October 28, 2007

Conversion vs. Reversion

I got an e-mail this morning from a man who read some of my comments on Daily Kos. He questioned why I used the word "revert" instead of "convert." Below is the comment he is referring to, which I wrote, except that he has capitalized all the times I used the word "revert":

“Yes, I'm well aware that people REVERT to Islam for petty reasons. That's not my point. My point is that Muslims would want people to have the right intention for REVERTING to Islam instead of a petty reason. In Islam, one's intention to behave in a certain way carries considerable weight, both in this life and the Hereafter. How much more forgiveness might Allah (swt) grant to one who REVERTED to Islam for His sake than for a person who REVERTED for a petty reason, like marriage or business?”

His letter:

I notice that you speak of Christians and others “reverting” to Islam and elsewhere put ‘“conversion”’ in quotation marks. Obviously you are making a point. What is it? That we once were all Muslim, and hence those who are not (really, no longer) within the dar al Islam are infidels?

And my response:

I wouldn't exactly put it the way you've described it, especially with the use of the word "infidel," which I rarely if ever use.

Some Muslims will talk about people converting to Islam, others (perhaps the majority) talk about "reverting" to Islam. I use the latter word. The reason why Muslims like me use "revert" instead of "convert" is due to some passages in the Qur'an.

The Qur'an states that mankind was brought forth before Allah (swt) long before we were born. In one particular passage, it is said that mankind swore an oath confirming that Allah (swt) is the one God:

"When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): 'Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?'- They said: 'Yea! We do testify!' (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: 'Of this we were never mindful': Or lest ye should say: 'Our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are (their) descendants after them: wilt Thou then destroy us because of the deeds of men who were futile?'" (7:172-3)

In this regard, Muslims believe that through this oath we all became Muslims prior to birth. It is after birth where we may lose our innate sense of the oneness of Allah (swt) (such as through the teachings of our parents, teachers and others). In that sense, those people who come back to Islam (such as myself) are not "converts," but "reverts."

Another explanation, by Muhammad Asad:

"According to the Qur'an, the ability to perceive the existence of the Supreme Power is inborn in human nature (fitrah); and it is this instinctive cognition - which may or may not be subsequently blurred by self-indulgence or adverse environmental influences - that makes every sane human being 'bear witness about himself' before God."

So, in this respect, yes, we were all once Muslims, but after birth some of us are taught to be other than Muslim.

Salaam 'alaikum (peace be unto you).


JDsg

2 comments:

Julaybib said...

The translation of "fitrah" as "nature" is problematic because "human nature" draws on the rhetoric of biological determinism in contemporary discourse. This is why I dislike the idea of islam being described as "the natural way". Confronted with meanings that are implicity and inescapable contemporary, it seems difficult to present a piece of theology as universally true. I prefer convert - it is a sociological term, and doesn't assume that conversion is necessarily "religious" in that sense - most converts in the UK, according to the evidence, are primarily seeking a moral community.

JDsg said...

This is why I dislike the idea of islam being described as "the natural way".

For me, too many Qur'anic ayat tell us how both animate and inanimate objects praise, worship, prostrate before Allah (swt). Humanity is different only in that we have free will but, for the rest of nature, Islam is the natural way. Other than having been taught wrongly, would we not retain our sense of fitrah?