There are few other life encompassing changes that rival accepting a new religion. Change, even when it is desired, is difficult. During marriage and after the birth of a child, your body is in sync with your psychological state and seeks to support that change by the production of the hormone oxytocin making the transition smoother. Anxiety, stress and uncertainty often conspire against New Muslims who do not receive the same physiological support from their bodies and when someone is new to Islam, support is what they need to ease the transition.
Part of that transition is name changing. It’s not necessary unless you feel that you have a name that is profane in some way. Yet, most people do change their names, not legally, but it becomes more of a nickname. I chose not to change my name, as I didn’t want to sever yet another connection to my past – my birth name was Arabic anyway. I understand that this feels like part of the process and I understand the New Muslim’s desire to embrace their new identity.
There is a second name change that occurs at this time that moves beyond the personal and encompasses a shared identity. The label you chose at this point stems from a “philosophy,” a way of understanding coming to Islam. Depending on the environment of the mosque the new Muslim attends, will shape the term selected, be it, convert, revert, new Muslim or someone embracing Islam. Yet, it’s seldom an informed choice nor is the “philosophy” around the naming well thought out.
Filled with enthusiasm and a desire to fit in, to learn and to be a good Muslim, new Muslims follow along, listening to the advice received by those raised as Muslims because they must know better. During this nebulous time, it takes real strength of character to say, “Wait, I want to think about this; I want to research this first.” This approach often leads to bullying or worse, being ostracized at a time when you actually need a support network. The ability to think independently and critically for yourself, which was the reason you converted in the first place, is now no longer viewed as strength by your new community. Cultural interpretations of Islam supersede the Sunnah because habits are hard to break. This is an important time because the early moments of the experience of becoming Muslim sets the foundation of a lifetime to come.
Changing your religion is altering who you are.
The words we chose and the words others chose to describe you have a profound impact on development. U.C. Berkeley linguist, George Lakoff, points out that the words we use to frame have a deep psychological impact on us. Joseph Campbell in his seminal work, The Power of Myth, discusses the importance of the stories we tell ourselves and the quintessential significance of words to shape who we are and the society we live in. The linguistic worlds we build around ourselves become the milieu of our existence, shaping the way our brains construct reality. Perhaps if we, as a Muslim Ummah, paid greater attention to the psychological effects of “naming,” we would not lose our converts in large numbers.
There are no hard statistics or studies about New Muslims and there are no papers written about their development. This article seeks to provide a foundational framework in which to begin to approach the subject of conversation through the lens of semantics, or how we name things. Muslims have several terms to describe those who chose to become Muslim. The most popular terms are; convert, revert and embracing Islam. I am including the term new Muslim, despite its lack of popularity.
“Reversion,” is a euphemism and like all euphemisms, it’s well intentioned, but seldom nuanced. It’s a loaded term that implies that there is a reset button on people that will restore you back to factory settings. If only it were so easy. It erases the monumental struggles ahead and the challenges, big and small, faced by New Muslims. It also, to an extent, absolves the Ummah from the responsibility of systematically teaching New Muslims about Islam, rather than the various cultural interpretations of it. Worse of all, reversion holds within it all the ingredients of shaming and self-blame.
The term reversion comes from the notion that we are all born Muslim and the environment we grow up in changes us from this “pure” nature, into something else. However, Muslims do not naturally occur in nature; if that were the case, we would not require revelation. We all have to learn to become Muslim, including those who are born into Muslim families.
New Muslims change almost every aspect of their lives from how they use the bathroom to the way they bank. This all-encompassing transformation does not stem from an at-birth-experience that can be called upon as an aid. The word reversion is a backwards movement and is the opposite of the actual process. It is a word filled with the sentiment of ease, but change is anything but easy. And when something is ease, minimal assistance is required.
According to anecdotal surveys, most New Muslims leave Islam due to lack of support. If as various news reports suggest, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the West, where are the programs at mosques to assist this wave of New Muslims? Instead, most New Muslims are encouraged to learn on their own from books. After all, what real help would be required by someone who is returning to his or her “natural state?” However, if you are the right gender and color, you just might be cultivated to become a religious leader. Ladies, you’re out of luck. And when you fail, which at some point you will, you have no one to blame but yourself.
I don’t bring this up to place blame in any one place. Instead, I want to highlight the consequences of semantics. “Reversion” should be easy, so when you fail, the negative psychological impact felt by someone who is alone and unguided can be extremely damaging. Humans seldom continue with behavior that causes pain or discomfort, and for the New Muslim seeking comfort in their new religion, the experience gets prickly very fast. As a New Muslim, as with any novice, you blame yourself for mistakes and your lack of ability, and when there is no community or teacher there to help you get back on your feet, self preservation sets in, you save what’s left of your fragile mind and you leave.
Another popular term for the New Muslim is that of, “embracing Islam.” Again another well-intentioned euphemism that is sanitized from the, hanging-on-for-dear-life and flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, sensation involved with that hug. A hug is what every New Muslim needs, but not just the initial hug when you convert, but a sustained relationship with someone.
A hug, unlike an embrace, is filled with emotion and is long lasting. It stems from a connection between the two people involved. In reality, this embrace is something more akin to what a mob boss might offer a victim before he sends him off to, “sleep with the fish.” Yet, it doesn’t need to be this way nor is this the experience of every New Muslim, but is the reality for far too many. It is a beautiful sentiment that does not deliver because an embrace, just like a tango, takes two. In actuality, at times this embrace is pleasurable, but more often feels more like an eye-popping squeeze.
In Arabic, converting usually only applies to currency and when I lived in the Middle East and I used this term, I was met with bewildered looks. However, it is how English speakers refer to people who change their religion. Converting also holds in it the seeds of exchange that requires a network of individuals, and organizations working together based on an agreed upon system to allow for the conversion to happen. It’s not a haphazard event, but a system designed to yield results.
This term can also conjure up images of alchemical transmutation of base metals to gold. Indeed, the New Muslim is seeking to refine themselves into their higher self, just like the alchemist seeking to yield gold. However, converting is a process that is mostly passive in which outside forces act upon the object in order to cause the change. It is also a process done to a “thing,” not to an individual. In fact, this is what typically happens: the New Muslim is indoctrinated into a cultural interpretation of Islam. If you refuse to yield to the process you find yourself alone. The idea of converting objectifies New Muslims and reduces them to willing receptacles that are passive actors in the process. The dark side of this is radicalization.
“New Muslim,” is the least loaded term. It could be said that it implies a slight superiority because of newness, but at the same time, it hold the sentiment of the novice. A newborn baby does not have more value than a toddler. In fact, a toddler with more life experience seems like a master compared to the newborn. The newborn also holds the magic of the possible and unspoiled.
Being viewed as a “New Muslim,” captures the wonder and novelty of the experience, infused with joy, passion and beauty. It flows from the laws of development and allows for stages of growth, failure and stagnation. It allows for a process more akin to the natural growth process, a metamorphosis that cannot be done alone.
However, the New Muslim is not a child; they understand right and wrong on a basic level, but they don’t have the luxury of a buffer of time to learn like Muslim children do. As an adult, you are more critical of your mistakes because you are more self-aware. It is a situation where you are positive about becoming Muslim, but are saddled with the continued sentiment of inadequacy. The challenge is New Muslims are not children, they are adults. However, they need a community to rally around them for years, if not decades to insure their proper development, like a child. When the journey to Islam is viewed as enjoyable, when the process is supported by loving people, it opens the possibility that allows for the body to conspire with you, to support you by producing oxytocin and easing the change.
Unfortunately, we became an Ummah devoid of both love and mercy for ourselves and our families. In its place, a face culture sprung up in which the guest and stranger is honored above everyone else, but only for three days and then you are on your own. As an Ummah, we cannot expect to offer much to New Muslims when we offer little to ourselves. We are awash in a culture of abuse and self-flagellation that is critical of the smallest mistake. When you abuse a child, you deform them and they runaway the first chance they get. The same is also true for New Muslims and those raised in Islam. So until a time in which we reach a point when we act out of love and mercy, how do we help New Muslims?
Invite them during Ramadan and for Eid. New Muslims are seldom remembered during these times and it would make a world of difference. It is a lonely time. Don’t assume someone else will.
It is a small kindness that requires little commitment or effort from you.
- Campbell, Joseph,” The Power of Myth. Anchor. 1991.
- Lakoff, George, “Idea Framing, Metaphors, and Your Brain.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_CWBjyIERY
- Ahmad, Imam Luqman, “Seven out of every ten converts leave Islam. ” https://imamluqman.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/seven-out-of-every-ten-converts-leave-islam-by-imam-luqman-ahmad