Reflections on the Simplicity of Conversion in Sunni Islam (Guest Post)

An open door

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.

 

God Knows

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.

 

 

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24. “Homesickness” (The Hajj Journal)

A man sitting in a chair, writing in a journal.September 19, 2015

Dealing with a small bout of homesickness. Not surprising; ever since going to Camp Maskepetoon when I was 11, I’ve had to deal with varying degrees of homesickness when I’m away from home and everything that’s comfortable. But this isn’t Camp Maskepetoon. This is Saudi Arabia. I had to help one of the brothers in our group recharge his pre-paid phone, and I found myself just listening to the automated voice explain menu options in English. The pre-recorded lines were comforting… On top of that we’re leaving our hotel and going to some place called Aziziyah which is like an apartment and then Hajj starts in just a few days so now things around me are changing… Continue reading “24. “Homesickness” (The Hajj Journal)”

21. “My center” (The Hajj Journal)

September 17, 2015

I returned to the Haram today, intent on doing tawaf again. I stood outside the whirlpool of people, mentally preparing myself to go in. I was on the ground level. The Ka’ba towered over the crowd before me. I began walking towards the entrance into the centrifuge of people (check analogy), ready to just dive in. I felt the same way one does before diving into water. I paused, listening to the roar of footsteps, sounding like a water fall. A deep breath, and I was in. Continue reading “21. “My center” (The Hajj Journal)”

19. “The locus of humanity” (The Hajj Journal)

The Ka'bah in Mecca

September 15, 2015

When I woke up the morning after [Umrah], I was afraid to go outside. I was afraid of the crowd. But more than that, I was afraid that I would look at the Ka’ba with an empty heart.

[However,] I knew that sitting and stewing in my hotel was not only a waste of time, but wouldn’t help me find the answers or understanding I was seeking. So I got dressed and headed out. I went into the [Haram] and found a spot to pray… I felt like I was having a crisis of faith. After prayer, I walked over to the railings overlooking the Ka’ba (I was on the third floor). And this is what I saw: people. People moving steadily, as if the crowd was water, all at once fluid and solid. I continued walking around the second floor, the Ka’ba always on my left, like I was performing another Tawaf. And as I walked, I kept glancing to my left. It’s not like I was expecting it to be gone, but everytime I did, I could see it from a different angle. And always, always the people. Continue reading “19. “The locus of humanity” (The Hajj Journal)”

I’m Not OK, Alhumdulilah

 

Rain drops against a pane of glass

“Muslims don’t get depressed.”

You may have heard this before. If you did, you probably felt irritated, upset or even more depressed. If you’re hearing this for the first time, you’re probably just as shocked and angry as I was.

If you agreed with that statement, then you are wrong. Muslims do get depressed. That’s because Muslims are people. Humans. Some battle depression on a regular basis.

Today, I’m writing about depression: what it is, why people like me have it and what my faith has to say about it.

Continue reading “I’m Not OK, Alhumdulilah”

15. “One foot in the grave” (The Hajj Journal)

Baqi graveyard in Medina

September 13, 2015

I started this day with a reminder of death. After Fajr prayer there was a janaza (funeral) prayer. I then made my way to Baq’i, the graveyard near the Prophet’s mosque. It’s so big; you could probably fit West Edmonton Mall in it. The graves are marked by gravel mounds, with a bare rock at the head of the grave. Some graves have 2 stones, one at the head and another at the foot. I went to where the grave was dug. There’s a section of empty plots pre-dug with boards over the top. I joined the group who gathered silently to pray for the deceased. I’d never met them, and didn’t know if the person was a man or woman, adult or child… After saying my prayer, I stepped off the first mound surrounding the grave and onto a board. A man in front of me said to stop. I looked down. The board was sagging where my foot was. I literally had one foot in the grave. I stepped off and the red dust covered my feet. I looked out at the barren field of graves, at the stones marking each one.

Somewhere out there, my stone is waiting for me.

“…and no one knows in what land he will die.” (Surah 31: 34)

Continue reading “15. “One foot in the grave” (The Hajj Journal)”

Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder | Part 2: Healing and Understanding

Teddy bear with a patch

Healing

As I mentioned in Part One, I turned to the internet for my answers. In my search for understanding, I came across a major problem: I didn’t know when to stop.  I hopped from website to website, following the breadcrumbs of the search results. I would think I had it beat, when suddenly I would read someone’s opinion on it, and the whole loop would start again.

I had opportunities to find closure on it. I was invited to a mosque where the imam and a sheikh were discussing the issue with a group of Muslim converts.

But I declined, partly because I felt I had reached my own conclusions, but mostly because I was afraid. As time progressed, I became frustrated with myself, that I wasn’t able to just shut the issue away and move on with my life.

Continue reading “Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder | Part 2: Healing and Understanding”

Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder | Part 1: Causes and Symptoms

Broken glass pane

The image of the sheikh standing up on stage, practically shouting to everyone “You better not have non-Muslim friends! You better not have non-Muslim friends!” became a screw my mind, twisting deeper every time I thought of it. Every time he stamped his foot, it drove a nail further into my heart.

That was the moment my long bout with Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder started.

Continue reading “Post-Traumatic Sheikh Disorder | Part 1: Causes and Symptoms”

The Earth and Everything On It

Planet Earth

Here in Alberta, much ado has been made about the Premier’s recent climate change plan. Generally it seems to have gone over well, with major gas and oil companies like Shell and Suncor supporting it—except for a few (sometimes absurd) outliers. But I’m not here to talk about politics and plans. Instead, I’m here to talk about our shared inheritance: our planet. Continue reading “The Earth and Everything On It”