Ask Ali: The alternative naming system used by Arabs

In this week's Ask Ali we learn about the unique Arab custom of the alternative naming system.

Dear Ali: I'm interested in someone whose name is Khaled. He's young, the same age as me and not married. Recently, I noticed one of his friends wrote a comment on his social-media account calling him Abu Waleed. When I asked him if it meant that he had a son called Waleed, he said "no" and refused to talk, adding that people were used to calling him by that name. I'm confused. Please could you clarify what this name means? RN, Dubai

Dear RN: In the GCC, Arabs have unique customs, which are probably not familiar to friends from other parts of the world.

Our names are extremely important to us, as whole families trace their origins based on the names. We don’t like to play with names or use them incorrectly. If we don’t know a person’s name, we would rather give them a general respectful greeting, such as ustath, which means “professor” (equivalent to saying “Mr”). Also we say ukhui (brother) or ukhti (sister).

However, despite keeping our names pure and authentic, sometimes, we simply replace our first names with their popular equivalent when talking to each other. Everyone here knows which “brother” name that each proper name has.

Here are some examples: Ahmad would be replaced with Abu Shahab; Mohammad with Abu Jassem; Abdullah with Abu Humaid; Ali with Abu Hassan; and Khaled with Abu Waleed. Opposites apply: Ali would be called Abu Hassan, but someone named Hassan could be called Abu Ali, and so on. Abu means “father of”.

The reason behind this is historical. Some of the main figures in Arab and Islamic history were called after their first sons – a companion of Prophet Mohammed and his cousin, called Ali, had twins named Hasan and Hussain, so he was always called “Father of Hassan”. Later, when Hassan had his first son and called him Ali, Hassan was called “Father of Ali”, and with that became the trend. It became like a signature of the name Ali.

You don’t have to be called after your “brother” name, though. For example, my name is Ali, but people will also call me Abu Abdulrahman, meaning “father of Abdulrahman”, as my son’s name is Abdulrahman.

If someone doesn’t know that I have a son called Abdulrahman, but they know my name is Ali, then they would simply call me Abu Hasan, and I wouldn’t have a problem with that.

Most of the well-known and used names have this link. It’s not necessarily just used to address people who have children, either.

Usually, people who use these equivalents in conversation want to show respect to the person. So, I’m sure there’s no need for you to worry – you can even try to call him the same.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question.