Would we name our children Warrior, Conqueror, Sword, or Holy War? These are the meanings of personal names commonly used in the Muslim world, and may give some insight into Muslim values, especially regarding violence. Violence has been endemic to Muslim society from its inception more than 1,400 years ago. A large proportion of the ancestors of today's approximately 1.3 billion Muslims converted to Islam under duress.
Western societies almost never give their children names which denote violence. The Protestants who settled America often gave their children names indicative of their values, such as Felicity, Charity, Prudence, Hope, Faith, Joy or Chastity. Other Christians gave their children names that reflect similar values, or names from the Old or New Testaments: Miriam, Mary, David, Luke. As names can be an indicator of how a civilization views itself and the outside world, names parents choose to give their children are at least something of a guide to what they hold in high regard and what they wish for their children. And as Muslims often choose names related to war and violence, could those possibly be indicative of their values? Of course, many Muslims choose names such as Jamil (Beautiful), Latif (Kind, friendly), Wasim (Handsome), Karim, and Jawad (both meaning generous), which refer to qualities we in the West might also hope for our children. But many Muslims do not.
Jihad – meaning War in the Cause of Allah – for example, is a common given name in the Muslim world, and appears in various forms. Westerners, on meeting men named Jihad, are at first often startled, but then get used to hearing it. The name Jihad is also common in Turkish in two forms: "Cihat," the Turkish variant, pronounced Ji-hat, and also "Savaş," the Turkish word for war. From time to time, one also finds a variant, Jihad al-Din, meaning Holy War of the (Muslim) religion.
There are, of course, people with names that seem to us more pacific, more like our own: many Muslims, for instance, are named Salim, two separate names (SA-lim) or (SaLEEM) -- two variants coming from the same Arabic root (S-L-M) which is sometimes mistakenly translated as "peaceful," "peace," or "free of suffering." Sadly, however, these translations confuse rather than inform. Although one might reasonably assume that the word salaam, means "peace" in the Western sense, salaam actually denotes a rather different view of "peace." Salaam, can best be translated as "the peaceful joy one gets from submitting to Allah's will via Islam." The word Islam itself, from the same root, simply means: "Submission to Allah's will."
Further, although there are Muslims with names such as Rahman and Rahim, loosely translated from the Arabic as the "compassionate" and "merciful," both of these names are shortened versions of the names 'Abd al-Rahman and 'Abd al-Rahim, which refer to characteristics of Allah, not of man.
Many popular names are derived from the word "Fath," Arabic for "Conquest in the Name of Islam." The Arabic name "Fathullah," and its Turkish variant, Fethullah , meaning "The Muslim Conquest in the Name of Allah," are used frequently throughout the Muslim world, along with other variants, such as, Fathi and Fatih. The Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, later renamed Istanbul, is referred to as Futuh Costantiniya.
Another common name, Sayf, in Arabic means "sword." Its variants follow suit: Sayf al-Islam means "the sword of Islam"; Sayf al-Din means "the sword of the Law/religion" (that is, Islam), and Sayf-Allah means the sword of Allah. The son of Libya's late dictator, Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi, was named Seif al-Islam.
Among Arab Shi'ites in Lebanon (and in one Christian family) there, we find the family name "Harb," which means "war" in Arabic. Another name, Ghazi (Gazi in Turkish), means "Warrior for the Islamic Faith."
The name Qutb, in Arabic meaning "pole" – as in "one who polarizes the community" -- and its variants, Qutb al-Din and Qutbzade (used in Iran), are also popular. Sa'id Qutb, for example, was the intellectual godfather of modern Islamic fundamentalism. Ghotbzadeh, (the Iranian variant of the name Qutb plus the Persian suffix zadeh meaning "son of") was the name of one of Ayatollah Khomeini's trusted assistants whom Khomeini later had killed. Polarization, however, creates discord; it is not a signal of peace and harmony.
But what can we understand from this? From the very beginning, Islam was spread through war and conquest. Could the preponderance of martial Muslim given names be a reflection and sanction of that?
Christianity had similar experiences, but the enormous bloodshed helped bring about the Reformation, followed by the 30 Years War, in which Christians unmercifully slaughtered each other. By the mid-1600s, the Christian reformers and politicians apparently came to the conclusion that if they did not to put an end to the violence, they could destroy their civilization.
Islam, however, has never undergone such a reformation. If an Islamic Reformation did take place, Muslims could look to the early years of Islam, when the Muslim prophet Muhammad and his followers faced serious military and political opposition. Many of the Koranic verses Muslims believed, that were revealed to their prophet at that time, talked about co-existence with non-Muslims. One of the most commonly quoted early verses is Sura 109: Verse 6 "Lakum Dinukum wa-li dini" meaning, "to you your religion, and to me my religion." There are, therefore, peaceful traditions in Islam.
Most Sunni scholars, nonetheless, teach that these peaceful verses which called for co-existence were abrogated -- or overridden and invalidated -- by the later, hostile, verses they believe were revealed to their prophet at a later date, when he had become a strong political leader, capable of imposing his will on those non-Muslims around him. As for the Shiites, even Khomeini himself promulgated a doctrine that Koranic verses could be temporarily abrogated if it were in the national interests of Iran to do so. So there are ways for Muslims to promote non-violence if they cared to.
Another possibility was set forth by the founder of the Turkish secular Republic – Kemal Atatürk – an Ottoman Turkish military hero during World War I. The Ottoman Empire, under which he served, had been the largest Muslim nation before War World I. In the Empire's early years, its reason for being had been aggressively to expand Islam, which, to its citizens at the time, formed its primary identity. Atatürk's military reputation gave him enormous leeway in tackling problems facing the new Turkish Republic in Anatolia, especially after his having won the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923), in which he and his followers liberated Anatolia from the non-Muslim foreigners who had occupied it after World War I.
Atatürk did his best to change course and detach Turkey from the Islamic world, abandoning the state's religious identity. Atatürk relegated Islam to the private sphere: religion was to be a personal decision involving man and God, and not be part of government. He also made clear to the citizens of his Republic and to the entire world that he cared only about what happened inside Turkey's borders. Muslims outside Turkey -- whether the Sunni Arabs to the south or fellow Turks in the Caucasus, Central Asia, or north-western China -- were apparently of no interest to him.
In the Muslim world, the idea of living within your own territory and not trying to conquer others was revolutionary. Until then, the purpose of the state had been to conquer, enlarging the territory over which Islam ruled. Atatürk , moreover, made peace with his Christian Greek neighbors, and refused to get involved in Muslim quarrels to Turkey's south. He emphasized peace in the Western sense of the word: his motto was Yurt'ta Sulh; Cihan'da Sulh ["Peace at Home, Peace Abroad."] His new policy was reflected in the new and non-warlike names -- previously unknown in Turkish culture -- that people began to adopt in Turkey. New Turkish names such as Aydın [Enlightened); Bariş [Peace, in the Western sense of putting the past behind you] and Can (pronounced "Jan," meaning "soul" or "life"] all became the rage.
Although the Atatürkist, secular model might eventually be one way for Islam to reform, at least for now Atatürkism is, at best, on life-support. We do not know if Atatürkism in Turkey, now ruled by an aggressive Muslim fundamentalist clique, will survive or die, or whether popular Turkish names will once again emphasize militancy and violence. The rest of the Muslim world certainly shows no indication of changing.
Given its history, it should be no wonder to us that Islam as a civilization, which has been violent virtually from its inception, still continues to see itself in a perpetual state of war with the non-Muslim world. Islam has always divided the world into two – the Dar al-Islam [the area of the world ruled by Islam] and the Dar al-Harb [the world of war, the area of the world that remains to be conquered by Islam and submit to Islamic rule].
Even the flag of Saudi Arabia – the guardian of Islam's most holy place, Mecca, makes plain its view of what the role is for its nation and the Islamic world: under the Islamic declaration of faith, "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger," called the shahada, there is a picture of a sword:
The message is clear: Islam is aggressive, Islam conquers by the sword.