What's in a name? More than you think. If you're thinking
about changing your name to something more "Islamic,"
read this article first to avoid mistakes. Our ancestry are to
us like roots are to a tree, one cannot truly cut them off.
One of these faults, which are widespread among Muslims, especially those who are serious about their religion, is the changing of the family name to a Muslim name. This is forbidden by Allah, hence He says, "Call them after their fathers. That is most just in the sight of Allah. If you know not their fathers, then call them your brothers in faith and your patrons. There is no blame on you if you make a mistake but you are accountable for what is done intentionally. Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful." [Qur'an 33:5]
In his famous tafseer, Imam ibn Katheer said that this verse abrogated a ruling of something that was allowed at the beginning of Islam. Abdullah ibn Umar said, "We used to call Zayd ibn Harithah, the patron of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, Zayd ibn Mohammed until the Qur'an stated, "Call them after their fathers. That is most just in the sight of Allah." (Bukhari) Ibn Katheer said, "Allah ordered us to call them by their real fathers' names. That is only just and fair."
This common mistake among new Muslims in the West, namely changing their family name, typically can lead them to fall into the following prohibitions:
First, Neglect of Allah's Orders:
It makes them subject to the grave warning and the definite threat that came in several ahadeeth. One of these ahadeeth, narrated by Imam Ahmad and Ibn Majah from Ibn Abbaas say, that the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said that, "Whomever is not named after his father, or who takes as a benefactor and protector other than his supporter, is cursed by Allah, His Angels and all the people." This is a severe and definite warning to those who are not named after their real fathers.
Just because the father's name is a Christian name or a non-Muslim name is not reason enough, in Islam, to change it. And so if one's father name is George, he should not change it to Muhammad or Ali for example. One must be named after his real father's name, even if he is a non-believer (kafir), or the worst enemy to Allah and His Messenger, sallallahu alayhe wa sal-lam.
To help illustrate this point, examine the following:
Ikrimah ibn Abi Jahl: This companion of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam became a Muslim in the year of al-Fatih or the concurring of Makkah, and was one of the best Muslims, one who fought for the sake of Allah until he was killed. He was the son of one of the worst of Allah's enemies, Abu Jahl, the man who fought the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, with his hands, tongue and money. Nevertheless, Ikremah never changed his father's name after becoming a Muslim. He kept his real father's name although it was not an honorable one.
Ramlah bint Abi Sufyan: The Mother of the believers, the wife of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, married the Prophet before her father himself became a Muslim. Yet, she did not change her name and the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, did not order her to change it, although he was one of the Prophet's strongest enemies at the time.
Safiyyah bint Huyay: Her father Huyay ibn Akhtab was a Jew. When she became a Muslim, the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam married her, and she did not change her father's or her grandfather's name even though everyone knew that they were non-believers, and that they were the enemies of Allah and his Messenger, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam. More than that, Safiyyah used to visit her family, and when Umar ibnul Khattab heard that she liked the Jews, he asked her about it. She replied that they were her family, and that as a Muslim she was supposed to keep her kin ties strong and, that that was the reason for her visits with them. Look at this example! Safiyyah did not forsake her family ties and never abandoned her family's name. She did this because she knew that her name would not hurt her or weaken her faith and belief in Allah.
There are many more examples, but in these three I hope that all of us find good enough reasons to rethink the issue, and to avoid doing the opposite of what these three good companions of the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, did.
The Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said, "He who knowingly claims to be the son of other than his father, then he is forbidden from entering Paradise." How can those who are running away from the Hellfire, by seeking Islam and becoming Muslims, be so negligent, that they might end up in it anyway, by carelessly misnaming themselves to others than their real fathers? Why would anyone claim to be the son of someone he knows for sure is not his father? One may meet a Muslim who claims that his name is Muhammad Abdurrahman Ali. One would think that this means he is Muhammad the son of Abdurrahman, and the grandson of Ali. But after checking, one would be surprised to discover that Abdurrahman and Ali are not real people at all, and that Muhammad, who happens to be the son of John, the grandson of Roberts, for example, made them up. This is not a good thing to do, for it leads one to fall into the next sin, falsification.
Second, Cheating People and Misleading Them:
In the previous example, when one hears the name Muhammad Abdurrahman Ali, one automatically thinks that the name belongs to a Muslim from a Muslim country. You do not expect it to belong to be an American or a European from a Western non-Muslim father. This is an obvious case of cheating and falsification, especially if the information is presented on paper, like on a resume or other documents, meant for official procedures or employment. This falsification is the same as lying, if not worse.
Third, Injustice and Aggression:
For someone to be called after other than his real father's name is to do great injustice to the father. This is why Allah says, "Call them after their fathers. That is most just in the sight of Allah." It is only just and fair that Allah has made that obligatory on us. How can anyone of us, willingly, choose to do otherwise?
Such acts are not allowed in Islam, whether the father is a Muslim or not. It is imperative that Muslims who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and who have read these scripts and warnings but have fallen into this sin, to repent to Allah, subhanahu wa ta'ala, and correct their mistake by renaming themselves after their real fathers, John, George or any other.
What Should One Do?
Stating the above, the following question needs to be answered: What can a person who does not know his real father do? This is especially important because promiscuity in the West has made this task difficult. Allah has revealed the answer to this question, "If you know not their fathers, then call them your brothers in faith and your patrons." [5:33] Of the one who does not know his father, we ask, who was the man who raised and took care of you? If the answer is, my stepfather, or this man whose name is, for example, Ibrahim, then we call the person, our brother in Islam, Ibrahim's patron.
If he has no patron, then he can relate his name to his country or city and add his kunia, or nickname, to it. A lot of prominent Muslim scholars have done this in the past. The name can be for example, Abu Muhammad (nickname), Ali (his name) al-Canadi (the Canadian), or al-Ameriky (the American), or al-Britany (the British), so on and so forth.
One excuse for the father's name change that some people use, is the allegation that their fathers' and grandfathers' names are not their real names. They are names, they say, that were given to them by the slave masters. Therefore, they are changing these names so that they change the names, which are related to a bad interval in their history. The answer is that this action is a misconception and a direct contradiction to the above verse. Allah has obliged us to be named after our real fathers. If one's father's real name was changed by force during the period of slavery, and you managed to know the original name, then use it. But if you do not know the real name and you change the current name, then you have committed the same sin as the oppressor, for you have changed a man's name. Such a situation, however, applies only to a number of people in the West.
Another excuse some people use for example, is that one would say, "I am calling myself Muhammad Abdullah (i.e. the slave of Allah) and that should be alright, for we are all slaves of Allah, believers and non-believers." And even though this statement is true in general, people use names to indicate and ascertain a specific blood relationship, and not to make a general statement about the fact that one is the son of a man who was created by Allah. Again, we must be careful so that we do not fall in the name change trap.
Wives Taking Their Husbands' Last Names:
It is important to note that one of the forms of being named after other than your father, is what some newly converted Muslim women do. They change their family names to their husbands' family names, as is the norm in the West. I have seen many Muslim men and women who have fallen into this prohibition. This type of name change actually has two problems. The first is the fact that the woman would fall into the sin of changing the name of her real father who spent his life and money caring for her. What a recompense! The second is making resemblance to the non-believers in a tradition that is permanently a part of their lifestyle.
An Important Question:
Many newly reverted Muslims ask, should they change their
If the name is forbidden in Islam. For example, if the name implies worshipping other than Allah like Abdush-Shams (slave of the sun), Abdun-Nabi (slave of the Prophet), Abdul-Maseeh (slave of the Christ), etc. Also, if the name symbolizes idols like Naelah, Hubal or Buddha, then it must be changed immediately.
If the name is typical of the non-believers like Botros, John, Diana, Suzanne or Victoria, then a Muslim should stay away from these names.
If the name praises oneself, as in the case of Barrah (pious), the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, changed it to Zainab and said, "Do not praise yourself. Allah knows the pious ones more than you do." (Muslim)
If the name has a bad meaning like the names of animals such as Faar (mouse), Kalb (dog), Hanash (snake). Or pronounced badly in another language such as Tom (many pronounce it Toom, which sounds like garlic in Arabic).
If the non-Muslim name is like one of the above then it must be changed to a good Muslim name, one that is desirable in Islam. For example Abdurrahman, Abdullah, any of the Prophets' names, the companions names, the wives of the Prophet, allallahu alayhe wa sallam, or his daughters.
It should be taken into consideration that only the first name is changed and not the father's name no matter how bad it is. In the Day of Judgment, people will be called by their fathers' names. Bukhari wrote a chapter in his book about people being called by their fathers' names. In it he mentions a hadeeth narrated by Ibn Umar who said that the Prophet, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam, said, "On the Day of Judgment, a sign will be raised for the deceitful saying, 'This is the deceit of Fulan Ibn Fulan (this man the son of such a man).'" It is necessary to mention that we should use the relational noun between names in the Arabic language. For example Muhammad George Al-Ferency (the French) should be called Muhammad the son of George the French.
Finally, after reading this clear account, accompanied by evidences and examples, it now becomes necessary for every Muslim who believes in Allah and the Last Day, to correct such mistakes and go back to his real name. A worshipper is judged by his deeds, and his emaan (faith). Allah knows best who is pious and who is not, and changing names in the way we were discussing does not increase it. As was demonstrated, such an act can in fact hurt one's relationship with Allah. And Allah knows best.