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OP-ED: What’s in a name?

  • Published at 04:21 am June 2nd, 2021

What is the thought-process behind the naming of children in Bangladesh?

In William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, we come across the saying: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  

Writing about names, the early 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, famous for his works on language, has argued that a name is the result of a consensus among people. In other words, because the term “book” signifies its meaning, we agree to call it by this name. Instead, if we had forged a consensus to call it a “pen’ then it would have meant the same: A text that we read.

Coming out of philosophical arguments, I am more interested in the names of people that are popular and prevalent in our society. It is said that Mohammad is the world’s most common given or first name.  However, this name after the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) is more widespread among the Muslims of Bangladesh and other South Asian countries compared with those in Saudi Arabia and its neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. 

Over the past couple of decades, I have noticed Mohammad getting abbreviated to Md by many people belonging to a generation of men who are highly educated, powerful, and well-placed in the society.  Most of them even identify themselves as Md Such-and-such. I have wondered why this happens even when you go to read someone’s passport and see the meaningless abbreviation.

What’s in a name after all? True; it hardly matters what one wants to call oneself. Mohammad could become Md, even Sheikh could become Sk; but have you ever seen George becoming Gg Or Michael shrunk to Mc? I would prefer to delete Mohammad as my first name instead of mutilating it for no understandable reason. Of course, GB Shaw or John F Kennedy are perfect examples of given names or the middle name being shortened. In the US, it’s a very common practice to reduce the middle name to a single letter calling it the middle initial.

Immediately after Bangladesh became independent, when I was still a school student, I would think of people naming their newborns with Bangali first names followed by an Arabic middle name. Because Muslims usually don’t have any surnames, for which the son of, let’s say, Firoz Ahmed can become Siraj Hussain, or the daughter of Asma Khatun can become Zeenat Rehana.

My wishful thinking only remained a dream, as Bangali Muslims went on with their thinking that it was mandatory to have an Arabic or Persian name for their children. I had other unfulfilled dreams too: One being more inter-faith marriages; but religion remained much stronger than love stopping young men and women to marry from faiths other than their own. 

Returning again to names and naming, Bangali Muslims in the 18th and 19th centuries, following the permanent settlement act of 1793, when the majority of them were rooted to the soil, greatly struggled to get the right names. They wanted an identity for themselves which led them to adopt distorted Arabic names. Usually, half-educated religious men would help the peasants find out Arabic names for their children.

Seventy years after the abolition of the permanent settlement act, and half a century after the independence of Bangladesh, we are still confused with our names which should not have been the case.

On the other hand, over the past 50 years, Bangali Catholics have overcome this unnecessary tension with names. Most Catholics in Bangladesh now either have a Bangali first or middle name with their surname reminding us of their remote Portuguese ancestry. 

I am hopeful that in the not-too-distant future, Bangali Muslims will also choose a Bangali first or middle name for their children proudly asserting their Bangali Muslim identity.

If the late President Soekarno of Indonesia could name his daughter Meghawati Soekarnoputri, following the suggestion of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, why can’t Bangali Muslims name their children as Shojib Ahmed or Nodee Hussain?

 A name surely signifies one’s distinct national identity too!

Golam Sarwar Chowdhury teaches English at Notre Dame University Bangladesh.