Thirteen months ago, I sat down with my father at a cramped International House of Pancakes on a busy Sunday morning to tell him that I would be converting to Islam the following day.
What I had prepared for as a potentially difficult conversation wasn’t made any easier by where we had been seated in the restaurant: in the booth to my right sat a pair of your classic “church ladies,” not unlike my own grandmothers whom I’d long felt wouldn’t accept me as a Muslim. And a about a skillet-length away on my left was a foursome of guys in camo gear and trucker hats straight out of a Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo casting call. Not to completely judge books by their covers, but if you know anything about Islamophobia and religious tradition in America, these weren’t the people you’d feel entirely comfortable in front of declaring yourself a Muslim.
But, I felt, this talk couldn’t wait.
Despite his old-school approach and without cracking open one new-age book on parenting, my dad had managed to be my best friend and let me become my own man without sacrificing the authority required to be Dad. So on this day I wasn’t so much seeking his blessing or approval for this major decision — I just genuinely wanted to know how he, a born-again Christian, would feel about his son becoming a Muslim.
He had questions. Of course he did. And even though I’d been self-studying Islam off and on for the majority of my life and had stepped it up to seriously studying for 3-4 years before finally submitting myself to the will of Allah, of course I didn’t have all of the answers.
And while today I don’t remember all of Dad’s questions from that day, I do remember the first: “Are you going to change your name?”
“I don’t have to,” I told him. And at the time, I didn’t think I would.
Even as a convert-to-be whose first real exposure to Islam as a kid was during the Malcolm X cultural wave of popularity in the early-1990s — who as a young sports nut looked up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Muhammad Ali — I’d never really thought about changing my name should I become Muslim.
The next day I would take my shahada — I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship other than Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his servant and messenger — with the help of a couple of brothers at the mosque I now consider my home away from home.
But that day I was also still thinking about why Dad’s first question was about my name.
It’s possible it was just a matter of reflex. Dad was raised in an era when Malcolm X was alive and the Nation of Islam thrived and Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. Perhaps the first things that came to his mind when he heard “Islam” were bean pies and bowties and brand-new names.
But I think the more likely issue was one of identity. Both mine and his.
Some say a name is just a name; just a tag that can be permanent or temporary but doesn’t mean much either way. Some of the most famous people in the world are known by names that are not really theirs: stage names like Jay-Z or Katy Perry, or the names of characters they’ve portrayed with which they’ve become synonymous, like Hulk Hogan or Olivia Pope.
Think about your parents, though. They gave you your name. To them, your name isn’t just a name. It isn’t just your name. It’s also part of them. I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I’ve run through many baby names in my head, and I would imagine I’m kind of like most — if not all — parents, gravitating toward giving their children names they kind of wish they had for themselves. And I would imagine most — if not all — parents also attach to their children’s names the goals and dreams they have for their children; which aren’t too far from the goals and dreams they have for themselves and their family.
So while my name may be part of my identity, I came to realize that it is also part of my dad’s identity.
Meanwhile, I spent my first year after converting defining my identity as a Muslim.
I learned how to pray. I got into the routine of regularly going to the mosque. I read the Quran. I read the Sunnah. I started taking Arabic lessons. I made it through my first complete month of Ramadan. I gave more to charity. I changed little things about how I dressed, how I looked, how I talked. I launched Ummah Sports.
I also struggled along the way. I had periods where I dutifully prayed five times per day, and periods where laziness and logistics (Where can I pray at work?) limited me to praying maybe once a day. I would quit eating pork cold-turkey for months at a time, until guiltily downing a McDonald’s sausage biscuit in a morning of weakness. I still played fantasy football with my friends in a $20 buy-in, winner-take-all league, telling myself that it wasn’t really gambling because I wasn’t exactly trying to win money; and that if I won I’d give the money to charity anyway. I debated with myself over whether I should break my Ramadan fast while on vacation in Hawaii, whether it was un-Islamic to argue with antagonistic trolls online in defense of my religion, whether it was OK that my wife was not Muslim.
And as I approached the one-year anniversary of taking my shahada, identity was on my mind. I found that I was thinking more and more often about changing my name.
I’ve been Austin Lawrence Burton for 32 years, and the name has served me well. I graduated from college, married my high school sweetheart, made a career out of my passion for writing, and had some amazing experiences with that name.
But as I grew stronger in my iman, more dedicated in my deen, and more involved in my Muslim community, I felt like maybe I should adopt a more Islamic name.
My initial research confirmed what I already knew and what already felt right: That while Islam recommends we have names with good meanings, I didn’t have to change my name to be a good Muslim. But if I did want to do it, I should keep my father’s surname. “Call them by (the names of) their fathers; it is more just in the sight of Allah.” (Quran 33:5)
Plus, my wife had already done me the honor of changing her last name to mine when we got married — before I’d converted to Islam and considered a name change of my own. So if I was going to change my name, I decided, I would retain Burton as my legal last name. And as homage to the name my parents chose, I wanted to pick a first name that started with an A.
I also remembered a piece of advice I’d heard years ago: Be the Muslim you want to meet. Should I change my name, it would be to one that represented who I wanted to be as a Muslim and who I would hopefully become, insha’Allah.
And so after weeks of trying on all kinds of combinations of Arabic names like I was in an Islamic fitting room on Black Friday, eventually one name stood out and sounded right from the moment I pieced it together: Amaar Abdul-Nasir.
Amaar means “one who prays five times (a day) and fasts.”
Abdul-Nasir means “servant of the Helper and Protector.”
Amaar would not only represent the type of Muslim I wanted to be, but it would also be a constant reminder of two of my duties as a Muslim, as well as tribute to the two pillars of Islam I believe require the most faith and discipline: performing the five daily prayers and fasting in the month of Ramadan.
Abdul-Nasir represents two of Allah’s many traits that I most admire and strive most to emulate: helping and protecting others. Helping and protecting those in need may be the most selfless and most noble things we can do as human beings.
I know this kind of change, while swift and simple enough once I completed it on paper, will not be quick and easy. It may take people a long time to come around to it, even those people closest to me. My mother changed her first and middle names more than 15 years ago, and some people in the family still call her by her original name, even when they have the best intentions. My wife, who I’ve known literally half of my life at this point, surely will feel strange saying another male name in the way she’s grown used to saying her husband’s name.
And I know in some ways I’ve made this world a bit harder for me to navigate, whether it’s opening myself up for discrimination while looking for a job or obtaining a passport soon after a name change. I know that to a certain segment of people in the world, in my country and in my city, I’ve instantly became more suspicious with a mere signature on a courthouse document.
But this is right. This is for me and for my path in Islam.
Our names, whether chosen or given, are our identities. They can reflect our personalities. They can define our legacies and those of our parents and ancestors. I hope that I made my father and my mother proud as Austin Lawrence.
I hope to make them prouder as Amaar Abdul-Nasir.