Changing the Name of a New Muslim: Custom or Religious?
It was the summer of 1999 in Tulsa when I walked into a sandwich shop. My pants sagging and hat turned back and to the side, I looked at the seemingly Greek guy behind the desk and said: ‘Let me get a Gyro with extra sauce’. After I sat down waiting for my sandwich, I heard the guy answer the phone with as-salamu `alaykum (peace be upon you; Islamic greeting of peace) and thought: ‘Wow that Greek cat is Muslim!’
You see I had been reading the Qur’an for over a year and believing it to be the message of God, yet heavily struggling with a corrupt lifestyle. I had only met three Muslims before, but they didn’t practice hence they don’t even know where a Mosque might be. So when I went to get my Gyro I told him as-salamu `alaykum.
He looked me up and down and asked: ‘Are you a Muslim?’
I quickly affirmed confused by his question ‘Yeah man, can you hook me up with a mosque around here?’
He had no clue what a mosque is but after I explained, he said that they had just opened a nice newly built masjid (mosque) and he gave me directions. So then I asked him if many Greeks are Muslim and he said: ‘I’m not Greek I’m Syrian!’
That was the first time I had ever heard of Syria in my life. There is a lot to learn from that event, primarily that we need to step up our da`wah (call to Islam) skills.
So the next day I went to the mosque around 1pm. I walked in and- thanks to the disorderliness we often have- I noticed a pair of shoes sitting in front of the doors to the musallah (Prayer sanctuary; area where prayers are performed in a mosque). So I took off my shoes and saw a man praying and went in and did my own form of prayer which I learned from the scene where Denzel is praying on his Hajj pilgrimage in the movie Malcolm X.
Then as I was walking out, the elderly gentleman followed me and made salaam (Islamic greeting) to me and I responded. He then asked if I was Muslim and I affirmed. Then he asked me: ‘What is your name?’ I told him my name is John. He responded: ‘No, no. That’s not a Muslim name. That is a name of the kuffar (disbelievers)’. ‘I was like what?’ I asked. He said yeah that is not an Islamic name.
So I told him that John originally means ‘God is gracious’ and it is the name of Jesus’ (peace be upon him) cousin who is a Prophet mentioned in the Qur’an, but he said: ‘No, his name is `Isa (Jesus) and his cousin is Yahya (which means John), so your name is Yahya’. I thought okay this guy is hardcore, man, taking it back to the original…
Since that day, I have been called Yahya among my Muslim brothers and sisters. It is a beautiful name that I don’t mind being called by, but as we mentioned before it wasn’t the exact name of the Prophet who was Jesus’ cousin, and it was not `Isa (the name by which Jesus was called) either.
John was more like Yuhanna (John the Baptist) and Jesus was more like Yeshu’a (which is a Hebrew variant of Joshua). So after realizing that this is just an Arabization of their names to facilitate the Qur’an’s Arabic flow I regretted having changed my name since it now seemed Islamically logical to have kept my name in English for the flow and familiarity of English. Let’s now discuss the issue of changing your name from an Islamic legal perspective.
What Islam Says
The vast majority of scholars throughout our history say that it is an obligation to change a name only if it represents other polytheistic beliefs or if it is a foul name with a bad meaning. For example if someone’s name was Christian then upon becoming Muslim they would change their name.
The customary practice of encouraging a new revert to Islam to change their name is not an Islamic teaching as the Prophet (peace be upon him) left mostly all of his companions with common names that carry little or no meaning like `Umar, Talhah, Khadijah, etc. Some of these people with very simple names became great leaders.
As a matter of fact Salman is a Persian name (he was called Salaman Al-Farisi) while the Prophet witnessed his embracing Islam and spent much time with him, he never suggested Salman (may God be pleased with him) change his name. He only changed the names which were either indicating the worship of other than God or a name that was a bad meaning like the following:
1- `Aasiyah (sinner) to Jameelah (beautiful)
2- Abdul-Shams (Slave of the sun) to Abdul-Rahman (Slave of the Merciful God)
3- Haram (forbidden) to halal (permissible)
4- Zalim (oppressor) to Rashid (rightly guided)
5- Harb (war) to Muslim (committed to God)
In retrospect, after being trained in the Islamic sciences and objectives, I have come to realize that this brother who sought to change my name was no doubt sincere, but ignorant of the big picture of Islam in America. This settled in when I was sitting with a sheikh (scholar) in Egypt who asked me my name. I told him Yahya to which he responded: ‘That can’t be your name!’ I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’ So I tried to explain how that is my Islamic name. He responded: You’re mistaken. He then went on to give two reasons why I should have not changed my name and why I should return to John.
1- Islam teaches the utmost respect and honor for ones parents; Muslim or not. This is clear in the many verses of the Qur’an which command us to do so and some of them specify that the only exception is in obeying a parent’s call to an evil lifestyle.
Changing your name not only erases and invalidates their very first interaction with you as parents, but gives the idea of you splitting from your family which can be perceived as breaking the ties of the womb.
2- As long as your original name’s meaning isn’t contrary to Islam then it would be in the best interest of promoting our faith through da`wah. When people see that Matt, Dave, Robert, Sarah, Lisa, Emily, etc, are Muslims whose language and general customs are similar to them it takes away that ‘Islam is a foreign religion’ vibe we often give off.
This is in light of the hadith (record of the words or actions of the Prophet): “Facilitate things for people and don’t make things difficult for them. Give glad tidings and don’t alienate people”. (Al-Bukhari)
Of course for someone who has been known to many people by a name for some time it would be a hassle to change it back. The fact is that, as the Sheikh said, my mother was indeed somewhat offended and told me that ‘my brothers’ can call me what they want, but that she will always call me John.
It is no one’s business what a person chooses to be called as long as it carries a good meaning. The advice of this article is that it is not part of the Sunnah (prophetic tradition) to change someone’s name as a result of their embracing Islam.
If someone, of their own accord, wishes to change their name, then that is their right, but don’t encourage it as the benefits are there for them to keep it. And God knows best!
By:John (Yahya) Ederer
John (Yahya) Ederer is the Imam and Religious Director of the Muslim American Society (MAS) Community Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was born in Oklahoma, USA. He accepted Islam in 1998 on a quest for spirituality and meaning in his life. He worked as the head of the English Department for the Islam Presentation Committee (IPC) in Kuwait.