When people convert (or revert) to Islam they will often choose a new name to signify that something fundamental about themselves has changed. It symbolises a fresh start and a commitment to a new way of life.
My birth name is Paul.
Depending on which key-ring you buy it means either “small” or “like a pebble”. It is also Biblical. My parents considered something longer, like Christopher or Benjamin, but genuinely decided on Paul because they thought I might find it easier to spell. I am the first Paul in my family, at least as far as anyone remembers. It is a pretty good name for a blond English boy born in the 1980s.
However, when we got married my wife insisted that I change it – but her concern was not a religious one. In Arabic there is no letter ‘p’ (which is why an Arab might tell you how they have ordered a ‘bizza’ or went to the ‘subermarket’). So Paul becomes Baul, which sounds exactly like the Arabic word for urine [bul; بول]. Just my luck.
It turns out my wife wasn’t worried about my soul at all – she just didn’t want the invitations to announce that she was marrying piss!
I spent a long time thinking about the name I should pick. The importance of choosing the right one can leave a convert, much like an expectant parent, agonising over their decision. I wanted my new name to have a deep and spiritual meaning but I also wanted it to sound cool, like ‘Mohammed Ali’ or ‘Yusuf Islam’.
The problem is that there are thousands of Arabic names and nearly all of them mean something worthy. How could I choose between being intelligent (Akeel) and generous (Karim), or any other positive human quality you can name?
When our wedding day finally arrived I still hadn’t settled on a name, so when the judge asked me to sign the certificate, all I could think of was ‘Adam’. I had considered it before but thought it sounded too British – not exotic enough; after all, I had coverted to an exotic faith and I was marrying an exotic woman, in an exotic country; why shouldn’t my new name at least hint at that?
But Adam was the first man, literally, that came to mind in that moment. And it helped that I could actually write it in Arabic because none of the letters need to be joined up: آدم.
The more I think about it, the more I like the name; it is simple but quietly assured and I think that describes me well. If it was good enough for the first man on Earth, it is surely good enough for me?
But it is amazing how attached we are to our own names. At the wedding people would shout out, “Adam, smile for a picture” and not a flicker of acknowledgement would cross my face – I had to be physically turned to face the camera. My wife’s extended family must have thought that she had married an idiot.
I know from having a two-year-old that humans are habituated to their own names from a very early age: he must have heard his tens of thousands of times already in his short life (often preceded by “no!”). Therefore, our names become more than just labels: they become a fundamental part of our identity.
For that reason I would find it hard to abandon the name my parents gave me so these days I still go by Paul. I still am Paul. There is no requirement in Islam for a convert to change their name. And Muslims don’t mind my name really – anyone who was a friend of Jesus is a friend of Islam – it’s just that to some of them, it sounds like piss.