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Arabic names are based on a very sophisticated naming system: most Arabs do not simply have first/middle/last names, but a full chain of names. This system is still in use in many Arab countries. Ethnic groups in the different modern Arab countries (by broad definition, any country that employs the Arabic language as mother tongue, one of its common languages, or as a lingua-franca) either have adjusted to different modern naming conventions or have retained their traditional naming conventions. In general, an Arabic name will begin with a given name, followed by the name of the person's father, perhaps followed by the names of other ancestors, and ended with a family or clan name.
Transliteration and translation
Since there is no one predominant method of transliterating from Arabic letters to Roman letters, spelling can vary widely, and this can add to the confusion. "Said al-Ghamdi", for instance, could just as correctly be spelled "Saeed Al Ghamdi" or "Sayeed Alghamdi".
Suppose somebody is named Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Omar bin Othman al-Ahmed. This name translates to "Mohammed, son of Abdullah, son of Omar, son of Othman, of the Ahmed family".
The parts of an Arabic name
Muslim given names are generally figurative — they sometimes express attributes of the person or their relationship to God. For example, "Abd", Arabic for "servant", is often used among Muslims as the first part of a proper name, with the second being a name or appellation of God. For example, "Abd Allah" (often written "Abdullah") means "Servant of God," and "Abd al-Rahman" means "Servant of the Most Compassionate" (a common Qur'anic appellation of God).
It is important to note that, while such names may be written "Abdul (something)", "Abdul" means "servant of the" and is not, by itself, a name. Thus, to address Abdul Rahman bin Omar al-Ahmad by his given name, one must say "Abdul Rahman", not merely "Abdul".
Another mistake sometimes happens with names including the Arabic word `alā' علاء = "nobility". (Here, ` represents the ayin sound and ' represents the glottal stop.) In Arabic pronunciation, `alā' and Allāh are clearly different. But Europeans, Iranians and Indians cannot pronounce some Arabic sounds correctly, and tend to pronounce these two names the same: for example, the Muslim man's name Ala-ed-dīn = "the nobility of the religion" has heen found at least twice on the internet misspelt as Allah-ed-din; and see the next paragraph.
Another mistake can result from differences between Arabic grammar and the grammar of some other languages. Arabic forms noun compounds in the opposite order from Iranian languages. For example, during the recent war in Afghanistan, a BBC team found in Kabul an internal refugee named "Allah Muhammad". This may be a misspelling, as described in the previous paragraph; but if not:- By the rules of Arabic grammar, this name means "the Allah who belong to Muhammad", which is not acceptable as a man's name. But by the rules of Iranian and Indian grammar this name means "the Muhammad who belongs to Allah", which is acceptable; the Arabic equivalent is "Muhammad Ullah". Most Afghans speak Iranian languages. Likely when he was born, his parents were caught up in civil war and had no access to anyone who knew the Arabic language.
Another mistake can result from Europeans not knowing that "Allāh" often becomes "Ullāh" when it is the second part of an Arabic compound, as in Habīb Ullāh = "friend of God"; here a European may in error report the man's name as forename "Habib", surname "Ullah".
Some Arabic names are also derived from adjectives or descriptions of valued objectives; "Hossam", for instance, is used as a name; orignally, this name is used to praise a sword.
Generally, Arabic names are derived from the Arabic language. However, some commonly used names are not originally Arabic; such names include prophet names (Such as Ismael or Dawood), or those of historical figures (Such as Meryem or Sarah).
Other given names include "Ibrahim", which means "father of a multitude" and "Jamil", which means "handsome" or "beautiful".
Usually a father's name will be preceded by "bin", sometimes spelled "ben", which means "son of". A name can be described to any precision required. Some people carry the sequence of names up to the fourth or fifth level, so they use that as a full name; others just use first/last or first/father/last. A father's name is referred to as a "kuniyyat".
Occasionally, a generation may be skipped. If Omar were much more noteworthy than his son Abdullah, then Omar's grandson Mohammed may call himself "Mohammed bin Omar."
Sometimes the first name is omitted when referring to a person; when this happens, the "bin" is replaced with "ibn". For instance, if we are to omit Mohammed bin Omar's first name, it would become "Ibn Omar" (Meaning: Son of Omar).
Women are named the same way as men, but replacing the word "bin" with "bint" (daughter of) after her first name. The sequence then continues with the names of her father, his father, etc. (All Arab societies are patrilineal.)
Family names are often derived from age-old tribal, professional, or clan names. Some of the "kuniyyat" are passed down generations and have become family names. Family names will frequently begin with "al", meaning "the", as in "al-Iraqi". Sometimes the "al" is omitted, and in certain countries it may be pronounced "el". Arabs have a tribal way of describing family; a person could have two or three family names, where each one of them is a smaller group within the larger one.
In some cases, there is also a portion of the name denoting a person's city of birth. For example, the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti, hailed from the city of Tikrit.
Often a person will have a portion of their name in the form "Abu someone," which means "Father of someone," for example, Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi. This name translates to "Father of Abdullah, Muhammed, son of Musa, from the city of Khwarizm."
Sometimes a person will have a series of titles or honorifics appended to their name, for example, "al-Hajji" can be adopted by people who have performed the ritual Hajj.
Differences in naming conventions
- While the "bin" prefix is still commonly used in names, its use is declining; in some places, this prefix is only used in government interactions, and in other places it is dropped altogether.
- Syria retains a heavy Turkish influence, which is reflected in commonly found Turkish surnames (Shishekli, for example).
- Maghribi names are quite distinctive due to heavy Berber (Tamazigh) influences.
- Some Christian Arabs, including some from Palestine, like to have names that are indistinguishable from those of their Sunni neighbors, but there are as many Christian Arabs who retain names of Greek, Armenian, or Syriac origins. Adoption of European names, especially French ones, has been a centuries-long convention for Arab Christians — not only in the Levant, but from the Maghreb to Iraq.
- Many Jewish Americans and Israelis of Temani, Mizrahi and Arabized Sephardi extraction often maintain Arab surnames and adopt Arab names common to Arab Jews, such as Paula Abdul and Loolwa Khazzoom .
- In certain countries like Malaysia and Singapore, male Muslims' names often begin with Mohammed or Muhammed (often abbreviated to Mohd.), continued by the given name, followed by the prefix "bin", then his father's name.
- Sometimes Muslim names are used by people who are not Muslims. Examples are: Ayesha, Fatima (see each name for information as to why); also the French vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff. The Christian name Joaquin or Joachim in some pronunciations can sound like Arabic "Wakīm".
- In Chinese-ruled parts of Central Asia, Chinese officials, when spelling a native name in Chinese characters, sometimes represent "Muhammad" by the Chinese character ma meaning "horse".
See also List of Arabic names.
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