What’s in a name? My name is Robert, which supposedly means “famous.” I know for a fact my parents didn’t think much about the meaning behind my name, but chose it for other reasons. However, in the culture of Biblical times, the meaning of names carried much more weight. What types of differences emerge between Christianity and Islam when we examine prophetic names and their underlying meanings?
First, to see the importance of the meanings behind names in ancient near eastern cultures, consider the twelve sons of Jacob. A fascinating study is to look at each of those names and how they spotlight the competition between Leah and Rachel (Gen 29:32). Every time Leah called her son Reuben, she literally said, “See, a son.” Clearly part of this name was a jab at Rachel, but that is an entirely different avenue of study. The meanings behind names in general carried weight, but what can be said about prophets? Do their names tend to signify anything special?
Consider Moses. Moses means “saved from the water”[i] or more figuratively “drawn out.” Moses got this name due to the nature of how he was delivered as a baby from Pharaoh’s decree to have all Hebrew males killed (Exodus 2:10). As with many other parts of the Bible, this particular event had a double fulfillment. Not only did Moses get his name based on his manner of deliverance from being killed as a child, but later in life, his name represented him on another level. Moses was the leader responsible for “drawing out” his people from the land of Egypt. In the dramatic events of the parting of the Red Sea, the Hebrews were “saved from the water.”
Later, as prophets of God arose, their names all seem to follow a pattern. Isaiah means “the Lord is generous” or “Salvation of the Lord.” Samuel means “asked of God” or “heard by God.” Daniel means “The Lord judges.” Micah means “who is like God?” I am sure someone has created a Bible study based on the names of the prophets, and what they say about God. Being removed from the Hebrew, English speakers tend to miss the deeper meanings that pervade the Old Testament in general, and names are a prime example of that.
When we come to the New Testament, this trend continues. Jesus was given His name for a special reason as well. Jesus means “God saves” (Matthew 1:21). What a powerful connection between what Jesus did and His name, because that was His ultimate purpose, to save His people from their sin. Names have meaning, and those meanings shed light on what God is doing.
As always, it is time to turn to Islam to see how it compares to Christianity. While Muhammad did not come on the scene until six centuries after Jesus, it can be asked “What does the name Muhammad signify?” Muhammad means “the praised one.” Is “the praised one” really an accurate description of his name’s meaning? To find out, let’s listen to Muhammad’s own words, as reported by Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ansari,
He made my name ‘Muhammad,’ for I am praised by everyone on the Day of Judgment when decrees will be issued, and none besides me will receive such praise. [ii]
According to Muhammad, nobody else besides him (excepting Allah I would assume) will receive the kind of praise that he will. Muhammad states that he will be of all prophets most praised.
At this point, frequent readers of the blog will know exactly where this article is going. Names of prophets always share a common theme; they all point back toward God. In some way or another, each of the names tells us something about God, or praises God in some way for who He is. Jesus’ name gives us another verification of just who He is as well. However, when we look to Islam, we find the prophet of Islam has a name which flips the praise the other direction. Instead of the praise going toward God, the praise is directed at Muhammad. The compass points 180 degrees away from the true north of God, and the prophet becomes the praised one.
Of course Muslims may say that only Allah is worthy of highest praise. As Christians, we would whole-heartedly agree that God is worthy of this highest praise. But such an agreement misses the mark about how we each view the respective prophets of our religions. As Christians, the prophets’ names themselves just point back toward God by what their names convey. In Islam, Muhammad’s name signifies that it is he who receives praise. What does it mean to be called a prophet and have a name that honors yourself rather than God?
Do names have meaning? Do the corresponding names of those who are considered prophets tell us something about Christianity and Islam?
Yes, they do.