About a year ago, I went to visit some relatives of mine in Ontario whom I had not seen for almost 10 years. I had reverted to Islam a few years ago, and even though everyone in my family knew about it, I was unsure how they would react when I saw them face-to-face. Would they still be feeling the aftershocks of the M-Bomb I detonated when I said “I am a Muslim”? Would they even care? As it turned out, no, and I thank God for blessing me with a truly compassionate family. But, when reminded of my conversion, my Aunt asked me “Does that mean we shouldn’t call you ‘Aaron’ anymore?” There was no condescension in her voice, just a simple, straight-forward question.
I smiled, and said, “No, I’m still Aaron.”
My journey into Islam was a little bit unconventional, to say the least. In fact, I had never even set foot inside a masjid or read the Quran or spoken with an imam prior to my embracing Islam. I took my shahada (testimony of faith) after dinner at my girlfriend’s boss’s place. And I remember one of the first things that I was told after my reversion is that there was no need to change my name because my name was already Islamic; ‘Aaron’, after all, is merely the English version of the Arabic ‘Haroon’, the brother of Moses/Musa (peace be upon them). That was that and I never really thought much of it. However, as I progressed I found that many people who revert to Islam do change their names to Arabic names. Cat Stevens became Yusuf Islam; Skip Estes became Yusuf Estes (though I can’t blame him for wanting to change his name there); even one of the earliest authentic translators of the Quran, Marmaduke Pickthal, changed his name to Mohammed Pickthal.
So why didn’t I change my name? Well, I’ll tell you why.
I remember seeing this one video of an interview with a girl who had also just become a Muslim. It detailed how she and her family were Catholic, and how she grew up going to church. I don’t remember much about that video, and its since been buried in the thousands of “revert interview” videos on YouTube, but there are two things she said that, to this day, have stuck with me. The first was when the interviewer asked her “So why did you join Islam?” and she said, without missing a beat, in the most polite and sincere voice ever, “Because it is the truth.” No elaboration, no rhetorical dialogue, just straight fact. And then, secondly, the interviewer asked her “Why didn’t you change your name?” And she responded in the same polite, straightforward voice “Because it’s the name my mother gave me.” Her response was simple, yet profound, and to this day it remains even more so. I would mimic her response a few years later when asked a similar question. [Update: I found the video here.]
Islam places the parents only second before God. For example: (And (remember) when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel, (saying): Worship none save Allah (only), and be good to parents and to kindred and to orphans and the needy, and speak kindly to mankind; and establish worship and pay the poor due. Then, after that, ye slid back, save a few of you, being averse.) (2:83)
(And serve Allah. Ascribe no thing as partner unto Him. (Show) kindness unto parents, and unto near kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and into the neighbor who is of kin (unto you) and the neighbor who is not of kin and the fellow traveler and the wayfarer and (the slaves) whom your right hands possess. Lo! Allah loveth not such as are proud and boastful.) (4:36)
(Thy Lord hath decreed, that ye worship none save Him, and (that ye show) kindness to parents. If one of them or both of them to attain old age with thee, say not “Fie” unto them nor repulse them, but speak unto them a gracious word.) (17:23)
And like the girl in the video, I chose to keep my name as “Aaron” as a way of honouring my parents. My name is the name they chose for me, the name that the world would call me by, and the name I will be called by on the Day of Judgement. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “You will be called on the Day of Resurrection by your names and the names of your fathers, so have good names.”Even though my mom insists that it was just because it was the first name in the Baby Book, she felt that the name suited me. She could have kept looking, kept searching for a name, but God ordained it so that she would open that book, see that name, and give that name to her son.
But honouring the parents isn’t the only reason I kept my name. To me, a name is an identity. How many times have you heard something along the lines of “That’s something only Brad would do,” or “How could Stacey do that?” or “That’s John for you”. If you know someone, even the mere mention of their name brings to mind their character, their appearance, their existence. Take for example the second statement: “How could Stacey do that?” The person speaking this has obviously heard of Stacey doing something that is, by all accounts, contradictory to her character; maybe she’s a well-respected student and just set off a firecracker in the girl’s washroom, or conversely, she’s a bitter, depressing sour-face, who simply smiled at someone and said “Good morning”. In any case, the idea of who “Stacey” is effectively ingrained into her name. Sometimes this becomes the case across many people with the same name; some people don’t like the name “Frank” because someone named “Frank” caused them grief sometime in the past. Similarly, my name is who I am; when someone hears my name, and they know me, they know what to expect of me, and it is my obligation to fulfil those expectations. That’s not pride talking; it’s rooted in our psychology. Why do you think so many Muslims name their child “Mohammed”? The name alone beings to mind the final Prophet, the best of mankind, and a man who God described as “a mercy to all the worlds.” (21:107), may peace and blessings be upon him.
All that being said, I do not hold animosity towards my brothers and sisters who have changed their names. Like all things in life, it is a choice. In fact, it may very well be that they are stronger in faith than I am, and that their decision to change their name reflects that. Furthermore I understand it to be a reflection of their Islamic identity, something that they want to show to the world. Think about it; when you see a name like “Aziz” or “Mohammed” or “Ali”, you’re pretty safe to say that they’re a Muslim without being accused of racial profiling. Furthermore, some people lead harsh lives prior to embracing Islam. Upon becoming Muslims, it’s like starting a new life, and a new name is symbolic of that.
However, no one should be told that they have to change their name, or that they are obligated to change their name. No one could compel them to do so, because, as the Quran famously states, “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256). Islam is not in what your name is, but Islam is in what you do, how you worship God, how you treat people. Islam is not Arabic; Islam is meant for all mankind. In fact, the majority of Muslims are not even Arabic, they are Asian. As mentioned before, my name is technically Islamic already; it’s just in English. But that doesn’t mean I want people to call me “Haroon”; I don’t like it when I tell a brother that my name is Aaron and he calls me Haroon. That’s not the name I was given; I was born “Aaron”, and I prefer to keep it that way. On the flipside, you wouldn’t call a man named “Yusuf” as “Joseph” just because it’s the English equivalent.
The Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) didn’t change their names when they reverted to Islam, unless their names conveyed a bad meaning. Umar remained Umar, Abu Bakr remained Abu Bakr, Bilal remained Bilal. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) asked a few companions to change their names because they conveyed aggressive meanings, such as Harb (which means war) and Sa’b (which means difficult). Umar had a daughter named Asiyah (meaning disobedient or rude) and so Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) changed her name to Jamilah (meaning beautiful).
My advice to new Muslims is that if you want to change your name, you are free to do so, but don’t do it because someone forced you to. If you feel that changing your name will result in unnecessary hardship on your friends and family, then don’t do it because this would only result in alienation. And never change your last name either. This is akin to attributing parentage to someone other than your own biological father. As God says in the Qur’an, “Proclaim their real parentage. That will be more equitable in the sight of Allah. And if you do not know their fathers, then they are your brothers in the faith…”(33: 5). I’d also suggest reading this fascinating series of articles by John “Yahya” Ederer, a revert who also went through the trials of “name changing”.
And finally, don’t forget where you came from. Who we are in the present is a culmination of who we were in the past.