What’s in a Muslim name?

Did you change your name when you converted? I did what I suspect most did: adopted a Muslim name to use with my Muslim friends, and kept my old one to use with everyone else. It helped that my middle name was (or rather, is still) Joseph, a name with a very convenient Islamic - that is to say Arabic - equivalent, namely Yusuf. My conversion certificate says Mohammad Yusuf, a name given to me by a total stranger whose name I’ve long since forgotten who happened to be there when I took the shahada in front of Qasim Rashid Ahmad, the then imam of Croydon mosque and two brothers down from Dewsbury with the Tablighi Jama’at. I haven’t used Mohammad in some time; I generally call myself either Matthew Smith or Yusuf Smith.

Sister Ify, who runs the blog Muslim Apple, also changed her name back a few years ago, or rather, stopped using the name Zainab, which she says was given to her by some guy she met on a bus, who told her it was his little sister’s name and that she reminded him of her. She found it “strange, impractical, and uncomfortable to use two names, one name in the Muslim community and another name outside of the community”, a situation with which I can empathise. I have sometimes been asked whether someone should call me Matthew or Yusuf, and a few Muslims I have come across had no concept of a double name, which is the norm in the west. They assumed that Yusuf must have been my father’s name (it’s not). A newspaper once refused to publish a letter with one of my names in brackets; since then, I have always submitted them as plain Matthew J Smith. My Facebook friends, Muslim or otherwise, know me as Matthew.

The problem is that the name Matthew is nowhere recognised as a Muslim name, and on the first day I converted, I gave my name as Matthew and was immediately presumed a non-Muslim. The name does appear in the Qur’an as Matta, the father of the prophet Yunus (known to Christians as Jonah, peace be upon him), and the Jewish version is Amittai, but the name is commonly associated with one of the four closest companions of Jesus (peace be upon him). Ify told me that the name means a gift from God and that there was nothing particularly tying it to Christianity, but the fact is that it is widely regarded as a Christian name. I have never heard of a Muslim with that name who was not a western convert and did not have an adopted Muslim name.

The problem of converts being bullied into changing their names is a well-known one, although some converts are in fact more than willing to do so. The general ruling is that changing the name is only mandatory when the old name is inherently anti-Islamic, the name of a well-known Californian female tennis player (with a younger sister who is also a tennis player) being a well-known example. Most of the Sahaba did not have to change their names, and most of the Arabic names commonly presumed to be “Islamic” in fact predate Islam. Some of them are not even Arabic: the name Fairuz, which was the name of a male Sahabi (Fairuz al-Dailami, radhi Allahu ‘anhu) but it also given to girls in some places, is of Persian origin. We do not even think of the meanings of most of these names, only that they were the names of Sahabis. In fact, converts tend to choose from a very small pool of names.

In parts of the Muslim world which are not Arabic-speaking, non-Arabic names are very common. Persian names are particularly common both in Iran and right across India, with a few names popping up in other languages; the same is true of Turkish, Indonesian and West African names in their respective countries, and most Arabic names would simply get mangled in China. Some names which are masculine in one language are feminine in another, or vice versa - the name Yunus, for example, sounds like the English woman’s name Eunice. A lot of Arabic names do not sound nice to non-Arab ears, much as many English names might sound off-putting to anyone who did not know what they mean; other names might sound banal. The name Nur or Noor means light in Arabic, and the English equivalent is Claire; in German, however, nur is a common word which means “only”. It’s just a word!

Of course, there are a lot of bad western names, many of them communicating low class or a lack of understanding. There are a lot of surnames being pointlessly deployed as first names, along with mangled place names and personal names. Eastern names tend to get filtered through many sound shifts, so you get two names which trace back to the same Hebrew name. The name Jacob or Ya’qoob, for example, has been mangled beyond recognition, becoming Giacomo, Diego, Jacques, James, Siams (pronounced like the Arabic word Shams, meaning sun) and Seamus. I have heard of two brothers called John and Sean (the same name in English and Gaelic), and the names Ronald and Reginald, as applied to the famous gangster twins of London, are also the same name.

So, if you are a convert to Islam and have an un-Islamic name, change it. If you have a stupid or chavvy name, you might want to change that as well. But most western names are none of these things — they simply do not identify you as a Muslim. The problem is that neither do most Arabic names, which are actually commonly used by Christians in Arab countries too. I personally do not intend to stop using Yusuf, but I applaud anyone who resists the demand to change their name, particularly if it comes from a total stranger.

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