No-one is called Abdul: A Guide to Arab Names

This week’s blogpost will be a little short and somewhat out of the ordinary – it’s on the subject of Arabic names.  During the past two days I’ve encountered three journalistic examples of mutilation or incomprehension of Arab names.  I therefore propose, for your scrutiny, a look at how Arab names are put together, how they are taken apart, and how they are not taken apart.

CAVEAT: Before we get any further into this, remember that – for whatever reason – there is still no agreed-on way of transliterating Arabic into English.  This is why we had القذافي written as Gaddafi, Qaddafi, Al Qathafi, Qadhafi, El Ghadafi, and so on.  No matter how infuriating that is, a complete lack of knowledge of Arabic script or phonetics isn’t really going to hamper your ability to come to terms with Arab names.

SECOND CAVEAT: I’m talking here about Arab names in Arabic, not as practiced by Muslims in other countries such as Pakistan or Indonesia where Arabic is not the first language and the naming conventions are at variance with those in the Middle East.

First, let’s look at the structure of Arab names, or at least the classical conception of their structure as practiced before modern times.  Conventionally they can have five parts, although it’s virtually impossible that a single name would have all five components.  The five are ism, kunya, laqab, nasab, and nisba.

The ism is simply a first name, such as Muhammad, Fatimah, Sultan, Maha, and so on.  The most common Muslim names tend to be praiseworthy adjectives and names of members of the Prophet’s family.  Modern Christian Arab names vary widely: sometimes they are the same as Muslim names, but sometimes they are taken from French or English.  A look through the post-independence Presidents of Lebanon illustrates some more Francophile choices: Michel, Émil, Charles, and so on.  The ism can consist of what in English looks like two or three words (Abdal Rahman, Jamal-ud-Din), on which more below.

The laqab and the nisba sort of serve the same purpose, which is to indicate a characteristic of the person named.  They are usually added to the person’s name during their lifetime rather than being something they were born with.  The technical difference is that a laqab indicates a personal quality (such as Haroun al-Rashid, the rightly-guided), while a nisba shows a person’s national origin or tribal allegiance.  In the name Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, al-Afghani is a nisba indicating his claims of birth in Afghanistan (although he was probably born in Iran).  Large numbers of pre-modern scholars, such as al-Hariri, al-Isfahani, and so on, are known mainly by their laqab or nisba (a bit like Le Corbusier).  In fact, the name of a certain author of maqamat, Badi’ al-Zaman al-Hamadhani, simply means “the wonder of the age from Hamadhan”; his birth name is unknown (as far as I’m aware).  Saddam Hussein’s nisba was al-Tikriti, indicating his origins in the town of Tikrit.  Gaddafi (al-Qadhafi), indicates Muammar’s membership of the Qadhadhfa tribe.

The nasab and the kunya are opposites: the nasab indicates parents; the kunya, children.

The nasab, preceded by the word ibn/bin (son) or bint (daughter), is classically more formal than a kunya – a person’s first name followed by a generation or two of nasab could have been considered a ‘full name’.  In the modern world, the most prominent examples of the extended nasab are to be found among the monarchies of the Gulf: the current King of Saudi Arabia may be correctly referred to as “Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz ibn Abdulrahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Saud ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin Al Saud”, all the way back to his great(x7)-grandfather.  This is important for the Al Saud family because it shows that they are descendants of the man who founded the precursor to the modern Saudi State.

The kunya, which is preceded by abu (father) or umm (mother), was and is often used as a more familiar form of address.  Although a kunya will be conventionally given in honour of children (Abu Fatimah, Umm Muhammad), some modern examples, such as the one given to Yasser Arafat, Abu Ammar, are chosen for close friends or comrades.  Mahmoud Abbas is known as Abu Mazen, after his son.  In Syria, Hafez al-Asad was sometimes referred to as Abu Basil, after his son who died in a car accident in 1994, and Bashar is occasionally called Abu Hafez, after his son (who has his grandfather’s name).

This is the framework of how Classical names were constructed.  In the modern Middle East, as a result of colonisation, people generally have a first and a last name, although these elements may be derived from Classical forms.  The practice of kunya continues, the laqab is more or less extinct and the nisba tends to be ignored except in reporting full names.  The nasab, as discussed above, thrives in the Gulf and is more or less irrelevant everywhere else, although large numbers of last names in north Africa (Benyoucef, Bendjedid, Belkhadem) are derived from regional variants of the Classical nasab, and in Mauritania the word ould, derived from walad, is used instead of ibn.

Now let’s look at one or two things to remember when dealing with Arab names, particular if you’re trying to report someone as ‘Mr.’ or address them by their first name.

1. A nasab or a kunya is one indivisible element.  Therefore Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s last name (which is based on a nasab) is Ben Ali, not Ali.  Someone introduced as Umm Mahmoud should not be addressed as Umm.  Similarly, nobody in the Middle East is called Abu, despite what certain From Our Own Correspondent episodes may suggest.

2. ‘Abdul’, as a name, is NOT a thing.  I really cannot stress this enough.  The large number of Arab names, such as Abdullah, Abdulaziz, Abdullatif, and so on, are composed of the following elements:

‘abd’ (servant of) + al- (the) + [one of the 99 names of God, or the word Allah]

While any of the 99 names are allowed, certain ones are more common: you’d meet a thousand people called Abdulkarim, Abdulrahim, or Abdulmalik before you meet a single Abdulmumit.  These names can be written as one word, as I have above, or two: Abdul Aziz, Abdul Latif, or as two-and-a-half: Abd al-Latif, Abd al-Hamid.  However, even when written as two names, the component ‘Abdul’ simply means ‘servant of the’ and is not a person’s name – ever.  Furthermore, its use as a stereotypical Arab name by people who have the resources to know better speaks a level of bone-headed Orientalism which reminds me of the worst excesses of Tintin.

(as a side note, while these names are written as two words in Arabic: عبد الحميد, in the Gulf they are usually written as one: عبدالله)

There are are few other compound first names, nearly all of which end with Din: Jamal al-Din, Baha al-Din, Ala al-Din (Aladdin).  These mean ‘the beauty/wonder/glory of religion’ and should be treated as a single unit.

3. “Al” can mean different things.  In almost every Arabic word or name, it means ‘the’, as in the Abd al-___ names above.  However, there is an exception: when discussing the royal families of the Gulf (Al Saud, Al Khalifa, Al Nahyan, and so on), Al is a separate word meaning ‘family’.  However, writing Al Saud as al-Saud isn’t particularly egregious, unless committed by people like Jeremy Bowen, who should know better.

EDIT: As Diaa Hadid has kindly pointed out below, in North Africa west of Egypt, names which begin with al- and which would normally be adjectives are frequently used as first names.

3.1 An exception within this exception is the Kuwaiti Al-Sabah family which, for reasons best known to itself, not only treats its own family name as an attribute rather than a family name but also denies itself the pleasure of long strings of patronymics, instead opting for al- again.  So the present Emir of Kuwait, who chooses to be known as Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, would in any other country be called Sabah ibn Ahmad ibn Jaber Al Sabah.  But, again, if you’re in the position to be reporting the full name of the Emir of Kuwait, you probably already know that.

9 thoughts on “No-one is called Abdul: A Guide to Arab Names

  1. Should also note that in north Africa, first names often begin with “al-” and can be adjectival, where they would not further eastwards, and so you have al-Arabi, al-Baghdadi, al-Hareth, names that don’t exist once you hit the Egyptian border.

    1. That’s very interesting – I was not aware of it. I knew of isolated cases (al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, for instance) but I had never really thought about the trend. Thank you for the information.

  2. I hate to be a pedant (no, I don’t) but that should say “North Africa *west* of Egypt”. There isn’t much North Africa east of Egypt.

    1. Sorry the delay in replying. Generally the five elements won’t all exist at once. In Classical situations, the ism comes first, followed by at least one nasab: Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, for example. If the person is given a kunya, it might be used instead of the person’s full name, but if it’s listed with the other elements it frequently comes first. If the person is given a nisba or a laqab, that will come last. But even if a name has every element, writing them all out isn’t really cognate to the idea of a ‘full name’ as we have in the West.

  3. Very interesting !! But it still leaves me with a problem: how do I address someone called “Raza Ali Syed”, not knowing man or woman, nor what the family name is. “Dear Ali Syed” does not sound right… I try to find out if Raza is indeed a first name, and if it is male or female.

  4. Hello! This was a great article, really informative.

    I am writing to ask if you have any idea if being known by a surname name like Aziz (usually unaccompanied by Abdul- even though it is part of the full name, or written as A. Aziz ) is forbidden in Islam or not? It seems to me it would be because it is like calling oneself one of the 99 names of Allah.

    Thank you!

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