Name change on religious conversion

It is common for those converting to a new religion to change their name on conversion.  Many wish for a new start on converting, and therefore choose to take a new name that represents their adopted religious beliefs. 

Religions have different customs relating to whether converts are required to change their name on conversion; however it is often a matter of personal preference.  Listed below is an outline of the different traditions of some of the major religions on the subject of whether a name change is necessary on conversion.

Please note: the contents of this section are intended for your general interest and information only.  They should not be viewed as a substitute for the advice of your adopted faith's teachers or scriptures.  You should discuss any requirements to change your name on conversion with your adopted faith community, teacher, minister or leader.

Christianity    

While conversion to Christianity may simply involve a personal choice to identify with the Christian faith rather than another religion, it usually entails being baptized and becoming a member of a denomination or church.

A person converting to Christianity often chooses to experience baptism as a sign of their conversion.  Some Churches and denominations require it as a prerequisite to membership.

It has been historical Christian practice to adopt a new name on baptism or confirmation.  In addition, those taking religious orders usually take a 'name in religion'.

Islam

It is common for converts to Islam to choose an Islamic name on conversion, although it is not usually compulsory.  One situation in which a change of name may be formally required is one in which the convert's original name is doctrinally contrary to the teachings of Islam. 

Nevertheless many converts do choose to take a new Islamic name on conversion, to mark a new stage in their lives.

Probably the most well-known example is that of boxer 'Cassius Clay' changing his name to 'Muhammad Ali' when he converted to the Islamic faith.  Another well known case of a convert to Islam changing his name is that of famous pop singer 'Cat Stevens' who adopted the name 'Yusuf Islam' after becoming a Muslim.

Judaism    

There are many different views among Jews regarding the conversion process and particular conversion processes will vary. 

For the convert, a change of name signals the embracing of a new philosophy and a new identification; it is a purposeful, mindful statement of intent for the long future.  That is why the rabbis instituted that converts should choose Hebrew names for their new Jewish lives.  Many rabbis hold that converts should not only add a Hebrew name but also modify the given name used in pre-conversion years.  Other rabbis differ, pointing to Ruth, the most famous female convert to Judaism, who did not change her Moabite name at all.  Still other rabbis hold that all converts should be named Abraham or Sarah, the very names they were given when they "converted" to the service of God. 

The choice is ultimately the convert's, and should be made with full knowledge of the scope of names available, not only in terms of pleasant-sounding words, but of their meanings.  What is not the choice the convert is the identity of his/her parents.  In Jewish life, a person is formally called by his or her given name, and as the son or daughter of the parent.  (Reference is generally made to the father - except in illness or in danger, when compassion is required and the person is referred to as being the child of the mother.)

While the convert's given name is the convert's own choice, Judaism requires an identification of parentage in all formal documents, legal proceedings, and religious functions such as being called to the Torah.  As the convert is technically considered to be a newborn child, reference to the parent must be of the spiritual parentage adopted by entering into the Covenant of Abraham.  There must be a formal designation of the conversion that is plainly evident.  That is why the convert is called 'ben Avraham Avinu' (son of our father, Abraham), or 'bat Sarah Imenu' (daughter of our mother, Sarah).  In a Jewish marriage contract or divorce, it is not sufficient to write 'child of Abraham'.  What must be written is 'Abraham, our father' in order to avoid any possible ambiguity that might lead some to believe that the father was actually Jewish man named Abraham.  Sometimes the word 'ha'ger' (the convert) is appended to the name. 

This naming pattern is required only of the first generation of converts.  All subsequent generations refer to their own father's Jewish name, without the convert appellation.  The convert title appended to the name should be borne as a badge of spiritual courage and accomplished idealism.  It need not be used in personal, familial, and social life, but it is required on formal occasions and documents. 

Sikhism    

Members of the Sikh faith usually adopt a new last name upon initiation into the Khalsa, which takes place through the Amrit Sanskar ceremony, also known as 'taking amrit'.

This practice dates back to the Birth of the Khalsa on Vaisakhi Day, April 13 1699.  On this day, Guru Gobind Singh introduced new directives for Sikh names.  His intention was to reduce the prejudice created by caste-typing based on the family name, which was rampant during 17th century.  In order to promote equality and unity between all Sikhs, he decreed that all Sikh men should take the second name 'Singh', meaning 'lion' and all Sikh women should bear the second name 'Kaur', meaning 'princess'.  In this way, a person's caste became un-identifiable, and women, seen as equal in status to men, were no longer required to change their name on marriage.

Today, while the practice of taking Singh or Kaur as a last name to mark entry into the Khalsa is prevalent, many amritdhari and non-amritdhari Sikhs choose to take the names Singh and Kaur as middle names instead.

Of course, not all people named Singh are necessarily Sikhs.  The name pre-dates the Birth of the Khalsa; it is closely linked to the martial antiquities of North India dating back to at least the eighth century CE. 

Additionally, except in a very few cases, the same first names are used for both women and men.  Although one may not be able to tell the sex of a Sikh person from his/her first name, the second name of Singh or Kaur makes the distinction completely clear.  Unisex first names are a salient example of the complete equality between men and women.

Some converts may also wish to change their forenames.  Nearly all sounds that make up first names are associated with God.  Compound names are common, and many names begin or end in suffixes such as 'preet' (love), 'deep' (light), and 'jit' (victory).  For example, 'aman' (peace) joined with 'deep' (light), makes Amandeep, which means 'light of peace'.  Some common names for both girls and boys are 'Jaspreet' (glory of love), 'Harjit' (victory of God), 'Mandeep' (light of the heart), and 'Simran' (remembrance of God).

Buddhism

There is no obligatory process for conversion to Buddhism, although there is a ritual that many converts choose to undertake, called the Ti-Sarana in Pali, or 'taking the three refuges', which is performed in all schools of Buddhism. This ceremony usually includes the convert being given new ‘Dharma name' by a Buddhist teacher or monk.

Dharma names are generally in the language of the Buddhist tradition, for example, Tibetan Buddhists are given a name in Tibetan, and Zen Buddhists are often named in Japanese. People in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism are often given the name Karma.

Hinduism

Although it is sometimes claimed that one must be born into a Hindu family to be a Hindu, that one cannot adopt it or convert from another faith, this is not the case.  Conversion to Hinduism has been going on for centuries, and traditionally required little more than accepting and living by the beliefs and codes of Hindus.  

This remains the central element of the conversion process, although there are now more formal ceremonies recognizing entrance into the religion - including the Namakarana Samskara or naming rite and the Punyahavachanam or purification ceremony.

Those who convert to the Hindu faith often choose to take a new name upon conversion, usually associated with the denomination of Hinduism that they join.

For example, Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindus, like ISKCON devotees, are given a 'spiritual name' by their guru upon initiation.  This name ends in 'Dasa' for men and 'Dasi' for women (meaning 'servant'), and generally begins with the same letter as the devotee's given name.


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