What’s in a Name? Arabic Personal and Family Names Signify History, Religion, Power and Purpose
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabic rules for naming newborns are different from many other naming practices used around the world. Arabic names are a string of names, most often following the father’s line and usually including the grandfather’s name and a descriptive name. Muslim and Christian Arabs “in some instances” differ in how they name their children.
How Family and Personal Names are Constructed in Arabic
First, like the language they derive from, Arabic names can be complicated. The Arabic language, as Arabic speakers are aware of, is often characterized as one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It ranks right up there with Chinese and Japanese in the level of difficulty. Furthermore, Arabic is written in script, from right to left, has only three vowels, and most words start with a consonant. In spoken Arabic, you hear several pharyngeal sounds, commonly called guttural or throaty, which are seemingly impossible for many English speakers to articulate.
“Arabic names are a string of names listing ancestors on the father’s side,” according to ‘Arabic for Nerds.’ Usually, an individual’s first name or his or her own name appears, naturally, first in the string. So, following the first name is either the father’s name or an honorific title (a mark of respect), then the paternal grandfather’s name. In the case of women, they have their own feminine first name, but the rest of her names follow the masculine line.
An individual’s first name is her or his only “real” name and thus, perhaps, the most important name. That could be a traditional Arab name from the Quran for Muslims and the Bible for Christians. Arabic last names, often two or three names following the first, often use the identity of the person’s tribe or clan, place, and origin of the family. The family name may also follow the family’s profession or business that may be generations in time. One example is the name ‘Al-Tajir’ or ‘The Merchant.’
Example of Arabic name Construction
In general, Arabic names, again according to Arabic for Nerds, consist of five parts. The typical order of names using this Muslim Arabic name, Muhammad al-Faruq ‘ibn Khalid al-Baghdadiy (Abu Karim), shows how the name is constructed.
Muhammad al-Farūq ’Ibn Khālid al-Baghdādīy
مُحَمَّد الْفارُوق ابن خالِد الْبَغْدَادِيّ
Here, Muhammed, for an individual named after the Muslim Prophet, is the first and personal name. Al-Faruq, the second name, is an honorific title, often religious in nature—it means ‘one who distinguishes truth from falsehood’. Third, Ibn Khalid is the ‘patronymic’ or the person’s father’s name.
Fourth is a name that indicates the person’s origin—in this case, Al-Baghdadiy or someone from Baghdad. And fifth, Abu Karim, the name in parenthesis, is, again, honorific, identifying the person as someone’s first-born child. It can be the son or daughter of either the father or the mother. In this case, it means ‘father of the generous one’.
This example is not applicable to Arabic name construction rules across all Arab countries.
Common names among Arab Muslim and Christian families
An interesting conundrum of names in Muslim and Christian Arab families is that many names in the Quran are also found in the Bible. This occurs because the Quran is built on early Biblical sources. Islam differentiated itself by accepting the earlier Biblical prophets, including, the most well-known prophets from respectively, Judaism and Christianity, Abraham and Jesus. Muslims use the Arabic version of Jesus, ‘Issa, as a first name quite commonly. The Prophet’s name, Mohammed, is only used by Muslims. Here are some common Arabic names:
Ibrahim-Abraham; Ismael-Ishmael; Ishaq-Isaac; Ya’coob-Jacob; Haroon-Aaron; Nuh-Noah; Dahood-David; Yahya-John; Yusuf-Joseph; Musa-Moses; ‘Isa-Jesus; Maryam-Mary; Jibril-Gabriel; and Mikhael-Michael.
Noteworthy is that only one female name adorns the above list—Maryam or Mary. Interestingly, Islam accepts the Christian belief in the ‘immaculate conception of Jesus by the mother Mary. Thus, she is honored by Muslims as the mother of an important prophet and is used in naming girls.
More typical Christian Arabic female names are:
Many have taken from the Western world such as Therese, Antionette, Georgette, Bernadette, etc. But more often Christians name their daughters’ names which have meaning and are also used by Muslims as well. Names such as Amira; Sana; Salwa; Iman; Hana; Fatin; Laila; Amal; Zeina; Yasmine; and Mona
Christian Arabs rely on earlier Hebrew names, New Testament biblical names, and generic Arabic names in naming their families and children. Typical of the New Testament are names for such apostles as Boutros for Peter and Boulos for Paul. An Arabic name that directly draws from Jesus Christ is Abdelmassih or “servant of the anointed (Christ)” from Arabic meaning “servant of the” and “anointed, Messiah, Christ”, used by Arabic-speaking Christians.
Moreover, Christian Arabic male names that are New Testament based are Matta – Mathew; Marqos – Mark; Luqa – Luke; and Yohanan/Yohana – Jonathan/John, Jiries–George, and Elias.
Popular Arabic names with Muslim links are numerous. Such as:
Ali, Hussein; Mohammed; Mahmoud; Ahmed; and Hasan; Fatme; Khadijeh; Aishi
Such names, whether Christian or Muslim, are used to reflect the soul or spirit of some important religious personage from the Bible or the Quran. They are chosen to convey to the newborn some of the power and glory of that personage. At the same time, Muslim and Christian names are intended to represent important historical moments derived from the respective religions.
In conclusion, All Arab parents now take it seriously in naming their children. The names they choose may indicate history and beauty. They actually compete for names with uniqueness and traditional meaning.
“How are family names constructed in Arabic,” Arabic for Nerds 2/20/2022
“100 Common Arabic Last Names or Surnames with Meanings,” MomJunction 1/18/2022
“Is there a name which is both Christian and Muslim?” Quora, 5/22/202
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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