'Isim': Arabic word for name has holy associations

The word exists as its own entity while also referring to something else

Isim is made up of three letters, alif, seen and meem.
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“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks Romeo in William Shakespeare’s play, adding: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

It refers to the idea that names are invented conventions that don’t have any true meaning or worth, since the object, like a rose, would still be a rose even if it was never named.

So, what is in a name? In the Arab world, there's a lot.

This week’s Arabic Word of the Week is made up of three letters, alif, seen and meem, creating the word "isim".

It translates to "name", what something or someone is known as, or referred to.

Isim is a self-referential word, its meaning is in and of itself. It’s also a word that is not associated with a time, it has no past, present or future tense, it simply exists.

Al isim, meaning the name, is a noun which can refer to a multitude of things. For example al isim al tigary, meaning the brand name, or al isim al qalami, which means pen name or pseudonym.

Al Isim Al Atheem, which literally translates to the greatest name or the name of the all-powerful, is both a noun and a name within itself. It refers in Islam to the greatest name of Allah, known only to the prophets.

In Islam, Allah also has 99 names that act as nouns or characteristics and attributes, and at times verbs, associated with him. For example, the Merciful, the Eternal Lord, the Most Sacred and the Embodiment of Peace.

One of the most common phrases in Islam, used at the start of a surah, a section in the Quran, or used when about to start a new or arduous task, is bismillah, which translates to in the name of Allah.

Isim also has several pronunciations when used in its plural form. These are: asmaa, asamee, asamin — each are used in accordance to their particular context in a sentence in classical Arabic.

The verb of isim is sama. It refers to the act of being proud of, recognising and verbally acknowledging in some form, the achievements, stature and successes of one’s family, friends or community.

There are other words that are derived from isim and the three letters that create it, - alif, seen and meem. One is the noun samaa, the word commonly used for sky. It can also mean anything higher than you and covers you, such as clouds, rain or space.

There is also soumuu, a noun meaning high, but when used as a title, refers to royalty, such as princes, queens or kings. When used in other contexts, for example, soumuu al mashaa'ir, which translates to the highness of feelings, it refers to the highest and purest form of positive feelings.

Another word is the verb tasaama. It means both to transcend and refusing to succumb or submit to an act that one perceives as below them. It’s maintaining a standard of behaviour worthy of one’s own self-worth.

It’s interesting to note that in all these cases, these words frame isim, or the idea of the name as something that is of high stature to live up to and connected to one’s self-worth and value.

Sami, is also a noun derived from the word isim.

It’s a name meaning elevated or sublime, its female version would by Samiya. It is the name of the prophet Noah’s son, in varying spellings and pronunciations. A pivotal figure in the Abrahamic faiths, the name and word Sami also became the word to describe the race and language of the Semitic people.

Tunisian singer Zekra's most popular single is titled El Asami. The song describes heartbreak and hearts changing through the passage of time, while names remain as they are.

Scroll through the gallery below to see The National's pick of Arabic words of the week

Updated: March 10, 2023, 6:02 PM