Speak to Me in Words I Can Understand

While I can understand using Arabic terms and phrases if you speak Arabic, I don’t think Muslims who do this around American converts realize how alienating this can be. Not only do we not know what is being said, which makes us feel like outsiders, but we feel strange using the words ourselves, especially at first.

I’m always torn between wanting to express myself in my own language and feeling like I should use the Arabic in order to be a “real” Muslim. For example, I’m more comfortable saying “Praise God” instead of “Alhamdulillah.” I tend to say morning and afternoon prayer instead of Fajr and Dhuhr (mainly because I don’t know how to pronounce the Arabic). And I don’t dare to say my prayers out loud where an Arabic speaker could hear me, because I know my pronunciation is horrible.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never had a Muslim brother or sister laugh at me or act like I’m inferior because I don’t know Arabic. But how am I going to learn my deen when I don’t understand the language?

I don’t have a problem with the Qur’an and our prayers being in Arabic. I know that the Qur’an was given to us in that language and because Allah’s holy Word is unchangeable, it has to stay that way. Having the Qur’an in its original form makes it more authentic. It’s also very meaningful to me that Muslims all over the world recite the same prayers I do all in the same language.

I know I miss fine shades of meaning sometimes when I don’t use the Arabic, but what difference does it make when I don’t know Arabic well enough to know the fuller meanings anyway? At this point all I can do is look up meanings in a dictionary or online or ask people what words mean. But if I do that while someone is speaking with me, it would slow down the conversation considerably!

I wish those who push Arabic would think of those who don’t speak it as if we were from a different country. I wouldn’t spout off in English to someone who doesn’t know it very well. I would try to communicate in words they understand and if I do have to use English words they don’t know, I would explain the meanings.

Why can’t Arabic speakers do the same for those of us who don’t speak Arabic?

[Note: Yahya Ederer (Abu Majeed) wrote a two-part article on “Balancing Arabization” that helps put this issue into perspective. He reminds us of what the Qur’an says about the use of Arabic and cautions against arrogance and chauvinism. Read Part II here.]



Taking a New Name

There are two schools of thought about whether or not a new convert should take a new name.

Some think that a new name signifies a fresh start, which is what you get when you become a Muslim. It is not so much that you are denouncing your old life, but that you are embracing a new one. People who advocate taking a new name generally think that it’s an important part of the conversion process.

Others think that you should stick with the name you were born with, since that is part of your identity. When converts re-name themselves, they usually pick Arabic names and if they’re not Arabs themselves, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Those who do pick Arabic names often do so to mark themselves as Muslim, in much the same way that Muslim women wear hijabs. But continuing to use your birth name also tells people, once they learn that you’re Muslim, that Islam is for all people, not just for Arabs.

I’m torn on the issue. If I’d been required to pick a new name when I converted, it might have been too big a change for me at a time when everything else was changing. It was enough that I was becoming a Muslim. I didn’t think that I had to take a new name to “prove” that I had become one. Besides, my birth name means a lot to me, since it is part of my heritage.

On the other hand, a new name might have helped me to take on my new identity more quickly.

Some new Muslims continue to use their birth names, but also take an Islamic name which they either incorporate into their birth name or only use on certain occasions. I’ve had people tell me, “I’m ______[birth name], but my Muslim name is______.” That seems like a good compromise, except I can’t help but wonder what the point is. It could be that most people don’t want to go to the expense of changing their names legally, so they just use their Islamic names informally.  That’s probably what I would do, if I ever take a Muslim name.

I’ve considered it. I probably will if I can decide on the name that feels right to me. One possibility is to use an Arabic name that means the same as my birth name. My first name is Ellen, which means ‘light’ and that translates into ‘noor.’ I like the simplicity of that name, but it sounds almost too stark in combination with my last name, which is also one syllable (Keim).

Another possibility is a name that sounds like my birth name. Since there aren’t a lot of Arabic names that start with ‘E’, that’s been hard to find. The closest I’ve come is ‘Eiliyah,’ but I don’t even know how to pronounce it. Beside, its meaning would make me sound conceited if I picked it for myself: “The beautiful one to grow in peace and love with God.” I would like to think that describes me, but I know better!

I’ve also thought about using my middle name, because it’s in the Bible: Elizabeth. I’d like to find out how you would say that in Arabic. It means ‘God’s promise,’ but I don’t know how to translate that into Arabic.

Have any of my readers who are converts taken Muslim names? If yes, did they replace your birth names, did you incorporate them into your birth names, or do you just use them informally?

Also, do any of you have favorite names to suggest for me? I realize that most of you only know me through my posts, but I’d be interested in what you think would be a good name for me.

ADDED NOTE: I just learned that Muslims are only to change their first names when they have bad or wrong meanings. I’m very fortunate that my first name, Ellen, means “Light” and my middle name, Elizabeth, means “God’s promise.” I also learned that all Muslims, even women, are to keep their biological father’s last name. So there is feminism in Islam!