What's In A Name? Apa Ada pada Nama?

by Annabel Teh Gallop


In any society, onomastics or the study of personal names and naming systems can yield important insights into traditional values, customs and institutions. In Muslim societies, “beautiful” or “graceful” names for children were exhorted by the Prophet, for it was by their names, and the names of their fathers, that people would be summoned on Doomsday.[1] Nowadays, there are many popular books on sale in Malaysia and Indonesia listing appropriate Islamic names for children.[2]  But what do we know of how Malay names were selected and used in the past? In the study of Malay names, three main categories of onomastic source materials have traditionally been consulted. In the first group are religious works which contain advice on the suitability of various names. One of the earliest such sources in Malay is the Sirāt al-Mustaqīm, “The straight path”, composed in Aceh in 1644 by Nuruddin al-Raniri, which right until the late 19th century remained one of the most widely used handbooks for the practice of Islamic law in everyday life across the archipelago.[3] Both prescriptive and proscriptive, it commends the choice of certain names, as well as highlighting other names which should be shunned.

The second group is descriptive historical and ethnographic accounts, some of which date back to the 18th century.  The earliest notable such source is William Marsden’s observations on Malay names in his History of Sumatra, first published in 1783, based on his years in Bengkulu on the west coast of Sumatra from 1771 to 1779.[4] Published nearly one and a half centuries later in 1935, Edwin Loeb’s Sumatra: Its history and people is also informative on naming practices in many Sumatran societies.[5] An especially valuable account by Ibrahim bin Datuk Muda entitled Bahawa inilah kitab kumpulan nama Melayu, iaitu menghimpunkan segala nama dan gelaran, timang-timangan dan rawah-rawahan yang terpakai pada orang-orang Melayu di sebelah  sini  [“This is a  compendium of Malay names, being a compilation of names, titles, nicknames  and associated forms used by Malays in these parts”],[6] was compiled and published in 1924 in Singapore at the behest of the Education Department of the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States, and is a good guide to Malay naming practice on the eve of the modern era.

The third major source for information on Malay names is literary texts and historical works, which record the genealogies of royal families and their descendants. Two of the richest such repositories of Malay names are the chronicle of the Sultanate of Melaka, Sejarah Melayu or Sulalāt al-Salatīn, “Genealogy of Kings”, compiled in 1612 by the Bendahara of Johor, Tun Seri Lanang, and Tuhfat al-Nafīs, “The Precious Gift”, the account of the history of Johor-Riau composed in the mid-19th century by Raja Ali Haji.

These and other sources will be surveyed for information on Malay naming practices, before we consider the evidence of a previously untapped source of onomastic data: Malay seals.

Seal of Arung Tabujung of Selangor, inscribed:Sultan Abdul Kadir Jailani ibn Sultan Sulabat balad Tabujung fī mān Allāh sanat 1192, “Sultan Abdul Kadir Jailani, son of Sultan Sulabat, the state of Tabujung, of the house of God, the year 1192


Malay Names: Nama and Timang-Timangan

According to Nuruddin al-Raniri, the commended (sunat) moment for naming a child was either at the moment of birth or seven days later. The personal name (nama) given to a Malay child at birth was also referred to as the nama daging[7] or nama batang tubuh, or nama kerat pusat as it was usually given at the behest of the midwife at the moment of the cutting of the umbilical cord, according to the account by Ibrahim bin Datu Muda.[8]

However, for most of their lives, these children are probably called something else. Name taboos proliferate, and in many societies throughout the Malay  archipelago it is forbidden to say one’s own name. This indiscretion was strictly avoided in some societies and, at the very least, deemed indecorous in others.[9] Thus the over-frequent use of one’s own name is mocked in the Malay proverb bagai tiung menyebut nama  [“calling out one’s name like a mynah bird” [10], and the same proverb is found in Aceh and Gayo.[11]

In the Malay world, as in many Islamic societies[12] and other cultures, nor was it permitted to say the names of parents, ancestors, or anyone of a higher rank.[13] In the Sirāt al-Mustaqīm those of lower age and status are instructed not to use the names of their elders and betters: Dan demikian lagi sunat bagi anak dan murid dan khadam bahwa jangan ia menyerukan ibu bapanya dan gurunya dan tuannya dengan nama dirinya [14] [“Thus children and pupils and servants should not address their parents or teachers or masters by their personal names”]. In traditional Malay society this taboo was extended to spouses, and it was deemed kurang benar manisnya, “really not very nice/appropriate”, to hear a wife utter her husband’s name.[15]  These deeply-embedded name taboos led to the widespread use of relationship terms and other such titles instead of names in everyday speech.

Therefore, from childhood onwards Malays are often also given various nicknames or descriptive epithets called gelaran or timang-timangan, “cradle names”. These may be based on position in the family, such as sulong or long  for the oldest, ngah for the second, alang for the third, anjang for the fourth, andak for the fifth, teh or puteh for the sixth, and bungsu, busu, su or cu for the last (irrespective of number), or tunggal for an only child. Timang-timangan could also reflect (perceived) physical attributes, complimentary  or  otherwise,  such  as  pendek,  “short”,  bisu, “silent”, buncit, “pot-bellied”, or itam, “black”, i.e. dark-skinned; or certain days of the week or months, such as Khamis, Jumat or Saban.[16]  When young, a variety of diminuitives or nicknames may be used for a child, until one just “sticks”: Pada masa kanak2 itu ditimang maka biasalah pula dipanggil akan dia dengan berbagai2 nama kemanjaan iaitulah yang dikatakan timang2an seperti yang tersebut di atas tadi, hingga terkadang lenyap namanya yang sebenar diserap oleh satu2 timang2an yang melekat sampai ke tua [17]  [“While a baby is still in the cradle, he or she is usually addressed by all sorts of terms of endearment, the “cradle names” referred to above, to the extent that sometimes his or her real name is completely replaced by a nickname that sticks right into adulthood”]. Once a person is married and has children, teknonymy – the naming of a person after their child – is practised for both father and mother; for example Pak/Mak Long, “father/mother of his/her first-born” or Pak Tunggal, “father of an only child”.[18]  In Minangkabau society, personal names are abandoned completely at  adulthood when each person inherits a family title, as illustrated by the proverb kecil bernama, gadang bergelar, “infants bear names, adults bear titles”.[19]

Positional sobriquets could also be combined with titles of rank for aristocrats, for example, Tengku Sulung, “Prince Eldest-born”, for the son of Yam Tuan Raja Ismail of Siak, and Engku Andak, “Lady Fifth-born”, for the daughter of Syarifah Halimah and Engku Sayid Muhammad Zain al-Kudsi in the Tuhfat al-Nafīs[20] Noble titles could also be combined with descriptive epithets, such as the delightfully-named Tun Isap Misai, “Sir Moustache-Stroker”, in the Sejarah Melayu,[21] or with titles of office, such as DatukTua or, indeed, Lebai Malang, “the ill-fortuned preacher”.

Tun Muhammad namanya, Tun Seri Lanang timang-timangannya, “Tun Muhammad is my name, and Tun Seri Lanang my familiar appellative”.[22] As this famous self-introduction by the compiler of the Sejarah Melayu illustrates, Malay birth-names (nama) are often Arabic-Islamic names[23] and timang-timangan are generally indigenous appellatives, although this is not necessarily always the case. The early genealogical sections of the Tuhfat al-Nafīs are a mine of information on naming practice, and the classifier nama is found applied to many Malay descriptors, such as Puteri  Kesumba, Puteri Emas Inderawati, Dahing Cellak, Raja Andutand Engku Muda.[24] Even when a distinction is drawn between nama and timang-timangan, it is not always obviously reflected in the nature of the appellative, as in the case of Sultan Sulaiman’s sister “yang bernama Tengku Tengah, timang-timangannya Tun Irang[25]  [“who was  named Tengku Tengah, “Princess Middle-born,” while her appellative was Tun Irang”]. Conversely, Arabic names could also be given as gelaran: in the Sejarah Melayu, a son of Sultan Mansur Syah is named Raja Ahmad but bears the timang-timangan Raja Husain.[26] Thus it is not always easy to distinguish between nama and timang-timangan purely on a textual basis.

While a few birth names might be recorded in historical sources, in general in Malay texts the use of personal names is avoided in favour of kinship terms, relational names, titles and descriptive epithets. However, an exceptionally rich historical source for Muslim personal names from Southeast Asia can now be identified: Malay seals.

Dr Annabel Teh Gallop is the Head of the Southeast Asia section at the British Library in London. She works on Malay and Indonesian manuscripts, with a particular interest in letters, documents, and seals, and on the illumination of Qur’ans and other Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia.

This is an extract from an article originally published by The British Library. Written permission had been granted by Dr Annabel Teh Gallop. The full article can be accessed here.

Headline image is from alawiartworx.


[1] Schimmel, Annemarie. (1989). Islamic names.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press p.  14.

[2] A typical example is Mukhtar bin Abdul Aziz Syihabuddin. (1988). Himpunan nama-nama pilihan Islam: Mengandungi lebih 1,600 nama pilihan. Kuala Lumpur: Syarikat Binyahya

[3] Scores  of  manuscripts  survive,  particularly  from  Aceh,  and  the  edition  used  in  this  study is based on a manuscript dated AH 1296 (AD 1878/9) from Ogan Komering Ilir, in the hinterland of Palembang in south Sumatra (Abu Hanifah 1992, p. 4)

[4] Marsden, William. (1986). The history of Sumatra. With an introduction by John Bastin.  (3rd  ed.)    [Facsimile  reprint  of  the  1811  ed.]    Singapore:  Oxford University Press.

[5] Loeb, Edwin M. (1990). Sumatra: Its history and people. With an additional chapter by  Robert  Heine-Geldern.    [Facsimile  reprint  of  the  1935  ed.]    Singapore: Oxford University Press.

[6] Ibrahim bin Datuk Muda. (1924). Bahawa inilah kitab kumpulan nama Melayu, iaitu menghimpunkan segala nama dan gelaran, timang-timangan dan rawah-rawahan yang terpakai pada orang-orang Melayu di sebelah sini. Singapore: Education Dept., S.S. & F.M.S.

[7] Marsden, 1986, p. 285

[8] Ibrahim,1924, p. 10

[9] Marsden, 1986, p.  286; Loeb 1990, pp.  65, 118, 243.

[10] Ibrahim, 1924, p. 21.

[11] Loeb, 1990, p. 243

[12] Schimmel, 1989, pp. 5, 68

[13] Minangkabau (Loeb, 1990, p. 118), Aceh and Gayo (Loeb, 1990, pp. 243-4) and in the Batak lands, although in the latter there is no objection to a person of a higher status mentioning the name of someone of a lower age or status (Loeb, 1990, p. 65)

[14] Abu Hanifah (ed.). (1992). Sirata l-mustaqim. [By Nuruddin al-Raniri].  Jakarta: Pusat  Pembinaan  dan  Pengembangan  Bahasa,  Departemen  Pendidikan  dan Kebudayaan, p. 263

[15] Ibrahim, 1924, pp. 8-9

[16] For various lists see Ibrahim, 1924, pp. 10, 15-17; Wilkinson, 1925, p. 10; Mohd. Zulkifli Hj. Abdul Aziz. (1992). Gelaran  orang  Melayu  Perak. Kuala Lumpur: Persatuan Muzium Malaysia., p. xii

[17] Ibrahim, 1924, p. 19.

[18] Wilkinson, R. J. (1925). Papers on Malay subjects. Life and customs. Part I. The incidents of Malay life. Kuala Lumpur: Government of the F.M.S, p. 10; Ibrahim (1924, pp. 7-8) cites the example Bapak si Umar; see also Marsden, 1986, p. 286, Loeb, 1990, p. 66

[19] See Loeb, 1990, p. 118, Ibrahim, 1924, p. 10.

[20] Hooker, Virginia Matheson (ed.). (1998). Tuhfat al-nafis. Karangan Raja Ali Haji, dikaji  dan  diperkenalkan  oleh  Virginia  Matheson  Hooker.    Kuala  Lumpur:  Yayasan Karyawan & Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, pp. 22, 31

[21] A. Samad Ahmad (ed.). (1986). Sulalatus salatin (Sejarah Melayu).  Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka p. 202

[22] Ibid, p. 2

[23] According to Wilkinson (1925, p. 9) all Malay children had to be given an Arabic name. In Aceh children could be given either an Arab name or a native one (Loeb 1990, p. 243).

[24] Hooker, 1998, p. 28

[25] Ibid, p. 27

[26] A. Samad, 1986, p. 171.