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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. 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
  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. 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   [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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3 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
  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

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