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'Dear Pastor Mohammed, isn't it time you changed your name?'

The author of this article is 'Rob', who is a graduate of Oak Hill.  He is a writer and researcher, equipping churches worldwide to understand, reach & teach Kurdish communities. He is a member of Magdalen Road Church, which is active in befriending and explaining the Good News to East Oxford’s many Muslims.

In the book Joining the Family, Tim Green refers to an Iranian pastor called 'Rev Mohammed' and asks "Can 'Rev' and 'Mohammed' go together? Why not?!"

He actually raises an important and quite complex pastoral issue.

My answer would be that there are actually good reasons why a believer might continue to be called Mohammed- yes, even ‘Pastor Mohammed’; and yet it is ultimately a matter of freedom for the believer, after we have considered carefully the guidance the Bible gives us on the whole subject.

I am aware that many will instinctively feel the old name has to go. “How can you possibly,?” they will reason, “continue to be named after a man who...?” And I will leave you to complete the sentence. However, to see how it is not quite that simple, consider this imagined testimony at the front of church:

"My name is Mohammed. We joined the church a couple of years ago and I'm overseeing the youth club here. I'm named after my grandfather back in Afghanistan, whom I love dearly.  I spent many happy holidays in his village learning to keep bees and tend the fig trees in his orchard. Like the rest of my family he is a Muslim. I came to know the Lord and was baptised ten years ago, so I know it's a funny name for a youth pastor but I wanted to explain why I still like to be called Mohammed!"

Others, of course, may find they associate the name more with the founder of their previous religion, and so prefer to make a complete break with their captivity to a creed they now see as dark and deceptive. Still others may go by two different names.

An Old Chestnut

William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions, sailed for India in 1793, and in 1805 he and his colleagues Marshman and Ward wrote a short covenant which even today contains many important lessons for mission work. It is striking that this very issue gets mentioned (in quite a short document) as an important matter of mission practice. Point number 8 states that they have decided not to change the names of native converts. And why not? Because by forcing a name change “the economy of families, neighbourhoods, etc., would be needlessly disturbed”. Their principal reason, though, was their observation that the Apostles did not change the names of the many first Christians whose names were derived from those of heathen gods (they list Epaphroditus, Phoebe, Fortunatus, Sylvanus, Apollos, Hermes, Junia and Narcissus). The same conviction came to me once when I was preparing a sermon about Epaphroditus in Philippians 2. This unsung hero of the early church retained a name that means 'Of Aphrodite', the Greek goddess of love and procreation (Venus to the Romans). Clearly this was a name born of an unbiblical worldview: he was in fact conceived not by the will of Aphrodite, but according to the plan of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But Paul did not insist on renaming Epaphroditus, even though alternative names are quite common in the pages of the New Testament (Saul is called Paul after Acts 13:9, and then there is Joseph who was nicknamed Barnabas and Simon who was also called Peter; and "John, who was also called Mark").

Plundering the Egyptians

Christians sometimes refer to the principle of 'plundering the Egyptians': that is, the gold and silver of idolaters was given to the Israelites as they left Egypt, and it must have been these valuables that were used to build the tabernacle for the worship of the one true God. By the same reasoning a name with pagan connotations can be redeemed for holy purposes. We should not think superstitiously of a name as carrying some 'curse'.

This is an important issue, because a hasty abandonment of one's birth name can add insult to injury for the biological family. It is good, as much as possible, for believers to retain good relations with their kith and kin. Remember Jesus' instruction to Legion: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (Mark 5:19) In Iraq, for example, someone with the passport name Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed is actually indicating that his father was called Ahmed and his grandfather Mohammed. So, it might be misplaced zeal to rename an impressionistic convert called Mohammed Ahmed even though both his names do refer to the prophet of his former religion. What about the Fifth Commandment? Wouldn’t honouring your father and mother lead you to retain your given names out of respect for all the good your father and grandfather have done for you, as in the testimony above about grandpa the noble beekeeper?

Other Considerations

In the case of Mohammed, there is an additional point. The root meaning (from the three consonants H-M-D) is something perfectly acceptable to Christians: it means 'praiseworthy' (compare the oft-heard 'Elhumdullilah'- “Praise be to God”, also heard in Turkish as 'hamd olsun').

I shared this article with a friend who served in Ethiopia and he supplied another valid approach: “BMBs (Believers from a Muslim Background) kept their old names as a reminder of what they'd been saved from.”

There's plenty of middle ground, too. One Kurdish friend of mine dislikes the Prophet of Islam and so prefers to be called Hamo. Mo is another common shortening in the West; we should be sensitive to people's preferences. Names are complex things. In some contexts, locals don't handle foreign names well, so people end up being called something similar that just trips off the tongue. For a Middle-Easterner trying to get on in, say, the construction industry or the school playground, it may well be prudent to take on a well-chosen Western name. If they don’t come up with a new name, quite likely others will create a mangled form of their current name for them!

In reality of course, there are so many Mohammeds in the Muslim world that additional names are almost a necessity.

The Real Name Change

Panning out a bit from the wisdom calls people make about diminutives and additional names, we could usefully meditate more deeply on what names are. Fundamentally, they represent our character, and so the real 'name change' new disciples should seek is one where we are known for our kindness, humility, hard work and the like.

"A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold." (Proverbs 22:1). We can pray with a new believer feeling awkward about their name, and help fix their thoughts on what impact they are having on others through their changed character. We are warned elsewhere in the Wisdom Literature: "As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour." (Ecclesiastes 10:1).

Someone who is obsessed with what name they are given should instead labour to put off besetting sins - a bad temper or lying, or addiction to alcohol or nicotine perhaps. This is what will give their name a pleasing aroma rather than a putrid one.

These days, many churches in the West are excitedly baptising former Muslims. The social media posts indicate that they are taking great pride in this work, and to boast of one’s work in Christ Jesus is right and proper. But there are snares here too.  We may end up boasting in the number of people we’ve dunked, together with impressive new names given to these converts by a heavy-handed pastor, and yet these are merely surface-level changes. The real transformation we should boast of in converts is their persevering faith (2 Thess 1:4), together with hope and love  -  the evidences that Christ has really made them new people.

Rather than insisting on a name change, we can seek to gently lead believers to their own convictions. I recently heard from a dear BMB friend whom I disciple that he had called his newborn son Khaled. Given that this name calls to mind Mohammed’s general who led the early Muslim conquests - thus earning himself the sobriquet Sayf Allah, the sword of Allah - I was not best pleased. But for me to try and crowbar in a name that I would consider more edifying would of course be heavy-handed. William Carey in the 1805 document referred to above wrote: “we think it our duty to lead our brethren by example, by mild persuasion, and by opening and illuminating their minds in a gradual way rather than use authoritative means” (or ‘in an authoritarian way’ as we would put it). Forcing names on people does not help them to grow in their love of the truth. For me, I pray for Kurds to face this issue with winsomeness, to grasp the beauty of some names in common usage in Kurdistan among Muslims - to make good use of names like Shivan (shepherd) and Rezvan (vinedresser), which point wonderfully to the Lord Jesus (John 10:11) and God the Father (John 15:1). In fact Mizgînî, the Kurdish word for the Good News, (equivalent to the Arabic word Injeel), is actually heard as a popular name in Muslim Kurdish families. The gospel need not be a completely alien thing as it starts to shape the family life of converts. 

In conclusion, this is an area where we should respect Christian freedoms and keep the main thing as the main thing. But you will sense that I have a strong sympathy with those who retain the name given them by their family, perhaps supplemented by a suitable Christian name that encapsulates something of their new identity. Here's another imagined statement of identity from an Iranian: 

"I'm Mohammed, and I grew up in Shiraz, Iran. I’m also often called Martyn with a ‘y’. This is not because I’m Welsh.  Rather, I'm named after the brilliant linguist Henry Martyn who died young in 1810 through his labours translating the New Testament into Persian. Like him I love the people of Iran and strive to share with them the Good News of Jesus" 

Rob is the guest next on our Deep Roots podcast. Available 1st April.


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