The Muslim ID: What's in a Name? (A Qur'anic Perspective)

by Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif

Ghayth Nur Kashif is Resident Imam for Masjidush-Shura in Washington, D.C

Perhaps each person who reads this article has with them a 2x3 inch metallic or plastic "ID" card. The more sophisticated ones reveal such things as one's personal hobbies and food preferences. Most of us have come to live with them. "ID," of course, means "identity." In truth, however, this little "ID" tells us nothing about our real or "true" self.

The true identity of the human being was established at the time of his creation, and is manifested over time and on "Al-Qiyyamah" (the day of accounting). Perhaps we can learn more about ourselves and our "ID" by reflecting upon the Qur'an, as Allah has commanded us: "And every one has a direction to which he should turn, therefore hasten to (do) good works; wherever you are, Allah will bring you all together; surely Allah has power over all things." [Q2:148]

We can agree that today, we live out our common experiences by coming to "know" the names or identities of things. Often we "name" things ourselves. We also are named and known. A featured characteristic or attribute of Man is the ability to "Know" or to "Name" or "Identify." Allah created man and He named him "Adam." He then taught Adam "the Names" (identities of things). When the angels questioned Him about Adam, He said: "I know that which you know not." He then said to Adam: "Tell them the names."

Here we understand that the names (the identities) represent certain knowledge. For the human being, his name IS himself, his nature, his reflective ability, and his expression. His name also represents his destiny. Many of the names we are given or embrace are only labels, and may not equate in the least with the name (nature and identity) we were given by Allah at our creation. In Surah Al-Araf (The Heights), Allah revealed: "Between them there will be a veil, and on the heights will be men who would know everyone by ("bisimaahum") his marks..."

The Arabic root for "bisimaahum" is SMW, meaning NAME. Thus, those waiting to enter paradise or otherwise, were known by their marks (names, attributes, faith and works). While we as humans take on many names, in the end we are only our true names, or true selves before Allah, and those on the Heights. The subject of identity is pertinent to mankind today, and in particular to the Muslims, here and abroad.

We approach this subject from the premise that Muslims must take particular care to ascertain and appreciate their TRUE identity, and to avoid misrepresenting themselves to others or to themselves. So what is the Muslim ID? The Qur'an gives various detailed characterizations throughout the book, contrary to much of that claimed by various groups or "sects." As we know, they have named themselves such-and-such and declared their stated identity to be the only one acceptable to Allah. Some even claim some kind of "copyright" on such names.

Viewed from the Qur'anic perspective, Allah teaches us how to appreciate our individual and collective identities when He explains: "O you men! Surely We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one among you most careful (of his duty); surely Allah is Knowing, Aware." [Q49:13]

This well-known Ayah advises the Muslims of the identity of individual families and "tribes," with obvious varying traditions. In this context, Allah shows us how to begin to appreciate these differences. He says: "that you may ‘know’ (identify) one another (to seek to understand the way and nature of other than one’s self or collective)."

By following this approach, we ultimately come to see and acknowledge what Allah declares in His Ayah: "O people! Be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind), and spread from these two many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (to) the ties of relationship; surely Allah ever watches over you." [Q4:1]

Thus we learn that despite our variations of traditions, styles, culinary practices, etc., we are from One Soul. As such, we must be careful not to allow these external or ritualistic differences to cause us to fall into disputes. We learn from the Qur'an that the loss of will and the loss of power comes from the exploitation of natural differences among men.

We recall that Pharaoh used such tactics against the people of Musa to outwit them: "Surely Firon exalted himself in the land and made its people into parties, weakening one party from among them; he slaughtered their sons and let their women live; surely he was one of the mischief makers." [Q28:4]

Today many Muslims are "dividing" themselves by rituals, cultural traditions, and multiple sectarian philosophies. By these, they claim exclusive piety for their sect, and heighten the divisions among the ummah. Often we find that such "sectarianism" is perpetuated for the sake of making one group greater in number than the others. Allah warns against this. He states: "And be not like her who unravels her yarn, disintegrating it into pieces after she has spun it strongly. Do not make your oaths to be a means of deceit between you so that one ummah is more numerous than (another) ummah. Allah only tries you by this; and He will most certainly make clear to you on the resurrection day that about which you differed." [Q16:92]

Thus we learn that often the interpretations of even the "traditions" of the Prophet have been made a cause for Muslims to misrepresent the True ID of a believer. Without doubt, Allah shows us the "even" way. Speaking of "attire" for instance, Allah says: "O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you raiment (attire, dress) to cover your shame and for an adornment, but the raiment of righteousness is best. Such are among the signs of Allah that they may receive admonition." [Q7:26]

So "What's in a Name?" The Muslim's day begins with Allah's Name. Why "In His Name," or "By His Name," or "With His Name? What is His Name? What does it connote, what does it denote? What is the concept of name? The root in Arabic is "samaa" (to be high, lofty). "Samuu" (w) means eminence and "saam" means elevated. "Musamman" means that which is named, that which is designated, an appellation, and identification.

Allah says in Surah 7:180: "And Allah's are the best names, therefore call on Him thereby, and leave alone those who violate the sanctity of His names; they shall be recompensed for what they did."

We cannot succeed or come to knowledge without a name, or without naming. Man was given the ability to name, to identify, and to understand the essence of things. As pointed out earlier, Allah taught Adam all the names. He then said: "O Adam! Inform them (the angels) of their names." When Adam did so, Allah said: "Did I not say to you that I surely know what is ghaib (unseen) in the heavens and the earth, and (that) I know what you manifest and what you hide?" [Q2:30-33]

Man was named (given his identity) at his creation. Allah said: "He it is Who created you from clay, then He decreed a term; and there is a term named with Him; still you doubt." [Q6:2]

So from the beginning we know that we must learn the names of what Allah has decreed that we know, and we must come to know our own selves; in other words our own name. Today, we have been given names by our parents, by our society, by our group, and by ourselves? But who are we, and how will be received at the time of our raising?

We know from the Qur'an that man will be known and identified by his name or his marks: Let us recall: "And between the two there shall be a veil, and on the most elevated places there shall be men who know all by their marks, and they shall call out to the dwellers of the garden: Peace be on you; they shall not have yet entered it, though they hope." [Q7:46]

"And when their eyes shall be turned towards the inmates of the fire, they shall say: Our Lord! Place us not with the unjust. And the dwellers of the most elevated places shall call out to men whom they will recognize by their marks saying: Of no avail were to you your amassings and your behaving haughtily." [Q7:41]

Remember the parable of the good land and the bad? "It is He Who sendeth the winds like heralds of glad tidings, going before His mercy: when they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a land that is dead, make rain to descend thereon, and produce every kind of harvest therewith: thus shall We raise up the dead: perchance ye may remember. From the land that is clean and good, by the will of its Cherisher, springs up produce, (rich) after its kind: but from the land that is bad, springs up nothing but that which is niggardly: thus do We explain the signs by various (symbols) to those who are grateful." [Q7:57-58]

Thus the true nature, the true names come forth, and man then knows what he is about. The challenge for us then is to know, to study the names and identities of what is before us. It is given to us, even over the angels and of much of the creation within the sphere, that Allah has given us to live and multiply and to carry out the tasks assigned to us.

We read in Surah Ta-Ha, Ayah 20: "The gardens of perpetuity, beneath which rivers flow, to abide therein; and this is the reward of him who has purified himself." Also at Surah 35:18 we read: "And a burdened soul cannot bear the burden of another, and if one weighed down by burden should cry for (another to carry) its burden, not aught of it shall be carried, even though he be near of kin. You warn only those who fear their Lord in secret and keep up prayer; and whoever purifies himself, he purifies himself only for (the good of) his own soul; and to Allah is the eventual coming."

May Allah guide us all, and may we come to know our true ID and grow to faithfully live our Deen.

Posted December 13, 1998. This article was printed in the October/November 1998 issue "Al-Dunya Magazine."