By Nakita Valerio
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Conversion in the traditions of Sunni Islam is an interesting, seemingly contradictory process. That is to say that at once it is incredibly simple, but at the same time, it is only the beginning of a long, complex and life-long process of what I call “continuous conversion/reversion.”
Before I get into that though, I just want to say a few words about terminology here. Some people who are Muslim later in life will refer to themselves as reverts, as well as born Muslims who strayed from the Path of Islam but then had a conversion-like experience later in life. This is primarily because of a belief in something we call fitrah which is an innate belief in and worship of one God that all people and everything in creation are born with.
For various reasons, humans are inclined to forget this innate submission to One God whether that be due to their cultural context, upbringing or various other reasons. This is why the origin or etymology of the word “nas” by which God addresses mankind in the Holy Qur’an is “the forgetful ones”. A reversion for born Muslims or Muslims who come to Islam later in life symbolizes a reversion to this innate state, remembered once more.
Nature Worships God
It is also important to recognize that all of creation worships God in ways that we can neither perceive nor understand. In the Qur’an, Allah says: “All that is in the heavens and on Earth glorify Allah.” [Sūrah al-Hashr: 1] and Allah says elsewhere in the Qur’an: “Everything in the heavens and on Earth glorifies Allah.” [Sūrah al-Jumu`ah: 1] and Allah also says: “The seven heavens and the Earth and all they contain glorify Him, and there is not a thing but extols His glory; but you do not understand how they glorify Him.” [Sūrah al-Isrā’: 44]
So we cannot know how nature worships God and, further, it is only humanity that requires guidance on the best way to worship God and honour our fitrah. There are a great many ways that this guidance is laid out in the Holy Qur’an and the historical traditions of the life of Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings shower upon him forever. This includes prayer, charity, pilgrimage, fasting, marriage, and countless other ways down to the finest detail of ethical conduct. When we feel ourselves going astray or falling into doubt, God implores us, again and again in the Qur’an to return to nature, to pay attention to the natural light cycles of day and night, to marvel at his creation in order to feel that innate sense of him within ourselves.
We also believe that this guidance has been continuously passed down through the prophets again and again from Adam (alayhi salam) to Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him. In fact, the number of prophets with this same message, calling humanity back to worship one God alone far exceeds those who are named in the Glorious Qur’an and some prophetic narrations places the number at over 12,000 messengers, all with voices resounding to their nations, calling for strict monotheism, a remembrance of the innate worship within each of us as we were created.
In this understanding of becoming Muslim, it doesn’t make much sense to say that you are Muslim by choice versus Muslim by birth (except maybe colloquially) because for the vast majority of us, consciously or not, all of us are Muslim by choice, choosing (or not choosing) to follow the guidance of Islam daily.
Looking at how one becomes Muslim (and thinking about why it might be that way), will help illuminate this a little more.
Becoming a Muslim
To convert/revert to Islam in the Sunni tradition, you need only to utter a statement called the shahadah and mean it. This statement is: ash-hadu la ilaha ill allah wa ash-hadu ana muhammadur rasoolullah. This is roughly translated to: There is no God but God and Muhammad is the (last) Messenger of God.
When you utter this statement and truly mean it, you are a Muslim. Yes, that means you can be completely alone and become a Muslim, as I did. Or you can utter it in front of 1500 Muslims at an Islamic conference, as my best friend did. Yes, it means you are a Muslim, even if you don’t enact any of the other practical commandments that are incumbent on you because of that statement. Yes, that means you are a Muslim even if you are uttering it for the first time or you are reaffirming it for the hundred thousandth time in your life. In fact, there are countless times per day where Muslims are obliged or feel compelled to day this simple sentence again and again – a reminder for the forgetful ones and those who understand.
I want to bring up a very important point that I touched on at the beginning of this article which is that of continuous conversion/reversion. In this tradition of Islam, which is followed by 85% of the global Muslim population, you do not need to study for a year or years to become a Muslim. This reality is highly comforting to those who hesitate to accept Islam because they feel they don’t know enough. You need only to say this statement and mean it and you are counted among the believers.
We have many examples in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings rain upon him, and his companions (may Allah be pleased with them) where knowledge of Islam before conversion was not a prerequisite.
The Earliest Converts
The first convert to Islam was a woman.
Khadija, may Allah be pleased with her, was the wife of the Prophet (saw). When he came tearing down the mountain from the cave of Hira, terrified after receiving the first revelation from Allah through the angel Jibreel (or Gabriel), pleading for her to cover him, Khadija immediately recognized that he had been chosen by Allah and she became the first to believe in his prophethood.
One of the most famous conversions took place 6 years after the Prophet had received his first revelation and was by Umar Ibn Al-Khattab. He was originally one of the tormentors of Muslims and considered himself an enemy to Muhammad (saw). It is narrated that one day, out of sheer anger about Muhammad and his growing following, he resolved to murder him hoping to extinguish the flame of Islam forever.
On the way to kill Muhammad, he was met by Nu’aym ibn Abdullah who informed Umar that his own sister and her husband had already converted to Islam. Furious he went to her home to confront her and found Khabbab bin Aratt reading aloud to Umar’s sister and her husband from the Qur’an, chapter Ta-ha. After striking both his sister and her husband, they cried out to him saying that they were Muslims, that they believe in Allah and His Messenger Muhammad so he may do what he will to them. When Umar saw his sister’s face smeared with blood, he slowed down his rage and asked to see what they had been reading. She told him to make ablutions first, after which he read the opening verses of the chapter until he reached “Verily! I am Allâh! Lâ ilâha illa Ana (none has the right to be worshipped but I), so worship Me and offer prayers perfectly (Iqâmat-as-Salât), for My Remembrance.” [Ta-ha:14].
When he read this, he, without hesitation, stated that he wished to be guided to Muhammad. He left for the house in Safa where Muhammad used to secretly hold meetings for Muslims. When Umar arrived and entered (despite the fears of those inside, particularly at the sight of his sword), Muhammad asked him the reason for his visit. Umar replied: O Messenger of Allâh, I come to you in order to believe in Allâh and his Messenger and that which he has brought from his Lord. Filled with delight, Muhammad together with his Companions, cried aloud: ‘Allâhu Akbar’ (Allâh is Great).
Such examples are numerous and do not entail a vigorous year of research before becoming Muslim. Now, the merits of studying before converting are obvious, so I want to look at why this may not, and often is not, the case in converting to Islam. How could these people, and countless millions after them, subscribe to something without knowing the details of what they subscribe to, and why is doing so reflective of some core beliefs in Islam?
From Doubt to Belief
Firstly, I want to point out that doubt is part of belief in Islam – a kind of doubt which encourages and stimulates one’s search for the truth (as opposed to unending scepticism for the sake of argument) Most poignantly, Muhammad himself was the first person to seriously doubt himself as a prophet. When Jibreel called on him to “Read in the Name of Your Lord Who created. He created the human being from a clot. Read and your Lord is Most Honorable, Who taught (to write) with the pen, taught the human being what he knew not…” (Al-Alaq: 1-5)
As an illiterate man, Muhammad found the commandment to read and the sensation of choking as well as the voice of the angel itself to be enough to send him into a full-blown panic and existential crisis. As mentioned, he raced down the mountain, shivering uncontrollably, fearing that he must have gone mad before arriving on Khadija’s lap, begging her to cover him. Even more unnerving was the fact that (despite some scholarly dispute about this), there is some consensus that up to three years passed between his first and second revelations. Can you imagine the kind of doubt you would experience in such a long time between communications with Allah?
Additionally, as I have mentioned, Allah implores humans (the ever-forgetful ones after all) repeatedly to ponder and remember by looking for Signs of His Existence all around them. We wouldn’t have to do this if we didn’t doubt and if that doubt didn’t strengthen our belief, as long as we are continuously reminded.
Secondly, the statement “Allahu ‘Alam” means that God is the Best Knower, or more aptly God Knows Best. In traditional Sunni Islam, forced conversion of any kind is strictly forbidden, as per Verse 256 of the second chapter of the Qur’an, Al Baqarah (The Cow), which states “There is no compulsion in religion; truly the right way has become clearly distinct from error; therefore, whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah he indeed has laid hold on the firmest handle, which shall not break off, and Allah is all Hearing, and all Knowing.” Or chapter Al Kafirun (The Disbelievers) which states: “Say: O those who disbelieve (in the Message of Islam), I worship not that which you worship, Nor will you worship that which I worship, And I shall not worship that which you are worshipping, Nor will you worship that which I worship. To you, your religion and to me, my religion.”
This has come to be interpreted to mean that we can have no knowledge of who will convert to Islam, how or why. As in the case of many converts, it seems to come from nowhere. In Islam, we believe that people are only guided by Allah and since He created them, He knows the best ways to do this for them alone. Allah may use us to answer questions or be an example but the goal of converting the other person should never be in the back of our minds because that is a form of hubris. In doing so, we are reaching beyond human capabilities and knowledge. It makes sense then that the only requirement for converting would then be to utter the shahadah because the methods by which individuals get to such a point will be as diverse as the global community of Islam really is.
Cradle to the Grave
Thirdly, seeking knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim from the cradle to the grave. Allah and His Messenger tell us that one of the signs of disbelief is ignorance or forgetting, even if you have learned. Those who are among the millions who have memorized the entire Qur’an must work ceaselessly to keep the text inside their minds. Why? For fear of forgetting the knowledge they have endeavoured to learn. Additionally, we must look to the example of revelation itself and remember that the Qur’an was revealed over a period of 23 years. The acquisition of knowledge did not happen overnight and many things were changed or abrogated through this period. This also shows that your thirst for knowledge by way of Islam and Islamic guidance will never be satiated, nor should it. It is sincerely seeking knowledge that we obtain the best antidote for unending scepticism. There is no time limit to knowledge, nor a time when you will have learned too little or enough to satisfactorily be a Muslim.
And lastly, building on all of these points, in the Qur’an, the 31st chapter, Luqman, verse 34, Allah states: “Verily, Allaah, with Him (Alone) is the knowledge of the Hour, He sends down the rain, and knows that which is in the wombs. No person knows what he will earn tomorrow, and no person knows in what land he will die. Verily, Allaah is All‑Knower, All‑Aware (of things).” Since we can never know when we will die, it is more important than all, for Muslims, that someone die as a believer in One God.
Part of this means letting go of the perfectionism that is so central to humankind. We are taught by Allah that we will sin, that we will falter, that we will gain new knowledge and insights where we were ignorant before. This is part of the evolution of our consciousness in this life and being on either side of the shahadah does not change that. However, if one has seen the truth of Islam, in whatever way Allah decides to show them, they ought to take their shahadah without delay or they gamble with their status in the next life.
I pray that this has been clear and that I have not misrepresented in any way and I remind myself first and foremost that Allah knows best.
Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta. Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco, a writer for The Drawing Board and the Director of Public Policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.