Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How Muslim names evolve across the world

What do rapper Tupac Shakur, footballer Zinedine Zidane and 15th century explorer Zheng He have in common?

The answer is a name, or part of it, with Arabic origins.

As Islam spread from the Arabian peninsula into new territories many of its converts adopted names that reflected the new religion and the change it brought to their culture. So before too long there were people with Arabic names from Senegal in the West to Indonesia in the East. This did not solely happen in the Muslim world by any means; witness the dominance of Spanish or Portuguese names in the Philippines, East Timor, Latin America and parts of Africa, which accompanied the spread of Catholicism in the colonial era.

But the spread of Arabic names did not necessarily annihilate the traditional names of those Islamizing nations. In many cases, the names evolved to fit each local culture, while still bearing the hallmarks of their Arabic origins.

Not all countries adopted Arabic names with the same zeal, of course. Malaysia and Indonesia make for an interesting comparison. Although the two countries are culturally almost identical, Islam became a much more fundamental part of the Malay identity than it did for Indonesians. This is reflected in Malay names, which are identifiably Muslim, almost without exception. By contrast, many Indonesians adopted Arabic names, but many did not, or combine an Arabic surname with an Indonesian given name, or vice versa. Indonesia's last four Presidents are a case in point. Abdurrahman Wahid and Yusuf Habibie have names that would be quite at home in the Middle East, whereas Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, despite being Muslims, have names that are purely Indonesian.

So today the Muslim world has a diverse range of names which are identifiably Islamic, yet have adapted to the cultures that embraced them. Let's investigate the way these names have evolved.

While some of the most common Muslim names are derived from the Arabic language (and particularly from the 99 Names of Allah), many are descended from the Arabs' common links with early Jewish and Christian communities. Here are some examples:
Ibrahim (Abraham)
Yunus (Jonas)
Yahya (Yohanna / John)
Yusuf (Joseph)
Issa (Jesus)
Jibril (Gabriel)
Daud (David)
Suleiman (Solomon)

Time, distance, and the vagaries of converting Arabic sounds into Roman script have meant that many Muslim names have a number of variations and derivations even within the Middle East. For example:
Muhammad, Machmoud, Mehmet (Turkish), Achmed
Abdul, Abdullah, Abdallah, Abdel, Abd, Abida
Uthman, Usman, Osman (Persian/Turkish)
Rahim, Rahman, Rehman, Abdurrachman
Nasri, Nasr, Nasir, Nasser, Nazir, Nazeer
Said, Saeed, Sayid, Syed, Sayeed, Zaid

(Pictured: Senegalese singer YOUSSOU N'DOUR)
Islam has a long history in the Maghreb (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria) and the Sahel region of West Africa (Senegal, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, etc). Muslims there have developed a large number of distinctive variations on the original Arabic names, due to the influence of local languages, but French colonialism has also likely had an influence, particularly on spelling. Obviously I'm not really doing justice to this vast region by lumping all these countries together, but I'm doing it anyway because there is considerable overlap.

Mamadou, Mahamadou, Amadou (Mohammad)
Ibrahima / Brahima (Ibrahim)
Salifou (Salif)
Khadidjatou (Khadija)
Youssou (Yusuf)
Lamine (al-Amin)
Zinedine (Zain'Uddin)
Daouda (Daud)
Abdoulaye (Abdul)
Ousmane (Uthman)
Boubacar (Abu Bakar)
Drissa / Idrissa (Idris)
Lassana / Alassana / Alassane (Al-Hassan)

(Pictured: Indian film star SHAH RUKH KHAN)
Despite Persians' enthusiastic embrace of Islam, perhaps it was their long and proud history as an all-conquering empire that made them less keen to adopt Arabic names. While many Persians today have Arabic-derived first names, their family names are most often Persian. According to Razib at Gene Expression, the Persian elite adopted Arabic names as a marker of religious identity when the nation was first starting to embrace Islam, but once Persia was fully Islamicized, the elites began to revert to Persian names.

Because they played an important role in spreading Islamic religion and culture, the Persians also spread Persian names. Thus within the historical Persian sphere of influence, particularly the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, many Muslims are as likely to have a Persian-derived name as an Arabic one. Some examples:
Khan (surname of Central Asian origin, meaning great military leader)
Shah / Shahrukh
Sikander (the Persian version of Iskandar)
Parviz / Pervez

(Pictured: Although born in Sweden, Barcelona striker ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC is of Bosnian origin - his name is a giveaway)
The Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina was strongly influenced by Turkish culture, and many adopted Arabic- and Turkish- derived names. Yet being Slavs, they tended to maintain the South Slavic naming tradition common to their Serbian and Croatian neighbours: "-ic" added to the end of the surname, meaning "child of". The resulting surnames thus reflect the combined cultural origins of Bosnia's Muslims. Some examples:

(Pictured: Uzbek tycoon ALISHER USMANOV)
The people of the Central Asian republics are mostly Turkic in origin, but under Russian rule in the 19th century, many adopted Slavic naming conventions. Not "-ic" this time, but "-ev" or "ov" ("-eva" and "-ova" for females). In Tajikistan, there has been a push to drop those Russian elements and revert to traditional Tajik names, which are very often Islamic in nature. So Tajik president Emomali Rahmonov has changed his surname to Rahmon and has urged his countrymen to do likewise. You can read about that here.


(Pictured: Admiral ZHENG HE [aka Hajji Mahmud Shams], legendary Chinese 15th century explorer)
While China's population includes a number of Central Asian ethnic groups who are Muslim (Tajiks, Uyghurs and others), there are also 10 million Muslims in China who are ethnically Chinese, albeit with some mixed origins. They are known as Hui. Hui tend to look Chinese, speak Chinese and have Chinese names. However, the Hui believe that their family names are Sinified versions of their Muslim ancestors. For example:
Ma, Mu or Han (Muhammad)
Ha (Hasan)
Hu (Hussein)
Sai (Said)
Sha (Shah)
Zheng (Shams)

(Pictured: Basketball star SHAQUILLE O'NEAL)
Particularly from the 1960s onward, many African-Americans were drawn to names that they felt reflected their ancestral origins - names that were Swahili, West African, and Arabic in origin. While the trend towards Muslim names would have obviously originated in the black Muslim community, it spread to the wider black community as well. Thus we see black non-Muslims with Muslim first names like Rashida Jones or Aaliyah Haughton. The following names reflect an Islamic origin, but have evolved somewhat to fit African-American preferences:
Shaquille (from the Arabic word shakil, meaning "handsome")

Like this? You may like:

Quiz time! (European names)
Pilaf, paella and pulao - how a rice dish conquered the world

It ain't easy being Sikh

It's official: Jesus was black. Or was it Korean?


  1. Ooh that's super interesting! I love etymology-type stuff and name meanings/origins.

    Iskandar is a cool-ass name! And I didn't know Lakeisha was Arabic-origin.

  2. Hello,

    My grandmother's name is "Gahida" - she was born in Russia/Central Asia, in a Muslim family. No Arabic speaker I have ever met seems to be able to identify her name. Any suggestions on what it might be a variation of?

    Thank you!

    1. u have to read ur grandma's name "Gahida" with "G" sound in "gym" or "J" sound in "Jimmy"
      so it mean comes to "female warrior"...

    2. It might mean " a hard working one".

    3. I think it's from 'Ghaida' in Arabic. If I'm not mistaken, it's mean soft or smooth.

  3. @ dcpixie:
    My guess is that it is derived from Ghaydaa, meaning "young and delicate". Alternatively it could be from Ghaada meaning "beautiful". But I'd guess the first one.

  4. Wonderful information, let me tell you, your website gives the best and the most interesting information. This is just the kind of information that i had been looking for, Thanks a ton once again, Regards, muslim baby names

  5. It is a good thought and article to find the origination of baby names. Previously people used to search names in books to name their child, now a days net surfing helps a lot and makes our search easier. In-fact I have picked the name for my son from Babynology.