Last updated: July 18, 2021
Family names can be tricky – especially in Arabic. Usually, you should regard them as a chain.
In Europe or the USA we have a first name (given name), maybe a middle name, and a surname (family name). How is it in the Arab world?
Arab(ic) names are a string of names listing ancestors on the father’s side. Usually, you will see the first name the person’s own), the father’s name, and the paternal grandfather’s name.
Since only the person’s first name is really his or hers, it is the most important name which his used together with a title (e.g. Mr., Doctor, Professor). Strangely, in Egypt, the name of former ruler Muhammad Husnī Mubārak (مُحَمَّد حُسْنِي مُبارَك) was used in the Western media to an extent that the Egyptian people adopted it and spoke of President Mubarak.
Since names reflect only the father’s side, women have masculine names after their first name! The word ابن between ancestral names is especially common in the Arabian Peninsula. But that is not the end of the story.
Muhammad al-Farūq ’Ibn Khālid al-Baghdādīy
مُحَمَّد الْفارُوق ابن خالِد الْبَغْدَادِيّ
In general, Arabic names consist of five parts which don’t necessarily have to follow a particular order. However, you will often find the following order:
First name: Ism
This could be a traditional Arab name that is found in the Qur’an, a (nice) attribute, a foreign name, or a compound with the most common prefix عَبْد which means servant of and is followed by one of the 99 names (attributes) of Allah.
The لَقَبٌ is defined as an epithet, usually a religious, honorific, or descriptive title. The لَقَبٌ can precede the اِسْمٌ and sometimes comes to replace it. There are mainly three possibilities:
- physical qualities: الطَّوِيلُ – the tall
- virtues: الْفارُوقُ – he who distinguishes truth from falsehood or الرَّاشِدُ – the rightly guided.
- compounds with الدِّين (religion): light of the religion (نُورُ الذَِينِ)
Genealogy (family origin): son of… son of… son of…
The نَسَبٌ is the patronymic. It is more or less a list of ancestors, each introduced with son of (اِبْن) or daughter of (بِنْت).
It often relates back to two or three generations. That’s why Arabic names can be very long: أُبَىُّ بْنُ عَبَّاسِ بْنِ سَهْلِ بْنِ سَعْدٍ
In this example, ‘Abbās is the father and Sahl the grandfather and Sa‘d the grand-grandfather.
Indication of origin. The Nisba is usually preceded by the definite article الْ.
The نِسْبةٌ is similar to what people in the West may call the surname. It is rarely used in Egypt and in Lebanon where the لَقَبٌ incorporates its meaning. A person may have several نِسْبةٌ
It is usually an adjective (نِسْبةٌ) derived from:
- the place of birth, origin: الْبَغْدَادِيُّ (from Baghdad);
- the name of a religious sect or tribe or family: التَّمِيمِيُّ (belonging to the Tamīm tribe);
- a profession: الْعَطّاريُّ (the perfume vendor);
Honorific name (street name) – to identify a person by his first-born child.
Name under which people call somebody on the street; mostly named after the first child: father of; mother of.
The كُنْيةٌ is a honorific name. It is not part of a person’s formal name and is usually not printed in documents. The كُنْيةٌ is very important in Arabic culture – even a person who has no child might have a كُنْيةٌ which makes him (or her) symbolically the parent of a special quality, such as father of good deeds.
Watch out: In the Arab world women don’t take their husband’s surname when they get married. They keep their names they were given at birth.
Children, however, do take their father’s name which is expressed in the نَسَبٌ: daughter of (name of the father).
You can find an in-depth explanation of how names work in Arabic in Arabic for Nerds 2:
I am sure you know that Arabic names usually convey a meaning. So, do you know what Hussein actually means?
More about Islamic and Arab culture and history:
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- The Evolution of an Arabic Course: how a US military Arabic course went around the world
- Social Media & Palestine: Dotless Arabic outsmarts algorithms
- Did the first mosques in Islam have minarets?
- The “Knight’s Tour” – how an ancient Arab solved an intriguing chess puzzle
Picture credit: Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay