A brief primer on Arabic and Islamic names

A brief primer on Arabic and Islamic names April 6, 2019

 

Kazakh al-Farabi
This image of the eminent Muslim philosopher al-Farabi appears on a Kazakhstan banknote
(Wikimedia Commons public domain)

 

I repeat a few words about Arabic/Islamic names that I hope some will find helpful.

 

There are certain basic elements.  For instance, there is the kunya, an honorific given to married parents that includes the name of their eldest son.  The father of Yusuf (“Joseph”) would thus be known as Abu Yusuf, from the Arabic Ab/Abu (“father”), while the mother would be called Umm Yusuf.  Abu Nasr al-Farabi, shown above, seems to have been the father of a son named Nasr (or, as some would spell it, Nasser).

 

Yusuf’s father and mother will, of course, have their own personal names.  The masculine parental unit might be Muhammad, for example.  Actually, the odds are good that he will be, since, I’m told, Muhammad is the world’s most common given name.  (Variant forms include Turkish Mehmet, as well as other versions of the same h-m-d root — which conveys the idea of “praise” — such as Mahmud [“praised”] and the comparative or superlative Ahmad [“most praised”].)  The mother might be Maryam (“Mary”).  Yusuf will, in this case, also be known as Ibn Muhammad (“the son of Muhammad”).

 

If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ve seen the Hebrew cognate to Arabic ibn.  It’s ben.  Think of Benjamin, “the son of the right [hand].”  (Yamin means “right” in Arabic, as in Hebrew.)  Think, for that matter, of Judah Ben Hur — “the son of Hur,” as he’s occasionally called in the film.

 

You’ve also seen the Hebrew cognate to Arabic Ab/Abu (“father”).  Think of Abimelech (“my father is a king”; Arabic malik = English king) and of Abraham (which probably originally meant something like “father is exalted”).

 

The feminine equivalent of ibn (“son”) is bint (“daughter”).  So Yusuf’s sister will be, say, Soraya bint Muhammad.

 

Ibn and bint are often abbreviated as, respectively, b. and bt.

 

Someday, Yusuf himself will very likely have a son.  Let’s call that son Khalil.  That will give us a three-generation genealogical chain:  Abu Khalil Yusuf b. Muhammad. Such chains can be (and, in classical times, often were) extended indefinitely.  Thus, for example, the great eleventh-century physician and philosopher Avicenna or Ibn Sina was, in full, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī ibn Sīnā.

 

Sometimes, particularly in the premodern or classical period, other identifiers are attached to names:  To take an example, we might run into Abu Khalil Yusuf b. Muhammad al-Baghdadi, which would indicate that there is some connection with Baghdad (on the part of either the son or the father).  Or Abu Khalil Yusuf b. Muhammad al-Dimashqi (“the Damascene” or “the one from or connected with Damascus”) or al-Misri (indicating a connection with Misr [Egypt]) or al-Halabi (“the one from Halab [Aleppo]”), or al-Turki (“the Turk”) or al-Farisi (“the Persian”).  This term is called a nisba.  The philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi seems to have been connected with a place called Farab or Faryab, located somewhere in Central Asia.

 

In other cases, we’ll see descriptive titles.  One of the earliest significant masters of Arabic prose is the eighth-century Persian Abū Muhammad ʿAbd Allāh Rūzbih ibn Dādūya (Persian: ابو محمد عبدالله روزبه ابن دادویه‎‎) — ‘Abd Allah Ruzbih, who was the father of Muhammad and the son of Daduya (a pre-Islamic Iranian name) — who is by far most widely known as Ibn al-Muqaffa (Arabic: ابن المقفع‎‎).  Al-Muqaffa‘ means “the one with the crushed hand,” because ‘Abd Allah Ruzbih’s father had been a government functionary who was punished by having his hand crushed after being convicted of embezzlement.

 

Then there is the laqab, which offers another way of distinguishing one person from another.  One example of this can be seen in the name of the most famous of the ‘Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid (“Aaron [compare Hebrew Aharon] the Rightly-Guided”).  Other examples include Aladdin (‘Ala al-Din, “Exalted One of the Religion”), Sayf al-Dawla (“Sword of the State”), al-Mansur (“the Victorious”), al-Tawil (“the Tall”).  The famous author of the Rubaiyat, known in English as Omar Khayyam, is ‘Umar the Tentmaker.

 

Many Arabic/Islamic personal names are compounds — very commonly combining the word‘abd (“slave” or “servant”) with one of the ninety-nine “Most Beautiful Names” (al-asma al-husna, which refer to divine attributes).  Thus, we commonly find ‘Abd al-Karim (“Slave of the Noble One”), ‘Abd al-Rahman (“Slave of the Merciful One”), ‘Abd al-Wahhab (“Slave of the Generous One”), ‘Abd al-Malik (“Slave of the King”), and‘Abd Allah or Abdullah (“Slave of God [Allah]”).  Arabic-speaking Christians sometimes bear the name ‘Abd al-Masih (“Slave of the Messiah”).  You may have noticed the closely related name of a “minor” Hebrew prophet, Obadiah.  He was the “servant” or “slave” (compare obad- to abd) of Yah (= the first syllable of the divine name Yahweh or Jehovah).

 

Such compound names are inseparable.

 

Permit me to explain with three examples:

 

1.  Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt until his death in 1970, was typically referred to in the American press as President Nasser or, simply, as Nasser.  More accurately, his name was Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir.  (Gamal represents the Cairene Egyptian pronunciation of the standard Arabic word jamal, meaning “beauty.”)  ‘Abd al-Nasir means “Slave of the Victor [i.e., of God].”  Abdel and Nasser aren’t the Egyptian president’s middle and last names.  They are one name.  On its own, Abdel (= ‘Abd al-) means simply “slave of the.”  It’s an incomplete thought.  And anybody familiar with President Nasser’s biography (which prominently includes the disastrous Six-Day War with Israel) won’t easily confuse him with God the Victor.

 

2.  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a great basketball player for the UCLA Bruins, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Los Angeles Lakers.  I sometimes heard him referred to as, simply, Jabbar.  But, again, Jabbar is a divine name.  It means “omnipotent.”  Kareem, who was Lew Alcindor before his conversion to Islam, is ‘abd al-jabbar, “slave of the Omnipotent One.”  And, just for the record, although he was a remarkably good basketball player I myself can testify that he sometimes missed free throws.

 

3.  Finally, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the FBI ran a sting operation (called ABSCAM) that netted the convictions of, among others, one member of the United States Senate and six members of the House of Representatives — all but one of them Democrats, I’m happy to say.  To carry it out, the Bureau set up a phony Arab company called Abdul Enterprises.  Now, though, you know enough about Arabic naming practices to realize that this corporate name was very fishy.  Would a native speaker of Arabic really call his company Slave-of-the Enterprises?  Heck, even one of the two fictional shaykhs behind the supposed firm was named Kambir Abdul Rahman (“Kambir, Slave of the Merciful”).

 

Can you now see the practical benefits of learning Arabic?  You would never have fallen for the ABSCAM sting.

 

 

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