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For other uses, see Arab (disambiguation).

Total population: c. 200-300 million
Significant populations in: Arab world
Language: Arabic
Religion: Islam, Christianity, Others
Related ethnic groups:

The Arabs (Arabic: عرب ʻarab) 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:

  • Political: whether they live in a country which is a member of the Arab League (or, more vaguely, the Arab world); this definition covers more than 600 million people. Somalia and the Comoros are sometimes excepted from this definition. The aforementioned definition, however, is problematic and somewhat arbitrary, particularly as most national borders in the region were determined by post-colonial partitioning and do not necessarily reflect native cultural affiliations. For example, certain native populations in Eastern Chad are virtually indistinguishable from those in Western Sudan and many groups in Southern Turkey share the same culture and ethnicity, and indeed may have come from the same tribe or even family as people in Northern Syria. Sizable communities in Chad, Turkey, Israel, Tanzania, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, in addition to the Arab League, have spoken Arabic for generations, and many consider themselves Arab.
  • Linguistic: whether their first language is Arabic; this definition covers more than 200 million people.
  • Genealogical: whether they can trace their ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.

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, may reject the Arab label in favor of a narrower Lebanese 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 do not usually identify themselves as 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 Târîkh Dimashq and attributed by its narrator Salmân 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.


Before the coming of Islam, most Arabs followed a religion featuring the worship of a number of deities, including Hubal, Wadd, Al-Lat, Manat, and Uzza, while some tribes had converted to Christianity or Judaism, and a few individuals, the hanifs, had apparently rejected polytheism in favor of a vague monotheism. With the expansion of Islam, the majority of Arabs rapidly became Muslim, and the pre-Islamic polytheistic traditions disappeared.

At present, 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 now number only about 40 per cent, in Syria they are about 6.4 per cent, in the Palestinian 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 South American Arabs (about two-thirds) are Arab Christians, particularly from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.

Arabic-speaking Jews - mainly Mizrahi Jews and Yemenite Jews - are today usually not categorised as Arab. Prior to the emergence of the term Mizrahi, the term "Arab Jews" (יהודים ערבים) was sometimes used to describe Jews in Arab lands. The term is rarely used today. The few remaining Jews in the Arab world reside mostly in Morocco. Between the late 1940s and early 1960s, following the creation of the state of Israel, most Arabic-speaking Jews left their countries of birth. Most are now concentrated in Israel, but many also live in 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 mâtu arbâi (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 ended up allying respectively with the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires. Thus they were constantly at war with each other on behalf of their imperial patrons. However, 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 Arabization. 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.

Anti-Arabism is hate or prejudice against Arabs. It is usually also associated with anti-Muslim hatred.

Traditional genealogy

Medieval Arab genealogists divided the Arabs into three groups:

  • the "ancient 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 "Pure Arabs" of South Arabia, descending from Qahtan. The Qahtanites (Qahtanis) 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.

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 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.


The term "Arab" or "Arabian" (and cognates in other languages) has been used to translate several different but similar sounding words in ancient and classical texts which do not necessarily have the same meaning or origin. The etymology of the term is of course closely linked to that of the place name "Arabia".

Although the term mâtu arbâi describing Gindibu in Assyrians texts is conventionally translated of Arab land, nothing is known with certainty about the exact location or extent of the land being referred to, nor what literal meaning the name had. In fact several different ethnonyms are found in Assyrian texts that are conventionally translated "Arab": Arabi, Arubu, Aribi and Urbi. The presence of Proto-Arabic names amongst those qualified by the terms arguably justifies the translation "Arab" although it is not certain if they all in fact represent the same group.

In Hebrew the words `arav and `aravah literally mean "desert" or "steppe". In the Hebrew Bible the latter feminine form is used exclusively for the Arabah, a region associated with the Nabateans, who spoke Arabic. The former masculine form is used in Isaiah 21:13 and Ezekiel 27:21 for the region of the settlement of Kedar in the Syrian Desert. 2 Chronicles 9:14 contrasts “kings of `arav " with “governers of the country” when listing those who brought tribute to King Solomon. The word is typically translated Arabia and is the name for Arabia in Modern Hebrew. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses instead the literal translation “desert plain” for the verse in Isaiah. The adjectival noun `aravi formed from `arav is used in Isaiah 13:20 and Jeremiah 3:2 for a desert dweller. It is typically translated Arabian or Arab and is the modern Hebrew word for Arab. The New Revised Standard Version uses the translation "nomad" for the verse in Jeremiah.

In the Bible, the word `arav is closely associated with the word `erev meaning a "mix of people" which has identical spelling in unvowelled text. Jeremiah 25:24 parallels "kings of `arav " with "kings of the `erev that dwell in the wilderness". The account in 1 Kings 10:15 matching 2 Chronicles 9:14 is traditionally vowellized to read "kings of the `erev ". The people in question are understood to be the early Nabateans who do indeed appear to have been a mix of different tribes. The medieval writer Ibn an-Nadim, in Kitab al-Fihrist, derived the word from a Syriac pun by Abraham on the same root: in his account, Abraham addresses Ishmael and tells him u`rub, from Syriac `rob, "mingle". The early Nabateans are also referred to as `arvim in Nehemiah 4:7 and the singular `arvi is applied to Geshem a leader who opposed Nehemiah. This term is identical to `aravi in unvowelled text but traditionally vowelized differently. It is usually translated "Arabian" or "Arab" and was used in early 20th century Hebrew to mean Arab. However it is unclear if the term related more to `arav or to `erev. On the one hand its vowelization resembles that of the term `arvati (Arbathite) which is understood as an adjective formed from `aravah; thus it is plausibly a variant of `aravi. On the other hand it is used in 2 Chronicles 21:16 for a seemingly different people located in Africa plausibly the same Africans referred to as an `erev (mix of people) in Ezekiel 30:5.

The words `aravim (plural of `aravi) and `arvim appear the same in unvowelled texts as the word `orvim meaning ravens. The occurrences of the word in 1 Kings 17:4-6 are traditionally vowellized to read `orvim. In the Talmud (Chullin 5a) a debate is recorded as to whether the passage refers to birds or to a people so named, noting a Midianite chieftain named Oreb (`orev: raven) and the place of his death, the Rock of Oreb. Jerome understood the term as the name of a people of a town which he described as being in the confines of the Arabians. (Genesis Rabba mentions a town named Orbo near Beth Shean.) One meaning of the root `-r-b in Hebrew is "exchange/trade" (la'arov: "to exchange", ma`arav: "merchandise") whence `orvim can also be understood to mean "exchangers" or "merchants", a usage attested in the construct form in Ezekiel 27:27 which speaks of `orvei ma`aravekh: "exchangers of thy merchandise". The Ferrar Fenton Bible translates the term as "Arabians" in 1 Kings 17:4-6.

In Hebrew, the word `arav' has the same triconsonantal root as the root meaning "west" (ma`arav) "setting sun" or "evening" (ma`ariv, `erev). The direct Arabic cognate of this is gharb ("west", etc.) rather than `arab; however, in Ugaritic, a language which normally preserves proto-Semitic gh, this root is found with `ayin, adding confusion. The Assyrian forms may plausibly be borrowings from Aramaic or Canaanite of either root, referring to land lying to the west in the latter case; the latter possibility is perhaps strengthened by the later Greek use of the term Saracen, with the parallel meaning in Arabic of "Easterners" (sharqiyyûn.)

One meaning of the word Arab in Arabic is 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). This is similar to how the ancient Greeks used the term Barbarian to desribe non-Greeks - Barbarian essentially meant that when they spoke their speech sounded like "Bar Bar Bar", ie. incomprehensible. 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.


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