What's in a name? Law, religion, and Islamic names.

Author:Sharma, K.M.

    "What's in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet." These memorable and oft-misunderstood lines of Juliet's speech(1) in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, an outpouring of romantic agony, should not be taken to mean that the versatile Bard was a flimsy etymologist oblivious to the importance of the "naming game" or the legal implications thereof.(2) In fact, naming a newborn child, except in cases where family tradition or the desire to propitiate wealthy relatives or to honor some favorite relative or godparent take precedence over personal wishes, is one of the important parental duties and is a matter usually of considerable thought.(3) Moreover, controversies over legitimate and illegitimate children's names, particularly surnames involving familial autonomy, divorced spouses or de facto couples, and equal treatment, are arising today with much greater frequency than before as century-old naming practices collide with modern sensitivities about children's best interests and women's rights. Specifically, the traditional deference to a father's prerogative to name his children the way he likes, unless forfeited by misconduct or neglect, has been seriously questioned as being completely out-of-tune with current social mores and gender-justice-oriented realities.

    A recent tastefully produced book(4) reminds us that the first thing that Allah taught Adam was all the names of all the things. Many Qur'anic verses (aayats), personal acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith)(5) and those of his Companions constitute a major source of Islamic law and religion, extolling the importance of carefully selecting beautiful names for one's children,(6) -- for on the Day of Resurrection everyone will be summoned by their names and the names of their fathers. For example, when the wife of Imraan gave birth to a daughter who later became the mother of Prophet `Isa, she told Allah: "I have named her Maryam."(7) This indicates the importance of naming a child soon after its birth. Many Muslims are not aware of the true meaning or bearing on Islamic heritage of their names, particularly because of their unfamiliarity, or only a superficial acquaintance with Arabic or Persian. Furthermore, the extremely complex vocabulary of the Arabic language results in multiple meanings and subtle nuances; thus, Muslims oftentimes end up selecting names which are bereft of any real meaning, or have no relation to the existing stock of names.

    Names go in and out of fashion for reasons that can be recorded, but there are always fastidious individuals in India who complain that they are tired of Rajiv or Sanjay or Priyanka or whatever may be the vogue name of the year, and that they want something novel. In virtually all cultures, rich and varied, the search for a beautiful name begins with the birth of a baby.(8) Relatives and friends are approached for suggestions, various scriptural sources are often consulted, and the numerous names of gods and goddesses are explored in one's quest to select a suitable name which will adequately mirror a particular virtue, an aesthetic value, or a religious affinity.(9) Most names originally meant something, and are thus the repositories of history. In fact, a person's name may have cultural and psychological implications that far transcend mere identification.

    The origin of the practice of naming individuals or anthroponymy is somewhat obscure. One possible explanation is that after the discovery of fire, nomads looked for the best and safest parts of the forest for habitation. This search, in turn, necessitated identifying each member of the community by some symbolic figure -- a symbol of perception of difference whereby one quality was distinguished from another.(10) The first names that occurred to these nomads were probably names of animals, trees, forest spirits, river deities and the many pagan gods and goddesses they worshipped. As time passed, the primitive mind began to perceive, differentiate and reflect upon sensations, desires and emotions. Human sensitivity, pride, confidence and finer emotions of compassion, fairness, love and affection transformed one's way of looking at the world. Accordingly, as the mind energized the desires, each emotion was distinguished and thus knowledge commenced in the perception of differences. Survival no longer being the sole concern of humans, they had time to explore "[n]ature's majestic beauty, to name each fragrant flower, each splendid plumed bird, each cascading river and each phenomenon of nature. [Their] deities also became more beautiful and acquired in [their] minds shapes of beauty and delicacy."(11)


    Mirrored in the names given to one's spouses and children was a growing sensitivity. This sensitivity symbolized the differentiation of qualities, the differences by which each quality was distinguishable from the other. Knowledge of names therefore implied acquisition of the qualities indicated. Girls were named after birds,(12) flowers, deities or the softer qualities of a woman; boys were named after the gods and the qualities of valor, honor, bravery, and joy. Speaking of the Islamic experience, in general, Muslim "parents tend to give to their male children, names of religious significance or names bearing qualities of manhood, courage and bravery, while the female children are given names bearing on Islamic heritage or names depicting feminine qualities, e.g., beauty, modesty, virtue."(13)

    1. General Pattern of Names: Elegant, Beautiful and Divine

      Many female names are, however, oftentimes chosen amongst Muslims not because they necessarily reflect a particular virtue--chastity (Afifa, Afaf, Amina, Muhsana, Nazaha), charity (Khayriyya, Atifa, Awatif, Karima), and pursuit of the right religious path (Labiba, Maddiyya, Mujahida, Rashida) -- or other divine Qur'anic attribute, but only because they suggest delicacy and a finer sense of delectation. For example, names like Abir (fragrance, aroma, scent), Ambarin (perfumed), Arena (safety), Andalib, Bulbul or Hazar (nightingale), Arij (sweet smell), Faatina (beautiful, pretty, ravishing), Fattanah (extremely beautiful), Hadil (cooing of pigeons), Husn-e-Ara (adorned with beauty), Lina (tender), Maliha (beautiful), Mahbuba (dear, beloved), Naahid (in the bloom of youth), Naaima (soft), Nadi (tender), Nasim (fragrant breeze), Raaiqa (serene), Rashiqa (graceful, elegant), Sabia (enchanting, charming), Sarab (mirage), Shakila (well formed, beautiful), Shamim (fragrant), Sharmin (shy, coy) are preferred, particularly in elite Muslim families, because of their tenderness and aesthetic ambience. Similarly, the names of various flowers -- viz., Banafsaj, Dalia or Dahlia (multicolored), Gul (rose),(14) Khuzama (tulip), Nargis (narcissus), Nilufur (lotus), Rihana (sweet basil), Sausan (lily of the valley), Yasmine (delicate Jasmine) -- are very popular as female names.

      Nevertheless, with ethnic names becoming more popular today than ever before, as they often serve as a link to a particular ethnic or national heritage, people often turn to the old ecclesiastical and juristic sources for finding attractive names.(15) These sources are for Hindus, the Vedic texts, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and other ancient literary works; for Christians, the holy Bible; and for Muslims, the holy Qur'an. In the selection of any appropriate name which is a distinctive emblem of the cultural identity of the area and its peoples, religious affiliation and indigenous language are important. A woman called Anuradha can be presumed to be a Hindu; in choosing this name, her parents, at the very minimum, were indicating her cultural association with India and Hindu culture.(16) Thus, many names are culture- and language-specific in form.

      In the context of culture-language specificity, it is no exaggeration to say that by far the richest source or cornucopia of names in the Muslim world has been the historical and moral legacy of the holy Qur'an. Islam's most sacred and revered scripture, the Qur'an, is the compilation of divinely-inspired Allah's revelations to the Prophet Muhammad. Significantly, Islam is the second largest religion and source of law in the world; its followers are spread all over the globe. Conservative estimates indicate that "[n]early one-fifth of the people in the world today are Muslim, and Islamic law is at the very core of their beliefs and social system."(17)

      This religious commonality results in a naturally striking degree of homogeneity and resemblance in the names of Muslims, irrespective of the country and the legal system and the location in which they live. Presumably, this is so, because Arabic, and to a lesser extent, Persian and Turkish languages, predominated in Muslim culture during its ascension and gradual expansion to countries far beyond Arabia. Nearly every country has a version of the Arabic Leila ("born at night"). A significant percentage of Swahili names are simply minor variants of the Arabic. Furthermore, the unifying influence of the holy Qur'an, which is considered to be the primary regulator of the conduct and behavior of Muslims, and the reverential practice of choosing names from amongst the celestial attributes of Allah also account for this pattern of similarity and enduring popularity of these names. Muslims' acceptance of Allah's message places them on a righteous path, with the expectation that they live and conduct themselves in accordance with His law and teachings as revealed in the Qur'an. The Islamic pantheon is unusually rich in images of divine attributes, representing a wide range of symbolic, social, and meditative meanings.(18)

      Many popular Arabic names, coming from the ninety-nine attributes of Allah listed in the Qur'an,(19) are often prefixed with Abdul, Abdel, or Abd, each meaning "servant of," for...

To continue reading