What’s My Name?
“What’s my name?” Shouted Muhammad Ali as he delivered a powerful and swift left-right combination to an already hurt and demoralised Ernie Terrell. “What’s my name?” he spat again through his mouthpiece. Terrell closed his eyes as the next combination flew at him. To this day, boxing fans call it “The What’s My Name Fight” because Ali taunted Terrell in the ring while punishing him for 15 rounds, demanding to be called by his Arabic Muslim name, not his “slave” name which Terrell had arrogantly refused to use prior to the fight instead calling him by his former name, Cassius Clay. The year was 1967 at the height of racial tensions in the USA, both men were African-Americans, from the south, and had similar backgrounds.
A matter of concern for new converts to Islam is the decision to change their name after conversion. The practice is not one exclusive to Islam, and historically, converts to other faiths (including Christianity) have changed their first and/or last names in varying degrees of change. One opinion in Judaism states that all new converts are to have their lineage annulled and referred to as a “child of Abraham and Sarah” (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon them). Members of the Sikh faith usually adopt a new last name upon initiation into the Khalsa. A change of moniker may signify a fresh start and switching of ideology for the zealous proselyte, an indication of their abandonment of their previous lifestyle and beliefs. This may procure the benefit of being more easily accepted and instantly recognised as a Muslim in the general Muslim community. There also seems to be an assumption amongst the Muslim community that such a thing as an exclusively “Islamic” name actually exists, perhaps confusing “Islamic” with “Arabic-sounding”. In my role as an imam, I am frequently asked as to whether such a name is “Islamic” after being contacted by excited new parents who are apprehensive about giving their child a name that is not in line with Islamic values. Some members of the wider Muslim community may also see it as a duty upon the new Muslim to choose an Arabic name and will often give suggestions after conversion; if they converted at the hands of a spiritual guide, the guide may even choose a new Arabic (sometimes even Persian) moniker for them immediately, in a sense, pressurising the new Muslim into committing a type of cultural apostasy. On the flip side, it may also expose the new convert to the possibility of being discriminated against due to having a “Muslim-sounding” name. We also know that many people who are not Muslims have Arabic names, popular figures such as Raheem Sterling and Idris Elba spring to mind, this is especially prevalent in the African-American and Black British communities. Professional footballer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is not a Muslim has spoken about the discrimination he has suffered in Sweden due to having a Slavicised Arabic name.
Where does the confusion lie? Even a cursory glance back at converts in the time of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ shows us that they did not change their names after conversion. There were rare instances where someone may have had the name of an idol, a devil, or an extremely derogatory meaning and the Messenger of Allah ﷺ changed their name or refused to call them by their original name. For example, there was a woman whose name was ᶜᾹṣiyah meaning “disobedient” and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ changed it to Jamīlah, meaning “beautiful”. One narration mentions that a man came to Medina in a delegation whose name was ᶜAbdul Ḥajar, literally “The Slave of Stone” and the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “No, you are Abdullah”, i.e. “The Slave of Allah.” There were no instances of changing of one’s family or tribal name though notwithstanding some of these having extremely negative meanings such as the tribe of ᶜAbdu Shams, literally “The Slave of a Shams” The Messenger of Allah ﷺ himself also retorted at times, “I am the son of Abdul Muttalib” in reference to his grandfather ᶜAbdul Muṭṭalib, which means “The Slave of Al-Muttalib.” The preservation of lineage is one of huge importance in Islam and is one of the five protected universals along with life, religion, intellect, and wealth. Purposely altering one’s lineage would have been viewed as an act of deception and therefore is prohibited. We don’t see too many instances of name-changing amongst converts of non-Arab lineage either in the early period of Islam, the early converts from Abyssinia, Persia, and elsewhere retained their original names. The offspring of the new converts were most likely the ones to be given Arabic names, stemming from a natural love of wanting to emulate the names of the great prophets mentioned in the Quran and the illustrious companions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
From a legal perspective, throughout my many years of study, I am yet to come across a single text that states that it is recommended, yet alone obligatory, for a new convert to change their name. Older converts (including myself) have, perhaps, set a bad precedence for this which may cause the new convert to believe that some type of religious recommendation or obligation exists. Some contemporary converts have chosen to change both first and last names e.g. Hamza Yusuf, Siraj Wahhaj, Yusuf Islam, others retaining their surnames and adopting an Arabic first name only, e.g. Suhaib Webb, Bilal Phillips, Yahya Birt, others cleverly employing the usage of two names for different audiences e.g. Abdal Hakim Murad AKA Timothy Winters and Ashley Chin AKA Muslim Belal, and others changing their surnames after marriage or for the need to break away from any ties to slavery. Of course, a person can have more than one name and may even be given or take on a nickname, which is perfectly acceptable in Islam if the person is happy with that. The pertinent question that now arises is, “How does this affect the family and social ties of the new convert?”
Keeping good family ties and relations is of utmost importance in Islam, even if those family members are not Muslims. The Quran mentions, “And we have enjoined upon man goodness to his parents but if they endeavour to make you associate with Me that which you have no knowledge of, then do not obey them.” Exegetes of the Quran mention that the verse was revealed regarding Sa’d bin Abi Waqqas (may Allah be pleased with him) when he converted to Islam and his mother refused to eat, drink, and sleep indoors until he renounced Islam and reverted back to polytheism. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ would emphasise the importance of keeping family ties to his companions repeatedly and once said, “The one who cuts family ties will not enter Heaven.” How would the parents who choose the name of their child at birth feel if they suddenly decided to change that name? Maybe the new convert can discuss the matter of changing their name or taking a second name or nickname with their parents first before making any drastic decisions they may later regret. Since in most cases there would be no obligation to change one’s name initially, the obligation of maintaining good family ties, especially with one’s mother who is given the highest esteem and pedestal in Islam, overrules. This is coupled with the, perhaps, unnecessary expenditure of changing one’s name via deed poll, replacing official documents, and any possible confusion in the future caused as a result thereof. Also, how would this affect ties with friends and colleagues if, for example, David turns up to work or college one day and says, “I want everyone to now call me Abdullah”?
This is not to discourage any new Muslim from changing their name if they wish to do so, nor that it is necessarily a bad thing, but to make them think about the wider implications and long-term consequences that may result from it and to evaluate how much benefit it will truly bring to their spiritual and social life. I leave you with a quote from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is highlighting the point that Romeo being from the rival Montague family does not affect her love for him:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
By Bilal Brown
 A few years prior, Ali had converted to the Nation of Islam, a heretical sect founded by Fard Muhammad who they believe to be “Allah”, and changed his name upon conversion. Ali later converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, to learn more about orthodox Islamic beliefs visit beginnings.org.uk/learn-more/
 Muslim (2139).
 Al-Adab al-Mufrad (813), Bab Kunyah Abi al-Hakam.
 A name for the sun in Arabic, used for a person’s name.
 Al-Bukhari (2864).
 Muslim (1748). Also see under the relevant verse: Jami al-Bayan An Ta’wil Ay al-Qur’an known as Tafsir al-Tabari.
 Al-Bukhari (5984).
 Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2).