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Muslim Names Genderized Database
By Hakim Chishti

The United States Government estimates the Muslim population in the United States in the year 2,000 to be 6,875,891 persons (3,878,123 In Canada). Studies project this number to reach as much as 30% of the North American population by the year 2020. The tremendous growth in the Muslim populations in North America has led to the need to integrate these names into existing databases used by authors, researchers, teachers, students, demographers, marketers and the media.

There are around only 2,000 names utilized as common male and female names in Islam. Yet, by various rules and customs for combining roots and meanings of names, the entire world's 1.5 billion Muslims wind up with more or less unique names!

This article has been prepared for the interest of those who deal with various issues surrounding Islamic names used by Muslims as they appear in transliterated form in the English language.

Using “God” to refer to Allah

In a sense, all Muslim names derive from God, or as He is called in Arabic, Allah. Muslims do not like to use the word 'God' when referring to Allah.

While there are many words in various languages to refer to the overwhelming reality of the Creator, Owner, and Sustainer of existence, Muslims use the Arabic word "Allah" exclusively for referring to this Reality. The word Allah is formed of the Arabic word Al-Lah, which means "The Divinity." Allah is for Muslims the personal name of the One true God. Nothing else can be called Allah, Who is similar to nothing and nothing is comparable to Him.

The word Allah does not mean "a" god or a "Muslim god". Even Arabic-speaking Christians use the word Allah when they speak of God. Allah is also the personal name of God in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and a sister language of Arabic.

Muslims use the word Allah, first, because it has never been used to refer to anything except the One True God. Many expressions in the English language utilize the word of god in disrespectful, insulting and other thoughtless ways. The word Allah has never been uttered with such an intention, and resides with a purity in the mind.

The term Allah has no plural or gender. This shows its uniqueness when compared with the word god, which can be made plural, gods, or feminine, goddess.

Also, the pronoun for God in Arabic, Hu, has neither male or female gender. We use the conventional English literate form "Him", only because there is no proper genderless pronoun in English, most certainly intending no offence to femininity.

Referring to the prophet Muhammad

Very often when reading books, one sees the Prophet Muhammad's name followed by several letters, or a phrase. One also hears this in conversation, for example, "The Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon him, said such and so…"

In writing, this is often indicated thus: "Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said such and so…" The actual Arabic words used are "Sullaho alayhi wa sallam" which means, obviously, "Peace be upon him." So, one also will see the variants after the name of the Prophet (SAS), Prophet Muhammad (AS) , both of which are an "abbreviation" for the original Arabic phrase.

Introduction to Islamic Names

Islam, is the religion. Muslim, is the practitioner of the religion. It is incorrect to call Muslims "Islamists", or the religion "Islamism" or "Muhammadism".

One should know that, unlike in English, almost every Muslim name has a particular meaning, which is known. Names are not arbitrary or nonsense. Children usually receive their names from a local religious master or leader, and it is conveyed on the seventh day following birth, when a special feast ceremony occurs, called aqiqah.

Most names derive directly or indirectly from the Qur'an (the Islamic scripture) and often are variants on one or more aspects or "attributes" of God. Also, Muslims are forbidden from using names which convey a negative connotation, and insulting nicknames like "tubby" or "shorty".

Almost every Muslim name has a pleasant, even pious connotation, and an effort to find names which mean evil, arrogant things will not prove fruitful (except maybe in the Western mind): the actual meaning is invariably positive, even sublime, in the native language.

One should not name a child a direct Name of God e.g. Rahman (the Most Merciful). Since the penultimate sin in Islam is joining partners with God Almighty, in naming, to avoid any hint of this error, people add "abdul" meaning 'servant of' or 'slave of', thus the correct name would be Abdul Rahman. For women, the prefix is Ammat, as in Ammat-ul-Rahman.

Jibril is not a good choice for a Muslim name, since Muslims are advised in the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) not to take names of the archangels. (Jibril = Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation).

One should be especially careful not to assign names to females which carry sexual connotations. Muslims do not do this, and they will certainly take offense at authors who insist to name characters in this manner.

Male and female names are gender specific, and one hardly ever encounters "mixed gender" names as in the English names 'Lynn' or 'Camille.'

Endings are often quite tricky. For example, a man would be Amin, a woman Amina. But just putting an 'a' at the end of a name would not necessarily make it female.

There are also a few appellations which have specific meanings, such as Syed (direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad); Sharif (direct descendant of Ali); Hakim (a physician, or philosopher); Shaykh (a spiritual teacher or Master); Hafiz (one who has committed entire Qur'an to memory) etc. These are only used for persons who actually possess the quality described.
Note that Muslim names would ordinarily appear italicized in English, since they are foreign words. However, for readability one may choose not to italicize such names. In many Muslim societies, the surname used is the name of the town where the person was born. Thus Jelaluddin Balkhi, means he is Jelaluddin from Balkh, in Afghanistan; or Syed Dehlavi, meaning Syed from Delhi.

The surname sometimes also can denote an occupation, such as Fariduddin Attar, (attari = perfumer).

In legal use, persons are identified by their name, followed by their paternal lineage, such as Hakim Chishti ibn Muhammad ibn Hafiz, would be Hakim from the village of Chishti, son of Muhammad, who was son of Hafiz. Most Muslims can recite their personal genealogy back through to the Prophet Muhammad from memory.

There are also many variant spellings of Muslim names, based on transliterations of the Arabic, Persian and Urdu original names. Thus, one will see Hakim or Hakeem. Some people follow the transliteration conventions of the International Standard Phonetic Alphabet; however, many (or most) do not. (See also comments below).

Arabic is considered to be one of the three or four most difficult languages to learn. The meanings and pronunciation of these names appear to be especially challenging to the Western ear. Most Islamic names are of Arabic, Persians, Turkish or Urdu origin and are currently in use in the Middle East, Indo-Pak sub-continent and Turkey. Some of the names may have two different meanings in two languages and still a different one in the third. Most common and popular meanings have been adopted.

A Muslim's name in all likelihood has its root origin in the Arabic language, composed either of one of the names of Allah (God) or one of His Divine attributes (Sifat) or one of the names of the Holy Prophet or one of his epithets, or the name of another Prophet, or of a quality or attribute of that Prophet, or of a Qur'anic term connoting an Islamic value.

It is also possible that the name be that of a companion of the Prophet, or of a great Muslim of the past who has distinguished him or her self in the service of Islam.

It is an interesting fact of world names, that the most used and common name on earth is Muhammad. Muhammad is the correct name and spelling, generally, of the Prophet of Islam. Orientalists and others have used "Mahomet, Mohamet, Mohamed, Mohamad and Maumet" --- all of which are not only incorrect, but quite offensive to Muslims (as is to refer to them as "Mohammedans", or their religion as "Mohammedism").

Muslims in North America are particularly prone to having their Islamic names mutilated, because of the general ignorance of Arabic or the difficulties of transliteration. Names which have a Western equivalent (Yusuf, Ya'qub, Ishaq, Yunus, Musa, Ibrahim etc.) are sometimes changed to their Biblical equivalents (Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Jonah, Moses, Abraham, etc.), without awareness that these biblical personalities represent entirely different meanings to the Christian and/or Jew than the Qur'anic names do to the Muslim.

Pronunciation of Muslim Names
It is difficult to make general rules for Muslim names, because the rules of pronunciation differ in Arabic dialects, Turkish, Urdu and Persian. The letter "P" does not occur in Arabic, but does in Persian. Thus, any Muslim with a name containing the letter 'P' would easily be identified of Persian origin. The sound of "Ch" (as in Chalk) does not occur in Arabic, so whenever you see the letter 'C' in an Arabic name, it will be sounded with a soft 'C' as in “Chenille".

The symbol “’” represents the Arabic letter 'ayn', which is sounded as a guttural stop of air at the back of the throat (as with the break between the two O's in "cooperate", or "didn't").


a = as in abstain
i = as in fit
u = as in suffer
a (aa) = as in father
i (ee) = as in peer
u (oo) = as in you
s = as in sun (as opposed to sit)
h = as in hamburger (as opposed to happy)
q = as in cough (as opposed to calf)
kh = (guttural)
t = as in tawny (as opposed to tip)

Variants

Variants are usually based upon a differing transliteration. In Arabic, Persian and Urdu, the spelling of the long vowel 'a' (aleph), 'u' (waw), and 'i' (yah) are written in one of two ways. One is to follow, approximately, the conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet. In this case, the yah is written as 'i.' For most native speakers of Urdu, the long vowel yah or 'i' is written with a double 'ee' to more closely indicate the way in which the letter sounds when spoken. Likewise, the long waw, is written as 'oo' as in "moo" and aleph is written as 'aa' as in "father."

In practical terms, this has created a true mishmash of Islamic names in English, with three, four, or even seven or eight spellings of the same word. Not infrequently, the English word becomes "lost" from the Arabic original, in that one cannot decipher with certainty what the original Arabic word was from the transmuted English word. Moreover, virtually every Arabic word has up to a dozen root meanings, so one can find many different "meanings" for a particular name. We have provided the most common meanings associated with the word when used as a name.

Another issue that causes unusual transliteration events concerns the existence in Arabic, Persian and Urdu of two letters which have no counterpart in English, the letters 'ayn' and 'ghayn'. The transliteration of these letters is much more problematical than the long vowels. The first letter, 'ayn', is not a sounded letter, but rather what is called in linguistics a "glottal stop". This is sounded similarly to the apostrophe in the English word "don't". The letter "ghayn" is much more difficult, since it is made by adding a guttural sound to the glottal stop, which is almost like the sound of clearing one's throat. The letter 'ayn' is represented, variously, as an apostrophe, a reverse apostrophe, and sometimes even an upside down apostrophe! The letter 'ghayn' is also represented with the same letters, as well as the letters 'kh'---quite incorrectly, since the letter combination of 'kh' is always used to represent the Arabic letter 'kha'. But, native speakers often use the single letter 'K' to represent both the letter 'Kha' and 'Kaf.' In other words, it is really a mess!

Nonetheless, most of the first choice names given in the Muslim Names Database are the most common form of appearance one will see in use in the United States, although there are regional differences. The Midwest (the Detroit area in particular) has a high proportion of Middle Eastern immigrants, and one will find less use of the "doubled" vowel convention. Whereas in New York City, where there is the largest population of Pakistani and Indian immigrants, one will find much more of the doubled vowel convention. Often, it is simply a matter of personal preference, and it should not be considered incorrect to use any of the spellings.

When naming characters for novels, short stories and screenplays, it is probably wise to choose a name and spelling which are not too abrasive to the eye and ear of the reader. Tongue-twisting character names, or what will be perceived as bizarre names, will not be easily remembered by readers. Of course, if you wish to employ such tactics for the sake of creating a particular attitude towards a character, then such spelling variants can be useful.

Naming Rules and Customs

Several grammatical rules and customs about naming of Muslim children will help one to understand these names, and our approach to constructing names useable for English speaking authors and readers.

Names of Allah should never be used alone. These should always be preceded by Abd- or should be combined with another name in such a way that the final name does not remain a specific attribute of Allah. The prefixes Al-, Ar- As- etc. (meaning 'the') are used to make these names specific attributes of Allah.

Combining Names

Male Names
Names can be combined with each other in a number of ways Ahmad and Muhammad are frequently used both before and after the names of Allah, Muhammad or others; e.g. Muhammad Jamil, Bashir Ahmad.

Names of Allah can be preceded with Abdul; eg. Abdul Karim (Abdus, if a name starts with 'S' eg. Abdus Salam).

Biblical names in Arabic may be combined with the names of Allah, Muhammad or others; eg. Muhammad Yusuf, Herun Rashid, 'Ali Zulkifi.

Abu added to the name of a married male indicates that he is father of the child of the same name; eg. Abu Qaim means "father of Qaim".

Ibn or Bin are used to indicate that the male person is the son of that person with whose name it is used; eg. Muhammad Bin Qasim means "Muhammad son of Qasim".

Female Names
In case of a single woman or girl, the name of the father is used after the chosen name; eg. Maimuna Shafiq.

If she gets married, the name of the husband may replace the name of the father; eg. Maimua Mahmud. However, adoption of a husband's name is not compulsory for a woman in Islam, so one may often, or usually, find women with names totally different from their husband.

Praiseworthy Names

In Islam, when the parents intend to name their beloved child - whether male or female - they choose his or her name from one of the following four classes of names:

  • A name indicating servitude to Allah (the most popular are Abdullah (the slave of Allah) and Abdur-Rahman (the slave of the Most Merciful)
     

  • A name after one of the Prophets or messengers of Allah
     

  • A name after one of the pious people (most popular are wives of Muhammad, then his other relatives, then his companions).
     

  • Names that are good, carrying meanings of chastity or piety and easily pronounced, and harmonious.

Undesirable Names

Some names are disapproved of or disliked. These include:

  • Names which are disapproved of in Islamic Law (any name which imputes Divinity to a human).
     

  • Names which carry meanings of pessimism, or blameworthy characteristics which will be disliked or cause aversion or cause the possessor of the name to feel degraded or humiliated (like Harb (war), Himar (donkey), and Kalb (dog), etc.
     

  • Names which are sexually suggestive or may cause one to feel shame - like Nuhad (a young woman with full and raised breasts), Wisal (sexual union), Ghadah (delicate young woman), Fatin (temptress), Fitnah (temptation), and names with similar meanings.
     

  • Names which amount to a declaration of a person's being pious like: Barrah (pious/piety).
     

  • Names of the Angels (Jibril, Gabriel).
     

  • Names of verses of the Qur'an such as: TaHa, Yasin and other names of verses.
     

  • Names that boast or show superiority in wealth or status, such as Yasar (Ease), Rabah (Profit), and Najeeh (Successful).

Muslim Database Notes

There are a number of issues with regard to vowels in all of the original languages from which these names are taken.

As noted, the long vowel 'a' or aleph in Arabic, is written with one or two 'a's in English---to denote whether it is a long or short vowel. However, there is no unity in applying this rule whatsoever, and many errors of transliteration can be noted. Nonetheless, such spellings do occur with regularity, thus one may see 'Rahman', and also 'Rahmaan', although only the first is correct. Another convention sometimes used is to represent the long 'a' with a caret over the letter 'a'. We have replaced it with an 'a', since almost no word processors make this available as a default.

The glottal stop for the Arabic letters 'ayn' and 'ghayn' is represented by an apostrophe. Thus, one finds the word for "slave" ('Abd) written both with and without the apostrophe. Actually the International Phonetic Alphabet uses a reversed apostrophe for one of the letters, which makes the matter even more complicated. Since virtually no one uses a reverse apostrophe on the typewriter or keyboard, it has been omitted. The spelling in this database for the glottal stop is shown both with apostrophe and without.

The representation of joining of letters and vowels is a special situation. One finds the word Abdur Rahman, spelled with many variants, such as Abdur-Rahman, Abdur Rahman, AbdurRahman, Abdurrahman, Abdurrahmaan, etc. We have given as many of these variant spellings as practical.

One sees that there are approximately half as many female as male names in this database. As mentioned elsewhere, there are only about 2,000 basic names Muslims use. In daily life, it is common for women to refrain from using their own names in business dealings especially, and likely may use their husband's name, since it is considered undesirable for women to interact with strange men without necessity.

Hakim Chishti (hakim@chishti.com)
Fulbright Research Scholar.
13th Century Persian & Arabic Poetry & Language.

If any reader has comments, corrections or suggestions for the Muslim Names portion of ImpianaSoft myName® Database, please send them to: impianasoft@yahoo.com

 

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