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Related subjects Peoples

Arab family from Ramallah, 1705.
Total population

approx. 300 to 350 million

Regions with significant populations
Middle East (Fertile Crescent · Arabian Peninsula)
Northern Africa
Arabic, Mehri, Soqotri, Harsusi
Islam, Christianity and Judaism
Arab woman from Ramallah wearing traditional dress in 1915.
Arab woman from Ramallah wearing traditional dress in 1915.

An Arab (Arabic: عربي‎, ʿarabi) is a member of an ethnic group which identifies as such on the basis of either genealogical or linguistic grounds, sometimes including Arabized populations.

Though the Arabic language pre-dates the Common Era, Arabic culture began to spread in the Middle East from the 2nd century as genealogically Arab Christians such as the Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Banu Judham began migrating into Northern Arabian desert and the Levant. The Arabic language rose to prominence with the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD as the language of the Qur'an, and the Arabic language and culture became more widespread with the 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. 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:

  • Genealogical: someone who can trace his or her ancestry to the tribes of Arabia - the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula - and the Syrian Desert. This definition covers fewer self-identified Arabs than not, and was the definition used in medieval times, for example by Ibn Khaldun.
  • 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.
  • 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).
Syrian Bedouin with family, 1893
Syrian Bedouin with family, 1893

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.

Map of the Arab League states in dark green with non-Arabic  speaking areas in light green and Somalia and Djibouti in striped green due to their Arab League membership but non-Arabic speaking population
Map of the Arab League states in dark green with non-Arabic speaking areas in light green and Somalia and Djibouti in striped green due to their Arab League membership but non-Arabic speaking population

The Arab League at its formation in 1946 defined Arab as "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 relation of ʿarab and ʾaʿrāb is complicated further by the notion of "lost Arabs" al-ʿArab al-ba'ida mentioned in the Qur'an as punished for their disbelief. All contemporary Arabs were considered as descended from two ancestors, Qahtan and Adnan.

Versteegh (1997) is uncertain whether to ascribe this distinction to the memory of a real difference of origin of the two groups, but it is certain that the difference was strongly felt in early Islamic times. Even in Islamic Spain there was enmity between the Qays of the northern and the Kalb of the southern group. The so-called Himyarite language described by Al-Hamdani (died 946) appears to be a special case of language contact between the two groups, an originally north Arabic dialect spoken in the south, and influenced by Old South Arabic.

During the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs forged an Arab Empire (under the Rashidun and Umayyads, and later the Abbasids) 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. In much of this area, the Arabs spread Islam and the Arabic language (the language of the Qur'an) through conversion and cultural assimilation. Many groups became known as "Arabs" through this process of Arabization rather than through descent. Thus, over time, the term Arab came to carry a broader meaning than the original ethnic term: cultural Arab vs. ethnic Arab. Some native people in Sudan, Morocco and Algeria (Berbers) and in other regions became Arabized.

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. Arab nationalism has often competed for existence with regional nationalism in the Middle East, such as Lebanese and Egyptian.

Origins & History

Pre-Arabic Near East

Early Semites built civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria, but slowly lost their political domination of the Near East due to internal turmoil and constant attacks by new nomadic Semitic and non-Semitic groups. The Arameans, Akkadians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Amorites, Sabaeans and Minaeans spoke closely related Semitic languages. These groups often overlapped and mixed racial lines, as did Indo-European speaking groups. Attacks climaxed with the arrival of the Medians to east Mesopotamia and the incorporation of the Neo Babylonians. Although the Semites lost political control, the Aramaic language remained the lingua Franca of Mesopotamia and Syria. Eventually, Aramaic lost its day-to-day use with the defeat of the Persians and the arrival of the Hellenic armies around 330BC.

The Hebrew Bible occasionally refers to ` Arvi peoples (or variants thereof), translated as "Arab" or "Arabian". The scope of the term at that early stage is unclear, but it seems to have referred to various desert-dwelling Semitic tribes in the Syrian Desert and Arabia. Its earliest attested use referring to the neighboring nomadic groups such as those of Gindibu the Arab. Proto-Arabic, or ancient north Arabian, texts give a clearer picture of the Arabs' emergence. The earliest are written in variants of epigraphic south Arabian musnad script, including the 8th century BC Hasaean inscriptions of eastern Saudi Arabia, the 6th century BC Lihyanite texts of southeastern Saudi Arabia and the Thamudic texts found throughout Arabia and the Sinai (not in reality connected with Thamud).

The Nabateans moved into territory vacated by the Edomites -- Semites who settled the region centuries before them. The Nabateans were nomadic newcomers who wrote in a vernacular Aramiac that evolved into modern Arabic and modern Arabic script around the 4th century. This process included Safaitic inscriptions (beginning in the 1st century BC) and the many Arabic personal names in Nabataean inscriptions 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.

Qahtani migrations to the North

In Sassanid times, Arabia Petraea was a border province between the Roman and Persian empires, and from the early centuries AD was increasingly affected by South Arabian influence, notably with the Ghassanids migrating north from the 3rd century.

The Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Kindites were the last major migration of non-muslims out of Yemen to the north.

  • The Ghassanids revived the Semitic presence in the then Hellenized Syria. They mainly settled the Hauran region and spread to modern Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. The Ghassanids held Syria until engulfed by the expansion of Islam.
Coin showing the Roman Emperor, Philip the Arab.
Coin showing the Roman Emperor, Philip the Arab.

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 Arabization

Dress of Arab women, fourth to sixth century.
Dress of Arab women, fourth to sixth century.
Dress of Arab men, fourth to sixth century.
Dress of Arab men, fourth to sixth century.

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 ʿarab, only the nisba adjective ʿarabiyyun. The Qur'an calls itself ʿarabiyyun, "Arabic", and mubinun, "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 al-ʿarabiyya, the language of the Arabs. The term ʾiʿrāb has the same root and refers to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. The plural noun ʾaʿrāb refers to the Bedouin tribes of the desert who resisted Muhammad, for example in ayat 9.97, ʾaʿrābu ʾašaddu kufrān wa nifāqān "the Bedouin are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy".

Based on this, in early Islamic terminology, ʿarab referred to the language, and ʾaʿrāb 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 kalam al-ʿArab, "language of the Arabs", denoted the uncontaminated language of the Bedouins.

Syria/Iraq, 7th century

The arrival of Islam united the Arab tribes, who flooded into the strongly Semitic Greater Syria and Iraq. Within years, the major garrison towns developed into the major cities of Syria and Iraq. The local population, which shared a close linguistic and genetic ancestry with Qahtani and Adnani Muslims were quickly Arabized.

North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, 7th century

The Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians dominated North African and Iberian shores for more than 8 centuries until they were suppressed by the Romans and the later Vandal invasion. Inland, the nomadic Berbers allied with Arab Muslims in invading Spain. The Arab tribes mainly settled the old Phoenician and Carthagenian towns, while the Berbers remained dominant inland. Inland north Africa remained partly Arabized until the 11th century, whereas the Iberian Peninsula, particularly its southern part, remained heavily Arabized, until the expulsion of the Moriscos in the 17th century.

Medieval times

Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima distinguishes between sedentary Muslims who used to be nomadic Arabs and the Bedouin nomadic Arabs of the desert. He used the term "formerly-nomadic" Arabs and refers to sedentary Muslims by the region or city they lived in, as in Egyptians, Spaniards and Yemenis. 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

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.

Quda'a tribes

Quda'a (قضاعة) was an Arabian tribes that migrated from Arabian Peninsula and Syria into Egypt.

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 centre and North Arabia, descending from Ishmael son of Abraham.

The Arabic language spoken today in classical Quranic form evolved as a mix between the original Arabic of Qahtan and northern Arabic which shares a great deal with northern Semitic languages from the Levant.


Christian martyr Saint Abo, the patron saint of Tbilisi.
Christian martyr Saint Abo, the patron saint of Tbilisi.

Arab Muslims are Sunni, Shia or Ibadhite. The Druze faith is sometimes considered separate. 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 favour 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, most Arabs rapidly became Muslim, and polytheistic traditions disappeared.

The Qur'an was the first major work of Arabic literature and the most influential.
The Qur'an was the first major work of Arabic literature and the most influential.

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 tiny Druze community follow a secretive 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). 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.


  • Introduction to the Arab World
Retrieved from " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab"