Arabic Naming Conventions
Names that follow these conventions are typically only given to children born in an Arab country or to Arab parents. Arabic forenames are often given to children in any Muslim family, and Arabic forenames are often adopted by converts to the religion of Islam, but these conventions strictly apply to those of Arab ethnicity and are rarely used by non-Arabs. Arabic is spoken throughout North Africa and the Levant (Middle East proper). Arabic speaking nations include Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait.
Arabic names traditionally have four parts: ism, nasab, laqab, and nisba. The ism is a personal name, typically but not always a descriptive name (which is also usually a word used in everyday speech), which may or may not be accompanied by a laqab, which is intended as a further descriptive (and must be a descriptive name). The ism may be replaced with a kunya, or a diminutive in which a person is addressed as the father or mother of his/her firstborn son.
The nasab consists of at least one patryonimic denoting direct male ancestry, but there is no limit on the number of patryonimics permitted (and there may be several nasab, denoting father, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather, etc.). The nasab is the male ancestor's name, and typically includes "bin" or "ibn" (son of) or "bint" (daughter of) preceding the ancestor's name. In contemporary usage, many individuals choose to omit "ibn" or "bin", instead using just their ancestors' proper names.
The nisba is the closest concept to a surname in Arabic naming conventions. It is an occupational, origin, or familial name, which is passed on for many generations. For example, Usama bin Ladin's name is Usama bin Mohammed bin 'Awad bin Ladin, where Mohammed was his father, 'Awad his grandfather, and Ladin a nisba - referring to a distant ancestor.
Here is another example:
One of my characters' names is Tahira Ali Almontaser. She has no nasab in her name, but that is okay because she is not ethnically Arab; however, Tahira is an ism, and Ali is a laqab. Almontaser is a nisba. She commonly uses the abbreviated Tahira Ali as her name for general purposes, omitting the nisba altogether in favor of the laqab, which is used like a surname.
The last notes in this section are to help you avoid common mistakes for non-native Arabic speakers:
Like with the names Mark John or Mary Ellen, which are full first names - one name, consisting of two words - any name that begins with "Abd" is a two word name that cannot be separated. Abdal Malik and Abd al-Noor are two examples of such names. "Abd" is a word that means "servant/slave of" and without the second half of the name, it is incomplete and inaccurate. If someone's name is given as Jamal Abdal Malik, it is wrong to address him is "Mr. Malik". Instead, one must use "Mr. Abdal Malik".
When writing Arabic words or names with the Latin alphabet (romanizing, or transliterating), there is no one standard system, and there may be several ways to spell any given Arabic name. For example: Mohamed, Mohammed, Muhammad, Mohamet, Muhamad; Noor, Nur, Nour, Nor. While you can take some liberties with the spelling of Arabic names, it is advisable to perform a simple search of the desired spelling to see whether there are real people who do, in fact, use that spelling of the name.
Excerpted from "The Roleplayer and Writer's Guide to Naming Conventions" by Ylanne S., July 2010.