When Can Muslims Use the Name Mohammed?

Plus, why don’t English speakers name their children Jesus?

On Monday, Sudan’s president pardoned the British schoolteacher who had been jailed for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammed. What are the official rules for naming people and things after the prophet?

There aren’t any; the subject of Mohammed’s name doesn’t appear in the Quran or in the hadiths, the prophet’s sayings. But Mohammed is so venerated that worshippers all know to use his name in a respectful way. Proper etiquette excludes giving the name to objects or to animals, though broadly speaking, it may not go against Islamic principles to name a business after the prophet. According to the hadiths, deeds are judged based on a person’s intent, so whether an act is an insult ultimately depends on motive.

In some Muslim countries, almost all males take a religious name, either Mohammed or one of the prophet’s other names, Ahmed, Mahmoud, or Mustafa.  Out of reverence for the prophet and also out of practicality, men and boys named Mohammed often go by another first name instead. * In Egypt, the ubiquity of these compound names caused a major administrative problem in the mid-20th century, when the government introduced bureaucratic processes to manage state benefits. An Egyptian male’s full name traditionally included his given name, followed by his father’s and grandfather’s names. If each of these relatives was called Mohammed-something-else, then the names simply grew too long and unmanageable. The practice of having compound names was banned in Egypt in the 1980s. *

Bonus Explainer: How come English-speakers don’t name their children Jesus? In observation of the commandment against misusing God’s name, English and American Protestants have historically taken a more conservative view on religious names and reserved the name Jesus for the son of God. In England, Mary was considered too sacred a name for common use until about 1300, and it wasn’t until the past 100 years or so that naming a baby after an angel ceased to be sacrilegious. Around World War II, many Protestants started giving their sons names like Michael and Gabriel; before then, the bearers of those names would have been identifiable as Irish Catholics or German Lutherans.

On the other hand, Jesus has been a common first and last name in Iberian countries since at least the 14th or 15th century. For many Catholics from Spanish and Portuguese cultures, naming a child is considered a way to honor God rather than a violation of a commandment. (Similarly, Catholics differ from Protestants in their interpretation of the commandment against worshipping images.)

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Cleveland Evans of Bellevue University, Mohammad Fadel of University of Toronto, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid of the Council of the Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and the Rev. Thomas Weinandy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Explainer also thanks reader Amelia Showalter for asking the question.

Corrections, Dec. 14, 2007: This article originally said that people in the Middle East don’t call out “Hey, Mohammed” to friends on the street because the name is too sacred. That is incorrect. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

The article also said Egypt banned the practice of having compound names about 50 years ago. The ban was instituted in the 1980s. (Return to the corrected sentence.)