By Wajahat Ali
October 3, 2015
“ALHAMDULILAH, by the greatest blessings of God, we are overjoyed to announce the birth of our beloved new baby son, Aidan.”
I sincerely celebrated the good news, deferred to social media etiquette and clicked “like” on my friend’s post. Another new Muslim baby Aidan had entered the world.
He joins lots of little Aidans, Rayans and Adams, Sarahs, Laylas and Sophias smiling and drooling their way through my Facebook feed. Not popping up as much? Bouncing baby Muhammads.
The logic goes that “Rayan” can blend in as a moderate “Ryan,” “Aidan” is cool, mysterious and thus inherently likable; and “Adam,” inspired by the prophet, is sturdy, safe and reliable like George, William and Oprah. And who doesn’t like a plain and tall “Sarah,” an exotic “Layla,” who even got Eric Clapton on his knees?
The process of choosing a name for a tiny human being is a tremendous, anxiety-inducing responsibility that can lead to marital spats, desperate crowd sourcing and late-night prayers for divine inspiration.
For Muslim parents, it carries a much heavier burden.
“Should we give our baby a less Muslim-y name?” I asked my wife after we did an awkward, late-night celebration dance upon seeing the “+” sign appear on the pregnancy test over a year and a half ago.
It wasn’t crazy to be entertaining the question. Why burden your kid with a profile-worthy name in addition to the problems he will likely inherit because of his skin color, ethnicity and religion?
Some numbers to consider: In a recent poll, 30 percent of Iowa’s Republican voters said they wanted the practice of Islam to be illegal. Nearly three dozen states have introduced bills to ban the influence of foreign laws, targeting Shariah law, which is about as necessary and useful as anti-Bigfoot and anti-unicorn bills, and many Americans don’t want a Muslim as president, even though 29 percent think they’ve already elected a Muslim twice.
The Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson doubled down on his recent inflammatory statements and said he would not support a Muslim for president unless he or she renounced central tenets of the religion. His bigotry was rewarded with a huge rise in Facebook friend requests and a surge in fund-raising.
In 1980, I think my immigrant parents were more concerned about saving money to buy Halal meat and removing turmeric from under their fingernails than the social consequences of naming their only child “Wajahat.”
It’s a trisyllabic name with Arabic roots that means “esteemed,” and is used by certain Pakistani parents who want to guarantee that their American-born Muslim child experiences childhood mockery.
“Whatchamacallit?” “Waja-the-Hut” and “Warbalot” are my all-time favorite mispronunciations over the past 34 years.
“Why is your name so difficult?” I was constantly asked by the Travises, MacKenzies and Joshes of the elementary school world.
By fifth grade, the scimitar forged by and for mainstream simplicity chopped off two syllables, leaving me as only “Waj” — the friendly neighborhood token American Muslim kid of Pakistani descent with lentil stains on his OshKosh B’Gosh shirt and husky pants.
However, like premature balding and chest hair, “Wajahat” has grown on me over the years. As a member of the 9/11 generation, I’ve owned, defended and attempted to honor the name with all its baggage.
When the towers fell, I was a 20-year-old University of California, Berkeley, student who experienced a baptism by fire, like many of my Muslim peers.
I emerged as the accidental activist and cultural ambassador, a walking Wikipedia and defense counsel of 1,400 years of Islamic civilization and 1.5 billion people. Our patriotism and moderation were always indicted, tried and convicted by a nameless judge who thought Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were the religion’s brand names.
I assumed that participating in the “condemnathons” — monthly rituals where Muslims are asked to vociferously condemn acts committed by violent extremists they’ve never met on continents they’ve never visited — would abate anti-Muslim fears.
Ibrahim is a beautiful name. I'm glad he's here. Blessings on you and your family.
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I was wrong.
When I was growing up, the worst name I was called was “Gandhi,” which is actually a compliment. Even being labeled “Apu” — a character from “The Simpsons” — wasn’t that insulting. He has great catchphrases (if questionable entrepreneurial sensibilities), and married the smart, attractive Manjula.
Fast forward to 2015
My brown-skinned Muslim baby, who eats tandoori chicken, graham crackers and mashed potatoes, and is infatuated with Elmo, is seen as a “problem” by some American voters because of his religious identity.
In Texas, a 14-year-old teenager who made a digital clock to impress his teacher was humiliated and handcuffed. If his name wasn’t Ahmed Mohamed, what would have happened instead? He’d probably be hailed as the Texan Jimmy Neutron or teenage Tony Stark.
Like most parents, I could never forgive myself for causing my child undue pain.
But if a Wajahat can survive and thrive in America, then why should we be afraid? Why not throw down and give the boy a symbolic, honorable “Muslim-y” name?
So, we named our son “Ibrahim.”
One might assume it’s because “Ibrahim,” the Arabic pronunciation of Abraham, is the dear friend of God revered by all monotheistic religions, who rebuilt the Kaba in Mecca, offered to sacrifice his son, and was promised a blessed progeny that would inherit the land. One might also think we chose the name to honor Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery — and earned Daniel Day-Lewis a third Academy Award.
The name is in fact a hopeful prayer — both for my son and the future of America. It’s inspired by a verse in the Quran: “O fire, be coolness and peace upon Ibrahim.”
As a parent of a multisyllabic young boy, I pray that the fires of America will be cooled by and for the Ibrahims of the world. May the Travises, Laylas, Sarahs and Aidans join him in this difficult but necessary task.
Wajahat Ali, a writer and the author of the play “The Domestic Crusaders,” is a journalist at Al Jazeera America.