Every single child is born upon the fitrah, and then his parents may make him into a Jew or Christian or Magian. Similarly, animals are born unbranded. Have you ever found an animal born branded until you brand it yourselves?” Prophet Muhammad
There is a tendency for Muslims, pepped up with the love of their religion, to view the conversion of a non-Muslim to Islam, as a reversion. They argue that these individuals are returning to their original state of being a Muslim. They are reverts.
Such an overarching belief has many implications. It presupposes that the “revert” knew the truth before, and fought his way back to his original state of being a Muslim. This is perplexing as the hadith never states that every single child was born a Muslim. Instead it uses the word ‘fitrah’, which is usually translated as natural state, and wrongfully translated, on occasions, as Islam. By this misinterpretation, Muslims can get caught up in their own pride and ignore the burdens their religion places upon them. In life, being a Muslim is not a get out of jail card.
Defining the ‘fitrah’ as connected to a religion is problematic. Most adherents of an organised religion, Muslims included, like to believe that their religion is objectively the truth. They ignore the leap of faiths they themselves have to make at some point where reason is not the guiding force.
So to decry other religions for being illogical is a subtle sign of hypocrisy as the proponent has failed to look at himself in the mirror. To believe a religion on account of its law and/or its ritualistic practices is not enough to justify its veracity.
Ghazali rightly observed that Christians grew up to be Christians, Jews grew up to be Jews and Muslims grew up to be Muslims. Therefore, the Fitrah, the natural state, was not the religion that defined the person, it was something else. He writes in his Deliverance from Error “ I was moved by a keen desire to learn what was this innate disposition in the child, the nature of the accidental beliefs imposed on him by the authority of his parents and his masters, and finally the un-reasoned convictions which he derives from their instructions”
Upon this keen desire, Ghazali commenced his journey, a journey that sought incontrovertible knowledge of the Divine. It was a journey of the mind and spirit, and a search for the providence of all creation. Ghazali did not doubt the existence of God, or the truth of his religion. His doubts stemmed from an emotional uncertainty as to whether he was sincere in his beliefs. Having knowledge of material facts was not enough. Following religious rituals was not enough. Sincerity in one’s belief went beyond the words and traditions of the religion. It resided on a spiritual plain that could not be found unless one journeyed inward.
As walking sticks on the journey, Ghazali used the universal tools of all religions. He used prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, contemplation, and humility as means of finding the sincerity he felt he lacked. It was not an easy journey.
The outcome was a return to the natural state, and that natural state was not being part of a religion; it was being a believer of God, or a Mu’min, where one’s soul witnesses the Divine. That is the whole purpose of revelation. Indeed, the Prophet’s own journey started with a quest for sincerity. His sojourns to Mount Hira were at a time where he had no religion, just belief and the universal walking sticks professed by all religions. In the cave, he found sincerity through his ascetic efforts, spiritually returning to that day when God asked am I not your Lord?
Ghazali never disavowed his religion and its obligations. But for him to fully make sense of his position with the Divine, he had to undergo a spiritually purifying journey. In doing so, he wiped away the influences of his parents, customs and traditions – just as the Prophet had done – to reveal the true purpose of the natural state of all humans…and that is to sincerely humble oneself in worship and awe to the Divine.
This is the reversion, something even Muslims cannot claim for themselves as most are caught by the stranglehold of their traditions. Searching for sincerity without the influences of society is not easy. It is a struggle, but it does giving meaning to our existence.