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 unfitting 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.