What’s in a Word
by Yahya ‘Abu Ayah’ Lopez
During my years as a Muslim I have noticed that there has been an evolutionary process in so far as the terminology of words we have used to define the growth of our communities and also in the descriptive expressions we have selected to denote our actual acceptance of the Islamic way of life.
One example of such specialized terms are the names we have used to distinguish ourselves as American Muslims. I remember that when I was introduced to Islam, the Muslim community I first came in contact with called itself “Bilalians.” The beautiful brother whom Allah chose to showcase Islam to me, therefore, called himself a “Bilalian.” It was apparent that the Muslim community he belonged to was identifying itself with the name of the well known and beloved companion called Bilal (may Allah be pleased with him) whose origin was African. In its infancy, if you can remember, this same community had been known as the Nation of Islam. Of course, we all are aware that that very community continued to grow and change, alhamdulila, until the majority of its adherents eventually became known simply as African-American Muslims. In their growth process, as a whole, the way they identified themselves had gone through a transformation over the years.
One other example of such a changing use of terms has been how we have labeled a person’s crossover process from non-believer to Muslim. I recall that back in the early 80’s, when I was first exposed to Al-Islam, as it was known then, the terminology used to denote, or describe, our adoption of the Islamic way of life was referred to as “embraced.” People were said to have embraced Islam or were embracing Islam. At the time, to many, that term seemed to most appropriately convey the condition being experienced by those coming into the new faith. By the act of embracing we held, or gathered, closely in our arms this new, wonderful, liberating and fulfilling religion called Islam as a show, or gesture, of our love, affection and appreciation for it. To us it was the greatest and most exciting path we had ever encountered or known. And so, it was embraced. We hugged it tightly. To use another analogy, it can also be said that we had found something on the road of life that had belonged to us all along and we held on to it as if it was the most precious of stones.
Shortly thereafter another word, which had already existed but had been sparingly used, gained prominence and soon became interchangeable with the previous one mentioned. This word, which was used to define the same process, was called “converted.” It was said that people were converting to Islam. By converting, as far as definitions go, we were changing from one state to another or from one form to another, as the mill converts grain into flour. The flour was technically still grain, but in a different form, or state. Similarly, it was still us who had converted, but now we had been fundamentally transformed by the teachings of Islam into a radically distinctive being. We, in essence, looked, acted, and thought unlike before.
In recent years I have been hearing the word “reverted” used frequently. Converted was still being used, however, and embraced less frequently so. This relatively new expression was used to refer to the same action or condition of entering the Islamic fold. And, as such, people then were reverting to Islam. In other words, they were coming back to Islam. These wandering and tired souls were returning to the original, pre-existing condition, or form, from which they had been separated involuntarily. Our ancestral, or natural, state of being “fitra” was Muslim but, upon birth, we were misdirected away from it. We had been indoctrinated by all our socialization mechanisms (our parents, schools, institutions and peers) towards something else, or alien, other than that primordial state of submission and obedience (Islam). And so, like the salmon who desperately struggles against the turbulent, downstream currents to reach its point of origin, we also endeavored to return back, or revert, so that we too could reach that pure condition.
Although it was apparent that all these three terms had been used independently of each other and as interchangeable substitutes to expound the very same thought, it seemed to me, after careful reflection, that they were, in fact, describing different stations of that same journey. Like the different responsibilities, or roles, of each runner in a relay race, these terms were expressing a different aspect, or component, along the growth process we were experiencing in our pilgrimage into Islam.
Actually, when used together, each one of them complimented the other rather well as they allowed us to see a bigger picture. Allow me to demonstrate.
When we said that we “reverted” back to Islam, we therefore were, in effect, saying that we had returned, migrated back, or come home to our original condition from which we had been tragically separated in years past. After voluntarily returning to that primordial form, we then joyfully “embraced” it. We had realized, via our cognitive evaluation, its true worth and held it tightly within our arms, not wanting to let it go again. Not even dynamite could separate us from it. And so, it followed that through our sustained exposure to this way of life we eventually were to be “converted,” or miraculously altered, by its radically transforming powers into the new beings we were intended to have been all along by the will of our merciful Creator.