What’s in a Name?

By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong

Baby Names

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be blessed with a new addition to my family, an adorable baby girl. As with all new parents, my wife and I were giving final consideration to what names we should choose. In this spirit I thought I’d have a browse through a book I bought some years ago, when I read the following advice in the introduction:

“The selection of a good name is of course one of the first important duties of a parent to a child and should not be treated lightly. According to the Prophet Muhammad, it is a child’s right to be given a good and honourable name.
What’s in a name and what constitutes a good and honourable name?
A person’s name, whether it is Muslim or not, usually tells something about the cultural milieu in which he is born and in which he grows up. It gives some indication of his heritage and the values which his parents hold dear. A name like Muhammed ibn Abdul Aziz places its bearer firmly within the mainstream of Muslim civilization. A name like Tom Ahmed is indicative of some form of cultural transformation or indeed of confusion and disorientation.”
- The Book of Muslim Names, MELS 1985.

This starts off well, indeed it is most important to give a child a good and honourable name. People will address a person by their name repeatedly throughout the rest of their lives, the last thing anyone would like to discover is that the name people were referring to them by, meant something offensive or unpleasant. Traditionally, it’s true that names would normally give some indication of a person’s roots, although in today’s global culture this is less likely to be the case than in the past. However, I find the last two lines somewhat contradictory and certainly not the best of advice. Whilst a name like Muhammad ibn Abdul Aziz is without doubt a good and noble name, this name is clearly very Arabic. Were someone to call out this name in a reception, they’d without doubt be expecting an Arab man to stand up, rather than someone of lets say for example, European or Chinese roots… That in itself doesn’t mean it’s wrong for a person of a different background to carry this name, it’s just something a parent might want to take into consideration before choosing a name for their child.

Arabic Names?

Many Muslims seem to think they should only bestow upon their children Arabic names, that only names in the Arabic language are truly Islamic. Where is the evidence for this? If a person visits Turkey, they would find many men called Mehmet, the local variant of Muhammad, and other people with names like Emel, Idık, Neslinur and Seçkin, none of which are bad or unislamic. Worth remembering, is that Turkey was for centuries the international centre of Islamic civilisation, not some out of the way place with weird customs… In a similar way, in countries with strong connections to Persian culture, we will meet people with names like Farzana, Naveed, Tehmina and names containing the word ‘shah’. So, what is the evidence for the emphasis on Arabic names? From where does this idea arise?

In a hadith the Prophet, peace be upon him, is reported to have said, “Call yourselves by the names of the Prophets. The names dearest to Allah are Abdullah and Abdur-Rahman, the truest are Harith and Hammam, and the worst are Harb and Murrah.” Narrated by AbuWahb al-Jushami, Abu-Dawood 2327.

In another hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “On the Day of Resurrection you will be called by your names and by your father’s names, so give yourselves good names.” Narrated by AbudDarda, Abu-Dawood 2326.

Please note, that the only thing these hadith say which could be seen to encourage any Arabic names, is the reference to the names Abdullah and Abdur-Rahman. In another hadith, Prophet Muhammad mentioned that people could be named after him, but in all practicality, we can’t all be named Muhammad, Abdullah or Abdur-Rahman, no matter how beautiful and noble these names are… I’ve heard people say a little knowledge can be dangerous, indeed it appears to be true. Today, people learn one or two hadiths and consider themselves to be a scholar, advising others based on such little knowledge, coupled all too often with a complete lack of wisdom.

The basic principle conveyed in these hadiths, is that if we should change our own name, to take on name with a good meaning and to bestow upon our children good names. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, didn’t specify whole lists of names we could or couldn’t use, instead he simply mentioned a few examples and hoped we would use a little common sense.

Names of the Prophets

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised naming children after the previous prophets. This is interesting, as many of the prophets who Muslims accept as prophets, were those sent to the people of Israel. These prophets were Hebrews, not Arabs, hence the original forms of their names are the Hebrew forms, such as Noah (Nuh), Moshe (Musa/Moses), Salomoh (Sulayman/Solomon), Yohanan (Yahya/John the Baptist). Which is interesting, as I’ve never before seen any ‘Islamic’ advice, suggesting we use their original Hebrew names. Rather, what we find is advise to use the ‘original’ Arabic names, which logically and historically doesn’t make sense. If we are to follow Prophet Muhammad’s advice, peace be upon him, surely it wouldn’t make much difference whether we used the Hebrew or Arabic variants of their names, although logic would suggest the Hebrew ones would be much closer to the originals.

19 Rules of Naming…

Unfortunately, some people have taken our Prophet’s teachings, peace be upon him, out of context, inventing whole sets of rigidly defined rules governing the process of choosing names, such as the list below:

1. The best name for Muslim baby is ‘Abdullah’ and ‘Abdurrahman’.
2. The most suitable name for Muslim baby is ‘Harits’ and ‘Hammam’.
3. The most unsuitable, odd or bad name for Muslim baby is ‘Harb’ and ‘Murrah’.
4. It is forbidden to use ‘Barrah’ as your Muslim baby name.
5. It is forbidden to use bad names or names with improper meanings.
6. It is forbidden to use Abdul (meaning ‘slave of’) to any other names except for the 99 names of Allah and Abdullah (meaning ‘slave of Allah’). Example – Abdul Ka’bah.
7. It is forbidden to use the 99 names of Allah (Asmaa-ul Husnaa) if there is not Abdul in front of it. Example – Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim.
8. It is forbidden to use non-Muslim’s names. [Okay... What constitutes a ‘non-Muslim’ name? Even the names of the Sahaba were the names of non-Muslims before they embraced Islam]
9. It is forbidden to use names like Sultan, Salaatin, Syahansah, Sayyidun Nas, Sayyidul Kuli, Sayyidu Saadaat.
10. It is forbidden to choose names of ‘fetish’ (worship items) like Latta, ‘Uzza, Manat, Assah, Naailat, Hublu, and others.
11. It is forbidden to use names of wicked rulers like Fir’aun, Haman and others.
12. It is forbidden to use devil names like Al-A’war, Al-Ajda, Khanzab etc.
13. It is forbidden to use disgusting animal names.
14. It is forbidden to use names that are opposite to all goodness.
15. It is highly NOT encourage using names of angels.
16. Do not use boy’s names for a girl, and vice versa.
17. Do not use a name that doesn’t have any meaning.
18. It is advice not to use very long names; most baby names during Prophet Muhammad PBUH only consist of one word.
19. It is encourage to choose a name that is pronounce (in your own language) just like how it is pronounce in Arabic so that it wouldn’t change the meaning of the word.
- from Muslim Baby Names – http://newborn-muslim-baby-names.blogspot.com/

Subhan’Allah, 19 rules governing the naming of children! Personally, I find it odd that one of them is a prohibition on calling a child ‘Latte’ after all, who in their right mind would name their child after a hot beverage? While it is true, many of these points do have some validity, ‘forbidden’ is a rather strong term to use and listing these points in this manner, rather than encouraging constructive understanding, makes it appear everything is forbidden. Nevertheless, when choosing names, common sense should prevail; look for names with good meaning, there is no requirement for a name to be in a particular language so long as it’s meaning is not unpleasant or abhorrent. Preference should be given to names which are noble and inspiring.

Should I Change my Name?

The issue of names is not only one which affects children, many people who embrace Islam are often advised by some Muslims to take on a new name, a so-called ‘Islamic’ name; in reality what is meant by this is an Arabic name. Where this practice is applied to every convert, it is bidah (innovation) and not bidah hasanah (beneficial innovation).

Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, only advised a few people to change their names, where their names had bad meanings. Umar ibn al-Khattab was Umar before his conversion and the same is true of Ali ibn Abi-Talib and many others, may Allah bless and reward them. Weren’t these technically ‘non-Muslim’ names before their conversions to Islam?

If a person chooses of their own accord to adopt a new name, there is of course nothing wrong with that, especially if they are changing from a name with a bad meaning or which they don’t feel comfortable with keeping. However, no one should expect a new Muslim to completely change their name or cultural practices upon adopting Islam. New Muslims are not converting to a different language, nationality or culture, but embracing their faith in God and a fresh perspective on life.

Cultural Confusion or Cultural Transformation?

“A name like Tom Ahmed is indicative of some form of cultural transformation or indeed of confusion and disorientation.” – The Book of Muslim Names, MELS 1985.

Tom in Hebrew means ‘honest’, so is not exactly a bad name… Although it is more usually the English shortened form of Thomas, a Greek version of an Aramaic name which means ‘twin’. Thomas was the name of one of Jesus’ disciples, peace be upon them, who carried his prophet’s teachings to India, eventually dying a shaheed (martyr) as a consequence. Either way, not a bad name at all, although apparently according to MELS, is indicative of cultural transformation, confusion and disorientation!

Cultural transformation is essential to the vitality of any community.
Those who do not develop and transform, to keep ahead of current developments, get trapped in the past; making it far more difficult for not only themselves, but also their children to live prosperous and successful lives. Another point clearly missed by the authors of this little book, is that if a person with a typical English name like John Smith embraced Islam, then suddenly started living by a name like Muhammed ibn Abdul Aziz, or named his son with a similar name, would this not be an indication of some form of cultural transformation, or indeed perhaps even confusion and disorientation? Why wouldn’t this be seen in a negative way too? A British Muslim with a name like John Smith on the other hand, would certainly not be indicative of any form of cultural confusion or disorientation, he is still very much grounded in his cultural and linguistic heritage.

The concern over cultural transformation is surely not one which should perturb a person of faith, who knows their own mind and their own heart. Rather, this is the worry of a person who’s iman (faith) is weak, who mistakes their culture for the spiritual guidance of Allah. May the One who created us, protect us from such ignorance and misguidance.

2 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Nargis Shaheen says:

    I named my daughters Emily Amber and Zara Rose. We are Muslim and my daughters have English heritage. My family frowned upon the name Emily simply b/c it’s English. Yet this name not only belongs to a very strong female character in our recent British history but is also derived from Amilia – an Arabic name. The names we have picked have much meaning and are not against Islam – yet some ppl are so narrow minded they fail to see it.

  2. Daayiee says:

    Paul, Salaam and mabruk and gongxi gongxi. Enjoyed your comments and I agree with you it is not necessary to adapt an “islamic” name–like you said, it’s about one’s deen not adapting to an Arab/Muslim culture. As is the case in some African-American families, they have lost their history of naming children after ancestors or names that have a positive meaning. Some children who are young adults today have names that “sounded” good to the ear to the mothers, but has no meaning. Some have made me cringe and it saddens me this is the case.

    Thanks again for reminding us that mimicry and blinded following in order to mold ourselves into the images of ancient peoples shows some people prefer to look and sound Muslim rather than living their faith in God by applying Quran’s fresh and regenerative perspectives on life.

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