What’s in a name? or Why you don’t have to and shouldn’t change your name in Islam.

Joe Bradford

| 01/03/2012

helloWhat’s your name? Joe.
Hey Joe!
Joe Mama!

A common occurrence from some of my friends and classmates growing up.

Another favorite was at the beginning of the school year, when the teacher just HAD to call out our full names during roll call, and after she mentioned my middle name all I would hear for the rest of the year was: “What you talking about Willis?”

Even crueler things about my middle would be said as well, usually referring to the fact that my middle name wasn’t a “white person’s” name, if you can get what I’m saying.

I was named after my father and my grandfather. I remember growing up proud of the fact that I was named after them, that my names had great meanings; Joe from Joseph, meaning “He will add”; Willis meaning “son of determination”.

I remember being accosted by a group of people on the day I accepted Islam, many of them insisting that I change my name. However, I used my name Joe for about a year after accepting Islam. One day someone insisted that I needed a ‘good Muslim name’ and after some thought, as well as allowing some resentment of my father to get the best of me (my parents divorced when I was young) I thought it may be a good idea.

Eventually, as years past, changing my name became not the adding of new attributes, but the denial of constant realities. An act of defiance almost, a disclaimer that I wasn’t who you thought I was. This went on for a long while, with not a peep from the Muslim community or a suggestion to reconsider.

Throughout this entire time, I was learning and growing, and I eventually went overseas to study in the Blessed city of Medina.

While I was there, I was studying under a prominent scholar in Medina, and he would constantly call me “Joe”. Once in class he did this, and someone said “his name is Hud” to which he said “Yes, but he is Joe to his parents.”

Another time something similar happened. After class, he pulled me to the side and said “Joe,” I cut him off and said “Hud”.

He smiled and said “Your parents named you Joe, and I would hate for you to change something good that they gave you.” He continued saying “Think of Allah’s statement in Surat Yusuf (12:68):

And when they entered according to their father’s advice, it did not avail them in the least against the Will of Allah; but it met a need Jacob’s heart that he needed fulfilled.

He said “See how he requested something that wasn’t essential, wasn’t necessary, and the only purpose was to fulfill a personal need he had? Allah orders us to respect our parents in all cases; we can only disobey them if they order us to commit shirk. Even then we must respect them and treat them kindly. Even though they may accept you using another name, keep your original name out of respect for them, out of respect for their choices. You’ll be rewarded for that.”

I saw my father after this; he came to visit us one summer. As we were in the airport, he glanced over at the wall and laughed. I looked over and there was a sign with a cow’s head on it that said “Hood’s Ice Cream”. He looked at me and smiled approvingly. Contrast this with how upset my mother had become when I told her I was changing my name. Even though she and my father had a difficult relationship, the name they gave me was still important to her.

I remember telling the advice of the sheikh to a friend of mine, who said that when he accepted Islam, and he changed his name, his father boycotted him saying “What sort of religion tells you to change the name your father gave you?”

The words of the sheikh remained with me as food for thought, but I did not realize the wisdom of this until my father died. He was also named “Joe” as well. I started to think about my children, would I like it if they changed the names I gave them?

After my father passed, I moved to Riyadh to work in a bank. I wore a suit and a tie. I made it a point to use the name Joe with everyone. Some were offended by this. Some were indifferent. I met a scholar, one that sits on the highest board of scholars in Saudi Arabia. He asked me about my name, what it meant, where I got it.

After answering he said “I appreciate that you have preserved your culture, your dress, your name; it is completely contradictory that we say Islam is a universal religion, and then tell people to choose Arabic names, eat Arabic food, and dress like Arabs. Sure we have regulations for dress, but that the how to wear, not the what to wear. Be you, that is the best example you can be; you’ll do more for Islam that way. Both Muslims and other faiths should know that we can have a person of knowledge named Joe; that is the universal nature of Islam”.

So since one way to honor one’s parents is to visit their friends after they have passed, and honor their wishes towards them, because of the friendship and love between them, then how much more than for things that ‘meet a need in their heart that needed to be fulfilled’?

I figured it was time for me to make good on respect to one parent that passed, and hopefully earn the respect of the one that is still with us.

May Allah guide all of us to respect for our parents, our cultures, and the needs of our people. Amin


38 thoughts on “What’s in a name? or Why you don’t have to and shouldn’t change your name in Islam.”

  1. ASAWRWB Akhil Habeeb Joe,

    I loved the article. MaashaaAllaha, very captivating and very well written. Captures your inner-thoughts about your name all through-out your years of being a Muslim. May Allaah (swt) reward you with the best. Aameen!


  2. Alhamdulillah, what a good story and a good lesson. I used to think it was mandatory for converts to change their name and it would seem odd when you would see on that didn’t. But I know better now and it’s really beautiful to have Muslims with names like Joe, Ashley and etc.

    Did you tell your parents that you’re going back to being called Joe? How did they react?

  3. As-salaamu ‘alaikum
    Very interesting read. Thank you for sharing the wise words and sentiments of the Shaykh. Truly they are beacons for us in this age.

  4. Asalamo 3laykom wr Allah wb brother. This article comes with perfect timing for me. May Allah reward you and the Sheikh who advised you, ameen ya rabbil’alameen.

  5. Salaam Alaikum,

    This is a great article but you have neglected a major point. The origin of changing the name comes from a practice noted three times in the Sunnah of Muhammad (SAWS) wherein he changed the names of those who had names that were against Islamic ideas. I do not recall each instance but I do recall that one’s name meant “servant of” a pagan deity and another’s name meant something that would create an ego (like Princess or Queen or Most Beautiful or something).

    I am at work now so I cannot look up those Hadith but it is important to note that according to the sunnah there are times wherein we are required to change our names when we embrace Islam.

    1. DustonB, You are correct that the Messenger changed people’s names when they had bad meanings or meanings that connoted shirk. This article was more of a personal narrative than a exhaustive study of the topic.

      1. In that vein I can definitely appreciate it as such.

        I too was told that I had to change my name and since “Duston” means “Valiant Warrior” I chose the name “Saifullah” as I felt a kinship with the name and the spiritual journey of Khalid ibn Walid.

        Later I dropped the use of this name except in circles where it seems relevant to introduce myself as a Muslim to those who may question my lack of a “Muslim name”.

        I introduce myself as Duston, I sign letters as Duston “Saifullah” and of course I use the moniker of “Brother Saifullah” when I had my radio show. It helps and it hurts, all depending on how it is used.

        May Allah (SWT) reward you for educating people on the perfect way of life that is Islam and for sharing your personal experiences and how greater understanding of this deen has affected your interactions.


  6. Brothers/sisters,

    Are you noticing these dangerous trends? Wallahi it is sad and frightening. First we have people throwing away and at sometimes discouraging the “islamic attire”, e.g. turban, thawb, kufi, etc. Then we have them give 8 different opinions on the beard to the point where men are disgarding this Sunnah=Fard. Then we have them (you know who I’m talking about!) saying that women should NOT wear Niqab here in America. Now we have a guy, who by the look of his name I willl not even suspect him to be a muslim, saying that reverts should not change their name! Subhanallah I think we should wake up, smell the stinge of such kalaam and go back to the orginal understanding of Islam!

    Now I am not saying that a person who just became a muslim MUST be forced into changing his name, but he should NOT be discouraged and be told you do not have to change it. I have witnessed and gave shahadah to many people and the first thing they want to do is change their name because they LOVE the name of a Muslim and want to be a true muslim in every form and way. Why deprive them of this by polluting their minds with such articles and fatwas that is unncessary. They come into Islam with such enthusiasm and pure heart but we ruin it for them :(.

    I would like to advice myself, you and everyone reading this article to “Fear Allah and know that you will have to account for everything you said and do not have to account for anything you did not say!”

    1. Akhi Ali,

      Jazaakumallaahu Khair for your post. I could not agree with you more when you said: “I would like to advice myself, you and everyone reading this article to “Fear Allah and know that you will have to account for everything you said and do not have to account for anything you did not say!””

      Let the speaker of these words and the people to whom these are spoken to, take into account their statements, and look into validity of the proofs for the positions that they hold!

      Can you please enlighten us as to how changing someone’s name into a “Muslim/Arabic” name would help that person “to be a true Muslim in every form and way”? What is the problem in name “Joe”? Prophet Muhammad (saws) changed the names of those whose names meant Shirk .. like slave of Al-Laat or Al-Uzza (both of them being pagan Gods). I feel that Br. Joe has a very strong burhaan and proof to stand on if he chooses to continue to be called by his name.

      I agree with the Sheikh who advised him not to change his name and to uphold his culture. I am sure, he knew that ‘urf (tradition or culture) is one of the sources of sharee’ah, and as long as it does not go against the other more primary sources of sharee’ah (Quraan, Sunnah of the beloved Messenger (saws), the ijmaa’ of the sahaabah, qiyaas, etc), then ‘urf becomes a part of the sharee’ah. So, if you have a desi parent who would like you to wear Shalwaar Kameez and eat biryani, and you would do that to please your parents, you would be rewarded for that (more than eating pizza and burgers in your jeans :). Conversely, if your American parents, who would want you to eat pizza and wear jeans, and you would do that to please them, then you will be rewarded for that as well. Point made – I dont want to belabor this further.

      We tend to see a lot of religious zealots, mostly from the younger generation, who when they start to learn about Islaam and become religious, become very stringent and strict about their picture of “Islaam”. Their immature understanding of Islaam leads them to be very radical in their decisions, and very harsh in their dealings with the people. Being humble and gentle in one’s dealings only beautifies one’s Islaam. Imaam Ibnul Qayyim said that for a person to be a good judge, he needs to know two things: (1) The knowledge of Sharee’ah (2) and the knowledge of the people around him. Understanding people’s culture and traditions and upholding it, as long as the conditions of its validity are met, is certainly a part of Islaam, as Islaam is truly the universal deen, for all times and all places.

      Wallaahu ‘aalam!


    2. With all due respect, brother, you are implying that only Arab names are “true Muslim” names, and that is just not the case.

    3. Pls understand that Muslim names do not equal Arabic names and Arabic names do not equal Muslim names. Otherwise why would Rasulullah saw change the name of those sahaba whose name were already Arabic?? Muslim names are simply good names i.e. names with good meaning whether it is in Arabic, English, Chinese, Russian or any language.

  7. Salams,
    Hey Joe, are you the Joe Bradford who has a boy called Billy Jalal, named after a footballing grandfather of yours? If so, please get in touch, would be good to hear from you.

  8. Like many converts, I was told I had to change my name. I chose Yusuf on the spot, but it never stuck. Occasionally I run into someone who thinks it really strange or alarming that I still use the very Irish name that my parent gave me. I don’t know what to tell them, I am a Muslim, and I wear a beard, but I don’t wear a thobe or a kufi, I just try to make sure I cover myself appropriately, and avoid showing off or being arrogant with my dress. The clothes I wear are part of my culture. No one raises a stink when South Asians wear shalwar kameez, why should someone care if I wear jeans? My name is Ryan, and I am an American Muslim.

    1. Good for your Ryan, for upholding your dress and your culture, as it does not stand against the firm rulings of Islaam, and for wearing the proud identity of an American Muslim!

  9. بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

    As-salāmu `alaykum wa raḥmatullāhi wa barakātuh.

    JazākAllāhu khayran for this enlightening article, Shaykh Joe (حفظك الله ورعاك)! May Allāh continue to bring about benefit through you for the Ummah. Āmīn.

  10. AS a Black Amercian convert and a brother who has struggle aganist domestic colonization I defintenly think it is better to change if you are a Africian Amercian.These names where given to us by our slave masters who supressed us of our idenity.Changeing our names from Tom,Walter,etc was a revoultionmary act for many of us.I never had a slave name my father was socially conscience and was intuned and apart of the popular wave of resistance of the 60’s.Later on he became a muslim but before that conversion he gave me the name Kwame after one of the leading Pan -Afrcianist and former President of Ghana Kwame Nkhrumah.This was revoultionary at the time I didn’t myself realise this until I came a adult.At that time barely in anybody had the name Kwame .It was different for sure.This was done before he became a muslim and being by named was never attached to our slave masters or former colonial masters I never felt the need to change it to Arabic one.And also the meaning was good one.There was once a famous activist in Harlem,NY who said slaves are named by there masters and free men named themselves.For Afrcian Amercians I think this opinion by this activists has alot of truth.And also the tradition of changing our names I feel is a good our mental transformation of being given namesby people who despised us of having any knowledge of self or our historical roots.Also what next it seems that there is movement to water down the boldness that muslims once had of the outward expressions of the deen.I respect your opinion my brother but I defintenly can’t get with this.

  11. when i became muslim i followed what my husband told me to do and changed my name .i wish i hadnt now a few years down the line, but as ive always hated my former name (bullied because of it) i will stick with the first name i have now but i changed my last name back to my fathers name jeffs. having an arab name is unnecessary really. i found out a lot of what is pakistani culture and what is islam , years ago i didnt have a clue . nice article btw

  12. As-salam alaykum, shaykh Joe

    Very nice, brave and important piece, masha Allah. It was very profound and heartfelt.

    May God be with you.

  13. Salaamz,

    I think that the issue of changing one’s name upon acceptance of Islam is a personal matter, and should be respected as such. As long as a name does not have a bad meaning, then it should be entirely left up to the individual to choose whether or not to take on another name. I know several reverts/converts who have chosen to keep their names, and I also know several who have chosen to change their names (as I have).

    The reasons for either decision are generally highly personal, and should be respected, either way. I chose to change my name because, for me, it was the ultimate symbol of not only my life changing, but of me changing. When I embraced Islam, I became a different person on many levels, and felt that I was merely technically the same person. Changing my name also served as an immediate and constant reminder that I had chosen to submit, and that I needed to do so fully.

    As I have said, reasons are personal, and my above stated reason is personal, and individual. What I felt that I personally needed, I am not saying that all reverts/converts need as well. For some (women), simply donning the headscarf does the job for them. I just felt that I needed this little extra push.

    On a side note, I never really liked my birth name; it has no special significance at all (I was named for a TV actress and a country music star. Hardly anything special about that!). It never seemed to fit me. When I heard my name, it was like fingernails down a chalkboard, and I hated it. It was a clumsy name, and seemed more appropriate for a boy. It just never felt like “my” name.

    Now, alhamdulilah, I have a name that feels very much like my name. I love it. I finally found my real identity.

  14. Actually Ali makes some real good points there does seem to b this trend to kill the zeal and pride that people have for Islam.After reading the Shamaa-il Tirmidhi or SublimeConduct of Nabi Sallallahu Alayhi wasallam by yourself or in a circle the love of the Prophet [saw]and his sahabah increases in a persons heart.You defintenly want to emulate them outwardly and inwardly may be not all the times due to work but defintenly sometimes.Why all these discussions isn’t because of post Sept 11th and the nation state effort to implement draconian leglislation aganist muslims and people who will fight back.Are we as Amercian muslims just hiding behind cowardnince and are using differences for that reason without saying it.You never hear a Deobandi alim ever talking like this.Or the Tabligh Jammaat who some of us have criticize at times unfairly encourage this type of discourse.Not because their old fashion but because they know what preserving Islamic culture and customs mean to the ummah.By the way I never have differed with Bilal Phillips approach on keeping the last name even though I know many people who detested this also.I think his reasons have more merit then our very learned brother Joe.May Allah guide us all to the right!Ameen!

    1. To follow the ways of the Prophet is waajib on the Muslim. But there is debate in the scholars on whether his human likes and dislikes should be emulated also. The safest position that I heard is that if one does that out of the love for the Prophet Muhammad (saws), like Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar (for ex: he would make the intention for ‘umrah at the same time of the day when he saw the Prophet Muhammad (saws) doing so, and he would make this intention near the same tree that he found the Prophet Muhammad (saws) making so … this action was disliked by his father – ‘Umar Bin Al-Khattab (r)), then it will be rewarded.

      But to make this as a general rule, and to teach it to Muslims, and to give an impression that not doing it would be going against the sunnah and following your old “traditional” ways (I refer to those traditions which do not conflict with Islaam) would be going astray – is wrong.

      If someone has the zeal and enthusiasm, then good for him or her. But come on – to make a general rule that every brother wear a thawb or a shalwar kameez is ridiculous, incorrect, against the sunnah and irrational.

      Before speaking about sheikh Bilal Phillips, do you know what his old name was, and why he opted to change only his first name, and so on. Please do not allude to subjects that you yourself seem to be not sure of.

      Knowledge is the solution to this ignorance. Knowledge will channel the love that one has for the Prophet Muhammad (saws). With one’s love for the Rasool (saws) and the knowledge of his beloved sunnah, one would try to perfect one’s manners and ‘ibaadat first. And if one EVER perfects that in one’s lifetime, then, look into more minute issues of eating a juicy part of the sheep’s leg because that was what was loved by Prophet Muhammad (saws) and to wear a thawb like the one that he (saws) wore. Wallaahu ‘aalam.

      My advice is not dampening the spirit of Islaam – but to properly channel it. Please dont think that wearing thawb and eating lamb would bring you much closer to Allaah (swt) than perfecting your 5 daily prayers for example, in the manner performed by Prophet Muhammad (saws).


  15. Proverbs 22:1, Surah Baqarah 2:41,42,44, Surah At-Tawbah 9:23-24, Surah Al-A’raf 7:70-71, 7:179-180

  16. Collard Green Muslim

    I enjoyed reading this article so much and the perspective you shared. I faced similar pressure as a convert; my parents made me swear I’d never change my name after I told them about my conversion so I kept it.

  17. How does having a name that is Arabic make you a Muslim. Muslims aren’t just Arabs and there are tons of Arabs with Arabic names that aren’t Muslim. If my name is XL and I’m Muslim than XL is my Muslim name. Thanks for the great article JOE!! Assalam Alaykum

  18. As-Salaamu Alaykum.
    Actually, I don’t see the need to change the name “Joe” (which is Joseph in full). That is the name of a Prophet- just said in English. Good name. You may feel more comfortable using it in full. Also, I’m not sure all muslim names are only in Arabic. There are other good names in different language. The Arabic names only gives people one’s identity when they hear it. So I guess the excitement for name change.

  19. Assalaamu’alaykum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh
    Thank you for this article. I became Muslim about 18 years ago and have struggled to find a “good” Muslim name that I liked. I settled on one for a while, then tried to change it, and finally settled on just a new pronunciation of the same name…but I never changed my birth name and my family still calls me by it (I was named by my grandmother) and I conduct all my business with my given name. I really like this part of your article:
    “After answering he said “I appreciate that you have preserved your culture, your dress, your name; it is completely contradictory that we say Islam is a universal religion, and then tell people to choose Arabic names, eat Arabic food, and dress like Arabs. Sure we have regulations for dress, but that the how to wear, not the what to wear. Be you, that is the best example you can be; you’ll do more for Islam that way. Both Muslims and other faiths should know that we can have a person of knowledge named Joe; that is the universal nature of Islam”.

  20. Kamran please read pg.112 -118 of Bilal phillips Soorah Hujurat what does you ststed about knowing Bilal Phillips his old name befoe he converted and why he change only hid first name got to do with me agreeing with the principles he laid down about keeping the last name.Also I never said any of these things whee fard but I know for myself and many other converts when wear throbes and kufis whether made in Africa,Middle East.South Asia etc we have a great feeling.For some it boost our Iman when being in atomosphere of throbes,kufis,and miswaks in the mouth.I know the impact dress can have on muslims.In the height of the salafi dawah this wasn’t a big topic because we dressed the dress because we loved the deen.Also going over whether it is fard ayn to dress like this or not because we all know it isn’t.And that is not my reasoning in partcipating in this dialogue.Brother there is a trend to tone it down and promote the ideal you don’t have do taht brother that is Arab or daisy customs.We got attacked by the W.D.Muhammad crew as wanted to be Arabs when we wore throbes and they wore there westren suits .By the way I wear Afrcian clothes also love them and feel connected to a lost home that I never got to live in.But I know that I ‘m still am Amercian and shaped by this society.Yes dress can be mental transformation and spirtual one for some and dosen’t have to mean you are trying to become someone else.As we say in our community brother man who you be.Speaking for myself and some my brothers I be with we just love the deen of Allah despite our failures and.May Allah forgive us all and guide us to the right.

  21. Assalaamu’alaykum

    I am a reverted muslim from Malaysia, it is an enlighten article from you and your very own experience. It would be much better we retain the name of our parents given, as Islam have been a message to whole mankind without differ races and background. It would be contradicting that being a muslim is “live like you are arab”.

  22. We have many good reasons to change our names from the slave names given to us by the devils who forced our ancestors to accept their rotten names.


  23. What Abudu has said is defintenly a appropriate response.A person who has any self worth would never want to after becoming aware of his history and past would want to carry the names given to him by his slave master.By the the Amercian Muslim Jurist Association is having a conf.on halal meat and where debating this subject about names and Obama and cohorts are have signed the NDAA in to law.Many people in our communties are losing employment and have know where to turn.How about our learned brother Shaykh Joe and the Imams across this nation start to these issues that are facing the regular common day muslim who trying to hold on to his deen.Is Joe going through some sort of postpartum syndrome after being away from the Amercian for last so many yrs .Like many others when they come home the reality on the ground is a different story out of the ivory towers of higher learning to a new painful learning.That is the muslim ummah has alot of problem and we all have to work together sincerly.By the way Shaykh Joe I’ve heard alot of good things about Inshallah you come to the Big Apple!

    1. Kwame, looking forward to visit you all in the Big Apple. “Post Partum” lol, no bro I haven’t given birth, but I am trying to deliver!

  24. Great subject which deserves our attention. Br Kwame makes a huge point which is part of the backbone of the African-American connection to the reclamation of a lost and stolen Islamic heritage which happened really to no other people. Only the enslaved Africans packed in ships who built this country had such an experience.

    But for others who did not have such an experience, we should understand that the Noble Messenger, upon whom be peace, changed names which were anti-Islam or even contrary to its message. Two points I’ll make:

    1. If people are named after a multiplicity of gods, like many Hindu names, and that person becomes a Muslim, that name should be changed.
    2. In my own case, I was born with my first name, Mansour, but my last name, a typical and identifiable Arab Christian name, Abdelmaseh (servant or slave of the messiah Jesus), needed to be changed to an Islamic name. We chose Ansari.

    More and more Americans with WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) names are coming into Islam and we should be cognizant and aware that it is just fine for Joe, Billy and Jane to be Muslims and welcome them without pressure to take another name unless they want to.

  25. Salam Alaikum to all that have responded.

    Each of us own unique cultural experience that they bring with them when they become a Muslim. That said, none of those cultural experiences are more valid than the other, offer a more “authentic” experience than the other, nor do any of them carry the weight of evidence under Islamic law.

    Experiential knowledge, according to scholars of Usul, is only valid in providing a metric for the intended outcome of a particular issue being adjudicated. It has never been a source from which legislative validity of our actions are extracted.

    So in order for one of us to say “This is preferred, this is recommended, this is what it best. this is obligatory…” or the inverse of those, we would need actual evidence from the sources of Islam to back up our claim of why. When we say that someone “must” do something, or that we encourage something, or even that we should allow something to happen (that may be socially detrimental to that person), we need proof. Everything else is conjecture.

    All dealings in the civil realm require specific evidence in order to restrict them, or must violate a unequivocal precept of Islam. Keeping one’s name is included in this. I think after this personal narrative, I’ll write a little bit more about the subject from a islamic legal point of view.

  26. salams,

    Lovely point, something I always stress when people ask what my “Muslim” name is. I tell them my name (a name of a beautiful flower in English) is Muslim because I am a Muslim. I love my name, my parents gave it to me, and it was the name of my great-grandmother. Many Muslims have the same name, just translated into their respective languages. So why in the world should I change it to an “Arabic” name? Glad someone else spoke out about this, I hope people can stop pressuring converts into changing their names.

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