AskDefine | Define Arab

Dictionary Definition



1 a member of a Semitic people originally from the Arabian peninsula and surrounding territories who speaks Arabic and who inhabits much of the Middle East and northern Africa [syn: Arabian]
2 a spirited graceful and intelligent riding horse native to Arabia [syn: Arabian]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • ărʹəb, /ˈærəb/, /"

Extensive Definition

An Arab (, ʿarabi) is a person who identifies as such on genealogical, linguistic, or cultural grounds. The plural form, Arabs, refers to the ethnic group at large.
Though the Arabic language pre-dates the Common Era, Arabic culture was first spread in the Middle East beginning in the 2nd century as ethnically Arab Christians such as the Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Banu Judham began migrating into the Northern Arabian desert and the Levant. The Arabic language gained greater prominence with the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD as the language of the Qur'an, and Arabic language and culture were more widely disseminated as a result of early Islamic expansion.


"Arab" is defined independently of religious identity, and pre-dates the rise of Islam, with historically attested Arab Christian kingdoms and Arab Jews. The earliest documented use of the word "Arab" as defining a group of people dates from the 9th century BC.,M1 Islamized but non-Arabized peoples and therefore the majority of the world's Muslims, do not form part of the Arab World, but comprise what is the geographically larger and diverse Muslim World.
In the modern era, defining who is an Arab is done on the grounds of one or more of the following three criteria:
  • Linguistic: someone whose first language, and by extension cultural expression, is Arabic, including any of its varieties. This definition covers more than 250 million people. Certain groups that fulfill this criterion, such as many Egyptians, reject this definition on the basis of genealogy. See also Egypt - Identity.
  • Political: in the modern nationalist era, any person who is a citizen of a country where Arabic is either the national language or one of the official languages, or a citizen of a country which may simply be a member of the Arab League and thus having Arabic as an official government language, even if not used by the majority of the population. This definition would cover over 300 million people. It may be the most contested definition as it is the most simplistic one. It would exclude the entire Arab diaspora, but include not only those genealogically Arabs (Gulf Arabs and others, such as Bedouins, where they may exist) and those Arabized-Arab-identified, but also include Arabized non-Arab-identified groups (such as some Maronite Lebanese) and even non-Arabized indigenous ethnicities which may be non-Arabic-speaking, monolingually or otherwise (such as the Berbers in Morocco, Kurds in Iraq, or the Somali majority of Arab League member Somalia).
The relative importance of these three factors is estimated differently by different groups and frequently disputed. Some combine aspects of each definition, as done by Habib Hassan Touma, who defines an Arab "in the modern sense of the word", as "one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arab tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture." Most people who consider themselves Arab do so based on the overlap of the political and linguistic definitions. Few people consider themselves Arab based on the political definition without the linguistic one; thus few Kurds and Berbers identify as Arab. But some do, for instance some Berbers also consider themselves Arab (v. e.g. Gellner, Ernest and Micaud, Charles, Eds. Arabs and Berbers: from tribe to nation in North Africa. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1972). Some religious minorities within the Middle East and North Africa who have Arabic or any of its varieties as their primary community language, such as Egyptian Copts, may not identify as Arabs.
Greeks and Romans referred to all the nomadic population of the desert in the Near East as Arabi. The Greeks called Yemen "Arabia Felix". The Romans called the vassal nomadic states within the Roman Empire "Arabia Petraea" after the city of Petra, and called unconquered deserts bordering the empire to the south and east Arabia Magna.
  • The Lakhmids settled the mid Tigris region around their capital Al-hira they ended up allying with the Sassanid against the Ghassanids and the Byzantine Empire. The Lakhmids contested control of the Central Arabian tribes with the Kindites with the Lakhmids eventually destroying Kinda in 540 after the fall of their main ally Himyar. The Sassanids dissolved the Lakhmid kingdom in 602.
  • The Kindites migrated from Yemen along with the Ghassanids and Lakhmids, but were turned back in Bahrain by the Abdul Qais Rabi'a tribe. They returned to Yemen and allied themselves with the Himyarites who installed them as a vassal kingdom that ruled Central Arbia from Qaryah dhat Kahl (the present-day Qaryat al-Faw) in Central Arabia. They ruled much of the Northern/Central Arabian peninsula until the fall of the Himyarites in 525AD.

Early Islamic period

see Muslim conquests
Muslims of Medina referred to the nomadic tribes of the deserts as the A'raab, and considered themselves sedentary, but were aware of their close racial bonds. The term "A'raab' mirrors the term Assyrians used to describe the closely related nomads they defeated in Syria.
The Qur'an does not use the word , only the nisba adjective . The Qur'an calls itself , "Arabic", and , "clear". The two qualities are connected for example in ayat 43.2-3, "By the clear Book: We have made it an Arabic recitation in order that you may understand". The Qur'an became regarded as the prime example of the , the language of the Arabs. The term has the same root and refers to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. The plural noun refers to the Bedouin tribes of the desert who resisted Muhammad, for example in ayat 9.97, "the Bedouin are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy".
Based on this, in early Islamic terminology, referred to the language, and to the Arab Bedouins, carrying a negative connotation due to the Qur'anic verdict just cited. But after the Islamic conquest of the 8th century, the language of the nomadic Arabs became regarded as the most pure by the grammarians following Abi Ishaq, and the term , "language of the Arabs", denoted the uncontaminated language of the Bedouins.

Levant and Iraq

The arrival of Islam united the Arab tribes, who flooded into the Semitic Levant and Iraq. In 661, and throughout the Caliphate's rule by the Ummayad dynasty, Damascus was established as the Muslim capital. In these newly acquired territories, Arabs comprised the ruling military elite and as such, enjoyed special privileges. They were proud of their Arab ancestry and sponsored the poetry and culture of pre-Islamic Arabia whilst diffusing with Levantine and Iraqi culture. They established garrison towns, including Ramla, ar-Raqqah, Basra, Kufa, Mosul and Samarra — all of which developed into major cities.
Caliph Abd al-Malik established Arabic as the Caliphate's official language in 686. This reform greatly influenced the conquered non-Arab peoples and fueled the Arabization of the region. However, the Arabs' higher status among non-Arab Muslim converts and the latter's obligation to pay heavy taxes caused resentment. Caliph Umar II strove to resolve the conflict when he came to power in 717. He rectified the situation, demanding that all Muslims be treated as equals but, his intended reforms did not take effect as he died after only three years of rule. By now, discontent swept the region and a bloody uprising occurred in which the Abbasids came to power and moved the capital to Baghdad. The Abbasids were also Arabs (descendants of Muhammad's uncle Abbas) and unlike the Ummayads, they had the support of non-Arab Islamic groups. The Christians of Italy and the Crusaders preferred the term Saracens for all the Arabs and Muslims of that time. The Christians of Iberia used the term Moor to describe all the Arabs and Muslims of that time.

Arabs of Central Asia

see History of Arabs in Afghanistan
Most Arabs of Central Asia are fully assimilated with local populations, and call themselves the same as locals (e.g. Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks). In order to notice their Arab origin they have a special term: Sayyid, Khoja or Siddiqui.

Banu Hilal in North Africa, 1046AD

The Banu Hilal was an Arabian tribal confederation, organized by the Fatimids. They struck in Libya, reducing the Zenata Berbers (a clan that claimed Yemeni ancestry from pre-Islamic periods) and small coastal towns, and Arabizing the Sanhaja berber confederation. The Banu Hilal eventually Settled modern (Morocco and Algeria) and subdued Arabized the Sanhaja by the time of Ibn Khaldun.

Banu Sulaym in North Africa, 1049AD

The Banu Sulyam is another Bedouin tribal confederation from Nejd which followed through the trials of Banu Hilal and helped them defeat the Zirids in the Battle of Gabis in 1052 AD, and finally took Kairuan in 1057 Ad. The Banu Sulaym mainly settled and completely Arabized Libya.

Banu Kanz Nubia/Sudan, 11th-14th century

A branch of the Rabi'ah tribe settled in north Sudan and slowly Arabized the Makurian kingdom in modern Sudan until 1315 AD when the Banu Kanz inherited the kingdom of Makuria and paved the way for the Arabization of the Sudan, that was completed by the arrival of the Jaalin and Juhayna Arab tribes.

Banu Hassan Mauritania 1644-1674AD

The Banu Maqil is a Yemeni nomadic tribe that settled in Tunisia in the 13th century. The Banu Hassan a Maqil branch moved into the Sanhaja region in whats today the Western Sahara and Mauritania, they fought a thirty years war on the side of the Lamtuna Arabized Berbers who claimed Himyarite ancestry (from the early Islamic invasions) defeating the Sanhaja berbers and Arabizing Mauritania.

Tribal genealogy

Medieval Arab genealogists divided Arabs into three groups:
  • "Ancient Arabs", tribes that had vanished or been destroyed, such as 'Ad and Thamud, often mentioned in the Qur'an as examples of God's power to destroy wicked peoples.
  • "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 "Arabized Arabs" (musta`ribah) of center and North Arabia, descending from Ishmael son of Abraham.


Arab Muslims are Sunni, Shia or Ibadhite. The Druze faith is generally considered divergent enough to constitute a separate religion. The self-identified Arab Christians generally follow Eastern Churches such as the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches and the Maronite church. Coptic Christians, though Arabic speaking, do generally not identify as ethnic Arabs .
Before the coming of Islam, most Arabs followed a religion with a number of deities, including Hubal, Wadd, Allāt, Manat, and Uzza. Some tribes had converted to Christianity or Judaism. A few individuals, the hanifs, had apparently rejected polytheism in favor of monotheism unaffiliated with any particular religion. The most prominent Arab Christian kingdoms were the Ghassanid and Lakhmid kingdoms. When Himyarite kings converted to Judaism in the late 4th century, the elites of the other prominent Arab kingdom, the Kindites, being Himyirite vassals, apparently also converted (at least partly). With the expansion of Islam, polytheistic Arabs were rapidly Islamized, and polytheistic traditions disappeared.
Today, Sunni Islam dominates in most areas, overwhelmingly so in North Africa. Shia Islam is dominant in southern Iraq and southern Lebanon. Shia Muslims are also believed to be in the majority in Bahrain, and substantial Shi'a populations exist in Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, northern Syria, the al-Batinah region in Oman, and in northern Yemen. The Druze community, concentrated in the Levant, follow a faith that was originally an offshoot of Ismaili Shia Islam, and are also Arab.
Estimates of the number of Arab Christians vary, and depend on the definition of "Arab", as with the number of all Arabs, especially Muslim Arabs. Christians make up 9.2% of the population of the Near East. In Lebanon they number about 39% of the population, in Syria 10%. In Palestine before the creation of Israel estimates ranged as high as 20%, but is now 3.8% due to mass emigration. In Israel Arab Christians constitute 2.1% (roughly 10% of the Palestinian Arab population). In Egypt they are about 15% of the population and in Jordan they around 5%. Many Christians do not consider themselves Arabs. Most North and South American Arabs are Christian, as are about half of Arabs in Australia who come particularly from Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories.
Jews from Arab countries – mainly Mizrahi Jews and Yemenite Jews – are today usually not categorised as Arab. Sociologist Philip Mendes asserts that before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews "viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality". Prior to the emergence of the term Mizrahi, the term "Arab Jews" (Yehudim ‘Áravim, יהודים ערבים) was sometimes used to describe Jews of the Arab world. The term is rarely used today. The few remaining Jews in the Arab countries reside mostly in Morocco and Tunisia. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, following the creation of the state of Israel, most of these Jews left or were expelled from their countries of birth and are now mostly concentrated in Israel. Some immigrated to France, where they form the largest Jewish community, outnumbering European Jews, but relatively few to the United States. See Jewish exodus from Arab lands.

References and notes


Arab in Afrikaans: Arabier
Arab in Tosk Albanian: Araber
Arab in Arabic: عرب
Arab in Bulgarian: Араби
Arab in Bosnian: Arapi
Arab in Czech: Arabové
Arab in Welsh: Arabiaid
Arab in Danish: Araber
Arab in German: Araber
Arab in Esperanto: Araboj
Arab in Spanish: Pueblo árabe
Arab in Estonian: Araablased
Arab in Persian: عرب
Arab in Finnish: Arabit
Arab in French: Arabes
Arab in Hebrew: ערבים
Arab in Croatian: Arapi
Arab in Hungarian: Arabok
Arab in Indonesian: Bangsa Arab
Arab in Italian: Arabo
Arab in Japanese: アラブ人
Arab in Georgian: არაბები
Arab in Korean: 아랍인
Arab in Latin: Arabes
Arab in Ligurian: Popolo arabb-o
Arab in Lithuanian: Arabai
Arab in Malay (macrolanguage): Arab
Arab in Dutch: Arabieren
Arab in Norwegian Nynorsk: Arabarar
Arab in Norwegian: Arabere
Arab in Polish: Arabowie
Arab in Portuguese: Árabes
Arab in Romanian: Arab
Arab in Russian: Арабы
Arab in Serbo-Croatian: Arapi
Arab in Simple English: Arab people
Arab in Slovak: Arabi
Arab in Slovenian: Arabci
Arab in Albanian: Arabët
Arab in Serbian: Арапи
Arab in Swedish: Araber
Arab in Swahili (macrolanguage): Waarabu
Arab in Turkish: Araplar (halk)
Arab in Tatar: Ğäräp xalqı
Arab in Ukrainian: Араби
Arab in Urdu: عرب
Arab in Yiddish: אראבער
Arab in Chinese: 阿拉伯人

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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