Becoming a Muslim
By Allah’s grace, He has made His religion open to anyone who wishes to enter it. There are virtually no obstacles to becoming a Muslim. In order to embrace Islam, there is no need for clergy, baptisms or special ceremonies. In fact, the act that makes one a Muslim is a simple declaration of one’s faith. Thus, one only need state, “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” Upon stating these sentences, one enters into the beautiful brotherhood/sisterhood of Islam, a brotherhood/sisterhood that stretches from the time of Adam until the last days of this earth.
In this chapter, there shall be a discussion of some of the details concerning the testimony of faith. In addition, there shall be a discussion of other actions that are mentioned in connection with the act of becoming a Muslim. This shall be followed by some laws related to one’s state before becoming a Muslim.
The Testimony of Faith: There is None Worthy of Worship except Allah
A person becomes a Muslim by testifying to the truth of the statements: There is none worthy of worship except Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. Since this is a testimony or bearing witness to the truth of something, it must be a “public proclamation” (or, in other words, not something hidden within oneself but, instead, conveyed to others). Ibn Abu al-Izz wrote,
[The Prophet (peace be upon him)] has made it absolutely clear that a person is definitely not a believer if it is claimed that he believes in the Prophet (peace be on him) but he does not profess it with his tongue, even though he can…
This profession of the tongue plays a three-fold role. It is first a statement of a fact. One is testifying that he recognizes the truthfulness of that statement of faith. This would be analogous to a person giving testimony in a court of law. All he is really stating is that those are the facts that he believes to be true.
Second, though, it is statement of commitment to that fact. It is an admission by the person that he intends to adhere to the requirements and guidance of what he has testified to.
Third, it is a public proclamation that the individual has now joined the fold of Muslims, accepting all of the rights and responsibilities that such implies.
Muslims know that the key to Paradise is the statement, “There is none worthy of worship except Allah.” Yet many Muslims simply rely upon this statement and believe that as long as they have said it, nothing will harm them. Because of this mere verbal statement of the testimony of faith, they think they will be granted Paradise However, the mere saying of the statement is not sufficient for salvation. In fact, the hypocrites used to say, “I testify that none is worthy of worship except Allah and…,” yet Allah describes them as liars and says that they shall abide in the lowest abyss of the Hell-fire. Obviously, there are some conditions for any testimony but in particular for this testimony to be accepted by Allah there are some particular conditions—and everyone should be extremely concerned over whether his testimony of faith is acceptable to Allah or not.
The famous Follower Wahb ibn Munabbih was once asked, “Isn’t the statement of, ‘There is none worthy of worship except Allah,’ the key to Paradise?” He answered, “Yes, but every key has ridges. If you come with the key that has the right ridges, the door will open for you. Yet if you do not have the right ridges, the door will not open for you.” These ridges are conditions that differentiate Muslims who will benefit from that statement from those who will not benefit from that statement, no matter how many times a day they may have made that statement.
A study of the verses of the Quran and the hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) will show that there are a number of conditions for the soundness of one’s testimony of faith. Again, it is important that every Muslim verify that he is meeting these conditions in his own life with respect to his own testimony of faith. The new convert should consider these conditions concerning his testimony of faith. Preferably (but not necessarily), these would have been explained to him before he undertook the declaration of faith.
The first condition is knowledge. One must have the necessary basic understanding of what is meant by the declaration of faith. One must understand what he is affirming and what he is denying in the declaration. This is true for any kind of testimony. When one testifies to something, one must know what it is that he is testifying concerning. Obviously, a testimony about something that one does not have any knowledge of is unacceptable. Allah says in the Quran, “Save him who bears witness unto the truth knowingly” (43:86).
Therefore, the basics of the testimony must be understood by the person testifying to it. If he does not understand, for example, that Allah is the only one worthy of worship and that all other gods are false gods, then he does not even have the most elementary understanding of what it is he claims to be testifying to. Such a testimony cannot be considered a proper one that is acceptable to Allah.
The second condition is certainty. This is the opposite of doubt and uncertainty. In Islam, in fact, any kind of doubt concerning anything confirmed in the Quran or the Sunnah is equivalent to disbelief. One must, in his heart, be absolutely certain of the truth of the testimony of faith. One’s heart must not be wavering in any way when one testifies to the truth of, “There is none worthy of worship except Allah.” Allah describes the true believers as those who have belief in Allah and then their hearts waver not. Allah says, “The (true) believers are only those who believe in Allah and His messenger and afterward doubt not, but strive with their wealth and their lives for the cause of Allah. Such are the sincere” (49:15).
Similarly, the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “No one meets Allah with the testimony that there is none worthy of worship but Allah and I am the Messenger of Allah, and he has no doubt about that statement, except that he will enter Paradise.” On the other hand, Allah describes the hypocrites as those people whose hearts are wavering. For example, Allah says, “They alone seek leave of you [not to participate in Jihad] who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and whose hearts feel doubt, so in their doubt they waver” (9: 45).
The third condition of the testimony of faith is acceptance. If a person has the conditions of knowledge and certainty, this must be followed by acceptance, with the tongue and heart, of whatever that testimony implies. Whoever refuses to accept the testimony of faith with all of its implications, even if he knows that it is true and is certain about its truth, is a disbeliever. This refusal to accept is sometimes due to pride, envy or other reasons. In any case, the testimony is not an acceptable testimony without its unconditional acceptance.
This condition also means that the Muslim believes in whatever is stated in the Quran or stated by the Prophet (peace be upon him), without any right to choose what he wants to believe and what he wants to reject. Allah says in the Quran, “Do you believe in part of the Book and reject part of it? And what is the reward of those who do so save ignominy in the life of the world, and on the Day of Resurrection they will be consigned to the most grievous doom” (2:85). Allah has also said, “It is not for a believing man or believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter, to have any option in their decision. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has indeed strayed in plain error” (33:36).
The fourth condition is submission and compliance. This implies the actual physical enactment by deeds. This is one of the main meanings of the word Islam itself, “the submission to the will and commands of Allah.” Allah commands this in the Quran, “And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith to your Lord and submit to Him” (39: 54).
Allah has made it a condition of faith that one submits to the command of Allah and His messenger. Allah says, “But nay, by your Lord, they will not truly believe until they make you [the Messenger of Allah] judge of what is in dispute between them and find within themselves no dislike of that which you decide, and submit with full submission” (4:65).
This does not mean that the true believer never falls into sin. Indeed, true believers do commit sins. But as long as they recognize that what they did is not correct and it is inconsistent with their obligation of submitting to Allah, then they have not violated the soundness of their testimony.
The fifth condition is truthfulness as opposed to hypocrisy and dishonesty. This means that when one says the testimony of faith, he is saying it honestly, actually meaning it. He is not lying when it comes to his testimony of faith or simply trying to deceive or fool anyone. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “No one bears testimony to there being no one worthy of worship save Allah, sincerely from his heart, except that Allah makes the Hell-fire forbidden for him.”
The sixth condition is purity or making this testimony of faith solely for the sake of Allah. One must not do it for any other reason or anyone else’s sake. In this manner, the meaning of purity is the opposite of ascribing partners with Allah. One becomes and remains Muslim solely to serve Allah, to avoid His anger and punishment and to gain His mercy and reward. Allah says in the Quran, “Worship Allah, making religion pure for him” (39:2). The Prophet (peace be upon him) also said, “Allah has forbidden for the Hell-fire anyone who says, ‘There is no one worthy of worship except Allah,’ and says so desiring the face [and pleasure] of Allah.”
The seventh condition is love. That is, the believer loves the testimony of faith, he loves in accordance with the testimony, he loves its implications and requirements and he loves those who act and strive on its basis. This is a necessary condition of the testimony of faith. If a person makes the testimony but does not love it and what it stands for, then, in fact, his faith is not complete. It is not the faith of a true believer. If he has no love for this testimony or if he actually feels hatred for it, he has negated his testimony.
The true believer puts no one as an equal to Allah in his love. Allah says in the Quran, “Yet of mankind are some who take unto themselves (objects of worship which they set as) rivals to Allah, loving them with a love like (that which is due to) Allah only. However, those who believe are stauncher in their love of Allah” (2:165). Elsewhere Allah says, “Say: If your fathers, your sons, your brethren, your wives, your tribe, the wealth you have acquired, merchandise for which you fear that there will be no sale, or dwellings you desire are dearer to you than Allah and His messenger and striving in His way: then wait till Allah brings His command to pass. Allah guides not wrongdoing folk” (9:24).
An eighth condition is that the person who states the testimony must deny every other object of worship. Although that is clear in the words of the testimony of faith, it does not seem clear to everyone who makes that testimony. Therefore, it needs to be mentioned explicitly.
In soorah al-Baqara, Allah reminds Muslims of this important aspect of the testimony. The testimony of faith is not merely an affirmation but it is both an affirmation and a negation. Allah states, “And he who rejects false deities and believes in Allah has grasped a firm handhold which will never break” (2: 256).
The ninth condition is that the Muslim adheres to the testimony of faith until he dies. This is a must if the testimony is to mean anything in the Hereafter. One cannot rest on his laurels of what he may have done in the past. No, indeed, the declaration of faith must be his banner until death. Allah says in the Quran, “O believers, observe your duty to Allah with right observance, and die not save as Muslims [surrendering yourselves to Allah]” (3:102).
Finally, the testimony does not have to be in the Arabic language or with specific terms but it must be very clear as to the exact meaning and purport of what the person is saying.
The Testimony of Faith: Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah
It is important to understand the meaning and the implications of the second part of the testimony of faith as well. Indeed, sometimes one strays from the Straight Path and from Islam itself because he is not implementing the second part of the declaration of faith properly.
When one testifies that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, he is stating his belief that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was chosen by Allah to be His Messenger and to convey His Message. Allah specifically chose the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to be His Messenger. Allah says, “Allah knows best with whom to place His Message” (6:124).
This implies some characteristics of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as obviously Allah, due to His justice, wisdom and mercy, would not choose one who is treacherous or lying to be His Messenger. Allah would not choose anyone for such an important mission whom He knew would not convey the message or who would use the position to his own advantage. If anyone claims that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not actually convey the entire message or that he distorted it in any way, he is actually saying that Allah did not know who was the correct or best person to be a messenger. This is obvious disbelief.
Second, when one makes the testimony of faith, he is also testifying that the Prophet (peace be upon him) has been sent for all of mankind until the Day of Judgment. Allah says in the Quran, “Say [O Muhammad]: O mankind! Verily, I am sent to you all as the Messenger of Allah” (7:158). It is obligatory upon everyone from the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) until the Day of Judgment to believe in and follow the Prophet (peace be upon him). This also implies that the Prophet’s teachings and his Sunnah are valid and obligatory upon all of mankind until the Day of Judgment.
Some people seem to try to resist the idea that they have to follow the Prophet (peace be upon him). When they do so, they must realize that they are going against what they have testified to. They have testified that the Prophet’s message, which includes both the Quran and his inspired Sunnah, is for all of mankind— including each and everyone alive today.
Third, when one makes the declaration of faith, he is testifying that he believes with certainty that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) conveyed the message— he conveyed it correctly, he conveyed all of it, and he conveyed it clearly. Allah says in the Quran, “The Messenger’s duty is only to convey (the message) in a clear way” (29: 18). The Prophet (peace be upon him) himself said, “I left you on a bright path whose night and day are alike. No one strays from it after me except he is destroyed.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) conveyed all of the guidance and revelation that he received from Allah. He conveyed and explained it in a clear manner. Therefore, one is also testifying that the Prophet (peace be upon him) conveyed all the aspects of the religion– its fundamental as well as its secondary aspects. There is no part of the religion that one needs for his guidance that was not conveyed to mankind or that Allah or the Prophet (peace be upon him) may have possibly forgotten.
Therefore, when this complete and clear guidance from the Prophet (peace be upon him) is present, there is no need for any Muslim to turn to other sources for guidance. There is no need for one to turn to the books of the Jews or Christians. Indeed, the Prophet (peace be upon him) told Umar, when he saw him reading the Torah, that if the Prophet Moses were alive at his time, he would also have to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). There is no need for any Muslim to turn to the Greek philosophers, for example, to learn about theology.
In fact, there is no need for Muslims to turn the religious or spiritual teachings of any non-Muslims to get guidance. All that is needed is to be found in the Quran and Sunnah. This is part of what the Muslim is testifying to. The Muslim bears witness that the Prophet (peace be upon him) conveyed the entire message.
When one declares, “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” one is also declaring that he is the final prophet sent by Allah. Allah says in the Quran, “Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Last of the Prophets” (33: 40).
There is to be no prophet who is going to come after the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). No new prophet and no new scripture will come that will abrogate what the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) brought. Furthermore, if anyone after the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) claims to be a prophet, it is known automatically that such a person is a liar and a deceiver.He must be opposed and it should be declared to all that his claim to prophethood is false. To accept anyone as a prophet after the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is to falsify one’s declaration of the testimony of faith.
It must also be realized that when one makes the testimony of faith, this not only implies that he believes in certain things but it also implies that he accepts certain responsibilities that stem from it. For example, when he says that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, for that testimony to be true, it means that he is now taking on the responsibility of worshipping no one other than Allah.
Similarly, when one says, “I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” he is taking on certain responsibilities with respect to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). When he is lacking in any of these responsibilities, then he is lacking in his complete fulfillment of his testimony of faith. It can even get to the point that he negates his testimony completely by refusing to fulfill his responsibility to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
One of these obligations toward the Prophet (peace be upon him) is to love him. This does not just imply any form of love but complete faith requires that one loves the Prophet (peace be upon him) more than anyone or anything else of this world. Allah says in the Quran, “Say: If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your kindred, the wealth that you have gained, the commerce in which you fear a decline, and the dwellings in which you delight are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger, and striving hard and fighting in His cause, then wait until Allah brings about His Decision (torment). And Allah guides not the people who are disobedient” (9:24).
Second, when one makes the testimony of faith, this means that he is accepting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as his example of how to live and behave in a way that is correct and pleasing to Allah. Allah says in the Quran, “Indeed in the Messenger of Allah you have an excellent example to follow for him who hopes in (a good meeting with) Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much” (33:21). Allah also says, “Say (O Muhammad): If you love Allah, then follow me and Allah will love you and forgive you your sins” (3:31)
It is very strange that some people actually state the testimony of faith and declare that Muhammad is the Messenger and Prophet of Allah yet at the same time they do not consider him an example of the way of life that a believer should follow. Not only do they not take him as an example for themselves, they actually oppose others who do take the Prophet (peace be upon him) as their example. This is nothing but a clear sign that such a person does not have a clear understanding of the meaning and implications of the testimony of faith that he made.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) has said, “I swear by Allah that I am the most fearful of Allah and most conscious of Him than all of you. But I also [as part of my Sunnah] fast and break my fast, pray and sleep [at night] and I marry women. Whoever turns away from my Sunnah is not from me [that is, is not one of my true followers].” In this hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) explained that he is the most fearful of Allah and God-conscious. Therefore, there is no excuse for anyone not to follow his example and guidance. But he also stated that the one who turns away from his practice and example is not from him. One cannot truthfully claim to believe in and accept the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and, at the same time, refuse to accept his life as the example that one must strive to emulate.
Other Deeds Related to the Act of Embracing Islam
There are a few other deeds that are often associated with the act of declaring one’s faith. These are (1) a complete bathing, (2) removing all of one’s hairs from pre-Islamic days and (3) circumcision. Each of these shall be discussed separately below. Before moving on, it must be noted that none of these actions, however, should lead to a delay in a person’s embracing Islam. In fact, once a person has decided to embrace Islam, the event should not be postponed, for example, to a more appropriate time or a time in which more people will be witnessing and so forth. In reality, no one knows when a person may be taken by death and, therefore, whenever a person has made a conclusive decision to embrace Islam, he should embrace it at that time by making the declaration of faith.
(1) A Complete Bathing: There are actually four opinions among the scholars concerning the complete bathing in connection with embracing Islam. Without going into great detail, the views may be summarized as follows: One view is that the bathing is obligatory upon anyone who embraces Islam. This is one opinion found in the Maliki school and is the well-known opinion of the Hanbali school. Another view is that this bathing is not obligatory under any circumstances. This is also a view held by some of the Hanbali school. A third view is that this bathing is recommended for anyone who embraces Islam. This is one of the views of the Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali schools. A final view holds that this bathing is only recommended, unless an individual is in a state of sexual defilement or a woman has previously experienced menstruation or post-partum bleeding—in which case it becomes obligatory. In those cases, the bathing is required for the state of ritual purity required for the prayer.
Part of the reason for the difference of opinion on this issue is the existence of some reports in which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) told some individuals who had embraced Islam to perform a complete bathing. However, as stated earlier, in order for such reports (or hadith) to be considered a proof in Islamic Law, they must meet very stringent conditions. These reports all have some minor defects to them and are considered weak by a number of hadith scholars.
In addition, some scholars note that numerous people embraced Islam during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and there is no record of there being a general order or understanding that such people were to bathe as part of the process of becoming Muslim. Furthermore, given this argument, the reports of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) telling some individuals to bathe may be a sign that such bathing is recommended but not obligatory.
At the same time, though, the new Muslim is going to be required to perform the prayers. It is a requirement for the prayer that an individual be in a state of physical purity and the act of bathing itself requires the intention of entering into a state of purity, as opposed to being simply for the sake of washing. Although some scholars argue that the individual’s previous state is overlooked by Islam, this does not seem to be a strong argument at this point. If the individual is sexually defiled or if a woman has experienced menstruation or post-partum bleeding, they will have to make a complete bathing before performing the prayer.
In sum, based on the overall evidence, it can be argued that bathing after making one’s declaration of the faith is, at most, a recommended act but not an obligatory act. This should not be looked at as a mere ritual without any significance. The person who embraces Islam definitely has had a spiritual rebirth and is setting about on a transformation of his life. In fact, for most converts, Islam is truly a life transformation very different from his previous pattern of life. Hence, he should prepare himself mentally, emotionally and physically. This bathing metaphorically removes from him all of the different types of physical impurities that may still be lingering on him. He is now ready to venture on his new path.
In any case, though—at least to be on the safe side—before one prays, one has to be in a state of physical purity which would require a complete bathing on the part of those who were sexually defiled or women who had experienced menstruation or post-partum bleeding in the past.
(2) Removing all of one’s hairs from pre-Islamic days: This action is also based on a hadith which the vast majority of the scholars reject as weak. This is a hadith in which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) is reported to have said to a man who had just informed him that he had embraced Islam, “Remove from yourself [or shave off of yourself] the hairs from [the time of] disbelief.”
Again, even if the hadith is accepted as authentic, this was not a practice that was known to be widespread during the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) or afterwards. Thus, some scholars understand this hadith as applying only to those people who grew their hair for a religious purpose. In that case, they should remove that hair upon becoming a Muslim.
For example, in contemporary times, it is well-known that Sikhs do not remove any hairs from their head or body as a sign of their brotherhood. However, there is nothing explicit in the text that would support his interpretation. Hence, once again, either the hadith is weak or if it is accepted, it may be understood to be a recommended but not a required act. As with the case of the bathing, it is an act by which one removes the remnants of his pre-Islamic life in order to set about on his new life as a Muslim and servant of God.
(3) Circumcision: In some of the narrations that mention the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) telling the new Muslim to remove his hairs of pre-Islamic days, the individual is also told to be circumcised.There is also another narration that states, “Whoever embraces Islam is to be circumcised, even if he is of older age.” But this is also a report that cannot be verified as a statement of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).
There is no question that circumcision is an established practice of Islam. It is obligatory or an emphasized recommended act. However, the evidence is lacking to prove that one must immediately fulfill this act upon becoming a Muslim. There are some exceptions that excuse a person from performing this act.
In the past, scholars mentioned an adult who embraces Islam and fears negative consequences via the process of circumcision. Of course, in contemporary times, this possibility has been reduced, as circumcision is now a precise and safe medical procedure. At the same time, though, it is costly in some parts of the world, especially if it is considered an elective procedure. This financial burden could be more than what some converts could afford to bear, in which case they can delay the procedure until they are able to afford it. And Allah alone knows best.
The Special Rewards and Circumstances for the Convert
There are some statements of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) that demonstrate that there are some special rewards and circumstances for the Muslim convert.
In general, an individual will enter Islam while his past will be filled with both good and evil deeds. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) has explained what will happen to the individual with respect to those previous deeds.
Al-Bukhari records in his collection of authentic hadith: Hakeem ibn Hizaam said, “O Messenger of Allah, what do you think about the acts of worship I used to perform in the pre-Islamic days of freeing slaves, keeping the ties of kinship and giving in charity? Will I receive any reward for that?” The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) told him, “You have embraced Islam upon what good you had in the past.”
One interpretation of this hadith is that the individual will be rewarded for the good that he did in the past and this reward is due to his embracing of Islam. It must be noted, though, that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) did not explicitly tell him that he will be rewarded for those actions that he did before becoming a Muslim. In order for a deed to be acceptable to Allah, it must be done with the proper intention of pleasing Allah and with the certainty that it is correct according to Allah’s laws. These two conditions, obviously, are generally missing when discussing the deeds of disbelievers. Hence, others interpret this hadith in different ways.
One explanation is that those good deeds have developed a good character in the person and demonstrates a leaning toward doing good that he will greatly benefit from by now being a Muslim. This tendency toward doing good may have been what led him to Islam. In fact, it may have been because of those deeds that Allah blessed him by guiding him to Islam. The hadith may also mean that the person will still be rewarded for those deeds but in this world. This is part of the great mercy and justice of Islam that He does not allow any good deed to go unrewarded. Although such good deeds done by non-Muslims may not meet the conditions of being rewarded by Allah in the Hereafter, Allah does not ignore them and gives to such unbelievers in this life. Hence, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “The disbeliever is rewarded in this life by provisions for what he has done of good deeds.”
However, there is yet another statement of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) that clearly states that if a person converts to Islam and does his best to complete and perfect his faith, he will indeed be rewarded for the deeds that he performed before becoming a Muslim. This seems to be a special bounty that Allah has chosen to bestow upon such people and Allah bestows His bounty upon whom He wills. The text of this hadith reads: “If a servant accepts Islam and completes his Islam, Allah will record for him every good deed that he performed before [his Islam] and Allah will erase for him every evil deed that he did before [his Islam]. Then everything after that will be according to a retribution. For every good deed, he will be recorded ten-fold up to seven hundred fold. And for every evil deed he will be recorded similarly [one] for it, unless Allah overlooks that for him.”
This hadith shows that a person will be rewarded for the good deeds that he performed before becoming Muslim. His evil deeds will also be erased after becoming Muslim. However, this is conditional. This is conditional upon the fact that he perfects or completes his Islam. That is, it is conditional that he remain away from the evil deeds after he becomes a Muslim.
This understanding is further supported by a hadith in both Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim in which ibn Masood asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) if they were to be held accountable for the deeds that they performed in pre-Islamic times. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) told him, “As for the one of you who excels in Islam, he will not be held accountable for it. As for the one who does evil [with respect to his Islam], he shall be held accountable for what he did in pre-Islamic times as well as in Islam.”
There is also a hadith in Musnad Ahmad which states, while the Prophet (peace be upon him) was speaking to Amr ibn al-As, “O Amr, didn’t you know that Islam wipes away all of the sins that one performed before it.” This hadith must be understood in the light of the previously mentioned hadith: if a person completes his Islam and excels in Islam, then all of his previous sins will be erased and overlooked. Otherwise, if he continues to perform such evil acts in Islam, his previous acts will not be overlooked.However, this only applies to sins and evil deeds with respect to Allah. It does not include obligations that one still has to fulfill, such as debts or crimes that one may be punished for in this world.
Furthermore, there is even a stronger passage in the Quran. Allah says, “And those who do not invoke any other god along with Allah, nor kill such life as Allah has forbidden, except for just cause, nor commit illegal sexual intercourse and whoever does this shall receive the punishment. The torment will be doubled to him on the Day of Resurrection, and he will abide therein in disgrace; Except those who repent and believe, and do righteous deeds, for those, Allah will change their sins into good deeds, and Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (25:68-70).
Some scholars feel that that verse implies that previous evil deeds will be turned into good deeds. However, some say that it means that the person will then do good deeds in this life. Yet others say that it means that in the Hereafter the evil deeds will be transformed and the person will be rewarded for them due to the worry and remorse that he suffered because of them after becoming a Muslim.
In sum, the new Muslim convert is facing a very great opportunity. He is being given the opportunity to have all of his previous ills and sins immediately cancelled while possibly still being rewarded for good that he did before embracing Islam. This is part of Allah’s grace and mercy. It is conditional though. The convert must take his Islam seriously, practice it properly and be a true Muslim while keeping himself from falling into the evils that he practiced before becoming a Muslim. If he somehow allows himself to fall back into his evil practices of old, he then loses a great opportunity that Allah has graciously offered him.
Finally, there is a verse in the Quran and another hadith that deals specifically with the members of the People of the Book who convert to Islam. These people believed in earlier books and earlier prophets and then took the further necessary step of also believing wholeheartedly in the final prophet and book that their own prophets and books alluded to. Allah says about them, “And indeed now We have conveyed the Word, in order that they may receive admonition. Those to whom We gave the Scripture before it, – they believe in it (the Quran). And when it is recited to them, they say: ‘We believe in it. Verily, it is the truth from our Lord. Indeed even before it we have been from those who submit themselves to Allah as Muslims.’These will be given their reward twice over, because they are patient, and repel evil with good, and spend (in charity) out of what We have provided them” (28:51-54).
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) also said, “There are three who will receive their rewards twice. [One of them is] a believer from the People of the Book who believed in his prophet and then also believed in Muhammad. He will receive two rewards…”
A Convert’s Wealth Earned Prior to Islam
When a non-Muslim embraces Islam, it is very likely that some portion of his wealth has come from sources that Islam considers illegitimate. For example, the convert could have money that resulted from interest-bearing transactions and investment, selling or serving alcohol and so on. What should the new Muslim then do with such wealth that is already in his possession?
The general rule is that any wealth that one has in one’s possession at the time of conversion remains the property of the convert regardless of how that wealth was gained, as long as it was gained in a legal fashion according to the laws the convert was living by. The individual is not held responsible for his lack of applying Islamic principles prior to his conversion. Thus, for example, Allah says, “Those who after receiving direction from their Lord, desist, shall be pardoned for the past” (2:275). This verse demonstrates that Allah overlooks the actions that one performs before the rulings reach him and he is obligated to follow such regulations.
Numerous people embraced Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) yet there is no record of him asking any of them about the wealth in their possession and how they obtained such wealth. Indeed, even marriages that took place before the conversion were not questioned or examined to see if their contracts met the Islamic standards. In fact, there are various reports that demonstrate that the Prophet explicitly approved of the converts keeping the wealth in their possession. Actually, the person earned such wealth believing that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. Hence, they are allowed to keep such wealth. Their case is different from a Muslim who knowingly deals in alcohol, for example. Such a Muslim, even after repenting from such an act, is not to keep that ill-earned wealth.
However, the situation is different if the convert has, at the time of his conversion, not yet received money that is from a source that Islam considers illegitimate. For example, the individual could have sold and delivered someone alcohol on July 1 but the agreement between them is that he is not to be paid until December 1. In the meantime, say in September, the one who sold the alcohol converts to Islam. It is possible to look at this and say that since the contract was concluded before his conversion, he is still entitled to this money, as this is wealth he earned before becoming Muslim.
However, the majority of the scholars state that he no longer has the right to that money. They quote, “Those who after receiving direction from their Lord, desist, shall be pardoned for the past” (2:275) once again. Now, the admonition has come to him and he can only keep what he received earlier and must forego anything additional. Allah also says, “If you repent, you shall have your principle” (2:279). Thus, for example, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) abolished all of the interest-bearing agreements during a speech in Makkah after many people had just embraced Islam. Hence, although those contracts were concluded before they had embraced Islam, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) clearly voided the forbidden aspect of the contract.
In sum, once an individual embraces Islam he should from that moment on forego and not accept any wealth that is earned through forbidden means, regardless of whether the contract for that wealth took place before his conversion. Actually, now the individual should believe that such money is forbidden and therefore he himself should no longer wish to receive it or benefit from it. Given the nature of contracts nowadays, he may not be able to cancel the contract. If he is forced to receive such money, he should give it away and free himself from it. (Many mosques have specific accounts for monies received through illegitimate means but which one is forced to receive, such as interest on deposits, and will use that money is very specific ways as recommended by the scholars.)
There is no question that Islam affirms the marriages that took place outside of Islam or before a person embraced Islam. The evidence for this is numerous. For example, in Soorah al-Masad, Allah refers to the wife of Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle who vigorously opposed him, as well as to the wife of the Pharaoh. Numerous Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) were born before the advent of Islam and they were considered legitimate children of their parents. Indeed, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) never ordered married Companions to remarry within Islam. In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) did not even ask them about the circumstances of their marriage contract, such as whether there were witnesses and so forth.
However, those relationships that were considered illegitimate by a convert’s previous religion or law are also considered illegitimate in Islam. Thus, for example, one’s illegitimate child before embracing Islam remains illegitimate after one’s embracing of Islam. On the other hand, any children born via a legitimate pre-Islamic marriage will be considered legitimate children and continue to be the children of the Muslim convert.
One exception to this general principle of affirming pre-Islamic marriages is where the husband and wife are within the prohibited degrees of marriage. Thus, for example, in ancient Persia, brothers and sisters could marry one another. Such a marriage would be considered void as soon as either of the couple embraced Islam. Furthermore, in a polygynous situation, if a man is married to more than four wives, upon embracing Islam he must separate from some of them and may have, at the most, only four wives.
Some other important issues related to conversion to Islam must be touched upon. If a husband and a wife both embrace Islam at approximately the same time, then their marriage remains in tact and there is no need for them to take any further steps. If a man who is married to either a Christian or Jewish woman embraces Islam, the marriage also remains in tact and there is also no need for any further steps. Those cases are clear and non-problematic. The problematic cases are: (1) a male convert married to a woman who is not Christian, Jewish or accepting of Islam; (2) a female convert married to a non-Muslim husband.
The pertinent verses of the Quran related to these issues are as follows: Allah says, “O you who believe! When believing women come to you as emigrants, examine them, Allah knows best as to their faith. Then if you ascertain that they are true believers, send them not back to the disbelievers, they are not lawful (wives) for the disbelievers nor are the disbelievers lawful (husbands) for them” (60:10).
Allah also says, “And do not marry polytheistic women till they believe (and worship Allah Alone). And indeed a slave woman who believes is better than a (free) polytheistic woman, even though she pleases you. And give not (your daughters) in marriage to polytheistic men till they believe (in Allah Alone) and verily, a believing slave is better than a (free) polytheistic man, even though he pleases you. Those [polytheists] invite you to the Fire, but Allah invites (you) to Paradise and Forgiveness by His Leave, and makes His signs clear to mankind that they may remember” (2:221).
According to ibn al-Qayyim, when a woman married to a non-Muslim converts to Islam, the marriage becomes suspended and non-binding. In other words, she no longer is his wife in the sense of having marital relations or him being financially responsible for her.However, the woman is free to choose between ending the marriage (thereby being free to marry somebody else but only after her waiting period is finished) or suspending the marriage in the sense of waiting for her husband to embrace Islam. In the latter case, whenever the man embraces Islam, the woman automatically returns to him as a wife with no need for a new marriage contract, even if the husband’s conversion took place many years after that of the wife.
The strongest evidence for this conclusion is the case of the Prophet’s own daughter, Zainab. She embraced Islam but her husband, Abu al-Aas ibn al-Rabee, refused to do so for many years. Then, finally, after six years, he came to Madinah and the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) reunited the couple without a new marriage contract or dower.
If a man embraces Islam and his wife is not a Muslim, Jew or Christian, then his retaining her as a wife will be harmful to her, as he will not be allowed to have marital relations with her or treat her as a full wife. Thus, in this case, the marriage comes to an end if the woman refuses to embrace Islam. Allah says, “Likewise hold not the disbelieving women as wives” (60:10).
Changing One’s Name Upon Becoming a Muslim
It has become common practice in some areas for converts to change their names upon becoming Muslims. Sometimes this is done so that the convert feels more attached and affiliated with the Muslim community. The obvious question that arises is: Is this changing of the name required, recommended or simply permissible? On this point, Abdul Azeez ibn Baaz stated in response to a question he had received,
I inform you that there is no evidence in Islamic Law that requires one whom Allah has guided to Islam to change his name to an Islamic name. [The exception is if] there is an Islamic reason that requires that. For example, if a person has a name implying the worship of someone other than Allah, such as “The Servant of Jesus” and so forth, or if the person has a name that is not good to have and there are better names than that, such as the name “Grievous” can be changed to “Mild.” Similar is the case with any other name that is not considered proper for one to be named. However, it is obligatory to change the name that implies worshipping other than Allah. Concerning other [repugnant] names, then it is simply preferred and recommended to change such names. Included in this second category of names are those names that are well-known to be Christian names such that if one hears them he will think that the person must be a Christian. To change one’s name under those circumstances is good.
Bilal Philips has some further insight into this question:
New Muslims, unaware of the Islamic naming system, often adopt Arabic names in the chaotic European style… In fact, those of African descent often erase even their family names on the basis that these names are remnants from the days of slavery. That is, those of their ancestors who were slaves usually adopted the family name of their slave masters and it was the slave masters’ name which was handed down from generation to generation. Hence, an individual who may have been called Clive Baron Williams while his father’s name was George Herbert Williams may, upon entering Islaam, rename himself Faisal ‘Umar Nkruma Mahdi. However, his name according to the Islamic naming system should have been Faisal George Williams, that is, Faisal the son of George Williams. Whether “Williams” was the name of his ancestors’ plantation owner or not is of no consequence. Since his father’s name was George Williams, he is, according to the Islamic naming system, the son of George Williams… The practice among new Muslims of deleting their family names has frequently created deep resentment among their non-Muslim families which could have been easily avoided if the Islamic naming system had been adopted. Actually, the new Muslim is under no obligation to change even his or her “Christian name” unless it contains an un-lslamic meaning. Thus, the given name Clive, which means cliff-dweller need not have been changed whereas “Dennis” (Fr. Denys), a variation of Dionysius which means He of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine and fertility who was worshipped with orgiastic rites), would have to be changed… However, it is perfectly acceptable for a Muslim, whether a recent convert or not, to change his or her first name. It was the Prophet’s practice to change peoples first names if they were too assuming, negative or un-lslamic. One of the Prophet’s wives was originally named Barrah (pious) and he changed it to Zaynab as Allaah had said in the Qur’aan, “Do not claim piety for yourselves for He knows best who is God-fearing.”(53:32)… However, Allaah’s messenger never changed the names of people’s fathers, no matter how un-lslamic they may have been… Thus, it can be concluded that erasing one’s family name is against both the letter and the spirit of Islamic law. The father’s first and last name should be retained and if the father is unknown, the mother’s first and last name should follow the Muslim’s given or chosen name.
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