By Laura El Alam
People who embrace Islam are often called “converts,” and some members of the Muslim community insist that the correct label is “reverts.” Ustadh Wm. Halim Breinnis believes that both “convert” and “revert” are insufficient terms. In this interview, Usdadh Halim explains why these terms can be detrimental to Muslims, and he proposes an alternative label.
An American Muslim who entered Islam in 1996, Ustadh Halim is a licensed educator and scholar who has studied under senior scholars of hadith in Morocco and Malaysia. He earned a qualification to teach hadith at the Cordoba Academy for Classical Islamic Studies and has been honored to meet with and receive licenses in the classic texts of the sacred sciences from prominent 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 ways we see and interact with the world around us. Using words well has the ability to heal ourselves, others, and the ways in which we relate to others.”
“We see the terms ‘convert’ and ‘revert’ being used as both verbs and nouns for those who enter into Islam, but my position is that these labels need to be left by the wayside,” he explains. “If we examine them linguistically we find that a revert is someone who leaves something and then returns to it while the 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 meaning,” says Ustadh Halim, “but it stems from a mistake/misunderstanding of the narration of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that all of the children of Adam are born upon the fitra. The claim in this line of thought is: the fitra is Islam. Our parents made us to leave Islam. We returned to Islam. So, we ‘reverted back’ after having left.”
But this understanding of fitra is incorrect, says Ustadh Halim. “We see a conflation of “the fitra” with “Islam,” and so a little clarity needs to be offered. The fitra is the primordial nature upon which man is created – at both a physical and spiritual level. Islam, on the other hand, is the message with which the Prophets (upon them be peace) are sent – as well as man’s willful and intentional surrender to that guidance. To put this a bit clearer, the fitra is the model upon 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 back to it. In religious terms, it means someone who apostates and then returns to the religion they were once upon. Due to this meaning, the reality is that the term ‘revert’ is more fitting for someone raised in a Muslim family who loses their faith and/or practice for some time and then returns to Islam – they revert back to Islam.”
Is “convert” an acceptable term?
“A convert is someone who was on one path and converted to another. Mankind’s fitra (primordial nature, capacity and capability to know God) remains the same – but our parents and environments veil us. By purifying the veils and removing misconceptions, many recognize God’s guidance and enter into the deen of Islam, which is considered ‘converting,’” says Ustadh Halim.
“Now one may say that they see the negative connotation of ‘revert’ but, what is wrong with the term ‘convert’?” poses the Ustadh. “The truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with the term ‘convert.’ However, we remind ourselves that words have power. Indeed, the ability to name is something powerfully human and it has an impact on how we perceive and engage with our world and others.”
“From the problems with the term ‘convert’ is an implication, consciously or subconsciously, of newness,” he says. What is worse, when the term convert is applied, it often implies ‘perpetual newness’ and we have even seen it used to imply ‘generational newness,’ such that third generation Muslims are still addressed and looked at as ‘converts’ to Islam.
“This wouldn’t be such a problem except that this implication of ‘newness’ often carries with it the implication of ignorance or worse than that, less than,”says 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 hence, 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 who enter Islam we would be able to do away with the negativity of the term ‘revert’ and the implications that come with using ‘convert.’”
“The term ‘First Generation Muslim’ (1st Gen. Muslim, for short) informs that this person chose to enter Islam, embracing the guidance of our Lord, and indicates immediately that they are equally ‘Muslim’ while also signaling that they are the beginning of 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,’ or ‘I surrendered to God,’ or simply ‘I’m a Muslim.’ It would be a service to our communities to make obsolete the terms convert and revert (as verbs or nouns) – and embrace the terminology used by the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and those who came after them such that we normalize, ‘He/She entered Islam,’ ‘I embraced Islam,’ ‘So and So accepted Islam,’ and/or, ‘They are Muslims.’”
Additionally, Ustadh Halim says, “It is important to look at self-perceptions. The labels given to a person will also often have an impact on how they see themselves. Calling someone a revert or a convert instead of a Muslim leaves many with an inferiority complex so we see people not knowing where they stand. At what point do I cease being a convert and become a Muslim, equal to my brothers at the masjid? At what point do I cease being a ‘new’ Muslim?”
Fostering equality and acceptance
“When we tell someone they are a ‘convert,’ there is a feeling of a need to change even that which we are not required to change,” he says. “By telling those who enter 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 sister and we accept them as they are for who they are.”
“Yes, we can help them to transition such that they purify any vices from their lives and establish the limits of the Shariah,” he clarifies, “but they don’t have to change, to conform, to be like these people from this culture or those from that culture. Just as they are, they are our equal in Islam.”
God willing, Ustadh Halim’s terminology “First Generation Muslim” will catch on and provide a new sense of dignity and identity for those who enter Islam.
Have more questions? Call 877-WhyIslam or visit whyislam.org. You deserve to know!
Author bio: Laura El Alam embraced Islam in 2000. A wife and mother of five, Laura is a prolific writer who contributes to various magazines. She is the founder of Sea Glass Writing & Editing www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.