December 30, 2006
In Iraq, how can one tell Sunnis from Shi'ites by their names?
A few days ago, our colleague Jim Henley wrote the following post:
Iraqi Onomastics Bleg
You know what would be great? A handy internet reference that identifies common Iraqi given names as “Sunni,” “Shiite” or “Ambiguous.” We know that death squads shoot people for having the wrong name. And we know that anyone quoted in a media story is going to be situated in Iraq’s ethnic/sectarian conflict, whether he or she wants to be or not. It would be useful to be able to see a name and know the speaker’s religious identity.
Indeed, it would be neat for many in the West to have lists of Sunni and Shi'ite names handy. Alas, reality isn't so kind.
While it is true that there are some names that almost certainly identify their bearers as members of a distinct ethno-religious group, the general situation is too complex to delineate a sure method to obtain a label from a name only.
Here a short overview:
1. As Arab Iraqis generally do not give their children Kurdish names (one exception mentioned below), most likely anyone with a Kurdish name is going to be a Kurd. Of course, in order to recognize this one would have to know what names are Kurdish, or at least not Arabic. That's easy for those who speak Arabic and those who speak Kurdish or Persian. Some lists are here, here, and here.
2. The reverse of #1 is NOT true. Many Kurds in Iraq have Arabic first names, the most famous examples being Jalal Talabani (President of Iraq) and Mas'ud Barzani (President of the Kurdistan Region). In the first case, the family name is Kurdish, whereas in the second case one would have to know that the family name Barzani (i.e. someone from Barzan) has to be Kurdish because Barzan is a Kurdish town. As Kurds tended to not have "family names" when forced to pick one (like in the case of obtaining a passport or emigrating to a Western country where they needed to provide one for bureaucratic purposes) many Kurds chose the name of their home village or town, making them thus recognizable as Kurds (if you know which villages and towns are Kurdish, that is). Interestingly enough, one of Saddam Hussein's half-brothers is named "Barzan" ...
3. Among Iraqi Christians there are some decidedly Christian names like Yohanna (John), Mikha'il (Michael), Butros (Peter), etc.
6. Then there are some names where it is more likely than not that the bearers belong to a certain group or can be excluded from one. Obviously it is clear that Muslims would not give their Children decidedly Christian names, hence a "Mikha'il" won't be Muslim.
Some Muslim names are almost never found among Shi'ites: those of the 2nd and 3rd caliphs (Omar and Uthman), since they are perceived to have sidelined Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Some names are more likely to be born by a Shi'ite than a Sunni: Ali, Ridha, Ja'far. Many would instinctively include Hussein, as it seems to be "so classically Shi'ite" but as fate had it, the fact that Saddam Hussein ruled the country resulted in many a Sunni family naming their boy after the dictator, thus making foreign journalists' and analysts' work even harder ... (Also, remember the late King Hussein of Jordan.)
Now, the obvious question arises: Just how do those killers at the roadblocks know who is who?
They triangulate using name, family name, father's name, and address - all of which are on the ID Card or the passport. For instance, a man named Khalid from Najaf who's father's name is Ja'far is Shi'ite. A person named Hussein al-Tikriti is Sunni, since there are no Shi'ites in Tikrit (Saddam's hometown). Also, certain tribes only have members of a single group - Kurds, Sunnis, or Shi'ites. However, some of the biggest, like the Shammar, have both Sunni and Shi'ite members.
And so on and so forth.
Of course, Iraqis know which families of which tribe are Sunni or Shi'ite or Kurdish. And the same goes for family names in mixed towns. But for the outsider, unless is bleeding obvious (like Shirzad Sinjari or Yohanna Mikha'il or Omar Uthman al-Tikriti or Ali Ridha Hussein al-Najafi) it is next to impossible to pin it down.
For those of us with ties to Lebanon, this evokes memories of the favorite game: "Guess the sect!" Lebanese are masters at figuring out a compatriot's sectarian identity in less than three questions. The first is after the name; the second after the place of residence; and the third either about the place of education or some current issue on which the different groups have distinct opinions (could be political, or cultural, or anything really ...).
(The perpetrators of the ID Card killings during the Lebanese Civil War where Christians and Muslims were killed because of their sectarian identity had it much easier than their Iraqi "colleagues": until after the war, one's religion was printed on the ID Card)
A few years ago, a Beiruti designer, Tammam Hassan Yamout, created a "Sectarian Identification System" that was included in SHIFT! magazine's "Greetings from Beirut" edition.
And for the outsider there could be, again, some surprises. For instance, after seeing the Hizballah chieftain in the news all the time many outside Lebanon would think that "Nasrallah" is a 100% Shi'ite name. Hmmm ... how about Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite Patriarch?
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hence a "Mikha'il" won't be Muslim
Actually, I personally know at least two Muslims whose name is Mikha'il. That one can be classified as ambiguous as well I guess.
Posted by: Shaheen at December 30, 2006 09:51 PM
My question is why, in all news accounts, it seems every Iraqi is named Jassem or some variant thereof?
Posted by: matthew h at December 31, 2006 01:32 AM
I don't understand the nomenclature totally, but I notice among my Christian Lebanese relatives that there are many Arabic names also used by Muslims: Fouad, Selim, Khalil, Nabil, Jamil, Jamal and so forth. My own name is ambiguous until you get the middle name (Elias); the hometown confuses people involved with the Palestinian movement because it's the site of a prominent camp. Lebanese get it, though. Yes, even without my middle name, the home village tells Lebanese volumes - not just religion but sect and social class.
A story about names: one of the families in our village goes by the name Dib, which means Wolf. My father was telling me a story about the Dibs, and mentioned that they used to be called Tooma - Thomas. Oh really? --Yes, they changed their family name. Why? --Because they thought Tooma was too Jewish.
This seemed ironic to me, the American, that a whole family would change its name from Thomas to Wolf in order to sound LESS JEWISH. Wolf in America is a name that would lead people to think you might be Jewish - Thomas, never.
Posted by: Leila at December 31, 2006 02:36 AM
Toom'ah in Hebrew means "impure." But it's never used as a name for obvious reasons.
I wonder why this family would've thought that Tooma or even Thomas would be Jewish. After all, Thomas was a disciple of Jesus wasn't he?
People do the strangest things for the strangest reasons.
"Toom'ah in Hebrew means "impure." But it's never used as a name for obvious reasons.
"I wonder why this family would've thought that Tooma or even Thomas would be Jewish. After all, Thomas was a disciple of Jesus wasn't he?"
A Jewish disciple, yes. So it must have been used as a name at least once.
Posted by: NickDanger at December 31, 2006 03:32 AM
"I wonder why this family would've thought that Tooma or even Thomas would be Jewish. Thomas was a disciple of Jesus wasn't he?"
Um, not to get to too pedantic, but Jesus' apostles were all Jewish. As was the big guy himself.
Though I suspect that that wasn't the basis for the sounds-like-it-could-be business.
Back to pedantry, the origin of the name Thomas is Aramaic, apparently the word for twin, Ta'uma.
Posted by: matthew hogan at December 31, 2006 03:42 AM
are those two Muslim Mikha'ils Iraqi? I never came across Muslim Iraqis with such obvious Christian names. In other countries/regions that might be different.
Jasim is a typical Iraqi (& Kuwaiti) name. In every country there are some names that seem to be overrepresented. But sometimes what happened to you might just be coincidence. It happens. Example: For years on end, every single Jordanian I met was named Muhammad, even inside Jordan...
what you pointed out for Lebanon would fall under #5. There are lots of Arabic names that are "non-denominational", if you will. Of course, it differs by region. A name used by Muslims, Christians, and Druze in Lebanon might be one only used by Muslims in Iraq.
As I pointed out, Lebanon is the mothership of "identify the sect". Those coming from non-mixed places are easiest to label. All others have undergo the "3 questions" test.
While, obviously, all of Jesus' disciples had Judeo-Aramaic or Greek names, it is interesting that some of the biblical names have become - and after the Muslim invasion stayed - "Christian" (like Toma, Yohanna, Hanna, Butros, Bulos, Mikha'il) while others have been adopted by Muslims and are now "non-denominational" (like Yusuf).
Posted by: MSK at December 31, 2006 07:28 AM
One is Tunisian, the other one is a French Arab (of Algerian or Tunisian origin I would guess).
In answer to Leila, Elias is also used by Muslims - in the Maghreb at least.
Posted by: Shaheen at December 31, 2006 08:34 AM
yeah, that would explain it. As I said - my post was about Iraq.
Yet another argument against that silly notion of a uniform Muslim, or even just Arab, culture/society.
Posted by: MSK at December 31, 2006 09:23 AM
Another issue in Iraq are those of mixed sunni-shia origins. The numbers of mixed marriages may not be numerically huge but it's certainly not unheard in the cities.
I'm of mixed Sunni-Shia Iraqi Arab origins. My first name is very shi'i in Lebanon, very alwai in Syria (this was a major pain in the arse) and very shi'i in Iraq. My surname has strong Sunni clerical overtones. This usually puts people into a state of confusion as they safely assume my shi'ism in my first name but are confused by the stark contrast with the surname. I do sometimes feel like I should be waging a one man civil war against myself.
To mix it up even more my brother has an arabic name usually associated with Christians (not of a Butrus or Boulos vintage though), while my other brother has a non-denominational Arabic name. Overall I think my parents were just taking the piss really.
Posted by: Abu Dolma at December 31, 2006 10:14 AM
'it is interesting that some of the biblical names have become - and after the Muslim invasion stayed - "Christian" ... while others have been adopted by Muslims and are now "non-denominational"'
It's not that interesting. The biblical names which are also used by Muslims are the ones usually found in the Quran. You mentioned Yosef. There's also Zakaria, Ya'kob, Yahya (aka Yohanna), Mariam etc. It's nothing to do with any Muslim invasion.
Posted by: Ali K at December 31, 2006 11:34 AM
I guess you'd have to know a little bit of Shia/Sunni history to realise why certain first names are underrepresented in one sect or the other.
A Shia usually won't be:
Omar, Othman, Abu Bakr, Yazid, Abdul Rahman, Khalid, Aisha, Mus'ab or any of the people usually thought of as Salaf.
A Sunni usually won't be:
Ali, Hussain, Redha, Ali Akbar, Ja'far, Mahdi, Mohammed Ali, Mortadha, Hashem or any of the people usually thought of as Ahl Albait. An exception is Sunni's of Hashemite heritage.
Posted by: Ali K at December 31, 2006 12:18 PM
the stress is on "usually".
Your examples are the classic ones, which I referred to under #6.
Of course, apart from the fact that "Abu Bakr" isn't a name one gives a child (it just doesn't work), there are local/regional differences. As I pointed out, because of Saddam Hussein there are many Sunni Iraqis named Hussein.
And the vast majority of given names in Iraq (and the rest of the Mashriq) are non-specific, that is the bearer could be either Sunni or Shi'ite or even Christian.
And as the original question was "Can one tell from the name?", the answer remains "Except for some clear-cut cases, no."
Posted by: MSK at December 31, 2006 12:26 PM
'the stress is on "usually"'
Indeed that's why it's there. I am not arguing against any of what you said. Just thought to give a bit of explanation.
There are actually people named Abu Bakr.
Posted by: Ali K at December 31, 2006 12:36 PM
And of course the whole Sunni-Shia name divide breaks down in the Maghreb where the Shia divisions died out long ago. Maghrebines seem to have a hard time understand Shia and Sunni actually, on the gut level.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 31, 2006 12:55 PM
definitely. E.g. most of the "Ahl Albait names" are extremely common in the (traditionally Sunni) Maghreb...
Posted by: Shaheen at December 31, 2006 01:57 PM
Your explanation is very much appreciated. All in all - this is a very productive discussion thread.
As for "There are actually people named Abu Bakr" - some people just stop at nothing ... I can remember that name from "the olden times" - but these days? Seriously? Is it one of those things for which we can blame "those weird Maghrebis"?
Posted by: MSK at December 31, 2006 05:07 PM
I would blame it on non-Arabic speakers, mate. Don't be a narrow minded araoubi snob.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at December 31, 2006 05:36 PM
The Lounsbury is absolutely right on the total breakdown of the fine theories on sunni and shi'i first names - being a muslim Moroccan (there are a few jewish Moroccans as well, and the law acknowledges the existence of non-jewish and non-muslim Moroccans), and thus a sunni, I have Ali, Jaafar, Reda and Mehdi among my close parents, and two of my best friends are Aboubakr (or Boubker in the local version). And yes, the distinction between sunnis and shi'i is about as clear in the mind of the average Moroccan as the distinction between jacobites and melkites in the mind of the average Swede. Having had shi'i friends abroad, I've often had to rebutt assumptions that shi'i aren't muslims, that they don't believe in the Prophet, that they don't read the Koran, etc...
I suppose this abysmal ignorance about the shi'i evens out the Machrek arabs' abysmal ignorance of all things Maghrebi...
Posted by: Ibn Kafka at December 31, 2006 09:10 PM
"the distinction between sunnis and shi'i is about as clear in the mind of the average Moroccan as the distinction between jacobites and melkites in the mind of the average Swede."
The distinction may not be clear in their minds but that doesn't mean there isn't one, as you pointed out in your examples. If it is in the sense that Shias are viewed as a distinct group then the divide does not break down in the Maghreb at all. It's the silly names business that does.
This reminds of Zacarias Moussaoui. The name Moussaoui (or Mousawi) is classic Shia in Lebanon or Iraq.
Posted by: Ali K at December 31, 2006 09:49 PM
Afraid there really isn't in the minds of most Maghrebines a distinction between Shia and Sunni. Since they haven't grown up with that, the division is as Ibn Kafka notes, either doesn't exist in their heads (Muslims are Muslims....) or they believe queer things the short-thobed ones pimp in their neo-Salafi preaching.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at January 1, 2007 06:54 AM
As for "There are actually people named Abu Bakr" - some people just stop at nothing ... I can remember that name from "the olden times" - but these days? Seriously? Is it one of those things for which we can blame "those weird Maghrebis"
Probably, yes. I've met several people from the Maghreb area whose proper names were Abou Bakr or Boubkeur. Plus there seems to be lots of non-Arab Boubkeurs in Senegal and the rest of French W. Africa.
Speaking of Zacarias, I've heard that the Syrian authorities used to stamp the ID cards of Syrian Jews "Musawi", for Moses (Mussa). If someone could explain the ins and outs of Judeo-Arab naming conventions I'd love to see more on that. What names do Sephardi Jews from Arabic-speaking societies have in common with Arab neighbours? And has this changed a lot since 48? Would Haroun ar-Rachid still be a kosher name for a Caliph in Baghdad?
Posted by: alle at January 3, 2007 04:55 AM
i wonder if it depends on where the jewish arab came from? a lot of iraqi jewish families seem to be kurdish. my fam, not from arab country but from iran, is still mixed with kurdish and arabic, though is actually aramaic.
with mizrachis today, the young ones usually don't have real arabic sounding names, they're more hebrew. but thats not necessarily a new thing- a lot of the old ones have classic hebrew names as well. some of the older ones have a situation in which they were renamed.
for my grandmother, that's what happened at least. there were different orphanages for mizrachis at that time, and they renamed them to hebrew names. My grandmother was named Maisun, which I think is Arabic (I've met Palestinans with that name). Her sister was Almas (I think thats Kurdish?), their brothers were Shimon and some other things I don't recall. BUut my grandmother (and then me) grew up Aliza, an "old-fashioned" Israeli name.
It must all be a pendulum of acculturation, though. Her mother (my great grandmother) was named Sarah (real name, not Israeli named). Maybe then the kids got names that weren't blatantly Jewish- perhaps as that family got acculturated? And then, in Israel, the kids were given Hebrew names by the govt/authorities if young enough, and those that were old enough to keep their real names gave Hebrew names to their kids.
I've met other Arabic Jews with a variety of names. It's really the older ones with the Arabic-sounding names. One from-Syria guy named Rami. Rami is a commonish Israeli name- it sounds good in Hebrew too. Moroccan family named Funni, but he is Moroccan from way back, generations in Israel. Another Shimon. A famous name I can think of is Sami Michael, the Israeli author from Iraq. Sami Shalom Chetreet is a famous mizrachi guy from these days- I dont know where he's born though. Yemenite family have typical Jewish names- Naomi, Noam, Elifaz, Sarah.
RE unique Arabic names- Abubakr is quite a load, but yeah, I met some kids with that name in France. The uniquest name I ever met, though, was in Egypt. A sweet little 15 year old named--- get this--- ABU ALA AL-MA'ARI. (after a famous, really amazing, but kinda dark and depressing poet)
The father was very unique. But talk about a load on a kid.
Posted by: lisa at January 4, 2007 06:11 PM
Harun (a.k.a. Aron) was a prophet mentioned in the Qur'an, so the rule for Yusuf/Zakaria/Maryam applies to Harun as well.
And Harun al-Rashid would be a perfect (and 100% halal) name for any caliph anywhere ... except that it's next to impossible to live up to.
It is a bit like asking if George Washington is an acceptable name for a U.S. president.
PS: On Jews in the Arab world, this site is currently making the rounds: www.thejewsoflebanon.org
Posted by: MSK at January 4, 2007 06:50 PM