It is undeniably popular among Muslims, but it is not the most common boy’s name in Britain. So why do so many Muhammads choose to go by another name?
Muhammad name tags
What’s in a name? And how do you spell it? Photograph: Guardian

The Muhammad myth is a popular one. For at least four years there have been numerous news reports declaring that Mohammed is the most popular boy’s name in the country. Or maybe Mohamed. Or should that be Muhammad? Look more closely, though, and there is more to the rise of Muhammad than meets the eye. From Mo Farah to Mohamed Al Fayed and Muhammad Ali, there is no shortage of high-profile people named after the prophet of Islam. In Muslim families, the name is bestowed with abandon by new parents. Even Muslim men who don’t use the name sometimes have it tucked away.

My grandfather and uncle are both Muhammads, which is relatively restrained. One of my friends has a father, father-in-law and brother all called Mohammed – and she has now given it to her son as a middle name. In other cultures, it might hint at an unforgiveable lack of creativity, but my friend says she would not consider allowing it to skip a generation.

“It’s partly Bengali tradition,” she says, adding that it was also a conscious decision to ensure that her son engaged with his religious heritage. “I wanted a name that would make my son think about who our prophet was, and what it really means to be a Muslim, rather than any negative media representation of Islam, or the twisted actions of those who claim to do things in the prophet’s name.”

Dr Seán McLoughlin, senior lecturer in contemporary Muslim cultures, politics and societies at the University of Leeds, agrees that many Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh or India regard it as a blessing to give a baby the name of the prophet. “There is an especially strong reverance and religious attachment to the prophet in the subcontinent,” he says. “In some ways, there is more of a devotional attitude than in the culture we have now in the Middle East, for instance.”

He explains that the name is symbolically included as a first name, but it is not used in the way a Christian name would be – in Pakistan, for instance, a second name is often used as a “given” name. The different backgrounds of Muslims in the UK – from Malaysia to Somalia – partly explain the variation in spelling. The transliteration of the name from South Asian languages is more likely to yield Mohammed, whereas Muhammad is a closer transliteration of formal Arabic, says McLoughlin.

But even when the different spellings are collated, Muhammad is not yet Britain’s most popular name. The latest research putting Mohammed at the top of the baby name lists is based on responses from users of the website BabyCentre. According to the most recent figures from the Office of National Statistics, though, Muhammad was only the 16th most popular boy’s name in England and Wales, and the 52nd most popular in Scotland last year. In previous years, newspapers have arrived at the conclusion that Mohammed is the most popular name by adding together figures for all the different spellings. But it has been pointed out that if we did the same for other popular names, such as Oliver and Ollie or Henry and Harry, the Mos would not get a look in.

So why does the story keep returning? Partly, perhaps, because it plays on fears of both immigration and cultural change. While Muslims make up 4.4% of the UK population, a more significant factor is that, while the rest of the population is increasingly choosing from a wider pool of names (think Tyrion and Piper, apparently inspired by Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black), Muslims are sticking with Muhammad.

And against the background of rising Islamophobia, it’s hard not to think that these headlines tell us more about the unease with which Muslims are viewed. Imran Awan, a criminologist at Birmingham City Universitywho has been researching Islamophobia, believes that there is a tendency to sensationalise reporting around Muslim issues, with topics such as naming or halal meat acting as as flashpoints. “Some Islamophobia is perpetuated by fear and a sense that Muslims are taking over and polarising society. Little issues such as the name of Muhammad are turned by the far right into vitriolic hate against Muslims.”

But for men called Mo, it will take more than insults to make them give up their name. Mohamed Al Fayed tells me: “The Fulham football fans used to call me Mo. I liked that. Serious effort went into making up songs about me. But the big hit at Craven Cottage went: ‘Al Fayed, oh, ho, ho, ho … he wants to be a Brit, and QPR are …’ Well, you write your own lines. These days, the best sound I ever hear is when my grandchildren burst into the room, calling out for “Mo-mo”. So, I am Mo-mo to them, and Mohamed to the world, and delighted to be so.”

Mohammed Hanif
Mohammed Hanif: ‘I find it amusing to have more than one name.’ Photograph: Geraint Lewis/Rex Features

Five guys (and one little boy) named Mo

Mohammed Amin, 62
Tax advisor and Islamic finance consultant, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum (part of the Conservative party)

I actually tweeted this news this morning , although I thought quite carefully about how I worded it: “Pleased by the growing diversity of UK babies’ names,” is what I said. And I quoted the motto of the international chess federation: Gens una sumus, we are all one people.

The name’s popularity has become a news story because there is a certain subcurrent in some parts of the media and the commentariat that the Muslims are taking over, which, if you look at the numbers, is really not true.

But I do think it’s a great name. It’s the name of a great human being. It does have a large number of alternative spellings; that helps push it up the rankings, of course. Mine is the traditional English way; the one recommended now is the modern Arabic transliteration, Muhammad.

But I am not going to change the way I write my name: it’s me. It’s who I am. It’s never given me a problem. There are a few practical issues: many people from the Indian subcontinent, for example, may be given the name but often are not actually called by it.

There can be some confusion. My parents called me Mohammed Amin, although my father had to sign a sworn statement to say so when I started secondary school, because at primary school I was Ameen Mohammed. My wife calls me Amin – even though she is Mrs Amin.

But I am very happy with my parents’ choice. It’s one of those names that tells people your religion straight away. And I’m a great believer in giving children names that stand out from the crowd: my daughter is Scheherazade, my sons are Ibrahim and Ismail. I didn’t call either of them Mohammed because I think it is very egotistical to name your children after yourself.

Interview by Jon Henley

Mohammed Hanif, 50

Mohammed is my first name but also a family name, so my given name is Hanif – and every second or third person in Pakistan is called Mohammed too. I don’t think my parents even thought about it – it’s just what most people do. It’s a cultural detail.

My theory is it also has something to do with tribes. Lots of people with a prominent past or family have it as part of their name – they will have the honorific Khan, for instance. Others whose family have converted over the centuries or came from a lower caste pick one of these generic names such as Mohammed or Ahmed. All my brothers and lots of my nephews are either Mohammed – or Ahmed or a variation of Allah, such as Abdullah. I now have a nephew whose first name is Mohammed and we call him Mohammed. It’s a nice name.

I think people just think more now about what the names mean. Maybe parents who have suppressed their creativity pour it into naming their children.

No one in Pakistan would call me Mohammed; they would call me Hanif. But when I lived in the west, everyone – in the US, UK or Germany – assumes it’s your name. At first I would correct people. But then I gave up. I didn’t mind; I thought it was better-sounding than Hanif. So some people called me Mohammed and went on to call me Mo. I do have more than one culture, so there was no contradiction in it. I could spend all my time explaining why my first name is not my first name or I could get on with it and have a conversation. I am sure some people are very particular about how they are addressed, but I found it amusing to have more than one name. In fact I wouldn’t mind having more.

Interview by Homa Khaleeli

Muhammad (known as Hasan) Gani, 23
IT worker

I didn’t really choose not to use it for any reason of principle, it was more an issue of practically: Muhammad is such a popular name these days that it was getting silly. Like where I work now, there are three Muhammads, including a guy whose surname is Muhammad too.

So, to be honest, it just wasn’t an ideal name; I opted for Hasan – which isn’t even on my birth certificate – because it was just much more practical. So I was Hasan at primary and secondary school, then Muhammad at college – I just felt like a change, I think – and now I’m Hasan again.

To be honest, I don’t think it carries much religious weight any more; the name has just become so popular that its religious weight has kind of got diluted. Maybe parents used to call their sons Muhammad out of respect, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case any more.

Obviously the name still has strong connotations, though – people know straightaway that you are Muslim. But I have never personally had any problems with that. There have been no knock-on effects, as far as I’m concerned.

The media are making a big thing of this because everything to do with Islam is a big thing for the media nowadays. The media version of Islam is very negative right now; I don’t think if this same story had happened 20 years ago it would have been such a big issue.

Interview by Jon Henley

Dr Mohammed Abdul Bari, 61
Physicist, teacher, former secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain

It’s my name; my parents gave it to me and it is a very common name in the part of Bangladesh where I come from. It means “The Praiseworthy” in Arabic and it is, of course, the name of our prophet. I haven’t come across anyone who doesn’t like it – it’s a good name!

The media narrative around Islam and Muslims is, of course, rather difficult today, but I have personally never encountered any difficulty with this name and I do not know anyone who has deliberately chosen not to use it. In my community, however, I am very widely known as Mr Bari or Dr Bari, rarely Mohammed. That is a cultural thing.

Interview by Jon Henley

Muhammad Ridha Payne, 39
Somerset, founder of an organic halal farm, and recently sold his translation business. 

I converted after having read about the life of Muhammad. I was searching for answers and I read the Qu’ran, but I didn’t really understand what it was about. Then I picked up a book about the prophet and I thought: If Muhammad is what a Muslim is, then I want to be a Muslim. It was his mercy that spoke to me.

When I converted, I thought I had to change my name, so I naturally adopted Muhammad, but then later I realised I didn’t need to have an Islamic name. I have been living in Somerset for the last 10 years, and down here it’s not diverse, so I went back to using Neil because I didn’t want to put up any barriers.

The majority of people, I would say, are confused or uncertain about what Muslims are and what we believe in, and what we believe our role is, in society. As someone who is white, with a British background, I can totally understand where these people are coming from. I used to go and visit my grandparents in Barking, east London, and you wouldn’t see anyone who was not white. And if you go to Barking now, it’s the complete opposite.

The way of Muhammad is you speak to people: you listen, you engage, you understand their fears, you deal with those fears and you help them. But a lot of communities say: “Let’s go in and build a mosque, let’s put a minaret on it. Let’s let everyone know the Muslims are here.” That’s not really the way Muhammad went about things.

Our neighbours just know me as Neil Payne, from next door. It was only eight months after I arrived that I explained I didn’t eat meat because I only ate halal. All of a sudden it was: Oh right, he’s actually a Muslim. And that’s what a Muslim can be. For me, that’s the sort of impact I need to be making if I am in this area, to build those bridges.

Interview by Homa Khaleeli

Mohammed Qasim Abbasi, 3
Named by his mother, Sumaira

I have an older son and daughter and they wanted their brother to be called Mohammed. They have got 19 cousins but only one is called Mohammed and they really liked the name. And they had heard it brings blessings to the family. But my husband and I had chosen another name, Qasim. So we call him by that. We thought it might be disrespectful to call him Mohammed when we were telling him off.

We chose the spelling because we wanted it to be phonetic – easy to spell. It seems to be becoming more popular, but in our family it is unusual. And we don’t live in an area with a lot of Muslims so there was not going to be a problem with too many children at school with the same name.

I like the fact that it crosses ethnicity, and it’s a name that is popular across the world. Our family is from Pakistan, but I have a friend who is a British revert [convert] and her son is also called Muhammad.

Interview by Homa Khaleeli