Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Why do converts to Islam change their name?

Lately, it seems like people have been asking me this question. Most of the people who keep asking me the question are those who were “born into Islam” and from other countries. I was in a meeting for a Muslim organization and this brother (who apparently didn’t realize there were several converts in the room) asked, “Why do they change their names? What’s wrong with names like Jack or Karen? And what about their family lineage? They’re erasing it when they change their names!” The brother whom he was speaking to responded by saying, “I don’t get it either.” Since I’ve never been one to stay quiet, especially when I feel like someone is addressing me- after all I changed my name once I converted to Islam- I told them that people have different reasons for doing so. Some of it depends on the person’s culture, life experience and who gave them dawah before they converted. Here are the reasons why I personally chose to change my name:

Cultural reasons:
Most of my ancestors were brought to the United Stated States and the West Indies as slaves. When they arrived, the slave masters changed their African names. Not only were slaves given European/American first names but their surname was changed to the slave master’s surname. Once I learned this bit of history I didn’t see why I should carry on the legacy of a man who not only owned my family but deprived them of their freedom and deliberately erased their cultural and religious heritage. I did not feel any connection to my surname.

Life experience:
As for my first and middle names, I never liked them. When I was five years old I told my mother that I was going to change my name. I’m sure everyone thought it was so cute when I said that. They didn’t know how serious I was. I knew I was going to do it someday I just needed the means and of course, a name I felt comfortable with. I also did not feel an attachment to my first name because I seldom went by it. Like many West Indians (as well as African-Americans) I had another name I went by. My father called me “Phil” (a long story, trust me), my grandmother and other members of my Jamaican family called me “Sweetie” (as in the British way of saying candy) and my friends called me “Fee Fee” (please don’t ask.)

Lastly, when I converted to Islam, people not only assumed that I would take another name, they told me I should. They said I had to depart from my kaafir name. I was Muslim now and I needed to have a “Muslim name.” Whether I believed that or not, I’d already decided to do it anyway. I thought to myself, what better time. I’m becoming a new person. Why not take a name to reflect my new identity? So I chose one and didn’t legally change it until 2001.

So there you have it, my own personal reasons for changing my name. Once I finished telling the brother the aforementioned reasons he was forced to rethink his perception of converts who change their names. I also reminded him that some people change their name because of its meaning or what it stands for. For instance, a friend of mine was named after a Greek goddess. Once she became Muslim she didn’t feel comfortable having that name anymore (hence the reason for her name change.)

So, tell me, have you changed your name? Why or why not?


Safiyyah said...

Salaams Sis:

Many people wonder why converts change their name to a "Muslim" name because doing so is not a requirement of Islam. Allah (swt) tells us in the Quran to carry the names of our fathers. The Prophet (saw) often changed the names of the people when, like you said, the name had a negative meaning.

I kept my birth name when I came to Islam. I use the name "Safiyyah" with Muslims, so I am called both Safiyyah and "Sharon" (my birth name).

muhammadnur said...

As Salaam Alaikum,

I changed my name primarily for the first and third points you mentioned. I was in the NOI before I accepted Islam and therefore thoroughly rejected my surname. I didn't really have problems with my first or middle names but when I left the NOI I chose to just change the whole name. I felt I was a new person so I wanted to start fresh.

rahma said...

Nah I didn't, as I'm sure you probably already know, although I was heavily pressured into it, and still get that pressure. If one more person asks me what my muslim name is, and then tries to lecture me that I need to change it, I'm going to scream.

I didn't change my name because I didn't believe it was required. Most of the sahaba didn't change their names. If Khadija could be Khadija before and after her conversion, well then I'll just be Jennifer.

Plus, it would have greatly offended my parents, who were already way put off by my conversion. I guess I'm just a wuss, and didn't want another thing to explain to them on top of the hijab, praying, and marrying an egyptian.