What's In a Name?

It was the summer of 1999 in Tulsa, OK, when I walked into a sandwich shop. My pants sagging and hat turned back and to the side, I looked at the seemingly Greek guy behind the desk and said, "Let me get a Gyro with extra sauce yo." After I sat down waiting for my sandwich, I heard the guy answer the phone with As-Salamu `alaykum (Islamic greeting of peace) and thought, "Wow that Greek cat is Muslim."

You see I had been reading the Qur'an for over a year and believing it to be the message of God, yet heavily struggling with a corrupt lifestyle. I had only met three Muslims before, but they didn't practice, hence they don't even know where a mosque might be. So when I went to get my gyro I told him, As-Salamu Alaiakum. He looked me up and down and asked, "Are you a Muslim?" I quickly affirmed, confused by his question: "Yeah man, can you hook me up with a Mosque around here?"

He had no clue what a mosque was but after I explained, he said that they had just opened a nice newly built masjid, and he gave me directions. So then I asked him if many Greeks are Muslim and he said, "I'm not Greek I'm Syrian!" That was the first time I had ever heard of Syria in my life. There is a lot to learn from that event, primarily that we need to step up our da`wah (call to Islam) skills folks!

So the next day I went to the mosque around 1 p.m. I walked in and—thanks to the disorderliness we often have—I noticed a pair of shoes sitting in front of the doors to the prayer sanctuary (musalla). So I took off my shoes and saw a man praying and went in and did my own form of prayer, which I learned from the scene where Denzel is praying on his Hajj pilgrimage in the movie Malcolm X. Then as I was walking out, the elderly gentleman followed me and made the salaam (Islamic greeting) to me, and I responded.

He then asked if I was Muslim, and I affirmed. Then he asked me, "What is your name?" I told him my name is John. He responded, "No, no. That's not a Muslim name. That is a name of the kuffar (disbelievers)." I was like, whaaat? He said, "Yeah, that is not an Islamic name." So I told him that John originally means "God is gracious" and it is the name of Jesus' cousin who is a prophet mentioned in the Qur'an.

But he said, "No, [Jesus'] name is `Esa and his cousin is Yahya, so your name is Yahya." I thought, okay this guy is hardcore, man, taking it back to the original.

Since that day, I have been called Yahya among my Muslim brothers and sisters. It is a beautiful name that I don't mind being called by, but as we mentioned before it wasn't the exact name of the prophet who was Jesus' cousin, nor was `Esa the name by which Jesus was called.

John was more like Yohanna and Jesus more like Yeshu'a. So, after realizing that this is just an Arabization of their names to facilitate the Qur'an's Arabic flow, I regretted having changed my name—since it now seemed Islamically logical to have kept my name in English for the flow and familiarity of English. Let's now discuss the issue of changing one's name from an Islamic legal perspective.

The vast majority of scholars throughout our history say that it is an obligation to change a name only if it represents other, polytheistic beliefs or if it is a foul name with a bad meaning. For example if someone's name was Christian then upon becoming Muslim they would change their name. The customary practice of encouraging a new revert to Islam to change their name is not an Islamic teaching as the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) left mostly all of his companions with common names that carry little or no meaning like `Umar, Talhah, Khadeejah, etc. Some of these people with very simple names became great leaders.

As a matter of fact Salman is a Persian name and while the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) witnessed his embracing Islam and spent much time with him, he never suggested Salman radi allahu `anhu (may God have mercy on him) change his name. He only changed the names which were either indicating the worship of other than God or a name that was a bad meaning like the following:

1) 'Aasiyah (sinner) to Jameelah (beautiful)

2) Abdul-Shams (Slave of the sun) to Abdul-Rahman (Slave of the Merciful God)

3) Haram (forbidden) to Halal (permissible)

4) Thalim (oppressor) to Rashid (rightly guided)

5) Harb (war) to Muslim (committed to God)

In retrospect, after being trained in the Islamic sciences and objectives, I have come to realize that this brother who sought to change my name was no doubt sincere, but ignorant of the big picture of Islam in America. This settled in when I was sitting with a sheikh (scholar) in Egypt who asked me my name. I told him Yahya, to which he responded, "That can't be your name!"