Holistic History Extra: Get your Arabic Name On

Ibn Battuta’s full name wasn’t printed in the article I posted about him, and to some that might seem odd. See, medieval Arabic names just aren’t like other names. To be specific, each one takes up a whole damn paragraph. Ibn Battuta’s full name is this:

Shams al-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Addallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al-Lawati al-Tanji al-Maliki al-Maghribi

And that’s without naming any of the honorifics he had poured over him in his lifetime, beautiful titles like “Chief Qadi of Delhi” or any non-ceremonial nicknames, like “The Great Traveller”. See, Arabic names don’t provide a handle as much as all the information they thought was important about the person. So let me take it apart for a second – because dear god, I know some of you and you know who you are will be desperate to try and work out your own Medieval Arabic Name. So let’s get your M.A.N. on.

Laqab (Title) – “Shams al-Din”. Placed here, this is the equivalent of Mr or Mrs. But before you get a brilliant idea for a marriage-based celebrity gameshow, it’s not exactly the same. See, while Mr and Mrs are bastardised versions of Master and Mistress, the names of famous Arabs tend towards the divine. Shams al-Din literally means “the Sun of Religion”. You can also be Muhyi al-Din (“the Saviour of Religion”) or Sitt al-Mulk (“the Lady of Power”, a rare female example), if you really feel like it. You’ve probably heard of Salah al-Din (“the Righteousness of Religion”) before – although we usually spell it Saladin. For Ibn Battuta, the laqab essentially saying he’s a learned man. Maybe a better equivalent would be Ph.D, but hey, title’s a title.

Kunya (Reverse Patronymic)- “Abu Abdullah” I’m making up terms here, but this is the name of Ibn Battuta’s son. Which gets added to his name. Before his own name. Abu means “father of” (and interestingly, also “owner of”), and “mother of” is Umm. It’s generally a more intimate form of address than a title or personal name – and is probably more than a little awkward to explain to the kids who your name doesn’t show off.

Ism (Personal Name) – “Muhammad” Finally, some familiar ground. This would be a First Name or a Christian name in English. For obvious reasons this one is neither first not Christian, but you get my point.

Nasab (Patronymic) –  “ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim” Patronymics are names taken from your father, where Ibn means “son of”. “Bint”, incidentally, means “daughter of” and I’m not even joking. So his father was called Abdallah, and his grandfather – who he was, in all likelihood, named for – was another Muhammad. You can literally go as far back as you deem necessary. Sultans, as you might expect, tend to go back to their most famous ancestor. The Prophet’s family traced theirs back to Adam and Eve, so the sky’s your limit here.

Nasab (Surname) – “Ibn Battuta”. Ah. This must be confusing. Ibn Battuta acts as a surname, hence the capitals on Ibn in English, but it’s shaped like a patronymic. That’s because his surname is taken from the founder of his family, Battuta, so his family are the “Sons of Battuta”. To be honest, not too difficult if you have a German-style surname like Johnson or Peterson, but still catches people out. Surnames can be literally anything. One Arabo-Persian dynasty named themselves Saffarids – “the Coppersmiths” – because their founder was so proud of his non-aristocratic metalworking background. However, they’re more often than not just ways to attach yourself to a particular ancestor.

Nisba (Regional Name) – “al-Tanji”. The nisba is a kind of name suffix that tells you everything you need to know about a person. You can have several, usually starting with al- and ending in -i (if you’re feeling maculine) or -iyya (if you’re feeling feminine). al-Tanji tells us that Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in Northern Morocco. I’d use one myself but al-Coventryi sounds kind of terrible.

Nisba (Tribal Name) – “al-Lawati”. Tribal names were second only to family names in importance in Ibn Battuta’s Arab-influenced culture, so this is also an important nisba. The only confusing thing is that a tribe is more like a political alliance than a closely knit family. Tribes were constantly refashioned and genealogy reformed to fit political needs, so I guess if you’re playing along at home and don’t have any tribal ancestry, you can put your politics here. Arabia even had tribal factions who called themselves the “Rightists” and “Leftists” – the Qays and Yemen – so if you’re as willing to completely misunderstand medieval Arabic politics as I am think you’ll be fine.

Nisba (Scholastic Name) – “al-Maliki”. Oh god, another nisba? Al-Maliki refers to the school of law Ibn Battuta followed – there are four big ones in Sunni Islam and Maliki Law is the most prevalent in North Africa. I guess this one’s more important for Ibn Battuta than most people – he worked as the Chief Qadi of India for a long time – so it might be easier to put your school in than any school of law if you’re not a Muslim. I’m guessing…well, hoping you follow the laws of wherever you happen to live.

Laqab (Nickame) – “al-Maghribi”. Another Laqab, and we’ve finally come fill circle. This one acts less like a title, though, and more as a nickname. Nicknames had a special place in Arabic society, especially among famous people – go through a list of Caliphs and names like al-Mahdi (“the redeemer”) and al-Rashid (“the guided”) are sure to crop up. Al-Maghribi? That means “the Westerner”, and looking at Batutta’s life you can kind of see how he got it.

All credit to Tim Mackintosh Smith, the translator of this fantastic book, and please, try it yourself if you want to know more. It’s almost by definition a good travel book. Have fun making your own Arabic names, and first person to guess who Muhyi al-Himself Abu James Harry ibn James Potter al-Godric’s Hollow al-Phoenix al-Hogwarts The Boy Who Lived is wins a free Horcrux.


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