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Unlocking Islamic Names

Hanley, Will

Schmidtke, Sabine

Personal names are data repositories. The Islamic scholarly tradition tells us as much: the parsing of names and their placement in genealogical series and scholarly lineages is a durable feature of many genres over many centuries. Read in this way, names are signifiers for persons, and those persons are nodes in the networks that constitute Islamic society. But this prosopographic approach is not the only way to extract meaning from names. Names are also language artifacts that can teach us about language and culture independently of the person that they signify. This paper describes a path of analysis that seeks to understand something of the lives of ordinary people by means of the names they carried. Most names that appear in the historical archive can never be reconciled to any notable person. These names offer clues about the social context of their bearers, however, and these context clues can be read back over history’s pool of names in such a way as to enrich our understanding of Middle Eastern pasts.

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