My journey to choose a name for my Muslim son so that it does not make his life a living hell. My colour-coded spreadsheet drove my wife crazy. I didn’t know what else to do.
By Aymann Ismail via jadaliyya.com
July 17 2021
Not so long ago, without any prior explanation, I sent a list of Arabic names to a foreign friend and asked him to do his best to read these names while he sent them back to me with an audio recording. The impact of this request was somewhat strange, but he complied and sent me his attempts to several names, including Musa, Badr, Yahya, and Rahim.
Until now, I haven’t told him that I’ve become obsessed with the way these names are pronounced by non-Arabic speakers. My child will be born this summer, and in a way, that’s all I can think of: to know what this name means every time non-Muslims around him say it.
I started a Google search using terms like “Islamic names” and “unique Islamic names”, gathering names that wouldn’t confuse the average American English speaker. I put what I liked about them in a table through the Excel program, and relied, in order of what I liked of them, on a bullet system that I invented: each name gets a set of certain points based on several elements, including the extent to which the name is Islamic (that is, how many times it is mentioned in the Qur’an), and if it is easy to pronounce (I know if my friend can pronounce it or not). The spreadsheet is colour-coded and the information in it is provided with sources.
I sent the spreadsheet to my wife, thinking she would be excited, but she thought I had lost my mind.
The name must be Islamic, that was important to me, perhaps too much. I know the names themselves are not “religious,” but faithful to my labors in the process; Yes, names can be Islamic. My name is Ayman, which is an Islamic name. Here it is mentioned in the website ” Quranic Names “, a site that greatly enhanced my obsession.
Islamic names keep American Muslims like me in touch with the global Islamic narrative. This is the reason why Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali or Cat Stevens who became Yusuf Islam. It is a general declaration of belonging to an international community; It is a shift in identity. I hope for my son that his Islamic name will keep him in touch with us, before he fades into the American racial mix, as it did with me in some respects when I moved away from some of my immigrant parents’ customs.
The name needs to be easy to pronounce, and thanks are due here to celebrities with traditional Islamic names, and some of those names that I loved are familiar to many Americans such as Raheem Sterling, Idris Elba, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. There are names that I loved despite their foreign influence. Do people in America know someone called Badr, or Yasser, or Shaaban? Even when printing these names on a Word document it highlights those names as misspellings. I may not have liked these names very much, but it is important to me, and my son will also.
Based on experience, I know what it feels like for people to get confused just trying to pronounce your name. The children in primary school did not bother trying to pronounce Ayman’s name, but they called me “Egypt”, and I did not hope that the teachers would try, but as soon as they hesitated to pronounce the name written in front of them on the attendance sheet, I raised my hand and shouted “present” for the rest to take initiative class laughter
Then came the nicknames. Everyone who says “Hey-man” thinks that he is the first to find the perfect solution to avoid saying my name, which is nothing compared to some I know; Imagine that your name is Jihad or Osama after the events of September 11th. I know someone who preferred to be called Sam, and of course, I don’t blame him.
This is not the only thing I’m worried about, in my area Arabic names give the police an excuse to take you seriously. It shouldn’t work that way. Things may change when my son gets older, but if I can protect him from “random” police searches, why not? In the past, when I skateboarded, the NYPD when they saw my name on my ID would call me Abdul instead of Ayman. On one occasion, a judge carelessly threatened to deport me without any consideration. I was born in New Jersey. That my son should have a name that would keep him as far as possible from such treatment is as important to me as it is to give him a name that would make me and my wife proud.
At the same time, there is a part of me that doubts and fears this logic. There is something revolutionary about having a tought name. On a personal note, I am proud to know that my name is a symbolic resistance to the vilification of Islam. As I got older and had some professional success, I was proud to say my name. I felt that my document, arranged by color, was a betrayal of the name I loved.
Finally, I realized that I couldn’t change much, of course, as being born in America, my son’s presence here would inevitably be political. This is not the fault of any of us. Perhaps having a less Islamic name, such as Omar or Adam, might make his life less confrontational. I often wonder what it would take for our existence as Muslim Americans to become normal, when will being Muslim here stop being extraordinary? I don’t think you can achieve that by avoiding confrontations, in the end I stopped fighting it.
My wife and I chose the perfect name. Yes, it was on my spreadsheet. I won’t tell you about it but all I can say is that it’s easy to pronounce, but it is undoubtedly Islamic. I don’t know if teachers will have trouble saying it, but I’d be proud to call him at the school door. When my son is born, I can’t wait to hear his name out loud.