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MUSLIM NAMES - A COMPLETE GUIDE
By Wael Abdelgawad for Zawaj.com
People who come from Muslim families and Muslim societies tend to follow certain established traditions when naming their children. Often they choose the name of an admired relative, a good friend, or a public figure. Sometimes the grandparents are offered naming rights.
When I was born (in California), my parents intended to name me Yasir, but then my grandfather called from Egypt and requested that I be named Wael, and I was.
Later, when I got married and had my first child, my mother asked that we name her Salma, and we did. At the time I thought my mother had chosen the name Salma based on some important woman from Islamic history, maybe one of the Sahabah. Imagine my chagrine when I discovered that the "Salma" my mother so admired was a character named Salma from a Syrian television novella, played by the actress Nadine Tahseen Bek! Though with the passage of time, the name seems to suit my daughter and I have no complaints.
The point is that if you come from a Muslim culture, choosing a name is generally a simple process and not one that is mysterious in any way.
Muslim Converts: the Difficulty of Choosing a Muslim Name
For converts, and for Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim countries, it can be more difficult.
The situation of converts is unique, because they are often choosing names not for their children but for themselves. They probably do not have a Muslim family history to fall back on, or a Muslim grandparent picking out names for them. They may not understand the Arabic language and consequently don't know the meanings of the names. Lacking an Islamic background, they may not be familiar with Quranic names, the names of the Prophets, the names of the Sahabah, and great figures from Islamic history.
Some Muslim converts wonder if they have to change their names at all, and if a Muslim name must be an Arabic name (it doesn't have to be).
Another issue is that some cultures have the practice of giving a child two or more given names, which would not be appropriate according to the Islamic naming system. In other words, a father named Eugene Johnson might name his son Joseph Douglas Johnson, where "Joseph" would be the given name and "Douglas" might be the name of an uncle, a friend, or even an admired football player.
In Islam that would not be appropriate, as the Islamic naming system is based on the patriarchal line. In Islam, the child is given one name, then the second name is the father's name or family name, and the third name is the grandfather's name or family name.
The only other names allowed would be:
The kunya is a nickname that is appended to the beginning of the name and starts with Abu (father), Umm (mother), Ibn (son of) or Bint (daughter of). So I would be either Abu Salma (father of Salma), or Ibn Hisham (son of Hisham). My mother is Umm Wael (mother of Wael). This is often used as a title of respect. In the USA my daughter's friends would call me Mr. Abdelgawad, but in a Muslim society they would call me Uncle, or Abu Salma.
There are more details about kunyas in some of the articles below.
Like the kunya, the geographical attribution is optional. It would be added to the end of the name, and indicates where a person is from. Abdullah from Iraq might be known as Abdullah Al-Iraqi, for example. Maryam from Egypt might be Maryam Al-Masriyyah ("Maryam the Egyptian" in Arabic). This is often just a shorthand way of identifying the person you're talking about. Over time, however, these geographical attributions can actually become part of the family name. For example, Al-Masry ("The Egyptian") is quite common as a last name.
Muslims in Non-Muslim Societies
As the editor of IslamicAnswers.com, I often get questions from Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim countries like India, or non-Arabic speaking countries like Pakistan. These people are often confused about what constitutes a proper Islamic name.
In reality it's simple. A Muslim name should have a good, positive meaning. It should not have a negative connotation, and should not relate to a false deity or an un-Islamic practice. It does not have to be an Arabic name, but in practice many Islamic names are Arabic because of their sources. For example, the Quran is a wonderful source for good names, as are the names of all the Prophets, the names of the Sahabah, and the names of Allah (with "Abd" in front).
We have many good articles on Zawaj.com providing information about names in Islam, including lists of Muslim names, recommended Muslim names, and the Islamic naming system: