Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. Genesis 11:5

her Namesake: Umm Salama and a new name

Today, 2 September 2012, marks 1 year since my paternal grandmother, my Granny, passed away. I am her namesake. My legal name is precisely the same as hers, first middle and last. When I look at her headstone, the name that we share stares back at me.

Like many other American girls, I've had my fair share of opportunities to imagine myself with a different surname. Perhaps if I married this one or that one, my name would change to this or that. We started imagining name changes in elementary school! Since then, I've observed countless friends marry and take their husbands names, keep their names, hyphenate their names, and so on. But now, I am sure that my father's name will remain with me for my entire life; Muslim women do not change their surname at the time of marriage. Aside from the part of me that occasionally wished to distance myself from what it means to be a 'Thompson', I am pleased to bear my grandmother's name without alteration. Her first name is not common, but is quite versatile across cultures, and most Americans have positive associations with the name Pauline. Elizabeth is my sister's name, and it is also carries a strong and beautiful connotation. My mom loves the name Elizabeth, more than the name Pauline. I was named Pauline out of respect to my grandmother, as is customary in Greek culture.

At the same time, over the past several months I have developed a feeling that the name 'Pauline' does not capture well enough how I have changed, and who I am. When I said 'Shahada' and publicly professed my commitment to Islam at the London Central Mosque last year, the Sheikh gave me the option of selecting a new Muslim name, but made clear that this is not compulsory. Until now, if other Muslims ever expressed their opinion that I should change my name, I defended my decision not to confidently. I'm aware that keeping or changing my name is entirely my choice, and that Islam does not require that I do so.

With that said, the rootedness of my name in the Christian tradition, especially its strong association with the Apostle Paul is causing me increasing discomfort. I have developed a yearning to be called a name that is rooted in my faith and inspires me to live my life as a good Muslim woman. I have flipped through books listing Muslim names and their meanings, but honestly, this is not my style. I realized that I did not want to choose a popular name, or one that draws a lot of attention to myself. I needed something with meaning that is significant and inspiring to me, but simple for others to learn and say.

I recalled the story of one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم. I originally heard her story as part of a Mothers of the Believers series, which I've mentioned on this blog before. I remembered hearing about Umm Salama's (meaning the mother of Salama, her son; radi allahu anha - may Allah be pleased with her) conversion to Islam, and her experience fleeing with her husband at the time (Abdullâh ibn Abdulasad) from Mecca to Abyssinia. She was one of the earliest converts to Islam, maybe the fourth woman to convert. Although she was from a well-to-do family and had a wonderful relationship with her family prior to her conversion, she experienced a great deal of harassment from her family afterwards. They changed their behaviour towards her entirely, and I understand well how terrible that feels. Not only that, but the Meccan atmosphere was hostile to the new Muslims, so she became one of several refugees to Abyssinia, where they were protected by a Christian king. At times, like during Ramadan this year, I've had to leave my home city in order to worship in a supportive and  nourishing environment.

Eventually the refugees were misinformed that Mecca was no longer hostile to Muslims, and she returned with a number of others, including her husband and son. They quickly realized that Mecca had become even more dangerous than it was when they first left, and were given permission from the Prophet صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم to flee to Medina for safety. However, when Umm Salama's family learned that her husband wished to take her with him to Medina, they denied her the right to leave Mecca with her husband, and separated her from her son. The woman was in agony, having lost the love of her life and her child. Umm Salama was found weeping at noon every day in the very place where her husband and son were separated from her. She wept in prayer to Allah. She wept out of her pain and desperation. She wept because she was loyal and completely dedicated to her husband and child.

Over one year passed before Umm Salama's prayers were answered; finally her family granted her permission to travel to Medina with her son to reunite with her husband. She did not spare a moment - Umm Salama set out on foot with her son, intending to walk the entire three hundred miles to Medina. When asked by the non-Muslim 'Uthmân ibn Talhah about the purpose of her journey, she stated clearly "I want my husband in Medina." 'Uthmân ibn Talhah asked if she was travelling alone. Umm Salama boldly proclaimed that was she was not alone, as Allah was with her and her son. 

I greatly respect Umm Salama's awareness, even in hardship, of Allah's proximity and faithfulness. I resonate with her relentless devotion to prayer and to the man she loved. Her ambitious intention to walk 300 miles across the desert from Mecca to Medina cannot be matched. But the passion she demonstrated reminds me of a night when I walked from Colchester Town, England to Wivenhoe during a blizzard. Like Umm Salama, when I was near Wivenhoe, a family stopped to give me a lift part of the way. My journey was purely out of love and devotion, nothing else. Interestingly, there's a similar story my father used to tell about my mother setting out during a blizzard to be with him - the Maryland state government had warned citizens to stay at home and off the roads, but that didn't stop her.
Wivenhoe, Essex the next day.
Umm Salama was escorted to Medina by 'Uthmân ibn Talhah, and enjoyed her reunion with her husband. Unfortunately, after several years had passed, her husband suffered fatal injuries in battle. She was then left alone without her beloved husband, and with her four children. She received several marriage proposals prior to accepting the marriage proposal of the Prophet Muhammad صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم . Perhaps she felt lonely, and it was hard for her to decide whether or not to accept the first or second proposal, just for missing the company of her husband. We don't know the details of her decision-making process, but we know that she demonstrated patience. She waited for the best proposal, not knowing whether it would come. Clearly the Prophet Muhammad صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم was the only one better than her beloved former husband.

She warned the Prophet Muhammad صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم at the time of his proposal that she was a very jealous woman. Actually, I've been told that her name carries a meaning that is stronger than jealousy - it conveys the ability to keep a man's heart.

Umm Salama was known to be beautiful and intelligent. She often
advised her husband in challenging situations, and her advice proved incredibly beneficial to him. Also, Umm Salama was known to fast and pray in the night. The Prophet Muhammad صـلى الله علـيه و سـلم was known to pray in her home. She was a Hafiz of Quran (memorized the entire Quran), and was second only to Aisha radi allahu anha in the relation of Hadith. Umm Salama suffered extensively during her lifetime, but she was strong and patient and had faith.
Umm Salama (radi Allahu anha) reported: I heard the Messenger of Allah (salAllahu alaihi wa sallam) saying, “When a person suffers from a calamity and utters: ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un. Allahumma ujurni fi musibati, wakhluf li khairan minha (Indeed, Oh Allah, to you we belong and to you we return. Oh my Lord give me the reward that is in this test and difficulty and cause me to receive after this difficulty something better than it.), then Allah surely compensates him with a reward and a better substitute.”
Knowing the story of Umm Salama, I sought to learn her name. I find her life and character to be inspiring and I resonate with her experience in even more ways than I've outlined here. I've decided to take the name Hind, the name of Umm Salama. Last week I met some new people, and in the moment I wished that I had a more appropriate name for them to call me. I've sought advice and have received the affirmation I wished for regarding this name. I am also sure that if the name Hind was not a good name, that the Prophet Muhammad (salAllahu alaihi wa sallam) would have suggested a better name for his wife, which was his practice. I'm happy that I can take this name confidently. My friends who call me Pauline will continue to do so. There's no need to tell my family about this name. But I hope to ask anyone I meet in the future to use it.

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