Arabic Names from al-Andalus

by Juliana de Luna (Julia Smith)

© 2008 Julia Smith; all rights reserved
last updated 23May08

This article replaces and extensively revises my previous article "Andalusian Names: Arabs in Spain." It includes many new name elements, though also excludes a few elements that I listed as given names (isms) that were used in nasabs and kunyas. As nasabs and kunyas can be formed either from given names or from other name elements, I have removed them. If you are interested in one of those elements, please feel free to contact me for further information about how the element was used.

Arabic names are relatively similar across the Arabic-speaking world. However some regional variation can be seen. This article examines names of Andalusian people taken from biographical dictionaries (a popular genre in the medieval Arab-speaking world). The lists of Andalusian names were collected and transcribed by a group of Spanish scholars and published in Estudios Onomastico-Biograficos de al-Andalus. They range in time from around 700 AD until around 1200 AD. Complete information on given names is given, but special attention is paid to locative nisbas (descriptive bynames based on place names) specific to al-Andalus.

Notes on Transcriptions Used Here.

To make sense out of these names, we need to understand the structure of Arabic names. Names in the medieval Arab world consisted of a single given name, generally in combination with one or more bynames. In Arabic, there are several different kinds of bynames that are described with different terms. Each of these will be described and discussed separately. The name of an individual may include one or several of these types of bynames; the number of bynames is dependent among other things on how important the person is, how formal the document is, and how common the names are. The elements of an Arabic name are:

  1. A given name (ism) generally falls into three categories: a biblical name, a traditional Arabic name, or a devotional form. Male devotional forms are made by placing `abd 'servant' before one of the "Hundred Names of God" to make names like `Abd Allāh 'servant of Allah' or `Abd al-Azīz 'servant of the Strong'. Female devotional forms are made by placing amat 'maidservant' before one of the "Hundred Names of God" to make names like Amat al-Jalīl 'maidservant of the Splendid'. The female devotional forms are not documented in al-Andalus, but have been documented elsewhere in the medieval Arab world. In al-Andalus, one also finds a few names adopted from North African (Magribi) languages and from the Romance languages spoken in Spain.

    Some given names are like nicknames in form, in that they begin with the article al 'the', like al-Ḥasan 'the handsome' or al-Qāsim 'the distributor.' However, not all nicknames can be made into given names; only a handful of given names take this form, and most occur both with and without the article.

    Slaves were generally given new names by their owners. These names are quite different from the names of free men and women, as the names have clear meanings, naming them after flowers, gemstones, and the like; they are normal words, describing physical objects, their appearance, or desirable traits. Hadith (religious teachings) speak against naming slaves after desirable traits (so that one does not have to say, for example, that "Prosperity is not here"); however, names of this sort were used in al-Andalus.

    A list of masculine isms found in al-Andalus.
    A list of the most popular masculine isms in al-Andalus.
    A list of feminine isms found in al-Andalus.

  2. An honorific name (kunya) as the parent of a child: Abū Asim 'father of Asim' or Umm Badr 'mother of Badr'. This name precedes the ism. While the name is normally formed from the ism of the eldest son, this is not always true; the most common exception is a kunya formed from a byname of the eldest son. Some kunyas do not refer to real children: `Ā'isha, the childless wife of Muḥammad, was known as Umm `Abd Allāh, a 7th c. man is criticized for being known as Abū Yaḥya although he has no son, and an 8th century slave on being freed was granted to the kunya Abū al-Jafnā 'father of the curly-haired girl' (all from Schimmel 1989: 6). Over time, certain kunyas became associated with specific names, so that a man named Ibrāhīm 'Abraham' is likely to be known as Abū Isḥāq 'father of Isaac' or a man named `Alī as Abū al-Ḥasan, as the historic men had sons of that name (in one collection of 62 men from al-Andalus named `Alī, half have the kunya Abū al-Ḥasan). One can even find kunyas derived from traits or objects closely associated with a person, such as the companion of Muhammad known as Abū Hurayra 'father of a kittten' or the 9th centruy poet Abū al-`Atāhiya 'father of craziness' (both from Schimmel 1989: 7). There is an example of a kunya formed with a woman's name in this data, Umm Ḥakīma; similar examples can be found in Schimmel (1989: 5), who cites Abū Laylā and Sulmā bint Abī Sulmā as early Arabic names.

    To form a kunya, select an appropriate masculine ism or some other name element and add abū (for a man) or umm (for a woman) in front of it. The kunya goes before the ism.

  3. A patronymic name (nasab): ibn Mūsa 'son of Moses' or bint Ḥasan 'daughter of Hasan'. This name follows the ism. While in normal usage only the father's name is given, in formal written contexts, once can find a lineage traced back several generations, such as ibn Musa ibn Yaḥya ibn Ibrahim 'son of Moses who was son of John who was son of Abraham'. A nasab is generally formed using the ism of your father, but there are also nasabs formed using other name elements, including kunyas, such as the above mentioned Sulmā bint Abī Sulmā (note that abū is replaced with abī when used in a nasab) and nicknames (nisbas and laqabs), such as `Abd al-Ḥaqq ibn al-Bayṭār 'son of the veterinarian' or Muḥammad ibn al-`Arabī 'son of the Arab.' Women's names are not found in nasabs.

    Occasionally, the name of a prominent ancestor will be preserved as a family name distinct from the actual nasab, so that a man from al-Andalus named `Alī ibn `Abd Allāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Hl-Ḥasan is also known as Ibn al-Ḥasan, as if he were the son of his great-great-grandfather. These family names are used either in place of the nasab rather than in addition to it. These family names often preserve nicknames of ethnic or occupational origin. Some of these family names even use women's given names or bynames; some found in al-Andalus include Ibn `Ā'isha, Ibn Āmina, and Ibn Fāṭima, as well as Ibn al-Labāna ('son of the milkmaid') and Ibn al-Bayḍā' ('son of the white woman').

    To form a nasab, select an appropriate masculine ism or some other name element and add ibn (for a man) or bint (for a woman) in front of it. The nasab goes immediately after the ism.

    A list of family names based on female names.

  4. Nicknames (laqab and nisba). These fall roughly into four types:

    A person may have more than one name of this type; in everyday life they are generally called by only one at a time, though more than one nickname may be found in formal written settings.

    A list of nicknames found in al-Andalus: masculine and feminine.
    A list of nicknames by type: masculine and feminine.
    Nicknames by frequency.

Some Examples of Complete Names.

Notes on Honorific Names and Harem Names.