January 3, 2012
What’s in a name? or Why you don’t have to and shouldn’t change your name in Islam.



5 min read

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


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