A number of papers seem to have got themselves into a sufficient pickle over whether or not Muhammad is the most popular name in this country that Hacked Off has decided it’s a good opportunity to take a pop at the press. The Muhammad story cropped up this week because of a survey from a fun-sounding website called BabyCentre which claimed the name was top of the league when actually their data only covered 56,000 women who gave birth ‘in 2014’ (even though 2014 isn’t over yet). The Office for National Statistics has Muhammad in at 15th, and so Hacked Off is accusing the papers of ‘churnalism’.
But the reality is a bit more complicated. Yes, Muhammad is 15th on the ONS list for England and Wales, with 3,499 baby boys given than name in 2013. But that doesn’t take account of the 2,887 Mohammeds and the 1,059 Mohammads. Those three different spellings of the name add up to 7,445 boys given variations of the name Muhammad. That’s 496 more little babies than the most popular name with one spelling, Oliver, though one might similarly count Oliver (6,949) and Ollie (800) together. This isn’t new – Mohammed’s rise was a story first broken by Fraser six years ago and reported on Coffee House.
One of the reasons the BabyCentre’s survey got such pickup is that people are always interested in whether William or Harry or Oliver is the most popular name, and partly because it does suggest our country has changed in some way. Yes, Muslim mothers tend to have more children. But they’re also less likely to call those children 'Conan' or 'Sansa' (as in Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones – four of whom were registered 2012). Muslims tend to choose from a smaller number of Koranic names, which is why these names feature relatively high in these name league tables - not just in Britain, but across the Western world. Mohammed has been Sweden's no1 boy's name for years. And sticking to a small pool of names isn't a particularly unusual concept in this country either: my own family, from Warrington, went through generations of calling every boy Tom or Jim.
It’s ridiculous to claim you can reach any conclusion simply from baby names that this change is a positive or negative one, especially as the parents of many of those babies may have lived in Britain all their lives, their parents having arrived here long ago and made this country their home.
Personally I think that what these stats show is that Britain is a country where people feel as free to call their children Mohammed/Muhammad/Mohammad as they do Albert (633 babies in 2013), Logan (2,621) or indeed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (the choice of one devoutly Christian family I came across recently). And that's a lovely thing to be proud of.
Others might gloomily forecast the end of Britain as a Christian country, but perhaps it’s worth them remembering that as lovely as the name Oliver is, you can’t find it anywhere in the Bible. Given one of our national heroes is called Mohamed Farah (Mohamed clearly being out of the top 100 as a variant of the name), perhaps the best thing to conclude is that there are a lot of parents out there who like the idea of their son being someone younger British children one day look up to, too. Oh, and that Muhammad has almost as many spellings as my own name, which comes from Spain…