What's In a Name?

The Prophet (peace be upon him) showed considerable interest in giving good names. People often grow to be what they are called and to be called by a good name can makes a difference in a persons character development. By contrast, a person with a bad name (having a negative meaning) may invite bad associations and create a negative impression. Hence the Prophet made it clear to all his followers that choosing good names for their children is a duty of every parent.
A Hadith mentions that a child born to Abu Ussayd was brought to the Prophet who took him and placed him on his thigh. Then the Prophet was distracted by something. The father told someone of his folk to take the child away, but its removal alerted the Prophet who immediately asked: “Where is the child?” The father told him that he was taken away. The Prophet asked what was he named. When he was told of the child’s name, he said: “No! His name is Al-Munthir.” (Related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
The name given originally to the child is not mentioned. Obviously the Prophet disliked it for some reason and gave him a new name, which means “the warner”, and the child was known by that name ever since. His original name was forgotten. Needless to say, the Prophet would not have changed the child’s name for no reason. His practice is to change only those names which either gave a bad impression, or were unacceptable from the Islamic point of view.
Another Hadith quotes the Prophet as saying: “The worst name in God’s view is that of a man who calls himself ‘king of kings’.”(Related by Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood and Al-Tirmithi). Here the case is very clear. This title belongs to God alone. No one can call himself by such a title, even though he may be an emperor who rules over a vast kingdom, in which many regions enjoy some autonomy and each of which has its king or president who defers to that emperor. This used to be the case in old empires, but even then, the overall lord of such an empire may not call himself king of kings, or by any similar title in any language. Anyone who rules over a kingdom or a state of any size must realize that being in such a position is an honor given to him by God and a great responsibility, as he will be accountable to God for his conduct. He should be grateful to God for the honor and privilege he has been given, and must do his best to ensure justice to all his people. If he calls himself “king of kings,” he only betrays his arrogance, and arrogant people are disliked by God.
The Prophet changed names only when necessary, and he did this with both boys and girls, men and women. A Hadith reported by Abdullah ibn Umar mentions that the Prophet changed a woman’s name who was called Aassiyah. He said to her: “You are Jameelah.” Here the need for the change is quite obvious. Aassiyah is the female version of Aassi, both of which mean “disobedient.” The Prophet points out here that such a name is unacceptable because it stresses a quality which is associated with rejecting the faith or being rebellious. The Prophet gave her the name Jameelah, which means “pretty.”
One of the girl names the Prophet consistently changed was Barrah, which apparently was very common among the Arabs. The name means “righteous or dutiful”. So, there is nothing bad about the name, but what the Prophet seemed to dislike is that it asserts something that no one can confirm. It is a sort of a claim that cannot be substantiated. We note this from the following incident.
Muhammad ibn Amr ibn Ata, who belonged to the tabi’een generations, i.e. the generation that succeeded the Prophet’s companions, visited Zainab bint Abu Salamah, the Prophet’s foster daughter. She asked him about the name of a sister (or a daughter according to some versions) of his. He said that her name was Barrah. Zainab told him: “Change her name. The Prophet married Zainab bint Jahsh whose original name was Barrah and he changed it to Zainab. He also came into Umm Salamah’s room when he married her and he heard her calling me by my name, Barrah. He said to my mother: ‘Do not commend yourselves. God knows best which of you is the righteous one and which is a sinner. Call her Zainab.’ (My mother) said to him: ‘She is Zainab.’ Muhammad ibn Amr said: ‘I will change her name.’ She said to him: ‘Change her name to that which the Prophet used. Call her Zainab’.” (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Muslim, Al-Darimi, and others).
In this story we have the reason for the change of the name stated by the Prophet. He disliked that a girl’s or a woman’s name should assert that she was righteous. In fact, the Prophet has consistently highlighted the fact that a Muslim must not praise himself. If a woman is asked her name, and she says, “I am Barrah,” this may be construed as a pretense to purity or righteousness, when God states clearly in the Qur’an: “Do not pretend to purity. He knows best who is truly God-fearing.” (53: 32)
In this story, the Prophet is said to have changed the name of one of his wives and the name of his stepdaughter, both of whom were called Barrah. In each case, he called the woman or the girl concerned Zainab, which is made up of two words Zain and Abb, which mean respectively, adornment or beauty and father. This makes the name Zainab akin to ‘her father’s darling.”


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