for those who begin practicing Islam later in life. I personally began identifying as Muslim as an 18-year-old. However, I refuse to say that I converted. My practice of Islam was part of a spiritual evolution in which I learned new language for what I always believed.
Further, I argue that the term “revert” is wholly incorrect because it implies a state of being before the individual becomes cognizant enough to choose a religious practice. Making the decision to practice Islam does not return an individual to this state. Even if we all agree that new Muslims are forgiven for past sins, they do not return to a purely instinctive creature unaffected by life experience. We should also consider the listed synonyms for the word “revert” which include “return”, “regress” and “retrogress”. To retrogress means “return to a former and less complex level of development or organization”. For many, this gives the word “revert” a negative connotation which implies that by embracing Islam, the individual has returned to a state of infantilism.
Not only do I find the term “Revert” confusing, insulting and linguistically incorrect, I also argue that there is a false dichotomy constructed within Muslim American circles in which “convert”/“revert” Muslims are compared to “born” Muslims and have their faith questioned and negated. Individuals born into Muslim families are always assumed Muslim despite what they may personally believe or how much or little they practice. They are accepted into the broader Muslim American community based solely on their ethnic and cultural heritage. On the contrary, “convert”/“revert” Muslims often describe feelings of rejection while having their faith put under a microscope. Their presence in Masjids are met with suspicion, their prayers are corrected, the way they dress is criticized, they are interrogated about how many surahs they know, and their motivations for converting are continuously questioned. My point is probably best illustrated by citing the relatable example of the new Muslim feeling compelled to change their name and become “extra” Muslim in clothing, speech and practice to the point of erasing all vestiges of a former “western” identity.
By compelling new Muslims to use the term “Revert” we are being directed to view our previous life experiences as “bad”, corrupting, unwholesome, inconsequential and erasable. This is wrong.
I argue that the collective life experiences of Muslims born into non-Muslim families are not so different than those individuals born into Muslim families. Is there something more significantly pure and non-corrupting about a Muslim household which preserves the “fitra” of a child so much more than the household of a non-Muslim family? Does a child being raised in Christian beliefs differ so significantly than a child being raised to fear witchcraft and use charms to ward off “evil-eye” (such is the case within many Muslim families). Do heritage Muslim families not have their own un-Islamic cultural beliefs and superstitions? Are Muslim families immune from problems of domestic violence and emotional abuse? Are individuals born into Muslim families preserved in the pure, intuitive. natural state of “fitra” in a way that everyone else in the world is not?
Of course not.
It is my opinion that while the term “convert” can be problematic when used as a noun, the term “revert” is offensive and Muslims should fully reject it.
Quran and Sunnah
The strongest support for my argument is, quite simply, the Prophet (saws) did not use such terms to describe himself nor the Sahaba (ra). Most of the Sahaba embraced Islam after following idol-worshipping religions and yet they did not give themselves a label which either suggested they had changed religions (“convert”) or that they had returned to a state of base human instinct (“revert”). The Arabic word that is used to describe someone who begins practicing Islam later in life is the verb “i3tanaqa”( اعتنق) or “ya3taniqu” (يعتنق ) which means “to embrace”. I would like to emphasize that this word is used as a verb to describe an action. I argue that it is most correct to say that one “embraced Islam” or that one “became Muslim” if there is clarification needed. There is no word in Arabic which labels or distinguishes Muslims born in culturally Muslim families from those born into non-Muslim families.
What’s in a Label?
Why does this matter? I argue that it matters because labels matters. Labels are mental tags which individuals attach to themselves and other people. Labels have implied meanings which determine how we perceive ourselves, how we are perceived and how we perceive other people. While the label “Convert” or “Revert” can be have positive connotations which suggest that the individual has a higher level of faith due to either actively choosing Islam or being “reborn”, it also has the negative connotation of being defective and less authentic.
Distinguishing “born” Muslims from “Convert”/ “Revert” Muslims can suggest one of two false premises:
- There is something less authentic about the faith and practice of the former, or
- There is something more authentic about the former as one who has, by choosing to practice Islam, has been reborn into a pure, uncorrupted state.
Both premises are collectively wrong. Muslims of all backgrounds will experience spiritual highs and lows throughout their lifetimes. They will struggle reconciling faith practices with secularism. All Muslims contend with contradictions between the cultural practices of their family and the texts of their religious works.
I also argue, that as a new generation of Muslim Americans come of age, we are depriving ourselves of valuable camaraderie by continuing to draw this line in the sand. American Muslim communities contend with the same collective problems of intergroup discrimination, misogyny, nepotism, classism and anti-Black racism. The “Born” vs “Convert/Revert” Muslim divide is only one of many unnecessary fractures within the Muslim American community.