By Laura El Alam
People who embrace Islam are often called “converts,” and some members of the Muslim community insist that “reversals” is the correct label. Ustadh Wm. Halim Breinnis believes that both “convert” and “revert” are insufficient terms. In this interview, Usdadh Halim explains why these terms can be harmful to Muslims and proposes an alternative label.
An American Muslim who entered Islam in 1996, Ustadh Halim is a licensed educator and scholar who has studied with top hadith scholars in Morocco and Malaysia. He obtained a degree to teach hadith at the Academy of Classical Islamic Studies of Córdoba and has had the honor of knowing and receiving licenses in the classic texts of the sacred sciences from leading scholars of our time.
Ustadh Halim believes that semantics matter. I interviewed him to find out more.
Why should we choose our words carefully?
Usadh Halim says: “It is important to understand that words have power. The words we use shape our brain, affecting the way we see and interact with the world around us. Using words well has the ability to heal ourselves, others, and the ways we relate to others.”
“We see the terms ‘convert’ and ‘revert’ being used as verbs and nouns for those entering Islam, but my position is that these labels should be dropped,” he explains. “If we examine them linguistically, we find that a revert is someone who leaves something and then returns to it, while a convert is someone who changes from a previous position to a new position.”
Why not “revert”?
“The use of the word ‘revert’ by some is well-intentioned,” says Ustadh Halim, “but stems from a mistake/misunderstanding of the narration from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that all Adam’s children are born on the fitra. The statement in this line of thought is: the fitra is Islam. Our parents forced us to leave Islam. We return to Islam. So, we ‘come back’ after we’ve left.”
But this understanding of fitra is wrong, says Ustadh Halim. “We see a combination of ‘la fitra’ with ‘Islam’, so it is necessary to offer some clarity. The fitra is the primordial nature on which man is created, both physically and spiritually. Islam, on the other hand, is the message with which the Prophets (peace be upon them) are sent, as well as man’s voluntary and intentional surrender to that guidance. To make this a bit clearer, the fitra is the model on which we are created: Islam is the deen (way of life) in which we live.”
“This is important,” he says, “because, linguistically, a revert is someone who is on a path, leaves it, and then returns to it. In religious terms, it means someone who apostates and then returns to the religion he once had. Because of this meaning, the reality is that the term ‘revert’ is more appropriate for someone raised in a Muslim family who loses their faith and/or practice for some time and then returns to Islam. reverse back to Islam.”
Is “convert” an acceptable term?
“A convert is someone who was on one path and converted to another. The fitra of humanity (primordial nature, capacity and aptitude to know God) remains the same, but our parents and environments watch over us. By purifying the veils and removing misconceptions, many acknowledge God’s guidance and enter the deen of Islam, which is considered ‘conversion,’” says Ustadh Halim.
“Now you can say you see the negative connotation of ‘revert’ but what’s wrong with the term ‘revert’?” raises the Ustadh. “The truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with the term ‘converted.’ However, we remind ourselves that words have power. In fact, the ability to name is something powerfully human and has an impact on how we perceive and interact with our world and with each other.
“One of the problems with the term ‘convert’ is an implication, consciously or unconsciously, of novelty,” he says. What’s worse, when the term convert is applied, it often implies ‘perpetual newness’ and we have even seen it used to imply ‘generational newness’, so third generation Muslims are still treated and seen as ‘converts’ at the same time. Islam.
“This wouldn’t be much of a problem except that this implication of ‘novelty’ often carries the implication of ignorance or worse than that, less thansays Ustadh Halim. “This stems from a mindset deeply rooted in the words we use to describe others, which then affects how we perceive them and therefore how we interact with them.”
So what should we call those who embrace Islam?
Ustadh Halim says,I believe that by normalizing the term ‘first generation Muslim’ for those entering Islam, we could remove the negativity of the term ‘revert’ and the implications that the use of ‘convert’ carries.”
“The term ‘first generation Muslim’ (first Muslim generation for short) informs that this person chose to enter Islam, embracing the guidance of our Lord, and immediately indicates that they are equally ‘Muslim’ while also noting that they are the beginning from a new family line of believers,” he explains.
Ustadh Halim points out that “The first generations of Muslims used very clear terms: ‘I entered Islam’, ‘I surrendered to God’ or simply ‘I am a Muslim.’ It would be a service to our communities to make the terms convert and reverse obsolete (as verbs or nouns), and to adopt the terminology used by the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and those who came after them, so that we normalize, ‘He/She entered Islam’, ‘I embraced Islam’, ‘So-and-so accepted Islam’ and/or, ‘They are Muslims’”.
Furthermore, Ustadh Halim says: “It is important to look at self-perceptions. The labels that are given to a person will often also have an impact on how they view themselves. Calling someone a revert or convert instead of a Muslim leaves many with an inferiority complex, which is why we see people not knowing where they stand. At what point do I stop being a convert and become a Muslim, equal to my brothers in the mosque? At what point do I stop being a ‘new’ Muslim??”
Promote equality and acceptance
“When we tell someone that they are a ‘convert,’ there is a feeling of needing to change even what we are not obligated to change,” he says. “By telling those entering Islam: ‘You are now a first-generation Muslim, hopefully the first of many generations to come,’ we are telling them that they are Muslims right now, just as they are. They are equally our Muslim brothers and sisters and we accept them as they are for who they are.”
“Yes, we can help them make the transition to purify any vices in their lives and set Shariah boundaries,” he clarifies, “but they don’t have to change, conform, be like these people from this culture or those from that culture. As they are, they are our equals in Islam.”
God willing, Ustadh Halim’s terminology “first generation Muslims” will prevail, bringing a new sense of dignity and identity to those entering Islam.
You have more questions? Call 877-WhyIslam or visit milligorusportal.com. You deserve to know!
Author Biography: Laura El Alam embraced Islam in 2000. Wife and mother of five children, Laura is a prolific writer who contributes to various magazines. She is the founder of Sea Glass Writing & Editing. www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.