The Ambiguity of Maternal Filiation (nasab) in Early and Medieval Islam


Adeel Mohammadi

Master of Theological Studies, Harvard Divinity School, 2016

JD Candidate, Yale Law School, 2019


1. Introduction

Classical Arabic names can include up to five elements:[1]

1) the ism/ʿalam, or the given name[2]

2) the kunyah, or the paedonym, e.g. Abū Walīd (the father of Walīd)

3) the nasab, or the lineage/genealogy, e.g. ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (the son of ʿAbd al-Barr)

4) the nisbah, or the relational name, e.g. al-Rāzī (the one from the city Rayy)

5) the laqab, or the nickname, e.g. al-Jāḥiẓ (the one with protruding eyes)

It is the third category, the nasab, which is the topic of this present paper. While the nasab can refer specifically to the patronym (or, as this paper argues, the matronym), nasab also refers to a person’s genealogy more broadly.

            Discussions of nasab have tended to focus on the patrilineal, to the exclusion of the matrilineal. On some level, this is to be expected, as the identity of one’s father is not always obvious; maternal identity, on the other hand, is established by her giving birth. Paternity is more often challenged than maternity, and so discussions of paternal nasab are expected to be more prevalent. Additionally, assumptions about misogyny in Islamic societies might make discussions of maternal nasabs seem irrelevant for the social realities of individuals living in these societies. It is the argument of this paper, however, that maternal nasabs are an important dimension to understanding the institution of the nasab and should not be ignored.

Filiation to the mother was indeed a phenomenon recorded in the biographical sources—men being called Fulān ibn Fulānah, or ‘so-and-so, son of so-and-so (i.e. his mother).’ The jurists also construct the maternal nasab as part of a child’s rights, placing it alongside paternal filiation as a necessary ingredient to an individual’s efficacious participation in society. Yet we also observe that maternal nasabs are ambiguous, carrying with them various negative social stigmas, particularly since children born out of zinā (illicit sexual relations) and liʿān (calumniation)[3] have no paternal nasab and must therefore use their maternal nasabs.

This paper investigates the ambiguous institution of the maternal nasab by going through historical examples of individuals called by their maternal nasab (matronym), and the various positive and negative aspects of its use. We also examine the way the jurists—in particular Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Sarakhsī (d. c. 483/1090), a prominent Central Asian jurist of the Ḥanafī school—have constructed the maternal nasab as part of the child’s right. We begin, however, with an exploration of the various roles genealogy and filiation have played in Islamic societies broadly.

2.1 Nasab as genealogy and lineage

Many scholars have commented on the importance of genealogy for the early Arabs, both before and after the advent of Islam.[4] Nasabs played key roles in the practical matters of identifying and differentiating people. In the Umayyad period, for example, administrative exigencies including the payment of stipends and the allocation of land made the identification of individuals necessary, leading to a rising interest in genealogy and genealogists (nassābah).[5]

Besides helping identify individuals, the institution of the nasab—stretching back numerous generations—also affected the way Arabs organized and periodized history. Tarif Khalidi, interested in the development of historical thought in Islam, argues that for the early Arabs, “Nasab must be thought of first as an organizing principle, an epistemic instrument which relates history by arranging it in a family-tree structure.”[6] Accordingly, nasabs that stretch back generations were analytical tools that colored the way early Arabs understood and narrated their history.

Nasabs also played an important role in social organization and differentiation, as exemplified by the well-attested trope of ‘ḥasab wa-nasab.’ In pre-Islamic Arab societies, great pride was taken in establishing that one’s nasab was free of blemish, while the parallel ḥasab (noble, acquired qualities) of ancestors combined to create a glorious pedigree. After the advent of Islam, the two terms started to contrast, with the ḥasab being a way for those with unremarkable nasabs to also establish a name for themselves by accomplishing noteworthy feats.[7]

Khalidi argues that as the early Islamic empire came to include non-Arabs and the old Arab tribal aristocracy lost its importance especially in the ʿAbbāsid period, genealogy also fell in importance. Eventually, genealogy’s place was relegated, according to Khalidi, for the pious purpose of “know[ing] the nasab of Muḥammad and for marriage and inheritance purposes.”[8] This seems to be an exaggeration on the part of Khalidi, for it is clear that nasab remained a very integral form of social organization, even well after the ʿAbbāsid revolution. Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih (d. 328/940) dedicates a chapter in his al-ʿIqd al-Farīd to nasab, saying that “whoever does not know lineage does not know people, and whoever does not know people is not considered one of mankind.”[9] In other words, “ignorance of nasab ultimately means exclusion from humanity.”[10] The nasab’s important stretched beyond the goal of mere identification—it was a fundamental part of individual’s participation in society, a key consideration in the way society was organized.

This is not to say, however, that nasab was not viewed with suspicion for its capacity for insult; the nasab’s power could be as negative as it was positive. Before Islam, al-ṭaʿn fī-l-ansāb (criticism based on nasabs) was not uncommon, especially in poetry; with the advent of Islam, the Prophet[11] forbade this type of criticism, and the practice of calling a convert ‘ibn ʿAbd Allāh was part of this attempt to eliminate genealogical criticism.[12] Yet despite pious attempts, al-ṭaʿn fī-l-ansāb continued. Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih narrates a short but illuminating anecdote about the negative power of the nasab: “Saʿīd ibn al-Musayyib (d. 94/715) was a genealogist, and a man said to him, ‘I want you to teach me genealogy,’ and he said, ‘You only want to exchange insults with people.’”[13] As we shall see below, this capacity for insult embodied in the nasab is an important dimension to understanding the practice of intisāb ilá al-umm, or giving a child nasab to its mother.[14]

2.2 Nasab as filiation

The early Islamic legal doctrine surrounding filiation is built around the maxim ‘al-walad li-l-firāsh (wa-li-l-ʿāhir al-ḥajar),’ ‘the child belongs to the [marriage] bed (and the fornicator is stoned).’[15] This maxim states that the sine qua non of a child’s filiation is the existence of a legitimate sexual relationship between the child’s mother and its genitor. Joseph Schacht has attributed this maxim to the frequency of re-marriages without waiting the ʿiddah (waiting period) of the divorcée, a practice—according to Schacht—common among the Arabs even after the coming of Islam; thus, the fact that immediate remarriages are already banned in the Qurʾān leads him to conclude that “the maxim is, strictly speaking, incompatible with the Koran,” adding that “in the time of Shāfiʿī, there are no legal scholars who take the maxim at its face value.”[16] Uri Rubin has argued instead that the issue of re-marriages is irrelevant to the maxim; al-walad li-l-firāsh, he maintains, is part of an early Islamic attempt to respond to contested paternity claims, called diʿwah, made over the children of prostitute slave-women.[17] Another Prophetic narration, “He who claims a father in Islam who is not his [real] father, knowing that the latter is not his father, shall be barred entrance to Paradise,” must also be seen as part of the Islamic position against false filiations.[18]

The nasab was a key mechanism of social organization, whose establishment was instrumental in identifying and establishing the rights of the individual and his/her relationship to his/her family and society more broadly. Importantly, however, the firāsh doctrine is only useful in establishing filiation of children to their ‘true’ fathers[19] insofar as the ideal situation exists where no woman has illicit sexual relationships; otherwise, a consequence of the firāsh doctrine is the establishment of filiation of children to other than their ‘true’ fathers, as in the case of a married woman whose child is given filiation to her husband while the child’s genitor is someone else. This has led one scholar to but it bluntly that “the firāsh principle was not concerned with genuine paternity.”[20]

It is evident then that nasab’s mandate—particularly as established through the firāsh doctrine—was not merely giving children filiation to their true genitors; it was a means of organizing society by creating an instrument to establish paternity where functionality was as much a goal as was ‘correctness’ in filiation. This is evident in the opinions of the preeminent Ḥanafī jurist Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Abī Sahl al-Sarakhsī (d. c. 490/1097), where he holds that in the case that two men bring equally strong evidence that they fathered the child of a slave-woman, the child should be given filiation to both, since:

nasab to a man is established by considering the firāsh [principle], not through the reality of [the child’s] creation from his sperm; this is because there is no way to know this. Nor [is nasab established] by considering [who engaged in] sexual relations, since this is unknown to all but the sexual partners. Thus, the Law gave to the firāsh [principle] the place of [considerations of whose sperm impregnated the woman and who engaged in sexual relations], to make it easy.[21]  


Paternity, as articulated above, is a legal relationship, not a strictly biological one; thus, according to Sarakhsī, the child born to a woman whose husband is a great distance away (making sexual intercourse physically impossible) will still be given filiation to the man since the child is born to the firāsh.[22]

3. Maternal nasabs

Discussions of nasab often focus on the establishment of paternity,[23] as if the nasab is only relevant vis-à-vis the father; however, the establishment and use of the maternal nasab, I argue, is an important if understudied dimension to the institution of the nasab in general. In what follows, we look at the usage of matronyms as evident through various biographical sources, then examine discussions surrounding the appropriateness of using matronyms, and finally explore legal literature about the establishment of maternal nasabs. 

3.1. Prevalence and examples of maternal nasabs

The question of the prevalence of maternal nasabs is complicated by two methodological factors. First, it is difficult to come up with statistics about the occurrence of maternal nasabs—a future project might try to answer this question by systematically reviewing the biographical dictionaries. Secondly, people were often referred to by multiple nasabs in the biographical dictionaries and reports, sometimes being called by both the nasab of their father and their mother. For example, among the Companions, ʿAmmār b. Yāsir (d. 37/657) is also called ʿAmmār b. Sumayyah;[24] the famed Companion and reciter best known as ʿAbd Allah b. Masʿūd (d. 32/653) is also called ibn Umm ʿAbd after his mother.[25]  

Despite these difficulties, we can safely conclude that the practice of using maternal nasabs was not uncommon, especially in the early generations of Islam. Many of the Companions were known by their maternal nasabs, and we have individual examples of the practice throughout the medieval period. So prevalent is the practice among early generations that al-ʿIrāqī (d. 806/1403) dedicates several lines of his famous Alfiyyah poem on the ḥadīth (Prophetic tradition) sciences to those who are given filiation to other than their fathers:

They were given nasabs to other than their fathers || either to the mother, like the sons of ʿAfrāʾ[26]

[Or] the grandmother, like ibn Munyah,[27] [or] the grandfather || like ibn Jurayj[28] and others.


Students of the Alfiyyah are told to be aware of these nasabs, in order to properly identify narrators and avoid confusion in the chains of transmission. In al-Sakhāwī’s (d. 902/1497) commentary on ʿIrāqī’s Alfiyyah, he presents the names of several additional early narrators—including a dozen among the Companions—who are called by their maternal nasabs. Worth mentioning is the fact that these ḥadīth scholars treat nasabs to mothers, grandmothers, and grandfathers together, which seems to indicate that for their purposes, maternal nasabs are noteworthy only because they are tags of identification, something that students should be cognizant of for the sake of clarity in identifying narrators. Insofar as ḥadīth transmission goes, maternal nasabs are neutral; the issues otherwise implicated by maternal nasabs, including the possibility for family embarrassment, are not relevant for the purposes of isnād criticism. What we can safely conclude from the Alfiyyah and its commentaries is that non-paternal nasabs were a normal part of early Islam.

            Another indispensible source addressing the prevalence of matronymics comes from the well-known litterateur Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb (d. 245/860), who wrote a short pamphlet entitled Kitāb man nusiba ilá ummihi min al-shuʿarāʾ, ‘The book of poets with nasabs to the mothers.’[29] It is possible that his interest in the phenomenon came from his own maternal nasab, as Ḥabīb was the name of his mother.[30] The document lists the names of 37 poets—some famous and others obscure, seemingly chosen at random—all called by their maternal nasabs, along with a few lines of poetry penned by each respectively. Ibn Ḥabīb’s interest in the matronymics of poets was not unique: both Abū ʿUbaydah (d. c. 209/824) and al-Madā’inī (d. c. 228/843) before him and Abū Saʿīd al-Sukkarī (d. 275/888) after him wrote similarly themed pamphlets, though these are lost.[31] The practice of matronymics among early Arab poets was, while worthy of special classification, clearly not alien. G. Levi Della Vida, who edited ibn Ḥabīb’s pamphlet, writes about matronymics:

The custom of calling somebody ‘the son of such a mother,’ instead of giving him his actual name, was not at all uncommon among the early Arabs. Sometimes, it was due to the high reputation of one’s mother, when she was a member of a prominent family; but it could be, too, a term of abuse and point towards some unpleasant fact in one’s family history.[32]


Here, we are reminded of the ambiguity in the practice of matronymics: maternal nasabs have both the positive potential of drawing attention to a noteworthy mother while also carrying the negative threat of revealing some embarrassing detail of one’s family history.

The positive power of the maternal nasab is evident in several examples where men are filiated to their mothers because of some exceptional quality. Abū Bakr b. al-Qūṭiyyah (d. 367/977), a prominent Andalusian historian, was filiated to his mother Sārah al-Qūṭiyyah, who was from the royal family of the Visigoths (Qūṭ) that ruled parts of Spain before the Muslim conquest.[33] The famous Shāfiʿī jurist Tāj al-Dīn b. Bint al-Aʿazz (d. 665/1267) was named as such because his mother was the daughter of the noted jurist al-Aʿazz Fakhr al-Dīn b. Shukr.[34] The Persian chronicler, Ibn Bībī al-Munajjamah (d. after 684/1285), is referred to by a maternal nasab because his mother was a prominent and well-known astronomer.[35]

Alternatively, the maternal nasab could be used to differentiate between the sons of a prominent man with many children, in which case the maternal nasab would be primarily for identification and differentiation. The caliph Marwan I (d. 65/685), besides his usual nasab Marwan b. al-Ḥakam, is sometimes called Marwān b. al-Zarqā’, after his blue-eyed mother.[36] The son of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyyah, is named after his mother, Khawlah, who came from the Ḥanīfah tribe.[37] It is not an exaggeration to say that as the son of ʿAlī, Muḥammad’s paternity and lineage are beyond suspicion; clearly, then, maternal nasabs were used even in the event that one’s paternity was clearly established and one’s father was well respected—the maternal nasab need by no means be negative.

            Yet it is part of the ambiguity of the maternal nasab that it carries the potential for insult. As seen above, the institution of the nasab was often more than a mere tool for identification—it was used to classify someone’s place in society, and could as such be used as a form of criticism. One who is the child of zinā (illicit sexual relations) or liʿān (calumniation) no longer has filiation to his or her father, and therefore must resort to maternal filiation.[38] This classification had potential legal consequences, since a child of zinā could be barred from leading the prayers, giving testimony in certain cases, and even—according to some Twelver Shīʿī jurists—was ritually impure.[39] Yet, in trying to understand the social realities of children born without legitimate fathers, we run into a problem of sources, and as such this aspect of social history remains largely unexplored; as one scholar of medieval Spain has put it, “we know very little about the way in which individual or collective awareness that someone had no recognized father influenced the life conditions of that person and his or her family and social relations.”[40] At best, lacking a legitimate father—and thus having to resort to a maternal nasab—was a neutral social marker; yet it could also result in social exclusion or worse.[41]   

While we might not know much about the social stigma of being an illegitimate child, the maternal nasab could be used to hint at some sort of impropriety in a person’s family history. This is evident in the example of Ziyād b. Abīhi (d. 53/673), a prominent administrator in the Umayyad bureaucracy and the son of a woman named Sumayya. The then caliph Muʿāwiyah announced in 44 A.H. that Ziyād—until then filiated to Sumayya’s husband, ʿUbayd—was actually his half-brother, the son of Abū Sufyān, and gave to him the new nasab Ziyād b. Abī Sufyān. Ziyād was mocked by many for this abrupt change in nasab, but al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī’s criticism stands out in our analysis: in one of their aggressive exchanges, al-Ḥasan—whose family and supporters Ziyād was persecuting—angrily sent an epistle addressed to ‘Ziyād b. Sumayyah.’[42] By using Ziyād’s maternal nasab, al-Ḥasan points out the doubts in the former’s lineage; he uses the maternal nasab because, in his view, there is no certainty in identifying Ziyād’s father. Without a doubt, it is meant as an insult.

            Perhaps the most interesting example of the negative power of the maternal nasab that I have come across is the case of the early scholar Ismāʿīl b. ʿUlayyah (d. 193/809). His mother, ʿUlayyah, was a prominent, intelligent, and noble woman, who owned a house where prominent men and scholars from Basra would call on her (yadkhulūn ʿalayhā), and with whom she would speak and ask questions.[43] Despite this, however, Ismāʿīl is reported to have said: “Whoever says ‘ibn ʿUlayyah’ has slandered against me (ightābanī).”[44] It is clear that Ismāʿīl is referring here to his matronymic, for al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1374), who is reporting this, is quick to comment that this is “bad etiquette (sū’ khulq)” on the part of Ismāʿīl because “the Prophet called multiple Companions with names referring to their mothers, like Zubayr b. Ṣafiyyah and ʿAmmār b. Sumayyah.”[45]

What is puzzling is why Ismāʿīl has this reaction to being called by his maternal nasab, considering that his mother was a prominent and respectable figure. The question of his paternity is never up for question, as all the reports agree that his father, Ibrāhīm, was a respectable trader from Kufa.[46] Instead, I believe that this case points to another dimension of the maternal nasab, which is the issue of private and public information. It is possible that Ismāʿīl was uncomfortable with a maternal nasab because he preferred the name and identity of his mother be kept in the private sphere; Annemarie Schimmel’s observation that “ to know someone’s name means to have power over that person” and the “names must not be mentioned in the case of great people and women” might be relevant in explaining Ismāʿīl’s apprehension at the use of his mother’s name in public.[47]

3.2 Discussions on the appropriateness of calling people by their maternal nasabs

We might expect the starting point for discussion of maternal nasabs in general, and matronymics in particular, to be the Qur’ānic command idʿūhum li-ābā’ihim, “call them by their fathers’ [names].”[48] This injunction is indeed invoked by ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 751/1350) as part of his argument that a child be “called after his father and not after his mother.”[49] This paternal prerogative, to ibn al-Qayyim, is linked with the unilateral right of the father to choose the name (tasmiyyah) of the child. Yet in the classical tafsīrs (Qur’ānic exegeses), this verse is not constructed to be referring to the question of maternal nasabs;[50] rather, it is taken to refer to the practice of giving false nasabs to children, in conjunction with the previous verse, “He has not made those you [falsely] claimed as your children (adʿiyāʾakum) to be your [actual] children.”[51] The exegetes understand this verse in specific reference to the slave of the Prophet, Zayd b. Ḥārithah (d. 8/629) who had been previously called Zayd b. Muḥammad.[52]

While the Qur’ānic injunction is not usually understood as a mandate against maternal nasabs, there is evidence in the Prophetic ḥadīth to this effect, at least in matters of the Hereafter. Abū Dāwūd (d. 275/889) narrates: “On the Day of Judgment, you will be called (tudʿawna) by your names and the names of your fathers; so make your names beautiful.”[53] Ibn al-Qayyim dedicates a full chapter to arguing that people on the Day of Judgment will be called using their fathers’ names in his manual on child-rearing, Tuḥfat al-Mawdūd;[54] however, the purpose of the book indicates to us that ibn al-Qayyim is interested in more than just naming protocol in the Hereafter, and that his argument has implications for this-worldly naming too. Yet the issue of naming in the Hereafter is important: what nasab we will be called by in the Hereafter tells us how God, with His infinite knowledge, identifies human beings and organizes them. It also addresses the question, though in other-worldly circumstances, of what place one’s name and nasab have in the public sphere: after all, the name and nasab by which one is called on that Day are public, revealing whatever potentially unsavory family history is embedded in them.

This point is exemplified in a contradictory ḥadīth in the collection of al-Ṭabarānī (d. 360/971), later criticized by ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201) as fabricated (mawḍūʿ): “On the Day of Judgment, surely God calls people by their mothers’ [names], to protect (satran) [the reputation] of His servants.”[55] One who, throughout his or her life, has been called by a false paternal nasab will be shamed if it is revealed that his or her ‘real’ father is someone else; thus, the mother’s nasab is used according to this narration, since there is less possibility for misattribution. The historian al-Masʿūdī (d. 345/956) adds that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib and his family will be exceptions and will be called by their fathers’ names, since their paternal nasabs are untainted.[56] The considerations of functionality mentioned above, by which the firāsh doctrine has the potential of assigning ‘false’ paternal nasabs, sees its limitations in the Hereafter when God’s infinite knowledge can decide questions of paternity.[57] It is only in the absence of infinite knowledge that the law provides a functional solution—the firāsh doctrine. Yet in the two contradictory ḥadīth we see that the choice between calling people by their maternal or paternal nasabs on the Day of Judgment involves more than just the proper identification of the person; the nasab has the potential to reveal shameful details about one’s lineage, something which filiation to the mother can minimize. Thus, while the use of the maternal nasab in this world runs the risk of revealing embarrassing details of one’s family history, its universal use in the Hereafter can redeem one from that shame.

There exists another ḥadīth, collected by al-Ṭabarānī, in which the Prophet urges the believer to go the grave of his brother and call to the deceased using his matronym, fulān bin fulānah; when asked what to do if his mother’s name is unknown, the Prophet answers that the person should be filiated to Eve, fulān bin Ḥawāʾ.[58] Ibn al-Qayyim, who is not in favor of the use of maternal nasabs, discounts this ḥadīth as weak (ḍaʿīf). But this narration does point out something of the stability that the maternal nasab can provide, such that even the person with an unknown mother is filiated to his ancestral mother, Eve.

3.3. Maternal nasabs in the legal literature

            Legal discussions of maternal nasabs occur mainly in the context of children born from zinā (illicit sexual relations) and liʿān (calumniation). The basic ruling in these cases is that the child is not given filiation to its father and instead its nasab is given to the maternal relatives.[59] This is a key reason why, as we have argued above, matronymics have negative power: the capacity to announce impropriety in one’s lineage. In what follows, we will focus on the major fiqh (legal) work—the Mabsūṭ—of the 5th/11th century Ḥanafī jurist from Central Asia, Sarakhsī, introduced above.

According to Sarakhsī, filiation to the mother is the product of the legal cause (sabab) of birth (wilādah, also infiṣāl),[60] a process that can be visually established (muʿāyan) by the midwife.[61] Conversely, the cause of filiation to the father is his insemination of her womb, a process that is concealed (khafīy).[62] Thus, filiation to the father must be established by the firāsh doctrine—and any child born to a valid firāsh must be filiated to the ṣāhib al-firāsh (the ownder of the firāsh) unless the latter does liʿān.

Liʿān has the legal effect of negating (nafy) the child’s paternal nasab, leaving the child to be attached (ilḥāq) to its mother, resorting to his or her maternal nasab.[63] The paternal nasab is stripped because the father swears that the child is not his. Sarakhsī is explicit by saying that when there is a valid firāsh, the paternal nasab of the child can only be cut through liʿān; even the child of a marriage where the man accuses his wife of zinā and the wife acknowledges it still retains his or her paternal nasab, since in the accusation and acknowledgement of zinā no liʿān has occurred.[64]

As for zinā, the reasoning behind denying the paternal nasab to the walad zinā (the child born out of zinā) is twofold: first, to discourage the man from engaging in zinā in the first place by making sure that his ‘sperm is lost’; and second, that an adulterous woman is likely to have multiple partners, making it possible that even if a paternal nasab were to be given, that it would be incorrect.[65] Yet, the child would still maintain his or her maternal nasab, even though this would entail giving the woman the fruit of her illicit relationship; Sarakhsī responds that it is the doubt (ishtibāh) which makes paternal filiation untenable, a doubt obviated in the mother’s case by the observable legal cause of birthing, which establishes maternity.[66]

The jurists construct the paternal nasab as a right of the child (ḥaqq al-walad). For example, once the nasab has been established to a father by his acknowledgement (iqrār), this nasab can never be revoked or transferred to another person.[67] One of the functions of the nasab, as evident in the law, is to protect the child from social stigmatization that might come from the absence or changing of a nasab. Yet it is worth noting that paternal filiation is not necessarily in the interest of the child, since it is sometimes better to deny paternal filiation, namely to the man who committed zinā:

Denying the child’s nasab to the person who commits zinā is for the right of the child (haqq al-walad). Attaching (ilḥāq) the child to the person who commits zinā is a shame (ʿār) and an announcement of abomination (ishāʿat al-fāḥishah).[68]


Whereas above we saw examples of the maternal nasab carrying the risk of revealing embarrassing details of one’s family history, here it is filiation to the adulterous father that is constructed as a disclosure of such impropriety. The filiation of a walad zinā to his genitor can cause the child social stigmatization, such that the child’s interests are better served if he or she is not filiated to the genitor.

            Interestingly, Sarakhsī—and the jurists in general—do not construct the maternal nasab in this way; in other words, even in the case of the walad zinā, being the child of an adulterous mother does not substantiate cutting off the maternal nasab, even though one would presume that it would carry social stigma as well. In that case, we can only assume that the benefits accrued to the child by having some filiation outweigh the social harm done; in the eyes of the jurists, having a maternal nasab even to an adulterous woman is in the interest of the child.

            The idea that maternal nasabs serve the interest of the child is made clearer in a case where a woman claims to have given birth to a child and a second woman testifies to that effect; however, for whatever reason, this testimony is not accepted and the child is not given filiation to the first woman. The second woman then claims that the child is in fact her own, bringing the requisite witnesses; but Sarakhsī holds that the second’s claim should be rejected, because her initial testimony bars her from future claims to maternity. This ruling, however, does not prevent the child—now without a maternal filiation—from alleging when he gets older that the second woman is his mother:

If the child gets older and alleges that he is her son, and brings two witnesses, then the qāḍī should order his nasab to her—because the son is claiming his right (ḥaqq). Even if his nasab is [already] established to his father, if his nasab is established to his mother, he will be noble on both sides (karīm al-ṭarafayn).[69]


The statement is very striking, because here the maternal nasab is constructed as part of the child’s right; furthermore, Sarakhsī states that this right persists even if his paternal nasab is already established. Thus the nasab to the mother contains positive power, for social standing is not merely given by paternal filiation, but also maternal filiation.

            Moreover, the right to a nasab as constructed by the jurists is not limited to one’s immediate parents. This is exemplified in the case of a greedy man who, when the child of liʿān dies, realizes that he could stand to inherit from the child’s estate and thus recants his liʿān. Sarakhsī is not in favor of reestablishing the nasab of the child in this case, since “the dead child does not need a nasab.” But the answer is different if the child is a son who himself has progeny: “If the son dies and leaves behind a male or female offspring [of his own], then the nasab to the claimant [i.e. the grandfather] is established, and the [grand]father inherits, because the remaining child [i.e. the grandson or granddaughter] is in need (muḥtāj) of a nasab.”[70] Considering the need of the grandchild to have filiation to a paternal grandfather outweighs the harm of allowing this greedy and self-admitted liar to inherit.

            However, the answer in the case that the child of liʿān is female elicits divergent opinions:

According to [Muḥammad al-Shaybānī (d. 189/805) and Abū Yūsuf (d. 182/798)], the nasab is not established in this case since the remaining child’s [i.e. the grandchild’s] nasab is through his father and not through his mother…But Abū Ḥanīfah (d. 150/772) said: the absence of maternal nasab reviles (yataʿayyar) the child, just like the absence of the paternal nasab reviles the child. Thus, the child needs the establishment of his maternal nasab, so that he can become noble on both sides (karīm al-ṭarafayn).[71]


We find here that the establishment of a child’s nasab to his or her maternal grandfather is less straightforward; Abū Ḥanīfah holds that this nasab is as important to the child’s social status as is his paternal nasab is, invoking the karīm al-ṭarafayn (noble on both sides) argument we have seen before. The absence of this maternal nasab is grounds for that child’s defamation, and as such this nasab has the power of removing that stigma. Conversely, Abū Ḥanīfah’s two students,  Muḥammad al-Shaybānī and Abū Yūsuf, hold that the nasab to the maternal grandfather is not important enough to permit the greedy grandfather to recant his liʿān.

            Notwithstanding the issue of the maternal grandfather, it is clear that the jurists see the nasab—both paternal and maternal—as part of the child’s right. In constructing the nasab in this way, they recognize that the child’s nasab protects it from social stigma; in this regard, the maternal nasab is no different than the father’s nasab.

4. Conclusion

The nasab is an important legal tool, as it establishes relationships whose importance is obvious in the law of inheritance, child custody, the payment of blood-money (diyyah), etc. More generally, however, the nasab as an institution is used to organize society, to identify the individual’s place vis-à-vis his or her relatives and society in general. This is no less true for the maternal nasab than it is for the paternal nasab. Having constructed the maternal nasab as part of the right of the child (ḥaqq al-walad), the jurists recognize the harm that the absence of a maternal nasab can do to a child. Yet, as we have seen above, the maternal nasab is an ambiguous entity, for though its legal establishment serves the interest of the child, its public usage (i.e. the use of the matronym) can carry with it unsavory implications—insinuating, for example, that the child is born from zinā or liʿān. The ambiguity of the maternal nasab, alongside its routine usage in early and medieval Islamic society, make discussions of nasab that focus on paternity to the exclusion of maternity miss an important dimension to the legal and social structuring of Muslim societies.



Works Cited

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[1] See Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed. s.v. ‘Ism’; Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Names (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989), 1-13.

[2] A systematic attempt to organize and trace Arabic given names can be found in Ibrāhīm al-Sāmarrā’ī, al-Aʿlām al-ʿArabiyyah (Baghdad: al-Maktabah al-Ahliyyah, 1964).

[3] With liʿān, a man who does not believe that he fathered a child born to his wife can swear that the child is not his, whereby the child is stripped of his or her nasab to the man. For more, see “Liʿān” in EI2.

[4] See Ignaz Goldziher, Muslim Studies (trans. by CR Barber and SM Stern) (New Brunswick: Aldine, 2006), 1:164-190; AA Duri, The Rise of Historical Writing among the Arabs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 50-4; Tarif Khalidi, Arabic historical thought in the classical period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 49-61; Franz Rosenthal, “Nasab” in EI2; MJ Kister and M Plessner, “Notes on Caskel’s Ğamharat an-nasab,” Oriens 25/26 (1976): 48-68.

[5] Duri, The Rise of Historical Writing among the Arabs, p. 50.

[6] Khalidi, Arabic historical thought, 49.

[7] Rosenthal, “Nasab” in EI2; “Ḥasab wa-Nasab” in EI2; cf. Marlow, “Ḥasab o Nasab” in Encyclopædia Iranica.

[8] Khalidi, Arabic historical thought, 50.

[9] Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, trans. Issa J. Boullata, The Unique Necklace (Reading, UK: Garnet, 2011), 3:227.

[10] Rosenthal, “Nasab” in EI2.

[11] Peace be upon him

[12] Schimmel, Islamic Names, 8.

[13] Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih, al-ʿIqd al-Farīd, 3:240.

[14] See “Intisāb” in al-Mawsūʿah al-Fiqhiyyah (Kuwait: Wizārat al-Awqāf wa-l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyyah, 1986).

[15] al-Sarakhsī, Kitāb al-Mabsūṭ (Beirut: Dar al-Maʿrifah, 1986), 17:154; the original Prophetic ḥadīth in Bukhārī is al-walad li-ṣāḥib al-firāsh but this abridgement is common. The latter part of the statement, wa-li-l-ʿāhir al-ḥajar is often appended to the maxim and also attributed as part of the ḥadīth. See Uri Rubin, “‘Al-walad li-l-firāsh’ on the Islamic campaign against ‘zinā’,” Studia Islamic 78 (1993): 5-6.

[16] Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 181-2.

[17] Rubin, “‘Al-walad li-l-firāsh,’” 6, 10; this view is corroborated by Ella Landau-Tasseron, “Adoption, acknowledgement of paternity and false genealogical claims in Arabian and Islamic societies” Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies 66.2 (2003): 169-192.

[18]Man iddaʿá aban fī-l-islām ghayr abīhi yaʿlamu annahu ghayr abīhi, fa-l-jannah ʿalayhi ḥarām.’ See Rubin, “‘Al-walad li-l-firāsh,’” 15. Ibn Baṭṭāl (d. 449/1057) commented that the reason for the gravity of this claim is that the person lies about God by saying the He created the man from the sperm of someone other than his real father. See Landau-Tasseron, “Adoption, acknowledgement of paternity,” 178.

[19] Throughout this paper, I use ‘true nasab’ to refer to the establishment of a nasab to the child’s genitor, i.e. the man who impregnates the child’s mother, the ‘true father.’

[20] Landau-Tasseron, “Adoption, acknowledgement of paternity,” 178-9.

[21] al-Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, 17:70; translation based on Johansen, “Gendered Spheres,” 10; the Ḥanafī position as articulated by Sarakhsī is different than the Shāfiʿī position, which is concerned with the biological relationship between the father and the child. Thus, they rely on physiognomists in some cases of contested paternity (e.g., Ibid., 17:69).

[22] Ibid., 17:156. “[The nasab] is not conditional upon the ability to have sexual intercourse.”

[23] For example, one scholar—interested in succession—argues that “although maternal relatives do have rights of inheritance, the main emphasis lies on the paternal connection; and indeed the primary significance of the word nasab is that of paternity.” NJ Coulson, Succession in the Muslim Family (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 22.

[24] al-Dhahabī, Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1996), 1:416; his mother Sumayyah is counted as the first martyr in Islam.

[25] Ibid., 1:462.

[26] ʿAfrāʾ had three sons who were Companions—Muʿādh, Muʿawwidh, and ʿAwdh (or ʿAuf)—all of whom participated in the Battle of Badr, with the latter two being killed on the battlefield. See al-Sakhāwī, Fatḥ al-Mughīth bi-Sharḥ Alfiyyat al-Ḥadīth (Riyadh: Maktabat Dār al-Minhāj, 1426), 4:329; cf. al-Anṣārī, Fatḥ al-Bāqī bi-Sharḥ Alfiyyat al-ʿIrāqī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 2002), 2:290; al-Suyūṭī, al-Tadhkirah fī ʿUlūm al-Ḥadīth (Damascus: Maktabat al-Fārābī, 1998), 341.

[27] Yaʿlá b. Munyah was a Companion, and some report that Munyah was his maternal grandmother; see al-Sakhāwī, Fatḥ al-Mughīth, 4:332.

[28] One of the Successors’ Successors, and Jurayj was his grandfather. See Ibid., 4:335.

[29] G. Levi Della Vida, “Muḥammad ibn Ḥabīb’s ‘Matronymics of Poets,’” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 62.3 (1942): 156-171. The short, monographic pamphlet listing poets was not an uncommon genre, and there are records of other pamphlets with such names as ‘The book of poets who are named after a verse of poetry they penned.’ See Ibid., p. 156

[30] al-Sakhāwī, Fatḥ al-Mughīth, 4:331.

[31] Ibid., pp. 156-7

[32] Ibid., p. 157

[33] al-Dhahabī, Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ, 16:219-20; Schimmel, Islamic Names, 9.

[34] Sherman Jackson, Islamic Law and the State: the Constitutional Jurisprudence of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 54-5; Schimmel, Islamic Names, 9.

[35] HW Duda, “Ibn Bībī,” in EI2; Schimmel, Islamic Names, 9.

[36] Schimmel, Islamic Names, 9.

[37] Frants Buhl, “Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥanafiyya” in EI2; Schimmel, Islamic Names, 8-9; al-Sakhāwī, Fatḥ al-Mughīth, 4:332.

[38] Mohamad Sujimon, The Problems of the Illegitimate Child (Walad al-Zinā) and Foundling (Laqīṭ) in the Sunnī Schools of Law (Kuala Lampur: International Islamic University Malaysia Press, 2010), 21, 26-7.

[39] See Etan Kohlberg, “The position of the ‘walad zinā’ in Imāmī Shīʿism,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 48.2 (1985): 243 which discusses the issue of ṭahārah in Imāmī law; Ibid., 256-9 discusses other issues in the Sunnī schools; on leading the prayer, Sarakhsī has argued that it is better not to have a walad zinā lead the prayer since “he has no father to teach him and thus he is often ignorant.” Mabsūṭ, 1:41.

[40] Delfina Serrano, “Paternity and filiation according to the jurists of al-Andalus: legal doctrines on transgression of the Islamic social order,” Imago Temporis. Medium Aevum VII (2013): 72.

[41] It could even result in infanticide: for example, there are reports of mothers killing illegitimate children in medieval Spain. Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201) includes warnings against such types of killing in his Kitāb Aḥkām al-Nisāʾ. See Avner Giladi, “Some Observations on Infanticide in Medieval Muslim Society,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 22.2 (1990): 191.

[42] Rubin, “‘Al-walad li-l-firāsh,’” 13-7.

[43] As reported by Muḥammad b. Saʿd al-Kātib (d. 230/845), in al-Dhahabī, Siyar Aʿlām al-Nubalāʾ, 9:113

[44] Ibid., 9:108.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 9:113.

[47] Schimmel, Islamic Names, ix.

[48] Qurʾān 33:5.

[49]annahu yudʿá li-abīhi lā li-ummihi’ in ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Tuḥfat al-Mawdūd bi-Aḥkām al-Mawlūd (Jedda: Dār ʿĀlim al-Fawāʾid, n.d), 197.

[50] al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risālah, 1994), 6:158-9; ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm (Riyadh: Dār Ṭayyibah li-l-Nashar wa-l-Tawzīʿ,1999), 6:377; al-Zamakhsharī, Tafsīr al-Kashshāf (Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifah), 848.

[51]wa-mā jaʿala adʿiyāʾakum abnāʾakum,’ Qurʾān 33:4; what exactly the term daʿiyy (pl. adʿiyāʾ) means has been contested in the scholarship, though it is generally understood to be pejorative. See Landau-Tasseron, “Adoption, acknowledgement of paternity,” 184-6.

[52] ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm, 6:377; al-Ṭabarī, Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī, 6:159.

[53] Muḥammad al-ʿAẓīm Ābādī, ʿAwn al-Maʿbūd ʿAlá Sunan Abī Dāwūd (Amman: Bayt al-Afkār al-Dawliyyah, n.d.), 2128.

[54] ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Tuḥfat al-Mawdūd bi-Aḥkām al-Mawlūd (Jedda: Dār ʿĀlim al-Fawāʾid, n.d.), 214-5.

[55] al-Ṭabarānī, al-Muʿjam al-Kabīr (Cairo: Maktabat ibn Taymiyyah, n.d.), 11:122; cf. Marāʿi b. Yusūf al-Karmī al-Maqdisī, al-Fawāʾid al-Mawḍūʿah fī-l-Aḥādīth al-Mawḍūʿah (Riyadh: Dār al-Warrāq, 1998), 140-1.

[56] From Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille’s French translation of al-Masʿūdī’s Murūj al-dhahab wa-maʿādin al-jawhar, quoted in Jacqueline Sublet, Le voile du nom: essai sur le nom proper arabe (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991), 15-6.

[57] Cf. Qurʾān, 31:34 ‘He knows what is in the wombs’; Sarakhsī, Mabṣūṭ, 17:70.

[58] al-Ṭabarānī, al-Muʿjam al-Kabīr, 8:298-9.

[59] al-Mawsūʿah al-Fiqhiyyah, 6:295-6; Sujimon, The Problems of the Illegitimate Child, 21, 26-7.

[60] “Surely, the nasab of a child is not established to a woman except through being separated from her (infiṣāl ʿanhā),” Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, 17:112.

[61] Ibid., 17:154-5

[62] Ibid., 17:119

[63] al-Mawṣilī, al-Ikhtiyār li-Taʿlīl al-Mukhtār (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1998), 3:185; cf. al-Kasānī, Badāʾiʿ al-Ṣanāʾiʿ (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyyah, 1997), 5:25.

[64] Sarakhsī, Mabsūṭ, 17:155

[65] Ibid., 17:154; 4:207

[66] Ibid., 17:155

[67] Ibid., 17:98-9

[68] Ibid., 17:154

[69] Ibid., 17:113

[70] Ibid., 7:52

[71] Ibid., 7:52-3