What’s in a name in Indonesia?
Arabization is changing how parents name their children, a trend to be enforced in areas by a new ban on giving Western names
Mohammad Hamdan is the spiritual caretaker of Mesjid Raya Al Mashun, the largest mosque in the Indonesian city of Medan on the island of North Sumatra. One of his top responsibilities is to help parents name their new born children.
Names are full of meaning in Indonesia, meaning parents take great care to give their offspring the possible start in life. “As Muslims, we believe that a name is like a prayer to god. If we give our child a good name, it’s like our wish for them for the future,” said Hamdan
Hamdan is himself an example of the phenomenon: his name means ‘praiseworthy.’ His parents hoped that he would be praised by Allah and blessed throughout his life. Instead of using the Indonesian word for ‘praise’ which is ‘puji’ (also a common Indonesian name), they chose the Arabic version to show their belief in Islam.
In recent years, Indonesians have increasingly chosen names with Arabic origins over local ones in a trend towards greater Islamization. Local names in Indonesia originate from local languages or dialects such as Javanese, Batak or Malay.
Around 80% of Indonesia’s population is Muslim, making it the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Although the country officially recognizes religious pluralism, there is a rising intolerance towards other faiths, with hard-line Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front even calling for sharia law to be the universal law of the land.
There have also been crackdowns on the LGBT community, a rise in blasphemy convictions and growing use of Islamic discourse in politics, trends which many see as a turn towards an increasingly intolerant brand of Islam. Naming culture could also play a part in the trend.
Academics Joel Kuipers and Askuri noted in a 2017 article entitled ‘Islamization and Identity in Indonesia: The Case of Arabic Names in Java’ that surveyed over three million names across three regencies a “growing popularity of bestowing Arabic names on Javanese children.”
In Java’s Bantul region, for example, “There were far fewer pure Arabic, or even Javanese–Arabic hybrid names until the mid 1980s. By the 1990s, however, about half of the children born have at least one Arabic name.
“During this same period … the number of children who have “pure” Javanese names — i.e., a name not mixed with either a Western or Arabic name—has dramatically declined, and by 2000, such names are a distinct minority.”
The origins of names are now a hot topic of national debate. In January, the Karanganyar Legislative Council (DPRD) in Central Java announced plans to issue a bylaw which will prohibit parents from naming their child using a ‘Western’ name.
According to the council’s speaker, Sumanto, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, “It will take quite a long time for the council to pass the bylaw. But in principal, the bylaw aims to protect local cultures that have begun to disappear.”
He pointed to a rise in the use of Western names in Indonesia, saying that he was “concerned about the condition” and thinks that local names should be protected as “part of the nation’s noble historical inheritance.”
It is not immediately clear from Sumanto’s comments what differentiates a ‘Western’ from a ‘local’ name, or if the law would potentially be enforced retroactively, forcing Indonesians with Western-sounding names to pick new ones.
As Kuipers and Askuri’s research shows, however, many Indonesians in Java use Arabic names, so the law could cause a new surge in the Arabization of Indonesia’s naming culture.
Hamdan says for examples Indonesians who choose to name their children ‘David’ would in future need to use the Arabic version, which is ‘Daud.’ He says he supports the law as he feels that it is “better to give your child a Muslim name if you can” to show your Muslim identity.
Others, however, are gravely concerned about the proposed law’s implication for religious and other freedoms. Speaking to Asia Times, Indonesian human rights lawyer Veronica Koman describes the proposed law as “unnecessary and over-reaching into citizens’ private lives.”
From a legal perspective, Koman also urges caution because “the law could be discriminatory and could potentially violate parents’ right to freedom of cultural expression.”
Religious leaders already exercise a strong power of persuasion. Hamdan explains one of the ways that parents end up with Arabic names for their children. “When they are babies their parents take them to a Tuan Sheikh (an Islamic expert). The Tuan Sheikh asks questions, such as the day and time of birth and gives the child a good name accordingly.”
He also says that name choices are now increasingly being discussed publicly thanks to the rise of social media. The name you use on Twitter or Facebook forms part of your whole online persona, and people are now more mindful of their overall image, says Hamdan.
He suggests this is less a sign of Islamization and more an element of ‘showing off’ that comes with social media, with parents wanting to demonstrate that they have chosen a name with strong religious connotations. With the rise of shared online information, people are more aware that names matter, he says.
Hamdan also points to how names fall in and out of fashion depending on geopolitical events. At the time of the US-Iraq War in 2003, Hamdan says that a number of his friends named their children ‘Saddam Hussein.’
“Many of them wanted to show their support for Islam versus the West, which is how they saw the Iraq War,” Hamdan said. “To do this they did the most obvious thing they could think of – name their child after Saddam Hussein.”
Intan Veranica, an ethnic Batak Mandailing from Sumatra, says her name is not of Arab origin. Nor is her husband Wahyu Hidayat, a Javanese whose name is a Malay-Arabic hybrid.
Yet the couple recently chose to name their one-year-old son Abizar Al Ghani, one of the 99 names of Allah, because his father wanted him to have a name that “sounded more Arab than Indonesian to show that we are good Muslims,” she said. “Abizar means gold mine so we hope he will have a lot of money in his life.”
Naming a child after a religious or high-profile Muslim figure is common practice in Indonesia, but Hamdan says that this tends to come and go in cycles, as with the previous example of Saddam Hussein, which apparently is no longer popular.
He says that one of the biggest religious and political issues in Indonesia today is the struggle between Israel and Palestine, which is spelled ‘Palestina’ in the local Indonesian language.
Strung across the street of his mosque is a colorful banner urging support for the Palestinians in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s recent controversial decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Hamdan notes that he observed a large rally in Medan several weeks ago in support of Palestine. “I walked through the crowd and people were saying that they would do anything they could to pledge their support to the Palestinian cause. Who knows? Maybe we will see more and more Indonesians naming their children ‘Palestina’ in the future,” he says.