The cultural context of the period


Any discussion about the names of individuals has to take into account the wider cultural context of the time period those individuals are named in. In the 21st century, Muslims who revere the first three Caliphs will immediately have them in their minds whenever the names ‘Abu Bakr’, ‘Umar’ and ‘Uthman’ are mentioned. Hearing these names will give them an immediate sense of joy, pride, and a deep reverence for the aforementioned individuals. In the modern day, and perhaps even a century or two after Hijrah, children were given the names Umar and Uthman, and the Qunya Abu Bakr [which soon turned into a name after islam spread and the Arab cultural custom of name and honorific title was not applicable] almost entirely out of honour of the Caliphs.

However, one must ask if this was the case during the time of the Caliphs themselves? Dissecting and understanding the cultural context of the period is essential to this discussion, and not taking into account the cultural norms of the time may lead to the fallacy of conflating ones own culture and customs with what had occurred during the time of the Caliphs. Sunni-Shia polemics may have crystallised during the first few centuries after the Prophet (saw), but things were far less set in stone during the early years of Islam.

The names Umar and Uthman were very common. According to ‘al-Isaba fi tamyiz al-Sahaba’ by Imam Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, there were atlas 26 companions named ‘Uthman’ and atlas 21 named Umar. Such names were thus, akin to George or Tony in todays day and age. One could argue that as famous individuals, and perhaps even respected individuals, people during and after their life time may have named their children in honour of them. However, during this time period there were a number of other notable and famous Umar and Uthmans, and the name in and of itself was famous and commonly used. Therefore it is very highly likely that a child may have been named Umar and Uthman after another individual by that name, or because it was simply a common name in that cultural context. As time passed, it became a name used almost exclusively to honour the Caliphs, but this certainly was not the case in their life time, nor in the decades following their death.

To elaborate, in todays day,  the name ‘Umar’ has evolved to be almost always attached to Umar ibn al Khattab. The same also applies with the name ‘Uthman’, and Uthman ibn Affan. However, in those days, there were many Umars – from Umar ibn Abi Salama, the adopted son of the Prophet [saw] and loyal companion of Ali ibn Abi Talib to give an example. There was also Uthman ibn Madhu’n, the fourteenth person to convert to Islam, the first to be buried in the graveyard of Baqi in Medina, and a renowned companion of the Prophet [saw] and Ali ibn Abi Talib. If we were to go back in time and live in the era of the Prophet [saw] there were dozens of Uthmans and Umars, and a number of very notable who had either name. If one named their child Uthman, it may have been out of reverence of Uthman ibn Madh’un,  any other Uthman, or the fact it was simply a common name for the cultural context.

Taking the cultural context into account does not prove that Ali ibn Abi Talib did or did not name his sons after the caliphs, but what it does it address the fallacy of applying how naming may work in the 21st century, to 7th century Arabia. More research and evidence must be examined as well as presented before anyone makes any firm conclusions – particularly when such conclusions play an integral role to ones views and beliefs with respect to key Aqeedah principles.

All we seek here is to allow the reader to recognise that how one views the names Umar and Uthman today is not necessarily the same as how the Arabs viewed it during the lifetime of Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn Affan, or the few decades after their death.