Friday, February 29, 2008

Names and Images

I have to admit that I'm partially blogging today just so I can blog on Leap Day. We get this opportunity only every four years.

In any case, last night as I was going to bed I was reading through a name book, considering names for our soon-to-be-born second child. Melinda and I are rather undecided on names at this point, but we still have three more months (we hope). As I was looking through the list of names, I realized something I'd never noticed before. Mohammed is the most common given name in the world. I knew that. At least half of the Muslim Egyptians I met when I lived in Cairo were named Mohammed, which is the name of their prophet. Apparently, a way to honor the prophet is to name a son after him. Yet, images of Mohammed are nowhere to be found. In fact, forming any kind of image of Mohammed at all is strictly verboten. No stained glass, no icons, no paintings, even. We can remember the flap that a few cartoons of Mohammed created a few years ago. The issue wasn't so much that the prophet was depicted in a negative way; it was that he was depicted visually at all.

Yet, I realized last night that Christianity is almost the complete reverse. We have no problem at all with images of Christ. We draw and depict him any way we want to, the more, the merrier. I've even seen images of Christ in China that make Jesus look Asian. My mother gave me a Peruvian nativity scene that feature Jesus as a Qera papoose. He abounds in things from church art to children's books. Yet, we would almost never consider naming a child Jesus. I know that in certain cultures it happens, but, by and large, it is a no-no. When you look at the grand scope of Christian history, there are relatively few people named Jesus. Its popularity is nowhere near that of Mohammed for the Muslims.

Is this contrast on purpose? I know that Muslims forbade images of Mohammed in part as a way to distinguish their faith from the icon-venerating Christians (which also explains why the icon-loving Christians more firmly held their ground in the East during the icon controversies in the early centuries of Christianity). I'd like to know more, like when did the name Mohammed rise in popularity? Immediately after his lifetime? What is the incidence of the name "Jesus" among Christians in the East (meaning the middle east)?

Safe to say, we will not be choosing either name if we have a boy, but these are the thoughts that ran through my head as I fell asleep on the night before Leap Day.

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