In academia in the US, the dominant name format is [firstName lastName]. And in APA citation format you typically cite by referring to the last name. So e.g. if John Doe wrote a paper in 2014, you might cite it as Doe (2014).

More generally you'd cite by referring to the family name. So e.g. if the Chinese basketball player Yao Ming wrote a paper in 2014, you would cite it as Yao (2014), since Yao is his family name and Ming is his given name. But there is typically no confusion anyway, because when East Asians publish in Western academia, they simply give in to Western convention and reverse the order of their names. So Yao Ming would typically simply have his name printed as Ming Yao. And so we're back to the [firstName lastName] format and there is no confusion.

My question is: What about patronymics? E.g. if Osama bin Laden writes a paper in 2014, should he be cited as Osama (2014) or bin Laden (2014)? It seems that unlike with East Asians, people with patronymic names have been less inclined to give in to Western convention and reverse the order of their names. So his name would still appear as Osama bin Laden on the title page.

Suppose I notice that everyone simply cites his paper as bin Laden (2014). (Indeed, in the real world, this is how Western media outlets often refer to this historical figure, even though this makes as much sense as referring to George W. Bush as simply George.) If I want to cite this paper, should I simply follow what is now the convention and cite it as bin Laden (2014), even though this is mistaken? Or should I cite it as Osama (2014), at the risk of my peers having no idea which paper I am talking about? What is or should be the proper convention?

Note that this 'problem' is not limited to Muslim names. Even in Europe there are e.g. Icelandic names. There are also some cultures where people go by a single given name (i.e. no last name/family name/surname) but which may sometimes be composed of more than one word (e.g. sometimes in Mongolia, Burma, South India, Indonesia).


4 Answers 4


Interesting question. The best thing would certainly be to consult the journal's style manual or, if this does not yield an answer (as is likely), to ask the editor. Their response is conclusive. Having said that, the issue seems to be very complex. There are no hard and fast rules. I quote from the "Referencing Manual For IAIS students" (Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exter):

Some names are made up of fifteen or even twenty words, and it can be baffling at first glance to determine how to put the various elements in the right order. […] Any one of these elements can become the 'urf' (customary name).


Once you have established the ‘urf, it is customary to follow this by the author’s given name (ism) and the name of his father (nasab) joined by the word ibn (son of – also written bin) or bint (daughter of) in the case of a woman.


Surnames are a relatively recent phenomenon across the Islamic world and modern Arabic names only came into existence towards the end of the 19th century. It is now accepted practice, particularly in the West, to treat the final element of a person’s name as a surname and the first as a forename, so it is now correct to cite Taha Ḥusayn as Ḥusayn, Taha, although you will find Taha Husayn in older books and catalogues. The Western obsession with the surname can lead to some strange coinages, for example Saddam Hussein’s full name is Ṣaddām ibn Ḥusayn al-Tikrītī, yet it is now standard to cite him by his father’s given name (Ḥusayn) as a surname. (Most second forenames indicate the father’s name, which is why names such as Aḥmad can be found as the second element in women’s forenames). Similarly, the form of given name `Abd (slave/servant of), followed by one of the ninety-nine names of God, should never be split from the element which follows it, although most Westerners still cite Jamāl ‘Abd al-Nāṣir (wrongly) as Nasser.

The referencing manual suggests to use the following established bibliographic resources to find the 'urf (customary name):

  • the bibliography of a scholarly book (however, different sources will quote the same Arabic name in different ways)

  • the Exeter University Library catalogue, which uses the best-known name in the Library of Congress transliteration

  • the Encyclopaedia of Islam

  • the Library of Congress Authority List

In all of these cases, problems with transliteration may render it difficult to look up the proper name.

The University of Malaya's APA Formatting and Style Guide is another useful resource.


Use the patronymic. It is the part that looks like a surname, has the function of a surname, and is less likely to cause confusion.

It seems clear enough to me. One of the two is a personal name, supposedly unique or almost unique among their relatives, which is used to address the author among his/her family. The other one serves to identify the author's lineage and distinguish among other people with the same name. By convention, we cite using the second.

One could argue that a surname is a form of patronymic, too.

This is, incidentally, the solution that causes less practical trouble. If someone is called Andreas Jonsson, it is difficult to assess if the latter is a surname or a patronymic without asking the author personally.

I know it is not always that easy with names, but it seems like there is a simple way out if the problem is limited to this issue of patronymic vs surname.

  • Indeed, surnames in (many) western countries are the bureaucratic evolution of patronymics. I was surprised to learn that Sweden used them frequently (Sven Nilsson, Karin Nilssdotter) until as late as 1901.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 8:14
  • What if these persons much prefer they didn't have to give in to Western convention and convenience, and preferred that you used their actual name? (See e.g. @Gaurav's answer.)
    – user10885
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 17:54
  • 1
    @KennyLJ Then I think that they shouldn't put their patronymic in the paper at all, but just sign it with their first names (if I understand the issue correctly). If I read a patronymic in the author's name, I assume they want me to use it. Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 17:58

Some friends of mine wrote a letter to Nature about this question, in which they argue that where family names don't exist, first names alone should be used instead of the father's name:

Indians from the south traditionally do not have surnames. It is only when forced to comply with Western naming standards that they use their father's given name as a substitute. As a consequence, journal rules require them to publish research under the fathers' given names (with which we — Nalini, Jeevananthinee and Sujatha — also sign this Correspondence letter). Obviously, as young south Indian scientists making a contribution to science, we would prefer to be identified with our first names and not by our fathers' given names. [...] We believe that now is the time to introduce a consistent publication system that accommodates Indian names. The universal author-identification that uses contributor IDs, as discussed in your News Feature, is a good start. Such a system could be designed along the lines of the digital object identifier (doi) system used for journal articles.


In my experience, the Korean case is not clear. This is because some Koreans change their name order, while others do not. What's more, some will change the order in some situations (academic publishing, for example) but not in others (academic social context in Korea mixing with Westerners). Thus, it can be unclear which of two or three syllables is the family name and which the given name. The political family Park is an example of Koreans not changing the name order -- and the U.S. media also retaining the original order (at least in this century).

Spanish names can also be a problem, since some have given, middle and last but others have given, last and mother's last.

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