Arabic Names

By | 29/05/2015

Arabic names are composed of four parts: laqab, kunya, ism, and nisba.

The laqab is an honorific title, often a compound with –dīn, ‘religion’; hence Shams al-Dīn, ‘Sun of Religion’, Husām al-Dīn, ‘Sword of Religion’, Badr al-Dīn, ‘Full Moon of Religion’. These titles begin to appear in Ayyubid and Mamluk times and are current everywhere in the late Middle Ages. They were awarded to men of standing by the ruler.

The kunya is a kind of nickname, a familiar name by which the bearer was addressed in lieu of his given name, or ism. The most common kunya was composed of Abū, ‘father’, followed by the name of the first-born son. Hence, in Ibn Battūta’s case, Abū ‘Abd Allāh. The female equivalent is umm. Sometimes the kunya was a real nickname, from some marked characteristic or peculiarity of the bearer: Abū Nuwās, ‘Father of the Spit-curls’, etc.

The ism is the given name proper, usually followed by the name of the father, grandfather and great-grandfather and ending with the eponymous ancestor, in IB’s case, ‘Battūta’. These names are separated by b., standing for ‘bin’, the form of the word ‘ibn,’ ‘son’ used in genealogies. In IB’s case, his full name gives his genealogy to the seventh generation.

The nisba, an adjectival form ending in ī gives the bearer’s tribal affiliation, place of birth or sometimes occupation. IB has two nisbas, the first indicating that he was descended from a member of the Berber tribe of Lawāta, the second indicating that he was born in Tangier.

The complete name of the traveller we call Ibn Battūta is thus:

Shams al-Dīn Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm b. Muhammad b. Ibrāhīm b. Yūsuf ibn Battūta al-Lawātī al-Tanjī

European and Arab scholars typically simplify Arabic names both in texts and indexes. The convention is to refer to the above traveller as Ibn Battūta, for this is how he was best known.  The capitalized Ibn stands for the entire preceding ism. ‘Battūta’ is the most unusual part of the name, and serves alone to identify the bearer. Arab scholars past and present similarly used truncated forms of well-known names in the interests of simplification, but today Arabic names in the Arabic-speaking world are often indexed under the ism, followed by the laqab, kunya and nisba. This can make consulting catalogues and indices a long and wearisome task.

There are many cases, however, where none of the elements of the name are sufficiently unusual for this procedure to be followed. In these cases (and they are frequent), it is normal to index under the ism.

Names of rulers are normally given by European scholars in truncated form. In the mid-9th century the ‘Abbasid caliphs adopted theophoric titles. These are generally simplified, even when they do risk to the canons of Arabic grammar. Hence al-Mutawwakil or even Mutawwakil, rather than al-Mutawakkil ‘alā Allāh, ‘He who relies upon God’.

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