Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Mispronunciation of Foreign Names: On Arabic, Muslim, and Islamic names

I don’t understand why we bless our children with names that aren’t pronounceable in our spoken languages. For example, the name/word Samina means "fat" (feminine) in Arabic; yet, it’s a common name especially in South Asian countries. Because no South Asian language, as far as I know, pronounces thaa () in spoken language (even if it exists in formal/written language), we spell it with the letter seen (س) instead. The actual Arabic name starts with a ,ﺙ and “Thamina” means precious, valuable.

So, when pronouncing certain letters is not common or easy in your native language, why should you have to adopt the letters of other languages (even if they have officially become a part of the formal dialect of your language), just so you can pronounce foreign words "correctly"? For instance, there’s no F (ف) in Pashto [I’ve no idea where the Pashtun tribe “Afridi” gets its name from and how! Is it supposed to be “Apridi”?] and no thaa/they (), just like there’s no qaaf (ق) in English. So if the positive meaning of a good name is going to be distorted if the name is not pronounced properly (as with Thamina/Samina), then why even take the name? Why not keep a name original to your language, one that can be pronounced properly and not be distorted – and has a good meaning? I'm sure people have their reasons, though.

Besides, we don't even know the meanings of most of the foreign names we keep anyway. I mean, we keep them solely on the basis that they are the names of a prophet or his relatives/friends. Like, what does the name Uthmaan/Osman/Usman mean? Who knows – but its merit is that it was the name of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s most beloved companions (God be pleased with them all). I don’t have a problem with this, though. I understand and respect the idea of naming our children after people we hold in high esteem, such as religious figures.

But a Twitter buddy of mine recently pointed out to me that all of the Prophet’s companions’ names were from the pagan, jahiliyya (ignorance) period, and they did not change their names after converting to Islam. I know, I know – they’re big and important and influential and fully “Islamic” people, but what about their names? How “Islamic” are their names? This also hints at the idea that when non-Muslims convert to Islam, they need not change their names – since the companions of the Prophet (the sahabas) didn’t do that. No, wait, there were some companions whose original names were like “Abd al-shams,” meaning “Worshipper/slave of the sun” (Abu Hurayra’s name), and the Prophet encouraged him to change it. The Prophet’s grandfather, too, had a similar name, and we also know that the original name of  the Prophet’s father’s wasn’t Abdullah, but it was too “pagan,” too “un-Islamic,” so it was changed to an “Islamic” one – even though he wasn’t a Muslim, since he died before the Prophet’s birth.

Further, I've always wondered. What happens when a (non-English/non-American/etc.) Muslim has an English name? But we're Muslims, and we should have "Muslim" names -- except, no one has defined what a Muslim name actually means. No, wait - yes, we have: Arabic terms with positive meanings (even if we corrupt the meaning when we non-Arabs adopt the name and don't/can't pronounce it correctly at all). But a term from, say, the Pashto language with a beautiful meaning may never get the privilege of being considered Islamic. Neither would a beautiful English word/name. How unfortunate. Say, I, a Muslim and a Pashtun, choose to name my daughter, who will also be a Muslim and at least half Pashtun, Nikki. Nikki means "victory of the people" and derives from the name "Nicole." I don't think there's anything wrong with this, and I wouldn't understand why anyone would think there is -- my reason being that my real name is not an Arabic name; it has no attachment to Islam whatsoever. [Note I’m implying that Arabic and everything Arab is deemed Islamic and hence authoritative by most Muslims, especially non-Arab Muslims.] If I can have this non-Arabic, non-Islamic (not UN-Islamic) name that's not even Pashtun, what would Muslims/Pashtuns think if I took a name like Nikki?

To me, all that matters is the meaning of the name. My kids will have Pashtun names, ka khairee, whether their father is Pashtun or not (in which case, of course, I would have to have their father's opinion in the naming process as well), but that's just a personal preference; Pashto names appeal to me much more than do the names of other languages. I mean, take names like Kashmala! And Palwasha! And Barsalai! And, lo and behold, Orbala!! They even SMELL good from afar.

But I just think that if we can have Arab and Persian names, we shouldn't find anything wrong with having other foreign names, either. Like Amanda (means "she who must be loved" and has Latin origins; it also means "active and bright" in Sanskrit).


  1. You're right about Arabs, kho the Arabs themselves are known to be quite racially prejudiced (even today, after embracing Islam). You get these haughty (quite obviously fake) Hadith saying "The language of paradise is Arabic" They think it is some sort of perfect tongue just because the Quran was delivered in it. What they fail to see is that the reason they were delivered the Quran is because they were Jahillaan and needed to be set on the right track, Arabic was the obvious choice as it was their mother tongue. If Arabic is such a perfect language, why weren't other revelations delivered in Arabic? - A lot of Arab Scholarship suffered from this haughty attitude as well I think Ibn khaldun was one of the few scholars of his time who spoke out against racialism in academia. (Personally - I believe we will have no need for language in the next life).

    YES We tend to neglect Pashtun names they seem unsophisticated because we know what they mean - they might be words we use everyday - I mean come on who on Earth wants to be called anar gul - pomegranate-flower =P, while Arab names retain a sense of mystery.

    Names needn't have a meaning per se you can be named after famous figures from the past. I see no problem with Arab names as long as they are pronounced properly - Ie My name Sulaiman - remains Sulaiman and doesn't get turned into the *cringes* Salman.

    I agree with pretty much everything you've said! I happen to think names from all cultures are beautiful.

  2. Hey Orbala, really interesting post - this name thing is always something that's really fascinated me! I wondered about the fact that most Pakistanis (and South Asian Muslims in general) have either Arabic or Persian names, until a friend of mine who's knowledgeable about these things told me that some famous scholar from the past had ruled that the Muslims living in India should do this in order to give them a separate identity from the Hindu majority (this scholar had also apparently ruled that newly converted Muslims must eat beef!). Still, like you said, I completely understand why people would name themselves after revered religious figures, and even with regards to the 'incorrect' pronunciation thing, words that get directly absorbed into one language from another inevitably get changed slightly, so I don't really see that as a problem either. Having said that, I do believe that this naming convention has resulted in a notion among many South Asian muslims that non Arabic/Persian names are 'un-Islamic'.

    The whole 'Islamic name' thing gets even more complex when you consider all the prophets in the Quran (Ibrahim, Musa, Isa, etc) whose names obviously pre-date Islam, even if we use the Quranic versions of those names. But as far as I understand Islam does not require people to adopt an 'Islamic' name, as long as their original name has a good meaning. I know western converts to Islam who have kept their original names, while do others chang theirs. Interestingly, I didn't actually know that the Prophet (pbuh)'s father name was not Abdullah, and that it was changed on the grounds of not being 'Islamic' enough. Who was it changed by?

    Lastly, and something relates to me on a more personal level as well, as the woman I intend to marry is Indonesian - I find it very fascinating that the Indonesians (and particularly the Javanese) did not stop using their own traditional, Sanskrit derived names even after adopting Islam (though of course some of them do use Arabic names). This means that you will find Muslims there with names like Krishna or Yoga, names that a Pakistani would automatically brand 'Hindu', or even a combination on Sanskrit and Arabic, like Saraswati Hamid, for example (or even the late dictator Suharto, who added a 'Muhammed' to the start of his name later on in life to appeal to conservative Muslims). I think in my case though that it might be more pragmatic to give my kids an Arabic name, just in case they have to live in Pakistan, though personally I don't mind either, as long as the name has a good meaning, like you said.

    Ok I should stop procrastinating and get back to writing my thesis now. Btw, I would LOVE to read the article titled 'On Muslim Vegetarians and the Haram Police', if you ever get around to writing it! :)

  3. Thank you guys so much for your responses! :) Am currently working on papers but will respond shortly, promise!

  4. I would ahve to agree with you and therefore bucked the tradition and started selecting Pakhtun/Persian names for children in our family. Nothing against arabs(OK a lot against them) we have refused to give out arab names... for what? Since when have the arabs become my identity? This is my way of fighting against the arabinization of my society!

  5. POA: Good point that Arabic names instill in our cultures a sense of mystery. We recognize that they're foreign, and they're hence "mysterious" and more exciting than our own common words/names.

    By the way, Sulaiman = "little Salman" :D It's a common Arab thing to take Name X and turn it into Name Y such that Name Y = "little X." The name "Ubaid" (little Abd) is like that as well, as is "Husain" (little Hasan). (Abu) Hurairah = (father of the) little cat (feminine). Get me? But I love the names Hasan/Husain and Salman/Sulaiman; I'm just not a fan of the "Abd" names personally.

  6. Rehan! How interesting (re: "until a friend of mine who's knowledgeable about these things told me that some famous scholar from the past had ruled that the Muslims living in India should do this in order to give them a separate identity from the Hindu majority (this scholar had also apparently ruled that newly converted Muslims must eat beef!).")
    Do you remember the name of that scholar?

    QUOTE: "with regards to the 'incorrect' pronunciation thing, words that get directly absorbed into one language from another inevitably get changed slightly, so I don't really see that as a problem either."

    I hear ya and I agree. Except, I think it's a problem when the meaning is distorted with the incorrect pronunciation! Then again, so what, right? I'm only "picking on" the family who chose that name without knowing what the differences are between the original name and the mispronounced name due to linguistic differences.

    QUOTE: "But as far as I understand Islam does not require people to adopt an 'Islamic' name, as long as their original name has a good meaning."
    Precisely! Islam itself doesn't demand that our names be "Islamic" (because what the heck's an Islamic name, right?). It's many Muslims, very, very generally speaking, who claim that converts must change their names or that "western" names aren't "Islamic" names and therefore can't be kept for "Muslims" and so on.

    I think it may have been Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself who declared his father's name to be remembered as Abdullah because there are a lot of hadiths in which the Prophet changes people's names by telling them their name is from now Y when it was originally X (he did that to Abu Hurairah because his name was also something like "Abd al-shams" (worshiper/abd of the sun). But I do know that there's an exact answer to your question, so I'll get back to ya on that.

    So COOL that your wife-to-be is Indonesian. I think Indonesian women are so darn beautiful - don't blame you for choosing one :p (I kid, a little bit.) Yeeeeah, I find Islam and Muslims in Indonesia extremely fascinating, very different from the ones I'm used from Pakistan/India and the Arab world. Indonesian Muslims also have many practices that they've preserved from their pre-Islamic history that most South Asian Muslims and Arabs would definitely dismiss as haraam, shirk, un-Islam, etc., etc.

    I plan to write that vegetarian Muslims piece soon. Say within the next two days?

    Best of luck on your thesis! Would love to hear about that if that's okay!

    P.S. Open up a blog!!

    1. Thanks for the reply! I love visiting your blog because not only is it really interesting and well-written, it's also updated frequently and you actually respond to comments. There's so many great blogs out there that just sadly get abandoned (I know people move on, have other interests etc and I understand that, but it's always a bit disappointing to discover such a 'ghost' blog, especially if you want to have a discussion with the person who wrote it).

      Regarding the famous Indian Muslim scholar, I don't actually remember the scholar's name, but I shall ask my friend about it if I get the chance. Also, I told my wife-to-be what you said about Indonesian women, and her first response was 'Pakistani women are so beautiful!'. So I guess the feeling is mutual :) My PhD thesis is just on science, so nothing too exciting (I soo should have been a historian/anthropologist, I find that stuff really interesting, way more than science). Basically, I'm studying the two-phase immiscible flow of oil and water in porous media such as rocks, using MRI imaging techniques (like the ones in hospitals) and numerical simulations. The application is the long-term storage (sequestration) of CO2 in underground rock formations as means for mitigating climate change. It can be quite frustrating when things don't work, but also quite satisfying when you get good results, and I have mostly enjoyed doing it, so I can't really complain. Also, I'm flattered that you think I should open up a blog! I have thought about it, but then worried I wouldn't be able to devote much time to it and it would end up looking like those abandoned ones...

  7. Thanks for your comment, Shakeel! Good to see you around here!

    So, why "Pukhtun/Persian" and not just Pukhtun? (Not asking because I find anything wrong with Persians or Persian names. My own name is actually Persian, in fact, and quite beautiful and I love it.) But I am asking because of your choice to reject Arab names, which are just as foreign as are Persian and other non-Pukhtun names, but accept Persian names. Or are Persian names more preferable to Arab names because of Afganistan's historical connection with and to Persia?

  8. Hello there I am half Arab half Persian
    But I was raised between Arabs so I almost know nothing about my Persian side how awful!! now I grew up realized how bad my situation is and I like to read more and more about Iran I am also considering the idea of learning Farsi asap

    it saddens me a lot to read (ThePillarOfAutumn)'s reply about it
    I think s/he is being a bit unfair, we think Arabic is the language of paradise because there is a Hadith that confirmed it..
    I mean it's not something we made up

    However!! when it comes to names, I really think even Arabs misspell their own names, and you know some girls with names such as آلاء really suffers here because the name آلاء and the name علاء both are written as "Alaa" in English since there is no English equivalent for the letter ع

    therefore, nowadays many Arab people rethink the name before calling their children with it as well not only you
    just because the international certificate or passport is ALWAYS written in English, therefore slowly we are losing many beautiful names we have because it would sound wrong or can cause us troubles when written in English :/

    as for why do you adapt foreign names while names from your language appeals more to you
    I would like to emphasize this as a MISUNDERSTANDING
    when Islam spread in Asia , it has been spread on the hands of traders, so many false ideas has been transferred to your culture one of them was "adapting Arabic names"
    it's 100% Halal to use a foreign name and call any muslim with it, as long as it doesn't have a wrong meaning nor imply another belief
    for example
    a name like Amanda is perfectly fine!
    while a name like Christine is not okay because it implies another belief
    a name like Jesus is perfectly okay! while a name like Zeus is not

    that's the correct rule I was taught here, also you definitely don't need to change your name just because you became muslim , I was taught that Islam stated that a woman could keep her last name ,even after marriage and the same rule applies to belief
    so assume that your name used to be Christine (while being Christian) then you changed your religion into Islam you CAN ABSOLUTELY keep your name
    however, if you married a muslim gave birth to a child, here you can't call your baby born a name that implies another belief

    also assume you got married you absolutely don't need to change your last name, assume you did it it's not "Haram" if it is your wish but it's not an obligation neither

    last thing to say
    Arabs as well adapt Persian,Turkish,British,Italian,French and Latin names as well
    so if we do it
    I really want to bless my children with such a beautiful foreign name such as "Barsalai"
    I would be really grateful if you can explain the meaning!! it sounds too beautiful to my ears


Dare to opine :)

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