NOTE: I would be grateful if revert Muslims reading this article either commented or contacted me personally to explain their own “name journey” and their afterthoughts on it all.
Many Muslims, especially from South Asia may tell you to change your name, perhaps even legally, and you too–if you don’t feel uncomfortable by the idea–may be excited about your new step in life, and eager to pick traditional Muslim for yourself. My perspective: there’s no rush!
Below you’ll see my own personal saga concerning “Islamic names” along with an Islamic perspective on the issue. Know the full background and details before you take this step or are pressured into it.
My “name journey”…
Alhamdulillah, no one from my local Muslim community ever told me to take a “Muslim name”, not even the imam who gave me the shahaadah, although he had previously changed his own name legally. I remained a Muslim for three years before I started considering a name, and another year before I finally chose one. I liked that the name mean something to me, and reflect who I was, so that when I think of it, and why I chose it, I am reminded of something important about myself and my place in Islam, my relationship with Allah, and something about my personality I need to strengthen or capitalize on. So when you experience more in life, and learn more about yourself, Islam, important figures in Islamic history, the various names of Allah, and the meanings of Arabic words, then you may find something that you recognize and know immediately that this name reflects who you are as a person. After being a Muslim more than a decade, and discovering a lot more about who I really am, I realize if there is any Arabic word that describes my personality, it’s sahl (easy-going), and that happens to be a name that the Prophet ﷺ suggested to one of his companions named Ḥazn (difficult).1)More about Ḥazn will come later, with reference. I remember telling this to a friend of mine and he agreed with me 100%. That’s who I am. I assume good of others and I don’t like to rock the boat.
But before that revelation, my friends and I were always talking about the haqq, discovering it and following it. And when I first came to Islam, it wasn’t from any spiritual episode or vision, and it wasn’t from being pressured by a Muslim friend or girlfriend. It was simply because I recognized it as true, the haqq. My attraction towards the truth, wherever it comes from, not wanting to find myself on the wrong side, has been a core value that steers me wherever I go in life. It made me wonder if the Haqq was one of Allah’s Names. I was happy to learn that it was, and so I considered the name Abdul-Haqq. I didn’t settle on it until I read a laconic quote from `Abdul-Qādir al-Jīlānī that ibnul-Qayyim mentioned in The Message from Tabuk.
كن مع الحق بلا خلق، ومع الناس بلا نفس. ومن لم يكن كذلك فلا يزال أمره في تثبيط ولا يزال أمره فُرُطاً
In your relationship with al-Haqq, let there be none of the creation; and in your relationship with the people, let there be no room for yourself; and whoever is not like this, their concerns will remain confused and their affairs will be scattered.
I was floored by these few words that seemed to summarize all of Islam in an imperative yet demonstrative motto for life. Reading it again, seeing the revered mystic use this word al-Haqq for the Creator, I decided once and for all to take the name AbdulHaqq as my own, as a reminder of this great wisdom, and as reminder to myself of why I chose Islam, that I should never be too proud, too busy, too scared, too lazy, or too anything follow the Truth. I was also happy to learn that while the name wasn’t too common in the Muslim world or Islamic history, a known classical-era scholar of hadith from Seville was also named AbdulHaqq.
But to be honest, I usually introduce myself to other Muslims as Chris—or at least since I graduated from Medinah. And I never seriously considered changing my name legally. How come? Quite simply because, as Muslims, doing something religiously motivated should have some evidence behind it. And if I was going to make such a far-reaching change, even if the process wasn’t too taxing, I wanted strong evidence. Plus I would be too shy to ever tell my parents that I was going by a different name they didn’t understand and I was putting down the name they chose for me before I was even born. Furthermore, because of some southern European roots, most people think I’m Arab as soon as they see my not-so-pale-as-the-next-white-guy skin and dark hair, so I’d like at least something that shows my identity and not get lumped in with a people with a different history.
I knew the Prophet ﷺ changed the names of some of his companions, if they were bad names, but really, what’s wrong with the name Christopher John? In my adolescence I suppose I thought my name was boring, but it wasn’t so bad it needed to be replaced. After all, it only takes a couple super sexy famous actors, singers or movie characters to make a name attractive. And while I previously introduced myself to Muslims as Abdul-Haqq, it was in Medinah where we were students whose names on the attendance sheets were as they appeared on our passports. The professors had met numerous converts before with Western names, so one more didn’t perplex them, except a few wondered from my complexion if I was from a North African Arab family that gave their children Western names. Others would joke with me about Christopher Columbus. A few would ask if I had an “Islamic name”. In every case, I was continuously called Christopher during rollcall, so my colleagues knew me that way, and the name stuck while I was a student at the Islamic University of Medinah.
I didn’t really give the idea a whole lot of thought until I was participating in a listserv and made a comment, signed AbdulHaqq, but my e-mail address revealed my birth name. Someone then messaged me personally saying I should have my name changed legally since it was antithetical to Islam.
SubḥānAllah. Oh my. I don’t want something about my identity to betray another part. And if that’s the case, I’m certainly not going to let a few letters betray what’s in my heart and mind of faith.
They even linked to the Wikipedia article. But to save you the effort, “Christopher” comes from the Greek Christophoros. The original person dubbed Saint Christopher was supposedly a strong man—and this seems to be where our commonalities end ;-P. As legend has it, he was directed to use his strength for good service by carrying others across an unpredictable river. When he carried a toddler across, it was only with tremendous difficulty and trial, but at the end, the child revealed himself as Christ, and the bearer was given the saintly name, meaning Christ-bearer. For what it’s worth, historians now believe that Reprobus took the name for more symbolic reasons, and that perhaps a story from Jason and the Argonauts, found its way to Catholic lore.
Okay, so my name originated with someone who was given a good name for doing an act of righteousness? It reminded me of Jacob, renamed Israa`eel, the soldier of God, after passing a trial. If we ignored the politics, would it be sinful to be called Isrā’īl or an equivalent name in Arabic, like jundullah? Of course not, and there have been scholars from the salaf named Isrā’īl. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ himself referred to one of his companions as the Sword of God after successfully outmaneuvering a Byzantine army. But we could say this is different, because those names refer to service of God, whereas this is focused on a prophet, Jesus al-Masīḥ son of Mary, the Messiah or Christ, Greek for Messiah. Is there a “Muhammad-bearer” in Islam? Perhaps not quite so literally in the physical sense, but everyone who carries the message of the Prophet Muhammad, or conveys one ayah, or carries his words, and it is not extreme to ascribe someone to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in a way that does service to the Messenger, since he has reportedly referred to Mu`adh as the “messenger of the messenger of Allah”. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ even referred to al-Zubair as his disciple, giving him a praiseworthy nickname, ascribed to himself, and not to Allah specifically. Considering all these points, I struggle to find something wrong with having a name whose original Greek meaning [although, to everyone else, it’s Greek to them, right? ;-)] is Christ-bearer.
And was there anything wrong with having a name linked to Christianity or another faith? It would seem not, as long as the name’s meaning was kosher—no pun intended. The Prophet ﷺ made no qualms about one of his companions, Abdullah ibn Qais, having the kunyah Abu Musa, father of Moses. Likewise, from the polytheistic Arabs, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ told of the man who introduced polytheism to the Meccans, Amr ibn Luhay, but he never suggested that other companions who shared the same given name, Amr, should change, just because of some historical person who misled others. But maybe I’m biased. Maybe I was defensive. Maybe my heart wasn’t seeing the haqq. I should get another opinion. I explained the meaning of Christopher to Shaykh Joe Bradford who said, “it sounds like someone who helped a prophet, what’s wrong with that?” Good point. I can’t think of anything wrong with it. Or rather, the point is, let’s not have a knee-jerk reaction when we hear a convert Muslim introduce themselves with their native name.
In some cases, you may be off the hook if your name has an Islamic/Arabic equivalent. For example, John, from “John the Baptist”, is referred to in Arabic as Yaḥyā. Similarly, Michael=Mikā’īl, Gabriel=Jibrīl, Noah=Nūḥ, Adam=Adam, Josh=Yush`ā, Joseph=Yūsuf, David=Dāwūd, Mary=Maryam, Sarah=Sārah, Eve=Ḥawwā’, Mary=Maryam, among others.
And for the Muslims that insist on calling you by a “Muslim name” or “Arabic name”, then feel free to take one, or say “I’m still choosing”, but don’t get uptight about the name issue. Many reverts take a new name and become enraged if a Muslim calls them by their former name, not knowing their preference. Save yourself the stress and be cool about it. Jeffrey Lang, mathematician and author, was once asked why he didn’t have or go by a “Muslim name”.2)Although I believe he does except he doesn’t prefer it over his real name. He said, “I’m a Muslim, my name is Jeffrey; therefore, Jeffrey is a Muslim’s name.” Logic at its finest.
But, Islamically, should you, me or anyone take another name at all?
The fiqh of name-changing, in brief
In summary, the companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ did not change their names unless they contained some unbefitting connotation.3)Check out http://www.ahlalhdeeth.com/vb/showthread.php?t=109583 for an exhaustive list, in Arabic, of all the names the Prophet ﷺ is reported to have changed. Over 60, including places. And for students of knowledge among the readers, they may look to al-Fatḥ, v. 10, pp. 575 – 577 for ibn Hajr’s commentary of the narrations al-Bukhari recorded concerning name changing. Here are some principles with example:
- A name should not be a self-tazkiyah, a title which claims that you are something special or better than everyone else, especially before God, which no one can claim about themselves without divine authority. The Prophet ﷺ once said, “Do not name your son Yasaar or Rabah or Najeeh or Aflah, since you would say is he like that, and he wouldn’t be and people would say no.” Recorded by Muslim.4)There is an interesting point about this hadith, and it makes me wonder, statistically and psychologically, to what affect does a name steer a person in their lives? As Muslims we’ve all heard stories of some Muslim getting cheated by another, and then at the end of the story, the teller says, “and guess what, that guy’s name was Sadiq! [truthful]” or “that sister’s name was Wafa’!” [fulfilling of trusts]. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner mention the interesting case of a man who named two sons Winner and Loser, whose polarized names reflected polarized lives, as Winner lived in and out of prison while “Lou” became a distinguished professor. He also changed the name of more than one woman named Barrah (f. wholly righteous) to Juwairiyah or Zainab, saying “do not claim yourselves pure, Allah knows better” and other times saying “I just don’t like to say I just met [a righteous woman].”
- Along these lines is a title or nickname denoting excessive praise that hints at the divine, even if others gave you that title, for example, Al-Raḥmān, which is an exclusive name of Allah’s, or king of kings. The Prophet ﷺ is also reported to have met a man called “Abu-Hakam” (meaning: father of judgment) because his clan would often consult him for arbitration. The Prophet ﷺ said that good judgment is from Allah the Supreme Judge and returns to Allah, and instructed the man change his kunyah to match his oldest child.
- Also, a name cannot carry a blasphemous or polytheistic meaning, like `Abdul-Husain (slave/worshipper of Husain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) since the Prophet forbade anyone to call themselves the `abd, slave worshiper of any being except Allah, the Almighty.
- And a name should not carry a cynical meaning, like “’Aasiyah” (f. sinner) since the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ ordered a man not to name his daughter that, but instead gave her the name “Jameelah” (f. beautiful).5)This deserves a footnote. Why did some of the Arabs choose these names for their children? While polytheistic names like Abdul-Ka’bah (worshiper of the Ka`bah) are a dead giveaway, other names, especially those with cynical, silly or strange meanings are less obvious. One reason I’ve heard is that some men—as the men would exclusively claim the right of naming—might be angry at the mother and wish ill for her children. Another reason I’ve heard is that if the parents wanted to protect their child from envy and the evil eye, they would assign a less dignified name. This is also a reason that they might add on the feminine closed taa’ at the end of a male’s name, like `Ubaid to become `Ubaidah.
As for a name which has earned a bad association from history or media, or seems linked to another religion, there does not seem to be an Islamic precedent requiring its change, considering what we saw regarding the name `Amr. It’s a common name, like Paul in the West. For example, I remember a European student in Medinah named Damian—he would grin when introducing himself to us, knowing that only Americans think Damian is synonymous with the spawn of Satan or Lucifer, the “morning star”. Common Christian names like Lucas, Peter, Daniel, Benjamin, or Matthew seem fine, since their meaning, linguistically, is probably acceptable, and their historical connotations are no more damning than `Amr.
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References [ + ]
|1.||↑||More about Ḥazn will come later, with reference.|
|2.||↑||Although I believe he does except he doesn’t prefer it over his real name.|
|3.||↑||Check out http://www.ahlalhdeeth.com/vb/showthread.php?t=109583 for an exhaustive list, in Arabic, of all the names the Prophet ﷺ is reported to have changed. Over 60, including places. And for students of knowledge among the readers, they may look to al-Fatḥ, v. 10, pp. 575 – 577 for ibn Hajr’s commentary of the narrations al-Bukhari recorded concerning name changing.|
|4.||↑||There is an interesting point about this hadith, and it makes me wonder, statistically and psychologically, to what affect does a name steer a person in their lives? As Muslims we’ve all heard stories of some Muslim getting cheated by another, and then at the end of the story, the teller says, “and guess what, that guy’s name was Sadiq! [truthful]” or “that sister’s name was Wafa’!” [fulfilling of trusts]. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner mention the interesting case of a man who named two sons Winner and Loser, whose polarized names reflected polarized lives, as Winner lived in and out of prison while “Lou” became a distinguished professor.|
|5.||↑||This deserves a footnote. Why did some of the Arabs choose these names for their children? While polytheistic names like Abdul-Ka’bah (worshiper of the Ka`bah) are a dead giveaway, other names, especially those with cynical, silly or strange meanings are less obvious. One reason I’ve heard is that some men—as the men would exclusively claim the right of naming—might be angry at the mother and wish ill for her children. Another reason I’ve heard is that if the parents wanted to protect their child from envy and the evil eye, they would assign a less dignified name. This is also a reason that they might add on the feminine closed taa’ at the end of a male’s name, like `Ubaid to become `Ubaidah.|