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NAMES AND NAMING. “Choose for your children pleasant and beautiful names,” the Prophet is reported to have said, and, as a measure of how significant names could be, he changed the name of an individual whose name he thought improper. This care about names has perhaps developed from the sensitivity to God’s beautiful names in the Qur’an (17.110) and the great piety with which the ninety-nine names of God are recited.

In general, Muslims in the Islamic heartlands have followed naming practices established early in Islamic times: the only name “given” is the first name, because the Qur’an instructed, “Call them after their true father’s names” (33.5), thereby dictating that the second name will be the father’s, while the third may well be the grandfather’s. There has seldom been variation in this rule because Muslim inheritance laws depended on it and claims had to be validated according to it. The requirement applied to both boys and girls; girls legally retained their patronymic even after marriage. This basic structure, however, has been considerably adapted, particularly under modern influences.

The naming of a child need not occur until the moment of registration, which may be delayed for a considerable period, especially if the actual birthdate of the child is not held to be auspicious or if important family members are absent. This stay allowed the family to discuss the given name and provided the opportunity to assess the child’s personality or health to determine what a given name should be. During this interim, a male child was called “Muhammad” and a female one “Fatimah” as recommended in certain prophetic traditions. Once the decision has been made, however, quite elaborate celebrations usually herald the event. South Asian Isma`ilis perform a ceremony called a chanda, a sprinkling of blessed water over the child at a special rite in the jama`at-khanah; the names, dates of birth, and professions of the parents are registered at the same ceremony.

Because of its importance for identity, the greatest variation has taken place within the first name (ism). As might be expected, religious conviction has been a fundamental determinant: Sunnis have preferred the names of Muhammad and the first three rightly guided caliphs, while ShNs have opted for those of ‘Ali and other figures important in their history. Favorite names for girls have been less clearly sectarian, with the possible exception of `A’ishah, since the wives and daughters of the Prophet are universally appealing. Also broadly acceptable are combinations reflecting religious resonancesnames attributed to God, prefixed with “slave of,” as `Abd al-Rah, man, or to religion, as Qutb al-Din, “pole of religion.” Family experience has also played a role. Among Arabs, if a family had previously lost boys, they might give a new son the name of a girl as a way of deflecting the attention of evil powers and ensuring his survival. Such a name could follow him into adulthood. Ethnic or heroic popularity sometimes overcame religious influences, as witness Timur among Turkishspeaking peoples. Children could be given a name that anticipated a characteristic, as in Faysal (signaling the hope that the individual will be an arbiter or peacemaker) or Said (“happy”). Girls could also be named for a fond hope, such as Umm al-Sa’adah (“mother of happiness”). Throughout Islam, where parents gave a religious name, they customarily added to it a local name or nickname. Thus Muslim children in the heartland could have long given names. The recent trend is away from this toward the simple and straightforward. Modernity has had other dramatic impacts on first names. The attractiveness of traditional Muslim names in Turkey, for example, has dropped off in interesting correlation with secular reforms. Since the 1970s a wide variety of names have appeared that have no connection with Islam, for instance Lenin and Russa, indicating political orientation, or Misra and Mecca, for favored places. Now children may be named after a great performer like Umm Kulthfim or a leader like Nasir.

The patronymic has also undergone some modification over time. The kunyah or honorific name goes back to pre-Islamic times among the Arabs and was sometimes given as a mark of special recognition by the caliph. It could also indicate one’s tribe, birthplace, or even legal school. The honor was often linked to the father’s name and became part of the legal name of the child. Special linkage phrases amplified the underlying relationship, utilizing the the prefixes ibn (“son of”) or abu (“father of”) in Arabic or the suffixes zadeh or -oghlu, both also meaning “son of” in Persian and Turkish, respectively. Magnifiers were also added, such as Magdi “my glory” added to a father’s or grandfather’s name. Officially, one’s name always included the kunyah. Eventually these could become part of a perpetually retained ancestral name.

Other elements of naming are to be found. Where an individual’s given and ancestral names are quite conventional and liable to be confused with identical names, another name, called laqab in Arabic, serves as a special indicator. Indicator names may refer to profession (alNaqqdsh “the painter”), to a concept (al-Mulk “of the kingdom”), or to a physical characteristic, (al-A’ma “the blind”). Conventionally, the assignment of a place-name (nisb) did not occur until the individual became famous and was associated with a location, for example Dhu alNun al-Misri (“Dhu al-Nun of Egypt”).

Names marking special recognition have been popular in most Muslim countries. These include titles like shaykh, aga, or beg; descriptors like h, ajji or hajjah, denoting someone who has completed a pilgrimage, usually to Mecca; and respectful designators like shah (“saint,” when a prefix to a name). These may become part of the individual’s official name, especially if the person is of some status.

Under pressure to adapt to Western ways, professionals in Muslim countries shorten their names to the given name and an indicator name, although locals will know the physician merely by the professional title and given name. Muslims coming to the West have had considerable trouble with these traditions. Early immigrants were often assigned “Western-sounding” names, for example Sid for Sa’id. Anglicization has affected the spelling of Muslim names in India and Pakistan, and names in African countries influenced by various European languages. Indigenous languages also affected the form of names adopted from Arabic; thus in Kiswahili, Fatimah became Fatuma and Abu Bakr became Bakdri.

Among the Hui of China, only surnames reflect Muslim ancestry. Early in the expansion of Islam into China, Muhammad was shortened to Ma, perhaps because it sounded much like existing common names, and the name became recognizably Muslim, as did Bai, perhaps from Turkish bey. Since Muslim law has not applied to Chinese Muslims, their first names did not need to carry the individual’s prime identity, so first names follow local traditions. Names like Fatimah are maintained, however, in sinicized form. Similarly, in Indonesia, Muslim identity has depended less on naming practices; recognizing God’s beneficence in a child’s name may indicate religious conviction, but not necessarily Muslim. The presence or absence of Muslim law appears to be a factor in maintaining naming traditions.

Nevertheless, Muslim naming protocols continue to be important identity markers. Converts throughout the Muslim world are given Muslim names chosen as fitting the individual, perhaps by the convert’s own choice, and keeping in mind the new believer’s position within the community. Recently, Serbian pressure on Bosnian Muslims to europeanize their names was important in hardening Muslim resistance in former Yugoslavia. Black Muslims in the United States have been very active in adapting Muslim names; one of their most famous converts, Malcolm X, had six names before his death as Malik al-Shabazz.


A helpful overview of Arab traditions carried on into Islam is Frederick Mathewson Denny, “Names and Naming,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 10, pp. 300-30’7 (New York, 1987). Naming trends are covered in two important articles by Richard W. Bulliet: “Conversion to Islam and the Emergence of a Muslim Society in Iran,” in Conversion to Islam, edited by Nehemia Levtzion, pp. 30-51 (New York, 1979), on medieval Iran; and “First Names and Political Change in Modern Turkey,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 9 (1978): 489-495. G. W. Murray’s Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin (London, 1935) is an older source with useful ethnographic materials. Finally, Dale F. Eickelman, a foundational writer on modern Moroccan Islam, covers the topic in “Rites of Passage: Muslim Rites,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 12, pp. 380-403 (New York, 1987), and Moroccan Islam: Tradition and Society in a Pilgrimage Center (Austin, 1976).


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/names-and-naming/

  • writerPosted On: May 20, 2017
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