Arab and Muslim
[ Issue 38 ]

'Arab' and 'Muslim' intrigue Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to 'Arab' and 'Muslim'

Arab and Muslim

Harlish Goop today sets out to explore the origin, history and meanings of the words Arab and Muslim, together with those of certain related words and phrases.
 

While everyone has some idea of the meaning of the word Arab, one 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 connotations?

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop

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Many 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 Arab, one 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 connotations?

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 avoided.

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.

The word 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 Muslim 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 Egypt.)

Even in ancient times — the era of the Persian Empire — the word Arab 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 desert-dwelling Bedouins.

You will have noticed the use of the word Semitic in the OED definition 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 Phoenician.

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 Arabic?

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.

The word 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 Iranian is 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 overlapping meanings.

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.

It defines 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:

usually 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.

The term 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 and Bangladesh?

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