Make a name for yourself

Let’s look at the parts of the Arabic name. As we go through them we’ll put together a couple of sample names, those of the famous 12th century warlord Saladin and of the 9th century theologian Ibn Hanbal.

The word “name” is اِسم (ism), which specifically refers to someone’s given (personal) name but is used in any phrases where the word “name” would be needed. For example, you might want to ask:

“what is your name?” = ما اِسمُكَ (mā ismuka, masculine) or ما اِسمُكِ (mā ismuki, feminine)

NOTE: this is the Modern Standard Arabic way to phrase the question, which I can tell you from personal experience will get you blank stares in the Arab world as often as it will get you an actual answer. I am not a colloquial Arabic guy, but here are a few regional variations (in transliteration only since they’re primarily spoken):

  • Egypt: ismak eh? (masc) or ismik eh? (fem)
  • Gulf: shismak? (masc) or shismik? (fem)
  • Lebanese: shoo ismak? (masc) or shoo ismik? (fem)

“my name is _____” = _____ اِسمي (ismī _____)

So اِسم refers to the given name, which may be anything (Google “Arabic names” for lots of lists), but one fairly common type of name involves the construction _____ عَبد (ʿabd _____, masc) or _____ عَمة (ʿamat _____, fem), which means “servant of _____.” The blank is filled in either with الله (Allāh) or with any of the names of God, so even though the exact translation varies by the word choice the real translation is “servant of God.”

Saladin’s given name was يوسُف (Yūsuf), and Ibn Hanbal’s was أحمَد (Aḥmad).

The next part of the name is usually the نَسَب (nasab) or patronymic. This is where the person’s lineage is described, usually one (father) or two (grandfather) levels deep but potentially more in theory (rulers who wanted to trace their lineage back to a particularly important figure would string ancestor after ancestor until their got to the one they wanted to emphasize, which could make their names quite long). The phrase is _____ اِبن (ibn _____, “son of _____”) or _____ بِنت (bint _____, “daughter of _____”). Unless it’s written at the very beginning of a name (or a shortened name) or sentence, اِبن (ibn) is shortened to بِن (bin), and that is abbreviated in translation as “b.”

Saladin used only his father’s name, making his name with patronymic يوسُف بِن أيوب (Yūsuf b. Ayyūb). Ibn Hanbal went back to his grandfather, so his name (so far) is أحمَد بِن مُحَمَد بِن حَنبَل (Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Ḥanbal).

The last two parts are related and usually aren’t found together in the same name because they are both usually used as surnames. They are the لَقَب (laqab), which prior to modern times would have described some quality of the person or his/her work (the 8th-9th century caliph Harun al-Rashid was called “al-Rashid” or “the rightly guided”) but today is passed down like a surname, and the نِسبة (nisbah), which can also be passed down like a surname but is used to identify the person’s birthplace or tribal name (the infamous Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was from the Jordanian city of Zarqa).

Saladin had a laqab but did not typically use a nisbah. His laqab, which as far as I know he assumed for himself, is where we get the name “Saladin” from: صَلاح الدين (ṣalāḥ al-dīn, or “righteousness of the faith”). So his full name was صَلاح الدين يوسُف بِن أيوب (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf b. Ayyūb). Ibn Hanbal used a nisbah, and his full name was أحمَد بِن مُحَمَد بِن حَنبَل ابو عَبد الله الشَيباني (Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Ḥanbal Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Shaybānī). Shayban is a tribal name, so this identifies him as a member of/descendent from that tribe.

“But wait!” you say, maybe. What’s that ابو عَبد الله (abū ʿabd Allāh) business in the middle of Ibn Hanbal’s name? Well, when an Arab has a child, he or she is also entitled to use what’s called a كُنية (kunyah), which is a nickname that identifies the person as “father of” (أبو, abū) or “mother of” (أُم, umm) his or her eldest child (whose ism follows “abu” or “umm” as the case may be). Some folks incorporate this into their full name, others name use it as their given name or even as a pseudonym of sorts).


2 thoughts on “Make a name for yourself

  1. Pingback: Make a name for yourself | Persian Word a Day
  2. Pingback: Make a name for yourself | Turkish Word a Day

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