[From the Dars of Bukhari Sharif by Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq]
Narrated Abu Hurairah رضى الله عنه : Allâh’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم said, Every child is born on Al-Fitrah but his parents convert him to Judaism, Christianity or a Fire-worshipper, as an animal delivers a perfect baby animal. Do you find it mutilated? Then Abu Huraira رضى الله عنه recited the holy Verses: Allâh’s Fitrah (i.e. Allâh’s Islâmic Monotheism) with which He has created mankind. No change let there be in Khalqillah (i.e. the Religion of Allâh Islâmic Monotheism). That is the Straight Religion but most of men know not. [Bukhari 2:441]
After narrating this hadeeth Abu Hurairah (رضى الله عنه) would recite the following verse of the Holy Qur’an (from Surah Rum):
فَأَقِمْ وَجْهَكَ لِلدِّينِ حَنِيفًا فِطْرَةَ اللَّهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا لَا تَبْدِيلَ لِخَلْقِ اللَّهِ ذَلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
Wherefore set thou thy face towards the true religion uprightly. And follow thou the constitution of Allah according to which He hath constituted mankind. No altering let there be in Allah’s creation. That is the right religion, but most men know not.
The Shaykh mentioned that this is a very famous hadeeth but he fears that many people partially misunderstand it.
The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said that there is no child except that it is born upon fitrah. However, contrary to popular belief, the Shaykh says that not every child is born a Muslim. Each child is born upon nature i.e. fitrah and then his parents make him a Jew, Christian or a Zoroastrian or of any other religious persuasion.
The Shaykh said that based on the ahadith there is great theological discussion regarding the status of children who die out of Islam. If every child was born a Muslim then there would never be this discussion.
The Shaykh asked that if every child was born Muslim, then why should Islam be presented to any child except after puberty?
What is the meaning of fitrah in this case if it doesn’t mean Islam? The Shaykh explained that it means ‘natural state’ which is one of purity and cleanliness unaffected by external factors. If one was left in this natural, uncorrupted and pristine state then they would surely be guided to the beauty and truth of Islam. The natural state is such that it brings a person close to Islam and that person is more receptive and inclined towards religion. There is a primordial instinct and recollection of Allah and the truth of Islam. However, the Shaykh explained that it is not Islam itself.
There is a hadith of Saheeh Muslim that can help one understand this issue more. Once the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) was on a journey and they heard a shepherd calling out and they heard him calling out ‘Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar’. The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said ‘He is upon Fitrah’. The man then said the shahadah (testimony of faith). The Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said ‘Now he has saved himself from the fire’.
The first statement did not make him a Muslim it was the natural instinct which stirred within him and he said ‘Allah is the Greatest’. The latter statement made him a Muslim.
In the realm of the spirits, long before our birth, Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) asked us all the question ‘Am I not your Lord?’ We have all already testified to Allah (سبحانه وتعالى) that He is our Lord and Master. Hence, it is our instinct. This is part of our fitrah.
When a child is born, external factors do come into play e.g. a different religion or even a lack of religion around the child has an impact. The child remains in a natural state until they make a decision and conscience choice with regard to religion.
We should remember that the discussion here is not related to the ultimate destiny of the child i.e. in the Aakhirah. Currently, the discussion is related to the dunya and applying the laws of Islam for the child e.g. burial, funeral prayer etc.
Some ulema have adopted the opinion that Fitrah means Al-Islam, however this is not the view of the vast majority of the scholars since it would render all other related discussions meaningless.
The verse that Abu Hurairah (رضى الله عنه) would recite (see above) contains the words ‘No altering let there be in Allah’s creation’ – what this means is that we should not contribute towards the corruption of a child’s natural state that would affect the child in recognising Allah.