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.
Structure of the Arabic name
Ism (Arabic: اسم)
The main name of an Arab person is the ism
, his or her personal name (e.g. "Karim" 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
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.
- 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") or عبد الرشيدAbdurrashid ("Servant of the Rightly Guided").
- The female version is amat X, so the female version of Abdallah is Amatallah.
- To an extent most Christian Arabs have names that are indistinguishable from those of their Muslim neighbors, but Christian Arabs do not 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 origin. Adoption of European names, especially French and Greek ones, 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.
Often, a kunya
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 daughter. The kunya
precedes the ism
when not replacing it.
is a patronymic
or series of patronymics. It indicates the person's heritage by the word ابن ibn
) 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.
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), Haroun is the Arabic form for Aaron, and "al-Rashid" means "the righteous" or "the rightly-guided".
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.
- ابو كريم محمد الجميل بن نضال بن عبد العزيز الفلسطيني
- Abu Karim Muhammad al-Jamil ibn Nidal ibn Abdulaziz al-Filistini
This means, in translation:
- "ʼabū karīmi muHammadu-l-jamīlu-bnu niDāli-bni ʻabdi-l-ʻazīzi-l-filisTīnī"
- "Father-of-Karim, Muhammad, the beautiful, son of Nidal, son of Abdulaziz, the Palestinian"
- (karim means generous, muhammad means praised, jamīl means beautiful; azīz means Magnificent, and it is one of the 99 names of God.)
Abu Karim 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-Filistin" is his family nisba
. Normally, this person would simply be referred to as "Muhammad" or "Abu Karim", 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
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, 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, particularly security agencies, airlines, and other: for example, especially since 9-11, persons with names written similarly to those of suspected terrorists have been detained when in fact there was a case of mistaken identity.
Common mistakes are:
- 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)
- Westerners not understanding Arabic sandhi in genitive constructions: Habību-llāh = "beloved of God"; here a Westerner may in error report the man's name as 'forename "Habib", surname "Ullah"'. Likewise, Westerners 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 same error. If a persons name is Abd-ul-Rahim (Servant of Merciful), his companions call him as Mr Abdul (Servant of) erroneously as they are not aware of that it is odd sound.
- 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.) 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 man's name `Alā'-ed-dīn = "the nobility of the religion" is often misspelt as Allah-ed-din. (This name is known to Western culture as Aladdin.)
- Pronunciation: For example, a name containing the "kh" sound (e.g. Khalid (خالد)) should not be pronounced with an initial 'k'-sound but rather with the consonant sound similar to that of the 'ch' in the name Bach (German composer), as such a mispronunciation may change its meaning.
- 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; but by the rules of Iranian and most Indian languages this name means "the 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.
- 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 technically correct, but likely to produce confusion.
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) and French influences.
- 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 also, 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 Muslim or otherwise Arabic names are used by people who are not Muslims or even have no origins in the Middle East. Examples are: Ayesha, Fatima (see each name for information as to why), and the USA army commander Omar Bradley.
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 Al-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. This holds true even for girls. The first name is a personal female name, the middle name is the father's and the last name is the family name.
Muslims also do not, in general name a child the full and exact name of the parent or the full exact name of a relative, deceased or living. Nor do they give the child the first name of a parent or living relative. Both are considered a form of ancestral worship forbidden by the Qu’ran. As a rule one will rarely, if ever find a “senior,” “junior,” designation in Muslim nomenclature or a designation of "I." "II," "III," etc.
It is often seen as a sign of a non-religious Muslim parent, who names a child the exact name, in the exact order as the parent. This can be seen in the naming of Senator Barack Hussein Obama. Until the death of his father Senator Obama carried the designation of "Jr." This is a rare, to almost nonexistent, occurrence in the Muslim culture and is instead a frequent Western convention.
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 and Turkish names.
Arabic names and their biblical equivalent
Correspondences between Arabic, Hebrew, and English.
* Yassou is the Arab Christian name of Jesus, while `Īsā is the Muslim version of the name, as used in the Qur'an.
Exclusively Christian names: