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?

The system is entirely different compared to Western names.

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 examine, for example, this name:

Al-Farūq ’Abū Karīm MuhammadIbn Khālid al-Baghdādīy

الْفارُوقُ أَبُو كَرِيمٍ مُحَمَّدُ اِبْنُ خالِدٍ الْبَغْدَادِيُّ

In general, Arabic names consist of five parts which don’t necessarily have to follow a particular order. However, you will often find the following order:

1

لَقَبٌ

2

كُنْيةٌ

3

اِسْمٌ

4

نَسَبٌ

5

نِسْبةٌ

(Ibn.. Ibn… Ibn…)

Epithet

الْفارُوقُ

لَقَبٌ

1

The لَقَب is defined most simply as an epithet, usually a religious, honorific, or descriptive title. The لَقَب can pre­cede the اِسْم and sometimes comes to replace it. There are mainly three possibilities:

  • physical qualities: الطَّوِيلُ the tall
  • virtues: الْفارُوقُ he who distinguishes truth from false­hood or الرَّاشِدُ the rightly guided.
  • compounds with الدِّين (religion): light of the religion (نُورُ الدِّينِ)

Honorific name (street name) – to identify a person by his first-born child.

أَبُو كَرِيمٍ

كُنْيةٌ

2

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

The كُنْية is a honorific name. It is not part of a person’s formal name and is usu­ally not printed in documents. The كُنْية is very important in Ar­abic culture – 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.

(First) name

مُحَمَّدٌ

اِسْمٌ

3

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.

Genealogy (family origin):

son of… son of… son of…

اِبْنُ خالِدٍ

نَسَبٌ

4

The نَسَب is the patronymic. It is more or less a list of ancestors, each introduced with son of (اِبْن) or daughter of (بِنْت).

It often relates back to two or three generations. That’s why Arabic names can be very long: أُبَىُّ بْنُ عَبَّاسِ بْنِ سَهْلِ بْنِ سَعْدٍ

In this example, ‘Abbās is the father and Sahl the grandfather and Sa‘d the grand-grandfather.

Indication of origin. The Nisba is usu­ally preceded by the definite article الْ.

الْبَغْدَادِيٌّ

نِسْبةٌ

5

The نِسْبة is similar to what people in the West may call the surname. It is rarely used in Egypt and in Lebanon where the لَقَب incorporates its meaning. A person may have several نِسْبة

It is usually an adjective (نِسْبة) derived from

  • the place of birth, origin, or residence: الْبَغْدَادِيُّ (from Baghdad);
  • the name of a reli­gious sect or tribe or family: التَّمِيمِيُّ (belonging to the Tamīm tribe);
  • occa­sionally it is derived from a profession: الْعَطّاريُّ (the per­fume vendor).

Watch out: In the Arab world 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: daughter of (name of the father).

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