What’s in a name?

At the most basic level, we use names to identify ourselves, and distinguish ourselves from one another.  However, names are much more than that; they are intimate part of the cultures that we live in and the way we associate with one another and the past. Names may connect us to a relative who we may have known or passed away before we were born.  Names may connect us to a song, piece of literature or to scripture.  Eventually, we have to come to terms with our own name and whether we want to continue to be referred by it.  Some people even change their names signaling a desire to break with the past and that they are a different person.  Moreover, giving a name is a remarkable responsibility. The name that we give will be the one that a child will be called, write and referred to countless of times. The child will have to eventually decide if they should make the name their own, and could  influence what names they will potentially give in the future.

The story of my name revolves around my relationship with my family and scripture.  My grandfather grew up in what is now known as Pakistan and he had an interest in prophetic names.  He named his first child Ishmael/Isma‘il, his second son Abraham/Ibrahim, his third Isaac/Ishaq and his last, my father, Jacob/Yaqub.  When my mother was pregnant with me, my father asked my grandfather, “What should I name my child?”  He responded that if the child was a boy, he should name him Younus or Jonah.  I did not know my grandfather that well because I was born in the United States and he died when I was young.  But my name always connects me to him, his legacy and story.

Growing up in the United States, I quickly realized that Younus was not a common name and that people had trouble pronouncing it. I was frequently the only Younus in my class or entire school.  Many would correctly pronounce my name as “You-nus” while others would say “Yo – nus” or “Ya-nis.”  My football coach used to call me “YO-nus” and I once corrected him saying, “Coach, my name is ‘You – nus’ not ‘YO-nus.”  He then responded saying, “Don’t worry YO-nus, I will get it right.”  I did not correct him again.  Having an “unusual” name made me curious about what it meant, its origins and history.

Yunus/Jonah and the whale

I learned that the name Younus is a prophet in the Qur’an and is known as Jonah in the Bible.  The prophet Jonah/Yunus leaves his people pre-maturely and boards a boat to escape but a storm appears.  The boatmen become worried and come to the conclusion that it is Jonah/Yunus who is making the sea rage.  Jonah/Yunus is eventually cast into the ocean where he is swallowed by a whale! It is in the belly of the whale that Jonah/Yunus realizes his mistake and, in the Qur’anic version, makes the prayer “There is no God but You, glory be to You, I am among the wrongdoers.” God then releases Jonah/Yunus and he returns to his people.  All of them eventually believe him and his message making him unique among the prophets.  Ultimately, the story of Yunus/Jonah is one of redemption, forgiveness, and spiritual renewal. It carries the moral lesson that if one makes a mistake, then you have the chance to try again and make amends.

It could be said that my name led me on a vocational journey that resulted in my co-authoring the book, “The Bible and the Qur’an: Biblical Figures in the Islamic Tradition”.  Throughout my research, I have been fascinated by the various Qur’anic and Muslim names that are a part of Islamic intellectual and cultural tradition. I have been interested in the debates around names and how names represent stories and narratives of how to live one’s life.  The research has led me to learn more about the Bible, since many Qur’anic names are also found within the scripture, which has additionally introduced me to a host of other names.

Thus, my name connects me with my family, one that I was separated from through migration and did not always know too well.  It connects me with the Qur’an which is essential in Muslim life and practice.  It connects me to the Bible which is an important cornerstone of Western culture and civilization.  And my name is an important part of my vocation in that it has encouraged me to explore the shared names between the Qur’an and the Bible.  Our names are therefore not simply things we use to refer to ourselves but parts of larger stories and webs of connections that bind us to one another.

I would encourage you to explore the story of your name and how it connects you to others, literature and scripture. It would be important to ask how your name represents your past, family and how it has influenced your unique vocational journey.  It would be important to share the stories of your names to those closest to you so they can better understand you on a deeper and more foundational level. I believe that if we explore and share more fully the stories of our names we can better understand our shared humanity and our interconnected vocational stories.

Younus Mirza is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He is the author of “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph” which will appear in the volume Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To learn more about his scholarship and teaching, please check out his website at http://dryounusmirza.com This post is based on his keynote address at the “Humanity Day Iftar” at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.    

One thought on “What’s in a name?

  1. Younas, thank you for this wonderful exploration of your name in the Qur’an and for sharing the insight that naming, education, and vocational discernment are related activities. One of my favorite passages in literature later inspired me to write an essay on Naming as a Philosophy of Education.
    Here’s the passage. “If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.” [The Ecthroi are evil in this fantasy novel.]
    ― Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door

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