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Know The Tricks To Differentiate Arabic & Urdu Names

India is a country which majorly converses and com-mutates in languages derived from Sanskrit. This leads to a major cultural gap when they stumble upon names and words derived from Arabic and Persian; the root of the Muslim culture in India. Urdu and Arabic are different languages, and here is how. 

Where it all started

You see a strange script that runs from right to left and your brain automatically pictures the Arabian desert, palm trees, and caravans of camels moving slowly through a vast sandy emptiness. It might be Urdu you are seeing or even Persian (Farsi), but the layman usually links it to something ‘alien’; as something ‘Muslim’. Before any comparisons, it is paramount to understand how Urdu and Arabic are languages with entirely different histories and origins, that are bridged by Persia (Modern day Iraq and Iran).

Arabic is a language that is prevalent in the middle east a.k.a the Muslim world. It traces its origin back to the 4th century and roots from other Semitic languages like Hebrew. The scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths were all revealed in the Semitic languages; the Torah in Hebrew, the Quran in Arabic etc. When it comes to Persian or Farsi , it traces its roots back to a different, eastern, Asiatic source. However, being in such close proximity, geographically, Farsi borrowed almost all its alphabets from the Arabic language, and added a few of its own. Apart from this, grammar and vocabulary of Farsi akin to Urdu, are very different from Arabic.

Urdu; An Indian Language in its entirety

Urdu is purely an Indian language; it was born in the Deccan region. When the Mughals ruled over the  Indian subcontinent, Persian was the language of the elites, the bureaucrats, the poets, and the upper echelon. Urdu, on the other hand was the language of the masses or zubaan-e-aam (tongue of the commons); which borrowed its grammar from Hindi and vocabulary from Farsi and Arabic. In fact, Urdu was considered to be an inferior language in front of Farsi, and it is reported that holy scriptures were not translated into Urdu as late as the 17th century. Even today, the language that people of north and central India speak is comprised almost entirely of Urdu words, and few Hindi words. We call it Hindustani. 

Urdu versus Arabic

Since Urdu uses a lot of Arabic words or their variations in some way or the other, it is difficult to segregate the sources and say, ‘this is an Arabic word’ or ‘this is an Urdu word’. Well, then again, two languages can share a word; so we say, ‘this and this word is from Arabic’ or ‘this is from Farsi’, since all Urdu basically does, is use words from either of the two languages, in one form or the other. Both languages are highly dependent on phonetics and meanings can change with a slight mispronunciation.

Yes, it is easy to misunderstand Urdu with Arabic and the reverse is also true. It takes a keen eye and an observant mind.

When it comes to names though, the story is entirely different. Muslims tend to be closely linked with their religious history stemming from the Arabian Peninsula. That reflects in their names and it is very common to find Muslims in India with names that cannot be found anywhere in the Urdu dictionary. There are names of the prophets that have Hebrew roots that you might find common in the Muslim community; names like Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Mariyam (Mary), Ibrahim (Abraham), Haroon (Aaron) etc. It is evident that the religious significance of these personalities is so strong in the Muslims and the Christians that they still name their kids after them.  

Apart from the names of the prophets, Muslims also prefer naming after the contemporaries and the relatives of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him). The list is long, but I’m sure you know an Ayesha or an Ali in your vicinity. Finally, names are sometimes related to things mentioned in the holy scriptures like Israa (a night journey that the messenger took from Mecca to Jerusalem) or Tasnim (a river in Paradise).

When we say Urdu names, we usually mean names that have Persian origins. After the Muslims occupied Persia in the early days of Islam, many names in the region were also derived from Arabic. However, some names are purely Persian which were later taken by Urdu. Farah, Shah, Bahadur, Yasmine etc are a few good examples.

Know the linguistic difference

Only by researching and reading the origins of the words can we reach the source of these names. One easy way to do so might be to look closely at the alphabets. If you find the sound ‘P’ or ‘Ch’ in a name, it cannot be Arabic, since Arabic does not have these sounds. Also, in Urdu, we use the Arabic letter ‘h’ and add it to ‘T’,‘P’, and ‘D’ to create sounds like ‘Th’, ‘Ph’, and ‘Dh’, all of which also do not exist in the Arabic tongue.

Well, what about the common letters? Unfortunately, there is no way except having some knowledge of the root letters that comprise the name. The entire Arabic language is very logical and easy to understand if one gets a grasp of the root letters. For example, words containing the letters in the order ‘A+B+D’ mean something to do with servitude and worship. So, Abdullah, Obaid, Ebaad, and Ebaadat all have similar meanings.

In a nutshell

To conclude, there is no exact science for the common eye to differentiate Urdu names from Arabic names but there are signs and ways to do so. All it takes is a little bit of reading, and a bucketful of curiosity!


By: Ebaad who is an Arabic Names Expert at  

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