Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Convertitis Defined (Part 1)

When I became Muslim, and even more so when I began to practice Islam seriously, I was warned about getting "convert-itis." What is convertitis?

It's a made-up word to describe when converts immediately immerse themselves in their new lifestyle, adopting only the strictest and most severest attitudes and strongly criticizing anyone who disagrees with them--especially those without such a strict interpretation as they themselves have.

You can see it in brothers and sisters--and not just from converts but sometimes even when people "recommit" themselves to the deen. For sisters, you have someone who just became Muslim and then immediately starts wearing niqaab and telling other sisters that their Islam is deficient or something if they don't wear niqaab too. Brothers you will see stop shaving their beards and wearing kufis (or whatever those little hats are called) and thowbs and not talking to women anymore. Both will stop eating any meat that is not halal-dhabiha and make a fuss about it to their hosts. Non-muslims (including family, and old friends) and even some less-strict Muslims are referred to as "kuffar."

So maybe you're reading and thinking, "Well, what's wrong with that? Why does it have to be an -itis?" Nothing wrong with wearing niqaab, is there? Or a kufi? Or a beard? Or modesty in inter-gender relations? Or eating eating islamically slaughtered meat? Nope, nothing wrong with these things, in and of themselves. However, these are all external behaviors. They are incredibly emphasized by laypeople (hijab/niqaab, beard, dhabihah) but they are not the heart of Islam.

When someone decides to embrace Islam, it's usually not because they want to change their wardrobe or go on a diet. It's because something about Islam was appealing on a spiritual and intellectual level, because out of faith, a path clearly defined as worshipping Allah (swt) and following the example of the Prophet (saws) makes the most sense.

The first transformation should be internal, a new focus, desperation, repentance. It almost always is. So what brings on convertitis? When the new Muslim gets caught up in external displays of piety. Things which should not be used as indicators of a person's faith are, in fact, used for just that purpose, and the new convert wants to emulate piety, or at least the appearance of it. And they go to an extreme, unfortunately.

If the convert starts making big and drastic changes, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain them. Trying to change too fast either to earn respect, fit in, or even out of the best intention to please Allah swt, the inertia will eventually catch up with them... and it sometimes can even pull someone out of Islam. Because all these external behaviors failed to satisfy or change the internal ones that the convert was looking for in the first place. So maybe the result is feeling let down, and isolated.

So the real problem with convertitis is that too much change, especially external change, too quickly, becomes difficult to maintain and can ultimately end up pushing a new Muslim out of Islam.

Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Prophet (PBUH) said, "The religion (of Islam) is easy, and whoever makes the religion a rigour, it will overpower him. So, follow a middle course (in worship); if you can't do this, do something near to it and give glad tidings and seek help (of Allah) at morn and at dusk and some part of night."

InshaaAllah I will follow up on this topic, as I have a lot I want to say about it.


MyHijab said...

This post has come at a perfect time for me. It has hit a spot.

I want to re-read it and will comment again.

Salam alaikum Amy

Tarek said...

Assalamo Alaikom sister

This is a crucial issue which needs a lot of attention. It's important to remember that a gradual learning curve in Islam is the way to being consistent, and that going to extremes is likely to make life too complicated for a revert

There is an article on the Islam for Today web site by American convert Saraji Umm Zaid who cautions new Muslims about the dangers of extremism and absolutism, which you may have read. If not here it is:

Look forward to your comments

Salam - Tarek

Amy said...

Wa alaikum as-salaam "MyHijab" -

I hope the post was beneficial for you, and that all follow-up ones are as well, inshaaAllah.

Wa alaikum as-salaam Tarek -

Jazakallah khair for posting. I did read the article, actually right after posting this, googling "convertitis" I think. But I want to address the issue again, or even more so, but especially from my perspective... because it is my blog. I have a slightly different take on it than Umm Zaid and Abdul Hakim Murad, I think. All the same, jazakallahkhair.

iBO said...

spot on!