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A Beginner's Guide to Arab Terminology

posted on: Aug 7, 2019

By: Noah Chani/Arab America Contributing Writer

It is important for people from all walks of life to understand exactly what is implied by their words. Terminology is especially important as it’s used in classifying a group of people; before using such language, it is important to be aware exactly of who your words encompass. Those involved in the Arab-American communities have most likely noticed that many Americans have a difficult time differentiating between words like ‘Arab’, ‘Arabic’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Islam’, ‘Middle East’, and ‘MENA’, among other words. Groups of people encompassed by these words are painted with the same brush and are all the same in the eyes of many Americans. This can cause many Americans to sound like fools in their dialogue regarding the Arab world.

It’s not entirely their fault either, the terminology is not taught properly in schools as it deserves to be as there are nearly 3.5 million Arab-Americans inhabiting this country. Orientalism has had a great impact on the language we use in the west to talk or write about the region which doesn’t exactly allow for the terms to be universal.  So, for Americans who care, and are not yet particularly well versed in Arab terminology. This confusion has created a need for the beginner’s guide to appropriately speaking about the Arab world.


The word ‘Arab’ refers to 381 million people from 22 different countries, so it isn’t the most specific of terms. But it is important nonetheless to be aware to whom it refers, and also to whom it does not refer to. The 22 countries that make up the Arab world and span across the Middle East and North Africa include: Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Tunisia, Jordan, The United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Oman, Mauritania, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Djibouti, and Comoros. The word ‘Arab’ at its origins means ‘nomad’ or ‘pure’. It’s common for the countries that are considered ‘Arab’ to be clustered together and referred to as the ‘Arab World’.

Typically, Americans are confused about if religion is implied by the term or not. Simply, the answer is NO. ‘Arab’ is more of a cultural identity based on geographic location and is not specific to any particular religion. Islam is the most popular religion of the Arab world, but the Arab world is home to a number of other religions. Grouping the word ‘Arab’ strictly to the Islamic faith is a mistake made by many Americans. Being Arab does not mean you are Muslim, and being Muslim does not make you an Arab.


Arabic is the Semitic language of the countries encompassed by the aforementioned paragraph.  The language stems from the Nabataean Aramaic script and has also been used since the classical era by the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. ‘Arabic’ is the language that is spoken primarily by those living within the Arab world. There are several different dialects of Arabic and there tend to be small differences in the language, especially among these three regions of the Arab World:  North Africa, the Gulf, and the Levante which was known as the Greater Syria which Europe divided in the later ’40s:  Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria.


Islam is the predominant religion of the Arab world. In 2010 about 93.0 percent of people in Arab countries were practicing the religion. The religion is followed by Christianity making up 3.7 percent and Judaism making up 1.6 percent. The Islamic faith in the Arab world is the largest by a wide margin, but the population of those practicing Islam in the Arab world only makes up about a fifth of the religion’s followers. The Arab world is, in fact, the only region in the world where the majority of the population is practicing Islam.


Muslim (not Muzlim) is the term garnered to somebody who practices the religion of Islam. For example, from a religious perspective, you may say “The Arab world is composed of predominately Muslims. “. This is simple on the surface but many Americans struggle with this terminology as they are often only familiar with their own religion.

Middle East

This term is objected by the nationalist Arabs because it was assigned by the West to lump different countries together.  Many people mistakenly assume that everybody living in the Middle East is Arab. This is not the case; the Arab world does not include those from Iran, Turkey, neither Israel.  The term, Middle East has become popular throughout the world but still suffers from an orientalist perspective. It’s not the Middle East to everybody; it is a Eurocentric term.  More recently, The use of the term has increased recently because the Arab people are afraid to reveal their true identity as Arabs.  The West has associated it with negative connotations; therefore many Arab Americans say Middle Eastern restaurant, Middle Eastern food, Middle Eastern festival, Middle Eastern people and so forth.


 The term ‘MENA’ is quite simply just an acronym that stands for ‘The Middle East & North Africa’ which is relevant as MENA countries make up much (not all) of the Arab world because the Gulf countries are considered a part of the Arab World.