By Ricardo Peña, Convert Support Group
When I became a Muslim circa 1995, we lived in a profoundly different world than the one we live in today. The Internet existed only in a tiny community of hardcore geeks, the iPhone was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, the idea of the Chicago Cubs winning a World Series was a recurring joke, and much to my son’s confusion, I had hair. In those days, there was also another phenomenon that hadn’t become popular yet – that is the use of the term “Revert” to refer to those of us who accepted Islam by choice.
For those who are reading this and don’t know what this whole Revert business is about, I will explain it to you briefly. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, explained that every person is born in a pure state of submission to Allah (i.e. a Muslim), but it is the parents of the children who decide that the child is a Jew or a Christian or what have you. In this way, a child starts as a Muslim and is converted into some other belief system other than Islam. Therefore, when a person later on decides to accept Islam and becomes a Muslim, they are said to have returned to their original state of submission upon birth. A person does not just “Convert” to Islam, rather they “Revert” to Islam where they had been previously. People have thus begun to use the word “Revert” instead of “Convert” to refer to those of us who have embraced Islam by choice in later years of life.
I don’t remember who introduced the term Revert to me but I remember my feelings about it when it began to gain popularity. I was uncomfortable with it but I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. I wrestled with it for a while until I simply accepted “Revert” as a valid option for describing one’s act of embracing Islam. So, I thought, “Sure why not?” Even as I write this article, I still don’t think that it is unequivocally wrong to use the word Revert, but after many years, some research, and a lot of thought over the subject, I have now reached a different, albeit personal, conclusion.
It is in my humble opinion that the fad of using Revert should just go away. Not because it is unequivocally wrong, but because there are a number of problematic dynamics involved with the use of the term.
Here are the eight reasons why we should stop using the word “Revert.”
1. Revert implies intent upon leaving Islam
To illustrate, consider the possibility that from time to time we may encounter an unfortunate situation where we’ve offended someone because of something we did or said even when we did not intend to do so. In such a case, there is no denying that the person was offended but it isn’t something that was done intentionally. This unintended but true consequence gives rise to a principle that underlies the reasoning of this point, which is the following.
What happened isn’t necessarily what we did.
If I have offended someone unintentionally I would apologize in a different way than if I had. In the former case I would say “I am sorry you felt offended” whereas in the latter case I would say “I am sorry I offended you.” I would never say “I am sorry I offended you” if it was an innocent and unintentional thing. That would be to admit guilt for something I did not do, which is inaccurate and an injustice upon myself.
It is the same regarding the concept of reverting to Islam. When I decided to become a Muslim, the fact that I reverted to my original state of submission or fitrah is indeed what happened … but that is not what I did. I never consciously left Islam by my own volition, therefore it would be quite illogical to describe my decision as reverting. Reverting implies a return to something that I had the intention to leave. If I left Islam it was not by my own doing whereas embracing Islam was by virtue of my choice after being guided by Our Creator.
I never left Islam intentionally, therefore my intention to embrace Islam is not an intentional reversion. Therefore, logically speaking, it is more accurate to say that I converted, because that is what I did.
2. It diminishes the act of embracing Islam
Put plainly, to “revert” back to something sounds like a flip-flop. It has the connotation that we’ve changed our minds, admitted our fallacy, and have mended the error of our ways. Most, if not all, of us have stories of discovery and struggle. To say one has “converted” has a stronger connotation that is more representative of the personal agony and strife that we went through in our journey to embrace Islam. When we are called “Reverts” many of us cannot help but to feel like that struggle has somehow been diminished and diluted.
The truth is that it took a great deal of time, heartbreak, personal struggle, and defiance against my family to embrace Islam. When I am referred to as a “Revert” then all of that struggle is watered down, minimized, and diminished. Not all Converts feel this way, but I have heard other Converts express this same feeling.
3. The word “Revert” is not universal
One of the appealing aspects of using the word “Revert” is that it is a clever play on words. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I appreciate the linguistic creativity and catchiness of a good word-play. On this point I must admit that the word “Revert” is kind of cool. But that is something that we enjoy as speakers of English whereas it isn’t necessarily the case with other languages.
Other languages may not have a common linguistic construct between their respective translations for “Convert” and “Revert” in such a way that it is also a cute play on words in those languages. In this sense, the word “Revert” loses its novelty when translated into another language. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that another language may not have a direct translation of the word but rather requires two or more words to convey its meaning.
Take the word “sixteen” as an example. In Spanish, the word sixteen is “dieciséis.” This is a mashup of the three words “diez y seis,” which means “ten and six.” You can see then that in Spanish if you want to say sixteen you are actually saying “ten and six,” which is a bit more cumbersome. Spanish is rife with cumbersome words, many taking three syllables to pronounce versus their single syllable English counterparts (e.g. fun = diversion, shoe = zapato, hope = esperanza). People intuitively gravitate toward words that roll off the tongue efficiently due to their phonetic appeal, which is part of the reason why eloquent songs, clichés, or poems are difficult to translate because “it’s just not the same.”
The point is that the novelty of the word “Revert” will inevitably be completely lost when translated into another language if it can be easily translated at all and Islam is supposed to be universal. I believe that “Convert” is a more universal term to use when translating to other languages. Especially because it would be more understandable immediately, which brings me to the next reason.
4. Revert requires explanation
When I started writing this article, it occurred to me that someone who is reading this may not even understand what meaning underlies the word “Revert,” so it took a paragraph for me to explain it (though perhaps I was a little on the verbose side because of course!). As I searched around the Internet looking for studies or even opinions about “Revert,” time and again I found that it had to be explained. This is because the concept of reverting means there is an antecedent. There is something from the past that it is referring to and therefore dependent on (i.e. reverted back to what?). This dependency requires explanation. For example …
Headline: Muslim Convert Saves Cat from Tree
Reader: Understood (carries on with life)
Headline: Muslim Revert Saves Cat from Tree
Reader: Huh? (scratching head)
As part of my research, I spoke to a couple of scholars on this topic. One of them is a sheikh in our community who recently came from Syria and was a well-known scholar in his country. This particular scholar is an expert in Tafsir (Quranic commentary) having studied more than fifty tafasir over a span of about forty-five years. When I asked for his opinion about the word Revert, he simply did not know what I was talking about. I had to explain the hadith, which he recognized, and how that was the basis for the word that is used in lieu of “Convert” and he did not know this viewpoint had even existed.
An expert scholar well-versed in Quran and a 45-plus-year veteran of Islamic scholarship required an explanation from little ol’ me. Why favor a word that requires explanation over a word that is immediately understood? This is inefficient at best and we should favor clarity and understanding over confusion and novelty. And speaking of understanding, what if it causes a misunderstanding (?) which brings me to the next reason.
5. It’s offensive to non-Muslims
If we are inviting non-Muslims to learn about and understand Islam (dawah), we will inevitably touch upon the concept of conversion to Islam. At that point, do you use “Revert” or do you avoid the confusion when speaking to non-Muslims? Perhaps one can be careful to know their audience when speaking but what about the word “Revert” in articles, videos, or in print? I have seen organizations hold events that host non-Muslims while having big banners with some title having the word “Revert” in them. What does one do then when a non-Muslim asks what a “Revert” is?
There are a couple of problems here. First, as stated previously, it requires an explanation whereas a banner using the word “Convert” would not require any explanation at all. But now we are in a position to have to explain this and when we do, then what we say isn’t necessarily what they hear.
Once you explain that a baby is born Muslim and converted into some other belief system, it immediately puts the other person in a position of error and inferiority. Their parents made a mistake and they should have remained Muslim. In addition to this, the Muslim explaining this is placing himself in a position of superiority and arrogance seemingly lording it over them in an underhanded way. It should be understandable that telling someone in a not so subtle way that their parents made a mistake and that they should have been Muslim all along is offensive.
There are better ways to engage people about Islam without indirectly putting them down. Not everyone will be offended but those who are may walk away and conclude that Muslims are arrogant never to consider Islam again and we may never know that this ever happened. Is using the word “Revert” worth this risk? And this is just one way the use of this word can invite conflict, which is the subject of the next reason below.
6. The Conflict and Division that it Creates is a Fitna (unrest/chaos)
With the introduction of this word came the creation of two camps among Muslims immediately sowing the seeds of division. You might be thinking, well it’s just a “tomato / tom-ah-to” thing but … no. Nobody will correct a British bloke for saying “tom-ah-to” but this happens all the time to people who use “Convert.”
Me: I was at the Friday prayer last week and this guy converted. His story was interes
<!! Interruption !!>
Brother Fulan: You mean he reverted
<!! Fitnah ensues !!>
Correcting someone’s mistakes is tricky business and takes a high level of emotional intelligence to do it right. Personally, I rather dislike when a person takes an opinion and treats it as a fact and then pushes it upon someone else.
Nobody has the right to compel me to use a word that is not required to use and nobody has the right to compel me to abandon a word that is not wrong to use. It is okay to suggest using it but even this is tiresome. In the end of the day, if I want to use Convert then please let me be. If you want to use Revert how about if I just let you be. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen and we find that Muslims are hurting each other’s feelings over the use of “Convert” or “Revert” because they simply cannot let it go and respect another person’s opinion or choice.
In an effort to please Allah with the acknowledgement of a return to our fitrah we have inadvertently made Shaytan all the happier every time someone says, “You mean Revert!” causing conflict and division among believers. Then because we know that this kind of drama might happen we inevitably feel …
<Shameless plug alert!> In the Convert Support Group sessions that we have at the Mecca Center on Saturday mornings at 9:00 AM to which all Born or Convert Muslims are invited and you should really be there … I can sense the pause and discomfort just before someone says the word “Revert” or “Convert” in conversation. We have this uneasy anxiety about it when we don’t know who in the room is going to deliver a rebuke. So, when it comes to this word we are on egg shells.
In our last session, coincidentally after having written my first draft of this article, one of them plainly said, “I hate the word ‘Revert’.” My wife and I looked at each other, smiled, and said “Please explain.” She could have written this article because she articulated most of the reasons I’ve stated herein. One of the things that was discussed is the unease a person has when a sentence requires the use of the word “Convert” or “Revert” in conversation, which happens quite frequently in a Convert Support Group.
Islam literally means peace through submission yet this controversy over the word “Revert” robs us of our peace. Why should we feel awkward and anxious over something so trivial? This is not peace. This is not Islam. Doing away with this fad would bring ease and comfort since we could finally breath easier knowing we won’t face judgment for using the word “Convert.” We should be able to submit to Allah and expect to have peace in our hearts and … hey wait a minute … to submit to Allah … don’t we have to adhere to the Quran and the Sunnah? How did the Prophet and the Sahaba handle this?
8. The word “Revert” was not used during the Prophet’s (pbuh) time
While the creation of the word “Revert” was extrapolated from hadith, nowhere in the Quran nor in the body of ahadith does the Arabic form of “Revert” or anything like it appear as a way of referring to “Convert” Muslims.
I consulted Sheikh Joe Bradford who is a Convert himself and <righteous plug alert!> specializes in the integration of Islamic finance with the U.S. legal system so, if you have questions about inheritance, loans, insurance, interest, etc. then head on over to www.joebradford.net … but I digress.
I asked Sheikh Joe if the word “Revert” or “Convert” was ever used among the Prophet (pbuh) and the Sahaba. His response was,
“There is really no word in Arabic for Convert or Revert nor was it used at the beginning of the Islamic period. The phrase that occurs is simply ‘accepted Islam’.”
Given that this is the case, there is no clear evidence for “Revert” or “Convert.” However, herein is a lesson nonetheless.
We should not treat “Revert” like it is the one true correct word to use. There is no evidence for this in the deen. The same can be said of “Convert,” which is why I stated at the beginning of this article that it is not unequivocally wrong to say “Revert.” But given that “Revert” causes the problems I’ve explained in this article, in my opinion it is better to stick with “Convert” and that would be closer to the Sunnah.
While I know that this humble little article will go viral, kick off a revolution, and squash the use of Revert once and for all (that’s sarcasm by the way), it will probably take some time before my good work is done. In the meantime, here are some recommendations for dealing with this problem.
- If you encounter someone who is so convinced about using the word Revert that they feel the need to defend righteousness and correct you for using the word Convert, then please do not let it get to you and send them a link to this article.
- If you received a link to this article after having corrected someone for using Convert instead of Revert, then here is my recommendation to you. If you really feel that Revert is better, then that is your choice and it is your right say Revert so go right ahead. However, please don’t correct anyone on this anymore. You should treat Convert as not being any wronger or righter than Revert. Just as it is your right to use Revert it is also their right to use Convert so please respect it by simply letting it go and carrying on with the conversation normally. By hurting people’s feelings over this issue, you will be manufacturing fitna in the process.
In short, the word “Revert” causes problems and we should avoid it for the sake of Allah and to promote brotherly and sisterly love as the following hadith advises,
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the worst of false tales; and do not look for the others’ faults and do not spy, and do not be jealous of one another, and do not desert (cut your relation with) one another, and do not hate one another; and O Allah’s worshipers! Be brothers (as Allah has ordered you!”)
– Sahih al-Bukhari – https://sunnah.com/bukhari/78/94
Whether we are “Reverts”, “Converts”, or “Whateverts” we are all something more elevated than that to each other in rank. We are brothers. And we are sisters. And we should behave that way.
- Sahih Muslim https://sunnah.com/urn/44530 – USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 298 – Arabic reference: Book 65, Hadith 4775
- Reference: Sahih al-Bukhari 6064; In-book reference: Book 78, Hadith 94; USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 8, Book 73, Hadith 90
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mecca Center.