Do I have to have a ‘Muslim’ name?

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Since I am a Muslim, is it obligatory for me to have a Arabic, Muslim name? Am I obligated to change my English or Spanish name? Shaykh Abdullah Ali responds to this interesting question from one of our readers.

 

Question: I have a question regarding Muslims changing their entire name after coming into the faith of Islam. Is this permissible? I understood that to change your first name is okay, but to change your last name is not permissible. I am African-American and I have talked to several Muslims who all say that since you are African-American and your people were robbed of their names
and religion you are allowed to change your last name and select an Islamic name. Even those that are second, third generation Muslims when their parents became Muslim they changed their last names. So why cant we change ours? I have two children whom now carry my last name now, and I am bothered that I may have made a mistake in giving them my last name.

Shaykh Abdullah’s response:

Islam does not consider it an obligation for any new convert to Islam whose mother tongue is not Arabic to change it to an Arabic name or other language. Rather, it is only highly recommended for one to do so when the meaning of one’s name is something offensive or overly presumptuous in sound, like one indicating that one is pure or the like. During the Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) time, he changed the names of a number of women whose names were too pious sounding, like the name Barra (ultra-pious). Often he changed their names to Zaynab or the like such as Juwayriya (his wife). A number of men, like the companions known as ‘Abd Al-Rahman b. ‘Awf and Abu Hurayra (whose name was changed from ‘Abd Shams to either ‘Abd Allah or ‘Abd Al-Rahman) were also changed from those given to them at birth, since they indicated servitude and bondage to created beings or people. The father of the Tabi’i, Sa’id b. al-Musayyab refused to changed his name from Hazn (harsh in disposition) upon the urging of the Prophet. Consequently, his character was adversely affected.

As for last names, the Arabs of the early period did not have last names. Rather, their last names were connected to tribal affiliations or titles attaching them to certain tribal or regional sectors, like Qurashi, Khazraji, Makki, etc. Imam al-Bukhari, the famous hadith master and historian’s real name was Muhammad b. Isma’il. Al-Bukhari simply indicated the part of Persia he came from: Bukhara. The same can be said for all the other famous scholars. This same trend can be detected in the European and other traditions (although I plan to exhaust more research on the matter) such that last names that are familiar today originate in some sort of occupation, tribal affiliation, or regional ascription. Names like Johnson, Anderson, Jackson, Williamson, Fredrickson, Henderson, etc. originally was a way to say “son of John, son of Ander, etc.” The name, Black, may have originated from the word “Blacksmith”, and then shortened for brevity. Imam Abu Hamid’s own last name Al-Ghazali (or Al-Ghazzali) originates from the “spinner and seller of wool”, since his father was a poor wool merchant. So, in the end, you have not done anything inappropriate by giving your children your last name unless they are not biologically yours.

And Allah knows best

Was Salam


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7 Comments

  1. Mohamed Ramli on

    “Islam does not consider it an obligation for any new convert to Islam whose mother tongue is not Arabic to change it to an Arabic name or other language. ” Is it obligatory if one’s mother tongue is Arabic?

    • As Salamu ‘alaykum,

      If one’s mother tongue is Arabic, the custom of those people would be to give their child an Arabic name; just as if French is a people’s mother tongue, they would give their child a French name. This is not so much a question of “must” they give the child such a name. It’s more a question of “should” they (?) and the pros and cons involved in adopting one that is not from one’s mother tongue. In light of this, there is no “obligation” upon an Arab to name his/her child with an Arabic name. And Allah knows best.

      Abdullah

  2. DawnMarie Donivan on

    Assallamu Alaikum, I became Muslim in June 2011, and just wanted to know that even if it is not mandated to change your name, can you do this as a symbol of such a total life change? I feel as though I want to share with everyone what for me is the most wonderful thing that happened to me. Thank you.

    • Of course, it is fine to change one’s name. Saying that it is not an obligation is different from saying that something is unlawful.

      was Salam
      Abdullah

  3. Gabriel Hernandez on

    As-Salaam Alaykum:

    Hmmm….Fredrickson: son of Fredrick perhaps? Jackson, Henderson, Willamson: son of Jack, son of Hender, son of Willam?

    Is there something to this?

    JIzak Allahu Khayrun

  4. Lumumba Shakur on

    As salamu `alaykum,

    I am not a scholar by any means, so my opinion means nothing in the end. But I do think that there is something to converts adopting new identities as a way of breaking with our past. This, I think stems from a number of things, but something that I suspect is unique to the contemporary Western mindset. I believe that we assume that there is something anit-Islamic about our past, when that simply is not the case. The Companions, as Ustadh Abullah said, only changed their names when they implied something pretentious or idolatrous. Otherwise, their names remained as they were.

    As a convert of 10+ years myself, I can tell you that part of the conversion process is the eventually recognition that you are the same person that you were before and that Islam is a natural part of life. African-Americans, we have our own issues with names, but until we can be recognized as legitimate Muslims with names like Keith, Crystal and Michael, Islam is always going to be viewed as a foreign religion.

    When I converted to Islam, I did not embrace Arabism, neither did I reject my parents, close friends nor the teachers and other adults in the community who helped raise me and make me who I am. So with all due respect, I generally advise new converts not to change their names unless they fall within the above clarifications Ustadh Abdullah gave in the original answer. There is a reason why many of our parents gave us the names that they did and there is no reason to be ashamed of or reject our heritage simply because we have embraced the “din al-fitra”. The whole notion seems to be an oxymoron.

    But Allah knows best.

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