Naming Conventions throughout the Arab world


dr. Eugen Schochenmaier

Mondonomo, Chief Scientist

June 5, 2023, 10:46 a.m.

This post will be useful for those who face any name challenges when searching in Arabic because of the many linguistic and cultural nuances that characterize records from the Middle East. We have compiled some of our best search tips for navigating name spelling and word order variations in Arabic. Follow these guidelines, and you will be able to identify the full range of results that apply to your research subject.

In Arabic culture, a person’s lineage and family name are very important as they are based on ancestry. Most Arabs do not simply have first, middle, and last names; but a full chain of names. The classical conception of Arab naming structure conventionally has five parts: The title, the given name, the preposition “bin” which means “son of”, the father’s given name and, at the end, the family name.

As illustrated by the name of the founder of UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, first comes the title (Sheikh means leader, ruler of an Arab tribe), followed by his given name. The given name of an Arab person is the “ism” (most Arabic names are originally Arabic words with a good meaning): Zayed means growth and progress. “Bin” stands for ‘son of’; Sultan was his father’s given name; ‘al Nahyan’ is Sheikh Zayed’s family name.

Patronymic naming conventions form the standard in the majority of the Arabic-speaking world. Each country has varying norms for how many names are recorded when an individual appears on a public record. For instance, in Lebanon they typically list three names: given name, father’s given name, and father’s surname or family name. In this case, Ismael Mohammed Youssef would be the son of Mohammed Youssef; if he has any siblings, their names also should take the form of given name + Mohammed Youssef.

In Jordan, it is more common to include four names: given name, father’s given name, grandfather’s given name, and family name. Exceptions often derive from the prevailing norms in that person’s country of origin. But the reason isn’t always so clear: sometimes one member of a family confusingly uses four names – tracing her lineage to her grandfather – while all other family members use only three.

The Arabic-speaking countries of the Persian Gulf have their own nuances when it comes to names. One of the most important nuances is the so-called “nasab” in Arabic Names. The nasab is a string of male names indicating a person’s heritage that follows the given name. For men, the nasab comprises the names of the father, grandfather, and other male ancestors separated by the word ibn (ابن) or bin (بن), both meaning “son of.” For example:

أبو عبد الله محمد بن عبد الله اللواتي الطنجي بن بطوطة

Abu Abdallah Mohammed bin Abdallah Al-Luwaty Al-Tanjy bin Batouta

محمد بن سلمان بن عبد العزيز آل سعود

Mohammed Bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud

For women, the given name and father’s name will be separated by bint, (بنت), meaning “daughter of”:

نورة بنت فيصل السعود

Noura Bint Faisal Al-Saud

The nasab separated by ibn, bin, or bint is most common in the Arabian Peninsula today. Analysts frequently find these constructions on public records from sources such as the Qatar Chamber of Commerce or the Bahrain Commercial Registry. Understanding how the nasab works also helps when searching Emirati shareholdings listed on corporate filings in Lebanon, Jordan, and other countries in the region. Some individuals rarely write their name with these words, while others use them consistently.

The second nuance to keep in mind is the fact that many family names represent “nisbah” adjectives. Nisbah adjectives are formed by adding the suffix ي (-y) or ية (-iya) to a noun to denote relation or pertinence. Common examples of these last names include البغدادي (Al-Baghdady), الصعيدي (Al-Saeedy), and المصري (Al-Masry), all of which derive from place names. These names generally indicate the person has a distant connection to that place. Remember that female family members may write their last name in its feminine form, using the suffix -a or -ah: for example, Layla Al-Shamy (ليلى الشامي) may also go by Layla Al-Shamiya/Al-Shamya/Al-Shamiyah (ليلى الشامية) in English records. At the minimum, rendering Levantine Arabic person names in English (or more generally – in Latin script) requires transliteration – that is, transcribing a word from one script into the corresponding letters of another. Transliteration can result in multiple spelling variations (e.g. محمد as Mohamad, Mohammad, Muhamad, etc.), a familiar problem for analysts investigating global networks.

As name length can vary significantly by region, abbreviations for common Arabic names are often used in countries where names tend to be shorter. Sometimes this is a necessary workaround for technical limits on the number of characters that can be entered in a name field. For example, most Chinese citizens have names that are only two to four characters long. To get around computer systems created with this fact in mind, the first name Mohammed is often abbreviated as Mhd. or Mohd. on Chinese official records. In the United Kingdom, an individual named Mohammed Khaled Ahmed Khalfan may abbreviate his name as Mohammed Kh. A. Khalfan.


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