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The tughra (stylized signature) of Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire. Influenced by Arabic culture, Ottoman rulers had stylized their names in the Arabic way, as depicted in this signature.

Old Arabic names are based on a long naming system; most Arabs do not simply have given/middle/family names, but a full chain of names. This system is in use throughout the Arab world. Because of the importance of the Arabic language in Islam, a large majority of the world's Muslims use Arabic names (ism), but it is not common outside the Arab world to employ the full naming conventions described below.

Contents

Structure of the Arabic name

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Ism (Arabic: اسم)

The main name of an Arab person is the ism, his or her personal name (e.g. "Kareem" or "Fatima"). Most Arabic names are originally Arabic words with a meaning, usually signalling the good character of the person. Karīm means "generous", maħmūd means "praiseworthy", and both words are employed as adjectives and nouns in regular language. Arab newspapers sometimes try to avoid confusion by placing names in brackets or between quotation marks. Generally, context and grammar will indicate how the word is being used, but foreign students of Arabic may initially have trouble with this.

  • Muslim practices
A very common form for Muslim Arab names is the combination of `abd followed by another word: `abd X means "servant of X" where X is a word describing Allah (God), often one of the Muslim 99 Names of God. The result is a name such as عبد الله Abdullah ("Servant of God").
The female version is amat X, so the female version of Abdullah is Amatallah.
  • Christian practices
To an extent, most Christian Arabs have names that are indistinguishable from those of their Muslim neighbors, but Christian Arabs rarely or never use specifically Muslim names such as Mohammed. There are also Arabic versions of Christian names (e.g. saints' names), and names of Greek, Armenian, or Assyrian / Aramaic origin. Adoption of European names, especially French and Greek ones (to the lesser extent, Spanish ones, in Morocco), has been a centuries-long convention for Arab Christians — especially (but not only) in the Levant. Thus, George Habash, Charles Helou, Camille Chamoun, Boutros Boutros-Ghali etc. Other examples of exclusively names of Arab Christians are in honor of Jesus Christ, like Abdul Yasu (servant of Jesus; the feminine form, Amat Yasu), Abdul (Amat) Masih (servant of the Messiah), Maryam umm Yasu (Mary, mother of Jesus), Yousef abu Yasu (Joseph, father of Jesus), Yasu ibn Maryam (Jesus, son of Mary), Yasu ibn Yusef (Jesus, son of Joseph), and Yasu Ullah (Jesus belongs to God). The name "Abdullah", meaning simply "servant of God," is also used by Christians.

Kunya كنية

Often, a kunyah referring to the person's first-born son is used as a substitute for the ism: for example, أبو كريم "Abu Karim" for "father of Karim", and أم كريم "Umm Karim", "mother of Karim". It can refer to the person's first-born son. The kunya precedes the ism when not replacing it. (Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, is widely known within the Arab world by his kunya, "Abu-Mazen".)

Nasab نسب

The nasab is a patronymic or series of patronymics. It indicates the person's heritage by the word ابن ibn (sometimes bin) which means "son", and bint, "daughter". Thus ابن خلدون Ibn Khaldun means "son of Khaldun" (Khaldun is the father's ism, or proper name). Several nasab can follow in a chain, to trace a person's ancestry backwards in time. This was important in the tribally based society of the ancient Arabs, both for purposes of identification and for social and political interaction. In modern Arabic, it's very common for people to omit the ibn or bint in normal conversation, just using the names themselves.

Laqab لقب

The laqab is intended as a description of the person. So, for example, in the name of the famous Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid (of A Thousand and One Nights fame), Haa'roon is the Arabic form for Aaron, and "al-Rashid" means "the righteous" or "the rightly-guided".

Nisba نسبة

The nisba describes a person's occupation, geographic home area, or descent (tribe, family, etc). It will follow a family through several generations, and it is for example common to find people with the name al-miṣrī (the Egyptian, or rather "of Egypt") in many places in the Middle East, despite the fact that their families may have resided outside Egypt for several generations. The nisba, among the components of the Arabic name, perhaps most closely resembles the Western surname.

Example

ابو كريم محمد الجميل بن نضال بن عبد العزيز الفلسطيني
Abu Kareem Muhammad al-Jameel ibn Nidh'aal ibn Abdulaziz aal-Filisteeni
"ʼabū karīmi muḥammadu-l-jamīlu-bnu niḍāli-bni ʻabdi-l-ʻazīzi-l-filisṭīnī"

This means, in translation:

"Father-of-Kareem, Muhammad, the beautiful, son of Nidal, son of Abdulaziz, the Palestinian"
(Kareem means generous, muhammad means praised, jamīl means beautiful; azīz means Magnificent, and it is one of the 99 names of God.)

Abu Kareem is a kunya, Muhammad is the person's proper name (ism), al-Jamil is a laqab, Nidal is his father (a nasab), Abdulaziz his grandfather (second-generation nasab) and "al-Filistini" is his family nisba. Normally, this person would simply be referred to as "Muhammad" or "Abu Kareem", but to signify respect or to specify which Mohammad we are speaking about (namely, the beautiful son of Nidal and grandson of Abdulaziz), the name could be lengthened as above, to the extent necessary or desired.

Westernization of Arabic naming practices and names

Many Arabic countries have now adopted a Westernized way of naming. This is the case for example in Lebanon and Maghreb countries where French conventions are followed, and it is rapidly gaining ground elsewhere.

Also, many Arabs adapt to Western conventions for practical purposes when travelling or when residing in Western countries, constructing a given name/family name model out of their full Arab name, to fit Western expectations and/or visa applications or other official forms and documents. The reverse side to this is the surprise of many Westerners when asked to supply their first name, second name, father's name and family name in some Arab visa applications. Similarly, if an Arab woman marries a Westerner and applies for a passport, her new 'official' name becomes, for example, Maryam David William Smith because of the patronymic naming convention.

The Westernization of an Arab name may require transliteration. Often, one name may be transliterated in several different ways (Abdul Rahman, Abdoul Rahman, Abdur Rahman, Abdurahman, Abd al-Rahman, or Abd ar-Rahman), as there is no single accepted system. A single individual may try out several ways of transliterating his or her name, producing even greater inconsistency. This has resulted in confusion on the part of governments, security agencies, airlines, and other: for example, especially since 9/11, persons with names written similarly to those of suspected terrorists have been detained.

Common mistakes

Westerners often make these mistakes:

  • Separating "the X of Y" word combinations (see idafa):
    • With "Abdul": Arabic names may be written "Abdul (something)", but "Abdul" means "servant of the" and is not, by itself, a name. Thus for example, to address Abdul Rahman bin Omar al-Ahmad by his given name, one must say "Abdul Rahman", not merely "Abdul". If he introduces himself as "Abdul Rahman" (which means "the servant of the Compassionate One"), one must not say "Mr. Rahman", (as "Rahman" is not a family name but part of his (theophoric) personal name), instead it would be Mr. Ahmad, being the family name).
    • People not understanding Arabic sandhi in genitive constructions: Habību-llāh = "beloved of God"; here a person may in error report the man's name as 'forename "Habib", surname "Ullah"'. Likewise, people may confuse a name such as Jalālu-d-dīn ("The Majesty of the Religion") as being "Jalal Uddin", or "Mr. Uddin", when "Uddin" is not a surname, but the second half of a two-word name (the desinence -u of the construct state nominative, plus the article, appearing as -d-, plus the genitive dīn[i]). Although, to add to the confusion, some immigrants to Western countries have adopted Uddin as a surname, although it is grammatically incorrect outside the context of the associated "first name". Even Indian Muslims commit the same error. If a person's name is Abd-ul-Rahim (Servant of Merciful), his companions may call him as Mr Abdul (Servant of) erroneously as they are not aware that it is incorrect usage and that it sounds quite odd.
  • Confusing "`alā'" with "Allah": Some Muslim names include the Arabic word `alā' علاء = "nobility". (Here, ` represents the ayin sound, the voiced pharyngeal fricative, and ' represents the hamza sound, the glottal stop, and L is spelled and pronounced once. In Allāh, L is spelled twice and pronounced separately.) In Arabic pronunciation, `alā and Allāh are clearly different. But Europeans, Iranians and Indians often cannot pronounce some Arabic sounds correctly, and tend to pronounce these two names the same. For example, the Muslim male name `Alā'-ad-dīn = "the nobility of the religion" is often misspelt as Allah-ad-din. (This name is known to English speakers as Aladdin.) Because these two words are different, there is really a given name of a male Arab "`Ala' Allah" (Aliullah), meaning "the nobility of God."
  • Grammar errors: These can result from differences between Arabic grammar and the grammar of some other languages. Arabic forms noun compounds in the opposite order from Indo-Iranian languages. For example, during the war in Afghanistan in 2002, a BBC team found in Kabul an internal refugee whose name they stated as "Allah Muhammad". This may be a misspelling, as described in the previous paragraph; but if not: By the rules of Arabic grammar, this name means "the Allah who belongs to Muhammad", which is not acceptable as a man's name and ideally and logically wrong; but by the rules of Iranian and most Indian languages this name means "Muhammad who belongs to Allah", which is acceptable; the Arabic equivalent is "Muhammad Ullah". Most Afghans speak Iranian languages. Such mismatched and grammatically incorrect Arabic and Arabic-Persian compound names are not uncommon in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan.
  • Transliteration of Arabic: The general rule is to follow the transliterated spelling adopted by the individual in question, if it exists, or else to follow one of the available systems. If someone has decided to spell his name "Mohammed", it is somewhat rude to refuse to accept this and to insist on "Muhammad," even if "Muhammad" is the preferred transliteration among scholars. Similarly, to refer to the late President Nasser of Egypt as "Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir" would be incorrect on two counts:
  1. because his first name used the standard Egyptian geem rather than jeem (i.e., Gamal, not Jamal);
  2. because his preferred transliterations of his last name were Abdel Nasser and Abd-el-Nasser and because the rules of Arabic pronunciation make a contraction of "Abd" and "Al" to be pronounced "Abdel." For more information about Alef pronunciation see Hamza#Hamzatu l-waṣl

Modern and regional variations

  • While the ibn/bin prefix is still commonly used in names, its use is declining; in some places, this prefix is only used in government interactions, and in other places it is dropped altogether. In Mauritania, its usage is still common, but ever since the colonial era many people have preferred the dialectal form ould (ولد, pronounced [wulː]).
  • Syria retains a heavy Turkish influence, which is reflected in commonly found names of Turkish and Kurdish origin; e.g. Adib al-Shishakli.
  • Maghribi names are quite distinctive due to heavy Berber (tamazight), French, and some Italian (in Libya) and Spanish (in Morocco) influences. Names of Spanish influence gave back some of the names of the Arabic influence in Spain: Fatima, Omar, Soraya, and Zoraida. And these names are both found in Moroccan Muslims and Spanish-speaking Moroccan Roman Catholic Christians.
  • Lebanon has many names of Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish and French origin.
  • Iraq has a sizable number of people with names of Persian and Kurdish origin.
  • Malay names - Among the Malays and other Muslim-majority races in Malaysia and Singapore, the name Mohammed or Muhammad (often abbreviated to Mohd.) commonly precedes a male Muslim's given name, followed by the word "bin" and his father's name, for example Muhammad Amin bin Hashim. For a female Muslim it is "binti". If the person has performed the Hajj, the honorific "Haji" would be prefixed to his name, for example Haji Muhammad Amin bin Hashim, or even Haji Muhammad Amin bin Haji Hashim. Persons claiming descent from Prophet Muhammad may carry the title "Syed" or "Sheikh" ("Sharifah" or "Siti" for females) before their name and a family name may follow the personal name, for example Syed Muhammad Amin al-Habshi bin Syed Hashim al-Habshi.
  • In Afghanistan, persons claiming to be related to the prophet are called Sayeds, and all the males in the family carry the title of Mir, rather than the last name of Hashimi or Hashem. People belonging to this group will have either the last name Hashimi or have the title Mir in front of their names, but not both. An example of an Afghan who claims to trace their lineage to the prophet will be Mir Abdul Rahman, Mir being the title linking them to the Prophet Muhammad but not being a part of their first name, which would be Abdul Rahman. Afghan women who are Sayeds carry no title in front of their names; some carry the last name Hashimi, which indicates their lineage and is kept by many even after marriage, as in Islam women are not to take their husband's last name.
  • In Iran and also Afghanistan, persons claiming to be related to the prophet have Sayed in their name, often as a prefix.
  • Many Jews of Temani, Mizrahi and Arabicized Sephardi extraction often maintain Arab surnames and adopt Arab names common to Arab Jews, even in the West; e.g. Paula Abdul and Loolwa Khazzoom.
  • In Western China, officials will, when spelling a native name in Chinese characters, sometimes represent "Muhammad" by the Chinese character 馬/马 "mǎ", which means "horse".
  • Sometimes Arabic names are used by people people who have no origins in the Middle East nor adhere to Islam. Examples are: Ayesha, Fatima (see each name for information as to why). In contrast, Omar is not only an Arabic, but also a biblical Hebrew name.

Arab family naming convention

In Arabic culture a person's ancestry and his/her family name are very important.

Assume a man has the name of "Saleh bin Tariq bin Khalid Al-Fulan"

"Saleh" is his personal name, and is the name that his family and friends would call him by. "Bin" translates as "son of", so "Tariq" is Saleh's father's name. "Bin Khalid" means that Tariq was the son of Khalid, making Khalid the grandfather of Saleh. "Al-Fulan" would be Saleh's family name.

So "Saleh bin Tariq bin Khalid Al-Fulan" translates as "Saleh, son of Tariq, son of Khaled; of the family Fulan."

The Arabic for "daughter of" is "Bint." A woman with the name "Fatimah bint Tariq bin Khalid Al-Fulan" translates as "Fatimah, daughter of Tariq, son of Khaled; of the family Al-Fulan."

Modern naming convention may drop the word "bin" or "bint" as it is already implied, so Saleh's full name would be "Saleh Tariq Khalid Al-Fulan" and "Fatimah Tariq Khalid Al-Fulan"

If Saleh was married his wife would keep her maiden name. His sons and daughters will take Saleh's family name, so his son Mohammed would be called "Mohammed bin Saleh bin Tariq Al-Fulan".

In many non-Arab Muslim communities the naming convention is further abridged to fit into a three name nomenclature. Thus the first name is the personal name, the middle name is the father's name and the last name is the family name.

The names listed below are used in the Arab world, as well as some other Muslim regions. They are not necessarily of Arabic origin, though most in fact are. For more information see about Arabic names, see also Iranian, Malay, Pakistani, and Turkish names.

Arabic names and their biblical equivalent

Correspondences between Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

Arabic name Hebrew name English name
Al-Yasa Elišaʿ Elisha
Andraos none Andrew
Ayoub Iyyov, ʾIyyôḇ Job
Binyamin Benyamin Benjamin
Dāwūd or Dāvūd Davīd David
Efraim Efráyim Ephraim
Hārūn Aharon Aaron
Hawwa Havah Eve
Ibrahīm Avraham Abraham
Ilyas Eliyahu Elijah
`Īsā / Yassou* Yehoshua* Jesus, Joshua
'Isḥāq/Ishak/Isak Yitzhak Isaac
'Ismā`īl Yišmā`êl, Yišma`el Ishmael
Isrā'īl Yisraʾel, Yiśrāʾēl Israel
Jibrīl Gavriʼel Gabriël
Jad Gad Gad
Maryam Miriyam Mary
Matta Matatyahu Matthew
Mikhā'īl Mikha'el Michael

Mojad

Mūsā/Mūsé Moshé Moses
Nuh Nóaḥ Noah
Sāra Sara Sarah/Sara
Sulaīmān, Suleiman Shlomo Solomon
`Ubaidallah Obhádhyah,Ovadiah Obadiah
Yaʿqūb, Jakub/Jakup Yaʿqov Jacob, (James)
Yahya/Jahja/Youhanna** Yôḥānnān John
Yūnus/Junus/Junuz Yona Jonah
Yūsuf/Yūsif/Yūsef/Jusuf Yosef Joseph
Zakariya Zekhariah Zachary or Zechariah

* Yassou is the Arab Christian name of Jesus, while `Īsā is the Muslim version of the name, as used in the Qur'an. Yehoshua is also the origin of Joshua.

** Youhanna is the Arab Christian name of John, while Yahya is the Muslim version of the name, as used in the Qur'an.

See also

External links


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