The Islamic Naming System

Allah said, what translated means, {O mankind, verily We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes to know one another. Verily, the most noble of you is the most God-fearing and Allah is the most Knowledgeable and Aware.} [49:13]. Consequently, the origin of mankind is one and the same, despite the great differences that exist between them in terms of shape, color, attitude, culture, etc. All mankind are descendants of the same parents, Adam and ‘Hawwa’ (Eve). Hence, no one is truly more noble than anyone else. Allah then states the reason why He created mankind in such an incredible variety of peoples, nations, tribes and families, instead of one homogenous and uniform group. Theses differences were primarily designed so that people become familiar with each other, a familiarity about which Allah emphasized two aspects: The first being that of social acquaintance, and the second being the knowledge of family ties, that is, genealogy. Thus, in diversity lies a social favor bestowed by Allah, the favor of pleasure enjoyed by meeting new people and making new acquaintances.

The second aspect of mutual acquaintance refers to man’s division into tribes and clans wherein family ties are established. These ties define the boundaries of marriage and incest, delineate family obligations and protect weaker members of society by inheritance rights. Islam places great emphasis on the clear identification of family relationships. The Prophet himself said, what translated means, “Learn enough about your lineage to know your blood relatives and treat them accordingly.” [At-Tirmithi]. This means that family lines should be known well enough to prevent marriages within the forbidden degrees and to determine blood and family obligations. Therefore, according to Islamic law, blood relationships should be clearly defined, and any tampering with them is strictly forbidden. This is clearly stressed in the Islamic naming system in which each name and its sequence implies a specific genealogical relationship. For example, the name Ahmad ibn Mohammad ibn Abdullah Al-‘Harbi means Ahmad the son of Mohammad, the son of Abdullah, from the tribe of ‘Harb.

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Islam places great emphasis on the clear identification of family relationships.

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The system of naming people after their fathers and forefathers occurs in most cultures. Even in English, George the son of John in time became George, John’s son and eventually became George Johnson. In pre-Islamic times, the Arabs used to change the lineage of their adopted sons to their own lineage, and this practice also occurred during the early period of Mohammad’s prophethood, Salla Allahu Alayhi Wasallam. However, Allah forbade this practice in Madinah, where the majority of the religious, social and economic laws of Islam were revealed. Ibn Umar reported that after the Prophet freed Zayd ibn ‘Harith and adopted him, people used to refer to him as “Zayd ibn Mohammad,” until Allah revealed the following Ayah, {Call them by their father’s names, it is more just to Allah.} [33:5]. This fact is reported by Imams Al-Bukhari and Muslim.

Once this principle became a part of the Shari’ah, the Prophet was instructed to further emphasize it by a series of warnings. For example, on one occasion he said, what translated means, “He who knowingly attributed his fatherhood to someone other than his real father, will be excluded from Paradise.” [Al-Bukhari & Muslim]. Abu Tharr also related that he heard the Prophet say, “He who deliberately lets himself be called the son of one other than his father, is a Kafir.” [Al-Bukhari & Muslim].

Thus, the Arabic system of naming people according to their fathers’ names, which was endorsed by the Prophet and approved by Allah, is considered the Islamic naming system. Islamic law regulates all aspects of human life, in order to establish a social system in which human welfare is looked after and the worship of Allah is enshrined. Consequently, although some aspects of the Islamic naming system may be more important than others, none are so irrelevant or unimportant that whether it is done or not makes no difference. The fact that European colonialism has managed to corrupt the application of the Islamic naming system, especially among non-Arab Muslims, does not in any way alter its validity. By colonial times, the Western naming system had degenerated into a meaningless jumble of names followed by a family name. Influenced by the Greco-Roman culture in which women were considered to be the property of men, Western societies erased the woman’s family name upon marriage and replaced it with that of her husband. In the Islamic system, the wife retains her father’s name, as it indicates her true lineage. However, both of these degenerative Western trends have been widely adopted in many Muslim countries along with other un-Islamic traditions. New Muslims, unaware of the Islamic naming system, often adopt Arabic names in the chaotic European style.

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It is perfectly acceptable for a Muslim, whether recent convert or not, to change his or her first name.

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In fact, some who are of African descent often erase even their family names on the basis that these names are remnants from the days of slavery. That is, those of their ancestors who were slaves usually adopted the family name of their slave masters and it was the slave master’s name which was handed down from generation to generation. Hence, an individual who may have been called Clive Baron Williams while his father’s name was George Herbert Williams, may, upon embracing Islam, rename himself Ahmad Umar Mahdi. However, his name according to the Islamic naming system should have been Ahmad George Williams, that is, Ahmad the son of George Williams. Whether “Williams” was the name of his ancestors’ plantation owner or not is of no consequence. Since his father’s name was George Williams, he is, according to the Islamic naming system, the son of George Williams. That much of his fathers name is necessary to determine who his relatives are in order to avoid incestuous marriages, discharge inheritance rights and fulfill general responsibilities of blood relations. This becomes especially important in the West where premarital and extramarital relations are common, leading to generations of illegitimate interrelated children. Consequently, when some of these half-brothers enter Islam under different assumed family names, there exists a very real possibility that some of them may unintentionally contract incestuous marriages. The practice among new Muslim converts of deleting their family names has frequently caused deep resentment among their non-Muslim families which could have been easily avoided if the Islamic naming system had been adopted. Actually, the new Muslim is under no obligation to change even his or her “Christian name” unless it contains an un-Islamic meaning. Thus, the given name Clive, which means cliff dweller, need not have been changed, whereas “Dennis” (Fr. Denys), a variation of Dionysius which means “He of Dionysius”, (The Greek god of wine and fertility who was worshipped with orgiastic rites, would have to be changed. Similarly, female names like Lois which means “desirable” or Ann or its diminutive Annie and Nancy which mean “grace”, need not be changed, while names like Ingrid which means “daughter of Ing” (a god in Germanic mythology) or Laverne, taken from the name of the Roman goddess of spring and grain, would also have to be changed.

However, it is perfectly acceptable for a Muslim, whether recent convert or not, to change his or her first name. It was the Messenger’s practice to change people’s first names if they were too assuming, negative or un-Islamic. Abu Hurayrah reported that one of the Prophet’s wives was originally named Barrah (pious) and the Prophet changed it to Zaynab, [Al-Bukhari & Muslim], as Allah has said in the Quran, what translated means, {Do not claim piety for yourselves for He who knows best is God-fearing.} [53:32]. Also, Ibn Abbas reported that another of the Prophet’s wives was also named Barrah and he changed it to Juwayreeyah, [Muslim]. Furthermore, Ibn Umar reported that his father, Umar, had a daughter named ‘Aasiyah (disobedient) whom the Prophet renamed Jameelah (beautiful), [Muslim]. Jabir ibn Abdullah reported that the Prophet decided to forbid names like Ya’laa (elevated), Barakah (blessing), Afla’h (successful), Yussr (wealth) and Naafi’ (beneficial). [Muslim].

The Messenger of Allah, Salla Allahu Alayhi Wasallam, never changed the names of people’s fathers no matter how un-Islamic they may have been. For example, when Abd-Shams ibn Sakhr accepted Islam, the Prophet canceled his given name Abd-Shams (slave of the sun) and renamed him Abdur-Rahman ibn Sakhr. His father’s name Sakhr (rock) was left untouched. Likewise, Abu Salamah’s name was changed to Abdullah ibn Abdul-Asad, leaving his father’s name Abdul-Asad (slave of the lion) unchanged. Thus, it can be concluded that erasing one’s family name is against both the letter and the spirit of Islamic law. The father’s first and last names should be retained, and if the father is unknown, the mother’s first and last name should follow the Muslim’s given or chosen name.

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The Messenger of Allah, Salla Allahu Alayhi Wasallam, never changed the names of people’s fathers no matter how un-Islamic they may have been.

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However, it should be noted that there are other titles and descriptive names which may be added to either or both the beginning and end of a person’s actual name. According to the Islamic naming system, prefixed names known as Kunyah consist of Abu (the father) in the case of males, and Umm (the mother of) in the case of women, followed by the name of the person’s oldest child or male child, a child wished for or a trait the person is noted for. Some people become so well known for their Kunyah that their actual names are almost forgotten. For example, among the companions of the Messenger of Allah: Abu Bakr (Abdullah ibn Uthman), Abu Hurayrah (Abdur-Rahman ibn Sakhr), and Abu Laylah (Bilal Al-Ansari). The suffixed titles are of two types, the Laqab, a descriptive trait, for example, Abu Bakr was titled by the Prophet, “As-Siddiq” (the truthful) and Umar, “Al-Farooq” (the discerner) (Similar to English titles like Richard the Lion Hearted, Alexander the Great, Ivan the Terrible). The second type is known as Nisbah which refers to the place or tribe with which one is associated.

For example, the companion, Abu Tharr “Al-Ghifaree” (from the tribe of Ghifar) and Hadith scholars such as Al-Bukhari (Mohammad ibn Ismail), from the city of Bukhara, and At-Tirmithi (Mohammad ibn Eesa) from the city of Tirmith. The Nisbah suffix may also refer to a profession. Care should also be taken in naming girls, as the practice of giving girls two or three female names before the family name is a fairly recent Western practice which is inconsistent with the Islamic naming system. For example, a girl named Asmaa’ Jameelah Zaynab Abdullah whose father’s name was Zayd Abdullah should really be called Asmaa’ Zayd Abdullah, that is Asmaa’ the daughter of Zayd Abdullah. This practice is due to the fact that a man’s or woman’s given name, according to the Islamic naming system, should only be followed by the name of his or her mother if the father was unknown or the child was illegitimate and the parents were not married. Thus, the name Asmaa’ Jameelah Zaynab Abdullah in the Islamic naming system means that Asmaa’ was the illegitimate daughter of Jameelah and her mother Jameelah was also the illegitimate daughter of Zaynab, the daughter of Abdullah.

We have previously stressed the need for adhering by the Islamic naming system, and also explained some of the guidelines in that system. We also stated some of the pitfalls some new converts fall into in that regard. Today, Allah willing, we will summarize these rules into simple points, and also include the proof for each point from the Sunnah:

1 — Islam prohibits naming the person as the slave of other than Allah, such as Abdul-Ka’aabah (the slave of the Kaa’bah), Abd Ali (the slave of Ali), Abdul ‘Husayn (the slave of Al-’Husayn), etc., for all Allah’s creation are only the slaves of Allah and can only call themselves as such using Allah’s Names, such as Abdullah (the slave of Allah), Abdur-Ra’hman (the slave of the Most Beneficent), etc. In addition, Islam prohibits using the name Shahinshah (the king of kings), for the Messenger of Allah said, what translated means, “The most hated name to Allah, the Exalted and Ever High, is a man who calls himself the king of kings.” [Al-Bukhari & Muslim]. Also included in this category are: the prince of princes, the wisest ruler, his highness, his majesty, the supreme judge, etc.

2 — Since the Messenger of Allah is, indeed, the best of mankind, as he himself has stated in an authentic Hadith, Muslims are prohibited from calling themselves Sayyid Waladi Adam, which means the master of the sons of Adam.

3 — Also, the Prophet used to change the names that carry a bad meaning to one that carries a good meaning, as ‘Aaishah narrated in a Hadith reported by At-Tirmithi, ibn ‘Adi and As-Suyuty. Also, the Prophet offered a better name, Sahl (easy), to ‘Hazn (which means difficult), for when he asked him, “What is your name?”, He said, “‘Hazn!” He said, “Nay, you are Sahl!” He said, “I would not change a name given to me by my father.” Later on, Sa’id ibn Al-Musayyib ibn ‘Hazn, the renowned scholar and the grandson of ‘Hazn, said, “Ever since then, hardness has remained in our family!” [Al-Bukhari].

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Islam prohibits naming the person as the slave of other than Allah, such as Abdul-Ka’aabah, Abd Ali, Abdul ‘Husayn, etc.

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4 — As Imam ibn Al-Qayyim has said, “No one is allowed to call himself by Allah’s Names that are exclusively His, such as Al-A’had (the One and Only), As-Samad (the Self Sufficient), Al-Khaliq (the Creator), etc.”

5 — The Messenger of Allah said, what translated means, “Abdullah (the slave of Allah) and Abdur-Ra’hman (the slave of the Most Beneficent) are the best of your names in the Sight of Allah, the Exalted and Ever High.” [Muslim]. Also, the Prophet said, “Among the best of your names are Abdullah, Abdur-Ra’hman and Al-’Harith (one who plows the field).” [Ahmad]. People are also called “Al-Harith” because they sow deeds and reap the benefits or face the consequences of their actions.

6 — Imam ibn Al-Qayyim has stated that Muslims are allowed to call their children by more than one name, for the Messenger of Allah said, what translated means, “I am Mohammad, and Ahmad, and Al-Muqaffi (after whom there will be no Prophet), and Al-’Hasher (as mankind will be gathered for the Day of Judgment and Reckoning under the Prophet’s feet), and Nabiyyu At-Tawbah (the Prophet of repentance), and Nabiyyu Al-Mala’him (the Prophet of the great battles).’” [Muslim].

7 — Preferring good and positive names is allowed for Muslims, for the Messenger of Allah said, what translated means, “I like Al-Faal.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah! And what is Al-Faal?” He said, “The good word (or the good name).” [Al-Bukhari & Muslim]. Also, the Messenger of Allah said, “If you send me a messenger, send one who has a good name.” [At-Tirmithi].

8 — The name has a unique connection to the person who carries it. The Messenger of Allah said, what translated means, “(The tribe of) Aslam (a variation of the word Silm, which means peace), may Allah give her peace, and (the tribe of) Ghifar (a variation of the word Ghafara, which means to forgive), may Allah forgive her; as for (the tribe of) ‘Usayyah (a variation of the word ‘Asaa, which means to disobey), it has disobeyed Allah and His Messenger.” [Al-Bukhari]. Also, Umar once asked a man, “What is your name?” He said, “Jamrah (the core of burning charcoal).” He asked, “The son of whom?” He said, “Shihab (clear flaming fire).” He asked, “Where are you from?” He said, “From Al-’Harqah (the burned area, [this is its name]).” He asked, “Where do you live?” He said, “In ‘Harrat An-Nar (the burning desert).” He asked, “Which part of it?” He said, “Thatu Latha (that has burning flames [again, this is its name]).” Umar then said, “Go back to your family, for they are burning!” When this man returned to his family, their house was burning around them. [Ibn Bashran & Abdur-Razzaq].

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Giving the name to the newly born is an exclusive right for the father.

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9 — The Prophet said, what translated means, “Call your children by my name, but do not use my Kunyah (prefixed names), (For I am Abu Al-Qasim).” [Al-Bukhari & Muslim, who narrated the full text, including what is between the parenthesis].

10 — The Messenger of Allah said, what translated means, “Tonight, a boy was born for me, and I called him Ibrahim, the name of my father (meaning Prophet Ibrahim).” [Al-Bukhari & Muslim]. One is therefore allowed to give his offspring a name in the first night, as the Prophet did in this case, and one is also allowed to use the names of the Prophets of Allah (Ibrahim in this case).

Furthermore, giving the name to the newly born is an exclusive right for the father, as it was the Prophet himself who named his son Ibrahim. The Prophet ordered fathers to name their children, and this indeed is a matter of consensus among the scholars, as Imam ibn Al-Qayyim has stated. Also, one can delay giving a name to his offspring until when he is offering the ‘Aqiqah — the sacrifice offered to Allah on behalf of the newly born Muslims — or before or after that, as ibn Al-Qayyim has stated.

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