The story behind Arab names

“Does your name mean anything?” I am often asked. Well, yes, actually it does. In fact, most Arab names have a little story behind them; to know mine, you’ll just have to read on…

Unlike in the West where it is now increasingly common for parents to make names up in an effort to bestow a unique moniker on their children, Arabs tend to draw from a rather smaller, commonly used pool of names, all of which have deep-rooted meanings or are derived from the Quran, Islam’s Holy Book.

In the Arab world, children are sometimes named after their grandfathers, to keep the spirit of their ancestors alive. For instance, a man named Ali would opt to name his son Hassan who, in turn, would call his son Ali and so on.

The most common name for a boy is Mohammed, named after Prophet Mohammed. Ahmed and Mahmood are derivatives of the same name and are very widespread across the Muslim world. They all mean “praiseworthy” and are derived from the Arabic word hamida, meaning “to praise”.

Many boys are also named after religious figures who feature in both the Quran and the Bible. Some of the most common names are Isa (named after Jesus), Ibrahim (Abraham) and Dawood (David). Some of the other names drawn from the Holy Book are Yousif, Yahya, Zakariya, Nooh and Ismail, to name a few.

Children are also named after the Prophet’s friends and members of his immediate family. Bahrainis hope giving their children such names will bless them and motivate them to follow in the steps of those whom they have been named after.

Common names for boys include the names of Prophet Mohammed’s cousin Ali (meaning lofty or sublime) and grandsons Hassan and Hussain (both of which are derived from the Arabic word hasuna, which means “to be good”).

Another very common name in Bahrain is Khalid (immortal), after the Islamic Caliph Khalid bin Al Waleed. Khulood (immortality) is its feminine derivative and is also common among girls from different backgrounds.

Among the most common names for girls in Bahrain, derived from religious history, is Fatima (meaning “to abstain” in Arabic). Fatima was the daughter of Prophet Mohammed and the only one of his children to carry on his line. Fatima is also the name of a town in Portugal, which is an important Christian pilgrimage centre.

Other names are Zahra (meaning “blooming flower”), Zainab (“fragrant flowering plant”), Ruqaiya (derived from the Arabic ruqiy, meaning ascent) and Khadija (premature baby).

Popular names, also with a religious connotation for girls, include Eman (faith), Jinan (Paradise or garden) and Huda (right guidance).

The beauty of Arabic names is that they lend themselves quite easily to both masculine and feminine forms. This is achieved by adding the letter “a” at the end of male names. For instance, Ali’s feminine counterpart is Alia; Hussain’s is Husniya; Munir’s (bright or shining) is Munira.

However, there are names where this isn’t possible, like in the names: Bassam (smiling) where its female counterpart is Basma (smile); Saeed (happy) which becomes Suad for girls; Hani (happy) which turns to Haniya or even Hana (bliss or happiness) in the feminine and Anas (friendliness) which becomes Enas for girls.

People are also named after the day of the week on which they were born. It is not uncommon to find men born on Thursday called Khamis, those born on Friday Juma and those on Saturday called Sabt.

As far as I know, and I could be wrong, girls have been spared from this tradition. But when I was younger, girls called Moza (meaning banana) were traumatised for their name. It was only when I grew up that I realised that in the past, so the legend goes, bananas were very rare in the Gulf and girls were called Moza to show how precious they were.

However, girls have been called after periods of the day. The names Sabah (morning), Layla (from layl, meaning night), and Fajer and Sahar (both meaning dawn) are also common. Sometimes, the girls are named after the time of the day when they were born, but in other instances, parents may choose the name because of how it sounds.

Since parents are free to name their child what they wish, whether or not it reflects their actual social standing, even girls from modest families can bask in the glory of names like Lulwa or Jumana (which both mean pearl), Jawaher (jewels) and Malka (meaning Queen).

Which brings me back to my own name, Amira, which means Princess.

Amira Al Hussaini

Amira Al Hussaini