The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
On the Day of Resurrection you will be called by your names and by your father’s names, so give yourselves good names. (Bukhari)
It is a common practice for Muslim converts to change their name upon converting to Islam. Some do this legally thus changing all their paperwork (social security, id cards, licenses, passport, etc). While others choose to do so more informally. For example, a sister named Kate may be known to the women at the masjid as Amirah while for all business and formal purposes she will use her birth name,Kate.
I have known women converts who have taken both routes. For some, changing the name is important because their birth name had a bad meaning. It is known from hadiths that the Prophet (saw) would change people’s names if they had bad meanings. For example:
Imam al-Bukhari mentioned that Sa`id ibn al-Musayyib said that when his grandfather came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the Prophet asked him about his name. He said, “Hazn” (meaning Hard). The Prophet said, “You are Sahl. (meaning soft, easy).” The man said, “I do not want to change the name that my father gave me.” His grandson Sa`id used to regret and say afterwards that they kept on experiencing the hardness in their family. (Reported by al-Bukhari)
While other Muslim converts may change their name because they feel that they want a name that more reflects their personality or what they would like their personality to become. Such as Aminah (the trustworthy, truthful) or Amatullah (the female servant of Allah).
Most Muslims undergo many lifestyle changes once converting to Islam. Much of their pre-Islamic life will be changed or altered. They are opening a new chapter of their lives and what better way to signify this than changing your name to fit your new identity?
Still others may read a biography of the companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), a story of a great Prophet in the Qur’an, or a story of the many great women in Islam. A Muslim may be so impressed and touched by the story they read that it prompts them to change their name and use that particular person as a namesake and a example of what they would hope to be.
Many Muslims and Non Muslims are a little surprised when they hear my name. When I converted to Islam, I wrestled with the idea of changing my name. On the one hand, I felt that it would be a good way to start my new life. I knew that my name did not have a bad meaning. So, that wasn’t an issue for me. I perused books of Muslim baby names thinking one would just pop out at me or I would find one with a particularly good meaning. One day, I came across a name that had the exact same meaning as my given name…..only my name is western and that name was Arabic. This really made me think. What is it about the name that sounds Arabic but has the exact meaning of my name that makes it so superior? Is it the language? I understand when people name themselves and their children after specific people in our history (ie. Muhammad, Umar, Maryam, Khadijah, Fatimah, Aisha). But as for the other names, I don’t think it makes a difference what language or country the name is associated with as long as the meaning is good. I read the biographies of the companions and the great women in the Qur’an and I marvel at their excellence and devotion. I am very impressed by them all, Mash’Allah. I try to take their examples and apply them to my life. Though, that doesn’t extend to my name. To me, my given name is enough and it has a very positive meaning. I like my name and I like my identity as a Muslim with a western name. It has been an ice breaker when giving da’wah because most all non muslims want to hear how I became a Muslim after hearing my name and reaching the conclusion that I converted. So, I feel, keeping my name was the right choice, for me.
On the internet, obviously, I use a pseudo name because I am not comfortable displaying my name on the internet. Old fashioned? Probably.
Basically, changing names is a very personal choice that every Muslim should make for themselves. New converts should not feel pressured to change their names. Yet, they should be supported if they choose to do so. For many it may cause friction in the family. If you suddenly inform your mother that, from now on, you are to be known to her as Amirah rather than Kate, you can probably expect a reaction. So, like every major change, converts should remember to inform those around them in the best manner and with patience.
**This is of course talking about first names as Muslims do not change their surnames( last names, family names). As Allah tells us clearly in the Qur’an to be known by the names of our fathers: “Call them by (the names of) their father’s, that is more just in the sight of Allah…” (Al-Ahzab 33:5)