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Names and Naming

By:
Earle H. Waugh
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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 Qurʿān (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 Qurʿān 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 name. There has seldom been variation in this rule because Islamic 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 “Muḥammad” and a female “Fāṭimah” as recommended in certain prophetic traditions. Once the decision is made, however, quite elaborate celebrations usually herald the event. South Asian Ismāʿīlīs perform a ceremony called a chanda, a sprinkling of blessed water over the child at a special rite in the jamāʿat-khānah; 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 in the first name (ism). Religious conviction has been a fundamental determinant: Sunnīs have preferred the names of Muḥammad and the first three rightly guided caliphs, while Shīʿah have opted for ʿAlī and other figures of historical importance. Favorite names for girls have been less clearly sectarian, with the possible exception of ʿĀʾishah, since the wives and daughters of the Prophet are universally appealing. Also broadly acceptable are combinations reflecting religious resonances—names attributed to God, prefixed with “slave of,” as ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, or to religion, as Quṭb al-Dīn, “pole of religion.” Among Arabs, if a family had previously lost boys, they might give a new son a girl’s name to deflect the attention of evil powers. Such a name could follow him into adulthood. Ethnic or heroic popularity sometimes overcame religious influences, such as Timur among Turkish-speaking peoples; tribal influence may also play a role (as in the Sudan). Names can anticipate a characteristic, as Fayṣal (arbiter or peacemaker) or Saʿīd (happy), or hope, Umm al-Saʿādah (mother of happiness). Throughout Islam, where one name is religious, to it is customarily added a local or nickname, resulting in long given names.

Modernity has had dramatic impacts on naming, one being long names are simplified, or replaced. Traditional names in Turkey, for example, have been eroded in consort with secular reforms. Since the 1970s political identity markers such as Lenin or Russia, or places (Misra, Mecca), have surfaced. Others favor a great performer, Umm Kulthūm, or a leader, Nāṣir.

The patronymic has also undergone some modification over time. The kunyah or honorific name originated among pre-Islamic Arabs and became a mark of special caliphal recognition. It could also reflect one’s tribe, birthplace, or even legal school. If the honor was included in the father’s name, it could become part of the child’s legal name. Special linkage phrases amplified an underlying relationship, thus the prefixes ibn (son of) or Abū (father of) in Arabic or the suffixes -zādeh or -oghlu, both also meaning “son of” in Persian and Turkish, respectively. Magnifiers, such as Magdī “my glory” were added to a father’s or grandfather’s name. Officially one’s name included the kunyah and became part of a perpetually retained ancestral name.

Where an individual’s given and ancestral names are conventional and liable to be confused with others, an addition, called laqab in Arabic, serves as a special indicator. Indicators vary: to profession (al-Naqqāsh, “the painter”), to a concept (al-Mulk “of the kingdom”), or to a physical characteristic, (al-Aʿmā, “the blind”). Conventionally, the assignment of a place-name (nisbah) did not occur unless an individual became famous and was associated with a location, for example, Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī (Dhū al-Nūn “of Egypt”).

Names marking special recognition have been popular. These include titles like shaykh, aga, or beg; descriptors like Ḥajjī or Ḥājjah, denoting someone who has completed a pilgrimage; and respectful designators like shāh (“saint,” when a prefix to a name). These may become part of the individual’s official name.

Professionals in Muslim countries may shorten to the given and indicator names, although locals will recognize someone by the professional title and given name. Migrants to the West have had considerable trouble with these traditions. Early immigrants were often assigned “Western-sounding” names, for example, Sid for Saʿīd. European language influences have affected name spellings in India, Pakistan and Africa. Indigenous languages also affected the form of names adopted from Arabic; thus in Swahili, Fāṭimah became Fatuma and Abū Bakr became Bakāri.

Among the Hui of China, only surnames reflect Muslim ancestry. Early in the expansion of Islam into China, Muḥammad was shortened to Ma, or a Muslim derivative as Bai, (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. Names like Fāṭimah are maintained, however, in Sinicized form. While in Indonesia Muslim identity has depended less on naming practices, perhaps indicative that the presence or absence of Islamic law is a factor in maintaining naming traditions.

Nevertheless Muslim naming protocols continue to be important identity markers. Converts are given Muslim names befitting the person, sometimes reflecting the convert’s own choice, sometimes reflecting the new believer’s social position, while African American converts actively adopt Muslim names; one of the Black Muslim converts, Malcolm X, had six names before his death as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.

Bibliography

  • A helpful overview of Arab traditions carried on into Islam is Frederick Mathewson Denny, “Names and Naming,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 10, pp. 300–307 (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, 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 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, Tex., 1976).
  • More recent and popular publications include Ahmed A. Hakeem and Mohammed A. Khan, Treasury of Favorite Muslim Names (Pearl Publications, 1997), and Salahuddin Ahmed, The Dictionary of Muslim Names (Albany: New York University Press, 1999).
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