While reading broadly for my comprehensive exams, it occurred to me that one reason why the student of Islamic history may often find himself or herself confused is because of the similarity in the names of many of the key figures encountered. Here are some examples:
1) Two figures from the first Islamic century were called Anas ibn Mālik, both of whom lived in Medina. The first, Anas ibn Mālik (d. 712) was the famous companion of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the Anṣār of Medina, while the other Anas ibn Mālik (ca. 720) was the father of the renowned jurist Mālik ibn Anas, eponymous founder of the Maliki school of law.
2) There are two individuals named Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī, both from northern Iran and both operating in the ninth century. Ofcourse, one, Abū Ḥātim Muhammad al-Rāzī (d. 890), was a hadith scholar ( and the other, Abū Ḥātim Ahmad al-Rāzī (d. 935), an Isma’ili missionary. There is also another famous Razi from the ninth century, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. 925), who was a famous physician and philosopher.
3) There were two individuals with the given name Muhammad and the nisba al-Tirmidhī, both of whom were major scholars from ninth century Iran. The first was Muhammad ibn ‘Ali al-Tirmidhi (d. 869), known as al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, an important mystical philosopher and the other was Muhammad ibn ‘Īsa al-Tirmidhī (d. 892), a renowned jurist and author of the Jāmī‘ al-Sahīh, one of the six canonical collections of Prophetic traditions for Sunnis.
4) There are two individuals named Ibn al-Ḥaytham, both of whom lived in the tenth century and both of whom served the Fatimids. One, Abū ‘Abd Allāh Ja‘far ibn al-Haytham (ca. 950) was an Isma’ili missionary and the other, Abū al-‘Alī Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥaytham (b. 965), was a famous scientist, mathematician, and astronomer.
5) There were two Persian scholars known as al-Bayhaqī in the eleventh century, both of whom lived in northeastern Iran. The first, Abū Bakr Ahmad ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Bayhaqī (d. 1066) was a Shafi’i jurist and a renowned scholar of hadith, and the second, Abūl-Fazl al-Bayhaqī (d. 1077) was an important historian and author of the Tārīkh-i Bayhaqī.
6) There are two individuals named Ibn al-‘Arabī, both of whom lived in the twelfth century and both of whom lived in Islamic Spain. One, Abū Bakr ibn al-Arabī (d. 1148) was a famous Maliki jurist and the other, Muhyiddīn ibn al-‘Arabī (b. 1165) is considered one of the greatest mystics in the Islamic tradition.
7) There were also two individuals named Ibn Rushd, both of whom lived in the twelfth century in Muslim Spain and both of whom were from Cordoba. One was Abūl Walīd Muhammad ibn Rushd (d. 1126), the chief judge of Cordoba and a Maliki jurist, while the other was his grandson and (because things aren’t confusing enough) was also a Maliki jurist as well as a philosopher and known as Abūl Walīd Muhammad ibn Rushd (d. 1198).
8) There were two individuals named al-Ghazālī in the late eleventh/early twelfth centuries. Both were mystics (they were brothers) and both served the Seljuks in Baghdad. The more famous one is Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) while Majd al-Dīn Ahmad al-Ghazālī (d. 1126) is less well-known outside of Sufi circles.
9) There were three individuals named al-Suhrawardī in the late twelfth century, all three of whom were prominent mystics: Abū al-Najīb al-Suhrawardī (d. 1168), Shahāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī (d. 1191), and Abū Ḥafs ‘Umar al-Suhrawardī (d. 1234).
10) There were two individuals named Ibn Taymīyya in the thirteenth century both of whom were Hanbali jurists. The first, Majd al-Dīn ibn Taymīyya (d. 1255) , an eminent scholar and one of the leaders of the Hanbalis of northern Syria, was the grandfather of the better known Taqī al-Dīn ibn Taymīyya (b. 1263), the famous Damascene theologian.
11) There were two individuals named Ibn Ḥajar, both living in Egypt and living less than 50 years apart and both of whom were adherents of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence. The first, Ibn Ḥajar al-Asqalānī (d. 1448), was a renowned scholar of hadith and jurisprudence, and the other, Ibn Ḥajar al-Ḥaythamī (d. 1566) was also a major jurist and hadith expert.
12) A lot of people named al-Subkī lived in fourteenth and fifteenth century Egypt. The most famous of whom were two jurists and hadith experts, father and son: Taqī al-Dī al-Subkī (d. 1355) and Tāj al-Dīn al-Subkī (d. 1369)
Things get even more convoluted when one considers the names of rulers as well. There were at least two with the title al-Mahdī (one Abbasid and one Fatimid), another two named Sayf al-Dawla (one Hamdanid and one Andalusi), two more named ‘Adud a-Dawla (one Buyid and another Andalusi), three with the title al-Nāṣīr (one Andalusi Umayyad, one Abbasid and one Almohad), three with the title al-Manṣūr (one Abbasid, one Fatimid, and one Andalusi), at least five known as al-Mustanṣir (one Fatimid, two Abbasid, one Andalusi, and one Hafsid), in addition to an entire dynasty (the Nasrids of Granada) composed of about thirteen rulers named Muhammad.
Any others that you all can think of?