Having had occasion (in the comments to The Fall of Otrar) to refer to al-Khwarizmi‘s nisba, I thought it might be a good idea to provide a reference for those interested in getting a basic idea of how Arabic names work (so that, for instance, they will realize why Gamal Abd al-Nasir should not be abbreviated as “Nasser,” though it’s too late to correct that particular mistake).
Basically, a traditional Arabic name given in full consists of the kunya (‘father/mother of X’), the ism (the actual given name, e.g. Muhammad or Abdullah), the nasab (‘son/daughter of Y’), the nisba (an adjective indicating one’s place of origin, religion, or some other identifier), and one or more laqabs (nicknames to provide further identification), in that order. To use Annemarie Schimmel’s example, the name Abu’l-Mahasin Yusuf ibn Abi Yusuf Ya’qub al-Makki al-Hanbali al-Zayyat means “Yusuf, father of al-Mahasin, son of Abu Yusuf Ya’qub [note that Ya'qub is identified as father of Yusuf], from Mecca, belonging to the Hanbali school of religious jurisprudence, the oilman.” Unfortunately for the outsider, people can be referred to by any part of this string (except, usually, the ism, since given names are too common to be of much use); if there is a conventional name by which the person is traditionally known, it is called the ‘urf (‘custom’). So our friend Yusuf might be generally known as Abu’l-Mahasin or al-Zayyat (the other laqabs being too common themselves to identify him). The great philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina is known as ibn Sina (hence “Avicenna”) or Abu Ali ibn Sina (in Persian he is Bu-Ali Sina). An excellent quick overview (based on Jere L. Bacharach’s A Middle East Studies Handbook) can be found here [link dead as of 2013].
Now, one thing to bear in mind is that the kunya is such a basic element, so popular a means to refer to people, that one is usually given even to people who have no children, or without reference to whatever children they might have. Thus an enemy of the Prophet was known as Abu Lahab ‘father of flame,’ and the ninth-century caliph al-Mamun granted a Christian physician who had treated him successfully the kunya Abu ‘Isa ‘father of Jesus’ (which was quite an honor, and also offensive to some theologians, since Jesus had no human father). Another thing I want to emphasize is that names like Abdullah ‘slave of Allah,’ Abd al-Rahman ‘slave of the Merciful One’ are units; there is no such name as “Abdul,” and the last part should not be snipped off as a separate name—hence my earlier strictures about abbreviating Abd al-Nasir ‘slave of the Victorious One’ as “Nasser.” (In that case, an earlier ism has become a family name; family names, being a recent development in the Arabic world, can come from any of the elements. And I’ll mention here that the Hussein of Saddam Hussein is not a family name but the name of Saddam’s father; the traditional formulation would be Saddam ibn Hussein.)
Names like Jalal and Jamal are modern abbreviations of earlier Jalal-al-din ‘greatness of the faith’ and Jamal-al-din ‘beauty of the faith,’ which were originally honorifics. To quote Annemarie Schimmel,
This type of name has developed out of the official honorary titles, the khitab, which were given to leading men of state and religion to emphasize their rank and dignity. Originally they were composed of an impressive noun plus ad-daula, ‘the state’, which could then be enlarged to ad-daula wa’d-din, like Izz ad-daula wa’d-din, ‘Glory of state and religion’…. After 1200, compounds with ad-din became part and parcel of the name, the person’s qualities or rank notwithstanding.
And while I’m at it, I’d just like to point out another thing that irritates me: Al Sa’ud (the ruling family and eponym of Saudi Arabia) is not “al-Sa’ud”; in this case, al is not the article but a word for ‘family,’ and the a is long. Hence it should be given a capital letter and pronounced with its own stress, and the -l should not be assimilated to the following s- as happens with the article (thus al-Sa’ati ‘the watchmaker’ is pronounced as-Sa’ati; incidentally, the famous name Saatchi is the Turkish equivalent of this).
More detail can be found in this little book (pdf file), Arabic Nomenclature by A.F.L. Beeston (Oxford, 1971), which packs a great deal of information into eight pages. And those who want a wide-ranging survey should find a copy of Annemarie Schimmel’s Islamic Names : An Introduction, a compendious book with only 83 pages of text (plus notes, bibliography, several indexes, and a glossary) from which I have quoted liberally above.
I’ll finish up with a quatrain by al-Khwarizmi, the very man whose nisba set off this whole entry:
What do I care that the Abbasides have thrown open the gates of kunyas and laqabs?
They have conferred honorifics on a man whom their ancestors would not have made doorkeeper of their privy!
This caliph of ours has few dirhams in his hands—
So he lavishes honorifics on people.