04 November 2013

Naming conventions of the Medieval Middle East

What’s up with your names?
Sayyeda al-Kaslaania
November 2013

In the Medieval Middle East, names were treated differently than they were in Europe. While everyone is given a name at birth, that name is reserved for close friends and family in adulthood. It was even considered rude to use a given name. Unfortunately for us that means that few first names were recorded in historical records.

If not called by their names, how are people addressed?

People are called by where they’re from. al-Baghdadi is the man from Baghdad.

People are called by what they do. Maryam al-Astrulabyya is the astrolabe-maker of the 10th century.

People are called by whom they birthed. umm Ayyub is the mother of Ayyub. abu Nasir is the father of Nasir.

People are called by who birthed them. ibn Sina is the son of Sina. bint ‘Isa is the daughter of ‘Isa.  

Knowing who you fathered or who fathered you helps us to know men’s names. Tradition does not typically invite the honorific of who your mother or daughters are, however. We therefore learn fewer names of women than men.

People are called by their titles. Sayyid and Sayyeda are used in place of Lord and Lady in the SCA. You might read about Sitt al-Mulk, a woman in the Fatimid Caliphal palace. “Sitt” means “great lady” and al-Mulk mean “the sovereign”. Sitt al-Mulk served as the regent for her minor child, thus earning the title Great Lady of the Sovereign.

The tricky part about women’s names is that many of the women whom people were writing about were slaves (people did not normally presume to write about honorable women. If they did write about honorable women for some reason the appropriate titles are used). These women took on assigned or assumed names which were often what we might think of as stage names. For example, Sukkar for the woman called “Sugar”, and Ziryab for the man called “the Blackbird”.  Without knowing Arabic, it can be difficult to discern what names are real and what nicknames are Honey or Silk.

Seeing some of the examples, we now understand that a person can reasonably go from being “the son of X” to “the man from Y” to “the father of Z” in a lifetime.

Therefore, Sayyeda al-Kaslaania, born Samia bint ‘Isa, is called by her title “Lady” and nickname “the woman with idle time”. When she is in direct service to the Queen she can be Muqima al-Kaslaania, taking the title “woman of the palace staff”. When she’s with her friends she is simply called Samia.

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