Osama’s Will, Arabic Names, and Romanization of Arabic

Osama’s “Will” was recently released by a Kuwaiti newspaper. The title of the document is misleading — a will, as a document that distributes assets and property, is not recognized in Islam, as inheritance must take place in accordance with Shariah principles. The document is in fact a final message to his children (not to join Al Qaeda) and wives (don’t remarry!). It was written in December 2001 — when Osama was on the run in Afghanistan and when he thought he might be killed. Notably, there is no message or mention of people such as Mullah Omar or Ayman Al Zawahiri, his comrades in arms in Afghanistan.

You can read an English translation of the will here. But without further commenting, reading the signing name, I thought this would be a good chance to introduce Arabic names. Osama signed the will as:

Abu Abdullah Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden

He is referred to in the Western press as Osama bin Laden? What do all the other names mean?

Arabic Names
On birth, in most Arabic countries that I’m familiar with, children are given one name. Osama bin Laden was named Osama at birth, and that was probably the only given name written on his birth certificate.

Osama’s father was Mohammed, so his name is extended to “bin Mohammed” (“ibn” is also used in place of “bin”). In some cases, the grandfather’s name will included as well. In some countries such as in the Levant, neither are used, resulting in a string of names.

(Other official spellings of his name are “Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden” — Awad being his paternal grandfather.)

Bin Laden is the family name — unusual, in that it begins with “Bin”. A common beginning of tribal and family names in the Arab world is “Al”.

What about the first name, “Abu Abudallah”? When a man has a son in Arabic, he adopts that as part of his name used with friends. As Osama’s son was named Abdullah (after then-crown prince of Saudi Arabia Prince Abdullah), he adopts the name “Abu Abdullah.”

So if I was to Arabize my own name, it would be George bin Alfred Al Curzon — and as I had three daughters, some friends might call me Abu Mary. (Just remember that’s Sheikh George bin Alfred Al Curzon when addressing me properly.)

Arabic Romanization
Osama Bin Laden is also written as Usama or Bin Ladin, among other variants. That’s because Arabic has no unified system of romanization. Unlike Japanese, which has two or three majority schools of romanization used by various institutions, in Arabic, it’s a free-for-all when it comes to spelling in English. This causes all sorts of problems in today’s English-centric globalized world, as you can read about in more detail here.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Osama’s Will, Arabic Names, and Romanization of Arabic

  1. Gubbi says:

    Interesting post! I’m curious though, is there evidence that Bin Laden’s son was actually named after (then) Crown Prince Abdullah? Given the way OBL felt about the Al Saud family, I’d find this rather surprising… more likely that it was just selected as a pious (“Slave of God”), popular name, no?

  2. Sultan says:

    Even if shares of inheritance are fixed by shariah, the details and portion set aside for charity would still need to be set down in some document that is routinely translated in english as a will.

  3. Curzon says:

    Abdullah bin Laden was born in 1976, when Abdullah was Commander of the Saudi National Guard — before Afghanistan, and 15 years before bin Laden fell out with the Saudi family.

  4. “”…it’s a free-for-all…”

    There was a funny sketch on SNL about the spelling of Khadafy, or Gaddafi, or … .

  5. On birth, in most Arabic countries that I’m familiar with, children are given one name. Osama bin Laden was named Osama at birth, and that was probably the only given name written on his birth certificate.

    Unless it’s the long-form birth certificate it’s an obvious forgery. Everyone knows he was actually born in… oh… let’s say France. ;)

  6. Pingback: The bin Laden Photos « Blogging with Badger

  7. Curzon says:

    Interesting — thank you Sultan!