Did you know that the most common and popular first name given to newborn boys in the German capital Berlin in 2018 was Mohammed, according to a census derived from 700 birth registration offices across the country?
Similarly in the UK, by the end of 2018 the Office of National Statistics (ONS) announced that the Islamic name of the Prophet topped rankings in London and the West Midlands, surpassing other popular names such as Oliver, Harry, George, Noah and Jack.
It needs however to be clarified that this British statistic only applies when all different spellings of Mohammed – Muhammad being the most common – are included in the data. Otherwise, Oliver has consistently come ahead of the Prophet’s name in the English-speaking country, holding its position as the most popular boy’s name since 2013, according to the ONS.
To clarify, spelling variations of the number one Arabic-Islamic name include Muhammad, Mohammed, Mohammad, Muhammed, Mohamed, Mohamad, Muhamad and several others.
Across the Arab world it comes as no surprise that Mohammed in its multiple renditions is by far the most widespread and popular name given to newborn males and alive within contemporary societies. Egypt’s Ministry of Health also ranked the name Mohammed first among birth names registered in 2018, which appears to be the last time statistics were officially revealed.
Suffice to say, since back in 2000, Mohammed has been the most common name given in the world according to sixth edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia.
As for recent female name rankings – while there appears to be less of a consensus, based on the countless available sources – in Egypt, Mariam was noted top of the list in late 2018 by the Ministry of Health.
Understanding Naming Conventions
First or given names, be that in terms of their rankings and trends over time, will naturally differ according to location and cultural origin, but can also be biased according to the source stating such claims. Indeed, multiple variables can be used to draw a variety of conclusions and among the countless listings available, the claim that Mohammed is the most used name worldwide appears to be one of the more consistent ones.
An interesting observation is that the popularity of a name tends to reflect different political or cultural backgrounds and preferences.
The website Nameberry is dedicated entirely to accumulating various rankings and categories pertaining to names and has, for example, related the current first-ranked English boy name ‘Archie’ – especially its recent popularity in the UK in 2019 – to Britain’s latest royal baby, the son of Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Similarly, the top girls name listed in the same context, ‘Isla’, is explained to be seemingly popularized by the actress Isla Fisher.
How often do we actually think about the systems behind personal names, beyond simply attaching them to a person we have come to know as being called such? We rarely question the origin of people’s names or simply take for granted that different cultures have their own conventions when it comes to identifying individuals or familial backgrounds.
First of all, to provide a definition, a personal name comprises a set of names by which an individual is known by others and identified for various administrative and legal purposes. Theses various components of a name – from first to family name – vary largely according to cultural context and societal norms.
Personal names are not only chosen to differentiate members of a society from one another, they also tend to reflect a nation’s language, history, culture and religion – with names in Egypt for instance generally shedding light on the country’s history and socio-political developments, as outlined in an informative article by Al-Ahram. In fact, while name trends clearly reflect a contemporary society, they almost reveal more about the parents and their cultural or religions traditions.
Many naming conventions, especially within the Arab world, are historically enshrined and still predominantly determine which names dominate and how individuals are identified.
In Western societies, naming systems are mostly of the binomial type, whereby people possess a given name and are further identified by their surnames obtained from the parents. First names, also known as ‘Christian names’ are simply attached to a surname, last name or family name, which serve to indicate one’s familial background, generally on the father’s side. At times individuals are given second names, yet usually only the first is used when summoning a person.
In the Arab world and also widespread in surrounding areas in Africa and Asia, naming conventions similarly share certain recognizable traits, while there are of course variations depending on country of origin, religion or level of formality.
In Egypt, the common naming convention sees a child given a personal name followed by a chain of others that comprise the given names of the father, the grandfather and sometimes ranging further back until the family name is provided. The latter can often begin with the article ‘El‘, whereas others may be derived from geographical place names that indicate ancestral origin. Generally the name carries paternal lineage and family status. Unlike in Western culture, the wife’s name is not adjusted after marriage and adheres to the same naming system just mentioned.
A full Arabic name can be very long, comprising the components of a given name (‘ism’), a patronym (‘nasab’), which traces a person’s heritage backwards. The so-called ‘kunya’ is another component sometimes used, which refers to the bearer’s first-born son or daughter. The family name is the ‘nisba’ and finally, a ‘laqab’ can refer either to a formal title or an informal nickname, both essentially serving the function of describing a person in an alternative way or with an additional title. Harun al-Rasheed, ‘the Rightly-Guided’ would be a suitable example of such a title.
Most Arabic names are derived from vocabulary words, be that nouns or adjectives, and therefore carry a specific meaning, oftentimes used to characterize the respective individual.
For instance, it is considered an Arab tradition since pre-Islamic days that many male names are associated with the concept of beauty: Hassan means ‘beautiful’, Hussein ‘very beautiful’, Hosni ‘my beautiful one’, ‘Gamil’ ‘beauty’, being just a few examples.
Other times, parents choose names that point to specific virtues – Karim meaning ‘generous’, Fouad ‘beloved’ or Sameh ‘forgive’, for example.
Differences in religious traditions are also often reflected in the choice of names, with Muhammad being an explicitly Islamic name. Another common Muslim name-form includes the prefix ‘Abd and one of the epithets of Allah, a favorite being the name Abdallah. Using this prefix, however, is not necessarily exclusive to Muslims: Abdel-Massih (‘servant of Christ’) is indeed a common Christian last name.
Two of the other most popular Muslim names across all segments of society, and which continue to be among the Egyptians’ favorites, are Ali (‘highness’) and Omar, the former referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law and companion, the latter to another close companion of the Prophet.
Arab Christian names do not diverge largely from those of their Muslim counterparts and follow the same general pattern as most other Arab names. Youssef (‘Joseph’) is a favored name in Egypt and is popular among both Coptic Christians and Muslims. Still, Arab Christian names are often derived from the Bible. A popular choice is to name boys after Christian saints, using Butrus for Saint Peter, for example, or names in honor of Jesus Christ.
These are of course just some of the defining characteristics of Arabic naming conventions and are mostly illustrated with male names. With Egypt being anything but a homogenous society, new names are constantly on the rise and looking into the many meanings of Arabic names as well as trends regarding female names deserve their own article.