What’s Up With “Al-"?

The ubiquitous Arabic word, explained.

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The New York Times reported on Wednesday that an insurgent named Haitham al-Badri masterminded the bombing of the Samarra shrine, at least according to Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie. Al-Badri used to be a member of an insurgent group called Ansar al-Sunna. Now he’s part of al-Qaida in Iraq, which used to be run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, until he died and Abu Hamza al-Muhajer took over. What’s the deal with this “al-” prefix?

It’s the definite article in Arabic—the equivalent of “the” in English. Surnames that begin with “al” often refer to the place where someone’s ancestors were born. Saddam Hussein, for example, used to be called by his family name, “al-Tikriti.” Since “al-” serves as the definite article, the name “Saddam al-Tikriti” means “Saddam, the guy from Tikrit.”

In these cases, the last name generally ends with the letter “i,” which turns the name of a place into a description of a person. Arabic surnames can also combine the definite article with the name of a profession. Ali Hassan al-Majid, for example, was given the nickname “Chemical Ali,” or “Ali al-Kimyai”—which can be translated as “Ali the Chemist.” (Indeed, the English word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic term for chemistry combined with the “al-” prefix.)

Sometimes the “al-” gets smushed in with the rest of the word. A common North African name combines the definite article with “akhdar,” the Arabic word for “green.” You might write the name as “al-Akhdar,” which means “the green one.” But it’s more often shortened to “Lakhdar.”

The anglicized name “Abdul” has a similar derivation. It comes from a pair of prefixes—”abd,” meaning “servant of” and the definite article “al-“. A common construction for Arabic names combines “abd,” “al-,” and one of the names of God. “Abd al-Rahman” would mean “the servant of the Merciful.”*

What about the prefix “el-,” like the one in the name of the IAEA’s Mohamed ElBaradei? It’s just a different way of writing the same word. (In Arabic it’s spelled with the letters “alef” and “lam.”) In general, people from francophone countries like Tunisia are more likely to use the “el-” spelling, but each person can decide how they want to spell their name in roman characters. The Library of Congress convention uses “al-,” even though “el-” comes closer to the actual pronunciation of the word.

The names of places can also take the definite article. In Arabic, the country of Iraq is actually called “al-Iraq.” But Baghdad is just called “Baghdad.” There’s no hard and fast rule on when to use the “al-.” It’s a bit like how we use the phrases “the Congo” and “the Caucasus” in English.

Organizations can take the definite article as well, as in “al-Qaida” and “Ansar al-Sunna.” There’s no good reason why the New York Times uses an uppercase “A” and no hyphen when it prints the phrase “Al Qaeda.” (Slate prefers “al-Qaida.”) If the Times printed the name according to the convention it uses for other Arabic names, we’d be reading about “al-Qaeda” instead.

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

Correction, June 30, 2006:This piece originally used “Abd al-Allah” as an example of an Arabic name. “Allah” never takes the definite article. The “Abd al-” construction is used with the attributes of God—as in “Abd al-Karim” (the servant of the Generous) and “Abd al-Jabbar” (the servant of the Mighty). Return to the corrected sentence.