An American Editor

May 21, 2021

Indexing Arabic Names: Some Family Terms

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 6:43 pm
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Ælfwine Mischler

This blog post is based on the submitted version of “Indexing Arabic Names: The Basics,” which was published in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2021, and is available at https://doi.org/10.3828/indexer.2021.7.

Arabic names can be tricky to index and to alphabetize correctly in references. In my previous post about indexing (and alphabetizing) Arabic names, I presented some tips for dealing with the definite article al-.

This post is about how to index a word that is sometimes mistaken for the definite article, and some family terms that turn up in Arabic names.

Al and Ba

The word Āl or Al means “clan” or “dynasty.” It is usually capitalized when transliterated, although authors (and copyeditors) sometimes mistake it for the definite article and lowercase it. Āl is never suppressed in sorting or moved to the end of the name.

It looks like this in modern Arabic: a squiggle similar to a tilde (~) over the alif on the right, and the lam on the left not connected to the following word as the definite article is.

Table 1: Modern script

You are most likely to find Āl in royal names or in history books (the Āl Faḍl Bedouin appeared in a book I recently indexed). An indexing colleague once asked how to sort Jalal Al-e Ahmad, an Iranian novelist. Wikipedia provided the Farsi script of the name (Farsi uses the Arabic alphabet), and from that, I knew that the Al here was “clan” and the name should be indexed as Al-e Ahmad, Jalal.  

Table 2: Jalal

In modern royal names, Al often comes near the end, followed by the name of the dynasty. The Emir of Qatar, for example, is Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Royal names are not inverted, so his should appear in an index just as I have written it. If your author treats Al there as the definite article and writes al-Thani, you should correct the author.

I have encountered the word or Ba in Yemeni names, sometimes hyphenated with the following name. It has a similar meaning of “family” and should not be split from the following name.

Ibn, bin, ben, b., bint, bt. between names

Ibn, bin, ben, b. mean “son of,” while bint, bt. mean “daughter of.” In modern Arabic names, these are not used except in names of royalty, and they are usually lowercased. You might find them, however, in Muslim names in non-Arab countries such as Malaysia.

In pre-modern names, you might get a string of names like Iman bint Yusuf ibn Ahmad (Iman daughter of Yusuf son of Ahmad) or Mustafa ibn Hisham ibn Yahya (Mustafa son of Hisham son of Yahya). Simple pre-modern names such as these — that is, without honorifics or epithets — should be indexed as you see them, without inverting. (More-complex pre-modern names will be discussed in later posts.) In modern names, such strings are usually only seen in names of royalty, which are never inverted.

The variations in the spelling of the term for “son of” may be based on Arabic grammar or on style choices. One publisher that I often work for uses bin for Gulf royalty, ben for names from North Africa (where it is the usual spelling), and ibn for other cases. Other publishers might consistently use b. Authors might be inconsistent, writing the names as they found them in their sources.

Ignore ibn, bin, ben, b., bint, bt. in sorting when they come between names. If they come at the beginning, that is another case to be discussed in another blog post. In the following examples of pre-modern names, the angle brackets surround text that is ignored in sorting.

‘Abdallah <ibn >Abi Bakr

‘Abdallah <b. >Salim <b. >Yusuf

Ahmad <ibn >Hanbal

Ahmad <b. >Ibrahim <b. >Samir

Ahmad <ibn >Idris <ibn >Yahya

In modern names, Bin and Ben might be part of a family name and should be capitalized. Do not ignore these in sorting, and do not split them.

Ben Ali, Zine El Abidine

Bin Laden Group

Bin Laden, Osama

Modern Arabic Names

European-style names — with a given name and a family name that passes from one generation to the next — only appeared in the Arab world in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and at different times in different places. Even today, many people use their father’s given name as a second name, rather than a family name. In Egypt (the country I am most familiar with), people use their given name, their father’s name, their paternal grandfather’s name, followed by either their great-grandfather’s name or a family name, on legal documents requiring four names. They do not use bint (daughter of) or ibn/bin (son of). In other contexts, people might use only their own name and their father’s name; or their own name and their grandfather’s name; or their own name and the family name; or their own name, their father’s name, and the family name. Many Egyptians are inconsistent in this and use different forms of their name in different contexts. In a modern book, however, I would expect to see modern people called consistently by the same names.

To alphabetize modern names, you need to recognize compound names that must not be split, which will the topic of another post.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology. She has presented a webinar on indexing Arabic names for the American Society for Indexing (https://www.asindexing.org/webinars/mischler-arabicnames/).


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