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!

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Ellen

Editor and chief writer at I, Muslimah and Femagination. Ellen also contributes regularly to Elevate Difference. She is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with two cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

8 thoughts on “Taking a New Name”

  1. I have friend whose daughter is named Kawthar. KOE-ter. It probably doesn’t fit your needs but I think it’s beautiful.

  2. It’s a river in heaven, as I understand it. Ask an Arab to pronounce it for you. That’s my humble, English-centered interpretation of it. To my ears, it’s very close, but I’m sure it’s off to theirs! :-D

  3. I like the thought of leaving your original name to let the world know Islam is for everyone, not just Arabs :)

    I love the name Maryam though.

  4. I have also contemplated it, but at the end I realized it’s pretty pointless and impractical (in my opinion, of course). First of all, I don’t know why converts change their name to an Arabic one. Changing one’s name reminds me too much of baptism (baptismal name), and that’s a no-no for me. Moreover, the name Mary is the English way of saying Maryam; still referring to the same person, so whyyy pick the Arabic version over the English version? I see it as compromising idenity…I don’t know; maybe I’m just annoyed overall by the fact that people already confuse me for Arab, and naturally, that bugs me as a proud Cuban American. I dont know, maybe I’m just proud of my history; past and present. I’m proud that I was raised in a loving Catholic home, and learned many good values that way. It’s only when people learn my oh-so Christian name that they learn of my transition and naturally ask about my conversion, which I’m always glad to share.

    I say, keep you name sista!

    And sorry for all the annoying venting :D

  5. “That’s probably what I would do, if I ever take a Muslim name.”

    Honey, your name is a Muslim name. There is nothing unIslamic or un-Muslim about your name. And since you’re Muslim, so is your name.

    Look, names like Abu Bakr (which people name themselves – they’re naming themselves “Father of Abu,” for crying out loud!), Muhammad, Abdur Rahman, Fatima, Khadijah, Aisha … these are all “Muslim” names because their owners were Muslim, and famous.

    People ask my what my Muslim name is. I give them my birth name. They ask what my birth name is. I give them my birth name. When they’re surprised, I tell them, “Look, [birth name] means ‘gift from God.’ How is that not Islamic?”

    Islam didn’t come to eradicate culture or to replace it with Arab culture. It came to enhance the good in the culture that was there, and to wash away the bad. Having an Arabic name doesn’t make you more Muslim, and having a non-Arabic name doesn’t make you less Muslim.

    “Ellen Elizabeth” is a Muslim name because Ellen Elizabeth is a Muslim.

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