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It has become common practice in some areas for converts to change their names upon becoming Muslims. Sometimes this is done so that the convert feels more attached and affiliated with the Muslim community. The obvious question that arises is: Is this changing of the name required, recommended or simply permissible? On this point, Abdul Azeez ibn Baaz stated in response to a question he had received,
I inform you that there is no evidence in Islamic Law that requires one whom Allah has guided to Islam to change his name to an Islamic name. [The exception is if] there is an Islamic reason that requires that. For example, if a person has a name implying the worship of someone other than Allah, such as “The Servant of Jesus” and so forth, or if the person has a name that is not good to have and there are better names than that, such as the name “Grievous” can be changed to “Mild.” Similar is the case with any other name that is not considered proper for one to be named. However, it is obligatory to change the name that implies worshipping other than Allah. Concerning other [repugnant] names, then it is simply preferred and recommended to change such names. Included in this second category of names are those names that are well-known to be Christian names such that if one hears them he will think that the person must be a Christian. To change one’s name under those circumstances is good.
Bilal Philips has some further insight into this question:
New Muslims, unaware of the Islamic naming system, often adopt Arabic names in the chaotic European style... In fact, those of African descent often erase even their family names on the basis that these names are remnants from the days of slavery. That is, those of their ancestors who were slaves usually adopted the family name of their slave masters and it was the slave masters’ name which was handed down from generation to generation. Hence, an individual who may have been called Clive Baron Williams while his father’s name was George Herbert Williams may, upon entering Islaam, rename himself Faisal ‘Umar Nkruma Mahdi. However, his name according to the Islamic naming system should have been Faisal George Williams, that is, Faisal the son of George Williams. Whether “Williams” was the name of his ancestors’ plantation owner or not is of no consequence. Since his father’s name was George Williams, he is, according to the Islamic naming system, the son of George Williams… The practice among new Muslims of deleting their family names has frequently created deep resentment among their non-Muslim families which could have been easily avoided if the Islamic naming system had been adopted. Actually, the new Muslim is under no obligation to change even his or her “Christian name” unless it contains an un-lslamic meaning. Thus, the given name Clive, which means cliff-dweller need not have been changed whereas “Dennis” (Fr. Denys), a variation of Dionysius which means He of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine and fertility who was worshipped with orgiastic rites), would have to be changed… However, it is perfectly acceptable for a Muslim, whether a recent convert or not, to change his or her first name. It was the Prophet’s practice to change peoples first names if they were too assuming, negative or un-lslamic. One of the Prophet’s wives was originally named Barrah (pious) and he changed it to Zaynab as Allaah had said in the Qur’aan,
“Do not claim piety for yourselves for He knows best who is God-fearing.”
… However, Allaah’s messenger never changed the names of people’s fathers, no matter how un-lslamic they may have been… Thus, it can be concluded that erasing one’s family name is against both the letter and the spirit of Islamic law. The father’s first and last name should be retained and if the father is unknown, the mother’s first and last name should follow the Muslim’s given or chosen name.
- Ali Abu Lauz, compiler, Answers to Common Questions from New Muslims (Ann Arbor, MI: IANA, 1995), pp. 22-23.
- The Islamic naming system that he is referring to is wherein the person is known as, “So and so the son of so and so.” After that, a tribal or regional name may also be added.
- Bilal Philips, Tafseer of Soorah al-Hujuraat (Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 1988), pp. 120-122.