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:
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.
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?