The meaning of a name

I.A. Rehman
THE process of social change in Pakistan as depicted by present trends in the choice of personal names should cause considerable anxiety to both sociologists and politicians because the signs of social regression, a premium on militancy and an increase in minorities’ fears are pretty clear.
For this invitation to look at social change through the peephole of onomastics one is grateful to Dr Tariq Rahman, a prominent name in the small group of genuine scholars that Pakistan can boast. His pioneering work Names: A Study of Personal Names, Identity and Power in Pakistan tells us how names not only help us understand the relationship between identity, ideology and power, but also indicate our society’s responses to foreign cultures and to dominant currents in politics and belief-dictated preferences.
Interest in personal names as markers of one’s identity, social status and authority has provided one of the favourite themes in popular conversation for centuries. While the Arabs and Iranians retained their pre-Islam names as markers of their Islamic identity, and the practice was followed to some extent in several Asian and African countries, the Muslims of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent insisted on giving themselves Arab and Persian names.
Except for some neutral names, such as Suraj, Chand, Piru (born on a Monday) they shunned pre-Islam indigenous names. And this, as Professor Karrar Hussain often explained, was amongst the Indian Muslims’ first assertions of their distinct identity, their policy of distinguishing themselves from the indigenous population. The fact that many, if not most, of them came of the same indigenous stock was quietly buried under an assumed persona.
That a personal name indicated its owner’s social status was also realised long ago. Hence the popularity of proverbs such as ‘Maya tere teen naam: Parsa, Parsu, Paras Ram’. The contradiction between a person’s name and his personality gave rise to sayings such as ‘Parhey na likhey, naam Mohammad Fazil Khan’. The tradition of calling people by their colour (Chitta, Kaloo/ Kala) or by their physical disability Langra, (lame), Kana (one-eyed), Ganja (bald) is also quite deep-rooted.
Dr Tariq Rahman raises this discourse on names to the level of a high-grade academic study. He engages us in a fascinating discussion on what personal names signify: “Personal names are badges of group identity, indicators of lineage, socio-economic class, level of modernisation, etc … Names construct identities based upon the belief system of the community in which they occur. They are indexed to our identities and roles in society. Personal names also index one’s niche in the social order as they are indexed to webs of power relations, both personal and group. They are a product of history and embody layers of existence of a socio-cultural group for ages.”
While tracking the changes in onomastic practices in Pakistan over the last six decades, Dr Tariq Rahman takes note of the effects of urbanisation, modernisation and Islamisation that result in a decrease in the use of folk components of names, the adoption of Western names for girls, and the increase in the Islamic components of names. Of special significance is the use of names to increase the power of a sect, eg the growing popularity of Muavia as a personal name and signs of increase in respect for Yazid.
This donates a break from the traditional compact between the Sunnis and Shias whereby the former had stopped eulogising Muavia and joined the Shias in vigorously denouncing Yazid.
Another aspect of this understanding was that Ali, Hasan and Hussain became the most popular names after Muhammad (PBUH) among the Sunnis of the subcontinent. The elevation of Muavia, accompanied by a growing trend to adopt the Arabic system of kuniat, such as Abu Hamza or Abu Musa, signifies greater emphasis on a hardline Sunni identity and a more rigid attitude towards the Shias. Not only a decline in the adoption of Hasan and Hussain as names by the Sunnis is likely, the onomastic changes reveal a process that culminates in the birth of the Daesh.

Source : DAWN


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