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Understanding the naming conventions of other cultures is important for an investigator or for anyone wishing to certainly and correctly identify people in our diverse country. The following column is an attempt to assist the reader in correctly applying the conventions of uniquely ethnic names so identification is possible. This article should not be interpreted as indicating any unusual prevalence of any specific ethnic group toward unlawful or immoral activities, since no such intention exists. In each issue of The John Cooke Fraud Report, we will explore the mysteries of the naming practices of different ethnic cultures.
The Arab world covers a band of North Africa and the Middle East where 20 countries have Arabic as the main language. Overwhelmingly Arabic names are vocabulary words whose meaning is obvious and clear. Although some names are taken from the pre-Islamic tradition, the most common Arabic names are derived from Islam which has been the dominant religion since the 7th century.
Pre-Islamic names include a few male names like Adnan (possibly from the word ‘to settle down’) and many female names such as Abla (meaning ‘having a full, fine figure’), Azza (probably a derivative of the word for ‘pride’ or ‘power’), Layla (meaning ‘wine’) and Lubna (from the word for ‘storax’ – a tree with a sweet, honey-like sap). Some names from pre-Islamic times relate to animals, ferocious ones for male names and tamer ones for female names – such as Fahd (panther) and Haytham (young eagle) for boys and Arwa (young goat) and Rim (white antelope) for girls.
The hot, dry weather of the Arabic world has inspired a series of names, both male and female – examples include Ghayth (rain) and Mazin (rain clouds) for boys and Nada (dew) and Nihal (sated with drink) for girls. One more vocabulary word which has led to many names – all male – is the sword which is a symbol of power and decisiveness. Examples include Husam, Muhannad, Faruq, Faysal, Hasim, Hatim.
By far the richest source of given names in the Arab world, however, is the religion of Islam. The name of the founder and prophet of Islam Muhammad (literally ‘praiseworthy’) is the most popular male name in the whole of the Islamic world. Names from the same root – ‘hamida’ (to praise) – include Ahmad, Hamid, Hamdi and Mahmud. Also popular for boys are Abd-Allah (servant of Allah) and other compound names consisting of ‘Abd’ (servant of) plus one of the 99 attributes of Allah, such as Abd-al-Aziz (‘aziz’ means powerful) and Abd-al-Rahim (‘rahim’ means merciful). Names referring to the divine are called theophoric names.
Another group of popular names are those associated with the Prophet’s immediate family and his close companions – such as Hasan, Husayn, ‘Ali and ‘Umar for boys and Fatima, Khadija, ‘A’isha and Zaynab for girls. One more influence for boys comes from the names of famous Muslim military and political leaders such as ‘Amr, Khalid, Sa’d and Tariq.
Finally, since Islam recognises both Judaism and Christianity, many of the stories in the Old and New Testaments appear in the Koran and some of the most common Arabic names are direct derivatives from the Koran with counterparts in the Bible. Examples are Ibrahim (Abraham), Isma’il (Ishmael), Maryam (Mary) and Yusuf (Joseph).
Traditionally Arabs have not used family names in the Western manner and many still do not. Instead, in many cases, they simply add their father’s first name and possibly grandfather’s first name and maybe even great-grandfather’s first name to their own first name. Hence the name Saddam Hussain. The additional names might be preceded by the use of the optional word ‘bin’, sometimes spelled ‘ben’, which means ‘son of’. Hence the name Osama bin-Laden. The female equivalent is ‘bint’ which means ‘daughter of’.
As we have seen, in countries like Russia and Iceland children take a name from their parent – a system known as patronymics. In the Arab word, the opposite – a parent taking a name from a child (or teknonymy) is quite common. So a parent is often called ‘abu’ which means ‘father of’ or ‘umm’ which means ‘mother of’, followed by the name of the eldest son.
These genealogical names `can be combined with names indicating where someone came from or what they did for a living. So Ali al- Hijazi would be Ali from Hijaz, while Ali al- Tajir would be Ali the Merchant. Another common suffix is ‘Abn’ meaning ‘servant of’ which is often followed by one of the 99 names of God. So the full name of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was in fact Saddam Hussein [his father’s first name] Abd al-Majid [this was his father’s ‘family’ name] al-Tikriti [he was born in a village outide the town of Tikrit].
Turning to more conventional Arabic surnames, again we find a relatively small number of frequently occurring names. The top ten surnames are (in order of popularity): Ali, Ahmed, Ahmad, Haddad, Mahmood, Mansoor, Rahman, Abdel, Naser, Hanna (the first three of these occur more than 5 million times and the others occur more than 2 million times). Arabic surnames may begin with the following articles: al, el, ad, ag, ak, an, ar, as, and az.
For instance, when I was on a holiday in Jordan, my guide went by two different surnames: Nawafleh which was his clan name and Mouammar which was his grandfather’s first name. In a country like Oman, a man will have his own first name followed by his father’s first name (possibly followed by his grandfather’s first name) and then a tribal name.
Similarly, in Somalia, people do not have surnames in the Western sense. To identify a Somali, three names must be used: a given name followed by the father’s given name and the grandfather’s. Women, therefore, do not change their names at marriage. Nearly all men and some women in Somalia are identified by a public name, naanays. There are two kinds of naanays: overt nicknames, similar to Western nicknames, and covert nicknames, which are used to talk about a person but rarely used to address that person.