This post is basically an expansion of a comment I made here as a response to Sheikh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq’s lecture “Commonly Misunderstood Verses of the Quran” back in 2011. Since the link on Halaltube is now defunct, here is a new link on YouTube. Apparently, it is an excerpt from Lesson 183 of his lecture series “al Tajrid al Sarih” (The Abridged Saheeh al Bukhari). Unfortunately, I cannot find the original lecture online.
The thesis of this post is that people are not born into Islam and the term “revert” has no basis in Islam. Among English-speaking Muslims, it is common to refer to someone who converted to Islam as a “revert”. The rationale behind the usage of this term is based on the hadith: “Every child is born upon fitrah.” Most Muslims interpret this hadith to mean that every child is born a Muslim and therefore believe that when a person becomes a Muslim, he/she is “reverting” to Islam. As the Wikipedia page on fitrah states: “… some Muslims prefer to refer to those who embrace Islam as reverts rather than converts, as it is believed they are returning to a perceived pure state.” Even the Oxford Dictionary defines “revert” as “A person who has converted to the Islamic faith.”
However, as Sheikh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq very clearly explains in his lecture:
Commonly, this hadith is used to prove that all people are born in the state of Islam, as Muslims, and therefore all children remain Muslims… That’s incorrect. This hadith doesn’t mean that every child is born a Muslim… The correct understanding of this hadith is that every child is born upon nature. And the natural state of every human being is one of clarity, purity; of being in a pristine form; of being unpolluted, unadulterated by external factors. And that natural state is conducive to a person embracing Islam. That natural state is one in which a person is inclined to the beauty and the truth of Islam, but not exactly a Muslim. As that child grows up, the external factors influence that child’s nature. If the external influence is corrosive and corruptive, then that purity would be affected, and the person would be disinclined to Islam… and thus they will become followers of other faiths or of no faith.
As emphasized here, “fitrah” means “the pristine, natural state of a human being that is conducive to belief in Islam”; it does not mean “Islam”. Therefore, people are not “born” Muslims. The “Islam” section on the Wikipedia page on “religious conversion” states: “Islam teaches that everyone is Muslim at birth”. This is simply not true. People are not born into Islam; they are born into a natural state of being that is one of purity and one that is conducive to belief in God.
“To revert” means to return to a previous state, condition, or practice, and Muslims generally understand it to mean “reverting to Islam”, based on the hadith under question. However, since fitrah does not mean Islam, we can hardly call someone who decides to be a Muslim later in life a “revert”. Perhaps one could argue that those people had “reverted” to that natural state of being before accepting Islam. But is that really true? Even if it is true, it is much more straightforward to call them simply “Muslims”, without any qualifiers. Note that all of the first generation of Muslims had converted to Islam from other faiths (or no faith at all). Did they call themselves “reverts”? No. They called themselves Muslims, plain and simple.
In my humble opinion, it is also best to try to avoid using the term “convert”. Technically, you’d have to have a religion before “converting” to a different religion. So, if you did not have a religion before becoming a Muslim, then you are technically not a “convert”. Even if you did convert, what is important is not the fact that you converted to Islam but the fact that you are now a Muslim.
If you do want to emphasize the fact that you were not raised in a Muslim family and came to accept Islam through other means, then IMHO it is better to say “I became a Muslim / accepted Islam X years ago / in year XXXX”.
Tl;dr: The usage of the term “revert” is based on the hadith “Every child is born upon fitrah”, commonly interpreted to mean every child is born a Muslim. However, since “fitrah”≠Islam, people are NOT born into Islam, and people who have converted to Islam should not be called “reverts” but simply “Muslims”.