Reverts That Rock The Islamic Boat!

One of the things which fill me with great despair is seeing reverts to Islam lose themselves after conversion. These are people who actively sought the Truth and they happened to find it within the Islamic Tradition. The story should be a case of ‘all’s well that ends well’ but it rarely is. Reverts often get utterly disillusioned with their choice and the reason for that is simple: while the revert discovers Islam, he (and more frequently, she) also discovers Muslims.

This is not an attack on ‘Native Muslims’ (people who were born into Islamicate cultures). For the most part, we are decent people who do not use Islam as a means of control and oppression. However, a community is rarely defined by average folks. Rather it is those who are actively propagating the faith and worse, those who use the community to exploit the possible naïveté (about the Muslim community, not about life) of new reverts..

I was reminded of this sad fact today when I participated in another ‘reverts and natives’ discussion. Yet another revert was put off by the dictatorial and authoritarian treatment she received at the ends of a native with his born-again Muslim zeal. It was suggested in the discussion thread that reverts should have their support groups. This was met with loud disapproval by the native Muslims, claiming that it was divisive. One particularly high profile one mentioned that reverts have settled well, citing some reverts who are more native than the native themselves.

I had heard stories of a similar nature before. Stories like reverts being asked invasive personal questions about their lives prior to conversion. Being told, often in harsh tones, that they must conform to the native community. Being humiliated when they didn’t know the correct dress or ritual procedures. These are not pleasant experiences in the least.

However, I am very happy to say that I now know many reverts who are now rocking the Islamic boat. They have truly come to own a slice of Islam for themselves. Probably the loudest of these is Michael Muhammad Knight whose Islamic identity has metamorphosed several times already. This sort of sectarian musical chairs can be very disconcerting for native Muslims. But does Michael care? Heck no! He wrote Taqwacores (a very groundbreaking book about Muslim punks) and told the mullas ‘you fartwah me , I fartwah you back!’. This is kind of guts we need. Michael took his Islamic experience into his own hands and he has the absolute right to do so.

There are also reverts who are liberals, feminists, those who maintain afiliation with other faiths (like a Christian-Muslim-Pagan, how cool is that!). These types are very nerve wrecking to the natives. Imagine a native being told that his narrative is simply a subjective cultural story and that Islam can accommodate other narratives. Islam as we know it is simply not ready for that just now but it must be ready if it is to survive in this postmodern world.

Why are these new avenues of the Islamic experience important? Simply because they are not new. They are, in fact, how Islam was like originally. The native Muslims tend to forget that Muhammad and most companions were Arabs and so their human cultural beings interacted with the revelation they experienced which is the Quran. This is only normal. Arab culture thus became the first indigenous culture of Islam.

When the Islamic empire expanded, it encountered and appropriated various cultures. It thus shifted accordingly and Islamic culture came to include these newer elements. This is why you will find geographical particularities and specifications with the local forms of Islam. South East Asian Islams for example mixed with the local religions (similar to Hinduism) and you will find their Islam used to be very eclectic. Sadly, Wahabi influence from Saudi Arabia has managed to erode much of that today.

So when we challenge this main narrative, we are in fact challenging its human interpreters. They only act if they represent Allah. Allah never authorized to do so and the Muslims’ sacred object, the Quran does not concern itself with cultural minutiae.

Unfortunately for converts today, Islamic cultural dynamism has long since ossified. When this ossification happened, what we know as ‘Islamic’ became frozen in time. Muslims men were told to keep beards. Why? Because the Prophet kept one. Had he been an Eskimo, the Sunnah would be to shave beards. Similarly, converts wondering why men and women need to pray separately need to see how Arabs and South Asians are very meticulous about gender separation. Essentially, ‘Islamic culture’ is simply that first indigenous culture. It has little or nothing to do with what we know as ‘islam’ in essence.

And that is why we need boat-rocking reverts. These are people who will tell the natives ‘NO. Sorry, this is also my faith and I decide what is true and what isn’t’. This sort of positive recalcitrance is needed to shake the Native Muslims out of their cultural doldrums. I hope to see reverts creating their own traditions in Quranic exegesis, their own Islamic artistic endeavours (art, poetry, music) and their own spaces away from the cultural hegemony of natives. We need to keep watering tree of Islam with fresh human experiences.