Post-classical history

Guide to Muslim names

Muslim names consist of a number of components:

1Ism (given name): This is the name given to a child at birth, which usually takes one of the following forms: (1) the Arabic form of a Biblical name, as found in the Qur’an, for example Ibrahim (Abraham) or Maryam (Mary); (2) an originally Arabic name, for example Muhammad or Fatima; (3) a compound of the word ‘Abd (servant of) and an epithet of God, for example ‘Abd Allah (Servant of God) or ‘Abd al-Malik (Servant of the King); or (4) a non-Arabic name, for example Tughtigin.

2Nasab (lineage): This follows the ism and normally refers to the individual’s father, though some historical figures were known by nasabs indicating an ancestor instead. For males, the Arabic nasab consists of ibn (‘son of, sometimes shortened to bin or simplyb.) followed by the father’s name (usually their ism). For females, it consists of bint (‘daughter of, sometimes shortened to bt.) followed by the father’s name; for example, the Prophet’s daughter was called Fatima bint Muhammad. In Persian, the equivalent ofibn is i suffixed to the ism, for example Hasan-i Sabbah.

3Kunya (parental honorific): This often precedes the ism and is a name taken by a parent after the birth of their first child, consisting of Abu (‘father of) or Umm (‘mother of) followed by the child’s name. In the period covered by this book an honorific epithet was often used instead of a child’s name.

4Laqab (honorific): Laqabs are titles, and in medieval times one individual might be granted several by their political superiors. They often come before the other elements of the name. Common forms for laqabs include compounds ending in al-Din (‘of the faith’), al-Mulk (‘of the kingdom’) or al-Dawla (‘of the state’); or compounds beginning with al-Malik (‘the king’), although others exist. Examples include Sayf al-Din (‘Sword of the Faith’), Nizam al-Mulk (‘Good Order of the Kingdom’), Taj al-Dawla (‘Crown of the State’) and al-Malik al-‘Adil (‘the Just King’). When referring to historical figures using their ‘Malik’ laqab, scholars often omit the first part; thus the last example cited would usually be referred to simply as ‘al-‘Adil’.

5Nisba (ascription): This is a wide category encompassing a range of descriptors including geographical origin, profession, ethnicity, preferred school of law or simply a distinctive attribute, and an individual again might have several nisbas. Nisbas usually come last, begin with the definite article al- and end with a long i (if male) or with iyya (if female).

To take an example: probably the most famous Muslim from the crusading period is Saladin (r. 1169–93), whose name in Arabic can be given as:

Al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din Abu’l-Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Ayyub al-Tikriti al-Kurdi.

This can be translated as ‘The King who Aids (laqab), Righteousness of the Faith (laqab), Father of the Victorious (kunya, honorific in this case), Joseph (ism, Qur’anic form of Biblical name), son of Job (nasab, again with Qur’anic form of Biblical name), of Tikrit (nisba), the Kurd (nisba)’.

Note that ‘Saladin’ is a Latin corruption of the sultan’s laqab ‘Salah al-Din’. Not all the components of Muslim names are used in the sources when referring to a particular individual, nor is there a standard practice for deciding which elements to include or omit, or which order to place them in, so an individual might be referred to using different names at different times or by different authors, and the various components of their names might also come in different orders depending on the choice of the writer in question.

For further details, see P.M. Holt, The Age of the Crusades (1986), pp. xi–xii, and Jere L. Bachrach, A Middle East Studies Handbook (1984), p. 4, on which the above discussion draws heavily.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!