The Arabic Name: What it Consists Of and What it Means

Middle East Contributor
Arabic Names
Fotoğraf: Thomas Kelley-Unsplash

In the Holy Quran, in the Sunnah of the Prophet and in other Islamic books, we often come across Arabic names. These names are rather complicated and it is not easy to understand them without special knowledge. Let’s try to understand how the Arabic name works and how it should be “deciphered”.

First, let’s figure out what the name is for. The assigning of a name is a unique identification of a person, making it possible to understand that this is this particular person and not another.

Unlike addressing computer memory cells, a person does not need to have all the components of identification, one can simply take the social and historical context as a basis and define a person as belonging to this context.

For example, saying “Imam al-Bukhari”, we immediately understand that we are talking about the famous collector of hadiths (muhaddis). They lived at the end of the 9th century in the distant Caliphate province of Transoxiana (Uzbekistan). At that time already quite independent from Baghdad, in the city of Bukhara and then Samarkand. But in this short “name” – al-Bukhari – there is no indication other than our knowledge of the “situation”. It simply means “the Bukharan”. It is thus enough for us to hear “the Bukharan”, and we understand what particular Bukharan we are talking about.

So are the other names are known to us from Muslim books and narratives. Often a person was identified by one single part of the name, since everyone understood who it was they were talking about.

In addition to the “identification” function, the name has a “ceremonial” function. Such a name serves for “status” and is not used in everyday life. It is this name that is difficult to understand and it is this name that is not used anywhere except in a solemn context.

However, pieces are taken from it for the “everyday” name of a person.

The full Arabic name consists of 6 components:

  • the name by child (kunya) (consists of the word “abu” (“father”) and the name of the child. For example, the Prophet had a son Qasim who died in infancy, by the name of this son the Prophet himself was called Abu al-Qasim. The appeal by kunya is a sign of special respect, the Prophet himself addressed his disciples by kunya);
  • personal name (ism), given to the child at birth, in fact, this is the name in our understanding. For example, the famous sultan of Egypt Saladin was named Yusuf. We will analyze his full name below; ism often contains the element “abd” (“slave”) – Abd-Ullah (Servant of Allah), Abdu-Rahman (Servant of the Merciful);
  • patronymic (nasab), includes the element “ibn” (“son”) and may contain the chain “son-grandfather-great-grandfather”. For example, Abul-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Abu Bakr – Father of Abbas Ahmad son of Muhammad the son of Ibrahim the son of Abu Bakr.
  • nickname (laqab). For example, Yusuf’s son Ayyub had the nickname “Piety of Faith” (Salah ad-Din). Under which name he went down in history as Sultan Saladin.

  • an additional identifier (nisbah), usually indicated where the person was from. For example, the nisbah “al-Bukhari” indicated that the person was from Bukhara (his full name was Father of Abudlla Muhammad son of Ismail the Bukharan (Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Ismail al- Bukhari) Therefore, when a disciple came to him, he called him respectfully Abu Abdullah, his wife called him Muhammad, and we just call him Imam the Bukharan.

Finally, let’s deal with Saladin. In the names of especially respected and great people, the order of the components could be changed. So in the name of Saladin in the first place stands the nickname laqab (such an especially honoured person he was), followed by kunya (again an element of respect) and after that the name proper: Al-Malik an-Nasir Salah ad-Dunya wa-d-Din Abul-Muzaffar Yusuf ibn Ayub – King Victorious Piety of Earthly Life and Faith Father of Muzaffar Yusuf son of Ayub.