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What’s In a Name?

While reading Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel, I ran across several explanations of names in Spanish (Catholic), (religious) culture. It was reminded me of my own experiences with my “name.” I also was fascinated by the fact that Junipero Serra was not his original name, and why California’s founding father chose this…


While reading Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel, I ran across several explanations of names in Spanish (Catholic), (religious) culture. It was reminded me of my own experiences with my “name.” I also was fascinated by the fact that Junipero Serra was not his original name, and why California’s founding father chose this name was just as interesting!

The Name Game

But first the name game and my experience with my name. When in college, one of the widely used ice breakers used is one in which you are asked to share how you got your name, what it means, its significance, who named you, etc. You go around in a circle, and every one gets a chance to share. A variation involves repeating everyone’s name before you, and then introducing yourself and your story.

I like to share multiple stories pieced together to explain my name. First, I share how my parents went to an elder in the family, and they used a mathematical-astrological means of divining a letter for my name, along with a suggested list, from which my parents chose “Affad.” Then I explain how for the longest time no one had a clue what my name meant, it wasn’t a Urdu word, nor was it familiar to South Asia. I revel in the fact that my name is so unique, and that most of my cousins seem to have pretty unique names as well.

Sometime after college, while working as a community advocate in Southern California, I visited a community member who was political imprisoned by the US government for his fundraising activities, he later was let go and cleared of major charges. While visiting him he shared with me how my name is derived, most likely, from the Arabic archaic root “afu” which also means “to aid, to help others.” This left me astonished, because that is what I was doing professionally with my life at a non-profit doing community advocacy and policy work.

My middle name signifies my father, therefore, in a way it follows the Islamic tradition of “ibn” (son of). My last name is generic- Shaikh- and its from Arabic, and in the Islamophile world its like having the last name Smith. Often, families that took the “Shaikh” sir name in South Asia did it because

1) the cultural significance of the name, like Khan and Ghazi, it signified rank and status; or,

2) there were actual religious leaders from which the family line descended from.

In my family case, it appears to be the later, there is a unsubstantiated claim of being descendants of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, a prominent Islamic historical figure, and the founder of Sufi school of thought. My last name, and physical features, however, often get me confused for being Punjabi, a ethnic and geographical area in both India and Pakistan, where large tribe of converts to Islam took on the name “Shaikh” for its cultural and class relevance.

I am far from being Punjabi though, my maternal family hails from Lucknow, India by way of Kashmir and northern Iran/Afghanistan; while, my paternal family hails from Pune, India by way of trade routes from the Persian/Arab Gulf.

I don’t have a nickname. When it comes to nicknames, I pretty much am like teflon, nothing really sticks or catches on. Lots of individual friends have nicknames they refer to me by, but nothing that is collectively used by everyone.

If I could choose a name, I would have chosen to incorporate “Muhammad” into my name, being that it is the Prophets name, and because I would want to add to its popularity as a name in the United States.

Cultural Significance of Naming

Now going back to Junipero Serra and his interest in naming, and choosing his own new name as a Franciscan. Each culture, and family, have their set of unique naming traditions. Islam is pretty particular about naming, and there is a very specific way that the process of naming happened, however, colonialization pretty much destroyed that tradition, as much of the colonized Muslim world adopted Anglo-Western norms for naming- a first, middle and last name. Names carry a historical significance, and for Serra, names carry a heavy religious weight, even act as an avenue for salvation.

In converting California’s Native Indians, Junipero Serra, was fond of picking meaningful names when he baptized.

[W]hen he [Serra] baptized Indians, he gave them Spanish names. He did so with great care and originality. For the 530 Indians he baptized at San Carlos, he used nearly 500 different names, of saints and other heroic figures in Catholic history and belief. Most, if not all, of the references were lost on the Indians, and they continued to use their original names; some Indians were even unaware of the name Serra had given them.

Because of his evangelism in the Spanish colonial province of Alta California, Junipero Serra is considered the father of modern California. Yet, anyone familiar with Catholic history would find it odd for someone so serious and academic about Catholicism to be named after what amounted to be a caricature of a fool.

A custom followed by Mollorcan novices being initiated into the Franciscan mendicant order was to take on a new name. Serra was born as Miquel Joseph, and it was a popular set of names. He could have chosen from many a saintly academic names. Hackel explains the interesting choice of names by Serra.

He would no longer be one of the countless other Miquel Josephs, even though his namesakes were pillars of the Church. Rather, he would take the name Junipero after the colorful and singular companion of Saint Francis whom Serra admired as “the greatest exemplar of holy simplicity.”

Serra was, however, serious and calculating. A complete opposite of Junipero from Catholic tradition. Here’s Hackel again telling the story of Junipero.

Junipero was an unusual choice for a name, one that does not easily square with Miquel Joseph’s own youth or the man he would become. Brother Juniper is a complicated figure and one entirely unlike…any of the saints Miquel Joseph admired. He joined the order in 1210 as a lay brother, was never ordained, and was not learned. One the one hand, one can easily see what Miquel Joseph saw in this man. Brother Juniper seemed resistant to the temptations of the flesh; his ‘purity’ was said to make the devil flee; and he was generous to a fault with the poor. He was capable of great self-awareness and never feared death. And he was of sufficient inner strength to spend six months in self-imposed silence. But on the other hand, Brother Juniper also carried on like a mad, irreverent fool, often to the embarrassment of the order. He was constantly giving away all of his clothes and appearing naked in public. When a close friend of his died, he shocked his brothers by professing a desire to dig up the body and make the man’s skull into a drinking cup so as to more easily hold dear his memory. And when asked to cook for his fellow Franciscans in the convent, he decided tomato not one meal but enough food for a fortnight. He gathered pots and kettles and threw into them fresh meat, unshelled eggs, and poultry, feather and all. He worked feverishly on the meal and was proud of his efforts. But what he served was so disgusting that his chronicler remarked there was “no hog on the whole of Rome hungry enough to have eaten thereof.”

The historical Brother Juniper paid little attention to all these derisions from everyone around him, rather he focused on his own convictions. Behind his antics, as we would look at them, was always a simple logic and virtue.

[O]ne day when a sick brother asked for a pig’s foot to eat, Brother Juniper immediately grabbed a knife, cut off the foot of a pig foraging in the forest, and gave the foot to the man. This act no only enraged the owner of the pig but brought embarrassment on the order. Brother Juniper insisted that he should be praised for this act of charity and that the pig belonged not to the man but to God. Ordered by Francis to make amends to the pig’s owner, Brother Juniper tried instead to convince the man of the goodness of his deed. Eventually, the aggrieved man realized that the “simple” Juniper had severed the foot for “charity’s sake.” He then killed his pig, cooked it, and gave it to the Franciscans “out of compassion for the said wrong he had done them.” Upon learning of how the man had been so moved by Brother Juniper, Francis was said to have uttered the words that have been frequently used to explain why Miquel Joseph was so drawn to this man” “Would to God, my brethren, that I had a whole forest of such junipers.”

Serra was deliberative in naming, as indicated by his choice of names for Indian neophytes in California. So in choosing his name, he was peculiar, in large part because it required a degree of self-abnegation to not live up to the historical figures reputation. To spend a life trying to live down such a comically associated name could not have been an easy task for someone so invested into the Catholic Church and its society and it makes me appreciate my cosmology-mathmatical process even more.

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