This year marks a decade since the most life changing decision I have ever made. I still remember the cold April evening heading towards the local mosque to state the declaration of faith in front of other members of the Muslim community. I walked in feeling like an imposter. Tugging at my poorly wrapped headscarf as I walked into the mosque, I was greeted with the call to prayer and my first observance of Muslims filling the rows of the mosque to pray. As I watched the scene, I was pulled into the prayer space by a Somali woman who thought I was looking for a place to fit into the prayer, “come sister, there’s a spot here”. I went with it, following the motions, quietly observing this group act of worship. Not long after the prayer had concluded, news started to spread that they were going to welcome a new Muslim and I was soon surrounded by an ocean of children and women ready to witness the beginning of my journey. It was only a matter of minutes before an older lady asked me about my name.
This woman looked like she could’ve been an aunt of mine and yet, here she was talking to me about changing my name. This was the first I had heard anything about name changing. Not a moment too soon, I was whisked away by some other women from the mosque and the strange encounter was soon forgotten as I received books, prayer mats, endless congratulations and constant offerings of Lebanese sweets.
Several weeks later, once I had mustered the courage to tell one of my close family members that I had formally become Muslim, the conversation was re-opened.
But this wasn’t the last time I’d hear about the issue of my name. Several weeks later, once I had mustered the courage to tell one of my close family members that I had formally become Muslim, the conversation was re-opened. “So, did they make you change your name, too?” The question stung as much as the insinuation that I had been pressured into this decision, a decision that I hadn’t taken lightly and one that had taken months of research and reflection preceding it.
For many converts like myself the giant question mark looms over the reason as to why one would change something that is seen to be a part of a collective cultural identity. Especially as women, even today, the suggestion is constantly made that such drastic life changes are made to accommodate the preference of the men in our life. So, just as I didn’t make the decision about my faith based on the preference of others, I wasn’t prepared to change my name based on speculation.
One of the first people who I asked about this name changing issue was one of my co-workers. Not the most “religious” of people, I thought I might get a more balanced response. “Yeah, of course you have to, so that you can identify as a Muslim…” he began and then went on to suggest a list of names that he thought suited me. But I already identify as a Muslim, I thought. Surely if I was going to change my name there had to be more to it.
From the books I was given at the mosque, nothing led me to believe that I was required to adopt a ‘Muslim name’. In fact, of the earliest Muslims, many of them didn’t change their names. And as time passed this included Muslims from beyond the Arabian Peninsula. This led me to wonder, what was a ‘Muslim name’ if there was such a thing?
“Your name is a beautiful gift from your parents, you’re not required to change it”, she exclaimed.
In certain circles, where culture dominated and people found it hard to pronounce my four letter two syllable name, a new name was suggested. It was close to my actual name, had an okay meaning and in all honesty, I just became tired from having to correct these people as they constantly mispronounced my name. It was something I had already endured as a minority group in the community that I was raised and educated in. So, I succumbed. That was until I was confronted by a friend of mine. I told her that I hadn’t yet decided what I was changing my name to and seeing as they were already pronouncing it like an Arabic name, I had reluctantly embraced the name. “Your name is a beautiful gift from your parents, you’re not required to change it”, she exclaimed.
Well, here I am a decade later, and just like some of the earliest adherents to my faith, I still carry my name proudly as a part of my identity. And although many may have chosen to adopt a “Muslim sounding name”, to me my name is Muslim enough, because of how I represent it.
Neha is a homeschooling mum of four, post-grad student and mental health advocate who loves the outdoors.