“Born-again Muslims” and, uh, the trinity

What we have here is one of those puzzling or even coffee-spewing (for those who drink coffee) moments when you are reading through a perfectly normal story involving religious themes and you hit a reference that makes you stop and say, “Did I just read what I thought I read?”

Now, I freely admit that this one would have been much worse if it featured a bit “T” on the key word.

So you are reading a USA Today story about the Tim Tebow culture wars and then there is this:

… Christians don’t have a stranglehold on sports.

Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, showed that even the war-sports-religion combo is nothing new. He gave up a heavyweight title for that trinity when he was arrested and found guilty of draft evasion in 1967.

Trinity? I guess that is a word that can be used in a neutral, descriptive fashion.

Nevertheless, it would be hard to pick a word that would be more out of place, if not offensive, in reference to the faith journey of a Muslim. Meanwhile, for Christian readers — this is a news story about religion, remember — we are talking about a war-sports-religion “trinity.” I guess it’s correct in terms of definition, but I think it would have been easy to find another way to express that concept.

And what are readers to make of this CNN analogy? For me, the headline alone was a stretch: “Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say.”

Then there was this passage, which seemed strange to more than one GetReligion reader. Yes, we can take into account that this passage seems to be built on a paraphrased quote, perhaps one containing a fragment of a direct quote.

With that caveat, read on:

“Being more religious doesn’t necessarily mean that they will become suicide bombers,” says Ed Husain, a former radical Islamist who is now a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

In fact, Husain argues that religious upbringing “could be an antidote” to radicalism. The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as “born-agains.”

Muslims raised with a grounding in their religion are better able to resist the distortions of Islam peddled by recruiters to radical causes, some experts like Husain argue, making them less likely to turn to violence. But he agrees that Muslims are strongly attached to their faith, and says the reason lies in the religion itself.

“Muslims have this mindset that we alone possess the final truth,” Husain says.

Several things are going on in this section of this news feature, beginning with the fact that the reporter is emphasizing the accurate fact that Islam — like traditional forms of Christianity — is not a Universalistic faith. It is a faith built on what believers hold is a final and defining revelation of God (which, for Christians, is literally incarnate in Jesus Christ, thus making the concept of the Trinity so offensive to Islam, with is built on radical monotheism).

That’s touch sledding, but accurate and that material — which will be offensive to many readers — is handled pretty well. It’s accurate, in other words.

But what is going on with the idea that when someone converts to Islam, this easier-to-radicalize believer becomes a “born-again” Muslim? Was it Husain the source who decided that, well, calling someone a Muslim fundamentalist wasn’t enough?

I think what is happening here is a simple statement of a truth often noted by sociologists of religion, which is that converts often become strict and highly motivated followers of the faith that they have chosen. In particular, they tend to focus on the doctrines they have embraced. Some may take this too far. Some may simply practice the faith in their daily lives, which means they stand out in crowds of believers for whom the details have faded into cultural norms or family traditions.

But “born again”? What do these words from the Christian scriptures mean in an Islamic context?

What’s the point, beyond the facts that could be easily stated and defended?

Totally bizarre.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • SouthCoast

    “Conflict, theology and history make Muslims more religious than others, experts say.”

    Increasingly, I think we really need an actual definition for “expert”, other than “self-appointed logorrheac who was willing to speak with reporter”.

  • Jerry

    I think your objection to the word ‘trinity’ is misplaced. A Hindu might think trinity refers to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. There’s a “Trinity Nightclub” in Seattle (thanks Google). Just do a news search on trinity and you’ll see my point that the word trinity is used generically these days.

    I thought that the reference to “born again” in a story about Muslims is bizarre since that phrase has specific meaning. But, on the other hand, I just found a “Born Again Muslim” rap song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0EJmBRO6s so I have to wonder if this phrase, like so many other words and phrases, is shifting in meaning as well.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    This is about sports stars. So instead of “trinity”, I would use “trifecta.”

  • Julia

    Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, showed that even the war-sports-religion combo is nothing new. He gave up a heavyweight title for that trinity when he was arrested and found guilty of draft evasion in 1967.

    This makes no sense.

    1) Ali didn’t give up his title FOR war. He was against the war.
    2) Giving up a sports title FOR sports make no sense,either. 3) Ali did say he gave up his title and refused to be drafted because of his religion.

    Is the author just trying too hard to be a wordsmith? Or should he have simply used a different word than FOR?

    Maybe the reporter was too young to really understand what happened back then.

    You don’t see trinity used much other than the theological concept of Trinity.
    A better word might have been triad.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    As my post clearly states, I know that the word trinity is literally accurate in this case.

    My point is that the word is not necessary and, in fact, could be highly offensive to Muslim and Christian readers, alike. There is no need for it.

  • Will

    Not nearly as jarring as Wired’s reference to the New Atheist “crusade against religion”.

  • MJBubba

    TMatt, I happened to see the USA Today article before you posted this. I re-read the sentence with “trinity” three times before I decided it was just dumb and went on.

    The use of “born-agains,” since it is in quotes, seems that it must have been the phrase used by Husain. It also sounds to me to be the sort of stretch used either by inarticulate people who lack adequate English language skills to accurately express their thoughts, or perhaps the sort of deliberate cross-application of terminology that is sometimes used by the folk that proclaim that all religions are basically the same.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MJB:

    Well, that’s most strange, since the larger context is that fervent Muslim believers do NOT BELIEVE that all religions are basically the same.

    Correct?

  • Matt

    I thought you were going to object to the insinuation that religious people are necessarily prone to be suicide bombers. But perhaps we’ve already reached the limit on ink that this story is worth.

    It seems that “born-agains” is intended to mean “converts”, while in reality evangelicals of certain stripes use the term to refer to their experience with God even if they were raised in the faith, while other Christians do not commonly use the word even if they are converts. In short, the usage of “born-agains” is simply a dumb mistake, like the usage of “trinity”.

  • Bern

    Apparently the editor as well as the writer didn’t have a much of a grasp of the religous content of “trinity” nor the CFR guy in NY of “born-again.” The first is less troubling than the second, and neither are as troubling as the mess that a supposed “sports story” makes of the Muhammad Ali history–as Julia points out so well.

    It does remind me of the Frigidaire/Xerox problem. That is, the ubiquity of a phrase or brand name with a very specific meaning paradoxically leeches the phrase or name of its unique, specific meaning. So I keep my milk in a fridge I got from GE and use an HP to make xeroxes. And war-sports-religion becomes a trinity while fervant converts become born-agains.

  • Mike O.

    I agree this sorry is terrible at throwing around terms. For “born-again”, if the writer used words to denote similarity to being born-again it could describe a comparison without making a born-again Muslim seem like an actual thing. Obviously some might then argue whether it’s an appropriate comparison or not, but at least it would be in the right ballpark.

    As for “trinity”, to me it’s akin to the issue from a few weeks back with the use of the word “cult”. While it’s technically correct, as noted in the comments above there are several much better words to use. All “trinity” does is stop the reader in his or her tracks thinking they missed something.

  • Daniel

    I haven’t noticed anyone commenting directly on how many people try to say that sports is a religion, because of the adulation given to athletes. It’s a stretch.

  • Toby Geralds

    The Prophet Muhammad said, “Do you not know that accepting Islam wipes out all of one’s previous sins?” The new convert (or “revert”) to Islam is thus viewed as a newborn baby, with a clean slate and a new beginning. Converts are often also given new Muslim names (just as a baby is given a name when it is born). So the “born again” terminology may appropriately apply to the case of reverts to Islam afterall, although it is admittedly problematic since it has very clear and concrete associations with (a particular brand of) Christianity.

  • Richard Maloney

    This is an article? Why? Does the writer feel like being needlessly obtuse today?

    “A ‘born-again Muslim’? How bizarre! What could this possibly mean?” Howzabout ‘a convert to Islam’? Case solved.

    “Trinity is a specifically Christian word!” As another reader pointed out in an excellent post about Hinduism, a ‘trinity’ is a noun uniting three things. Given that quoted article is about religion, the writer of the quoted article might have used a word with more religious significance than ‘trio’, ‘triad’, or ‘tri-union’. Case solved!

    Both of these oh-so-difficult questions were solved easily, the second I stopped taking Christian jargon literally.

    I wasted precious minutes of my life reading this writer’s intentionally obtuse musings, and even more to write a response. Why? Simple: I don’t understand how a religious publication can pay a bad writer to ask disingenuous questions that don’t advance the conversation.

  • http://blog.chron.com/thestraightpath Ruth Nasrullah

    I agree that the writer could have left out the phrase “born-again.” It just muddies already murky waters, but it’s not my biggest problem with the CNN article.

    I am troubled by the way Muslim “religiosity” is often presented in the media: that “becoming radicalized” is a choice *all* Muslims face, as though devotion to Islam necessarily offers a path to violence. The reporter himself framed the survey results as a measure of the proportion of religious devotion to violence. Despite noting in the third paragraph that:

    Muslims also have a much greater tendency to say their religion motivates them to do good works, said the survey, released over the summer by Ipsos-Mori, a British research company that polls around the world.

    he spends the remainder of the article exploring the idea that adherence to Islam tends toward violence, and to interviews disputing the survey’s validity.

    I am unaware of data that support the statement:

    The people most likely to become Islamist radicals, he [Ed Husain] says, are those who were raised without a religious education and came to Islam later, as “born-agains.”

    I’m disturbed that the CNN author bolsters this idea by citing “some experts like Husain.” (SouthCoast’s comment is right on.) Why didn’t he interview or reference Robert Pape or the editors of “What a Billion Muslims Think”?

  • Andrea Karim

    The use of “born-agains,” since it is in quotes, seems that it must have been the phrase used by Husain. It also sounds to me to be the sort of stretch used either by inarticulate people who lack adequate English language skills to accurately express their thoughts, or perhaps the sort of deliberate cross-application of terminology that is sometimes used by the folk that proclaim that all religions are basically the same.

    Wow, racist much? Ed Husain happens to be a born and bred Brit, FYI. My guess is that his English is superior to yours.

    The term “born again” is occasionally used by Muslims to refer to converts for the following reason: Muslims believe that everyone is born a Muslim, although life can lead them astray (into other religions or atheism).

    I’m not religious, but I don’t see the harm in using terms like “trinity” (frequently used in non-religious contexts, btw), and “born again” in reference to other religious groups. It’s not like Christians have a sacred right to the term “born again”. It’s not laid out in the Bible as something that only Christians can use, is it?

  • Andrea Karim

    Here’s a reference, for those of you who don’t understand the concept of “born again” in Islam:

    http://www.islam101.com/dawah/newBorn.htm

    I will be totally happy to expound on the idea of why it is easier to radicalize a convert than someone raised in the faith if anyone cares.