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Been wandering more around the Science Museum site (still unwell, going to have to cancel today's math lesson, which is a real pain as it's with a pupil who's only on her second lesson).

I've had an interest in Arab/Muslim science for many years - goes back to the days when I was running an RPG set in that culture - so I've been visiting that part of their web site. A frustration I've often found with the names of the scientists is that they are offered with no translation - and the names are so long and complex and full of cultural elements that translation would often be interesting.

eg. Let's take

Ala al-Din Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn Abi-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (Ibn al-Nafis)

who discovered that blood from the right to the left side of the heart via the lungs (and thus corrected some of Galen's mistakes), wrote a massive medical encyclopaedia and other stuff.

Ala al-Din (the original version of Aladdin) - means "excellence of religion" (a bit like calling a Christian girl 'Faith') There's often a descriptive element like this in a name. It's called the 'laqab'

Abu al-Hassan - means that he's the father of Hassan (normally only the first son is included in the father's name) (called the 'kunya)

Ali - probably his personal name (known as the 'ism')

ibn Abi-Hazan - means he's the son of Abi-Hazan (I'm getting nowhere on abi-Hazan, though there appears to be a modern (I think) Sufi musician by that name.) (the patronymic is called the 'nasab')

al-Qarshi - don't know. Probably a geographical name of some kind. Ah, a bit more research gives me a guess of 'from Cairo' (which is where he worked as an adult) Cairo (Arabic: القاهرة transliteration: al-Qāhira), which means "the triumphant" (I could be totally wrong, but it's at least plausible)

al-Dimashqi - he was born near Damascus and studied medicine there. This element could well mean 'from Damascus' (occupational, geographical or tribal elements to a name are called 'nisba')

Ibn al-Nafis - this one took me quite a while to find. It probably means 'son of 'the precious'' - no, not a Gollum reference...

When you get two ibn s, then normally one would be the father and the other the grandfather, but here, I'm confused as they aren't one after the other.

Also, it's worth noting that Ibn al-Nafis was not actually part of his formal name - however, it's the name he's known to historians by. This suggests that it was some kind of title bestowed on him - but I have no idea whether it was a formal title, or one that reflects the importance of his work.  (a bit like the 'Venerable' Bede)

If anyone knows what this part of his name means - or indeed why he was given the name - I'd really like to know. (clearly is is 'son of' something, but the family name element is there in his full name, so why the alternate name?  An adoptive parent?  A valued teacher?  Something like 'son of medicine'?)

Arabic names are used in different ways at different times. As a kid, he might have been Ali. When his first son was born, people would probably have called him Abu al-Hassan most of the time.  On very formal occasions, the entire name would have been used. What I can't tell is whether Ibn al-Nafis was a name actually used during his lifetime.  (I was going to look up Avicenna for an example of a name bestowed on a scientist by later generations, but that turns out to be a Romanisation of Ibn Sina - so it's more of a transliteration)

All ideas/inspirations/random thoughts welcome.


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Judith Proctor


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