What’s in a Name?

A few months ago, my mother introduced me to one of her colleagues from work and said, “This is my daughter” and then she hesitated and said, “her name is… what is it..,  Zainab, right?”

Me: Wrong. My name is Ify.

Mom: You don’t go by Zainab anymore, your Muslim name?

Me: Mom, where have you been, I haven’t gone by Zainab in years. My name is Ify, I like my name, and I don’t intend to change it.

Mom: With a smile and a brightness on her face that seemed to light the whole room, she said,  “Yeah, Ify is a good name, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

And in that instant, I regretted ever allowing myself to be pressured by a noisy, insistent, and somewhat ignorant Muslim community into changing my name. Ignorant of the realities and difficulties many converts face after their conversion in maintaining relations with their sometimes hostile non-Muslim families.

It’s common sense and simple decency to choose your battles wisely, and so in reverting to my given name, I show the love, honor, and respect for my parents that Islam commands of us. I wonder where respect for our parents ranks in the discussion among the Muslims I’ve encountered over the years, (see the Storekeeper & Robber incident), in their zeal and enthusiasm to tell us to abandon our names given to us by those same parents.

When we convert to Islam, it’s so strange how we are expected by some to not only abandon our names but also much of our culture and upbringing, which may be perfectly acceptable. We left the religion of our families, isn’t that enough?  There are other actions that my parents aren’t too thrilled about since my Islam, some of which, I am not willingly to compromise on like hijab, but in the areas where I can compromise in order to serve them and make them happy, I will.

So yes, Mom and Dad, my name is Ify, I like it, thanks for giving it to me.

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

29 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. I answer to both names, Muslim and given. To other Muslims I normally give my Muslim name, which they are comfortable with, even though they can see that I am a revert. For legal purposes (such as my passport and official documents), I retain my birth name, which I’m also happy to use as I’m named after both my father and his brother. For my daughter I made my Muslim name a legal alias so that her name bears my Muslim name, along with my family’s surname. And that pleases me, too.

  2. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I do the same as JDsg. I wasn’t bullied into changing my name, but if you give the name Matthew to most born Muslims, they will assume you are Christian. I think this course of action is very common among converts.

  3. Answering two two names sounds like a good solution.

    “We left the religion of our families, isn’t that enough?” Who are you talking to in here? Becoming Muslim means continuous hard work, continuous struggle, there is no ‘enough’ in Islam.

    But if there you are talking to the bully ‘Muslims’ who use Islam to boost their ego, I don’t blame you. Don’t ever care about the little minds who judge you by how Muslim you are compared to them. Allah’s commands are our standard, not other Muslims.

    BTW, I like your blog’s clean design. 🙂

  4. JDsg: Sounds good, I’m glad you’ve found a balance with your dual names. The dual-name thing never really worked for me, maybe because I didn’t choose it, but also because I really like name.

    Yusuf: Asalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah, I think so, too. I just wish, more converts felt comfortable keeping and using their given names in the Muslim community. So many names that we have come to think of as traditional Muslim names are only that way because the person that entered into Islam, kept his or her name, so I don’t understand the pressure to change one’s name to identify with the community. The sahaba didn’t just change their names en masse when they accepted Islam, so why do we? The question is rhetorical, but is open for anyone to answer, it puzzles me.

    Ikram: I was answering those who pressure converts into changing their names. Trust me, I know about the constant work and striving to improve to be done within Islam. I like the theme, too, although I can’t really claim any credit for it.

    Bill: What does your name mean? Ever thought of changing your name?

  5. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I do think that the name Matthew is not used by Muslims, anywhere. It has an Arabic version (Matta – متى) which is mentioned in the Qur’an as the father of Nabi Yunus (عليه السلام) but it is mostly used by Arab Christians, such as Copts in Egypt. Joseph was my middle name before Islam, which is why I kept it as my Muslim name, albeit using the Arabic translation. It also used to be fairly common for people who were naturalised to take a local version of their name, so a Ludwig would become Lewis when he took British citizenship, for example.

    1. My name is Matthew Islam and I am a Muslim. I was born Muslim. I have waist length hair. I know Muslim men and boys named Matthew who were born Muslim.

  6. Assalamu alaikom,
    I never changed my name and I never wanted to. I got told plenty of times I HAD to. I just couldn’t imagine, as an adult, telling everyone I knew socially and at work, that my name was no longer X, they were to call me Y (some name none of them had ever heard before, most likely.) Plus, everything I read about the Prophet’s time showed that the names changed were somehow unIslamic. They weren’t changed for any other reason. My name is innocent and it’s part of my identity and family.

    My best “lol” ever, regarding this topic: a guy who was sizing me up for marriage (I had just converted and I didn’t know this guy from Adam) TOLD me my new Muslim name would be ____ and gave me a new name. I didn’t even know this guy, and he’s erasing my identity and giving me a new one? Pfft.

  7. Asalamu alaykum wa rahmatullah,

    Yusuf: According to a cursory search, Matthew is from the Hebrew meaning a gift from the Lord so there’s nothing intrinsically questionable about it although there is that association with the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, so I hear you.

    My name is also not commonly used by Muslims other than myself and for those familiar with Ibo names, my name clearly identifies me as being from the Ibo tribe, and since the Ibos are very staunchly Christian, there is an immediate disconnect when people see me or hear my name, and it usually opens up a conversation of how a girl they expected to be Christian turned out to be Muslim.

    Eyes-Serene: Lol, that’s hilarious but it’s so so true. It seems like everyone wants to change your name, I love seeing the diversity in names, which reflects the diversity of the Muslim community.

  8. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    By the way, an awful lot of West African Muslims have identifably West African names (I know a Nigerian from Maiduguri called Garba Sani and when I asked another Nigerian if he knew him, I was told that it was like asking if I knew John from London). Persian names are also very common (and some have even found their way into Arabic, e.g. Fairuz, which originated as Peerooz in Persian). I agree in principle that we shouldn’t be bullied into changing our names (or peppering our language with loaded neologisms, such as using “revert” to mean someone who has converted to Islam), but a new Muslim (and I mean an actual new Muslim, not anyone who converted, however long ago) is more easily influenced and doesn’t like to be presumed a non-Muslim, which is what has happened to me on more than one occasion.

  9. I’m glad we had that conversation about your name that Eid we spent together. I don’t know if I was responsible for your going back to Ify, but I’m happy you made a decision about it and stuck to it 🙂

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  11. Asalamu alaykum Eileen!!! How are you? I had almost forgotten about that experience on Eid until you reminded me of it. SubhanAllah, those were some great times. 🙂 Remember that day at the Aquatic Garden? I think I was going through a period of growth in my understanding and implementation at the time, shaking off the unnecessary and focusing on the good.

  12. Sallam.

    As a born Muslim, I feel truly embarrassed that any of us would have the cajones to question you or pressure you to anything. Reverts are some of the best Muslims in this planet. The very fact that you were able to find Islam in the present propaganda-charged atmosphere is amazing, and puts you at a place we cannot compare.

    There is a reason that we have lost our position in the world, and it is not because reverts are not keeping Arab names. I strongly believe that any renaissance in the Muslim community worldwide would and should be led by reverts like yourselves, who truly are blessed.

    I humbly apologize to you for the small-mindedness of some of us. May Allah bless us and forgive us all, particularly those arrogant enough to judge the Islam of others.

    @eyes-serene That’s an incredible story, yet sadly I saw it coming after reading the first line to that para. I despair. But then, I myself have an incorrigible habit of making a fool of myself vis-a-vis women. (If you have ever seen “the gods must be crazy”(astakfar) you’d know me). For all we know, he may have thought that was harmlessly romantic. (and if actions are judged by intentions…)

  13. Yusuf,
    Most Muslims will assume you are Christian if you give an Latin based name because most muslims simply cannot fathom a westerner with the name steve being a real muslim. Personally I’ve had people tell me they refuse to call me my birth name and then give me name based on my names translation. When I am in a society that is Arabic speaking, I don’t mind as it makes communication easier. But most pressures for converts come while they are still in their own personal dominant cultures, in this case there really is not excuse for the bludgeoning of new muslims into taking a new name, as there is not naturalization taking place.

    The insistence on name change is based solely on emotion and feelings of cultural inadequacy. They see it a must to change “those people” into “real” muslims.
    Personally I let people deal with now, they don’t like that fact that my name is XYZ then so be it, but they need to get used to the fact that all humans arent the same.

    I have friends whose parents refused to listen to anything they’d tell them about islam because “what kind of religion makes you change the name from father gave you.

    Most tafseers mention that Yaqub, when he asked his sons to enter upon the Viceroy from different doors, that they did this because even though they (and yaqub) realized that this futile, it helped calm their fathers nerves. I.e. actions that have no religious consequence, even if they seem unimportant to us as children, are recommended to do if only just to please our parents.

  14. My Peace be upon you sister Zainab your name is beautiful and if i was married and had a daughter i would name her Zainab. Oh my name is Maan and im British.

  15. As-Salamu alaikum

    I don’t see any reason you have to change your name, unless it’s something that’s wrong in Islam. For example a Hindu god’s/goess’ name or a Christian saints’ name.

  16. As Salaam Alaikum Ify,

    Great blog! I’ve seem many converts feel the pressure to change their name with their new identity. I personally love it when a convert keep their given name (as long as it’s nothing ‘bad’ about the name) as it helps me remember them. When 1st entering Islam, I met many Fatimahs, Aishas, Maryams mashAllah I couldn’t remember who was who. It’s nice to hear names like Ify, Bridget or Kesha every now and then 🙂

    1. I can just picture your mother’s smile. I’m happy she was happy 🙂

      I try to remember my experiences (or those of other converts), so that when I encounter new muslims going thru something similar inshaAllah I will be of some help.

    2. I agree Jams, I like to see people keep their names, it’s actually probably a better form of dawah to our families and surrounding community. A common sterotype about Islam is that it is an Arab religion and our community re-inforces that view when asking converts to take Arabic names. Jams, in sha Allah, we have to hang out more so you can share some of those experiences with me.

  17. I dont get why Muslims generaly force converts, reverts or new-muslims to change their names. Unless it has a bad meaning or a connotation/reference to something negative it is fine. I think its a good thing to even keep names that may be used by other religions such as Matthew or Joseph.

    In many Arab countries Christians keep typical Arabic names and often can be mistaken for Muslims.

    As a born Muslim, its really nice to see beautiful non-Arabic names but I know my kids would get a hell of a lot of odd reactions from Muslims for having a name like ‘Angela’ or ‘Elizabeth’ (old Hebrew name) – not least assume that they have a complex or something.

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