"Son of the Hot-Tempered Woman":
Women's Names in Arabic Bynames

by Juliana de Luna (Julia Smith)
Palimpsest alias Siren

© 2007-2011 by Julia Smith. All rights reserved.
Version 2.0, updated 30 June 2011

Conventional wisdom says that Arabic reflects its patriarchal society in its naming practices, so that people are always identified as the child of their father and the parent of their oldest son. But reality is always more interesting and complicated. In research largely focused on the 9th-12th century in al-Andalus and Cairo, I have found dozens of examples of bynames referring to women as mothers and daughters. In this class, we'll discuss the evidence I've found, and its implications for naming in the Society.

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 have different terms to describe them: the kunya (an honorific byname which describes a person as the mother or father of a child, and occurs before the given name), the nasab (a patronymic byname that describes the person as the son or daughter of a parent) and related family names (which resemble a nasab, but do not refer to one's literal father), and types of descriptive bynames (the laqab and nisba). The name of an individual may have 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.

A few notes on transcriptions

As Arabic uses several letters not found in English, a transcription system must be used. This follows the standard of the Encyclopedia of Islam (which can be found at http://transliteration.eki.ee/pdf/Arabic.pdf), with a few exceptions. A period after a letter, such as h., indicates that the preceding consonant is emphatic (this should more properly be written with the period underneath the letter). The emphatic k is written as q. The pronunciation of emphatic consonants is difficult to explain: they are pronounced further back than their non-emphatic counterparts and are often described as "more forceful" in pronunciation. For further assistance, find someone who speaks Arabic. There are two special characters: ` is ayn (as in the given name `Imrān) and ' is hamza (in the given name Ismaī'l). These are also somewhat difficult to explain: both are prounounced far back in your throat; the first is voiced and the second unvoiced. For further assistance, find someone who speaks Arabic.

When words start with the "sun consonants" (t, th, d, dh, r, z, s, sh, s., d., t., z., n.), the consonant 'l' at the end of the article al was assimilated to the following consonant, so that a name like al-Zahra 'the radiant' would have been pronounced \ahz zah rah\. This change in pronunciation is not written out here.

The honorific byname or kunya

This type of byname describes a person as the parent of a child, usually the eldest son: Abū Asim 'father of Asim' or Umm Badr 'mother of Badr'. A kunya is usually formed from the given name of the child, but are also formed from descriptive bynames; in either case, the name used after Abū (father) and Umm (mother) is not modified.

A kunya is not always literal: Muhammad's childless wife `Ā'isha was known as Umm `Abd Allāh 'mother of `Abd Allāh, a common man's name'; in the Geniza, a man named Abraham is often called Abū Ish.āq 'father of Isaac,' because Isaac was the son of the biblical Abraham. A 7th c. man is criticized for being known as Abū Yah.ya 'father of John' although he has no son, and an 8th century slave on being freed was given the kunya Abū al-Jafnā 'father of the curly-haired girl' (Schimmel 1989: 6). A kunya could be formed from an abstract concept, such as Abu 'l-Faraj 'father of salvation.' One can even find kunya derived from traits or objects associated with a person, such as the companion of Muhammad known as Abū Hurayra 'father of a kitten,' the 9th c. poet Abū al-`Atāhiya 'father of craziness' or the Abbasid caliph Abū al-Dawāniq 'father of money' (Schimmel 1989:7).

There are also many kunya formed from women's names and bynames. During the first few generations of Islam, there are a few examples of kunyas formed from feminine names, as discussed by Schimmel (1989:5), Fierro (1988), Roded (1994), and Gandhi and Husain (1994:6-9). All these examples are from before 900. When the kunya is formed from a byname, it is translated; if the kunya is formed from a given name, it is not translated.

From Schimmel:
Abū Ruqayya Tamīm al-Darī
Abū Laylā
Abū Rīh.āna
Sulmā bint Abī Sulmā
Abū al-Jafnā'father of the curly-haired girl'
From Fierro:
Abū Maryam al-Ans.ārī
From Roded:
Umm Habība bint Abū Sufyan
From Gandhi and Husain:
Abū H.anīfa
Abu al-Ainā'father of the large-eyed woman'
Abū Lu`lu`
Abu al-Durr'father of the pearl'
Abū Righāl 'father of a handmaiden'
Abū `Ubayda
There are examples from the period 900-1200 as well, from both medieval Cairo (Goitein 1967-93) and al-Andalus (Marin 2000).
From Cairo:
Umm Sitt al-Nass
Abū Khalīfa
Abū Shaykha
Umm Bayda''mother of the fair girl'
Umm Sawdā''mother of the dark girl'
Umm Shah.īma'mother of the fat girl'
From Al-Andalus:
Umm H.akīma

The patronymic byname or nasab

This type of byname describes the ancestry of an individual through the masculine line: ibn Mūsā 'son of Moses' or bint H.usayn 'daughter of Husayn'. An individual sometimes traces back several generations of ancestry by stringing these together, as in ibn Mūsā ibn Yah.yā ibn Ibrahīm 'son of Moses who was son of John who was son of Abraham'. A nasab is most frequently created from the father's given name, but there are examples in which a byname is used instead; all sorts of bynames are used: ibn al-Dimyāt.ī 'son of the man from Dimyāt.,' bint al-shaykh 'daughter of the respected older man,' ibn Abu 'l-H.usayn 'son of the father of handsomeness'. When a nasab is formed from a kunya, Abū ought to be changed to the genitive form Abī; however, this is often not done in Cairo.

In addition to literal patronymics, the Geniza documents have many examples of family names that take the form of a nasab, in which someone is known as Ibn `Awkal or Ibn S.aghīr 'son of the small man,' even though the person of that name (or byname) died generations ago. In the Geniza, many of these family names do not use the article al even where the byname from which the family name was derived used it.

While I have seen no unambiguous examples of a woman's name used in a nasab, there are many examples of these sorts of family names formed from women's bynames (and more rarely, women's given names). Examples of these family names can be found in Schimmel (1987:9) and Levi della Vida (1942) in addition to the data from Cairo and al-Andalus. Again, when the nasab is formed from a byname, it is translated; if the is formed from a given name, it is not translated. There are examples from the early days of Islam, from the period 900-1200, and indeed from later: "In [al-Sakhawi, a biographical dictionary published in 1497, focused on the 9th Muslim century], in about a dozen cases a son is ascribed to his mother rather than his father. Most frequently, the son is referred to as 'ibn al-Shaykha...'" (Roded 1994:128).

Examples of family names formed from women's names and bynames include:

From Schimmel:
Ibn al-H.anafiyya'son of the woman from the H.anīfa tribe'
Ibn al-Qūtiyya'son of the Visigothic woman'
Ibn al-Rūmiyya'son of the Byzantine woman'
Ibn al-Zarqā''son of the blue-eyed woman'
Ibn Bībī
From Levi della Vida:
There are many names in this article only in Arabic; they are not given here.
Ibn al-Sulaka(meaning unknown)
Ibn Rumayla
Ibn Nabda
Ibn Ghubāna
Ibn Sha`ūb
Ibn T.aw`a
Ibn al-H.as.rā'(meaning unknown)
Ibn al-H.idādiya'son of the woman of the H.idād tribe'
Ibn al-T.athriyya(meaning unknown)
Ibn Faswa
Ibn al-Hayghumāna(meaning unknown)
Ibn Qirs.āfa
Ibn Qutayba
Ibn Umm Dīnār
Ibn Kulthūm
Ibn Salwa
From al-Andalus:
Ibn `Ā'isha
Ibn Āmina
Ibn Fāt.ima
Ibn al-Labāna'son of the milkmaid'
Ibn al-Bayd.ā''son of the white woman'
From Cairo:
Ibn Bānūqa
Ibn Khalīla
Ibn al-Nāsikha'son of the female copyist'
Ben Nānū'son of "grandma"'
Ibn al-Rūmiyya'son of the European woman'
Ibn al-H.ijāziyya'son of the woman from the Hijaz'
Ibn al-`Adaniyya'son of the woman from Adan'
Ibn al-Yamaniyya'son of the woman from Yemem'
Ibn al-Maghribiyya'son of the Magrebi woman'
Ibn al-Maqdisiyya'son of the woman from Maqdis'
Ben Turkiyya'son of the Turkish woman' (probably referring to a fair complexion)
Ibn Qurayz.a'bitter leaf (diminutive of Qaraz.)'
Ibn al-Mu'allima'son of the (f) teacher'
Ibn al-T.ubayyiba'son of the (f) little doctor'
Ibn al-Qābila'son of the midwife'
Ibn al-Māshit.a'son of the bride-comber'
Ibn al-Khabbāza'son of the (f) baker'
Ibn al-S.āhila'son of the horsy woman'
Ibn al-Ma`qūda'son of the crooked woman'
Ibn al-Mu`awwaja'son of the hunchbacked woman'
Ibn al-Hadbā'son of the hunchbacked woman'
Ibn al-Z.āmiya'son of the thirsty (frustrated) woman'
Ibn al-Manfūkha'son of the swollen/paunchy woman'
Ibn al-Masht.ūba'son of the scarred woman'
Ben al-Khasīsa'son of the miserly woman'
Ibn al-Naqira'son of the easily offended woman'
Ibn al-Naghira'son of the hot-tempered woman'
Ibn Rakhama'son of the female vulture'
Ibn H.ujayla'son of the little (f) partridge'
Ibn `Us.fūra'son of the female sparrow'
Ibn Khunfasa'son of the female bettle'
Ibn Numayla'son of the little female ant'
Ibn Qumayla'son of the female louse'
Ibn Mah.āra'son of the female oyster'
Ibn Nāqa'son of the she-camel'
Ibn Baqara'son of the cow'
Ibn Na`ja'son of the (f) sheep'
Ibn Ghanama'son of the (f) sheep'
Ibn al-Dayyina'son of the devout woman'
Ibn al-`Ābida'son of the pious woman'
Ibn al-H.ājja'son of the woman pilgrim'
Ibn Mah.āra(may be female collector of shellfish)
Ibn Qamh.a'son of the (f) grain of wheat'
Ibn Fūla'son of the (f) bean'
Ibn Sumsuma'son of the (f) sesame seed'
Ibn Sumaysima'son of the (f) little sesame seed'
Ibn Kammūna'son of the (f) cumin seed'
Ibn Bunduqa'son of the (f) hazelnut'
Ibn Jawza'son of the (f) walnut'
Ibn Shuwaykiya'son of the (f) little artichoke'
Ibn H.iltīt'son of the (f) asafetida plant'
Ibn Luffāh.a'son of the (f) mandrake plant'
The final category in which people are identified in relationship to women is by using relationship words that identify those women only in terms of their relationship to other (important) men; describing them as someone's daughter or sister. Examples of bynames which identify women only in terms of their relationship to men include:
From Schimmel:
Ibn Bint al-A'azz'son of the daughter of al-A'azz'
Ibn ukht Ghānim'son of Ghānim's sister'
Sibt. Ibn al-Jauzī'grandson (through the daughter) of Ibn al-Jauzī'
From Cairo:
Ibn Ukht al-Piqqē'ah'son of the sister of the investigator'
Ibn ukht Ibn Abī `Uqba'son of the sister of Ibn Abī `Uqba'

The following sources were consulted:

Cohen, Mark, Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Cohen, Mark, The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Da'ud ibn Auda, "Arabic Naming Practices and Names List," Compleat Anachronist #51, "The Islamic World" (Milpitas: SCA, Inc, Autumn 1990)

Fierro, María Isabel, "Mu'āwiya b. S.ālih. al-H.ad.ramī al-H.ims.ī: historia y leyenda. Estudios onomástico-biográficos de Al-Andalus, Vol.. 1. (Madrid : Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1988).

Gandhi, Maneka and Ozair Husain, The Complete Book of Muslim and Parsi Names, Harper Collins, New Delhi, India, 1994

Goitein, Shelomo D., A Mediterranean society: the Jewish communities of the Arab world as portrayed in the documents of the Cairo Genizah (6 volumes). (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967-1993)

Goitein, Shelomo D., Geniza Papers of a Documentary Character in the Gaster Collection of the British Museum. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 51, No. 1. (Jul., 1960), pp. 34-46.

Goitein, Shelomo D., Nicknames as Family Names. Journal of the American Oriental Society 90 (4) (Oct-Dec 1970):517-524.

Hamid, Azieza, The Book of Muslim Names (London: MELS, 1985).

Levi della Vida, Giorgio, "Matronymics among Arab Poets." Journal of the American Oriental Society (Vol 62, pp 156-171, 1942).

Marin, Manuela, Mujeres en al-Andalus. Estudios onomástico-biográficos de Al-Andalus, Vol.. 11). (Madrid : Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2000).

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, Karaite Marriage Documents from the Cairo Geniza: Legal Tradition and Community Life in Mediaeval Egypt and Palestine. (Brill: New York, 1998).

Schimmel, Annemarie, Islamic Names (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989).

Smith, Julia (aka Juliana de Luna), "Andalusian Names: Arabs in Spain" (WWW: SCA, Inc., 2001) http://www.sca.org/heraldry/laurel/names/andalusia.html.

Wikipedia articles "Arabic Name," "Cairo Geniza," "History of Egypt"

HTML editing by Mari ingen Briain meic Donnchada.

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Women's Names in Arabic Bynames

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