Muslim Names vs Being Islamic
Oftentimes, the term ‘Islamic’ is wrongly used to mean anything related to Muslims and not necessarily to Islam itself and its principles. Just like any book written by an author with a Muslim name cannot always be Islamic (Salman Rushdi), any country taking the appellation of Islamic State may actually not abide by Islamic principles at all, violating human rights, with rampant corruption, injustice and so on. The word Islamic is used as if we were blathering. The aim here is not to judge any country but to reflect on what we call ‘Islamic names’
I once attended a lecture by Roger Garaudy, an eminent French scholar and philosopher who stood as candidate for the presidency in his country. He had come a long way to talk about his cheminement, that is, the way he went through before his conversion. He was born Christian, turned to atheism under the influence of the communist party and eventually converted to Islam. He qualified his conversion as ’l’aboutissement naturel d’une longue quête de la vérité’, the natural outcome of a long quest for truth. Apart from being a powerful orator, his knowledge of the different great religions and cultures of the world seemed to me boundless. His analysis was striking, showing the strength and weaknesses of different philosophical thinking. I was marveled and so much impressed that I decided to buy a taped record of his speeches afterwards.
He spoke for about an hour and a half and then invited questions from the audience. I did not have any of my own at that precise moment but was expecting, I suppose, as all others in the room interesting and difficult questions of metaphysical order to rise. But, somebody in a long robe, wearing a head cap and a beard stood up and asked: “If you had truly converted, why hadn’t you changed your name?”[pullquote_left]“If you had truly converted, why hadn’t you changed your name?”[/pullquote_left]
Now, at one stroke, somebody who had made such a long and arduous journey, both literally and figuratively to know his Lord, meet what he thought his brethrens, shed Islamic light and establish that Islamic brotherhood that only true brothers can feel was at once rejected, ostracized and branded. I really felt bad that day and continue to until this day. That is the reason why I am writing this article.
The person was undoubtedly expecting an “Islamic name”. But, what is an Islamic name? The truth about Islamic names is that they are simply names of Arab origin which had existed long before Revelation and the advent of Islam. True religion is from God, culture is what we, humans, create. As far as I know, not many among the first converts changed their names after conversion. In fact, I do not know any.
In modern times, many great minds who have converted to Islam have retained their names, diplomats like Gay Eaton, librarians like Martin Lings, author of Life of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), scientists, philosophers and so many others who had discovered the truth but kept it secret because of their environment. It was only during the inventory of his belongings after his death that people discovered that Scipio, a slave in a French colony in the eighteen century, was a Muslim because of his hidden Quran, tasbih and praying mat. It is also true that others have changed their names like Mohammad Ali (Cassius Clay), Mohammad Asad, reputed journalist who has translated the Holy Quran. Others have simply added a Muslim first name like (Mohammad Marmaduke) William Pickthall who translated the Quran, too. That is their choice and we have to respect them.[pullquote_right]The truth about Islamic names is that they are simply names of Arab origin which had existed long before Revelation and the advent of Islam.[/pullquote_right]
At the same time, many people with Muslim names are not Muslims. The best example is Barak Husain Obama who declares he is a Christian, Husain Bolt, the Olympic champion, Paula Abdul and the French footballer Jibril Cissé who was asked by a reporter if he were a Muslim because of his name replied that he was born in a Muslim family but he was not and did not like to be asked that question.
Why then, do people attach such an importance to names? Semiology, the study of signs, will help us to understand. Names are not only labels; they are ‘semes’, significative signs. They do not only denote but also connote meanings, so that in many cultures they reveal your origin, family, cast, tribe, background, culture, religion or creed. In some particular circumstances the names of some people had saved their life or helped to climb the social ladder. They may have been important in different communities in the past. While traveling in a foreign land you met a stranger and could not know whether he was a friend or a foe, his name would reveal his identity. That is why, in the British culture you could not speak to someone unless you were introduced first. In a modern world, tribes and casts do not have their place. In a religion like Islam such barriers cannot exist.
There is nothing wrong with names by themselves but to impose a judgment on somebody’ faith by his name is, in my view, a crime. The best answer to all these worries about names is very simple if we bear in mind that the Almighty (SWT) will judge us by our heart, behavior and acts rather than by our names. He knows best. And, this is beautifully expressed by these poetic verses.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)