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Converts, Reverts, or New Muslims?

Jan 13, 2022 | Articles

“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[1] 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’[2]”, 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[3].

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”[4], 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[5].” 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.

  1. 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.[6]
  2. 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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[9].

At least ten different opinions have been mentioned by Islamic scholars regarding the status of the children of the disbelievers in the Hereafter[10], 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.

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

 

[1] 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.

[2] pg. 1640 of Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon.

[3] Ahmad, (19004); Muslim, (2473); Al-Bukhari, (344).

[4] pg. 1069 of Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon.

[5] Al-Aqidah al-Islamiyyah wa Ususuha, page 80; Al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah.

[6] Radd al-Muhtar, Section of the Funeral Prayer (2/229). Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, Chapter of Waiting Periods (for divorcees) (13/319).

[7] Al-Bukhari, (1384); Muslim, (2659), (2660).

[8] Al-Bukhari, (6599); Muslim, (2658).

[9] Al-Minhaj Sharh Muslim bin al-Hajjaj, (Hadith 2658).

[10] 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.

  1. They are in the Hellfire with their parents. Some of the Khawarij (Kharijites) and students of Imam Ahmad.
  2. They are in Heaven. A number of theologians and Quranic exegetes, Imam Muhammad bin Hasan, al-Nawawi.
  3. They are in between Heaven and Hell (Al-A’raf) and will eventually go to Heaven. A number of Quranic exegetes.
  4. They are in the will of Allah ﷻ. Abul Barakat al-Nasafi, The Jabriyyah (Fatalists).
  5. They are servants for the people of Heaven.
  6. The same as their parents in this world and the Hereafter.
  7. They will be tested on the plain of resurrection. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Suyuti.
  8. They will become dust. Amir bin Ashras.
  9. 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.

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13 Comments

  1. Barbara Denuelle

    Assalamu alaykum. I’d like to reference the author of this article because I’m writing about this topic in my PhD thesis. Please let me know how I should reference this article and it’s author or authors.

    Wassalam,
    Barbara

    Reply
    • New Beginnings

      Wa alaykum as-salam Barbara. You can reference Bilal Brown and this webpage.

      Reply
    • Vincent

      WOW.
      Now I will be more careful about the use of the word ” revert”. I was not aware of the way this delineation in the article.
      Jazakallah

      Reply
  2. Mags

    Sheikh Bilal! I am truly impressed with your linguistic and writing skills. What a great article! Sometimes, I just wish to borrow your brain for a few days! 🤭

    Reply
  3. Gina L

    I find the approach of this article credible and I look forward to clarification on more issues as, sadly, so much seems to get lost in translation.

    Every era carries its own trends and I remember the ‘revert’ hype was the Muslim thing of the 90s. Personally I have always felt uneasy with the term ‘revert’; even the term ‘convert’ now somewhat alienates me as I have now spent more years of my life as a Muslim than as a non-Muslim. I think either terms should gradually phase out after the dust settles, and that we should blend in in the community instead of becoming a minority within a minority.

    Reply
  4. Amjed Zafar

    JazakAllahu Khairan for the linguistic and scholarly clarity.

    Reply
  5. Fozia Naz

    Assalam o alaikum
    According to the little knowledge I have, I think this term reverted is used in relation to “عہد الست” . A declaration by all the souls when they were created by Allah in heaven “الست بربک قالو بلا”and so all the souls are Muslims. Please guide

    Reply
    • New Beginnings

      Wa alaykum as-salam Fozia, there are different interpretations of the verse in 7:172, what you mentioned is one interpretation. However, this does not imply that everyone is a Muslim in the worldly life and no one would have any knowledge of that prior declaration when born into this world.

      Reply
      • Anonymous

        Are you able to explain the concept of fitrah from this perspective?

        Reply
        • New Beginnings

          Fitrah means a natural primordial state in Arabic. The hadith explains that it means everyone is born on level-footing with a blank slate.

          Reply
  6. Emma McInnes

    Hi I would like to revert to Islam because I had a bad childhood

    Reply
  7. Melvin Jr Sutton

    I RESPECFULLY DISAGREE
    I BELIEVE YOU PROVIDED ALL THE PROOF, AND RESPECTFULLY BELIEVE YOU MISUNDERSTOOD IT FROM WHAT IS THE CORRECT UNDERSTANDING OF ISLAMIC THEOLOGY. HERE’S CLEARER PROOF INSHA ALLAH.

    REVERT VS CONVERT
    In The Name of Allah, The Most Compassionate, The Most Merciful
    As salamu alaikum.
    Concerning this debate regarding the two words in question and considering the proof that is being used of the definition of these two words from the Cambridge Dictionary, we understand that to ‘revert’ back to something there needs to be an ‘existing particle’ to ‘revert’ back to, which is the core of the argument. Adding to it, that a person would have to had reached a certain age of discernment with a consciousness of this existing particle i.e., the religion that they are upon, and had to have accepted it, and even had to have practiced something of it, like performing the prayer, left it and then turned back to it, and they conclude with the a statement the like of, “IN FACT, WE ARE NOT BORN WITH ANY FAITH, KNOWLEDGE, COMPLETE INTELLECT, OR BELIEF WHATSOEVER…”
    However as this debate is not about being born a ‘Muslim’, but about the existence of the ‘existing particle’ that we ‘revert’ back to, is what it seems we are failing to understand from the ‘Islamic’ theological view is that it seems from the fundamentals of the correct Islamic aqeedah to know that as Islam is the religion of Tawheed i.e., the pure and strict monotheism, that this ‘IS’ the ‘fitrah’ i.e., natural disposition that Allah (SWT) Himself has ‘set’ all souls upon from their very creation even WITHOUT the title of ‘Islam’.
    ALLAH SAID: “The nature of Allah upon which He has SET people (upon),” [Ar Rum, Chapter 30 Verse 30].
    And then the proof for this ayah is from Allah Himself.
    ALLAH SAID: “And recall (O Prophet) when your Lord brought forth descendants from the loins of the sons of Adam AND MADE THEM WITNESSES AGAINST THEIR OWNSELVES. ASKING THEM: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said: ‘YES, WE DO TESTIFY.’ WE DID SO LEST YOU CLAIM ON THE DAY OF RESURRECTION: ‘WE WERE UNAWARE OF THIS.“ [Quran Chapter Al Araf 7 Verse 172]
    This is a clear and undeniable proof that although we are not given the title ‘Muslim’ yet, the ‘particle’ that people argue doesn’t exist regarding ‘religious theology’, DOES absolutely already ‘existed’, which has nothing to do with the attributes of having to be a certain age, or the particle even having to have a name connected to it, or having to have practiced anything from it in order for it to exist, however does prove that we ‘are’ born with faith, knowledge, intellect and a belief of this fitrah, as the ayah and hadith seem to clearly state, that they have clearly misunderstood. And we also understand this through the word ‘kafir’, which means ‘to cover up’, which is what ‘kafirs’ do when they deny the existence of Allah, or deny His Oneness, which according to the hadith, they have already bore witness to both before they were even born.
    And to further establish and amplify this, Abu Huraira reported: the prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:, “No child is born but that HE IS UPON NATURAL INSTINCT i.e., the ‘fitrah’. His parents make him a Jew, or a Christian, or Magian. As an animal delivers a child with limbs intact, do you detect any flaws?” Then, Abu Huraira recited the verse, “The nature of Allah upon which He has SET people (upon),” [Ar Rum, Chapter 30 Verse 30].
    Again, the debate is not whether we are born ‘Muslim’, but whether or not if there is an ‘existing particle’ to ‘revert’ back too.
    TAKING FROM THE ARTICLE FROM THE WEBSITE ‘ISLAMQA.ORG
    https://islamqa.org/hanafi/darululoomtt/148587/is-everyone-born-a-muslim/
    In this particular article, the Shaikh is answering the question “Are We Born ‘Muslim’.”, where he refutes this idea, but does provide an abundant amount of solid proofs from both the Quran and sunnah, and the scholars themselves that does prove without a doubt that we ‘are’ BORN UPON ‘something’ i.e., which they refer to as, the fitrah of Tawheed/Islam.
    QUOTE FROM THE ARTICLE:
    ‘What is meant by being born upon the ‘Fitrah’ of Islam is that a person is born with the innate ability to be guided (follow the path of guidance). He is born in a prepared state to accept the religion of Allah. If one is left alone, then he will surely adopt the path of guidance and will not deviate from it. This is so because the recognition of the goodness of the religion of Allah has already been placed in the nature of man. however, he turns away from the straight path due to influences from others. (Fath Al Baari-Kitab Al Janaiz vol. 3 pg. 318 Qadeemi Kutub Khana.)’ END QUOTE
    And therefore, when a person becomes a Muslim he/she has ‘reverted’ back to his/her original state that Allah has created and Instilled inside of him/her, hence, why we then say “submitted”. Submitted to what, the existing partical that we were not just born upon, but what we were ‘created’ upon.
    What seems to make this clearer is that the language Allah and His Messenger and the scholars is that, PEOPLE ARE BORN UPON ‘THE EXISTING PARTICLE’ THEN THEY ACTUALLY ‘LEAVE’ that which Allah has set every soul upon to become a Christian, Catholic, Buddist, and such other groups outside this fitrah and is easy to see it’s why they are called KAFIRS, because they broke off and LEFT or they ‘cover up’ the fitrah, which is what they are ‘REVERTING’ BACK TO when they become a Muslim.
    So, this IS the ‘EXISTING PARTICLE’ that people claim does not exist that clearly does exist. Allah AND His messenger both made these statements for a reason, as neither of them had to mention anything of the sort and could have just left this issue alone so that we would absolutely understand it the way that this issue is being argued or discussed, but they both made those statements for a reason, to set straight and make it absolutely clear that souls ARE born upon ‘SOMETHING’ and it is the ‘TAWHEED’ of Allah, and not nothing as they have ignorantly stated, as it is not about what our brains having to understand once we are born, or what are bodies act upon of prayer or fasting as what they themselves believe has to be in place that is not a part of the attributes of Islamic theology concerning this matter. As tawheed IS the fitrah we are all born upon, and IS the whole of Islam even without the title, THIS IS the existing particle that Allah has put in place BEFORE WE ARE EVEN BORN.
    THE ARTICLE CONTINUES TO PROVIDE TREMENDOUS PROOFS
    https://islamqa.org/hanafi/darululoomtt/148587/is-everyone-born-a-muslim/
    {BEGIN QUOTE}
    ‘IMAM AN NAWAWI’S has also stated, ‘The most correct opinion is that the hadith means ‘that every new born is born in a state that he is PREPARED for ISLAM’. (Sharh An Nawawi of Sahih Muslim-Kitab Al Qadr vol. 2 Pg. 337 Qadeemi Kutub Khana).
    These explanations show that a child is born upon a path which will take him to that which is the truth. This path is free from shirk and kufr, and the heart of the new born is clean and pure which has the natural inclination to accept the true faith and follow it. HOWEVER, AS THE CHILD GROWS, HE/SHE BECOMES INFLUENCED BY HIS/ HER SURROUNDINGS AND ENVIRONMENT. This comprise of the parents and the religion they follow, and friends who may have an influence on the growing child. VERY SOON, THE CHILD BEGINS TO ACCEPT WHAT IS GIVEN BY THOSE AROUND HIM, AND HE STARTS TO BELIEVE IN THE SAME. This is the manner in which THE CHILD IS EVENTUALLY TAKEN AWAY FROM THE NATURAL PATH UPON WHICH HE WAS CREATED.’
    {END QUOTE}
    And this is clearly understood that, if they were ‘TAKEN AWAY’ from their fitrah, that would then indicate that taking Shahada ‘REVERTS’ a person BACK TO THE FITRAH HE/SHE WAS ALREADY SET UPON, as Allah and His Messenger have clearly established.
    AND ALLAH SAYS: “ The only response of the ˹true˺ believers, when they are called to Allah and His Messenger so he may judge between them, is to say, “We hear and obey.” It is they who will ˹truly˺ succeed.” [An Nur Chapter 24 Verse 51]
    Perhaps some of the issue with these arguments misconception and misunderstanding of the missing ‘existing particle’ that connects it to the ‘fitrah’ that both Allah and His Messenger say is already instilled/created in us all, that all humans are born upon, is because, and this is no way to with any disrespect, rather a humble observation, is that perhaps many Muslims who spend a lot of time in their non-Islamic academics, might not spend as much time in their actual Islamic studies to understand what is the correct aqeedah regarding the subjects mentioned herein this discussion, and are not fully informed or do not correctly understand concerning Islamic religious theology. And Allah Knows Best.
    IN CONCLUSION, it is very clear that the more ‘CORRECT’ word for those who have re-embraced their fitrah i.e., ‘Islamic monotheism’ as being what they were born upon, although it was given the ‘name’ after the completion of the Holy Qur’an, is the word ‘REVERT’.
    With that, I hope that the Muslims do not feel the need to continue to make this a bigger issue than there needs to be over these two words and turn them into an issue of right or wrong aqeedah, as it is an issue that has many, many, many more important issues above it that are far more deserving of all our attention regarding the shirk that the disbelievers are making with Allah that actually needs to be addressed by all our efforts while we all know how Shaytan loves to distract from the major good deeds, with the minor distractions.
    I pray that Allah guide and protect us from ignorance, arrogance and having pride in the wrong and evil ways, and that he make us of those who are genuinely sincere in our efforts to Him and whom He is genuinely pleased with when He takes our souls and whom He grants success in this life, in our graves and in the hereafter.
    As salamu alaikum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatu.

    Reply
    • New Beginnings

      The only problem with this is that you would be saying that a person has reverted back to “fitrah” which is not synonymous with Islam, so you are saying that a person has gone back to receptivity and capacity for Islam only and not the actual religion itself which is a product of our upbringing. Another problem is the term “revert to” is “irtadda” in Arabic which is only used in the Quran for apostasy in a very negative sense. You seem to be conflating fitrah with doctrine/tawhid. The Prophet ﷺ and his companions never used such language.

      Reply

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