“And He taught Adam the names – all of them. Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.”
– Surat Albaqara, Aya 31
Names are the quintessential part of every living and non-living thing. From the beginning, when God created Adam, He taught him the proper names for everything, even names for which the angels had no knowledge of before then.
We all have names, for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and even for our precious inanimate objects. But does that mean a name defines us as a human being? Or can we accede with Shakespeare’s illustrious line of: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would smell as sweet if it were by any other name.” – Juliet’s monologue in the play Romeo and Juliet.
Yes, names are a crucial part of being a human, but do they constrain us within their peripheries of cultural or religious significance? Being born and raised a muslim, we often take our names for granted, not realizing that they align perfectly with our daily lives and religious rituals and/or aspirations. But have we ever pondered about the significance a name holds with converts who have spent most of their lives known by a certain name? It may have suited their lifestyle before, but now it may be a hindrance on their new path in Islam. To many converts, the name changing process is an imperative step. They find it as a new start to a new path with a new identity, hence a new name. To distance themselves from their past, they choose a name that symbolizes the huge step they took to come towards islam.
One of the ladies I interviewed said that she chose the name Zahra (meaning rose) because of the lifecycle of a rose. It begins as a seed, then becomes a bulb, then a bud, then slowly blooms into a beautiful flower. Standing tall through rain and wind, with some petals falling off and others still holding on. “My life is like that of the rose: no matter how much I may fall, I still grow back and I still hold on.” She said.
Some of those I had interviewed made it clear that they have no intention of changing the name their parents had given to them. It was their way of honoring their parents. Those who were named after a dear family member, or have been bequeathed a name that links them to a certain memory their parents had, makes their name all the more valuable and indispensable.
It shocked me to hear that some converts have been criticized by born-Muslims for not having a Muslim name, and therefore were not muslim enough. Not Muslim enough? Do some people actually believe that a person named “Mohammed” is much more a Muslim than someone named “Frank” purely because of their name? It saddens me to know that there is such bullying towards converts. Didn’t the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) say: “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” How then can some Muslims assume that their fellow Muslim brethren are not equal Muslims purely based on their name?
Some of the converts that I have spoken to had been dubbed a name by their community. Whether that community consisted of a majority Afghani population, or a majority Somali population, or a majority Arab population, they all seem to have a special gift to give to the converts who have joined their society. That name may be an Islamic one referencing to an epic historical figure, or it may be an ethnic name that signifies a certain characteristic in that individual. The name Zainab was given to a woman who showed great patience through all the trials and hardships she faced in her life, referencing to the noble granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), who also faced great trials and hardships in the land of Karbala hundreds of years ago. While the name Ghazal, meaning deer, was given to a Giselle by her Afghani community.
Those who chose new names once they had become Muslim have flourished in their new path under a new identity, feeling all the weight of their previous lives left behind. While those who have kept their original names have brought a sense of diversity to Islam. Their names would help portray Islam from all around the world, rather than it being known as an Arab/Eastern religion. There can be a Jeremy or a Kevin or an Allison that are just as Muslim as a Mohammed or Ali or Fatima.
Whether an Islamic name, or a foreign name, or even a made up name, its the dynamics of one’s character that are the essence of who he is. One may add stature to an ordinary name by having an extraordinary exuberance in behavior, then there are those who may demean a once highly regarded name by their infamous character. Therefore, judge not a person by what they are bequeathed, but rather allow their personality shine out from within.