Do I have to have a ‘Muslim’ name?

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Since I am a Muslim, is it obligatory for me to have a Arabic, Muslim name? Am I obligated to change my English or Spanish name? Shaykh Abdullah Ali responds to this interesting question from one of our readers.

Question: I have a question regarding Muslims changing their entire name after coming into the faith of Islam. Is this permissible? I understood that to change your first name is okay, but to change your last name is not permissible. I am African-American and I have talked to several Muslims who all say that since you are African-American and your people were robbed of their names and religion you are allowed to change your last name and select an Islamic name.

Even those that are second, third generation Muslims when their parents became Muslim they changed their last names. So why cant we change ours? I have two children whom now carry my last name now, and I am bothered that I may have made a mistake in giving them my last name.

Dr. Abdullah’s response:

Islam does not consider it an obligation for any new convert to Islam whose mother tongue is not Arabic to change it to an Arabic name or other language. Rather, it is only highly recommended for one to do so when the meaning of one’s name is something offensive or overly presumptuous in sound, like one indicating that one is pure or the like.

During the Prophet Muhammad’s (saws) time, he changed the names of a number of women whose names were too pious sounding, like the name Barra (ultra-pious). Often he changed their names to Zaynab or the like such as Juwayriya (his wife). A number of men, like the companions known as ‘Abd Al-Rahman b. ‘Awf and Abu Hurayra (whose name was changed from ‘Abd Shams to either ‘Abd Allah or ‘Abd Al-Rahman) were also changed from those given to them at birth, since they indicated servitude and bondage to created beings or people.

The father of the Tabi’i, Sa’id b. al-Musayyab refused to changed his name from Hazn (harsh in disposition) upon the urging of the Prophet. Consequently, his character was adversely affected.

As for last names, the Arabs of the early period did not have last names. Rather, their last names were connected to tribal affiliations or titles attaching them to certain tribal or regional sectors, like Qurashi, Khazraji, Makki, etc. Imam al-Bukhari, the famous hadith master and historian’s real name was Muhammad b. Isma’il.

Al-Bukhari simply indicated the part of Persia he came from: Bukhara. The same can be said for all the other famous scholars. This same trend can be detected in the European and other traditions (although I plan to exhaust more research on the matter) such that last names that are familiar today originate in some sort of occupation, tribal affiliation, or regional ascription. Names like Johnson, Anderson, Jackson, Williamson, Fredrickson, Henderson, etc. originally was a way to say “son of John, son of Ander, etc.”

The name, Black, may have originated from the word “Blacksmith”, and then shortened for brevity. Imam Abu Hamid’s own last name Al-Ghazali (or Al-Ghazzali) originates from the “spinner and seller of wool”, since his father was a poor wool merchant. So, in the end, you have not done anything inappropriate by giving your children your last name unless they are not biologically yours. And Allah knows best

Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali

He holds a Ph.D. in Cultural and Historical Studies in Religion (2016) and an M.A. in Ethics and Social Theory (2012) from the Graduate Theological Union. He  obtained his B.A. (ijaza ‘ulya) in Islamic Law (Shariah) from the prestigious Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes, Morocco in 2001. He served as full time Islamic chaplain at the State Correctional Institute of Chester, PA from 2002-2007, and is the founding director of the Lamppost Education Initiative. He currently serves as an Associate Professor of Islamic law and Prophetic Tradition at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. His research interests include the interconnection between law and identity formation, comparative Islamic law, and Islam’s role in the modern world.
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