Convertitis - or the Case of the Insta-Scholar
by Saraji Umm Zaid
American convert Saraji Umm Zaid cautions new Muslims about the dangers of extremism and absolutism
What is Convertitis?
Convertitis is a highly contagious disease, which spreads rapidly among converts to Islam, particularly those who are experiencing great amounts of confusion, but who don’t think they are. (Also commonly known as The Case of the Insta-Scholar)
The Case of the Insta-Scholar Jane who took her shahada last week.
She was a “regular American” who studied a little about Islam, hemmed and hawed over the dress and dietary codes, decided it was the truth, and accepted it into her life. Many sisters in the community looked forward to helping Jane learn the basics of Islam, such as the salat, the five pillars, the six articles of faith, and so on. Now, this week, we see that Jane has changed her name to “Ai’sha,” is wearing full niqaab [black only], buying everything (even potato chips—which she may stop buying as it is “imitation of the kufar”) from the halal market, getting into interfaith debates at her job, using a miswak, telling the other sisters what they “ought to be doing,” and what they are “doing wrong,” and considering accepting a marriage proposal to be a co-wife.
What Are the Symptoms of Convertitis?
The new Muslim who is suffering from this terrible disease is easily recognisable within the community. You will notice a radical change in appearance, almost immediately: from “regular clothes” to full niqaab or kufi and thobe. Often walking around with a miswak. Starts peppering their language full of Arabic-isms they either don’t really know or can’t pronounce. Almost immediately, they talk at great length about their “Islamic Identity,” and their “Muslim-ness”. In every incident, they will see an “Anti-Muslim” bias that didn’t exist previously [and probably doesn’t exist currently]. They often argue points of Islamic fiqh with anyone and everyone—from the fellow new shahada to the valedictorian of Al-Ahzar. [of course, they don’t know what “fiqh” is…] The most serious symptom is that everything is black and white: what they view as good is truth, and what they don’t understand is bad, bid’a, haram, whatever. They view themselves as the sole practitioners of “True Islam,” and pass into judgement millions of others. Abdul Hakim Murad explains here, the “serious side” of convertitis:
“The initial and quite understandable response of many new comers is to become an absolutist. Everything going on among pious Muslims is angelic; everything outside the circle of faith is demonic. The appeal of this outlook lies in its simplicity. The newly arranged landscape on which the convert looks is seen in satisfying black and white terms of Them versus Us, good against evil.”
Oftentimes, when approached by other Muslims about this behavior, they become defensive. Those suffering from Convertitis will exhibit a marked lack of interest in any lectures, books, programs, etc. having to do with Islamic history, Fiqh, or spirituality, while their interests in things like “The Hijab Debate,” and “Muslim vs. Christian” is noticeably high. Most new Muslims, however, soon see through this. Those individuals who adopt Islam because they need an identity will be condemned to wander the sectarian and factional hall of mirrors, constantly looking for the perfect group that will give them their desperately needed sense of specialness and superiority. ...Those who come to Islam seeking an identity will find the multiplicity of traditional Muslim cultures intolerable. People with confused identities are attracted to totalitarian solutions. And today, many young Muslims feel so threatened by the diversity of calls on their allegiance, and by the sheer complexity of modernity, that the only form of Islam they can regard as legitimate is a totalitarian, monolithic one. That there should be four schools of Islamic law is to them unbearable. That Muslim cultures should legitimately differ is a species of blasphemy.
What Are the After Effects of Convertitis?
The after effects of this seriously contagious disease are many: ranging from sudden humility to disillusionment and ultimately, leaving the deen. Some people are able to get right back up again after being knocked off of their high horse, only this time, with the knowledge that they don’t know anything. Others are unable to dust themselves off, and are immersed in such a state of confusion that they may end up leaving Islam entirely.
How Can I Protect Myself From Convertitis?
Unfortunately, convertitis is so contagious and widespread that it seems that every shahada suffers from it at one point of another. For some, they recover almost immediately, while others live under the delusion of convertitis for the rest of their lives. If you are a new convert, the best way to protect yourself is to realise that you know nothing, and to remind yourself of this fact every day. All the Islamic knowledge that you initially gain is in English, and is by default, off-base. You are forced to rely on other people’s translations, which is also chock full of “opinion.” Until you have a working knowledge of classical Arabic and its grammar, you will not be able to even consider becoming a scholar, you will not be eligible to issue Islamic rulings, you will not be eligible to administer shari’a law, nothing. Force yourself to remember that such a state takes years, a lifetime, to achieve. Some people never recover from their initial “Insta Scholarliness.” They continue their entire lives like this, devoid of any real soul searching efforts to get “at the truth.” They depend so heavily on rule books to govern every part of their lives that the end up missing the essence of Islam, which can not be found in any book. Ultimately, they become convinced of their spiritual superiority, and dismiss all others. These young people, who haunt our mosques and shout at any sign of disagreement are either ignorant of Muslim history, or dismiss it as a giant mistake. For them, the grace and rahma of Allah has for some reason been withheld from all but a tiny fraction of the Ummah. These people are the elect and all in disagreement with them is a blasphemy against God.
Convertitis or the “Insta Scholar” syndrome is a serious one. I’d venture to say that just about everyone experiences it at one point. Unfortunately, for some, they never realise that they know nothing, and walk around thinking they are scholars. This causes great problems, as it not only poses a danger to other new shahadas, but the ceaseless arguing causes great divisions within the Muslim community. For those of you who are currently experiencing said malady [but don’t think you are], please remember that any bad knowledge, any false knowledge, and any bid’a that you pass onto another Muslim, you are responsible for that. If you don’t want the misguidance of another person to bear on your record, then you take a second, and then a third breath before you tell someone what they “ought to be” doing.
How Do I Handle the Insta-Scholar?
The best way to deal with those suffering from Convertitis is gently. Arguing with the insta Scholar only reinforces in their minds that they are somehow, the sole guardians of the truth. If someone you know is suffering from this terrible disease, steer them away from interfaith debates as often as you can. And make du’a, make du’a, make du’a.
All quotes in italics appeared in the essay “British and Muslim” by Abdul Hakim Murad.
The above article is © 2003 Saraji Umm Zaid.
Originally published on Islam for Today at http://www.islamfortoday.com/ummzaid02.htm