Monday, December 01, 2008

Convert or Revert?

Backwards
I have mixed feelings about the use of the term revert. In general I avoid having to use convert or revert altogether by just saying I embraced Islam or became a Muslim. Just this weekend though I was at the mosque and got into a conversation with a man there who, when I mentioned how long it had been since I converted, informed me that he preferred the term revert, as if he were correcting me.

I guess I don't like to be corrected... hm.

Anyway, I don't mind if other people choose the term revert as opposed to convert. It doesn't really bother me, and I don't mean to fuss at anyone who prefers it that way. But to me, that word (revert) carries some negative connotations that I don't like to associate with my decision to embrace Islam.

But first let's see why anyone would say revert in the first place. The word convert is the obvious choice for someone who changes his or her religion, that being one meaning of it. In other words, going from one thing to another thing--that's a conversion. The word revert on the other hand, means going from one thing to another also, but it actually means going back to what something was before. Where I work, we use the word revert to describe traffic signal operation forcing the signals to turn back to red lights.

So when a person says that he or she reverted to Islam, undoubtedly he means that he went back to being Muslim--that he was a Muslim before, then was not Muslim for a time, and then returned to Islam. Now if a person was raised outside the faith of Islam, does that make sense?

Perhaps it does--the logic is based on the following hadith, which is reported in Saheeh Muslim:


Abu Huraira reported from Allah's Messenger (may peace be upom him) many ahadith and one amongst them is that he is reported to have said: An infant is born according to his (true) nature. It is his parents Who make him a Jew, a Christian, just as a she-camel gives birth to its young ones. Do you find any deficiency in their limbs? You cut their ears (i. e. after birth).

Born according to the fitrah, to be precise--his true nature. To those preferring the term revert, the true nature is Islam, therefore implying that a person is actually born Muslim--in fact, that every person is born Muslim, and then raised as something else (if not raised as a Muslim.)

That bothers me a little bit, because the hadith doesn't actually say that a person is born Muslim. And I always have understood Islam to be willful submission and surrender, therefore it has to be a conscious decision. I never made that decision as a baby, so I don't see that I could have been a true Muslim at birth. So when I discovered Islam as an adult and chose to embrace it, I was making a conscious decision to convert, not revert. I was going from what I was (a Christian), to something else (a Muslim.) I wasn't going back to being Muslim since I didn't consider myself to have been a Muslim before that.

So I suppose the difference hinges upon the way the word fitrah is interpreted--whether it means what I understand it to mean, true inclination towards monotheism and purity, or whether it means the way others understand it, that a child is actually born as a Muslim, despite not being aware at all of the faith of Islam or making any decision to accept or reject it.

ForwardAnd at any rate, that's why in general I prefer to use the word convert instead of revert. In case anyone wondered. But I'm not trying to bash anyone for disagreeing with me--I know I seem to be in the minority. If I said that I reverted, to me that would undeniably mean that I went backwards, back to being a Christian, so my tongue stumbles over ever saying that. Because to me, it means going back to something, something I remember, or going in a backwards direction. And I don't remember ever being a Muslim until I said shahadah, and since then I intend only to move forward.

9 comments:

Brad (from WhyIslam) said...

Great post Amy!

I often use the words "convert" and "revert" interchangeably. However, I know that they both have different implications.

When I'm among Muslims, I tend to use revert. But if I'm among non-Muslims, I use convert. I think one needs to be careful when saying "revert" to non-Muslims because they will always ask "What do you mean by that?" And the ensuing conversation is never good.

mezba said...

lol @ the first comment. It's just symantics to me. I like the term "convert" - it's more true (natural) to its obvious meanings.

Talha said...

Assalamu Alaikum

This year at Ilm Summit, one of the AlMaghrib instructors (I believe it was Yasir Qadhi) said the same exact thing. In fact, he brought up the same Hadeeth, and said how in fact, convert is the preferred term.

Amy said...

Thanks Brad!

I do the same, sometimes. When Muslims tend to use 'revert' I don't usually object, though with non-Muslims I almost exclusively use 'convert' so they don't get really confused.

Amy said...

Mezba--

Thanks for your comment. It is semantics but to me that means something. :-) I agree with you.

Amy said...

Wa alaikuma s-salaam Talha

Thanks for your comment! That's kind of cool to know I'm on the side of Yasir Qadhi or any of Al-Maghrib's instructors. Thanks for sharing that with me! I feel it gives a little more credence to my opinion. :-)

The Gori Wife said...

This was great! Now I can actually articulate some of the reasons why I prefer convert the next time *I* am corrected!

batoor102 said...

An interesting issue. It doesn't really feel to me like convert and revert are irreconciliably opposite things, or even two sides of the same coin. Both of them can be accomodated.

'Conversion' suggests a change, and certainly I have made a change, and people whom I haven't told will come to see it, because it is a major life change. And I am telling people I know that I am a convert to Islam.

'Reversion' is a deeper idea. For me the choice of embracing Islam became simply an acceptance that this thing that I now believe so deeply really defines who I am- Islam has been in me all of the time and what I have now done is to add the outward aspect of participating in Muslim life and community. The idea is much more intimate and personal and much more susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. So I wouldn't use it in discussing my embracing of Islam with a non-Muslim, unless they either wanted to have a conversation about really spiritual things- or, of course, if they were also interested in converting/reverting.

batoor102 said...

An interesting issue. It doesn't really feel to me like convert and revert are irreconciliably opposite things, or even two sides of the same coin. Both of them can be accomodated.

'Conversion' suggests a change, and certainly I have made a change, and people whom I haven't told will come to see it, because it is a major life change. And I am telling people I know that I am a convert to Islam.

'Reversion' is a deeper idea. For me the choice of embracing Islam became simply an acceptance that this thing that I now believe so deeply really defines who I am- Islam has been in me all of the time and what I have now done is to add the outward aspect of participating in Muslim life and community. The idea is much more intimate and personal and much more susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. So I wouldn't use it in discussing my embracing of Islam with a non-Muslim, unless they either wanted to have a conversation about really spiritual things- or, of course, if they were also interested in converting/reverting.