Choosing the right name for a newborn matters in both life and death. At the very least it’s a way of ensuring continuity of a nominal Muslim identity from one generation to another. For parents it’s also a test of discharging responsibility to honour their children with the best names possible. But along the way to choosing a name there are plenty of dilemmas.
We might choose to avoid names that when rendered into English makes them vulnerable to name calling at school. The school playground can often be a place of nightmares for parents. Names have a tendency of taking shorthand forms, and whilst sometimes the result is benign, the use of ‘Mo’ for ‘Mohammed’ or ‘Zak’ for ‘Zakariya’ are good examples, they can also result sometimes in unedifying forms. All languages have it seems their fair share of this.
Similarly, names can be pronounced differently when spelt in English. The name ‘Ishaaq,’ for example, can be read both ‘Ish-aaq’ and ‘Is-haaq.’ This seemingly slender resource of language is not exclusive to English. Languages are not designed with transliteration in mind of course. For example, there isn’t a ‘p’ sound in Arabic, so names like ‘Patel’ get pronounced differently, in this case quite amusingly, as ‘Batel.’ As for grammatical structures like particles used to combine words in Arabic (such as ‘ur,’ ‘ar,’ ‘ul’ etc.) – well, they do complicate things even further in English.
There is also the matter of proper Arabic names versus names indigenised into a different language. The names ‘Ridwan’/‘Ridwana’ are typically expressed as ‘Rizwan’/‘Rizwana’ in Urdu or ‘Rejwan’/‘Rejwana’ in Bengali. Similarly, if we’re living in a Muslim country like Turkey, such indigenisation doesn’t matter so much when it comes to ‘Mehmet’ and ‘Ahmet’ which to native Turkish speakers are as good as ‘Muhammad’ and ‘Ahmad.’ It seems to be a dilemma for those keen to remove ‘cultural baggage’ of sorts. Recent surge in the use of ‘kunya’ names beginning with ‘Abu’ (‘father of’) or ‘Umm’ (‘mother of’), particularly on social media, suggests modernity’s ‘Arabisation of piety’ or a ‘hipster-like’ fad might be in full swing for some parents when it comes to their own names.
Spelling and pronunciation matters too. As second/third generation British/English/Scottish Muslims we’re mindful of keeping spelling easy for those unfamiliar with Muslim names. Some parents focus on finding names familiar to Christian/post-Christian English speakers whilst retaining their Islamic identity – ‘Hannah,’ ‘Adam,’ ‘Sofia,’ ‘Sarah’ are all good examples.
Whilst some will call for maintaining a greater degree of ‘Muslim distinction’ such calls can often be shrouded in the politics of identity rather than the real substance of ‘being Muslim’ through a knowledge culture, good character (husnul akhlaq) and giving value to society (fa’idah) based on faith-based premises. In any case, by no means is this a phenomenon exclusive to British Muslims. The same indigenisation process that transformed ‘Ridwan’ to ‘Rizwan’ or ‘Rejwan’ in South Asian languages is at work in English and European languages.
Keeping to classical Muslim-only names that have variant spellings can be tricky, too. Just look at the plethora of different ways we spell Muhammad. Incidentally, Muhammad isn’t just the most common Muslim name but is arguably the most common of all baby names in the UK (in 2015). Though, when it comes to ‘foreign-sounding’ names, sadly, at the back of our minds is the anxiety that, as things stand in society, today’s newborns may face unfair discrimination just because of their name.
Frustratingly, we can often find the more preferred ‘best’ names such as names beginning with ‘Abd’ (‘servant of…’ such as ‘Abdullah, ‘Abdur Rahman’ etc.), or of the Prophets such as ‘Muhammad,’ ‘Dawud,’ ‘Yusuf,’ ‘Idris,’ ‘Sulaiman,’ etc. have already been taken by family and friends for their own kids. In which case, social convention, family politics or one’s own desire to have a unique name for their children even, may dictate that we avoid choosing them. Speaking of family, whilst it’s nice for grandparents, uncles and aunts to pitch in with their suggestions for names, expectations do need to be managed.
There are some names which remind us of unsavoury characters we’ve come across or we’ve associated the name to unpleasant experiences, which then makes us slightly allergic to them. That said, whilst some names are good in themselves, we might find that a few scholars here and there may have shown some dislike – often it’s personal to the scholars or to the particular social praxis of their time. Getting your head around this isn’t easy.
Yet other names are clearly to be avoided such as ‘Abu Lahab’ and ‘Abu Jahl,’ – names synonymous with the most famous antagonists of the Prophet; or ‘Qarun’ (‘Korah’ in the Bible) – the hoarder engulfed by a sink-hole like structure for his ingratitude and self-pride. And there are some non-Quranic historical examples of tyrants which Muslims tend to avoid (like ‘Hitler’ or ‘Judas’) such as ‘Hajjaj’ (ibn Yusuf). It wasn’t too long ago that the name ‘Saddam’ became a swear sword hurled at shopkeepers who refused to budge on price in some Muslim countries. In similar vein, parents might think twice today about keeping the name ‘Usama.’
Lastly, all parents want to avoid regretting the name they chose. But, ‘An online poll of more than 1,000 parents carried out by Mumsnet found that 18% of parents regretted the name they chose for their offspring.’ This is more than buyers remorse, it can be an indictment of a lack of research and advice seeking (nasihah) on the part of parents.
Above all, whatever good name we choose for our children, our prayers are one and the same:
‘My Lord, enable me to be grateful for Your favour which You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents and to work righteousness of which You will approve and make righteous for me my offspring. Indeed, I have repented to You, and indeed, I am of the Muslims.’