Can a Muslim Man Change His Surname?

Shafi'i Fiqh

Answered by Shaykh Irshaad Sedick

Question

What is the ruling on changing one’s surname (family name) for Muslim men? My surname is well known to be that of a tribe of a well-known heterodox sect, and I was thinking about changing my surname to one of Allah’s Messengers without changing my identity (father, grandfather, etc.) I want to change the family name. Is this permissible?

Answer

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate. May Allah guide us to that which pleases Him, forgive us for our shortcomings, and alleviate our difficulties, Amin.

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to change bad names to good ones. It was narrated from Ibn’ Umar that a daughter of ‘Umar was called ‘Asiya (disobedient), but the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) renamed her Jamila (beautiful). [Muslim]

If the name is not discernibly negative, I will encourage keeping it for genealogical preservation, especially generations later. However, if the name widely holds a negative meaning or reference, then changing it is better, and Allah knows best.

Changing Bad Names to Good Names

The ruling – changing names to good names – is a matter of recommendation; it is not obligatory or binding.

The evidence for the above is the report narrated by Ibn Al-Musayyab that his father came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), 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 my father gave me.” Ibn Al-Musayyab said, “And we have had roughness (in character) ever since.” [Bukhari]

(Roughness means being harsh and challenging to deal with.)

Ibn Battal said: “This proves that improving names and changing names to something better is not obligatory.” [Fath al-Bari]

And if it had been obligatory, the Companion would not have refused to change his name, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would have compelled him to change his name, and Allah knows best.

Names Denoting Polytheism or Disbelief

If the name carries a meaning implying servitude to someone other than Allah, such as ‘Abd al-Nabi (slave of the Prophet) and ‘Abd al-Masih (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 Allah, and because all of creation belongs to Allah and is subjugated to Him.

The scholars have agreed that every name which implies servitude to someone other than Allah – such as ‘Abd ‘Amr or ‘Abd al-Ka’ba and so on, is unlawful. [Fath al-Majid]

I pray this is of benefit.

[Shaykh] Irshaad Sedick
Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Shaykh Irshaad Sedick was raised in South Africa in a traditional Muslim family. He graduated from Dar al-Ulum al-Arabiyyah al-Islamiyyah in Strand, Western Cape, under the guidance of the late world-renowned scholar, Shaykh Taha Karaan. 

Shaykh Irshaad received Ijaza from many luminaries of the Islamic world, including Shaykh Taha Karaan, Mawlana Yusuf Karaan, and Mawlana Abdul Hafeez Makki, among others.

He is the author of the text “The Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal: A Hujjah or not?” He has served as the Director of the Discover Islam Centre and Al Jeem Foundation. For the last five years till present, he has served as the Khatib of Masjid Ar-Rashideen, Mowbray, Cape Town.

Shaykh Irshaad has thirteen years of teaching experience at some of the leading Islamic institutes in Cape Town). He is currently building an Islamic online learning and media platform called ‘Isnad Academy’ and pursuing his Master’s degree in the study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg. He has a keen interest in healthy living and fitness.