Abu, Ibn, and Bin, Oh My!

Answers to your questions about the news.
July 3 2006 7:44 PM

Abu, Ibn, and Bin, Oh My!

Arabic nomenclature, Part 2.

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Last week, the Explainer went over the meaning of "al-" in Arabic names. Many readers wrote in to ask about the words that appear in names like Hind ibn Sheik, Osama Bin Laden, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What's the deal with ibn, bin, and abu?

In Arabic names, both ibn and bin can be translated as "son of." Osama bin Laden means "Osama, son of Laden." It's not uncommon for names to include references to three or four generations of ancestors, each offset with bin or ibn.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate


So, why do some names use bin while others use ibn? The spelling of the word in Arabic changes depending on where it is in the sentence. If it's at the beginning, it's written as alef-ba-nun, which we transliterate as ibn. If the word appears in the middle of a name, the alef gets left off—we sometimes write that as bin. These two transliterations do correspond to different pronunciations in Arabic, unlike al and el.

Given this system, it's not entirely accurate to use "Bin Laden" when we refer to the man in shorthand. The Guardian begins a paragraph with the sentence "Bin Laden effusively praised the Jordanian-born militant." A more accurate construction would be "Ibn Laden effusively praised the Jordanian-born militant," since in this case the "son of" is at the beginning of the name.

Bin and ibn are more likely to show up in places with strong connections to tribal culture, like Saudi Arabia. People who live in big cities tend to drop the connecting terms from their names—someone named Osama Bin Laden might end up just "Osama Laden." In North Africa, the bin tends to get spelled with an "e", as in the name of former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella.

The bin can also become part of a proper last name, in which case it loses its literal meaning. Osama Bin Laden's sister-in-law Carmen took the family name when she married Osama's older brother. Now she's called Carmen Bin Ladin, or "Carmen, son of Ladin."

Abu means "father of," and is often used as a nickname. A man's friends might refer to him as abu, followed by the name of his first-born son. Or they might pair abu with something less concrete. The name of the terrorist Abu Nidal, for example, means "father of struggle."

The term can also be used in a more colloquial sense. A guy with a moustache might be called "Abu Shanab," or "father of moustache." You could even refer to a place or object as "the father of" a certain quality. "Shibshib abu khamsa gnieh" literally means "flip-flops, father of $5," but it would be taken to mean "a $5 pair of flip-flips." Similarly, the place name Abu Dhabi means "father of gazelles," which can be taken to mean "place with lots of gazelles." (The word ibn can be used in similar phrases. An "ibn halal" is a good guy, while an "ibn haram" is a son of a bitch.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks John Eisele of the American Assocation of Teachers of Arabic and Zaineb Istrabadi of Indiana University.


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