Arabic names were historically based on a long naming system; most Arabs did not have given/middle/family names, but a full chain of names. This system was mainly in use throughout Arabia and part of the Levant.
Structure of the Arabic name
The ism (اسم) is the personal name (e.g. "Jafar" or "Ali"). Most names are Arabic words with a meaning, usually signaling the hoped-for character of the person. Such words are employed as adjectives and nouns in regular language.
- Muhammad means "Praiseworthy"
- Ali means "Exalted, High".
Generally, the context and grammar differentiate between names and adjectives, but Arab newspapers sometimes try to avoid confusion by placing names in brackets or quotation marks.
A very common name is Muhammad, used throughout the Muslim world, including parts of Africa, Arabia, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. The name may be abbreviated to Md., Mohd., Muhd., or simply M. in many cases, in which case the second given name is the one most commonly used. This can be seen in many names in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
- Md. Dinar ibn Raihan
- Mohd. Umair Tanvir
- Md. Osman
A common form of Muslim Arab names is the combination of ʿAbd ("servant", fem. ʿAmah) followed by a description of God. A particularly common masculine example is Abdullah (عبد الله "servant of God").
This practice is not exclusive to Muslims in the Arab world. For example, in Lebanon and Egypt, Abdel-Massih ("servant of Christ") is commonly used as a Christian last name.
Muslim names like Muhammad are used by non-Muslims such as the Kalash people.
Non-Muslim converts to Islam are permitted to continue using their native language non-Arabic non-Islamic names if they do not carry any polytheistic connotations or meaning.
Arab Christian practices
To an extent, most Christian Arabs have names indistinguishable from Muslims, except that they almost never use explicitly Islamic names, e.g. Muhammad. Some common Christian names are:
- Arabic versions of Christian names (e.g. saints names: Botros for Peter, although not a translation).
- Names of Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian / Aramaic origin.
- Use of European names, especially French, Greek and, to a lesser extent, Spanish ones (in Morocco). This has been a centuries-long convention for Christian Arabs, especially in the Levant. For example: George Habash, Charles Helou, Camille Chamoun.
- Names in honor of Jesus Christ:
- Abd al-Yasuʿ (masc. ) / Amat al-Yasuʿ (fem.) ("slave of Jesus")
- Abd al-Maseeḥ (masc.) / Amat al-Maseeḥ (fem.) ("slave of the Messiah")
- Derivations of Maseeḥ ("Christ"): Masūḥun ("most anointed"), Amsāḥ ("more anointed"), Mamsūḥ ("anointed") and Musayḥ ("infant Christ"). The root, M-S-Ḥ, literally means "to anoint" (as in Masah) and is cognate to the Hebrew Mashiah.
- Abd al-Ilaah ("worshipper of God") is a Christian equivalent to the common Muslim name Abdullah.
The laqab (لقب "cognomen" / "surname") is intended as a description of the person.
- For example, the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rasheed (of One Thousand and One Nights fame). Haroun is the Arabic form for Aaron and al-Rasheed means "the rightly-guided".
The laqab was very popular in ancient Arab societies. Today, the laqab is only used if it is actually a person's birth surname/family name.
The nasab (نسب) is a patronymic or series of patronymics. It indicates the person's heritage by the word ibn (ابن "son", colloquially bin) or ibnat (بنت "daughter", also bint, abbreviated bte.).
- Ibn Khaldun (ابن خلدون) means "son of Khaldun". Khaldun is the father's personal name or, in this particular case, the name of a remote ancestor.
Several nasab names can follow in a chain to trace a person's ancestry backwards in time, as was important in the tribally based society of the ancient Arabs, both for purposes of identification and for socio-political interactions. Today, however, ibn or bint is no longer used (unless it is the official naming style in a country, region, etc.: Adnen bin Abdallah). The plural is 'Abnā for males and Banāt for females. However, Banu or Bani is tribal and encompasses both sexes.
The nisbah (نسبة) surname could be an everyday name, but is mostly the name of the ancestral tribe, city, country, or any other term used to show relevance. It follows a family through several generations.
The laqab and nisbah are similar in use, thus, a name rarely contains both.
A kunya is a component of an Arabic name, a type of epithet, in theory referring to the bearer's first-born son or daughter. By extension, it may also have hypothetical or metaphorical references, e.g. in a nom de guerre or a nickname, without literally referring to a son or a daughter. Use of a kunya implies a familiar but respectful setting.
A kunya is expressed by the use of abū (father) or umm (mother) in a genitive construction, i.e. "father of" or "mother of" as an honorific in place of or alongside given names in the Arab world and the Islamic world more generally.
Dynastic or family "Al"
Some people, especially in Arabia region, when descendant of a famous ancestor, start their last name with آل, an arabic noun which means "family" or "clan", like the dynasty Al Saud (family of Saud) or Al ash-Sheikh (family of the Sheikh). آل is distinct from the definite article ال. If a reliably-sourced version of the Arabic spelling includes آل (as a separate graphic word), then this is not a case of the definite article, so "Al " (capitalised and followed by a space, not a hyphen) should be used. "Ahl " (similar, more global meaning) is sometimes used and should be used if the Arabic spelling is أهل. Dynasty membership alone does not necessarily imply that the dynastic آل is used - e.g. Bashar al-Assad.
|آل||family/clan of||Al, Aal||Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud|
|أهل||tribe/people of||Ahl||Ahl al-Bayt|
محمد بن سلمان بن امین الفارسی
Muhammad ibn Salman ibn Ameen al-Farsi
muhammad ibn saʻlman ibn ʻamin l-farsi
- Ism - Muhammad (proper name, lit. "praised")
- Nasab - Salman (father's name, lit. "secure")
- Nasab - Ameen (grandfather's name, "Trustworthy")
- Nisbah - al-Farsi ("the Persian", from Farsi "Persian").
"Muhammad, son of Salman, son of Ameen, the Persian"
This person would simply be referred to as "Muhammad" or by relating him to his first-born son, e.g. Abu Kareem ("father of Kareem"). To signify respect or to specify which Muhammad one is speaking about, the name could be lengthened to the extent necessary or desired.
Westernization of Arabic naming practices and names
Almost all Arabic-speaking countries (excluding for example Saudi Arabia or Bahrain) have now adopted a Westernized way of naming. This is the case for example in the Levant and Maghreb, as well as some North African countries, where French or English conventions are followed (an effect of European colonization), 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 when Westerners are asked to supply their first name, father's name, and family name in some Arab visa applications.
The Westernization of an Arab name may require transliteration. Often, one name may be transliterated in several ways (Abdul Rahman, Abdoul Rahman, Abdur Rahman, Abdurahman, Abd al-Rahman, or Abd ar-Rahman), as there is no single accepted Arabic transliteration system. A single individual may try 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 others: for example, especially since 9/11, persons with names written similarly to those of suspected terrorists have been detained.
Non-Arabic speakers 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 says "Abdul Rahman", not merely "Abdul". If he introduces himself as "Abdul Rahman" (which means "the servant of the Merciful"), one does not say "Mr. Rahman" (as "Rahman" is not a family name but part of his [theophoric] personal name); instead it would be Mr. al-Ahmad, the latter being the family name.
- People not familiar with Arabic sandhi in genitive constructions: Habību-llāh = "beloved (Habīb) of (ul) God (Allāh)"; 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]). To add to the confusion, some immigrants to Western countries have adopted Uddin as a surname, although it is grammatically incorrect in Arabic 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 the Merciful"), others may call him Mr. Abdul ("servant of the") which would sound quite odd to a native speaker of Arabic.
- Not distinguishing `alā' from Allah: Some Muslim names include the Arabic word `alā' (علاء "nobility"). Here, ` represents the ayin sound, the voiced pharyngeal fricative, and the apostrophe (') represents the hamza (glottal stop), and L is spelled and pronounced once. In Allāh, L is spelled twice and pronounced separately (geminate). In Arabic pronunciation, `alā' and Allāh are clearly different. But Europeans, Iranians, and Indians may not pronounce some Arabic sounds as a native Arabic speaker would, and thus tend to pronounce them identically. For example, the name `Alā'-ad-dīn ("the nobility of the religion", also known as Aladdin) is sometimes misspelled as Allah-ad-din. There is a separate name `Ala'-Allah (Aliullah, "the nobility of God").
- Taking bin or ibn for a middle name: As stated above, these words indicate the family chain. Westerners often confuse them with middle names, especially when they're written as "Ben", as it is the case in some countries. For example, Sami Ben Ahmed would be mistakenly addressed as Mr. Ahmed. To correctly address the person, one should use Mr. Ben Ahmed.
- Grammar: As between all languages, there are differences between Arabic grammar and the grammar of 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 for `alā', for if not, by the rules of Arabic grammar, this name means "the Allah who belongs to Muhammad", which would be unacceptable religiously. However, by the rules of Iranian and most Indian languages, this name does mean "Muhammad who belongs to Allah", being the equivalent of the Arabic "Muhammad Ullah". Most Afghans speak Iranian languages. Such Arabo-Iranian or Arabo-Indian mixed-language compound names are not uncommon in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan. There is, for example, the Pakistani/Indian name Allah-Ditta which joins the Arabic Allah with the Persian/Urdu Ditta ("given").
Arab family naming convention
In Arabic culture, as in many parts of the world, a person's ancestry and family name are very important. An example is explained below.
Assume a man is called Saleh ibn Tariq ibn Khalid al-Fulan.
- Saleh is his personal name, and the one that his family and friends would call him by.
- ibn translates as "son of", so Tariq is Saleh's father's name.
- ibn Khalid means that Tariq is the son of Khalid, making Khalid the grandfather of Saleh.
- al-Fulan would be Saleh's family name.
Hence, Saleh ibn Tariq ibn 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-Goswami translates as "Fatimah, daughter of Tariq, son of Khaled; of the family al-Goswami."
In this case, ibn and bint are included in the official naming. Most Arab countries today, however, do not use 'ibn' and 'bint' in their naming system. If Saleh were an Egyptian, he would be called Saleh Tariq Khalid al-Fulan and Fatimah would be Fatimah Tariq Khalid al-Goswami.
If Saleh marries a wife (who would keep her own maiden, family, and surnames), their children will take Saleh's family name. Therefore, their son Mohammed would be called Mohammed ibn Saleh ibn Tariq al-Fulan.
However, not all Arab countries use the name in its full length, but conventionally use two- and three-word names, and sometimes four-word names in official or legal matters. Thus the first name is the personal name, the middle name is the father's name and the last name is the family name.
Arabic names and their biblical equivalent
The Arabic names listed below are used in the Arab world, as well as some other Muslim regions, with correspondent Hebrew, English, Syriac and Greek equivalents in many cases. They are not necessarily of Arabic origin, although some are. Most are derived from Syriac transliterations of the Hebrew Bible. For more information, see also Iranian, Malay, Pakistani, and Turkish names.
|Arabic name||Hebrew name||English name||Syriac name||Greek name|
ʿĀbir /ʾĪbir عابر / إيبر
| Iyov / Iov
Iyyov / Iyyôḇ איוב
Āzar / Taraḥ آزر / تارح
|Téraḥ / Tharakh תֶּרַח / תָּרַח||Terah||Thara||Θάρα|
|Dawoud / Dāwud / Dāwūd / Dāʾūd داود / داوُود / داؤود|| David
Fīlīb/Fīlībus فيليب / فيليبوس
Páreẓ פֶּרֶץ / פָּרֶץ
|Ḥannāh חַנָּה||Anna (Bible)||Ἄννα|
| Chava / Hava
|Ḥassan حسن|| Choshen
| Idrees / Akhnookh
Idrīs / Akhnūkh أخنوخ / إدريس
|H̱anokh חֲנוֹךְ||Enoch / Idris||Ἑνώχ|
| Eliahu / Eliyahu
ʾImrān عمرام / عمران
| Eisa / Yasoua
ʿĪsā / Yasūʿ عيسى / يسوع
Yešuaʿ יֵשׁוּעַ / יֵשׁוּ
| Yitzhak / Yitzchak
Yišmaʿel / Yišmāʿêl יִשְׁמָעֵאל
| Israel / Yisrael
Yisraʾel / Yiśrāʾēl ישראל
| Jibreel /Jibraaeel
Jibrīl / Jibraīl جِبْريل / جَبْرائيل
| Jad / Gad
Ǧād / Jād جاد
| Jalut / Galut
Ǧālūt / Jālūt / Julyāt جالوت / جليات
| Jasham / Gushaam
Jašam / Ǧūšām جشم / جوشام
|Geshem גֶשֶׁם||Geshem (Bible)||Gashmu|
Jūrj / Jirjis / Jurj / Jurayj جيرجس
|George (given name)||Γεώργιος|
Māliki-Ṣadiq ملكي صادق
| Maryam / Miriam
| Miriam / Miryam
Mattā / Matatiyā متى / متتيا
| Matatiahu / Matatyahu
/ Mikhāʼīl ميخائيل
| Michael / Mikhael
| Noach / Noah
| Qaroon / Qoorah
Qarūn / Qūraḥ قارون / قورح
| Tzfanya / Ṣəp̄anyā
| Tzipora / Tsippora
Ṣamu’īl / Ṣamawāl صموئيل / صموال
| Shmu'el / Šəmûʼēl
| Sara / Sarah
|Sarah / Sara||Σάρα|
| Shimshon / Šimšôn
Sulaymān / سليمان
Ṭālūt / Sāwul طالوت / شاول
Ṭūmās/Tūmā طوماس / توما
ʿUbaydallāh / 'Ubaydīyā عبيد الله / عبيدييا
Ovádyah / Ovádyah עבדיה
| Yahia / Yehia / Youhanna
Yaḥyā / / Yūḥannā ** يحيى / يوحنا
| Yochanan / Yohanan
| Yathrun (?)
Yathrun / Shu'ayb / شعيب
| Younos / Younes
/ Yūnus يونس
| Yona / Yonah
| Youssof / Youssef
Yūsuf / يوسف
Yūshaʿ / Yashūʿ يُوشَعُ / يَشُوعُ
Zakariyyā / Zakarīyā زَكَرِيَّا
| Zecharia /Zekharia
|Zachary or Zechariah||Ζαχαρίας|
- The popular romanization of the Arabized and Hebrew names are written first, then the standardized romanization are written in oblique. Notice that Arabized names may have variants.
- If a literal Arabic translation of a name exists, it will be placed after the final standardized romanization.
- If an Arabic correlation is ambiguous, (?) will be placed following the name in question.
- * Yassou' is the Arab Christian name, while `Īsā is the Muslim version of the name, as used in the Qur'an. There is debate as to which is the better rendition of the Aramaic Yeshua, because both names are of late origin.
- ** Youhanna is the Arab Christian name of John, while Yahya is the Muslim version of the name, as used in the Qur'an. They have completely different triconsonantal roots: H-N-N ("grace") vs H-Y-Y ("Life"). Specifically, Youhanna may be the Biblical John the Baptist or the apostle. Yahya refers specifically to John the Baptist.
- El, the Hebrew word for strength/might or deity, is usually represented as īl in Arabic, although it carries no meaning in classical and modern Arabic. The only exception is its usage in the archaic Iraqi dialect.
According to the Chicago Manual of Style, Arabic names are indexed by their surnames. Names may be alphabetized under Abu Abd and ibn, while names are not alphabetized under al- and el- and are instead alphabetized under the following element.
- Metcalf, Barbara D. (2009-09-08). Islam in South Asia in Practice. Princeton University Press. p. 344. ISBN 1-4008-3138-5.
One must avoid names whose ambiguity suggests something unlawful. It is for this reason that the scholars forbid having names like 'Abd al-Nabi (Slave of the Prophet).
- Shahpurshah Hormasji Hodivala, Historical Studies in Mug̲h̲al Numismatics, Numismatic Society of India, 1976 (Reprint of the 1923 ed.)
- Pedzisai Mashiri, "Terms of Address in Shona: A Sociolinguistic Approach", Zambezia, XXVI (i), pp. 93–110, 1999
- Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Names: An Introduction, Edinburgh University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-85224-563-7, ISBN 978-0-85224-563-7
- "Indexes: A Chapter from The Chicago Manual of Style" (Archive). Chicago Manual of Style. Retrieved on December 23, 2014. p. 25 (PDF document p. 27/56).
- Arabic Nomenclature: A summary guide for beginners. A.F.L. Beeston (Oxford, 1971).
- Period Arabic Names and Naming Practices (2003) by Da'ud ibn Auda (David B. Appleton)
- Automated recognition of Arabic person names