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Maryam: a queen of an Arabic name

Arabic Name: مرام Mariam

Today is the last day of May, and in Catholic tradition, 'May is the month of Mary’, so it feels like a good day to write about one of the most popular female names across the Arabic-speaking world, as well as in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority countries. The Arabic version of this universal female name is written مرام . Marie, Maria, or Miriam are also versions of the name Mary found in English.

Do you know that the name مرام came into Arabic from Aramaic?

The most famous Mariam namesake is of course the mother of Jesus, known to Muslims as the prophet Eesa/Isa in Arabic, who spoke Aramaic, an ancient language still spoken in pockets in Syria today. Back in 1999, I visited a place where Aramaic lives on. This town Maaloula, shown in the picture, is a rocky town clinging to a hillside in the countryside around Damascus.

Maryam the mother of Eesa is the only woman whose name is given to a Surah in the Qur’an. Muslims and Christians alike believe she was granted a status and a purity above all other women, and she is honoured for her submission to the will of God. As such, the name Mariam has many positive connotations.

But this Mariam was not the first famous woman with this enduring name. It originally came from ancient Hebrew. Going further back in biblical time, the Jewish people recorded Mariam as a prophetess, and the elder sister of the prophet Moses/Musa.

The meaning of مرام / Mariam

I don’t know Hebrew, but I can share that the meaning of the original Hebrew name Mariam is uncertain, with up to 70 different theories! It may come from the Hebrew word for ‘bitter’, corresponding with مر (‘mur’), Arabic for bitter: the Prophetess Miriam was said to have been born at the start of the Jewish people’s bitter experience enslaved by the Egyptians. Other scholars since early Christian times have suggested Maryam means ‘drop of the sea’, in Hebrew, with the Latin translation of that name resulting in the Catholic tradition of giving the Virgin the title ‘Star of the Sea’ — a common name for schools and churches.

My personal favourite explanation of the etymology, however, is that Mariam comes from the Hebrew word meaning ‘beloved’ or ‘longed-for’. In the Qur’an’s Surat Mariam, Mary is described as having been a child greatly longed-for by her parents Hannah and Umran. This parallels the apocryphal Christian accounts recorded centuries earlier about the ageing Anne and Joachim longing for a child and being promised one by an angel.

Are you thinking of choosing Mariam as an Arabic name for your daughter?

It’s a good and straightforward choice. When it comes to pronunciation and spelling in English, it’s super easy. Miriam and Mariam have both been used widely in English and other European languages for centuries, and everyone knows a Mary. When it comes to spelling preference, the name is so broadly familiar you can choose Mariam, Maryam or Miriam and expect no problems.

Are you called Mariam? Do you like your name?

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