By Adam Ali
Medieval sources can sometimes be vague about the individuals it mentions. But we can learn a lot about a person from their name. Even though medieval Arabic names can get very long and look daunting, they reveal much about the person carrying them.
To many historians and history enthusiasts in the west, the names they encounter in the sources from the medieval Muslim world can be daunting and confusing. In addition to being foreign and strange sounding (Arabic has letters and sounds not present in English and other European languages), they are often very long. To add to the confusion, the various parts of the name do not always appear in the same order. Most modern names consist of a first or given name, a middle name (not always), and a surname or family name. On the other hand, one can come across names in Arabic medieval documents that consist of half a dozen parts or more and the various parts of the name do not always appear in the same order. This means that the first/given name is not necessarily always the first one that is written/mentioned. After the expansions of the seventh century, names from other cultures and ethnic groups, mostly Iranian and Turkic, also made their way into the sources and use similar formats.
Most of the individuals mentioned in the sources, be they scholars, administrators, notables, rulers etc., are often mentioned by only a part of their entire name. For example, al-Tabari is the famous polymath and author of a very detailed universal history (The History of Prophets and Kings) of the early Islamic period, I have often referred to him in previous articles. His full name is Abu Jaʿfar Muhammad ibn Jarir ibn Yazid al-Tabari; note that he is known by only the last part of his name as using the entire name is a mouthful and writing it down every time one refers to him can get tedious and tiresome.
Fortunately, many sources have survived from the medieval Muslim world on a variety of topics, ranging from histories to literature to scientific works. One thing all these works have in common is that they contain names. Whether they refer to important people like rulers or just ordinary men and women, they can reveal quite a bit of information about the people carrying them.
So, what can we learn? A name can tell us about the descent of a person, sometimes listing several generations (i.e., the father, grandfather, and great grandfather); there may be more information on the ancestors or offspring of a person that can tell us more about them. Names can also reveal tribal, political, or factional affiliations. Sometimes an individual’s ethnicity is revealed through their name. Names can reveal a person’s geographic origin i.e., hometown or region. They can also give hints regarding one’s profession, social status, or achievements.
Medieval Arabic names are made up of several different components. Five of the most common parts of a name are: ism, kunya, nasab, nisba, and laqab. Each of these components has a special function and reveals certain details about the person to whom it is referring.
This literally means “name” and is the individual’s name given at birth, or in other words it is what we would today call one’s first or given name. In the sources one will come across a multitude of names. Some are common Arabic names such as Muhammad, Ja‘far, Hasan, Ali, Umar, Uthman, Khalid, ‘Abd Allah – or any of its derivations; ‘Abd Allah means “servant/worshipper of God.” The other names related to it begin with “‘Abd,” and are followed by one of the ninety-nine attributes/names of God in Islam and Islamic tradition. Examples of some common names with “‘Abd” are ‘Abd al-Karim (servant/worshipper of the Generous One) or ‘Abd al-Rahman (servant/worshipper of the Merciful One), and ‘Abd al-Jabbar (servant/worshipper of the Powerful/Mighty One).
It is important to note that not all given names or isms that one will come across in the Arabic sources are “Arabic.” Iranian and Turkic names are very common. Some examples of Iranian names one can come across in the sources are Kay Khusraw, Saman, Makan, Kaki, Qabus, Asfar, Mahan, Buya, and Mardavij among others. Some famous Turkic names are Alp Arslan, Tughril, Chaghri, Taghribirdi, Alp Tegin, Timur, Aybak. Kypchak/Cuman (a Turkic peoples inhabiting the steppe region of Southern Russia and Ukraine during much of the Middle Ages) names were common among the ruling elite of the Mamluk Sultanate and include Baybars, Qalawun, Tashtimur, Inal, and Aqtay. Arabized versions of Biblical names are also common; some examples are Musa (Moses), ‘Isa (Jesus), Ibrahim (Abraham), Ishaq (Isaac), Yusuf (Joseph), Suleiman (Solomon) and Ya‘qub (Jacob). One will also come across Greek, Armenian, Indian, Slavic, and Western European names in the sources too (often Arabized).
Gives information about one’s offspring. The Kunya always begins with “Abu,” which means “father of…” or “Umm,” which means “mother of…” Usually, it is the eldest son’s name that is used in the Kunya. For example, if a man has three sons, and the eldest is named Ali, his kunya is then “Abu Ali.” Similarly, the mother in that same family would be called “Umm Ali.”
Is similar to the Kunya but instead gives one’s descent. The nasab always begins with “ibn” meaning “son of…” or “bint” meaning “daughter of…” Lineage is traced through the patrilineal line, so it is usually the father’s name that is used. Some names trace the lineage for several generations through the father, grandfather, great-grandfather etc. One famous Mamluk historian and chronicler is known by his nasab, Ibn Taghribirdi, which means “the son of Taghribirdi.” Sometimes the mother is also mentioned in the nasab, although this is rare; one example is Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, who was the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and Khawla al-Hanafiyya (a woman of the Banu Hanifa).
Both the kunya and nasab are important because they can fill in a lot of gaps. If the ancestors or offspring of an individual are better documented, we can at least get an idea about them through their family/family history.
This can indicate someone’s place of origin. It can also show tribal, political, sectarian, or factional affiliation. The nisba can be recognized by its special ending. All nisbas end with an “-i or (-iyy)” for the masculine and “-iyya” for the feminine. For example, al-Dimashqi means “he who is from Damascus” and al-Basri means “he who is from Basra” and al-Baghdadiyya means “she who is from Baghdad.” As mentioned, the nisba can also refer to some kind of affiliation.
For example, Khawla al-Hanafiyya (from the example above) means Khawla (the name/ism) who is from the Hanifa tribe. Abu ‘Abdallah al-Shi‘i was an Isma‘ili missionary who converted the Kutama tribe in North Africa and commenced the Fatimid conquest of the region. The second part of his name is the nisba and shows his sectarian affiliation to Shiism.
In the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) the mamluks formed factions and parties and these interest groups often took the name of the sultan or patron who had purchased, trained, and manumitted the mamluks. As such, every mamluk who belonged to a faction or “family” bore the name of his patron as part of his nisba. For example, the mamluk commander and writer, Baybars al-Mansuri, was a mamluk of sultan al-Mansur Qalawun. Because al-Mansur was his patron he took “al-Mansuri” as his nisba as a sign of affiliation to him as did all his comrades.
This is the title or honorific by which certain individuals were known. These titles were often carried by those who had achieved something or earned them or by rulers and notables. Many of the sultans, amirs, and caliphs had titles or regnal names. For examples, “al-Mansur” is Qalawun’s regnal title, and it means “the victorious” or “he who is [divinely] supported.” His son took the title al-Nasir, which means “the champion” or “the supporter.” Another example of a title is the famous Seljuk vizier/wazir Nizam al-Mulk, is also known by his title, which means “the order/law of the realm.” While the title of the eldest of the Buyid brothers and the ruler of Central and Northern Iran during the tenth century is Rukn al-Dawla or “pillar of the dynasty/regime.” The laqab is one of the most difficult of all the names to recognize because it does not have a distinctive feature like some of the others.
Let us now try to put this information into practice and decipher some names! The best practice is to identify the Kunya (by looking for abu… or umm…), the Nasab (by looking for ibn… or bint…), and the Nisba (by looking for words ending in “-i” or -iyy for the masculine and “-iyya” for the feminine). The remaining names will be the ism/given name or laqab/title. It can come down to guessing the last two, but in most cases, it is fairly easy to recognize the given name or ism, leaving the laqab(s).
Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir ibn Yazid al-Tabari
Abu Ja‘far = kunya
Ibn Jarir = nasab (father)
Ibn Yazid = nasab #2 (most likely grandfather)
Al-Tabari = nisba (the “-i” ending helps us here – meaning he is from the region of Tabaristan)
Muhammad = ism
We are left with “Muhammad,” which is a common name and is thus the ism.
If we want to make sense of this in English we can say: “Muhammad the father of Ja‘far and son of Jarir and Grandson of Yazid from Tabaristan or the “Tabaristani.”
Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Ishaq al-Tusi Nizam al-Mulk
Abu Ali = kunya
Ibn Ali = nasab
Ibn Ishaq = nasab #2 (most likely grandfather)
Al-Tusi = nisba (from the city of Tus in Iran)
Al-Hasan = ism
Nizam al-Mulk = laqab (honorific title meaning the (order/law of the realm”)
English: Hasan the father of Ali and the son of Ali and the grandson of Ishaq, the Order/Law of the Realm.
Abu Muhammad al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ibn al-Ḥakam ibn ʿAqil al-Thaqafi
Abu Muhammad = kunya
Ibn Yusuf = nasab
Ibn al-Hakam = nasab #2
Ibn ‘Aqil = nasab # 3 (in this case we also get the great grandfather)
Al-Thaqafi = nisba (here is refers to his tribal affiliation to the Banu Thaqif tribe)
Al-Hajjaj = Ism
English: Al-Hajjaj father of Muhammad and son of Yusuf and the grandson of al-Hakam and the great-grandson of ‘Aqil of the Thaqif tribe.
Ya‘qub ibn Layth al-Saffar – Founder of the Saffarid Empire
Ibn Layth = nasab
Ya‘qub = ism
Al-Saffar = laqab (here the title indicates profession – al-saffar = “the coppersmith”)
This is the name of the famous traveller Ibn Battuta. He gives his full name at the beginning of his travelogue as:
Shams al-Din Abu ’Abd Allah Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji ibn Battuta
Abu ‘Abd Allah = kunya
Ibn ‘Abd Allah = nasab
Ibn Muhammad = nasab #2
Ibn Ibrahim = nasab #3
Ibn Muhammad = nasab #4
Ibn Yusuf = nasab #5
Al-Lawati = nisba (affiliating him to the Lawata/Laguatan clan of the Zenata tribe)
Al-Tanji = nisba #2 (indicating his hometown, Tangeir)
Muhammad = ism
Shams al-Din = laqab (title meaning: “the sun of the faith”)
Let’s do one more! This is the name of one of the cofounders of the Seljuk Empire, commonly known as Chagri Beg:
Abu Suleiman Dawud Chaghri Beg ibn Mikail ibn Seljuk
Abu Suleiman = kunya
Ibn Mikail = nasab
Ibn Seljuk = nasab #2
Dawud = ism
Chaghri Beg = ism (here we see that this individual had both a Turkic name Chaghri, meaning Hawk, and a Biblical name Dawud = David, possibly because the Oghuz Turks were newly converted to Islam and some scholars argue there was some influence on the Oghiz through their contact with the Khazars, who were Jewish. Hence Chaghri’s uncle’s name was Arslan Israil and his father was Mikail = Michael – all Biblical names).
Now try to practice with the following five names (before checking the breakdowns below). What can you find out about these people from their names?
- Ala al-Din Abu al-Ala Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurashi al-Dimashqi
- Rukn al-Dawla Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Buya
- Abu Shuja‘ Fana Khusraw ibn Rukn al-Dawla ibn Buya ‘Adud al-Dawla
- Abu al-Barakat Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Iyas Zayn al-Din al-Nasiri al-Jarkasi al-Hanafi
- Abu al-Mahasin Jamal al-Din Yusuf ibn Taghribirdi
1. Ala al-Din Abu al-Ala Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurashi al-Dimashqi
Abu al-Ala = kunya
Ibn al-Haram = nasab
Al-Qurashi = nisba
Al-Dimashqi = nisba
Ali = ism
Ala al-Din = laqab
This name tells us about this individual’s name is Ali. We learn the names of his father and son. It also gives us his title and an indication that he belonged to or was affiliated with the Quraysh tribe and was from Damascus (Dimashq in Arabic).
2. Rukn al-Dawla Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn Buya
Abu Ali = kunya
Ibn Buya = Nasab
Al-Hasan = ism
Rukn al-Dawla = laqab
This individual, al-Hasan, was involved in the government from his title (in fact he was a Buyid amir and the ruler of an empire that he had conquered). We also know from his father’s name that he was of Iranian descent and probably a first-generation convert to Islam.
3. Abu Shuja‘ Fana Khusraw ibn Rukn al-Dawla ibn Buya ‘Adud al-Dawla
Abu Shuja‘ = kunya
Ibn Rikn al-Dawla = nasab
Ibn Buya = nasab #2
Fana Khusraw = ism
‘Adud al-Dawla = laqab
This individual is in fact the son of the person in #2 – we can glean this from the first nasab. He was his successor, and his title also indicates that he ruled in his own right (he was, in fact, the most powerful of the Buyids). His name, unlike his father’s (which was Arabic – al-Hasan), is Iranian.
4. Abu al-Barakat Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Iyas Zayn al-Din al-Nasiri al-Jarkasi al-Hanafi
Abu al-Barakat = kunya
Ibn Ahmad = nasab
Ibn Iyas = nasab #2
Muhammad = ism
Al-Nasiri = nisba
Al-Jarkasi = nisba
Zayn al-Din = laqab
In addition to learning who this individual’s son and ancestors were, we also find out his race – al-Jarkasi = Circassian and his affiliation (al-Nasiri – probably affiliating him or his family with one of the sultans with the title “al-Nasir”). Him having a title indicates that he was a notable person.
Extra Details: In fact, Ibn Iyas, as he was known, is one of the important historians of the late Mamluk period and a descendant of mamluk officers. The laqab, al-Nasiri, in this instance refers to the sultan al-Nasir Qaitbay.
5. Abu al-Mahasin Jamal al-Din Yusuf ibn Taghribirdi
Abu al-Mahasin = kunya
Ibn Taghribirdi = nasab
Yusuf = ism
Jamal al-Din = Laqab
We can learn from this name that this individual was a descendant of someone of Turkic origin. His father, Taghribirdi, carried a Turkic name. This usually means that he comes from a military family as many of the Turks in the Muslim world entered as professional soldiers, mercenaries, or mamluks (military slaves).
Extra detail: In fact, his father, Taghrbirdi, was a high-ranking mamluk officer in the Mamluk sultanate during the late fourteenth/early fifteenth centuries.
Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.