Of Names , Justice and Islam


The Perlis Shariah Committee provoked much public discussion when it debated the issue of retaining the name of one’s father upon conversion to Islam. Even those who have long been silent have emerged with statements to the media. Emotion and sentiment play active parts in this. Some are waiting for just the right moment, for the opportunity. I say: be patient.

This was not in fact a fatwa I issued in my personal capacity. It was the unanimous decision of all twelve committee members in attendance. The majority of them were university lecturers in various Islamic studies and many possessed PhDs. Alhamdulillah, Perlis has the largest number of  fatwa committee members, and it would be wrong to think that this matter was decided without thought.

This is quite a unique issue. Only in our country does a convert to Islam have to change his or her name (and therefore descent) to Abdullah. I am not sure if this is the practice in Brunei, but it certainly does not occur in the Arab countries or in Indonesia. So, if there was an association in this country which has a few hundred converts as members, all of them would have the same ‘bin’ or ‘binti’ (son or daughter of), that is “Abdullah”. If there are ten Ahmads, for example, how very confusing it will be as they will all be named “Ahmad bin Abdullah”. And so the officers of such an association would have to memorise their identification card numbers instead. Similarly, should a husband and wife embrace Islam they will become two individuals whose father has the same name: Abdullah.

If the Prophet  pbuh practised this then surely the majority of his Companions would have had the name “bin Abdullah”. There would not be `Umar bin al-Khattab but `Umar bin Abdullah instead, nor Uthman bin `Affan but `Uthman bin Abdullah. There would be no `Ali bin Abi Talib but `Ali bin Abdullah. All of their fathers did not embrace Islam. But this is not what happened. The Prophet pbuh did change the unseemly names of some who embraced Islam, but they kept the names of their fathers; and the fact is that Arabs preserve their heritage and can name their descent to several generations. If we turn to the opening the celebrated book  Riyadh al-Salihin  by Imam al-Nawawi (d. 676H), we find the first hadith to be from `Umar bin al-Khattab. Imam al-Nawawi says: “Amir al-Mukminin ‘Umar bin al-Khattab bin Nufail bin `Abd al-`Uzza…”

“`Abd al-`Uzza” means the servant of al-`Uzza.  The name of the Prophet’s great grandfather was “bin Kilab” and  kilāb  is Arabic for “dog”. Islam did not change what was certain.

There are those who try to tie this issue to  akidah  (faith), as if the Perlis Shariah Committee did not take  akidah  into consideration. They feared that if the father’s name contained an element of syirik (any other God), this might affect the  akidah  of his son or daughter who embraces Islam. How weak-minded this is. Do they not realise that not only does the father have a name with elements of  syirik,  the father  himself  practices  syirik. For example: if Gopal the son of Subramaniam converts to Islam and changes his name to Marwan, do we also want to change the name of Subramaniam—who does not approve of Islam as the true religion—to Abdullah?

And so every time we meet Subramaniam we shall have to address him “O Abdullah” for fear that addressing him as Subramaniam it will ruin his son’s  akidah . Truly,  syirik has nothing to do with this! If merely the name of Subramaniam can damage Marwan’s akidah , what happens when Subramaniam goes to the temple? Will Marwan become an outright apostate? Doesn’t this kind of thinking demonstrate how poorly some people understand the concept of  akidah ?

Some asked us why we raised this matter. This, after all, has been the practice for a long time. We told them that there were always grounds for any issue brought for discussion in the State Shariah Committee: there may be questions about it, or people might be unclear about religious rulings. An issue is debated for any of these reasons.

Briefly, the two main reasons for the Committee’s resolution were thus: first, there exists textual evidence in the Quran and Sunnah prohibiting the current practice. Allah says: “Call them by (the names of) their fathers, that is juster in the sight of Allah. But if you know not their father’s (names, call them) your brothers in faith or your  mawlās.

And there is no sin on you if you make a mistake therein: (what counts is) the intention of your hearts: and Allah is Oft -Returning, Most Merciful.” (Surah al-Ahzab, verse 5.) Imam al-Tabari (d. 310H) said in his Tafsir al-Tabari: “This verse is the reason why one may not claim to be the son of him who is not one’s father.

There are also hadith that strictly prohibit this.” This issue appears frequently in the hadith of the Prophet pbuh , among which is one that states:

“Whoever claims to be the son of a person other than his father, and he knows that person is not his father, Paradise will be forbidden to him.” (Reported by al-Bukhari.)

He also said:

“Among the major falsehoods is when one claims that he is the son of a person other than his father.” (Reported by al-Bukhari.)

Why is this prohibited? Islam is a religion that values and protects human rights. It is a religion that never distorts fact. A father, regardless of who he is, is forever a father because it is from his seed that his descendants rightfully spring, and not from the seed of another. His child is tied to him, and moreover there are regulations relating to rights, marriage and property. To reject a father or to act as if he does not exist can cause confusion in genealogy, muddles in marriage and the denial of family responsibility—and Islam is a religion that upholds rights and justice, and promotes human well-being. Dr Wahbah al-Zuhaili said in his work al-Fiqh al-Islami wa Adillatuhu:

Justice and rights demand that one is acknowledged to be the child of one’s true father. Not an invented father. Islam is a religion of rights and justice [...] and whosoever has a father that he knows about must assert his kinship. When a person does not have a father he knows about, only then he is referred to as mawlā or a brother in Islam. All this is done to prevent the distortion of truth. (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 1989, 7/674.)

Islam is an upright religion. Abu Bakr al-Jazairi in his exegetical work Aisar al-Tafasir said sarcastically that “it is right that adopted children be acknowledged children of their known fathers, even though the father may be a donkey.”

The Prophet  pbuh changed the name of one who embraced Islam only when his name bore an unworthy meaning—but he did not change the father’s name. For instance, he changed the name of one of his Companions from `Abd al-Syams bin Sokhr to `Abd al-Rahman bin Sokhr because “`Abd al-Syams” meant “servant of the Sun”. However, the name Sokhr (“rock”) was retained.

Furthermore, he did not change the name of Abdullah bin `Abd al-Asad even though “`Abd al-Asad” meant “servant of the lion”. The Prophet  pbuh did not say that a father’s name had to be changed for fear of ruining the son’s  akidah. Those who desire details of this should consult those scholars of hadith who have mastered the Kutub al-Tarajim; or they can refer directly to books of  al-tarajim  that discuss the biographies of those who are mentioned in the history of Islam. Some of these include Al-Isobah fi Tamyiz al-Sahabah by al-Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani, Siyar A’lam al-Nubala by al-Hafiz al-Zahabi, and many others.

If this was the practice of the Prophet  pbuh and his Companions, do we mean to say that we are more conversant with Islam than they were? Do we imply that the Prophet pbuh cared so little for akidah that he allowed a Companion to be called son of “the servant of the lion”? O commentators! Let us read more widely and not get ahead of ourselves.

Secondly, we raised this matter because we intended to preserve the good name of Islam. Today, Islam is attacked from many directions, and a common misconception is that Islam does not value human rights. In our country, many non-Muslims think that Islam is unjust because it breaks the ties binding a son to his father. When people embrace Islam, some of their fathers say: “You have converted, and I, who have toiled so much for you, you have discarded. Even my name is gone. Who is this Abdullah, this new father of yours?”

For this reason many oppose Islam even more and worry greatly if their children convert. Sometimes, those who intend to convert ultimately cannot because they love their families and have no wish to cause them pain. How much worse all this will be when he is told to discard his family’s or his father’s name!

In truth, Islam enjoins one to do good by one’s parents, even if they do not embrace Islam. This remains true even if the parentsendeavour to make him leave Islam. Allah commands that a person does good by his parents, and this command stands. All that is required is that the child does not cling to the old ways of  syirik, kufur (rejection of Allah) and disobedience. Look at what Allah says in Surah Luqman, verse 15:

“But if they strive to make you join in worship with Me things of which you have no knowledge, obey them not; yet bear them company in this life with justice (and consideration).”

The question we should pose is whether we shall behave kindly towards our parents—as commanded by the verse above—if we refuse to be acknowledged as their children, or if we change their names without their approval, or if they reject the new ‘bin’ as their name. Does this not wound their hearts for no good reason? And all this time Islam commands us to act with justice and consideration towards our parents even they are not Muslims. Islam honours what is good and it honours the rights of all.

Moreover, don’t such actions cause non-Muslims to hate and to think ill of Islam? And is it not our duty to preserve the good name of Islam? For these reasons I believe that the Perlis Shariah Committee had very strong reasons to discuss the matter. Just because a practice has endured for a long time doesn’t mean that it must be retained and cannot be changed. The respected Malay intellectual Za’ba (Zainal Abidin Ahmad) wrote in his magnificent work Perangai Bergantung Kepada Diri Sendiri (“Attitude Depends on Us Alone”):

It is only in recent centuries that the Muslim intellectuals, almost the world over, have lost the spirit of individual ability and the qualifications to do as their predecessors have done. Yes, if we go searching for them, we might find that a few know how to be individuals, or are brave enough to be such; but everywhere we will find those who are accustomed to taklid (adherence without question), and worse, most of them adhere blindly!

Unfortunately, if anyone tries to do what was done by past scholars of Islam—that is, to free themselves from the shackles of  taklid  and to return to the Quran and Hadith to meet the ever-changing needs and conditions of the modern world—they will forthwith have hurled at them such unworthy words as ‘deviant’ and ‘causing others to deviate’, ‘conceited’, ‘innovator’, ‘wandering from the way charted by experts of the past’, ‘young and inexperienced but arrogant enough to challenge his elders and betters’ and much more. Such people believe that it is right merely to sit still and petrify right where they are! And it is probably because they themselves are incapable that they resent others who are capable. (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka, 2005, p. 33.)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, Islam in Malaysia: Perceptions & Facts. (sample chapter)

The author are former Mufti of Perlis, Malaysia, lecturer in University Science of Malaysia and currently at Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford attending “Visiting Research Scholar” funded by British Council.

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