Do converts need to change theire names?
Names carry meanings, and every person will be influenced by (the meaning of) his name, in most cases. Man is required to call himself – or his children – by good names with good meanings, so that they will be influenced positively by their names.
Islam came to the Arabs and the non-Arabs, and it is not essential for a new Muslim to take an Arabic name, rather what is required is that he should not have a name that is ugly or carries a meaning that goes against Islam. Many Persians and Byzantines embraced Islam and kept their names, and did not change them. Indeed many of the Prophets had names that were not Arabic because they were not Arabs.
Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azeez ibn Baaz (may Allaah have mercy on him) was asked: Does a person who becomes Muslim have to change his name like George or Joseph etc?
He does not have to change his name unless it is a name that reflects servitude to someone or something other than Allaah, but it is good to change his name to something better. So if he changes his name from a foreign name to an Islamic name, that is good, but as to whether it is obligatory, no it is not.
But if his name was ‘Abd al-Maseeh [= “slave of the Messiah”, a name common among Arab Christians; a similar name in English cultures would be “Christopher” -- Translator] or something of that nature, then he should change it, but if the name does not imply servitude to anything or anyone other than Allaah, such as George and Paul, etc., then he does not have to change it, because these names are shared by Christians and others. And Allaah is the Source of strength.
Fataawa Islamiyyah, 4/404.
Obligation to change one's name if its meaning is not good!
Names have meanings, as the saying goes, and every person is influenced by the meaning of his name. So a person should be given a suitable name that has a good meaning, so that he will be influenced by his name.
Ibn al-Qayyim said:
Because names have meanings, it is wise that there should be a proper connection between the meaning of the names and the object that is carrying the name. It should not be the case that the meaning is not suited to the object and there is no connection between the meaning and the object, because this is what is decreed by the Most Wise, and reality testifies to that. Indeed names have a great impact on the objects to which they are applied, and the objects that carry these names will definitely be influenced by these names, whether these names are good or ugly, whether they refer to meanings of lightness or heaviness, kindness or cruelty.”
Zaad al-Ma’aad, 2/336
Hence the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to change bad names to good ones.
It was narrated from Ibn ‘Umar that a daughter of ‘Umar was called ‘Aasiyah (disobedient), but the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) renamed her Jameelah (beautiful). Narrated by Muslim, 2139.
The ruling – changing names to good names – has to do with what is mustahabb and preferable; it is not obligatory or binding.
The evidence for that is the report narrated by al-Bukhaari (6190) from Ibn al-Musayyab that his father came to the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) and he said, “What is your name?” He said, “Hazn (meaning rough).” He said, “You are Sahl (meaning easy).” He said, “I will not change the name that my father gave to me.” Ibn al-Musayyab said, “And we have had roughness (in character) ever since.”
Roughness means being harsh and difficult to deal with.
Ibn Battaal said:
This shows that improving names and changing names to something better is not something that is obligatory.
And if it had been obligatory, the Sahaabi would not have refused to change his name, and the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) would have compelled him to change his name.
And Allaah knows best.
But if the name carries a meaning implying servitude to someone other than Allaah, such as ‘Abd al-Nabi (slave of the Prophet) and ‘Abd al-Maseeh (slave of the Messiah), and the like, then these names must be changed, because it is not permissible to be a slave of someone other than Allaah, and because all of creation belongs to Allaah and is subjugated to Him.
Ibn Hazm (may Allaah have mercy on him) said:
The scholars are agreed that every name which implies servitude to someone other than Allaah – such as ‘Abd ‘Amr or ‘Abd al-Ka’bah and so on, is haraam.
Fath al-Majeed, p. 531
And Allaah knows best.