In Britain, baby names became a big subject of debate this weekend, when a new poll from the Web site BabyCentre appeared to show that Mohammed was now the most popular name for newborn boys in the country.
It seemed to show a significant change in the culture of a country where "British"-sounding names like Oliver and Jack had long dominated -- and where a growing immigrant population is making an impact.
“Traditionally, Muhammad is often the name given to the first-born boy in Muslim families," Sarah Redshaw, managing editor of BabyCentre, explained to the Telegraph. “With the increase of other Arabic names plus Aarav, an Indian boys' name, the top 100 shows the ever-increasing diversity of the UK today.”
Among a certain audience, this was difficult news. "They are only 4% of the population yet Mohammed is the most popular boys name in the UK," wrote one Twitter user. "England is lost already," she added. Another Tweeter said it was a "disgrace our own government let this happen." The Daily Mail sensibly turned off their commenting system when they wrote about the finding.
This wasn't an unexpected reaction. The Muslim minority in the U.K. may be relatively small, but it is often the source of controversy. Some people appeared to be taking the rise of the baby name as a sign of a demographic shift: While British Muslims only make up less than 5 percent of the country at present, Pew has predicted that the population will reach over 8 percent by 2030. Britain will almost certainly have a larger Muslim minority in the future.
Still, that projected number falls short of total domination of British life, and a number of British publications soon began to question the BabyCentre's numbers. The Guardian, for instance, pointed out that official statistics from the British government appeared to show that Mohammed was not the most popular name, and that instead, names like "Oliver," "Jack" and "Harry" dominated. Mohammed was the 15th most popular boys name in England and Wales and the 52nd most popular in Scotland, the Guardian noted.
The Independent, in return, debunked their debunking. It argued that official British government statistics failed to distinguish between the many different transliterations of the Arabic word for Mohammed (including but not limited to Muhammad, Muhammed, and Mohamed). And while you can make the argument that, in that case, Oliver and Ollie should be combined (which would, again, make it the most popular name), Islamic experts told the newspaper that wasn't a fair comparison.
“Because Arabic is a phonetic language, it means that when people spell it out the letters can’t directly represent the sounds so you end up with different vowels and things like that," a spokesperson for the Arab British Centre told the Independent. “Even though people write it differently it’s still the exact same name, unlike Ollie and Oliver, because people have shortened it.”
Whatever side of that debate you fall on, its worth realizing that Mohammed has an advantage in these figures. In Islamic culture, there is a relative small number of names to choose from, and the practice of naming your first child after the Islamic prophet is fairly widespread. This means that a baby boy born to an Muslim family is far more likely to be called Mohammed or a variant on it than a Christian boy is likely to be named Oliver (using the name Jesus is rare in most English-speaking countries).
It's one of the reasons why Mohammed is believed to be the most popular name in the world, dominating in some surprising places like the city of Oslo and Israel. It's why a lot of people whose first name is Mohammed go by another name (for example, Muhammad Hosni El Sayed Mubarak is usually referred to as Hosni Mubarak). It also means that the popularity of the name Mohammed may not be the best way of measuring the shifting demographics of countries.