New Faith, New Name?

In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

For many years of my life, it seemed almost a given that, whenever someone converts to Islam, he or she would change their name to a more “Islamic” name. The pre-Islamic “John Smith” might become the post-Islamic “Yahya Abdallah.” The pre-Islamic “Wendy Thomas” might become the post-Islamic “A’isha Muhammad.” Many prominent American Muslims, such as Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Imam Hamza Yusuf, have changed their names. And I supported such a change as the right thing to do.

Yet, as I have become older, my views on changing one’s name have changed a bit. For certain, there is absolutely nothing wrong with changing one’s name after he or she converts to Islam. I often wonder about what the thinking is behind such a change. Converting to Islam – especially in this day and age – is a tremendous life change. Such a decision may even alienate the convert from his or her family, friends, and even entire old life. Perhaps a name change symbolizes the convert’s new life, and thus as the convert’s practices a new faith, he or she takes on a new name.

Perhaps the convert – in their study of Islam prior to their conversion – fell in love with one of the Companions, such as Umar(r), or Abu Bakr(r), or A’isha(r), or Safiyah(r), or Zayd(r), or even his son Usama(r). Thus, as a Muslim, the convert wants to adopt that name for himself or herself. Perhaps the convert was unhappy with their pre-conversion life, and thus they want to turn their back on that life with a new name after conversion. I am certain that there are a myriad other reasons, and I invite my dear readers to share their experiences with us on this blog.

And I must say, the names of the Companions are some of the most beautiful names on earth. They remind me of the beautiful personalities behind them, such as Umar(r), Ali(r), Safiyah(r), Fatima(r), A’isha(r), Hamza(r), and so on. And what better name to have than the name of our beloved, Muhammad (pbuh)? In fact, I have always wanted to name my son – if God were to bless me with one – Hamza, after the Prophet’s (pbuh) uncle. Yet, I have been given only daughters, so this will probably never be.

Yet, still, I must ask the question: does someone who converts to Islam have to change their name to a more “Muslim” one? I get asked this question quite a bit, and my answer is usually “no.” I believe there is no reason to change one’s name after converting to Islam to make it more “Islamic.” In my reading of the Prophet’s life-history, I did not see that he (pbuh) regularly asked his Companions to change their names after they accepted Islam. Umar ibn Al-Khattab(r) remained so after he converted; Abu Bakr ibn Abi Quhafa(r) remained so after he converted; the Prophet (pbuh) did not even ask Abu Sufyan(r) to change his name after he accepted Islam, and Abu Sufyan(r) was one of the the Prophet’s (pbuh) most bitter enemies.

I do remember one instance when the Prophet (pbuh) did change the name of a new convert. I heard it during a lecture on the Prophet’s (pbuh) biography by Tarek Al Suwaydan. There was a Bedouin named Juayl who accepted Islam. Juayl means “little beetle.” The Prophet (pbuh) did not like such a name, so he told him to change it to ‘Amr, which means “life.” It was not to make his name more “Islamic.” As I understand it, Islam does not require a convert to change his or her name after conversion.

In fact, this goes to the whole point of what is “Islamic.” I believe that the name “John Smith” is as Islamic as “Muhammad Ahmad.” Apart from the obvious name of “Muhammad,” the reason that names such as “Usama,” “Zayd,” “Bilal,” “Abu Bakr,” “Umar,” “Ali,” “A’isha,” “Asma’,” and so on, are considered “Islamic” names is because those happened to be the names of those Companions. If the Prophet (pbuh) had been Chinese, then the names of his companions would have all been Chinese, and we probably would have seen many a convert change his name from “John Smith” to “Jiang Li.” The Prophet (pbuh), however, was an Arab, and thus the “Islamic” names are all Arabic.

Yet, I have come to learn that Islam has a deep respect for the cultural traditions and practices of a people, so long as those traditions and practices are consistent with Islamic principles and values. Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, resident scholar of the Chicago-based Nawawi Foundation, writes in the article “Islam and the Cultural Imperative“:

For centuries, Islamic civilization harmonized indigenous forms of cultural expression with the universal norms of its sacred law. It struck a balance between temporal beauty and ageless truth and fanned a brilliant peacock’s tail of unity in diversity from the heart of China to the shores of the Atlantic. Islamic jurisprudence helped facilitate this creative genius. In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but – having no color of their own – reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African.

The names of people are part and parcel of the cultural practices of a people. Thus, when an American man such as Anthony Taylor (a name I picked at random) becomes a Muslim, then that name becomes an Islamic name. The same goes with Anne Taylor (again, picked at random). Once she becomes a Muslim, then Anne Taylor becomes an Islamic name. My name, Hesham Hassaballa, is not really “Islamic.” There were no Companions named Hesham Hassaballa. If anything, the name “Hesham” is associated with ‘Amr ibn Hesham (Abu Jahl), the ‘Pharoah of our nation,” as our Prophet (pbuh) called him, the most bitter enemy of the Islam (pbuh). Yet, as I am a Muslim, Hesham Hassaballa is now an Islamic name.

Thus, whenever a convert asks me whether he or she should change their name, I tell them not to. In fact, if they keep their Western name, I believe it will be better for the Muslim community in the long run. The more non-Muslim Americans learn that their friends and neighbors who are named “John” and “Jennifer” are Muslims, the more they will come to see Islam as truly part of the American fabric – which it is – as opposed to some foreign force that was transplanted here. In addition, the beautiful diversity of the American Muslim community is only enhanced when more converts choose to keep the names of their birth after their conversion to Islam.

Moreover, the name of your birth is the name God has chosen to give you. Why change it? This is a great reminder for me. There was a short time in my life – recently, in fact – when I was tempted to change my name to a more “Western” one. The main reason holding me back was the fear of hurting my father’s feelings. Thank God, I did not do it. It was a crazy phase, and I pray to God for forgiveness for even considering it. Hesham Hassaballa is the name God gave me; why should I change it? Was God’s choice a poor one? How dare I insinuate such a thing?

Again, I am not at all saying it is wrong if someone changes their name if they convert to Islam. The names of the Prophets or the Companions are beautiful names. But, I just think one should not feel it is imperative to take on an “Islamic” name once he or she converts to Islam. Like I said, “John Smith” is as “Islamic” as “Muhammad Ahmad.” God will not judge us by the “Islamicness” of our names. Rather, He will judge us by the “Islamicness” of our hearts and actions. Whatever name with which we choose to identify ourselves is completely immaterial.


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