Adam Gadahn, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X

Why do some Muslim converts change their whole names and others only part?

Adam Gadahn, an American member of Al-Qaeda and a convert to Islam. Click image to expand.
Adam Gadahn

Al-Qaida spokesman Adam Yahiye Gadahn released a video last Sunday in which he called President Obama a “treacherous, bloodthirsty, and narrow-minded American war president” of a “declining and besieged empire.”Numerous reports suggest that Gadahn was born with the name Adam Pearlman, in California. Why do some converts to Islam change part of their name, but not the whole thing?

It varies. Gadahn, in fact, did not alter his name on conversion. His father, Philip Pearlman, changed the family name to Gadahn after his own religious epiphany in the mid-1970s—several years before Adam was born. Adam converted to Islam in 1995 and moved to Pakistan to join al-Qaida shortly thereafter. Gadahn has also gone by a number of aliases, most commonly Azzam al-Amriki (which means “Azzam the American”). The adoption of pseudonyms is common practice among jihadists—even those who were born in Muslim countries and have their own Arabic names will make up new names when they enter terrorist circles. These often refer to their place of origin. Omar Hammami, a Somali terrorist who was born in Alabama, calls himself “Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki.”

Like the motivations to convert in the first place, the reasons to change or keep one’s name vary from person to person. That said, the majority of Muslims who enter the faith choose to alter their names to mark the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. Experts on American Muslims suspect that converts to Islam are more likely to adopt new names than those who switch to other religions, and to make use of their new names in day-to-day life rather than assuming them purely for symbolic reasons. It’s not clear why that might be the case, although the adoption of Islamic beliefs and traditions may reflect a more substantial departure from mainstream American culture than, say, converting to Judaism or Christianity.

Some Muslim converts go so far as to take an entirely new name, like Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) and Yusuf Islam (formerly Steven Georgiou, via Cat Stevens). But most choose instead to add a new name informally, for use in particular contexts—at the mosque or among Muslim friends, for example. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, who converted to Islam as a teenager, has said in interviews that he goes by Keith Muhammad in his Muslim community. Some converts cite social as well as religious reasons for taking an Arabic name: They want to blend in with friends of Middle Eastern descent at their mosque.

There’s nothing in the Quran to suggest that converts to Islam must change their names at all. In fact, more than a few scholars and religious leaders believe that new Muslims should specifically avoid the practice. The Quran doesn’t mention name changes, but it does elaborate on the importance of genealogy and personal and familial history. This has been viewed as an implicit prohibition against taking a new last name, since that would represent a severance from one’s heritage. Modern-day converts can keep their last names to comply with the Quran while assuming a new first name to mark their personal transformation. It has become popular to search for an Arabic name with the same meaning as the name a person is leaving behind. For example, the English Claire might become the Arabic Munira, since both refer to something that is “bright or shining.”

From the 1950s through the 1970s, many of the people who converted to Islam in the United States were African-Americans joining the Nation of Islam. Members of this sect often rejected their last names, but for reasons that had more to do with their heritage than their new Muslim faith. Whatever family names had been assigned to their ancestors by white slave-owners were replaced with the letter X. In his autobiography, Malcolm X wrote that the X was a variable, standing in for the original family name that slavery had erased from history.

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The Explainer thanks Paul M. Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek, Zareena Grewal of Yale University, and Marcia K. Hermansen of Loyola University Chicago.

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