On the subject of names, one curious naming convention here has to do with converts to Islam. I don’t know what the actual rate of conversion in Malaysia is, but it is significant. I’m forever running into converts. My next door neighbor turns out to be an Iban convert. As you probably know, it is customary when converting to take or be given an Islamic first name. Although very common, it is by no means a requirement of conversion. Many American converts will simply add the Islamic first name to their existing name, like my friend Muhammad Steve, or never officially change their name at all. The only time Nabi Muhammad changed somebody’s first name was when it had an explicitly unislamic meaning, such as Abdul ‘Uzza, meaning the servant of the pagan god Uzza.
Anyway, here in Malaysia, many people believe or are instructed that they must drop their family names and take the last name “Abdullah” when they convert. This is a huge obstacle to conversion for many people. Even if they themselves are amenable to the idea, it is a slap in the face to the family that many interested in conversion are unwilling to do. There is no reason why a convert should need to do this. To my knowledge, Nabi Muhammad never changed a convert’s family name. The names of the Noble Companions of the Holy Prophet are replete with family names predating Islam, like Sayyidina Omar Al-Khattab or Sayyidina Othman Al-Affan, may Allah be well pleased with them.
If converts knew the circumstances under which it is necessary to add “Abdullah”, they would be even more resistant if not offended. It is in the case of bastard children. Muslim children born out of wedlock do not take their father’s name; there is no relationship between the father and child at all. In this case, the child will take the last name “Abdullah”. I don’t mean to say there is anything wrong with the name Abdullah or any stigma attached to the name itself. It is a beautiful name in its own right, and many children are given this name, which means the servant of God. Nabi Muhammad said that he was happiest when Allah Almighty called him by that name. According to Islamic spirituality, all people have eight true names, one of which is Abdullah. So far from being a scarlet letter, it is a veil of modesty cast over people coming from an unfortunate situation. But it does not apply to converts.

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. Yeah, I can understand wanting your family name to persist. I thought about it a lot before making my decision. There’s something grand about passing it on, especially in a foreign land where it really would stand out.

    For me, I had been using my muslim first name for years without legally changing it. When I was about to get married, I realized I’d better change it officially now if I was ever going to. While I was at it, I thought why not do away with the family name while I was at it. It’s a typical polish nameski that noone outside the family could pronounce right. My dad used to tell people it meant “Strong Bow” with a straight face but our family has confirmed with Polish natives that it has absolutely no meaning. Half our extended family had already dropped it, anglicizing it to Kaye. And if a polish last name was a hassle in the US, just imagine my poor son in Malaysia, Muhammad Ridhwan Kruszewski bin Anonymous Kruszewski. I thought about assuming a simpler family name, but it seemed pointless at best or affected at worst. In the end, I went with my father’s first name, non-hereditary: the Bin system. I’m happy with the decision in the end. The Bin system makes our existence seem even more fleeting here on this earth. Ridhwan has learned all the first names back to my great-grandfather. We ask his name and when he replies, say “bin?”, “bin?”, “bin” till he runs out of names. I don’t know if he would have learned that if I didn’t use this system. I feel like my progeny will remember my name as long as my memory means something to them, and when that’s gone, their duas for their ancestors will reach just as effectively as duas for all the Kruszewskis gone by, insha’allah.


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