10 Arabic Language, Personal and Organisation Names
Almost all Muslim male names have some religious root or significance. Names are either taken from the Prophets or the Companions of the Messenger of Allah or adapted from virtuous adjectives used in the Qur’an or from the word ‘Abd’ (meaning servant) joined to one of the divine attributes of Allah, e.g. Abdullah or Abdur-Rahman, since a servant of Allah is superior in virtue to one who does not serve Allah.
Muslim female names have similar sources but are far more likely to include dialect or other language adjectives and attributes with less specifically religious connotations.
Because of the religious associations of most Muslim names, nicknames derived from them or contractions or substitution with a similar English sounding name or word can cause offence either to the bearer of the name or to other Muslims. Thus ‘Abdul’ could be construed as offensive as in “Servant!”. Many compound names such as Abdur-Rahman or Shams-ud-Deen or Abdul-Qayoom or Sayf ud-Din are broken down in English to make a conventional English surname out of Rahman or Deen or Qayoom or Uddin, the latter rendered meaningless.
There are no comprehensive conventions for personal name, surname order: most will place a family name at the end, but many will place it at the front. There is no fixed convention about taking the father’s surname – the father’s other name might be taken instead, or no connection may be made. Unmarried women may take an honorific title as a surname – Begum, meaning ‘lady’, is common among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women for example. A place of origin or of association may be added, almost always at the end: al-Masri means ‘the Egyptian’. In Arab culture and that of the early generations of Muslims, it is a mark of respect to refer to someone as father of their child, e.g. Abu Moosa, father of Moosa, or ‘father’ of a virtuous practice, e.g. Abu Hanifa.
There are few formal titles in Islam or in Arabic. ‘Shaykh’ simply means a gentleman, a pious man, an old man, or a polite form of address. Contrary to the belief of popular English media you can’t ‘qualify’ as a shaykh. As mentioned elsewhere, whoever leads the salaah is ‘Imam’, but he could be a different person every time, and by extension, ‘imam’ could be used as a courtesy title to describe any leading figure. Maulana or Mullah or Maulvi is used among South Asian communities for the imam and teacher. Usually it does imply a recognised qualification, but doesn’t necessarily, often simply used as a term of respect for a pious man. Respect for the older generation is one persistent virtue among Muslims, exemplified by a surprising number of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ someone appears to have.
Haji or Al Hajj is used by some as an honorific title for someone who has performed the Hajj, especially if he is highly respected in the community. Hafiz (protector) is used as the title of anyone who has memorised the entire Arabic text of the Qur’an. A Qari is someone specially trained in the recitation of the Qur’an. A Qadi is a judge or registrar under Islamic law. A Mufti is someone sufficiently qualified in Islamic law to give fatwas or legal rulings, each one for a specific case.
While the term ‘priest’ or ‘minister of religion’ may suit the needs of application forms, it is problematic in ordinary use, (i) because some masjids do not have a regular, appointed imam and (ii) because ‘priest’ conventionally suggests an intermediary as in High Church Christianity, and Islam categorically rejects that concept – ultimately every person is his own priest, and in principle every Muslim ought to be able to perform all the ceremonies for himself.
Almost every Arabic and Islamic name is spelt identically in the characters of the Arabic language, regardless of the country concerned, but rendering the same name in European language characters is almost completely arbitrary. The difficulties in getting a standard spelling cover e.g. conventions such as ‘Moslem’ for ‘Muslim’; basic literacy in the European language; different European accents, e.g. ‘Rachid’ or ‘Rasheed’; different Arabic accents, e.g. the ‘j’-sound rendered as ‘g’-sound in Egyptian; lack of comparable letter combinations for some sounds, e.g. is a very hard, rolled ‘r’ but for English readers it is often written as ‘gh’; use of double letters or capitals to show emphasised Arabic letters and apostrophes to show glottal stops. As a result the same name in Arabic can be written dozens of different ways in English and dozens more in say French. Furthermore for someone who is e.g. a native of an Arabic country, official records of his or her name will be in Arabic so it may be of little concern in the first instance exactly how the name is written down in another language. The result is extreme difficulty in matching names. It is also possible that when someone provides different renderings of the same name, this may cause unjustifiable concern or suspicion.
Masjids and Islamic community centres are usually named in some Islamically significant way, usually with an Arabic or Urdu phrase. As with all representation of Arabic and other cursive script languages rendered in the English alphabet, spelling is approximate and arbitrary, since there is no direct phonetic correspondence between the alphabets. Therefore it is normal to find the same entity referred to by different names. For example “Masjid Talim-ul-Islam”, “Edarat-e-Alimul Islam” and “Idara Taleem-ul-Islam” are all used in formal documents as names for the same actual premises, and in this case translate cumbersomely to “Knowledge of Islam Mosque” and “School of Knowledge of Islam”.
Names that have perfectly ordinary connotations to Muslims may be associated with more dramatic things by those unfamiliar with them, e.g. Jamaat Islami simply means, ‘the Muslim community’, but is the name of a major established political party in Pakistan and the name of a reputedly terrorist body in Indonesia, though conventions on spelling differ, e.g. ‘Jemaah Islamiyah’ for the latter.
Identifying Muslim organisations simply by their religious names can cause difficulty and is sometimes deliberately intended to cause confusion. Rival masjids in the same neighbourhood may be named Markazi Masjid, Jamia Masjid and Central Mosque, yet the first two translate directly in the first case, to ‘Central Mosque’ and indirectly in the second, i.e. to ‘Community’ Masjid, i.e. central, for Friday Juma.
In July 2006 the Government banned the organisations Al Ghurabaa and Al Firqa an-Najaat. Al Ghurabaa translates as ‘The Strangers’ in the sense of ‘The Outsiders’ and refers to a statement by the Messenger of Allah concerning the state of Muslims in the latter days, that the truly faithful Muslims would seem like “strangers” to the mass of Muslims who had deserted their practice. Similarly, Al Firqa an-Najaat has generally been translated (rather poorly) as “The Saved Sect”, or “Saviour Sect”, which comes from a hadith or record of a statement by Allah's Messenger, Muhammad “My Umma [community] will be fragmented into seventy-three firqas [sects], and all of them will be in Hell except one [successful, i.e. najaat].” The companions asked Allah’s Messenger which group that would be. He replied, “It is the ahl-as-Sunnah wa'al Jamaah [the one to which I and my companions belong].”
It will thus be seen that the names taken by these two banned groups are simply names that practically all Muslims would claim as their own. Every separate sect in Islam, militant, passive, pacifist, engaged, disengaged, traditionalist, modernist, Sufi, Salafi, reformist or fundamentalist, claims to be ahl-as-Sunnah wa'al Jamaah and therefore explicitly or implicitly al firqa an-najaat. There is serious cause for concern that perfectly innocent groups and events may be mistakenly identified as representatives of the banned groups, as is illustrated by the report of the banning in the Times of 18th July 2006, “John Reid, the Home Secretary, laid an order in Parliament making it a criminal offence for a person to belong to or encourage support for either group. It will also be illegal to arrange meetings in their support or to wear clothes or carry articles in public indicating support for either group. [...] It is believed that the Saved Sect and al-Ghurabaa websites work in tandem to disseminate an Islamist message under the umbrella of Ahl us-Sunnah Wal-Jammaa'ah, described as a sect within Islam.” Furthermore very few Muslim groups have any explicit tokens of membership of a group or distinct clothing other than that which accords with the Sunnah. Many local groups, whether masjids or not, arrange gatherings and meetings in public facilities, under the title Ahl-as-Sunnah wa’al Jamaah, and often these are groups that are in dispute with masjids in the area, but are nevertheless perfectly civil and not associated in any way with the banned groups.