CRUCIBLE: Balik Islam and the Idea of “Return”

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/01 June) — More than three weeks ago, a couple came to the Institute and offered to declare the kalimatu s-shahadah – the testimony of faith in Islam. Accordingly, the mother of the wife prodded them to embrace Islam since arriving from the Middle East for quite some time. Per their story, the man is used to be involved in some development programs in Muslim community in Manila, while the woman is a media practitioner.

I usually don’t raise much question for those Filipinos who come and express their intention to embrace Islam except by asking them this: With the negative image of Islam and the Muslim world these days, what prods you to embrace Islam?

This question is my way to know their rich stories into their journey to Islam. These past years, in fact, I could not count with my fingers the number of those who offered themselves to declare the shahadah. They all have varied, interesting stories.

Truth is I felt awkward performing the role in officiating shahadah. It is not part of our function as academic first and foremost. Yet, as Muslim scholar, we are viewed as authority that comes with such function like facilitating the opening of the door to Islam for those who wish to enter into its fold. There was a time when I had to adopt certain strategies to ascertain whether or not those who come are sincere in embracing the faith.

Global phenomenon

Balik Islam is not a new or isolated phenomenon. It is widespread and global, although there is a unique character into the birth of Balik Islam in the Philippines. In our previous khutbah on “Encounter with the Sacred,” we highlighted three major cases of personalities like Leopold Weiss also known as Muhammad Asad, a Jewish Austro-Hungarian who embraced Islam. We also highlighted the case of Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam; and recently, Lauren Booth, the sister in law of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The profile of those who came and declared the shahadah ranges from a mix of professionals to typical individuals. They are doctors, priest, and so on. This subject on Balik Islam comes to mind because its surging trend continues. In fact, studies show that around 500,000 to 700,000 or more is the number of Balik Islam population in the country. Statistics remains unreliable however given the difficulty in accessing data about Balik Islam.

Usually, the major cause why Balik Islam phenomenon has risen dramatically is due to the influx of Filipinos to the Middle East who become Overseas Filipino Workers and undergo spiritual transformation or otherwise. Upon their return, they convinced their families to embrace Islam. There are equally interesting cases though that do not reflect the sway of OFWs.

Rationale of “return”

The rationale behind the phenomenon could be explained in the term “balik” or “return” or “to return.” It implies that those who embrace Islam are actually just returning to the faith given that historically the early settlers in the Philippine Islands were generally or already Muslims before the period of colonialism.

There is a much deeper explanation beyond history however. The notion of “balik” or “return” is viewed to have ontological and epistemological dimension as well. It means that man’s original nature or fitrah is in accord with Islam. Hence, when a person embraces Islam, he is just actually returning to his nature and thus s/he has to struggle to return to such nature. In fact, some would say that conversion is not the proper term to describe said phenomenon. Reversion is more appropriate. These three reasons on the phenomenon of “Balik” Islam appear to be unique in the Philippines as it provides some currency why the trend or resurgence of new reverts continues to increase.

The idea of return or raja’a in the Qur’an has a very strong spiritual undertone. The Holy Qur’an says: “To God we belong, and to Him is our return (Baqarah: 156).” Although this line is usually invoked when someone passes away, said verse is imbued with immense spiritual implications. It is the reason why the notion of history or antecedents of Islam in the Philippines while valid to some extent as basis for those who return or who do the “balik” to Islam, it is the spiritual concept of return that is more significant.

The idea of creation being renewed not to mention individuals that have the capacity to change from one state to another is very much emphasized in the Qur’an. It says

If thou dost marvel (at their want of faith) strange is their saying: “when we are (actually) dust, shall we indeed then be in a creation renewed? They are those who deny their Lord! They are those round whose necks will be yoke (of servitude): They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (for aye) (Rad: 5)!

This verse refers to expression of unbelief by people who deny the idea of creation being renewed. In another verse, the Qur’an says: “If He so pleased, He could blot you out and bring in a new creation. Nor is that all difficult for God (Fatir: 16-17).”

This suggests that creating new creation is not difficult on the part of the Creator. If it is not difficult to create new creation, then it must be easy to transform or change the state of one person to another state. For instance, there is a prayer of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that reads: “O Allah I ask from You and beseech of your Beautiful Names as Transformer who changes creature from one state to another.

Allah (SWT) as the Transformer (Al-Muhawwil), He, too, is the Effacer of sin (Al-Afuw) and as Forgiver (Al-ghafur). He is also the Muqallib, the Alterer, who alters the mood of hearts of a person. Thus, it is not surprising if there are people who undergo the process of transformation including reversion.

Man’s nature

When we are emphatic on the concept of return, it is because it is full of insights that even so-called born Muslims should be fully aware of. In the first place, when we look at the sahabah (companions of the Prophet), they must be the first reverts; thus, in a sense, they were actually “Balik Islam” – that is, if we follow the second premise that the fitrah (nature) of a person is essentially in accord with Islam. In fact, there is a hadith (saying) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that says that a newly born child is actually born as Muslim; it is only their parents that make them either nasara (Christians) or yahud (Jews).

The notion of return is important because it connects with man’s origin and his essential nature. As existence breaks man (or makes him forget somehow) from his nature; hence, he needs to return to that nature. What is that nature that one should return to in the first place?

Man as a creature from molded clay (sulalatun min tin) is essentially imbued with Divine Breath. The Qur’an says: “And I breathe unto him of My Spirit.” Moreover, there was a Primal Covenant between Allah (SWT) and man where the latter recognized the lordship of Allah (SWT) even before his earthly existence. In suratu l-araf, the Qur’an says:

“And remember why thy Lord drew forth from the children of Adam from their loins their descendants and made them testify concerning themselves saying: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes! We do testify (Al-a’raf: 172).

This is man’s recognition of the Lordship of Allah (SWT) even before his physical creation. The notion of return therefore impresses that as man’s origin is from Allah (SWT), he has to inevitably return back to Allah (SWT). Man’s existence should become, in fact, the process into which the return is done.

Now, the idea of return in this perspective, as we said, while partaking ontological and epistemological dimension, ought to be clarified with yet another concept as it may also imply to return; such a term is distinct if the notion of return is simply viewed historically. The closest Arabic term for that is uwwidah, which is strictly a notion of return to the past or to old tradition. Thus, uwwidah is different from raja’a as the latter is deeper in meaning. In Islamic worldview, thus, the notion of return does not mean a return to the past or to old tradition; it is, more fundamentally, a return to one’s inherent and original nature as man imbued with Divine Breath.

Din and return

We surveyed a number of literature on the subject of “return.” The work of Syed Naquib al-Attas is exceptional as it provides a fundamental explanation on the idea of return. He based his discussion on the classic Ibn Mansur’s “Lisan al-arab by framing the concept of return or raja’a as part of conceptual structure of din. To summarize the whole discourse, al-Attas encapsulates the notion of din or technically known as Religion in Islam into such significations like submissiveness, indebtedness, judicious power, and natural inclination. What al-Attas is saying is that man by himself may be conceived as having that existential debt to the Creator wherein no less than his whole self is owed to the Creator. And there is no way into which such debt is repaid except by recognizing the Lordship of Allah (SWT) and by submitting himself to Him. It is the notion why the concept aslama or “he who submits” is essentially the meaning of Islam.

But al-Attas takes a step further by explaining that even in psycho-spiritual sense, the notion of return could be viewed in terms of the nafs (spirit) being allowed to return to its original nature by struggling to reach its highest stage. Al-Attas views the soul/spirit or nafs into different layers commonly known as nafsu l-ammara (commanding soul), nafsu l-lawwama (rational soul), and the nafsu l-mutmainna (soul at peace).

Every individual according to al-Attas has this nafs dynamic as it is part of one’s personal constitution. Hence, we said, this is the reason why man is subject to a moral pendulum that swings from one point to another. In this regard, for a person to be able to go back to his original nature, he has to therefore make his lower soul “submit” to the higher soul; hence, the process becomes a continuing struggle where the nafsu l-ammara submits to nafsu l-lawwama, then the lawwama submits to nafsu l-mutmainna and so on forth.

What al-Attas is saying is that there is a psycho-spiritual mechanism in one’s being that could, in fact, be utilized as to how the notion of return be done. This is according to al-Attas the basis of the saying: “he who enslaves himself gains.” In other words, “return” could happen when one makes his lower soul submit to the higher soul. He also cites another hadith accordingly that says: “The intelligent one is he who enslaves himself (dana nafsahu) and works for that shall be after death.” And there is accordingly a popular tradition, although some would say it is only qawlu l-ulama (statement of scholars): “die before you die.” It means man must be able to return to his original nature even before death comes to him.

Oceanic feeling

The abovementioned points are more or less our attempt to provide an extrapolation on the subject of “return” or “balik” in Islam. Incidentally, social sciences have certain difficulty in explaining comprehensively this phenomenon given the rather polarized positions amongst major thinkers. For instance, Sigmund Freud, in his “Civilization and its Discontent,” dismissed the importance of what is referred to as “religious sentiment” or “oceanic feeling.” He wrote:

“I cannot take this oceanic feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. One can attempt to describe physiological signs. Where there is no possible – and I am afraid that the oceanic feeling too will defy this kind of characterization – nothing remains but to fall back on the ideational content which is most readily associated with the feeling (12).”

In another work, “Religion as an Illusion,” Freud dismissed strongly the significance of feeling known as “religious sentiments.” More or less, explaining the phenomenon of Balik Islam using a Freudian perspective would have to de-emphasize the role of religion. What Freud has highlighted in his works is the process of ego, id, and super-ego, which connotes that while an individual may experience transformation, the trigger does not necessarily comes from outside force. For Freud, personal transformation process is simply a psychological phenomenon.

If one surveys further other works like William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience (The Famous Classic on the Psychology of Religion),” one may find richer theory that could help explain such phenomenon like Balik Islam. James wrote:

“It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what one may call “something there” more deep and more general than any of special and particular “ senses” by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed (p. 61).”

This is a positive perspective by another author who takes the idea of religion particularly the phenomenon of reversion or conversion as possible. There is yet another important work, “The Idea of the Holy” by Rudolf Otto who said that if a person feels that “religious sentiment” grips him, he experiences what Otto refers to as “numenous” or ineffable feeling. He said:

“It is a creature-consciousness or creature-feeling submerged into nothingness before an overpowering absolute might of some kind; whereas everything turns upon the character of this overpowering might, a character that cannot be expressed verbally, and can only be suggested directly through the tone and content of man’s feeling-response to it (p. 10).”

This impresses the idea that there is a higher force that defines one’s consciousness and thus could lead to a transformation that may come in the form of reversion or conversion. For instance, when a person hears the azan for the first time, what is it in Islam’s tradition of call to prayer that could be so soothing where one experiences ineffable feeling that can even move him or her to tears? Or what it is, if say, a person dreams or visits certain place that can be so transformative that triggers one to develop what Freud’s friend refers to as “oceanic feeling?”

All of these represent, among others, as a range of experiences in the diverse and varied stories of Balik Islam that could not simply be explained using typical empirical, demographic, and socio-economic variables as critical factors in their change of hearts with their faith. What is certain there must be deeper surging of consciousness that happens within themselves that lead them to opt for reversion. Hence, when people in their own volition would come and offer themselves to declare their shahadah, we carry the assumption that they are convinced with the truth they feel and the decisions they make.

Free choice

In fact, due to our position as academic we do not engage in traditional or typical style of proselytization, despite opportunities to do so. It is because we highly respect people’s ability to make their choice as people today are becoming more informed and enlightened; therefore, their conversion or appreciation of Islam must be viewed as product of their own will or decision. In fact, in our view, reversion that happens because of one’s choice must be deeper than someone influences or prods somebody to embrace the faith. Mind you, this phenomenon is not happening because there is a grand plan for proselytization. No! There is no such grand plan, despite that some countries make it as their obligation or responsibility to engage in da’wah and so on.

In our view, it is free and willing spiritual transformation that is more determinant and profound. When we asked people why despite the negative image of Islam and the Muslim world they opt to embrace Islam, it is because they felt something that ordinary individuals do not experience. The irony though, our situation has become like a veil. Many Filipinos had to go to the Middle East and elsewhere to experience something distinct before they would realize the beauty of Islam. Due to our condition in the Philippines, somehow other people would have to think twice because what they see in our social condition is different from what Islam teaches. That is why we admire those people who were able to transcend and had seen the beauty of Islam despite the contradiction they see in Muslim society.

In sum, the notion of return we extrapolated is significant as it evokes universal appeal. Let me quote al-Attas once again:

“Seeing that he owns absolutely nothing to “repay” his debt, except of his own consciousness of the fact that he is himself the very substance of the debt, so must he repay himself, so must he returns himself to Him who owns him absolutely. He is himself the debt to be returned to Owner, and returning the debt means to give himself up in service or khidmah to his Lord and Master; to abase himself before Him – and so the rightly guided man sincerely and consciously enslaves himself for the sake of God in order to fulfill His commands and Prohibitions and Ordinances, and thus to live out the dictates of His Law. The concept of “return”…evident in the conceptual structure of din…is a return to man’s inherent nature, the concept of nature referring to the spiritual and not altogether the physical aspect of man’s being (p. 7).”

In this regard, each of us should become balik Islam as we need to return every now and then to our original nature as our lower soul needs to return to the higher soul before deaths dawns on us. Finally, we say, such terms like balik Islam, born Muslim, moderate, fundamentalist Muslim and so on should be discarded. Viewed from higher scheme, these terms are simply constructs; they do not have any essential meanings except for heuristic purposes of categorization. In the higher realm, we should be able to efface terms or concepts that oftentimes serve as source of division among people. The most important to remember is our vision of universality enshrined in such idea like raja’a or return as man is originally pure and created from the highest mold, thus, s/he needs to return to it.

This subject of Balik Islam and our framing of the universal concept of return would hopefully inform us or enlighten us: that in the higher sense all of us are actually struggling to return to our own nature every moment in our lives whatever category or calling we refer to ourselves.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A slightly revised khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines on 30 May 2014. The author is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].