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A kunya is expressed by the use of abū or umm in a genitive construction, i.e. "father of" or "mother of" as an honorific in place of or alongside given names in the Arab world and the Islamic world more generally.
A kunya is a component of an Arabic name, a type of epithet, in theory referring to the bearer's first-born son or daughter. By extension, it may also have hypothetical or metaphorical references, e.g. in a nom de guerre or a nickname, without literally referring to a son or a daughter. Use of a kunya implies a familiar but respectful setting.
Abū (father) or Umm (mother) precedes the son's name, in a genitive construction (ʼiḍāfa). The English equivalent would be to call someone whose eldest son is named John, "Father of John". Use of the kunya normally signifies some closeness between the speaker and the person so addressed, but is more polite than use of the first name. The kunya is also frequently used with reference to politicians and other celebrities to indicate respect.
Men who do not yet have a child are often addressed by a made-up kunya. Most often the name chosen comes from a popular name in history, the man choosing his own kunya, although sometimes it would be the name of his father.
A kunya may also be a nickname expressing the attachment of an individual to a certain thing, as in Abu Bakr, "father of the camel foal", given because of this person's love for camels.
When also using a person's own birth name, the kunya will precede the proper name. Thus: abū Māzin Maħmūd, for "Mahmud, the father of Mazen" (as, for example, for Mahmoud Abbas). In Classical Arabic, but not in any of the spoken dialects, abū can change into the forms abā and abī (accusative and genitive, respectively), depending on the position of the kunya in the sentence.
When westernized, the words abū and abū l- are sometimes perceived as an independent part of the full name, similar to a given name. See more on westernization of Arabic naming practices and names.
Kunya as a nom de guerre
For example, Yasser Arafat was known by the name Abu Ammar (abū `ammār), even though he never had a son named Ammar. His kunya was based on Ammar ibn Yasir, a companion of Muhammad and a prominent figure in Arab history.
This usage of the kunya has gained currency outside of the Palestinian movement, and is now often used by Arab guerrillas and clandestine operators. Examples of this include the Lebanese leaders Abu Anis (used by George Hawi during the Lebanese Civil War), Abu Arz (Etienne Saqr), and Abu Nidal.
- Shahpurshah Hormasji Hodivala, Historical Studies in Mug̲h̲al Numismatics, Numismatic Society of India, 1976 (Reprint of the 1923 ed.).
- Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Names: An Introduction, Edinburgh University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-85224-563-7, ISBN 978-0-85224-563-7
- Pedzisai Mashiri, "Terms of Address in Shona: A Sociolinguistic Approach", Zambezia, XXVI (i), pp. 93–110, 1999
- "Osama's Will and Arabic Names", Coming Anarchy, 12 May 2011