“So, your father tells me you’ve converted to Islam?” said James’s mother. “Actually, it’s reverted, mum, reverted.” James pedantically replied.
It may seem a trivial issue to some, but the use of words can have severe impacts in the real world, especially in an age where labels and identity have become at the forefront of debates. Since the late 90s and following decades, there has emerged a growing trend (and insistence from some, mostly non-converts themselves) to use the term “reverted” for someone who has accepted their religion as Islam. I will challenge the idea in this article and demonstrate that it is not only linguistically inaccurate but theologically too.
As for the term “New Muslim”, this could not be applied to someone who has been Muslim for 5 years, or even 3 or 4. Likewise, if someone converts to Christianity, for example, we would not say, “New Christian”, if someone converts to Buddhism, we would not say, “New Buddhist” etc.
The Linguistic Aspect
Let’s take a look at both words from a linguistic viewpoint. I will stick to the Cambridge Dictionary definitions for this purpose and those that are relevant to the topic:
Convert, as a verb: To change to a new religion, belief, opinion, etc., or to make someone do this:
e.g., “He converted to (= started believing in) Catholicism when he got married.”
Convert, as a noun: Someone who accepts a new religion or belief:
e.g., “The candidate won millions of converts to his tax proposal.”
“Jim called himself a new convert to the Republican Party.”
Revert, as a verb: It only exists as a phrasal verb meaning it needs a particle to exist i.e., revert to sth which means linguistically you cannot say “I reverted” and stop there.
Revert to sth, as phrasal verb with the verb “revert”: To return to doing, using, being, or referring to something, usually something bad or less satisfactory.
e.g., “Why does the conversation have to revert to money every five minutes?”
“[ + -ing verb ] When they divorced, she reverted to using her maiden name.”
So here, the phrase, “He reverted to being a Muslim” could be used. Note, that such a phrase could only really be used for someone who lived their adult life as a Muslim, left Islam, and then came back to Islam.
Revert, as a noun: No entry. In order to make a noun from a phrasal verb, it must become a compound noun so you would have to say “Revert-to”!
As for Arabic, the term used is “aslama” which simply means “to become a Muslim” and literally means “to submit/surrender”. Another word, “ṣaba’a” was used by the Arabs to mean “to depart from one religion to another” and the noun used was “ṣābi’”, it was later used by Arabs to label a particular sect, known as the Sabians. The Quraysh were known to call the Prophet ﷺ “aṣ-ṣābi’” literally, “The Convert” in a derogatory manner.
Another important point to note is that the word “to revert” in Arabic is “irtadda” which is a term commonly used to mean “to apostatise”, this was, of course, never used by the Messenger of Allah ﷺ as a descriptor for new converts.
The term has been scoffed at in memes
The Theological Aspect
This is of more importance to us, as Muslims. Firstly, we must define what it means to be a “Muslim” i.e., a believer in Islam from a doctrinal standpoint. It has been defined in the books of Islamic creed, in general, as one who “believes and complies internally (in the heart) and professes outwardly (on the tongue) that everything that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ came with is true.” Thus, anyone who does not meet the definition cannot be called a Muslim.
The argument made for using the term “revert” is that every individual is born as a Muslim and they may change their religion throughout the course of their lives. This is highly inaccurate from a creedal viewpoint for several reasons:
1. No individual can be “born” as a Muslim because, in order to fulfil the definition, it necessitates complete intellect, sound faculties and senses, and a degree of maturity. In fact, we are not born with any faith, knowledge, complete intellect, or belief whatsoever, this is self-evident to everyone. Based on this, the phrase “Born Muslim” is also inaccurate, so to distinguish other Muslims from converts, the term “Non-convert Muslim” or “Heritage Muslim” could be employed. No individual can be “born” as a Muslim because, in order to fulfil the definition, it necessitates complete intellect, sound faculties and senses, and a degree of maturity. Click To Tweet
From a legal standpoint, Islamic jurists have mentioned that a child will follow the religion of the parents, this is for legal purposes and recognition alone. Thus, the child of a Muslim will be considered as a Muslim, the child of a Christian will be considered as a Christian, and so on. Upon reaching maturity, every child will then have to make a conscious decision about which religion to follow.
If every child is born as a Muslim, why did theologians differ regarding their status in the Hereafter? The Messenger of Allah ﷺ was once asked about the children of the polytheists (i.e., their state in the Hereafter) and he replied, “Allah knows best what they would have done.” In another version, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ says, “There is no new-born except that they are born upon al-fitrah, then their parents make them into a Jew or a Christian. Just as you produce an animal, do you find any deformity in it until you are the ones that make it deformed?” The companions said, “Oh Messenger of Allah, what about the one who dies and they are an infant?” He replied, “Allah knows best what they would have done.” Meaning, Allah ﷻ knows if they would have believed or disbelieved if they remained alive.
The interesting thing is that this narration is used by the “revert” crowd to support their argument, however, they never quote the second part of the hadith. Al-fitrah is not synonymous with Islam or faith but simply means a primordial blank slate that every child is born upon. It would be a gross misinterpretation of the intended meaning of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ to understand it to mean that every child is born as a Muslim. Rather, the correct view according to Imam al-Nawawi is that it means that every new-born is born with receptivity to belief in Allah ﷻ and Islam.
At least ten different opinions have been mentioned by Islamic scholars regarding the status of the children of the disbelievers in the Hereafter, this negates any unanimous concept of everyone being born as a Muslim. The purpose here is not to discuss which view is correct but rather to highlight the inaccuracy of the “everyone is born a Muslim” cliché.
Another problem arises using the term “reverted to”. Since it means someone who was a Muslim coming back to Islam after leaving Islam, it would include a whole category of heritage Muslims that knew of Islam all of their lives, left Islam at some point, and then came back to believing in Islam. All of this without ever having experienced the convert experience, never having to face rejection from family, discrimination at work, public abuse, or constantly having to defend their choice to people. Since 'revert' means someone who was a Muslim coming back to Islam after leaving Islam, it would include a whole category of heritage Muslims that knew of Islam all of their lives, left Islam at some point, and then came back... Click To Tweet
To summarise, this is a plea to the Muslim community to refrain from the use of the loaded and inaccurate term “revert” which has been imposed on the convert community for the past few 2/3 decades without any consultation or say from converts themselves.
May Allah guide us to that which is correct. And the best names belong to Him.
By Bilal Brown Cambridge University is one of the most prestigious academic establishments in the world, therefore the choice to use their dictionary guarantees a higher degree of accuracy and authority. pg. 1640 of Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon. Ahmad, (19004); Muslim, (2473); Al-Bukhari, (344). pg. 1069 of Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon. Al-Aqidah al-Islamiyyah wa Ususuha, page 80; Al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah. Radd al-Muhtar, Section of the Funeral Prayer (2/229). Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, Chapter of Waiting Periods (for divorcees) (13/319). Al-Bukhari, (1384); Muslim, (2659), (2660). Al-Bukhari, (6599); Muslim, (2658). Al-Minhaj Sharh Muslim bin al-Hajjaj, (Hadith 2658). 1. Suspend making a judgement about them. Hammad bin Abu Sulayman, Hammad bin Salamah, Abdullah bin Mubarak, Ishaq bin Rahawayh, Abu Hanifah, Abu Yusuf, also narrated from al-Shafi’i. It has also been explicitly expressed by the companions of Imam Malik.
They are in the Hellfire with their parents. Some of the Khawarij (Kharijites) and students of Imam Ahmad.
They are in Heaven. A number of theologians and Quranic exegetes, Imam Muhammad bin Hasan, al-Nawawi.
They are in between Heaven and Hell (Al-A’raf) and will eventually go to Heaven. A number of Quranic exegetes.
They are in the will of Allah ﷻ. Abul Barakat al-Nasafi, The Jabriyyah (Fatalists).
They are servants for the people of Heaven.
The same as their parents in this world and the Hereafter.
They will be tested on the plain of resurrection. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Suyuti.
They will become dust. Amir bin Ashras.
It is disliked to discuss the matter. Ibn Abbas, Muhammad bin Hanafiyyah, Al-Qasim bin Muhammad For more discussion, see Tariq al-Hijratayn wa Bab al-Sa’adatayn, Chapter of the Ranks of Legally Responsible Individuals in the Hereafter, pg. 387; Al-Minhaj Sharh Muslim bin al-Hajjaj, (Hadith 2658); Al-Muhit al-Burhani, Chapter of Funerals.
“What’s my name?” Shouted Muhammad Ali as he delivered a powerful and swift left-right combination to an already hurt and demoralised Ernie Terrell. “What’s my name?” he spat again through his mouthpiece. Terrell closed his eyes as the next combination flew at him. To this day, boxing fans call it “The What’s My Name Fight” because Ali taunted Terrell in the ring while punishing him for 15 rounds, demanding to be called by his Arabic Muslim name, not his “slave” name which Terrell had arrogantly refused to use prior to the fight instead calling him by his former name, Cassius Clay. The year was 1967 at the height of racial tensions in the USA, both men were African-Americans, from the south, and had similar backgrounds.
A matter of concern for new converts to Islam is the decision to change their name after conversion. The practice is not one exclusive to Islam, and historically, converts to other faiths (including Christianity) have changed their first and/or last names in varying degrees of change. One opinion in Judaism states that all new converts are to have their lineage annulled and referred to as a “child of Abraham and Sarah” (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon them). Members of the Sikh faith usually adopt a new last name upon initiation into the Khalsa. A change of moniker may signify a fresh start and switching of ideology for the zealous proselyte, an indication of their abandonment of their previous lifestyle and beliefs. This may procure the benefit of being more easily accepted and instantly recognised as a Muslim in the general Muslim community. There also seems to be an assumption amongst the Muslim community that such a thing as an exclusively “Islamic” name actually exists, perhaps confusing “Islamic” with “Arabic-sounding”. In my role as an imam, I am frequently asked as to whether such a name is “Islamic” after being contacted by excited new parents who are apprehensive about giving their child a name that is not in line with Islamic values. Some members of the wider Muslim community may also see it as a duty upon the new Muslim to choose an Arabic name and will often give suggestions after conversion; if they converted at the hands of a spiritual guide, the guide may even choose a new Arabic (sometimes even Persian) moniker for them immediately, in a sense, pressurising the new Muslim into committing a type of cultural apostasy. On the flip side, it may also expose the new convert to the possibility of being discriminated against due to having a “Muslim-sounding” name. We also know that many people who are not Muslims have Arabic names, popular figures such as Raheem Sterling and Idris Elba spring to mind, this is especially prevalent in the African-American and Black British communities. Professional footballer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is not a Muslim has spoken about the discrimination he has suffered in Sweden due to having a Slavicised Arabic name.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has faced discrimination in Sweden due to his perceivably Muslim name.
Where does the confusion lie? Even a cursory glance back at converts in the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ shows us that they did not change their names after conversion. There were rare instances where someone may have had the name of an idol, a devil, or an extremely derogatory meaning and the Messenger of Allah ﷺ changed their name or refused to call them by their original name. For example, there was a woman whose name was ᶜᾹṣiyah meaning “disobedient” and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ changed it to Jamīlah, meaning “beautiful”. One narration mentions that a man came to Medina in a delegation whose name was ᶜAbdul Ḥajar, literally “The Slave of Stone” and the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “No, you are Abdullah”, i.e. “The Slave of Allah.” There were no instances of changing of one’s family or tribal name though notwithstanding some of these having extremely negative meanings such as the tribe of ᶜAbdu Shams, literally “The Slave of a Shams” The Messenger of Allah ﷺ himself also retorted at times, “I am the son of Abdul Muttalib” in reference to his grandfather ᶜAbdul Muṭṭalib, which means “The Slave of Al-Muttalib.” The preservation of lineage is one of huge importance in Islam and is one of the five protected universals along with life, religion, intellect, and wealth. Purposely altering one’s lineage would have been viewed as an act of deception and therefore is prohibited. We don’t see too many instances of name-changing amongst converts of non-Arab lineage either in the early period of Islam, the early converts from Abyssinia, Persia, and elsewhere retained their original names. The offspring of the new converts were most likely the ones to be given Arabic names, stemming from a natural love of wanting to emulate the names of the great prophets mentioned in the Quran and the illustrious companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. From a legal perspective, throughout my many years of study, I am yet to come across a single text that states that it is recommended, yet alone obligatory, for a new convert to change their name. Click To Tweet
From a legal perspective, throughout my many years of study, I am yet to come across a single text that states that it is recommended, yet alone obligatory, for a new convert to change their name. Older converts (including myself) have, perhaps, set a bad precedence for this which may cause the new convert to believe that some type of religious recommendation or obligation exists. Some contemporary converts have chosen to change both first and last names e.g. Hamza Yusuf, Siraj Wahhaj, Yusuf Islam, others retaining their surnames and adopting an Arabic first name only, e.g. Suhaib Webb, Bilal Phillips, Yahya Birt, others cleverly employing the usage of two names for different audiences e.g. Abdal Hakim Murad AKA Timothy Winters and Ashley Chin AKA Muslim Belal, and others changing their surnames after marriage or for the need to break away from any ties to slavery. Of course, a person can have more than one name and may even be given or take on a nickname, which is perfectly acceptable in Islam if the person is happy with that. The pertinent question that now arises is, “How does this affect the family and social ties of the new convert?”
Keeping good family ties and relations is of utmost importance in Islam, even if those family members are not Muslims. The Quran mentions, “And we have enjoined upon man goodness to his parents but if they endeavour to make you associate with Me that which you have no knowledge of, then do not obey them.”Exegetes of the Quran mention that the verse was revealed regarding Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas (may Allah be pleased with him) when he converted to Islam and his mother refused to eat, drink, and sleep indoors until he renounced Islam and reverted back to polytheism. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ would emphasise the importance of keeping family ties to his companions repeatedly and once said, “The one who cuts family ties will not enter Heaven.” How would the parents who choose the name of their child at birth feel if they suddenly decided to change that name? Maybe the new convert can discuss the matter of changing their name or taking a second name or nickname with their parents first before making any drastic decisions they may later regret. Since in most cases there would be no obligation to change one’s name initially, the obligation of maintaining good family ties, especially with one’s mother who is given the highest esteem and pedestal in Islam, overrules. This is coupled with the, perhaps, unnecessary expenditure of changing one’s name via deed poll, replacing official documents, and any possible confusion in the future caused as a result thereof. Also, how would this affect ties with friends and colleagues if, for example, David turns up to work or college one day and says, “I want everyone to now call me Abdullah”?
This is not to discourage any new Muslim from changing their name if they wish to do so, nor that it is necessarily a bad thing, but to make them think about the wider implications and long-term consequences that may result from it and to evaluate how much benefit it will truly bring to their spiritual and social life. I leave you with a quote from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is highlighting the point that Romeo being from the rival Montague family does not affect her love for him:
 A few years prior, Ali had converted to the Nation of Islam, a heretical sect founded by Fard Muhammad who they believe to be “Allah”, and changed his name upon conversion. Ali later converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, to learn more about orthodox Islamic beliefs visit beginnings.org.uk/learn-more/