Friday , September 25 2020

In the local idiom

Department: Islam Acquaintance Centre

September 6th, 2020

Lesson (درس): In the local idiom

Over the last few days, I have been grappling with quite a minor issue in MDI: should the word مدرسه be written as madrasa or madrassa in English? I know, madrasa is phonetically correct. In Arabic, there is no stress or tashdeed on the ’s’. However, I settled on madrassa. Why? Because if you write the word as madrasa, then non-Arabic speakers might make the ‘a’ long, and say madraasa instead of madrasa. So I settled on madrassa.

When choosing Islamic terminology to use in the Western world, it is always worth keeping in mind the society in which we are working, which is predominantly non-Muslim, not familiar with the Arabic language or with Islamic scriptures.

This principle also applies to the tendency, certainly in England and maybe in other parts of the Western world, to call a person who converts to Islam a ‘revert’ rather than the more generally well-known ‘convert’.

Muhammad Asad, originally Leopold Weiss, accepted Islam early in the 20th century. There is a plaque dedicated to him in the German capital Berlin. He was the author of The Road to Mecca. When Leopold Weiss accepted Islam, he was known as a convert to the faith. No one thought of calling him a ‘revert’. 

The thinking behind the ‘revert’ terminology is a well-known and authentic (صحیح) Hadith:

«كُلُّ مَولودٍ يُولَدُ على الفِطرَةِ ، و إنّما أبَواهُ يُهَوِّدانِهِ و يُنَصِّرانِهِ»

Every child is born in accordance with his or her true (Islamic) nature. It is their parents who make them into Jews or Christians.

The point is reiterated in a verse of the Quran. Islam is the religion of nature. One can even say that another word for Islam is human nature itself:

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

(الروم، ۳۰)

Devote yourself single-mindedly to the Religion. And follow the Nature (constitution) as made by Allah, that Nature in which He has created mankind.

(Al-Quran, 30:30)

So technically, it is correct to call those who accept Islam ‘reverts’, in that they have ‘reverted’ to the path of human nature, in which Allah created all mankind.

However, there is another factor to be kept in mind here. That is popular usage and idiom, and avoidance of ambiguity and misunderstanding. That is why it was important for every Prophet, whose job it was to communicate Islam, to have a firm command of his language, and be a native speaker:

فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا ۚ فِطْرَتَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

(ابراهیم، ۴)

Each messenger we have sent has spoken in the language of his own people, so that he might make the message clear to them.

(Al-Quran, 14:4)

It is also important to avoid words that are open to misinterpretation. Choose words that are absolutely clear in their meaning. ‘Ra’ina’, for example, was a perfectly good word. However, some people intentionally mispronounced the word, making it mean ’our shepherd’ instead of ‘consider us’ – its real meaning. That is why the Quran advises those seeking to draw the attention of the Holy Prophet to say ‘unzurna’ – ‘look upon us’ – instead of ‘ra’ina’ (2:104).

The point is one should not use words that are open to misinterpretation and can be used to denigrate Muslims, and in the process make light of Islam.

That is why I personally am against use of the word ‘revert’. Everyone knows what and who a ‘convert to Islam’ is. The phrase is absolutely clear and unambiguous. ‘Revert’, on the other hand, is likely to create confusion in the minds of the initiated. ‘Re-‘ is a prefix generally used in a negative sense: ‘reactionary’, ‘retrograde’ are two examples that spring to mind. Added to the -vert ending – particularly well-known in one negative sense – the word ‘revert’ can create a highly negative impression.

MDI will be sticking to the unambiguous ‘convert’ and urges others to do the same.


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