For other uses, see Arab (disambiguation).

The Arabs (Arabic:عرب) are an originally Arabian ethnicity widespread in the Middle East and North Africa.


Who is an Arab?

The definition of who an Arab is has three main aspects:

The relative importance of these factors is estimated differently by different groups. Most people who consider themselves Arabs do so on the basis of the overlap of the political and linguistic definitions. However, some members of groups which fulfill both criteria reject the identity on the basis of the genealogical definition; Lebanese Maronites, for example, often reject the Arab label in favor of a narrower Maronite nationalism. Groups which use a non-Arabic liturgical language - such as Copts in Egypt and Assyrians in Iraq - are especially likely to be considered non-Arab. Not many people consider themselves Arab on the basis of the political definition without the linguistic one—thus, Kurds or Berbers usually identify themselves as non-Arab—but some do (for instance, some Berbers do consider themselves Arabs and Arab nationalists saw the Kurds as Arabs).

A hadith of questionable authenticity[1] (, related by Ibn Asakir in Trkh Dimashq and attributed by its narrator Salmn b. `Abd Allah to Islam's prophet Muhammad, expresses a common sentiment in declaring that:

"Being an Arab is not because of your father or mother, but being an Arab is on account of your tongue. Whoever learns Arabic is an Arab."

According to Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xviii), "An "Arab", in the modern sense of the word, is one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arabian tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture."

On its formation in 1946, the Arab League defined an "Arab" as follows:

"An Arab is a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples."

The genealogical definition was widely used in medieval times (Ibn Khaldun, for instance, does not use the word Arab to refer to "Arabized" peoples, but only to those of originally Arabian descent), but is usually no longer considered to be particularly significant.


Most Arabs are Muslims. Sunni Islam dominates in most areas, overwhelmingly so in North Africa; Shia Islam is prevalent in Bahrain, southern Iraq and adjacent parts of Saudi Arabia, northern Yemen, and southern Lebanon, as well as parts of Syria. The tiny Druze community, belonging to a secretive offshoot of Islam, is usually considered Arab, but sometimes considered an ethnicity in its own right.

Reliable estimates of the number of Arab Christians, which in any case depends on the definition of "Arab" used, are rare. According to Fargues 1998 (, "Today Christians only make up 9.2 per cent of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon, where they have undoubtedly lost their position as the majority, they number little more than 40 per cent, 19 in Syria they are about 6.4 per cent, in the Palestinian-occupied or autonomous territories the figure is 3.8 per cent, and in Israel 2.1 per cent. In Egypt they constitute 5.9 per cent of the population, and in Iraq presumably 2.9 per cent." Most North and Latin American Arabs (about two-thirds) are Arab Christians, particularly from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.

Arabic-speaking Jews (mainly Mizrahi and Sephardi) are commonly seen as Arab, though many reject this definition. The few remaining Jews in the Arab world live in parts of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Morocco. Most Jewish Arabs left their homes between the 1940s and the 1960s, following the creation of the state of Israel was to be created, and are now concentrated principally in Israel and France (see Jewish exodus from Arab lands.)


The first written attestation of the ethnonym "Arab" occurs in an Assyrian inscription of 853 BC, where Shalmaneser III lists a King Gindibu of mtu arbi (Arab land) as among the people he defeated at the Battle of Karkar. Some of the names given in these texts are Aramaic, while others are the first attestations of Proto-Arabic dialects. The Hebrew Bible likewise refers occasionally to peoples called `Arvi (or variants thereof), translated as "Arab" or "Arabian". The scope of the Hebrew term at this early stage is unclear, but it seems to have referred to various desert-dwelling tribes in the Syrian Desert and Arabia. Its earliest attested use referring to the southern "Qahtanite" Arabs is much later.

Proto-Arabic, or Ancient North Arabian, texts give a clearer picture of the Arabs' emergence into history. The earliest such texts are written not in the modern Arabic alphabet, nor in its Nabataean ancestor, but in variants of the Epigraphic South Arabian musnad, beginning in the 8th century BC with the Hasaean inscriptions of eastern Saudi Arabia, and continuing from the 6th century BC on with the Lihyanite texts (in southeastern Saudi Arabia) and the Thamudic texts (found throughout Arabia and the Sinai, and not in reality connected with Thamud). Later come the Safaitic inscriptions (beginning in the 1st century BC) and the many Arabic personal names attested in Nabataean inscriptions (which are, however, written in Aramaic.) From about the 2nd century BC, a few inscriptions from Qaryat al-Faw (near Sulayyil) reveal a dialect which is no longer considered "Proto-Arabic", but Pre-Classical Arabic.

By the fourth century AD, the Arab kingdoms of the Lakhmids in southern Iraq and Ghassanids in southern Syria had emerged just south of the Fertile Crescent, and, constantly at war, ended up allying respectively with the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires. Their courts were responsible for some notable examples of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and for some of the few surviving pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions in the Arabic alphabet. The Lakhmid kingdom was dissolved by the Sassanids in 602, while the Ghassanids would hold out until engulfed by the expansion of Islam.

During the 8th and 9th centuries, the Arabs (specifically the Umayyads, and later Abbasids) forged an empire whose borders touched southern France in the west, China in the east, Asia Minor in the north, and the Sudan in the south. This was one of the largest land empires in history. Throughout much of this area, the Arabs spread the religion of Islam and the Arabic language (the language of the Qur'an) through conversion and assimilation. Many groups came to be known as "Arabs" not through descent but through Arabisation. Thus, over time, the term Arab came to carry a broader meaning than the original ethnic term. Many Arabs in Sudan, Morocco, Algeria and elsewhere became Arab through cultural diffusion.

Arab nationalism declares that Arabs are united in a shared history, culture and language. Arab nationalists believe that Arab identity encompasses more than outward physical characteristics, race or religion. A related ideology, Pan-Arabism, calls for all Arab lands to be united as one state.

Traditional genealogy

Medieval Arab genealogists divided the Arabs into three groups:

  • the "extinct Arabs", tribes that had been destroyed or vanished, such as Ad and Thamud; they are often alluded to in the Qur'an, as examples of God's power to destroy wicked peoples.
  • the "original Arabs" of South Arabia, descending from Qahtan. The Qahtanites are said to have migrated the land of Yemen following the destruction of the Ma'rib Dam (sadd Ma'rib). The Qahtanite Arabs were responsible for the ancient civilizations of Yemen, notably including that of the Sabaeans (known in the Bible as Sheba.)
  • The "Arabized Arabs" (musta`ribah) of North Arabia, descending from Adnan, supposed to be a descendant of Ishmael (Ismail), the eldest son of Abraham and Hagar, through Kedar.

The Arabic language as it is spoken today in its classical Quranic form was the result of a mix between the original Arabic tongue of Qahtan and the northern Arabic which borrowed from other northern Semitic languages from the Levant.

In Jewish and Christian traditions, the identification of the Ishmaelites, described in the Bible as a people of the Arabian wilderness, with Arabs began at least by the time of Josephus, and became standard in the early days of Islam (in which the term "Hagarenes", a pun on the Arabic muhajir and the name of Hagar, was commonly used.) Efforts to reconcile the Biblical and traditional Arab genealogies later led to the identification of Joktan with Qahtan, probably due to his Biblical identification as the ancestor of Hazarmaveth (Hadramawt) and Sheba.


According to one explanation, the word Arab means clear; clear as in comprehensible rather than as in pure. Bedouin elders still use this term with the same meaning; those whose speech they comprehend (ie Arabic-speakers) they call Arab, and those whose speech is of unknown meaning to them, they call Ajam (ajam or ajami). In the Persian Gulf region, the term Ajam is often used to refer to the Persians.

Another explanation derives the word from an old Semitic stem `.R.B., with a metathetical alternative `.B.R., both meaning travelling around the land, that is, nomadic. From that root, the terms Arab(Arabi) and Hebrew(Ebri), meaning nomads, are derived.


  • Habib Hassan Touma (1996). The Music of the Arab's, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340888.
  • Edward Lipinski, Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar, 2nd ed., Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta: Leuven 2001

See also

Semitic, Ababda, Pan-Arabism, Arab League, Palestinian, Bedouin, Arabic language, Arabic alphabet, Arabia, Arab World, Nabataeans, Lakhmids, Ghassanids

External links

ar:عرب bg:Араби de:Araber es:rabe et:Araablased fa:عرب fr:Arabes it:Arabi he:ערבים la:Arabi nl:Arabieren ja:アラブ人 pl:Arabowie pt:rabe ru:Арабы sv:Arab tt:Ğäräp xalqı zh:阿拉伯人


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