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The Islamic Naming System

Excerpted From Tafseer Surat Al-Hujuraat By Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips 

Islam places great emphasis on the clear identification of family relationships. The Prophet (SAW) himself said,

"Learn enough about your lineage to know your blood relatives and treat them accordingly." (At-Tirmidhee)

That is, family lines should be known well enough to prevent marriages within the forbidden degrees and to determine blood and family obligations.

Although it is the duty of the Islamic state to take care of its citizens, the primary responsibility lies first and foremost on family members. Therefore, according to Islamic law, blood relationships should be clearly defined and any tampering with them is strictly forbidden.

Names Imply a Genealogical Relationship

This is clearly stressed in the Islamic naming system in which each name and its sequences implies a specific genealogical relationship. For example, the name Khaalid ibn Abdullah ibn Zakee al-Harbee, which in present times is written Khaalid Abdullah Zakee al-Harbee means Khaalid the son of Abdullah, the son of Zakee, from the tribe of Harb.

This system of naming people after their fathers and forefathers has appeared 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 stages of Muhammed's prophethood (SAW). However, Allah (SWT) forbade it during the Madeenan stage of prophethood in which the majority of the religious, social and economic laws of islam were revealed.

Call Them By Their Fathers

Ibn Umar (RA) reported that after the Prophet (SAW) freed Zayd ibn Harithah and adopted him, people used to refer to him as Zayd ibn Muhammed until the verse the following verse was revealed,

"Call them by (the names of) their father's, that is more just in the sight of Allah..." (Al-Ahzab 33:5)

Once this principle became part of the divine law, the Prophet (SAW) was instructed to further emphasize it by a series of warnings. For example, on one occasion he said,

"He who knowingly attributed his fatherhood to someone other than his real father will be excluded from paradise." (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood)

Abu Dharr (RA) also related that he heard the Prophet (SAW) say,

"He who deliberately lets himself be called the son of someone other than his father is guilty of disbelief (kufr)." (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood)

Islamic Law is Comprehensive

Thus, the Arabic system of naming people according to their father's names which was endorsed by the Prophet (SAW) and approved of by Allah (SWT) is considered the Islamic naming system.

Islamic law is comprehensive. It regulates all aspects of human life in order to establish a social system in which human welfare is looked after and the worship of God is enshrined. Consequently, although some facets of the Islamic naming system may be more important than other, 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.

Muslim Woman Keeps Her Father's Name

Influenced by the Greco-Roman culture in which women were considered to e the property of men, western society erased a woman's family name upon marriage and replaced it by that of her husband. In the Islamic naming system she retains her father's name as it indicates her true lineage.

However, both of these degenerative Western trends have been widely adopted in Muslim lands along with other un-Islamic cultural trappings of European colonialism. New Muslims, unaware of the Islamic naming system, often adopt Arabic names in the chaotic European style.

Legacy of Slavery

In fact, those 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 masters' name which was handed down from generations to generation. Hence, an individual who may have been called Clive Baron Williams while his father's name was George Herbert Williams may, upon entering Islamic, rename himself Faisal Umar Nkruma Mahdi. However, his name according to the Islamic naming system should have been Faisal George Williams, that is, Faisal the son of George Williams. Whether "Williams" was the name of his ancestors plantation owner or not is not of any 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 father's name is necessary to determine who his relatives are in order to avoid incestuous marriages, discharge inheritance rights and fulfill general responsibilities to blood relations.

New Muslims Should Keep Family Name

This becomes especially important in the West where premarital and extra-marital relations are common leading to generations of illegitimate inter-related children. Consequently, when some of these half-brothers and sisters enter Islam under different assumed family names, there exists a very real possibility that some of them may unintentionally contract incestuous marriage. The practice among new Muslims of deleting their family names has frequently created 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", a variation of Dionysus (which was 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 forms Annie and Nancy) which means 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 a recent convert or not, to change his or her first name if he/she chooses. It was the Prophet's (SAW) practice to change peoples first names if they were too arrogant, negative or un-Islamic. One of the Prophet's (SAW) wives was originally named "Barrah" (pious) and he changed it to "Zaynab" (collected by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood) as Allah (SWT) had said in the Quran,

"Do not claim piety for yourselves for He knows best who is God-fearing." (An-Najm 53:32)

Ibn Abbas (RA) reported that another of the Prophet's (SAW) wives was also named Barrah and he changed it to Juwayriyah (collected by Muslim).

Ibn Umar (RA) reported that his father, Umar, had a daughter named "Aasiyah" (disobedient) whom the Prophet (SAW) renamed "Jameelah" (beautiful ). (collected by Muslim).

Jabir ibn Abdullah (RA) reported that the Prophet (SAW) decided to forbid names like Ya'laa (elevated), Barakah (blessing), Aflah (successful), Yasaar (wealth) and Naafi (beneficial). (collected by Muslim).

The Prophet (SAW) Never Changed the Names of the Fathers

However, Allah's Messenger (SAW) never changed the names of people's fathers, no matter how un-Islamic they may have been. For example, when the Sahabi Abdu Shams ibn Sakhr accepted Islam, the Prophet (SAW) cancelled his given nam, Abdu-Shams (slave of a sun), and renamed him Abdur-Rahman ibn Sakhr (collect by Ibn Hajar al-Asqalaanee). His father's name, Sakhr (rock), was left untouched.

Likewise, the Sahabi, Abu Salamah's name was changed to Abdullah ibn Abdul-Asad leaving his father's name Abdul-Asad (slave of the lion) unchanged. (collected by Ibn al-Jawzee).

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 name 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.

Kunyah Can Be Added

However, it should be noted, that there are other titles and descriptive names which may be added to either or both the beginning and the end of a person's actual name. According to the Islamic naming system, prefixed names known as Kunyah consist of Abu (the father/owner of) 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 became so well known by their Kunya that their actual names are almost forgotten.

For example, among the Sahabah:

  • Abu Bakr (Abdullah ibn Uthman)
  • Abu Hurayrah (Abdur Rahman ibn Sakhr)
  • Abu Laylaa (Bilal al-Ansari)

And among the fuqahaa (legislators): Abu Haneefah (Nu'maan ibn Tahabit).

The suffixed tittles are of two types:

  1. The Laqab, a descriptive trait, for example, Abu Bakr was titled by the Prophet (SAW) "as-Siddeeq" (the truthful) and Umar, "al-Farooq" (the discerner).
  2. The second type is known as Nisbah which refers to the place or tribe with which one is associated. For example, the Sahabi, Abu Dharr "al-Ghifaaree" (from the tribe of Ghifaar) and Hadith scholars such as al-Bukhari (Muhammad ibn Ismaa'eel), from the city Bukhara and at-Tirmidhee (Muhammad ibn Eesaa) from the city of Tirmidh. The Nisabah suffix may also refer to a profession.

Naming Girls

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 principle 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 Asmaa was the illegitimate daughter of Jameelah and her mother Jameelah was also the illegitimate daughter of Zaynab, the daughter of Abdullah.


We have many more good articles on explaining the Islamic naming system:

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