Arabic Names

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Basically, a traditional Arabic name given in full consists of the kunya (‘father/mother of X’), the ism (the actual given name, e.g. Muhammad or Abdullah), the nasab (‘son/daughter of Y’), the nisba (an adjective indicating one’s place of origin, religion, or some other identifier), and one or more laqab s (nicknames to provide further identification), in that order. To use Annemarie Schimmel’s example, the name Abu’l-Mahasin Yusuf ibn Abi Yusuf Ya’qub al-Makki al-Hanbali al-Zayyat means Yusuf, father of al-Mahasin, son of Abu Yusuf Ya’qub [note that Ya’qub is identified as father of Yusuf], from Mecca, belonging to the Hanbali school of religious jurisprudence, the oilman.” Unfortunately for the outsider, people can be referred to by any part of this string (except, usually, the ism , since given names are too common to be of much use); if there is a conventional name by which the person is traditionally known, it is called the urf (‘custom’). So our friend Yusuf might be generally known as Abu’l-Mahasin or al-Zayyat (the other laqab s being too common themselves to identify him).

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