Family names can be tricky – especially in Arabic. Usually, you should regard them as a chain.

The system is entirely different compared to Western names.

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? Let us examine, for example, this name:

Al-Farūq ’Abū Karīm Muhammad ’Ibn Khālid al-Baghdādīy

الْفارُوقُ أَبُو كَرِيمٍ مُحَمَّدُ اِبْنُ خالِدٍ الْبَغْدَادِيُّ

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:


The nasab (4) is usually the chain of father and grandfather, etc. ((Ibn.. Ibn… Ibn…).

The Laqab


The laqab لَقَب is defined most simply as an epithet, usually a religious, honorific, or descriptive title. The لَقَب can precede the اِسْم 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 الدِّينِ)

The Kunya

2Honorific name (street name) – to identify
a person by his first-born child.
أَبُو كَرِيمٍكُنْيةٌ

Name under which people call somebody on the street; mostly named after the first child: father of;mother of.  The Kunya كُنْية is a honorific name.

It is not part of a person’s formal name and is usu­ally not printed in documents. The كُنْية is significant in Ar­abic culture – even a person who has no child might have a كُنْية which makes him (or her) symbolically the par­ent of a special qual­ity, such as father of good deeds.

The Ism

3(First) nameمُحَمَّدٌاِسْمٌ

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 famous prefix: عَبْد – which means servant of and is followed by one of the 99 names (attributes) of Allah.

The Nasab

4Genealogy (family origin):
son of… son of… son of…
اِبْنُ خالِدٍنَسَبٌ

The nasab نَسَب 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.

The Nisba

5Indication of origin. The Nisba is usu­ally
preceded by the definite article الْ.

The نِسْبة is similar to what people in the West may call the surname. It is rarely used in Egypt and in Lebanon, where the لَقَب incorporates its meaning. A person may have several نِسْبة

It is usually an adjective (نِسْبة) derived from

  • the place of birth, origin, or residence: الْبَغْدَادِيُّ (from Baghdad);
  • the name of a reli­gious sect or tribe or family: التَّمِيمِيُّ (belonging to the Tamīm tribe);
  • occa­sionally it is derived from a profession: الْعَطّاريُّ (the per­fume vendor).

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 نَسَب: 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:

Picture credit: Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

Last updated: Jun 15, 2020 @ 8:10


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