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Included in author's compilation Essays and Notes on Bábí and Bahá'í History.

Personal Names and Titles in Islamic and Baha'i Usage

by John Walbridge

published in Essays and Notes on Babi and Baha'i History

A source of particular confusion for Westerners studying Bahá'í history is the complex system of names used by Persians, particularly prior to the modernization of Persian names in the twentieth century. This appendix is intended as a guide to these names and to the Bahá'í laws and customs governing personal names.

Bahá'í laws and customs relating to personal names.

Islamic customs concerning personal names. Islamic given names were almost always Arabic religious names of one of the following classes:

  1. forms of the name of the Prophet, such as Muhammad, Abu al-Qasim, Ahmad, and Mustafa;
  2. names of other holy persons, such as prophets, imams, and companions of the prophet;
  3. names related to God, such as `Abd Allah ("servant of God") and `Abd al-Rahman ("servant of the All-Merciful");
  4. for women, names of the wives of the prophet and other holy women, such as Fatima, `A'isha, and Maryam.

On the other hand, old Arabic names identified by Muhammad as unlucky or inappropriate or borne by famous villains of Islamic history fell out of use. These naming practices were commended by piety and desire for good fortune and were not, strictly speaking, Islamic law.

Babi laws governing names. In the Persian Bayan the Bab strongly recommended the use of names relating to God—attributes of God such as Bahaullah, "splendor of God," Jalal Allah, "glory of God," and Jamal Allah, "beauty of God," or names of servitude such as `Abd Allah and Dhikr Allah "mention of God"—or names of the Shi'i Holy Family—Muhammad, `Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn. Thus the world would gradually be filled with the names of God (5:4). He specifically allowed the use of the name `Abd al-Bayan, bayan ("exposition") being in the eyes of the Bab a name of God (3:4).

Bahá'í laws governing names. There are very few specific Bahá'í laws governing personal names. `Abd al-Baha said that children are not to be named Bahaullah, Bab, or Primal Point (Nuqtiy-i Ula, another common title of the Bab). Girls are not to be named Khayr al-Nisa' ("best of women"), for this title is reserved for the mother and first wife of the Bab. The name `Abd al-Baha may, however, be used. Bahaullah, writing through his secretary, says that in this day the names Diya', Badi`, Husayn, and `Ali are particularly pleasing. In a letter through his secretary addressed to the Arab Bahá'ís he says that they should name their sons Husayn or `Ali (i.e., Bahaullah's own names) and give them the title (laqab) `Abd al-Baha. Girls should be given the title Amat al-Baha and be named Dhikriyya, Nuriyya, Sahihiyya, or `Izziyya (Mazandarani, Amr 3:59–62). These last probably should be understood as recommendations rather than binding laws.

Bahá'í practices relating to personal names. The Bab, Bahaullah, and `Abd al-Baha, as well as some of the Babi leaders, all were accustomed to give their followers religious names and titles. Similar practices existed among Muslims, especially the clergy, but it was carried much further among the Babis and the Bahá'ís. This seems to have served several purposes. First, a new name indicated a new spiritual identity. Thus, when Bahaullah gave the participants in the conference at Badasht new names, it symbolized their membership in a new and independent religion. Second, the titles given to Babi and Bahá'í leaders indicated their rank. Thus, Mulla Husayn Bushru'i was given the titles "Bab al-Bab" ("gate of the gate") and "Qa'im of the People of Khurasan," a messianic title. `Abd al-Baha was entitled "Most Great Branch," hinting at his station as his father's successor. Third, religious names were used for security, to protect the identity of individual believers. Thus, letters were commonly addressed with names, letters, and numbers that were both religious symbols and codes.

The names and titles conferred by the Bab and Bahaullah were most commonly names and attributes of God numerically equivalent according to the Abjad reckoning to the individual's given name. Thus, Muhammads were commonly entitled Nabil, both being equivalent to 92 according to the sum of the numerical values of the individual letters. Yahya became Wahid (28). Second, names were sometimes given because of their meaning or for some reason no longer clear. For example, the Babi heroine Qurrat al-`Ayn ("solace of the eyes," which name itself was a nickname given her by her teacher) was given the name Tahira ("The Pure One") to indicate her unimpeachable status within the Faith. Third, a name or title might be a variation of the individual's previous name or title. Thus, the Babi leader in Zanjan, whose clerical rank prior to his conversion had been Hujjat al-Islam ("proof of Islam") was given the title "Hujjat" ("proof"), a title of the Hidden Imam previously born by the Bab Himself. Haji Mirza Muhammad-Taqi Afnan, the builder of the Bahá'í temple in `Ishqabad, was called by `Abd al-Baha "Wakil al-Haqq" ("deputy of God") after his government title of Wakil al-Dawla ("deputy of the state"). Fourth, names and titles were given because of the individual's activities. Thus, Mirza Aqa Jan Kashani was known as "Khadim Allah" ("the attendant of God") because he was Bahaullah's private secretary. Fifth, sometimes religious names were given to children at the request of the parents.

When in 1925 Iranians were required to choose Western-style family names, forms of these religious names and titles were often used as surnames. Thus, the family of a Muhammad who had been addressed by Bahaullah as Nabil might chose to be known as Nabili ("of Nabil") or Nabilzada ("son of Nabil"). In other cases, a striking word from a tablet addressed to the individual might be adopted as a surname. In other cases an arbitrary word of Bahá'í religious significance might be chosen as a surname.

Modern Iranian Bahá'í given names are of three sorts. First, names of Babi and Bahá'í saints and heroes, virtues and spiritual qualities, and attributes of God. Second, and less common, the old Islamic names. Third, the common Iranian secular names drawn from Persian history, mythology, and poetic imagery.

Outside of Iran, names and titles given by the central figures were much less common, both because the Bahá'í Faith did not spread outside the Islamic world until the time of `Abd al-Baha and because Western-style names are rarely changed. `Abd al-Baha did sometimes give "Persian"—i.e., Bahá'í religious—names to Western believers, but though these were treasured, they were not often used in public. He also frequently named children. Shoghi Effendi does not seem to have named children nor, with a few exceptions, given personal titles. Modern Bahá'ís do frequently give their children Bahá'í names, usually those of well-known heroes and heroines such as Tahira, Wahid, Bahiyya Khanum, and Hands of the Cause, but this is by no means universal or obligatory.

A related practice is the "naming ceremony," a meeting for prayers and celebration at which an infant is formally named. This was sanctioned by `Abd al-Baha as a substitute for the Christian baptismal ceremony. Shoghi Effendi, however, did not encourage this practice. (`Abd al-Baha, Tablets 149–50; Hornby, Lights of Guidance, para. 321; Mazandarani, Amr 3:262.

Traditional Persian and Islamic names

Until 1925 Iranians did not use modern-style names composed of a given name and a surname and in fact did not have a single fixed name at all. Instead, the names of individuals were built up from given names, nicknames, titles, and descriptions and varied considerably, depending on the context in which the individual was mentioned and his time of life. A single individual might be known by quite different names in different times and places. By examining the various parts of an individual's name it is sometimes possible to deduce a good deal about him. Most of what follows refers specifically to men's names. To the extent that women were known outside their families, their names were built up in similar ways. More will be said about women's names below.

It should be noted that titles of honor and respect tended to become devalued with time, both because of the Iranian taste for exaggerated courtesy and because of corruption within the government offices responsible for granting titles of nobility. Thus, Khan, originally a title of high officers of the state, became by the early twentieth century the equivalent of "Mister."

Each element of the ninteenth century Iranian name will be discussed in turn. After that there will be brief discussions of women's names, traditional Turkish and Arab names as they appear in Bahá'í history, and modern Middle Eastern names.

a. The given name (ism) is the name given to a child at birth. In Iran it was usually the name of a prophet or imam such as Muhammad, `Ali, Husayn, or Ibrahim (Abraham), a variant form of the name of a prophet or imam such as Ahmad (an honorific form of Muhammad), Baqir, Sadiq (both titles of particular imams), or Kalb-`Ali ("dog of `Ali") [* see note, below], or a name relating to God such as `Abd Allah, Allah-Yar ("friend of God), Nasir al-Din ("champion of the Faith"), or Fadl Allah ("grace of God"). Sometimes compound forms are used, such as Husayn-`Ali, Muhammad-Javad, or `Ali-Rida, each being a fuller form of the name of an imam. Sometimes only the last element of the compound is used, particularly if the second element is only used with one particular first element. When Muhammad or `Abd is the first element, it is particularly likely to be dropped. Examples are Muhammad-Hasan becoming Hasan, `Ali-Rida become Rida, and `Abd al-Rahim becoming Rahim. Occasionally, ancient Persian names such as Firuz and Farhad were used. These became very common in the twentieth century but were less used in the nineteenth. Turkish names such as Qilich are occasionally seen. [* Note: this may be a mistranslation. Kalb is "dog" but qalb, which sounds the same to a non-Arabic speaker, is "heart." The name is possibly "Heart of Ali" transliterated into English as Kalb-`Ali, which could be mis-translated as "dog." See for example Heart & Dog. -J.W., 2012]

Although the given name was never changed, it is less useful than it might be for identifying individuals. First, there were a great many people with common names like Muhammad, `Ali, and Husayn. Second, because these names were so common, people were likely to be referred to be some nickname or title, rather than by their given name.

b. Titles used before the given name tended to show social or religious status. The following are the most common:

Akhund: A Shi`i clergyman. Roughly synonymous with mulla. In the twentieth century "akhund" acquired the pejorative sense of "ignorant priest."

Aqa: "sir" or "mister." Among Bahá'ís it usually applied to men of lower social status, such as servants. When it is used after the given name, it indicates affectionate respect. In modern Persian, it is the equivalent of "Mister." In Turkish Aqa indicates high rank, and it is sometimes used that way in Persian, as when `Abd al-Baha is referred to as Aqa, "the Master."

Darvish or dervish: a wandering mystic. The word usually has a slightly unsavory connotation, but when used as a title for a Muslim mystic, it indicates respect and that the individual was known as an ascetic and mystic.

Hadrat: "His Majesty" or "His Holiness," used in the form "Hadrat-i so-and-so." A title of extreme deference, used only of prophets, kings, and people of the highest eminence. It is an honorific used in speaking about someone, not part of his name as such.

Haji, Hajj: "Pilgrim." Title acquired by a man who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Its female equivalent is Hajiyyah. It is most commonly born by clergy and merchants. A "Haji Mulla Muhammad" would be a cleric, while a "Haji Muhammad" would most likely be a pious merchant.

Imam: (1) One of the twelve descendants of the prophet Muhammad who were, according to the Shi`ites, his legiimate successors. (2) The leader of public prayers in a mosque. (3) In modern usage, a Shi`ite cleric of high rank.

Jinab: "Threshold." Used before a name in the form "Jinab-i so-and-so." It is used in speaking about someone important, learned, or holy, but is less deferential than "Hadrat."

Karbala'i: Title acquired by one who has visited the Shrine of the Imam Husayn in Karbala. It is a less prestigious title than Haji.

Mashhadi: Title acquired by one who has visited the tomb of the Imam Rida in Mashhad in northwestern Iran. Because a visit to Mashhad was less expensive than a pilgrimage to Mecca or Karbala, this title tends to indicate a lower social class than Haji and Karbala'i.

Mir: a contraction of "Amir," "prince," indicating descent from Muhammad. It is equivalent to "Sayyid."

Mirza: contraction of "Amirzada," "son of a prince." Prefixed to a name, it indicates that the person is roughly equivalent socially to a minor government official. As such it could indicate anyone from a person who simply was literate to a high government official who was not a member of one of the ruling tribes. However, after a name it means "prince." Thus, Mirza `Ali might be a clerk, whereas `Ali Mirza would be the son or grandson of the Shah.

Mulla: A Shi`i clergyman. Most mullas were professional clerics, but the title was also sometimes used by those who had some theological training but who earned a living some other way.

Pahlavan: a brave and athletic man. In the nineteenth century, it seems to be a polite title for lutis, the street toughs and gangsters who played a major role in the towns, frequently in alliance with the clergy.

Sayyid: a descendant of Muhammad. Originally, the title meant "lord" or "chief." It is the modern Arabic word for "mister."

Shaykh: Elder. In Bahá'í history this title is usually used for Arab clerics.

Sultan: King or sovereign. The usual title of the head of the Ottoman Empire.

Ustad: master craftsman.

c. Titles used after the given name — e.g., Muhammad Khan, Muhammad Big, etc.—usually indicate high social station.

`Ali-Shah: Title of certain mystical leaders in ninteenth century Iran.

Bagum: Lady, Dame. The female equivalent of Big. A title of respect for a woman.

Big: (pronounced "bay") In Iran a title of middle-ranking officials, especially military. In Turkey it was a title of nobility.

Jan: "Heart." It is sometimes used as a following title and indicates affection or affectionate respect.

Khan: A secular title of nobility. In ninteenth century Iran it was used by high government officials who were not members of the royal family, especially those from the Turkish tribes that formed much of the ruling class in Iran. In the early twentieth century, it was used by middle-class men.

Khanum: Title of respect or affection for women. In modern Persian, it precedes the name and means Miss or Mrs.

Mirza: When placed after the given name, a prince.

Pasha: Title given to high political or military officials in the Ottoman Empire.

Pur: Son of, placed after the name. It is a common element of modern surnames.

Shah: King. Placed after the given name, it is the title of the kings of Iran. Placed before a name, it indicates a saint or his shrine or a leader of mystics. Thus, Nasir al-Din Shah was the king of Iran, but Shah `Abd al-`Azim was the tomb of a descendant of an imam. See also "`Ali-Shah" above.

Wazir: Minister. Title of the holder of a high government post.

Zada: Son of, placed after the name. It is a common element in modern surnames.

d. Names from places, tribes, and family. People with similar names were commonly distinguished by their place of origin, tribe, or ancestor. Such names go at the end of the full name and usually end in -i, a suffix roughly meaning "of." Some examples are:

Shirazi, Isfahani, Rashti, Nuri—of Shiraz, Isfahan, Rasht, and Nur. Sometimes in Persian the -i is not used, as in Salih-i `Arab (for `Arabi), meaning Salih the Arab. It should be noted that these names frequently refer to where the individual or his ancestor used to live, rather than where he currently is: Shaykh `Abd al-Rahman was known to the Babis in Baghdad as "Kirkuki," because he lived in Kirkuk, but in Kirkuk, where everyone was "Kirkuki," he was known as Talibani, the name of his family. Occasionally, such names are the proper names of families, such as Bahaullah's family, the Nuris.

e. Names from professions: People were frequently nicknamed according to their professions, such as Banna (builder), Mujtahid (jurisconsult), Mustawfi (accountant), Katib (copyist), Qahvachi (coffee-maker), and Ashtchi (soup-maker).

f. Titles of nobility (laqab, pl. alqab.) These took the form of two-word phrases, usually in Arabic, such as Mu`tamid al-Dawla (Trust of the State, title of a governor), Malik al-Shu`ara (King of Poets, title of a prominent poet), Ra'is al-Tujjar (Chief of the Merchants, title of an important businessman), Amir-Nizam ("Chief of State," title of the Prime Minister). Under the Qajars such titles were granted by the Shah and were graded to indicate the bearer's occupation and importance. There were similar titles for noblewomen. New titles were often given with promotions. Titles were sometimes, but not always, inherited. In the time of the Bab such titles were restricted to people of considerable importance. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the system had been thoroughly corrupted, thousands of titles having been granted by dishonest clerks. The system was abolished by Rida Shah as part of his modernization of personal names in 1925 but these titles sometimes continued in informal use or were adapted to form the newly required modern surnames.

These titles of nobility were either used after the proper name and titles or in place of it. Thus, the Iranian ambassador to Turkey might be known as Haji Mirza Husayn Khan Mushir al-Dawla or just by his title of nobility, Mushir al-Dawla.

Bahá'í religious titles sometimes were formed on the model of these titles of nobility, as in Mahbub al-Shuhada ("Beloved of Martyrs").

g. Women's names. These followed the same patterns as men's names. However, because women were seldom in contact with many people outside their own families, their names were generally simpler. Frequently, they were known by such titles as Khanum Jan or Bagum Khanum. These really meant no more than "Grandma" or "the Madam," but in a society where women were not likely to be known outside their family, they were sufficient. In cases where women were known, they acquired names, titles, and nicknames in the same way men did.

h. Arab names. Occasionally classical Arabic names are found in Bahá'í literature. These take the following form:

[given name] ibn (son of) [father's name] ibn [grandfather's name] etc. These may be preceded by an honorific title (laqab) such as Qutb al-Din (Axis of the Faith) or Nasir al-Din (Champion of the Faith). After this comes a name of the form "Abu Muhammad," meaning "Father of Muhammad," where Muhammad is, usually, the name of the man's eldest son. Then comes the given name and chain of ancestors. Finally there are names ending in -i identifying the man's home city, tribe, or family.

Thus the thirteenth century scientist known as Qutb al-Din Abu al-Thana' Mahmud ibn Mas`ud ibn al-Muslih al-Shirazi. His given name was Mahmud, his father's name was Mas'ud, and his grandfather's al-Muslih. Qutb al-Din was a respectful title meaning "Pole of the Faith." Abu al-Thana' means "father of praise," a polite euphemism substituting for the patronymic he would have borne had he fathered a son. "Shirazi" indicates that he came from Shiraz; before he left Shiraz he had been known as "Kazaruni," from Kazarun, his family's ancestral home. In practice, he is most commonly known as Qutb al-Din Shirazi, a form of his name that his mother would not have recognized.

The full name is not usually used, and people are generally known by some distinctive portion of the name. Thus there are people famous in Islamic history known as Mu`awiya (the given name), Khalil ibn Ahmad (given and father's name), Abu-Bakr (name of eldest son), Ibn-`Arabi (name of an ancestor), Nizam al-Mulk (honorific title), and al-Farabi (name of home city).

i. Turkish names. Such Turkish names as are found in Bahá'í history are usually those of government officials and are rather similar to Iranian names, although the titles have different meanings. The reader should be aware, however, that because the modern Republic of Turkey has adopted the Roman alphabet, Ottoman Turkish names may be found spelled either according to the transliteration scheme for the Arabic alphabet or according to modern Turkish spelling. Thus, Muhammad may also be spelled Mehmet, reflecting Turkish pronunciation. Modern Turks use western-style given and surnames.

j. Examples of Persian names. The following are few examples to aid the reader in interpreting ninteenth century Persian names.

Sayyid `Ali-Muhammad-i Shirazi: the Bab. "Sayyid" indicates he was a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. "`Ali-Muhammad" was his given name and combines the names of the Prophet and his adopted son, the first imam. "Shirazi" indicates that he came from the town of Shiraz.

Mulla Husayn-i Bushru'i, also known as Bab al-Bab: "Mulla" indicates that he had had a religious education. "Husayn" was his given name, for the third imam, and is a shortened form of his full name, which was Muhammad-Husayn. "Bushru'i" is from Bushruya, the village he came from. "Bab al-Bab" is a title meaning "Gate of the Gate," given him by the Bab in recognition of his having been the first believer.

Mulla Abu al-Hasan-i Ardikani, also known as Haji Amin and Amin-i Ilahi: "Mulla" indicated that he had a religious education. "Abu al-Hasan" is his given name; it means "Father of Hasan" and is a form of the name of an imam. He came from Ardikan. "Haji" means "pilgrim"; while it usually refers to someone who has been to Mecca, in this case it probably refers to his having been the first outside Bahá'í to visit Bahaullah in `Akka. "Amin-i Ilahi" means "trustee of God"; he was the trustee of the huququ'llah, the religious tax payable to Bahaullah.

Manuchihr Khan Mu`tamid al-Dawla, the governor of Isfahan who befriended the Bab. "Manuchihr" was his given name, the name of a legendary hero of pre-Islamic Iran; since he was actually a slave of Christian origin, most likely this name was given to him by his owner rather than by his parents. "Khan" is the title of a high official, usually not of Persian origin. "Mu`tamid al-Dawla" means "trust of the state" and was a title of nobility granted by the Shah.

Mulla Muhammad-i Zarandi, also known as Nabil-i A`zam or Nabil-i Zarandi. His given name was Muhammad and he had a very modest religious education. He came from the village of Zarand. Bahaullah gave him the title of Nabil-i A`zam, "the Most Great Nabil," "Nabil" being numerically equivalent to "Muhammad." He was called "Nabil-i A`zam" or "Zarandi" to distinguish him from several other Muhammads also known as "Nabil."

Asiya Khanum, also known as Navvaba Khanum, Navvab, Buyuk Khanum, and Waraqiy-i `Ulya: the first wife of Bahaullah. Her given name was Asiya. "Khanum," "lady," is added for politeness, as it would be for any respectable lady. "Navvab," "Navvaba," and "Buyuk" all mean, roughly, "Madam" or "Lady." Within the household there would be no need for surnames or the like to tell who was meant. "Waraqiy-i `Ulya" means "Most exalted leaf." Since the Manifestation of God is symbolized by a tree, a leaf is a female member of the holy family. Her daughter Bahiyya Khanum bore this title after her death.

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