How are family names constructed in Arabic?

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 check for example this name:

Muhammad al-Farouq Abu Karim ibn Khalid al-Baghdady

In Arabic: مُحَمَّد الْفارُوق أَبُو كَرِيم اِبْن خالِد الْبَغْدَادِيّ

In general, Arabic names consist of five parts which don’t have to follow a particular order:

مُحَمَّد

اِسْم

1

(First) name. 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.

 

الفارُوق

لَقَب

2

The لَقَب is defined most simply as an epithet, usually a religious or honorific or descriptive one, often also a title. The لَقَب can pre­cede the اِسْم and sometimes comes to replace it.

There are mainly three possibilities:

  • physical qualities: الطَّوِيل the tall

  • virtues: الْفارُوق means he who distinguishes truth from false­hood or الرَّاشِد meaning the rightly guided.

  • compounds with الدِّين (religion) like نُور الدِّين

 

أَبُو كَرِيم

كُنْية

3

Name under which people call somebody on the street; mostly named after a child: father of or mother of or son of.

The كُنْية is a honorific name. It is not part of a person’s formal name and is usu­ally not printed in documents. It indicates that the man or woman is the father or mother of a child. The كُنْية is very important in Ar­abic culture – so 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.

 

اِبْن خالِد

نَسَب

4

The نَسَب is the patronymic. It is more or less a list of ancestors, each introduced with son of (اِبْن) or – if we are talking about a wo­man – daughter of (بِنْت).

It is often given for two or more genera­tions. That’s why Arabic names can be very long, for example:… اِبْن خالِد اِبْن فَيْصَل اِبْن

In this case, Khalid is the father and Faisal the grandfather. See chapter 29 for the special case بن

 

The نِسْبة is similar to what people in the West call the surname.

It is rarely used in Egypt and in Lebanon where the لَقَب incorporates its meaning.

الْبَغْدادِيّ

نِسْبة

5

It is usually an adjective (نِسْبة) derived from the place of birth, origin or residence like الْبَغْدَادِيّ (the people of Baghdad); the name of a reli­gious sect or tribe or family like الْقَذَّافِيّ (al-Qadhafi); and occa­sionally it is derived from a profession like الْعَطَّار (the perfume vendor). A person may have several نِسْبة which in Arabic are usu­ally preceded by the definite article الْ

Watch out:

In the Arab world – unlike in a lot of Western countries – 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 by daughter of (name of the father).