Bikwilians will be familiar with the statement, “Not all Arabs are
Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs”. Certainly, the truth of the
second half is readily apparent: Islam is the major religion of nations
as far apart geographically as Morocco and Indonesia, in which live
millions who are not racially Arab.
Now, while everyone has some idea of the meaning of the word
could reasonably enquire more closely. What exactly is an Arab? Is the
word really a term of ethnicity? Does it solely refer to those whose
native language is Arabic? Are there historical as well as geographical
When I asked myself these questions, I discovered I wasn’t sure about
the answers, so I decided to look further into the matter. Once I did, I
found several associated (and likewise often imprecisely used) terms
worthy of discussion in this column.
So this is my task today — to explore the origin, history and meanings
of the words Arab and Muslim, together with those of certain related
words and phrases.
The results of these investigations may prove a little unexpected for
some readers — as they did for me. In any case, my emphasis as always
will be linguistic, but some aspects of history and geography will need
to be considered too. As far as possible, political comment will be
I’ll begin with the words
Muslim and Islam.
When I was a schoolboy, the terms used were
Mohammedan and Mohammedanism
(both variously spelled). I dare say they reflected the view in those
days that, as with Christianity and Jesus Christ, the centre of the
religion was a person, namely Mohammed. This view may have been born out
of Western ignorance of what the followers of the teachings of Mohammed
actually called their religion.
Muslim (Moslem) in English is a noun or an adjective, and
according to the OED it derives from the Arabic muslim, in which (if I
may oversimplify) the “m” is a prefix that together with the vowel
changes forms the verbal noun of the verb aslama. The latter means
"he resigned or surrendered (himself)", spec.
"he became or was resigned
or submissive (to
God)", hence "he became or was sincere in his religion".
When we see this form of the verb the linguistic relationship of
to Islam becomes clear. In Arabic islam means “resignation,
surrendering”, in particular “the manifesting of humility or submission
and outward conformity with the law of God”.
A linguistically related word is
salaam, which means “peace be upon
you”. It in turn is cognate with the Hebrew shalom (“peace”).
Now to Arab.
The OED shows that the word came into English from French in the 17th
century. It gives the primary meaning as “one of the Semitic race
inhabiting Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries”. Other reference
books indicate more specifically the nations covered by the term: Saudi
Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and the nations of
North Africa — in total 21 countries.
Some of the
Oxford’s quotations accompanying the entry for Arab show that
at various times the word has taken on disparaging connotations. In the
late 19th century, for example, most Egyptians were speaking of
themselves as distinct from “inferior” Arabs. (Historically, many
Egyptians descend from the non-Arab Ancient Egyptians. Since 1958, of
course, the official name of the country has been The Arab Republic of
Even in ancient times — the era of the Persian Empire — the word
carried derogatory suggestions. For instance, the literate and
commercially advanced people of Saba (Sheba) in Yemen did not refer to
themselves as Arabs. That term they reserved for the nomadic
You will have noticed the use of the word Semitic in the
above. Usually that word is applied today to Jews, but its wider
historical meaning refers to Semites, which comprise Hebrews, Arabs,
Assyrians, and Aramaeans. Interestingly, the word Semite derives from
the name Shem, who was the son of Noah.
In linguistic circles Semitic refers to a family of languages that
includes — apart from Hebrew and Arabic — Syriac, which is a dialect
derived from Ancient Aramaic (the language of Jesus and the Apostles)
plus the extinct languages Akkadian, Amorite, Assyrian, Moabite and
Arabic today is spoken by nearly 200 million people, largely in
dialects, of which there are several — Algerian, Moroccan, Egyptian,
Syrian and Iraqian — not all of which are mutually intelligible.
On the island of Malta there are two official languages — English and
Maltese. But did you know that, while the alphabet and grammatical
structure of Maltese derive from Latin, the vocabulary developed out of
One country not named in the list of Arab nations above was Iran. The
good reason for this is that, by and large, Iranians are not Arabs, nor
do they speak Arabic. About half the population of Iran are
Persian-speaking Farsi, who are the descendants of the original
Indo-European peoples who entered the country in the second millennium
BC from Central Asia. The rest of the population consists of various
ethnic and linguistic groups, and few of them are Arabs.
iran is Persian for “Persia”.
The ancient Farsi (Persian) language dates from about 1000 BC. It was
spoken in an area centring on modern Iran and Afghanistan. The official
languages of modern Afghanistan are Pashto and Dari Persian, both
related to Farsi. In other words, Afghans, like Iranians, are not Arabs.
(Nor, for the record, are Turks or Kurds.)
Of singular curiosity, perhaps, is the fact that the word
linguistically closely related to the word Aryan. One wonders what the
Nazis would have made of that.
Finally a word or two on a few geographical phrases and their sometimes
The Oxford defines
Near East as
a region comprising the countries of the eastern Mediterranean,
sometimes also including those of the Balkan peninsula, south-west Asia,
or north Africa.
Middle East as
states lying between the Near and Far East, esp. Egypt and Iran and the
countries between them,
but adds a note that the term “has been used with considerable freedom”.
In similar fashion,
Orient has narrower and wider meanings:
those countries immediately east of the Mediterranean or Southern
Europe, which to the Romans were "the East", the countries of
South-western Asia or of Asia generally.
Far East, on the other hand, is more specific and refers to
the extreme Eastern regions of the Old World, esp. China and Japan.
By that token, should
Middle East include places like Pakistan, India