A Rose By Any Other Name…

“My name is Muhammad.” He reaches out his hand to shake mines.

I grab it firmly. “My name is Steven, nice to meet you.” Muhammad lets go of my hand.

“ That isn't a Muslim name.”

This conversation begin when I flagged down a cab who then pulled over and ask me if I was heading downtown and I, guessing that he was heading to the masjid for prayers, greeted him with “As salamu alaikum, yes I am.”

I had just come from Harlem’s famed soul food restaurant Amy Ruth’s and thought the cab ride would get me home to a hotter meal quicker than a walk or bus ride. Being African American I grew up on Soul food and couldn’t wait to get home and dig into some baked macaroni and cheese.

When I got into the car the driver’s glimpses into his rear view mirror let me know that his curiosity was piqued so I asked, “you going to the masjid to pray?”

“Yes,” He answered.

We had some little chit chat about the masjid he frequented and his driving schedule compared to the prayer times and about how I converted to Islam. It was a short drive from the restaurant to the projects where I lived and at the end of the ride is when the introductions were made and the confusion over my name, even after I had revealed I was born Christian and had converted, were expressed.

His reaction isn’t unique to those born into Islam or with “Muslim names”; even many of the converts who decide to change their names will question the decision to keep a birth name asking “why don’t you take a Mulsim name?” That gives rise to what is, I think, a more pertinent question: What is a Muslim name?

When we think of ‘Muslim names’ we think of names like Muhammad, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Hamza, and so many more; the list can go on and on. These are undoubtedly the names of Muslims, some of the most highly esteemed Muslims in the history of Islam in fact, but are these actually Muslim names and are some of the generally held beliefs about what a Muslim name is correct?

During the advent of Islam the prophet Muhammad, and many of the following leaders of the Islamic community, already had their names; names that were popular and/or common to the time and area in which they were living. Arabic names. These names became recognizable as “muslim names” not because the have any intrinsic association with Islam, but because of the piety, humbleness and patience these men exhibited, the dedication and steadfastness in following the Quran and the Messenger of Allah. It’s the man that makes the name, not the other way around.

So, when people ask, “why don’t you have a Muslim name?” I always think to myself “Do I not have a Muslim name? I’m Muslim and Steven is my name.” Maybe what they’re really asking, perhaps unknowingly is “Why don’t you have an Arabic name?” and my personal answer to that question would be “Because I’m African American.”

Now, back to this baked mac & cheese.

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