Jewish Names in the World of Medieval Islam

Compiled by Yehoshua ben Haim haYerushalmi (MKA Zachary Kessin)

© 2002-2003 Zachary Kessin

R. Huna stated in the name of Bar Kappara: Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of four things, vis. because they did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not go tale-bearing, and none of them was found to have been immoral.
Mishnah Rabbah: Leviticus 32:5


Names and naming patterns provide an unique view into the private lives of a community. Much can be learned by a community by the types of names that people give their children and live by. The Jews of the medieval Arab world were very much a part of the Arabic literary tradition and were giving their children names that are drawn from that tradition as well as the Jewish tradition. The Jews of this time period were apparently quite fluent in Arabic and were speaking it in their homes and shops. Some of the great Jewish literature of this period including works by the Rambam and Yahuda haLevi were written in Arabic.
This paper will attempt to analyze the form and function of the names of Jews in the medieval Islamic world and compare those naming practices to their Muslim neighbors. It will include an analysis of the elements of personal names, bynames, family names, and the grammar of these names.
In modern times the concept of a personal name has become very formalized. In English we expect to see one or more given names and then an inherited family name. Before modern times names were much more fluid in format and structure as I will show.

Sources of Data

This paper will look at the names being used Jewish men and women in the medieval Arab world with a focus on the community of Cairo Egypt. I will discuss the names that were found and the patterns that they take. In looking at medieval Jewish names one would expect to find a large number of classical Jewish names like Aaron and Avraham, however the data found shows that those names are not the overwhelming majority of names found and that classical Arabic names such as Abdullah are very common among the Jews of medieval Cairo.
Our knowledge of medieval names comes to us through two main sources. The first is well known persons, often authors who's names are known to the modern world. These names mostly are of well educated men. In addition there are several other potential problems with this data. First of all the forms of the names might have been changed from the original into a standardized spelling. Although one would expect most Hebrew names to follow the spelling in the Torah and the Mishnah.
The larger source of names used in this paper are extracted from the Cairo Genizia. Jewish law states that any paper that has G-d's name on it must be treated with special care and must be disposed of in specific manners. In many communities these papers were put in an attic or buried. In the Community of Cairo these papers were put in an attic room. In addition to be very careful that no document in which G-d's name was mentioned many other kinds documents such as contracts, letters, wills and katubot. Were also stored in the Genizia.
Many of these documents have been translated and published in a number of books by S.D Goitien. I have gone through ``Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders'' and found a large number of names that I can say are definitely Jewish. These names appear in appendix ``A''. In addition in appendix ``B'' there is a large list of Jewish men's names extracted by Julia Smith from ``A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Genizia. Volume III: The Family.'' This list is unprocessed and unanalyzed data from the author. In appendix ``C'' there is a list of women's names extracted from the same source. This list was published as part of ``Jewish Women's Names in an Arab Context: Names from the Genizia of Cairo'' . Both of these lists are here by the permission of the author.
In the sources referenced in this paper Hebrew names in their classical form when rendered in Hebrew letters have been written in the modern English form, while Arabic names have been left as is, so for example the Hebrew Avraham has been rendered as Abraham the Arabic Ibrahim has been directly transliterated from the Arabic. I have maintained this convention. In the list of names of traders (Appendix A) there are many people who are listed only by a given name or other partial name. These were usually people who were mentioned in a letter as a relation to someone else.

Naming Practices of Jews in the Medieval Arab World

Name Element Vocabulary

The first element of any name is the personal or given name. In the Islamic world Jews would have existed in a linguistic dualism moving back and forth between Arabic and Hebrew, and in some cases Spanish and Aramaic. The names that they gave their children reflect this and represent a mix of forms. Jews appear with classical Hebrew biblical names in both the Hebrew form, and with Arabic cognates of those names which appear to be used interchangeably. Many Jews also appear in the documents with classical Arabic names. The patterns of Arabic names especially among women appear to vary somewhat between Jews and Muslims.
A large number of Jews in Islamic lands appear in the documentary evidence with classical Hebrew biblical names. This is a pattern that is common to Jews across most of the lands that they have lived. Names from the Torah and the Mishnah appear over and over in Jewish history. This cannon of basic Hebrew names has remained very constant over the years as generation after generation studied the same texts.
Men appear to have a very mixed naming pattern. In a list of men's names as extracted from Goitien a large number of classical or Biblical Hebrew names appear. Including Ezra, Aaron, Abraham, Daniel, David and many others. As it is unclear what method was used to select the specific documents from the Genizia in creating the Goitien book it is not possible to do specific statistical work on these names but classical Hebrew forms do seem to be a sizable minority of the total names. These classical Hebrew names are what would be expected when looking at a list of names. The fact that they are not a greater share of the total is somewhat surprising.
Classical Hebrew names appear to be less common among women then men. The data analyzed show women's names to much more frequently follow the forms of their Muslim neighbors. While the records show some classical Hebrew names specifically: Esther, Miriam, Rebekah, Rivka, Sara and Hannah. The most common form of names as found in the Genizia documents are classical Arabic forms. It is probably that other biblical women's names were used but were not found in the documents from which these names were pulled. However these will be a small fraction of the total. The vast majority of Jewish women in the medieval Muslim world had classical Arabic names.
In addition to classical Hebrew forms in men's names there are many names that are Arabic cognates of Hebrew names. As many of the figures from the Hebrew Bible also appear in the Muslim Koran it is not surprising that many Muslim men had names that are linguistically very similar to many Jewish names. Hebrew names from the Torah including Ibrahim, Isma'il, Ishaq, Ya'qub, Yusaf, Ayyub (Job), Da'ud and Sulayman among others appear commonly among Muslim men. From the letters examined from the Genizia it is fairly clear that the Jews of this time thought of the Hebrew and Arabic forms of a name were interchangeable. A large number of Jewish names in Arabic forms appear in the lists in the appendix.

Appearing in the lists of Jewish men's names are many classical Arabic names with out any specifically Hebrew forms. These names take several forms. There are a number of names that are specifically devotional names such as Hibat Alla-h or 'Abd al-'Aziz `servant of the Omnipotent'. These names are uniquely Arabic forms. However they have a linguistic parallel in Jewish names like Joshua or Hillel which while not a direct cognate also derive from linguistic roots that relate to praising G-d.
There are a large number of other classical Arabic names that appear among the Jews of Cairo including Ghulayb, Hasan, Huysayn, Muhammad and others. Some of these names come from the Koran or other traditional Arabic sources. In addition some men appear to be known simply by a relationship. There are a number of men who are simply known as the father of their son Abu Sahl or Abu Ibrahim or by a patronymic such as Ibn Hiba or Ibn Walid. Some of these forms show a man as the father of a quality or trait and not a literal son such as Abu Tayyib father of the good.

More so then men Jewish women tend to have names that closely resembled those of their Muslim neighbors. While some women as noted above did have classical Hebrew names, the vast majority of names listed in the data set from the Genizia shows Jewish women with Arabic style names. These Arabic style names follow several patterns but all seem to be similar with the practices of Arabic naming among the Muslim majority in Cairo.
The first form appears to be the name of a favorable trait like Hasab (noble), Husn (beauty), Jamila (beautiful), or Surura (happy). Other names of similar form appear in the list in the appendix. These names would have been in use by the Muslim women around the Jewish community and would have migrated across to the Jewish women.
There are three groups of multi word names these appear in the Genizia literature. These are Umm- (Mother of), Sitt- (Mistress of), and Amat- (Maidservant of).
The Umm- form appears in two sub forms, the first which was very common among the Muslim is mother of a first born son. Names like Umm Hasan, literally mother of Hasan, were less common in this data. This may be in part due the fact that many of the women's names in this data set are from Katubot and therefore many of these women had not yet had children. Even those women who were getting remarried would probably not have had this name put on their kattubah. The majority of Muslim women's names from this time period we know about come from biographical sources and not legal documents. This could well explain at least some of the difference in patterns between the names of Jewish women and their Muslim counterparts.
In addition to a number of names which list a woman as the mother of a literal son there are others that list a woman as the mother of a quality such as Umm Thana meaning ``Mother of Praise''. There are a few women in this group. This does parallel some of the men who seem to be listed as the father of a quality and not a literal son.
The next pattern is a quality prefixed by Sitt- meaning lady or mistress of. There are a large number of these names in the Genizia documents and most seem to be allegorical in their description showing a wide variety of forms. The Sitt- form appears to be very common in Jewish women with 44 examples and one more that appears to be translated into Hebrew, Geveret 'Alanot, this does not look at all like any classic Hebrew name form.
The final group of names appear to be classic Arabic women's names of which there are a large number listed in the appendix. These names appear to simply be lifted from the surrounding Arab culture. There are a number of these names that directly praise G-d. These names appear as both one and several word forms. The multi world forms indicate that the bearer is a servant of G-d directly in some way. The other forms still indicate in some way a relationship to G-d. Amat al-'Aziz (servant of the Omnipotent), Amat al-Qadir (servant of the Almighty), Amat al-Wahid (servant of the Unique), Mahfuza (guarded, perhaps by G-d), and Mubaraka (blessed one).


The most common formation of a full name from a personal name is to add a father's name to form a patronymic. This is seen in the Torah, and in the Mishnah many of the Rabbis are identified as such. Of the 63 Rabbis mentioned in Perkei Avot, 31 are named by a personal name followed by a father's name, and three more are simply refereed to by a father's name with no personal name at all Ben Zoma, Ben Azzai, and Ben Bag Bag In most of the medieval world names appear in only one language. In the Jews of Arab lands a fertile linguistic mixing happened and names appear with both Hebrew and Arabic elements in the same name.
In the medieval Islamic world this could be formed with the grammatical contraction Ben in Hebrew, or Bar in Aramaic or with the Arabic ibin. In some cases the names have been translated simply with the patronymic indicator as `b.' leaving us to guess which form was used originally. For a woman the Hebrew Bat or the Arabic Bint would be the expected forms. In addition in Spain the Latin Filius is sometimes seen, but probably only in Spanish or Latin Christian sources not in documents written by Jews or Muslims.


In addition to personal names many people also appear in the historical record with a byname that is a term of personal description. While many people appear with some form of descriptive byname many people do not. These names differ from surnames, in that a surname is something that is passed on from parent to child and identifies the family. A byname is an term of personal description that would often be applied to someone as an adult. However many surnames originated as some form of byname that became permanent over time. In Hebrew this tends to be done with the grammatical prefix ha- and in Arabic with the prefix al-.
Bynames tend to form several distinct patterns. The first is a tribal affiliation haKohan or haLevi in Hebrew. Most of these are seen in a Hebrew form. However there is an example from Christian Spain of a Jew with the surname Alcon which probably is a corruption of an Arabic Al-Kohen.
The second type is a geographic or locative name. These appear around the medieval world and and in fact form the basis for some modern surnames ex. Flanders. In the data sets analyzed here there are several examples of a Arabic locative byname such as al-Basri and al-Baghdadi. Baghdad seems to be a common place name, as the ups and downs of the court in Baghdad produced many exiles. The woman's names Sitt Bagdad and Sitt al-Iraq possibly were women who were the wife, daughter, or sister of someone exiled from the Iraqi court.
Other people show up in the record with a surname that like the English surname Flanders were place names that became a surname. For example a Sicilian family shows up in the record with the surname al-Siqilli. Names like this probably did not have the permanence of a modern surname.
There are also several examples of a person listed with a locative by name in English. It is unclear from the data if these names were used as bynames person's lifetime and if so in what form. This represents a loss of information in the translation of the documents.
The third pattern for a byname is a trade description. In the data there are a number of examples in both Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew Gaon and ha-Nagid as well as Rabbi and related forms show up both as a prefix to a name and as a suffix. These forms show up mostly in Hebrew but the list of authors did indicate an al-Rabbi`ah.
Men in other trades were of course called by trade names and the list shows a man with the byname Ibn Al-Sabbagh, literally son of the dyer. Other men are listed to simply by a profession and there are at least one doctor and other professions referenced. It is likely that many people in the medieval world were often known informally by their profession.
The fourth model of a byname is a personal physical description. These again appear around the medieval world and tend to be very simple descriptions of a person's physical looks. In the Genizia documents one man is referred to as the ``Son of the Man with the parted beard''. The description was translated into English in Goitien's book, so the original form is unclear.
A fifth model may be found in descriptions of a personality. These are usually simple terms of description. The names in Hebrew of this form seem to be less common might be expected. However in the Mishna there is a Rabbi Shimmon haTzadik and the data from the Arab world indicates a Abraham ha-Hasid. Both of these names show especial piety on the part of the named person.

There appear to be a number of men in the data that have an inherited surname, this is actually rather rare in the medieval world where a family surname in the modern form is unusual. The Genizia letters show a number of surnames that appear to derive from various forms of bynames. Names deriving from locations, patronymics and professions appear that may have been surnames. In some cases the documents make it clear in what context a name element is being used, but in many others the best that can be done is to guess how a name was being used.
A number of people in the lists of names have a name that appears to be a patronymic but on closer examination appear to work like a surname. In the list of authors in the appendix shows a number of Jewish men with this name form. For an example the poet Abraham b. Meir ibn Ezra, (1089-1164). Who is also known simply as Ibn Ezra. In the list of authors there are eleven men with this pattern. In addition these men seem to be referred to as simply a first name with the Ibn Ezra and without the direct Hebrew patronymic this does lead to the conclusion that in most cases the Ibn form is a literal patronymic but in some cases it is in fact a surname in as much as that many common surnames in modern America such as the Norman FitzWilliams or the Scandinavian Anderson started out as literal patronymics.


It appears that the Jewish communities of the Arab world showed some degree of assimilation with their Muslim neighbors at least linguistically. Jews would not be giving their children Arabic names. The names the Jews of the medieval Islamic world were giving their sons and daughters were Arabic in form with no Jewish tradition behind them as well as classical Jewish names and their Arabic cognates.


List of Merchants
List of Men's Names
List of Women's Names
List of Period Authors

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