Tuesday, 21 September 2021

"Convert" or "Revert"?

Another serious challenge you’re going to face, and this is the second half of this chapter, is getting over the “convert”, “revert” or “new Muslim” label.

First of all, “revert” is an utterly ridiculous and idiotic term. To revert means to return to a former habit, practice, belief, condition etc. Yes, every child is born on al-fiṭrah, i.e. the natural disposition of human beings, and Islam is the religion of al-fiṭrah, it is the religion that accurately corresponds to man’s natural disposition. The argument thus goes that by embracing Islam one returns to one’s natural disposition. Great. But who made the decision to leave in the first place? I never made the decision not to be Muslim or the decision to move away from my natural disposition. I never apostated. To me, this was a discovery, not a homecoming. A synonym of to revert is to retrogress, i.e. to go backward into an earlier and usually worse condition. Becoming a Muslim is supposed to be progress; I’m supposed to be gradually moving towards a better condition. I loathe this term and would prefer for it not to be used.

The term “new Muslim” is a temporary term. You can’t be a “new” Muslim for more than a year. Once you’re in the habit of praying five times a day, and you know enough basic Arabic to do so, and you’ve fasted an entire Ramadan, you should really stop referring to yourself as a “new” Muslim, and you should prevent others from doing so as well. You have to move on and start taking responsibility. How long are you considered a “new” employee when you start work somewhere? How long are you considered “new in town” when you move somewhere? Think about that. You do not want to fall into the trap of having a victim mentality and thus use the excuse of being a “new” Muslim for years and years when people ask you why you still haven’t learned the basics of your faith, or haven’t made much progress in general. This is a pathetic attitude to have.

“Convert” is an accurate term because it is a permanent truth. Instead of being raised by Muslim parents in a Muslim household, a convert has made the conscious decision to become a Muslim, and usually against the wishes and advice of his parents, family, culture, society and so forth. However, the usefulness of the term “convert” is just that, i.e. to distinguish you from those who were born and raised in Muslim households. Aside from that, the term “convert” is useless and we really should just talk about Muslims, regardless of how they got there. There are a few reasons.

For starters, not everyone who is raised in a “Muslim” household receives an “Islamic” upbringing. That’s why we have these funny terms in English like “practicing Muslim”, as if it’s a hobby like ballet or a branch of medicine. A child in this situation may be told that he is a Muslim, or that his family is Muslim, but that doesn’t mean that people in his family will pray, fast, go the masjid and so forth. A person in this situation faces three possibilities:

1. Follow the family and be a “secular Muslim”, i.e. Muslim in name only. You could also say “cultural” Muslim.

2. Realise that being a “secular Muslim” is not only contradictory but a complete waste of time, and thus he formally leaves Islam and no longer calls himself a Muslim.

3. Try to discover Islam outside of his family and local community.

The last one branches out into lots of further possibilities, because in such a case this person is not very different from a convert. They’ve made the conscious decision to be a Muslim, their family is most likely not supportive and therefore they have to go elsewhere. They could fall in with cultists and political activists, they could get swept away by a Sufi brotherhood, they might be enticed by the hippie converts and their affiliates, or they might come across some sincere believers and get the opportunity to study Arabic along with basic theology and fiqh.

As a side note, the last option is not likely in the Anglosphere, and that’s why I think “secular Muslims” should be honest and just leave the faith. Don’t raise children and tell them they’re Muslims but then never explain it to them or even demonstrate it to them. This will just make them easy prey for the various organisations that I’ve mentioned above.[1] They will feel horribly confused as they won’t know what to make of their parents. They might have thoughts like: “My dad says he’s a Muslim but he drinks alcohol”, “My mom says she’s a Muslim but she never prays.” With Islam, do it or don’t do it. Doing it doesn’t mean being perfect in all of one’s actions. Rather, it means being fully committed in the general sense. You may slip here and there or not feel ready to commit to certain things, but as long as you recognise and acknowledge that you have progress to make and that you’re working on it, you’ll be fine. The problem with “cultural” Muslims is the sense of satisfaction. They are lukewarm Muslims, in that they pick and choose what they want to “practise”, they are happy the way they are and, to make matters worse, they expect their children to follow their lead. If you claim to follow a religion, or a legal system or a constitution, and then you blatantly only follow that which suits your desires and interests, this is clear hypocrisy and your children will notice it. It’s much better to be honest and to admit that you are not a Muslim, or that you follow whatever you think is best.

Therefore, based on the aforementioned, if you’re a convert, don’t let any so-called “born Muslim” assert his authority over you. His Muslim name or the fact that he was raised in a Muslim household is no indicator of authority, but a conversation like this is typical:

‘Ma sha Allah, brother, how long have you been Muslim?’

‘Three years.’

“Ma sha Allah, brother, that is great. I have been Muslim for 30 years. I need to explain something to you…’

This is a preposterous argument. 30 years, or whatever figure someone gives you, is their age. It doesn’t mean anything. When a convert says ‘I’ve been a Muslim for X years’, it means that they have been conscious, willing Muslims for that period of time. A “born Muslim” thinks that simply being alive means the same thing, or at least he wants you to think that. Don’t fall for it. Instead, ask this individual how long he has been a committed believer. Ask him what he has studied, and whom with. It’s very likely that this “born Muslim” has been a committed believer for about as long as you have, maybe less.

Furthermore, if you converted to Islam in your teenage years, and there are plenty of people who embrace Islam in early adolescence, unless a “born Muslim” is from a scholarly family and grew up reading and memorising texts and studying with his parents, there is no way such a person can claim that being a Muslim longer than you have means anything, let alone scholarly authority over you.

Of course, as a convert, people will want to ask you how and why you became Muslim, and that’s fair enough, especially “born Muslims” who have been raised in more “cultural” or secular families. They want to understand how and why someone would choose Islam completely voluntarily, without any pressure from their family, community or broader culture. Your story may very well be inspiring and even include aspects that are beyond material explanation. Share your story and inspire people, absolutely, but don’t let your story define who you are.

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