Lhe first name of the prophet of Islam spread probably as quickly as the new religion. And, from country to country, he has adapted to languages to become Muhammad here, Mehmet in Turkey, Mamadou in Mali, Mat, Moh or Simuh in Java, or even Ma, as a surname, for some Muslims in China. The vernacular Mohamed is sometimes very different from the literal Mohamed.
In recent decades, however, things have changed. In Turkey, the first name given to boys was Mehmet, the name of several sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammed was rare if not unknown. But in the mid-1980s, Muhammed entered the “top 100” of the most popular first names in the country. In 2014, it was the sixth most popular given name. Mehmet, today, is in twelfth place and on the downward slope.
Two anthropologists, Joel C. Kuipers and Askuri, notice a similar development in Indonesia: Mat disappears in favor of Muhammad. Thus 100% of the Mohamed were Mat in 1900, whereas today, 80% of the local Mohamed are Muhammad, and this although the local language does not know the double consonants. Another anthropologist, Maud Saint-Lary, notes that in Burkina Faso, from the 1980s, Amadou sometimes gives way to Ahmed. Almost everywhere in Burkina and probably in neighboring countries, the little boy who would have been called Mamadou is now named Mohamed.
Turkey, Indonesia, Burkina … everywhere, the literal Mohamed replaces the vernacular Mohamed. With the increase in years of study, parents may know some Arabic, which may support a return to sacred texts against the practice of grandparents. With the internationalization of cultural goods, they can also know a singer, an actor or a sportsman named Mohamed. “The Arabization of first names has become a fashion phenomenon”, concludes Maud Saint-Lary: therefore a distinctive marker of education, knowledge, religious option, and probably of class and generation.
Baptiste Coulmont is professor of sociology at the Ecole normale supérieure Paris-Saclay, author of “Sociologie des prénoms” (La Découverte, 2014, 130 p., 10 €) and, with Pierre Mercklé, of “Why top-models do not smile . Sociological chronicles ”(Presses des Mines, 2020, 184 p., € 29).