Mo-town record: Why Muhammad is the world’s most popular name
Twenty thousand people named Muhammad gathered in one place is not a world record – it is an everyday reality. Muhammad is the most common name in the world.
In Zawia, Libya, they have tried to set a new Guinness world record for the number of people with the same name they could gather in one place. A pointless exercise but no more so than eating a plane to get into the record books.
Given that Muhammad/Mohammed (which means “praiseworthy” in Arabic) is the most common Muslim name and probably the most popular men's name in the world – it's even climbing the birth charts in Europe – this can't have been a very challenging exercise.
The organisers claim that some 20,000 Muhammads from across Libya and beyond turned up to the event. Quite frankly, I'm not really that impressed. There are probably more Muhammads in Cairo Stadium on Cup Final night or passing through the city's central train station during rush hour.
As anyone who has lived in a Muslim country will know, there's no getting away from Mo. Wherever you go, there's bound to be a Muhammad and possibly several. If you see your friend Muhammad walking down the street and call out to him, you may get the baffled attention of a dozen strangers.
Conversely, Jesus is not popular as a name in most Christian countries, because it has traditionally been viewed as tantamount to taking the Lord's name in vain. Interestingly, it seems that only Christian societies that have come into close contact with Islam name their children Jesus (the Spanish) and Eissa (Arab Christians).
The profusion of Muhammads fuels quite a few jokes, such as:
Caught in the act, a burglar threatens the owners of the house with a knife.
“What's your name?” he asks the wife.
“Sa'adiya,” she stutters.
“That's my mother's name. I'll let you live. And what's your name?” he turns to the husband.
Hoping to guess the father's name, the husband desperately tries: “Muhammad.”
The burglar says that his father's name is Ahmed.
“Wait!” the man implores as the blade moves closer, “My friends call me Sa'adiya!”
Some people even go on naming sprees. I once read an article about a man who named all his numerous sons Muhammad. Apparently, this was to avoid the evil eye and so he could fool the government by sending one of the Muhammads to school and getting the others to work. With that kind of attitude to fatherhood, I suspect it was also a memory trick.
There are parents who give their offspring a double helping and call them Muhammadeen (dual form, i.e. “two Muhammads”). It's as if the poor child were twins or something. This bizarre name has even found its way into humour. After Muhammadeen walked into a lamppost, they each went off their separate ways in a huff, one intentionally corny classic goes.
Of course, Muslims choose this name mainly out of reverence for their prophet, while some are thinking of a beloved family member or a famous Muhammad, such as Ali (the Egyptian Khedive) or Jinnah (Pakistan's founder). And if you include other popular names of the prophet – Ahmed, Mahmoud, Hamid and Mustafa – that's a large chunk of the Muslim world's male population accounted for. In fact, it would be a rare, and perhaps even record-setting, Muslim indeed who did not have a sibling, father, uncle or grandparent bearing that prophetic name.
But with so many Muhammads in the world that they could probably form their own nation (Mo-rocco?), I can't help thinking that the name has lost its lustre. It has acquired something of a production-line flavour. It's almost as if hospitals give all newborn Muslim boys the default name Muhammad unless the parents declare otherwise.
In fact, in light of the sheer proliferation of the name, I was totally baffled by the Sudanese reaction to Gillian Gibbons and her class's decision to name a teddy bear Muhammad, especially since children in other parts of the Muslim world give their toys and even pets this everyday name which actually predates the prophet.
I am glad that my name is not Muhammad. Although by no means uncommon, Khaled (which means “eternal”) affords me more a sense of individuality. A rose may smell just as sweet, and all that, but there comes a tipping point when a name becomes too cramped for comfort.
In addition, I enjoy the relative ambiguity my name affords me in Europe. People know it's foreign but a surprising number are unable to place it, confusing my first name with the Hebrew Caleb and my surname for the Spanish Diaz. Besides, a non-believing Muhammad would be something of an irony!
Besides, being a Muhammad can be tough. People bearing the name come up with elaborate variations to distinguish themselves from their namesakes. Hamada and Mimo are popular nicknames for Muhammad. In the west, Mo is the most popular.
The name carries other disadvantages. At Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering, where I'd landed for a year due to a miscalculation on my part, the student body was divided according to first name. This means that, in the prep year, there is a block of a couple of hundred Muhammads who have to attend lectures and seminars together.
This may have been convenient for the faculty – who could address the entire assembly with a simple “Good morning, Muhammad” – but for the students it was a bummer. The poor blokes were forced to go around using their fathers' names to tell each other apart. Another disadvantage was that they were all boys. “You're lucky because a lot of girls' names are clustered around yours,” an envious Muhammad once told me.
Parents should exercise discretion when naming their children because variety is the spice of life and less is Mo.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 2 August 2008.