Can Someone “Convert” to Islam?

British professor, artist, and barber, Faisal Abdu'Allah is a revert to Islam. Photo: triennial.ee

In past posts, Reem and I have discussed men and women who have embraced Islam later on in their lives. As I mentioned in a recent piece, by some estimates, as many as one fourth of all Muslim Americans identify as Muslims not by birth. This awkward word arrangement, “Muslims not by birth” is usually shortened to “convert,” however not everyone agrees. Others prefer to use the word “revert.” Depending on whom you ask and what you’re looking to find out, one word may be more useful than the other. And especially since spirituality, religion, and identity are some of the most intimate of topics, you may even offend someone if you don’t ask which terminology they prefer.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, to “convert” means “to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another; to bring about a religious conversion” while to “revert” is to come or go back (as to a former condition, period, or subject); to return to the proprietor or his or her heirs.” Both terms are commonly used to describe those who embrace Islam as teenagers or older, whether they are new to the faith or returning to it.

In Islam, it is believed that all people are born with a natural spiritual instinct and love for God, called fitrah (the physical component of fitrah is the human body in its beauty and perfection as created by God). Babies are said to have a natural inclination for tawhid, or Oneness, and thus a reversion later in life is the intentional desire to return to this pure state of existence. It is for this reason that many Muslims prefer to say that they have reverted to Islam instead of converted.

During a recent Inside Islam radio show, internationally acclaimed performance artist Faisal Abdu’Allah (born Paul Duffus) spoke of his Islamic spiritual awakening and his own preference for the term “reversion”: 

[I] began to breathe a consciousness into myself … and realized that I was a different animal; I was a person who had a sense of purpose, … who could articulate my concerns of the heart. … I call it “reversion” because “conversion” means to go from one thing to the next, but I kind of reverted back … to the religion of my ancestors.

(You can listen to the context of the above quote in a portion of Jean’s interview by clicking the player below or you can listen to the entire show via our Inside Islam radio show list.)

[audio:http://insideislam.wisc.edu/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/AllahonReversion.mp3|titles=AllahonReversion]

When most people speak of reversion in Islam, they are referencing their intentional desire to recognize and embrace fitrah. Interestingly, Abdu’Allah’s understanding of reversion in the interview was more of a reference to going back to his heritage and roots. His understanding of black history was a pathway of sorts to his connection or reversion to Islam, the religious tradition of his ancestors. This is just one example of how complex these seemingly simple issues can be.

Are you a revert or convert to Islam? If you define yourself in a different way, what words do you use to identify as a Muslim? What do you think of when you hear the words “converted to Islam”? Do alternate images emerge from the words “reverted to Islam”?

4 thoughts on “Can Someone “Convert” to Islam?

  1. Wasn’t this the guy who did “I want to kill Sam” about murdering americans? No wonder muslims hold him in high regard.

  2. I’m not a huge fan of the word “revert” in this context.

    The “reversion” that Faisal was talking about seems more historical…returning to the religion of his ancestors.

    But this broader understanding of “reversion” is sorta weird. I understand the logic that, by accepting oneness, you’re just going back to the natural state that we are all born with (what Rolland and Freud called an “Oceanic Feeling”). And thus, that you’re just going back to what was once instinctive; you’re “reverting” to it.

    But to say that only upon acceptance of Islam has someone ‘reverted’ to one’s natural state (of fitrah) implies that any other path that a person was following before Islam—Christianity, Judaism, agnosticism—were divergences from what is natural, original, or true.

    Or does the word “revert” mean anyone who’s changed his or her worldview to one that emphasizes oneness?

    Still, someone else could say that religion is only a societal construct, so by becoming an atheist you’re actually “reverting” to your natural state. Alternately, can you “convert” to atheism?

  3. I do not like either label. I am not a convert or a revert, I am a Muslim, and I find that those words are used by both Muslims and non-Muslims to alienate people who accepted Islam later in life. Some Muslims use the word “convert/revert” as though they are lesser Muslims and hold them suspect in the sincerity of their faith. On the other side, some non-Muslims use the word “convert/revert” as though the person is a traitor for accepting Islam or that their choice was somehow an act of ignorance or confusion. I would like to know how long it takes before I am no longer a “convert/revert” and can be referred to as just “a Muslim” like all of the other people in the Ummah?