What's a pen name, and what is the Islamic stance for using a pen name?
As-salamu Alaykum, and thank you for your interesting question.
In brief, a pen-name is a fictitious name used in place of a writer's real name. There are many reasons an author might choose to use a pen-name. Some of the most common reasons for using a pen-name include the following:
1. You don't want people to know your true identity (for any number of reasons).
2. Your real name is too hard to spell/pronounce, so you want something that is easier for people to remember.
3. Your real name is plain/common (Jane Smith, for example), so you want a name that is more exotic and/or unique so people can actually find your books when they search on Google.
4. You share a name with a criminal or person of ill repute.
5. You share a name with someone famous and don't want people to be confused.
6. Using your real name might compromise some aspect of your day-job. For example, you are a doctor, and you write about the field of medicine, patients, and related topics. Even if you are writing fiction, you might be wary of potential law suits (like if a patient feels his private story has made it into your book).
7. Using your real name is bad for your image – for example, a kindergarten teacher writing horror novels.
8. You use one name for each genre you write in – again, for the sake of image. A writer who writes both horror and picture books for children, for example, probably does not want to use the same name on both types of books.
9. Wanting to separate yourself from past writing endeavors that no longer represent your current style/attitude/beliefs.
10. Wanting to hide one's ethic background or religious affiliation.
Sister Juli Herman also lists some reasons for using a pen-name, and alludes to one that is common among Muslims: wanting to maintain a low-profile. I'm guessing she means for the sake of avoiding the feeling of pride an author might take in his work combined with the dangerous allure of worldly fame and all that comes with it.
Personally speaking, I am not a great fan of pen-names for non-fiction works in particular, except in very specific circumstances. My feeling is that there is more than enough anonymous information on the Internet, and this leads to many problems. Consider, for example, how many people write about Islamic topics with no authority whatsoever…or how many people engage in idle talk about their friends, relatives, and co-workers – simply because they can do it behind the comfort and anonymity of a screen-name. It seems to me that if you are claiming to be an authority on a particular topic (whether it is Islam, health, or anything else), then people should know what your background and credentials are.
Out of curiosity, I wrote a note to IslamToday.com and asked for the "Islamic stance" on pen-names. Here is the response I received:
Al-Salâm `Alaykum wa Rahmah Allah wa Barakâtuh.
We see no objection to a person writing under a pen name as long as the person is not causing any harm.
And Allah knows best.
Fatwâ Department Research Committee of IslamToday Chaired by Sheikh `Abd al-Wahhâb al-Turayrî
As usual, I feel so humbled by the balance one can find in Islam. Again and again, Islam tells us to carry on with life but to avoid harm/mischief - and to use common sense.
Amel S. Abdullah
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