Like immigrants from many other countries, Arabs often took different names upon entering the United States. Some Americanized their names to avoid discrimination, some were misunderstood when giving their names to customs officials and some may have been unsure how to spell their names using Latin letters. There’s no standard system for translating names from Arabic to English, which is why you often see names of Arabic public figures spelled a variety of ways. Even the Islamic holy book might be rendered as the Quran, Qur’an or Koran, depending on the source.
Your ancestor’s last name post-immigration might well be similar to his or her original name, such as Peters for Boutros, or Owen for Aoun (a family name connected to the town Jezzine in southern Lebanon). Many last names correspond to—or at least appear more frequently in—specific villages or regions, so knowing where your ancestor came from can help you narrow the possibilities for pre-immigration family names. (Some surnames are the town of origin; see below.)
The Arab naming convention is not as simple as first name/last name—a family name, in fact, may be only a guide. Just as important, if not more, are the given names of each generation’s ancestors, making names a great help in uncovering the next branch of the family tree. Arabs can have four or more names. Except for courtesy titles (such as Shaikh), the name that appears first is usually the given name, followed by his or her father’s given name, grandfather’s given name and even great-grandfather’s given name.
This system explains the frequent instances of ibn or bin, literally son of, in formal Arab names: Ahmed ibn Mohamed ibn Hassan, for example. For a woman, the equivalent would be bint (daughter of) but she still would take the names of her male ancestors: Amina bint Rashid bint Ali.
In some cases men and women also have what’s called a kunya, an honorific title identifying them as the father (abu) or mother (umm) of an offspring, usually the first-born son: Abu Yusuf or Umm Yusuf, say. Often this is used as a term of endearment and sign of respect among close friends and family members, but it might also be a family name. Today we know some Arab historical figures primarily by their kunya or pedigree, such as Abu Bakr, the successor to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, or Ibn Sina, the great physician of the Middle Ages.
The surname is the last part of the name and usually is a family name that signals its bearers’ association with a certain tribe. It also could reflect an ancestor’s profession or a place of origin. Well-known Middle Easterners sometimes take a surname (or add one) that harkens back to their hometown. Though he was Persian, think of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was born Ruhollah ibn Mustafa Musavi. (The i at the end of Khomeini denotes “one who comes from Khomein.”)
Note also that Arab women typically don’t take their husbands’ names when they marry. Though they are sometimes referred to informally by their husbands’ family names, they legally keep their fathers’ names, an important consideration when researching female family members.