Q. I have been corrected several times when I refer to new Muslims as converts. People prefer to call them reverts. I believe that this is based on a hadith that every soul is born in a state of purity. The following Qur'anic verses are also used to make the case that a person's soul professes the faith of Islam to Allah (s.w.t), before entering his/her respective fetus.

And whenever thy Sustainer bring forth their offspring from the loins of the children of Adam, He [thus] calls upon them to bear witness about themselves: "Am I not your Sustainer?" - to which they answer: "Yea, indeed, we do bear witness thereto!"

[Of this We remind you,] lest you say on the Day of Resurrection, "Verily, it was but our forefathers who, in times gone by, began to ascribe divinity to other beings besides God: and we were but their late offspring: wilt Thou, then, destroy us for the doings of those inventors of falsehoods?" (Q7:172-173)

Your insight into this issue would be most appreciated.

A. The hadith that you refer to is a famous one which states:

"Kul mawluudin yulad ala al fitra, fa abawaaho yuhawidaanahu, aw yunasiraanahu aw yumajisaanuhu - Every newborn is born in a state of natural piety, and it is his parents who judaize him, or christianize him, or magianize him."

This is obviously on the supposition that the state of natural piety is Islam. However, this is strange, for according to the Qur'an, is Abraham not asked to Aslim (become Muslim)? Had it been as the traditionists say, God would have asked him to return to Islam, not accept it. The jejune discourses then regarding reverts and converts are nonsensical.

The concept of "reverts" is totally alien to the Qur'an. Indeed revert has a truly negative connotation, it indicates that one is returning to something one has left. Is there not, according to traditional Islam, a punishment for having left the religion? And if they say that it is not the same case we are talking about, are we to assume that as long as a person does not declare a religion, he is assumed to be Muslim, having been born in a state of fitra? The hadith, if true at all (which seems unlikely), would only indicate that misguidance is what psychologists would attribute to environment and conditioning, and not to any pristine primordial human state.

The verses that you mentioned have to be juxtaposed against the following verses:

Consider the human self, and how it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be, and how it is imbued with moral failings as well as with the consciousness of God! To a happy state shall indeed attain he who causes this [self] to grow in purity, and truly lost is he who buries it [in darkness]. (Q91:7-10)

So how do we reconcile the apparent dichotomy? Q7:172-173 represents the primordial convenant: "Yes, man is created with an intrinsically good nature." But that presents a problem, for on the day of judgment, those who died young will be able to say to their Lord, as per the primordial covenant, and therefore be free from punishment. Upon which those like you and me, who have survived birth to be tempted and sin, will say: "O God, why did you not let me die young so that I would not commit sin. Why did you let him die young, and not subject him to tests, and you let me live to commit sin?" The answer lies in Q91:7-10, in the nature is also the base instinct. What are we to figure from this? In human nature are the two facets, and one is innate, but the human has the free will. Such free will must overcome evil, or as Fazlur Rahman says: "The difference is that every other creation has a nature it follows automatically, and man has a nature he ought to follow." In this regard, one speaks of the entire universe being Muslim.

This shows then that the word Muslim has several definitions. Even a tree and the sun therefore are Muslim, submitting to God's will. When we speak in a human context, however, the term acquires different meanings. There is the general, wherein we describe Moses as Muslim, and yet as from Banu Israil. And then there is the Muhammadan concept, wherein the word has a more specific meaning: One who consciously affirms Allah. How does this apply to revert and convert, in terms of that conscious declaration. You see, a baby will go to heaven not because of not committing a sin, but because of God's grace. For this reason, the Qur'an never speaks of people "reverting," it speaks of them purifying themselves, or making themselves perfect.

The Muslim theologians used "aslama" rather than "aada ila al-din" or "aada ila al fitra." This shows that reversion therefore, was nothing but a modern concept of the Anglophones, who do not understand the pristine language of the Qur'an, and who are unaware of the serious doctrinal problems the usage of revert presents. They fail to see that the Qur'an speaks of several different Islams, and definitely not the Islam that they refer to, that is the one wherein we pray five times daily, etc. This is one of the reasons why theology comes under the genre of "Ilm al kalam;" the knowledge of rhetoric, semantics, and speech. One word has so many meanings that it makes ignorant the Imam and likewise the most erudite scholar. If a person has committed to no religion, and then meets some Muslims, and he is therefore no revert, why then do they ask him to say the shahadah?

Posted November 25, 1998