Posted on Mar 10, 2020
By Layla Abdullah-Poulos
My editor shared with me a recent Haute Hijab Facebook group poll she put together asking if Muslims who entered the faith preferred to be called “convert” or “revert.” The premise of the poll was to see what group members (who took the poll) prefer, since the terms are used interchangeably in Muslim culture (and in this blog).
She expressed that the poll did not represent a definitive thought on verbiage (respondents did not fully reflect the multiple backgrounds of Muslim converts), but she wanted my opinion on the results and my perspective about the words. In our work of writing about Muslims, we want to make sure we use terminology that accurately reflects the communities we are covering. Figuring out what term to use, however, is not easy due to multiple factors and community issues.
I asked Embrace (an ICNA project centering Muslim converts) Co-Founder Nahela Morales about the using the words convert and revert. “I tend to use the word convert when I am giving dawah and with mostly non-Muslims,” explained Nahela. “As a daaiyah (a woman who gives dawah), sometimes I have seconds to convey the message. So for me, it is easier to say [that] I converted to Islam because they will understand it immediately, versus [saying] ‘I reverted,’ and I have to give an explanation.”
Converts from Embrace performing Umrah in 2020; image source: Nahela Morales.
“It becomes a sensitive issue [in Muslim communities]. If you use the term convert, they talk about the fitrah and [argue], ‘Well, you reverted back,’ so I tend to use the word revert in talking with Muslims.”
It is not surprising that Muslims who have converted find themselves in a social conundrum about their entrance into the faith and how it impacts their identities. We are creatures of identity. Allah (S) says in the Quran:
Oh, mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Suratul Hujarat (49:13)
How one connects to their culture, traditions and socio-political experiences can be empowering, so it is not always a bad thing. People should have social agency to decide how they navigate all aspects of their backgrounds.
Problems with identity arise when people situate their identities in opposition to each other, inciting bigotry, bias and supremacy in Muslim spaces that are antithetical to Islamic teachings. For example, some people raised with a Muslim identity expect converts to immediately accept cultural customs and traditions outside of Islamic teachings, their premise being, “My family has been Muslim for generations. We have always done this.” Add this to the fact that there is no evidence of previous use of the terms “convert” or “revert” in our faith.
Faith and Names
Allah (S) does not give people who proclaim the shahadah and accept Islam a specific name. He named us all Muslims. Allah (S) says in the Quran:
[It is] the religion of your father, Abraham. Allah named you "Muslims" before [in former scriptures] and in this [revelation]. Suratul Hajj (22:78)
The closest references to Muslim conversion are in the Quran, where Allah (S) mentions believers “entering” Islam. Allah (S) says in the Quran:
O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely [and perfectly] and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy. Suratul Baqarah (2:208)
And you see the people entering into the religion of Allah in multitudes. Suratul Nasr (110:2)
Scholars may cite the hadith about people born on the “fitrah” to promote use of the word “revert” as opposed to “convert,” often extending their scholarship to dictate how people should identify socially. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “There is none born but is created to his true nature (Islam). It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magian ...” (Sahih Muslim 2658 b). They assert that fitrah in this context means Islam and conclude that the word “revert” is the best fit, which actually is problematic.
Many Islamic words do not directly translate into English, so the inference that to revert is to return to Islam generates more questions than it does coalesce the identities of people entering Islam as a new Deen (way of life), and it ignores those who were once Muslim and returned to the faith.
Embrace group members listen to their teacher as they perform Umrah; image source: Nahela Morales.
Nahela told me that Embrace members include people who left Islam and returned. “We have born Muslims who consider themselves reverts because they left the Deen and came back. They will go on to say, ‘I am a revert too.’”
Since the use of the words “convert” and “revert” is a modern phenomenon (one not rooted in Islamic teachings or the sunnah), it is not within the purview of Muslim scholars to assert one or the other, especially those who do not live the experience of accepting Islam as a new faith. It becomes a matter of urf (cultural and social customs), and individual Muslims retain the authority to decide on their identities when it comes to their conversion/reversion.
They have a vested social interest. They are the ones directly impacted by the positive and negative uses of the term.
For years, labeling a person as a convert was somewhat alien to me. Most Muslim communities (mainly African American) didn’t make that distinction. Usually, a person who had entered the faith in African American communities was called a new Shahadah. This encouraged us to take the person under our wings, especially those of us who may understand what they are going through as a new Muslim.
The reference is still used by Muslims in the communities I frequent, including my local community where there is a growing number of new Muslims. A person is a new Shahadah for a limited amount of time. As they spend more time learning, practicing Islam and connecting with the community, the identity fades, and they become simply Sister or Brother. It is not a lifelong identity stamp on a person to differentiate and discredit them, generating stigma typical of the othering of Muslims by their correligionists who are born and raised as Muslim.
A Convert in Muslim Spaces
When I enter spaces with the majority of people identifying as born Muslims, a distinction often crystalizes into a disturbing interaction of fetish or bias. Like many who entered Islam, I am either inundated with demands to “inspire” people with my conversion story, or I am immediately othered in a way that invalidates me from my bona fide Muslimness: “How did you become Muslim? What made you choose my religion? Did you convert for your husband?”
Nauseating and invasive questioning continues to plague our social existence. I remember a Muslim author connecting with readers during an Instagram live stream, and she received a bunch of questions like if she was on the sunnah and knew who the Prophet Muhammad (saw) was. I tapped my thumbs as fast as I could on my phone, telling her not to answer dumb questions like those. Fielding questions about our Muslimness disturbs many Muslim reverts on multiple levels, imposing on someone the responsibility to prove their Islamic identities and convey their “origin story” for the consumption of strangers.
After many people satisfy their spiritual voyeurism with these questions, they often then use the label “convert” to permanently “otherize” people. The questions then transition into “This is Sister (name). She’s a convert,” which initiates a dog whistle effect that lets those who are born Muslims be primed for bias to treat the person as intrinsically different, sometimes magical but typically ignorant, second-class and sub-Muslim.
The debate about which word to use indicates a larger problem for those who enter Islam consciously. So often we are positioned to prove our validity as Muslims, despite the fact that the best generation of Muslims – the Sahaabah (companions of the Prophet) – converted, shifting from a polytheistic to monotheistic belief or from religions constructed from previous revelations (the Torah and Jews and the Injeel [Bible] and Christians) to the final one revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (saws).
Many of us have internalized biases that exist against us and struggle to assert a positive identity. Ironically, some of us seek to deny our past quests to connect with a higher power, which is an innate part of humanity (fitrah). Why? Among Allah's signs is his ability to guide. Why feel shame or othered by people's inability to fully appreciate how glorious it is to find a way to form a relationship with your Creator in a world full of ways that will create a chasm between you and Him?
Indeed, even people born to a Muslim family are not guaranteed guidance and struggle.
Like other social identities, whether someone calls themselves convert or revert remains individual and precarious because of the potential negative impact from people seeking to relegate those who accepted Islam into second-class status or just be about “how long they have been Muslim,” their level of knowledge notwithstanding. Whatever we call ourselves, it will never be enough.
As long as patronization of and bias against converts/reverts maintains a tangible hold in people’s hearts and our identities are used against us, shifts will have to be made. First, we are converts then reverts. In the future, someone else will decide on another name because there is not enough discussion about discrimination against converts. Either way, we can choose whichever we want or nothing at all.
When it is necessary for me to make a distinction about my Muslim identity, I tend to refer to myself as a convert. I grew up Christian and converted to Islam when I was 18. Since Allah gave converts from the People of the Book double reward, I am perfectly happy with the indication. I changed my faith and interaction with my Creator. I had to make major shifts in thinking about who He is and eliminate beliefs that minimize His magnificence, like Him having a son. That was a major change, a conversion of belief and mindset.
I did not revert or return to the oneness of Allah( S) (wahdaneeyatulllah) or believe again that the Prophet Muhammad (saw) is the Messenger of Allah. In my mind, Muslims born and raised in the faith who then move away from it and then return would have reverted to Islam and their Muslimness. The term is more suitable for them.
There are a lot of layers to navigate, making it necessary for each of us to decide how to coalesce our identities. For me, I left one faith and embraced Islam to deepen my connection to the Creator. I am a convert.