Should new Muslims change their names?
By Kiran Ansari
When Alexis Wadowski converted, she was very confused about why Muslims were renaming her Asiya or Aisha. Living in Washington D.C. at the time, many Muslim Uber drivers who saw a woman in hijab would ask why she didn’t have a “Muslim name.”
But what is a Muslim name? Pre-Islamic Arabs didn’t pay much attention to names. It is said that when a baby was born, the father would go into the desert and name the baby after whatever he saw, even if was a lizard or a fox. Prophet Muhammad (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) encouraged Muslims to give their children names that have a good meaning. There are a few instances where he changed someone’s names, if necessary.
A hadith says that the Prophet changed the name Harb (aggression) and called him Silm (peace). He changed the name of al-Munba’ith (one who lies) to al-Mudtaji’ (one who stands up) (“Sunan Abu Dawud,” 4946).
Very few Companions changed their names. Hence, we see that unless a name has a negative meaning or contradicts God’s oneness, such as ‘Abd al-Nabi (slave of the Prophet) or ‘Abd al-Kabah (slave of the Kabah), it doesn’t need to be changed.
“I already had a beautiful name and didn’t feel the need to change it,” Wadowski said. “I did some research and learned this name changing is a cultural thing. And unless my name meant something haram, I could keep it.” Fast forward a few years and she married a Turkish man. Although the “x” sound doesn’t exist in Turkish, she felt she wouldn’t be herself if she changed her name. Thankfully her in-laws are learning how to pronounce “Alexis,” even if it is with a heavy accent.
She wishes Muslims wouldn’t pester new converts to change their names. Now that she has two little girls, Wadowski made sure their names sat well with both grandmas. Her older daughter’s name Elif is derived from a Sufi tradition about the first letter of Allah’s name. Her other daughter is named Leyla, which everyone can pronounce easily.
Madhu Krishnamurthy, diversity editor at the Daily Herald newspaper in Chicagoland, also didn’t want to officially change her name after accepting Islam. “I love the name my parents gave me. Madhu means sweet like honey,” she said. It is also beneficial for her career to have a consistent name in bylines over the years.
However, she did choose to be known as Madeeha within the Muslim community. She loved its meaning – praiseworthy — and it was close to her original name’s meaning. Her best friend’s name was also Madeeha and she was called Madhu at home, so it all worked out.
She feels that even though there is less of the “other” factor in the diverse Chicago area, she did feel pressured by the community to change her name. Twenty-five years ago, she didn’t want to feel alienated.
“Converts encounter enough challenges as it is,” Krishnamurthy said. “Allah doesn’t want hardship for us. It’s okay to maintain some part of your identity during this transition. Allah wants ease for you, so go easy on yourself.”
Experts agree. Dr. Sabeel Ahmed, director of GainPeace, a leading organization for dawah efforts in the U.S., encourages reverts to keep their names. “There is no precedence [for this] in the Quran and Sunna,” he said. “If new Muslims ask me for advice, I suggest not changing [their] names at all. I actually discourage it. Islam is such a universal faith that an Anthony can be as much a Muslim as an Abdullah.”
This is based on his belief that names can be great ways to break the ice. People may be more receptive to learning about Islam from someone who looks like them and has a similar name. However, if someone is determined to have a Muslim-sounding or Arabic name, GainPeace does suggest some names and explains their roots and meanings.
Even though there’s no religious requirement, converts can certainly change their names if they want to. That is what Jamila Yusuf did 26 years ago. Born and raised Catholic in the Philippines, she found Islam when she moved to the U.S. From the beginning, she knew she wanted to identify as a Muslima even with her name. She wanted her name to change, just like her belief system was changing. She met many Muslim students in her college Arabic 101 class and asked for suggestions.
“I was called Joy at home and had a ring with the letter J that I loved,” Yusuf said. “So, I asked my friends for Muslim-sounding names beginning with J. From the several suggestions, I loved Jamila because it means ‘beautiful.’”
When she got married a few years later, she wanted to take her husband’s last name as well so that her full name would sound Muslim. She also wanted to have the same last name as her children. “I wanted to be known as a Muslim even before someone met me,” she added.
She kept her maiden name as her middle name to preserve her Filipina heritage. However, all of this was her personal choice, for neither her husband nor her in-laws ever pressured her. She liked being known in the Chicago Muslim community as part of the active Yusuf family. She also liked having that link with her in-laws for people to connect the dots.
In Western culture, women traditionally take their husband’s last name upon marriage. Until 1850, women in the U.S. were legally required to do so. Islam gave women the right to keep their father’s name, their original identity, from the beginning.
“It can also be a quick dawah opportunity at the airport,” added Dr. Ahmed. Unfortunately, people often feel dawah is just engaged in to convert someone, instead of an effort to showcase our faith’s true essence, repel misconceptions and share the truth. Guidance is ultimately from Above.
So, whether new Muslims change their first or last name — neither or both — our faith gives them the flexibility to choose. And if that is the case, who are we to judge? As a community, we have a lot of work to do to truly include reverts. We must make them an integral part of our events, masjid board, schools and workforce as spouses and as spouses for our children. That is where the real work lies.
Saying takbeer and hugging them after they take shahadah is just the beginning. Don’t pester them about their name or assume they aren’t Muslim because of their name. And please don’t rename them.
Kiran Ansari is a freelance writer. She lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her children, aged 21, 17, and 8.
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