Not long ago, I sent a short list of Arabic names to a non-Arab friend with no explanation. I asked him to send me back an audio recording where he read them all back to me, to the best of his ability. The request probably seemed strange, but he complied, and I got back a … compelling attempt at several names: Musa. Badr. Yahya. Raheem.
I didn’t tell him at the time, but I had become obsessed with the way a non-Arabic-speaking person would pronounce those names. My baby boy is arriving this summer, and I wanted to know how it might sound every time a non-Muslim said his name. Somehow, this was all I could think about.
I started on Google, searching phrases like “Muslim names” and “Muslim names unique,” combing through the results for names that might not trip up a typical American English speaker. I put them all in a spreadsheet organized in order of which I liked most based on a point system that I had devised: Each got a different value based in categories like how “Islamic” they were (how frequently they were in the Quran, basically) and how easy to pronounce they were (whether my friend could read them or not). The spreadsheet is color-coded. Sources are linked.
I sent the spreadsheet to my wife. I thought she’d be excited. She thought I had lost my mind.
Maybe it was a little much. But this was major to me. The name had to be Muslim. I realize that on their own, names are not inherently “religious,” but for the sake of this process, yes, names can be Muslim. My name, Aymann, is Muslim. Here it is on quranicnames.com, a website that has been extremely enabling of my obsession.
Muslim names keep American Muslims like me connected to the international Muslim story. It’s part of why Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, or why Cat Stevens became Yusuf Islam. It’s a transformation of identity, a public declaration of belonging to the global community. I hope for my son that his Muslim name keeps his connection to us sturdy as he dissolves away in the melting pot of America, as I have in some ways, drifting from some traditions of my immigrant parents.
The name also needed to be easy to pronounce. Thanks to celebrities with traditionally Muslim names, some that I really liked would already be familiar to many Americans: Raheem Sterling, Idris Elba, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.* But other names that I liked even more might sound completely alien—do most people know anyone named Badr, Yaseer, or Shabaan? Even while typing this out, my Word document is highlighting those last three names as misspelled. I might not like it, but that matters to me—and it will matter to my son.
I know firsthand what it’s like to have people fundamentally confused by your name. Kids in elementary school didn’t even try to pronounce Aymann. They just called me “Egypt.” I wouldn’t wait for substitute teachers to try. I would raise my hand as soon as they hesitated on a name on the attendance sheet and shout “present!” The rest of the class would laugh.
Then there are the nicknames. Everyone who says “hey-man!” thinks they’re the first one to come up with it. And that’s nothing compared with some people I know. Imagine a Jihad or an Osama after 9/11. I know at least one person who chose to go by Sam after that, and I don’t blame him.
But it’s not just the teasing I’m worried about. In my area, Arabic names tend to give cops an excuse to take you a little bit more seriously. It shouldn’t be that way, and maybe things will change by the time my son gets older, but if I can protect him from “random” searches, why wouldn’t I? Especially in my skateboarding days, New York cops would see my name on my ID and call me Abdul instead. A judge here once carelessly threatened to deport me. (I was born in New Jersey.) Having a name that would keep my son as far away as possible from this treatment is just as important to me as giving him a name that can make my wife and me proud.
At the same time, there’s a part of me that winces at that reasoning. There’s something revolutionary about having a tough name. I personally feel pride in knowing that my name is a metaphorical resistance to the demonization of Islam. As I’ve grown older and had some professional success, I’ve been especially proud to bring my name along. My color-coded name document felt like a small betrayal of the name I’ve come to love.
Finally, I realized that I can’t help that, by nature of his being born and existing in America, my son’s presence here will automatically be political. That’s none of our faults. Maybe having a name that’s less uniquely “Muslim,” like Omar or Adam, might make his life less confrontational. I often wonder what it would take to finally normalize our existence as Muslim Americans. When will it not be remarkable to be a Muslim here? But I don’t think you can do that by avoiding the confrontations. So ultimately, I stopped fighting it.
My wife and I picked the perfect name. Yes, it was on my spreadsheet. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. I’ll say it’s easy to pronounce but unmistakably Muslim. I don’t know if it will trip up substitute teachers, but I’ll be proud to yell it from the stoop. When my boy arrives in June, I can’t wait to hear it out loud again.
Correction, June 10, 2021: This piece originally referred to Raheem Sterling, Idris Elba, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as “Muslim celebrities.” Sterling is Christian. Elba is not religious. Abdul-Mateen has said he follows beliefs of both his father’s Muslim faith and his mother’s Christianity.