Revert or Convert
  • Labeling tells us who we really are – and we describe ourselves in many ways. I am an American. I am a teacher. I am female. I am a doctor. I am a reader. I am a coffee-drinker. Sometimes we label ourselves, and other times we are labeled by others.As a person who was not born into Islam, I have been labeled with many names – crazy, Arab-wanna-be, towel-head. None of these labels, imposed upon me by others has ever had a particular effect on me, yet the twenty-year-old habit of calling me (and those like me) a ‘revert’ has given me pause.

    At some point over twenty years ago, someone latched on to the idea that we are all born upon fitra – or with an inherent tendency toward tawheed – and thus the term ‘revert’ was born. It was meant to indicate that those who had newly entered Islam had actually returned to their original state of being.

    I, for one, have never felt comfortable with the label ‘revert’. I do not like being corrected by others when I introduce myself as a convert, nor do I appreciate discussing the issues of ‘reverts’ with other Muslims. The word ‘revert’ has the semantic implication of going backwards. It can be used instead of the word ‘relapse’ or ‘regress’. The Arabic translation of the word would be murtad a horrible word meaning one that has turned back and away from their religion. The word convert, on the other hand, implies transformation. It can be used to talk about electricity charges, home renovations, and spiritual transformations.

    Somehow we have been bullied into using the word ‘revert’. The first time I heard the word ‘revert’ I was interrupted. I had been introducing myself, “I’m a convert” I said. “No, you are a revert.” I was told. It sat upon my heart – but I was young and impressionable – so I assumed (as most good converts do) that the Arabic speaking and Arabic last name person in front of me was ‘right’. But I’m older now, and less impressionable, and no longer willing to be bullied into a vocabulary that I find unbefitting to the conversion process.

    Becoming a Muslim is an arduous affair. There are layers and layers involved in the process. A new Muslim has already changed her belief system. She must think about Jesus in a new way (if she was a Christian), and get to know Muhammad (s). The book she will now read for guidance and light needs a new language for full access, and – while she may always have believed in God as One – she now has a new name to get used to (Allah). A new Muslim must change her habits. She will begin to pray in a certain way – and in order to do so must memorize words and phrases that will, for a time, carry little meaning. She will change what she eats, and how she eats it. She may have to drop friends, perhaps the boyfriend that introduced her to Islam. She will have to deal with many people telling her what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ – often with contradictory opinions. She may hear erroneous claims that challenge her fledgling belief, and she may get frustrated with her new ‘friends’ and their strangeness.

    When I became a Muslim I lived with some young Malaysian students. They were a great blessing in my life – I loved them. They taught me things one could never read in a book. I remember one day one of my new friends Jamaatun asked me why I hadn’t prayed witr. I had never heard of the prayer, but she answered for herself saying, ‘Oh I guess you will pray it with tahajjud,” to which I nodded – though I didn’t know what that was either. So she set me firmly on a path of worship. Yet I also remember feeling ‘elephant-like’ around my newfound Malaysian friends, they were so petite and gentle, while I was a loud and large American. I also had a sense of longing for someone who would understand why I wanted a piece of pie; alas I soon discovered that pie was a uniquely American dessert, and it would be years before I met another Muslim who ever had the thought “I could really use a piece of pie right now.”

    Converts to Islam run the gamut of life transformation: I have known converts who entered into Islam, yet remained in an illicit relationship, and I have known converts who entered into Islam and changed everything about themselves – even those things that do not need changing, and I have known converts in between those two extremes. The road that the convert enters upon is a lifelong path. She will face challenges as a neophyte and then face new challenges as a seasoned veteran of her faith. I suppose this is why the name she calls herself is important to me. Revert implies that it is finished – she has gone back to something and she is done with that. Convert implies what is truer about the path – a continuous transformation, a continuous revamping, rebuilding, and renewing of her faith.

    She who has converted to Islam has indeed taken an important first step on the path to God, but there are many more steps that will follow that first one. In the label ‘convert’ is the cognizance of the choice she has made.

  • Suzanne McConnell

    I love this! I too have never felt that revert described me and I have always resisted the interruption of those who try to get me to use the term. I was never able to articulate why but you have done it here and I am so happy to hear that I am not alone or the odd ball for not accepting it! Thanks , may Allah bless you!

  • Krystal

    I believe that I don’t mind either term, however, I have had really good feeling with revert, because I do believe I just returned to something that I was previously. I do recall as a little girl having a love for Jesus pbuh, but more like a love of wanting to emulate him like an older brother. I never truly bought the story of him being the Son of God, and it was more of a story I was told, and then I just adopted it as a teen. I do recall even questioning why it is necessary to say, “in Jesus’ name we pray”, at the end of a prayer, because if the prayer goes to God, and it shouldn’t matter to say that. If Christians, believe he is God, and they pray, then it shouldn’t be necessary to say that. That addition to prayer, always confused me. So revert, I accepted, because I felt that being a Muslim (someone who submits to God) was truly my original state, but I have just been confused by outsiders, parents, or culture. I don’t mind convert as well though. However, who knows how I will feel in 20 years.

  • Papiers

    Oh, I’m so happy to read this. I refuse to call myself a revert. The word causes an inner pulling away from whoever is speaking and I cease hearing them. My position has always been that I’ve made a conscious decision to embrace Islam, and that the process is one of “becoming Muslim.” I wrote about this very topic last week.

    Sometimes I waken in the morning with a new idea of how to give voice to these concerns of mine, in having some people whose second or third, etc. language is English tag me with a term that does not describe me. Relishing the split second of my Shahada declaration conclusion, I am cognizant of the fact that my habits still focused my old movements and my old ways of speaking, and I found it to be a struggle (one that I eagerly undertook) to evolve in my ways of thinking and acting.

    To have others use a non-word (that reminds more than one of us youth of the 60s of the then catchy use of the term “pervert”), saddens me and I refrain from participating in events or groups that promote that term. Thank you earnestly for giving a beautiful voice to this matter.

  • newtoislam

    salam, i read this while searching for an answer to a question and found it to be very true. if i may share my story and ask a question without imposing on what you have written, i am in need of advice. I am 27 years old and i met the love of my life one year ago. i had only one boyfriend prior but i didnt see him often, and it was only for 3 months. I have never been in love til now. i was raised mormon and stopped believing when i realized the blashphemy of exaltation a few years. about a 14 months ago i moved on my own to a bigger city in my state and found a new freedom. i had a gay roomate and he was fun, sometimes we would go to gay bars and drink and dance . i have always since i could remember been asking god to show me the truth. one night i was waiting for one of my gay friends who was a boy to show up but he didnt , this is when i met the love of my life. i feel truly blessed. we have been together for one week short of a year. in that time i feel like i have received a lot of blessings, even though i have sinned , i feel god brought him into my life to show me the way to islam. i have several friends that are actually his friends and they are all male saudi students, who respect me and have always talked to me about islam. about a month ago i said the shahada. no one knows expect for my boyfriend who was there and his best friend who also happens to be one of my best friends. anyways, here is the problem… i found out that even if you are obstaining from haram behavior with a bf or gf it is still haram to be together.

    we just got an apartment together about a month and a half ago and he treats me like a princess. he is kind and understanding and a good person who genuinely loves me and i love him. BUT he is here from ksa on a scholarship and if he gets married and the saudi government finds out he will loose his scholarship. before i converted he had mentioned to me twice that he wants to get married but after he said this he found out about the scholarship problem. i have prayed and asked for guidance from allah (swt) . Is there a way around this? i read online that we can go to the mosque and do nikkah and be islamically married, and enjoy the blessings of marriage but we wouldnt have to submit it to the government until we were ready as well as having a wedding party then. is this true? can we have the imam marry us in private islamically and be considered husband and wife? please help, i dont want to loose such a blessing but i dont want to be living in sin anymore.