Names carry associations. We aren’t always even aware of what associations our own names carry, let alone those of others. Over time, I’ve done a certain amount of thinking about Muslim names in West Africa. Perhaps what I have to say will be painfully obvious, but I thought I might share a few simple points in case they are helpful to other outsiders working to understand cultural context. What I say below draws heavily on my experiences in Nigeria and Senegal and I hope you will assume neither that these remarks apply everywhere in West Africa, nor that my observations apply only to West Africa (if that makes sense). I talk here almost entirely about people’s first or given names, rather than family names.
The first thing to know is that Muslims often name their children for prominent religious figures. Let’s take a few male names. Muhammad (rendered in many different ways), Ahmad (which derives from the same h-m-d root in Arabic), and Mustafa (Arabic, “the chosen one”) refer, of course, to the Prophet Muhammad. Male children are also often named for other prophets, such as Adam, Ibrahim (Abraham), Yusuf (Joseph), Musa (Moses), Harun (Aaron), Dawud (David), Sulayman (Solomon), and Isa (Jesus). The names of the four men considered Rightly Guided Caliphs by Sunnis are also popular choices – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, such as Hamza, also have many namesakes. A fourth category for names includes those that refer to God by combining the word ‘abd (Arabic for servant) with one of God’s names – ‘Abd Allah, ‘Abd al Rahman, ‘Abd al Razik, etc. Muslim men are also named for the Prophet Muhammad’s family members – his grandsons Hasan and Husayn.
Muslim women are often named for members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, such as his wives Khadija, A’isha, and Zaynab, or his daughter Fatima. Muslim women’s names also sometimes come from feminine nouns in Arabic, such as Rahma (“mercy”).
Second, in West Africa, two distinctive phonetic changes may occur to these names. One is that Muslims may pronounce Arabic case endings that are sometimes left silent – for Muhammad, we find Mahamadou; for Zaynab, Zaynabou; for ‘Ali, Aliyu. Additionally, Muslims for whom Arabic is not their first language may alter certain sounds, particularly the “th” as in the English “think.” So for example we find Usman or Ousman or Ousmane for ‘Uthman; or, putting these two phonetic changes together, Usmanu. In Francophone contexts, further spelling changes may occur: Abdoulaye for ‘Abd Allah, Ramatoulaye for Rahma Allah, etc.
Third, a name may stand in for another name. For example, if more than two sons in a northern Nigerian Muslim household are named Muhammad, the first may be called Auwalu (from the Arabic “awwal,” which means first), the second Sani (from the Arabic “al thani”), etc. Muslims who share a name with a famous historical Muslim personage, or with an older relative, may be nicknamed in honor of that person. In northern Nigeria, a Muslim named Usman may be called Shehu (from the Arabic shaykh) in honor of Shaykh Uthman dan Fodio (1754-1817), the reformer and conqueror. In Senegal, a boy named Malik/Malick may be called “Al Hajj” (even though he has not yet completed the pilgrimage himself) in honor of the Sufi leader Al Hajj Malik Sy.
To talk just a little about last names, they can be structured in a variety of ways. Two forms I am familiar with from northern Nigeria are descent-based names and place names. In the first model, a Muslim man’s middle name may be his father’s name, and his third name his grandfather’s name. “Muhammad Ibrahim,” in this format, would be Muhammad the son of Ibrahim. In the second model, we find a place name as the last name. Shaykh Abubakar Gumi (1922-1992), for example, came from the village of Gumi.
I hope these observations are helpful. It is difficult to generalize, of course. My main goal is to get outsiders thinking about the symbolic associations different names carry, and especially the ways that the early Muslim community and the prophets are constantly invoked in Muslim daily life through people’s names.