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Malta's Arab Heritage

posted on: Jul 6, 2016


BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

“Islam may have disappeared after 1249 but an Arabic dialect is still spoken by the mass of population… The staunchly Catholic Maltese are concerned to play down the Arab nature of this dialect, which since the 18th century has been written in the Latin script and called ‘Maltese’. Its origin is commonly said to be composite, of Arabic, though it does contain a relatively high proportion of Italian loan words.”

So wrote Maxine Robinson, in his book, The Arabs, when describing the Arab linguistic legacy of Malta – once a flourishing part of the Arab-Islamic world. Try as they could during the era of religious fervor in the Middle Ages, the Maltese did not succeed in erasing, not only in language, but in all other facets of life, their Arab heritage. Malta remains today a cultural part of the Arab world.

Consisting of three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, collectively known as Malta, the country has always, much more than its size belies, been important in the history of the central Mediterranean. Its 370,000 inhabitants – with an equal number of emigrés in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the U.S.A. – living in an area totaling 316 sq km (122 sq mi) – are descendants of a concoction of races, overwhelmingly Semitic.

Phoenician settlements on the islands date back to about 1000 B.C. In the ensuing centuries, the Carthaginians, descendants of these Semitic people, continued to occupy the islands. The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, Italians, French and British followed them – all leaving their imprints. It was, however, the Arabs who contributed the most enduring legacy, especially their indelible imprint on the Maltese tongue – a morphologically Arabic language of the North African branch.

In 869 Ahmad ibn ‘Umar, an Arab-Muslim North African prince, occupied Malta for a short time before his forces were expelled. The next year a larger Muslim army under Muhammad ibn Hafagab, the Arab governor of Sicily, occupied the islands, being welcomed by the local Christian inhabitants as a deliverer from the agonizing Byzantine yoke.   Subsequently, the Arabs ruled Malta until 1090 when the Normans defeated them. Under these Germanic conquerors the Christian and Muslims, at first, lived in harmony. However, later, between 1224 and 1250 the Muslims were completely expelled from the country.

The 220 years of Arab rule has left a lasting effect on the country’s way of life. In this period of Malta’s history the islands, known under three names: Malitah – the island’s Roman name – Ghawdex and Chemmuna, enjoyed an unparalleled age of economic affluence, becoming a veritable land of plenty.

The Arab domination of the central Mediterranean and the country’s strategic location made the islands a hub of trade and were instrumental in giving Malta great commercial prosperity. In addition, highly skilled in farming, the Arabs were responsible for the introduction of an advanced system of irrigation techniques, including the waterwheel and animal- powered devices for lifting water from wells. These made possible the widespread cultivation of citrus fruits and cotton – both introduced by the Arabs into the country. An Arab chronicler living in that period wrote: “Malta is rich in everything good… a blessing from God… well populated, with towns and villages, trees and fruits.”

Besides the many economic benefits the Arabs brought to the islands, the advanced culture they carried with them greatly influenced all other aspects of Maltese life. They were tolerant rulers where Christians and Muslims lived in relatively harmony – an important achievement in that epoch of world history. Under the Muslims, known to the Europeans at that time as Moors, the Maltese had their own assembly called gemgha (Arabic jam’iya – an association) composed of both Christians and Muslims under an Arab hakim or governor.

Initially, many of Malta’s Christian inhabitants converted to Islam and adopted numerous facets of Arab culture. As in the Arab lands, poetry flourished. Among others, the Arab poets Abu al-Qasim ibn Ramadan, al-Samiti and Ibn al-Susi became renowned throughout the Muslim world. Remnants of this love for lyricists remain with the country people today. L-ghana (Arabic ghina’ -song), the traditional spontaneous songs of the countryside are no different than the zajal of our times, sung in the Greater Syria area. Strangely, Arab culture on the islands reached its epitome in the 12th century after Roger the Norman had occupied the country. For over a hundred years after the Norman conquest Arabic remained a dominant factor in Maltese society.

Today, from the illustrious Arab-Norman era there are little obvious remains. The only Arab testimonials are found in the walls of Fort St. Angelo in the Grand Harbour and in the walls of the city of Mdina (Arabic madina or city) – re-named from Melita, the capital of Malta during Roman times. Also, some artefacts such as Berber-style pottery and Arab coins are found in the National Museum.

Crowning all the visible remains is the beautiful Majmuna tombstone found while excavating a cemetery at the gates to the town of Rabat (Arabic raba – a quarter of a city). A large marble stone inscribed with Arabic-Kufic-style letters, it carries a sad lament of a grieving Muslim father for the death of his 12 year-old daughter.

However, Arab influenced architectural styles, found in all parts of the islands, are the most important of the perceivable Arab-Muslim legacy. Old churches echo the traditional Arab style of arabesque, pointed arches and tapered columns. The entire interior of St. John’s Co-Cathedral of Mdina is decorated with Arabesque and village churches are usually built in the shape of cubes – an echo of the Kaaba, the Muslim sacred shrine located in the courtyard of the Great Mosque at Mecca.

Malta’s Roman Catholic Church has, over the centuries, assimilated many Arabic/Muslim practices. Instead of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day from minarets, the island’s churches call their faithful to prayer five times a day by the sound of melodious church bells. The Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, has been transformed by the Maltese to Randan, meaning Lent, the Arabic insha’ Allah (if God wills) is the Maltese jekk Alla rieda (if God wills), and like the Muslim news announcers who open their day’s news broadcasts with “In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful”, the Maltese radio station begins the day with “Ave Maria”.

More apparent are the majority of Malta’s towns and cities which still carry their Arabic names. Bahar (sea – from the Arabic baḥr); bir (well – bi’r); gebel (mountain – jabal); ghar (cave – ghar); marsa (harbour – marsan); ramla (sand – raml); ras (cape – ra’s); and wied (valley – wadin) form a part of a great number of place-names on the islands. A few of the other place-names like: Ghajn il-Kbira (the great spring – from the Arabic `ain al-kubra); Gharb (west – gharb); Gharghur (juniper – ‘ar’ar); Gzira (island – jazira); Hagar Qim (standing stone – ḥajar qama); Il-Maqluba (turned upside down – al-maqlub); Mellieha (salt pit – mallaha); Mgarr (cavern – maghar); Migra l-Ferth (stream of joy – majaran al-fara); Mosta (centre –wasa); Munxar (saw – minshar); Nadur (summit – nazir); Sliema (greetings – salam); and Zeytun (olives – zaitun) are totally Arabic appellations.

Above all, the Maltese language is still basically Arabic – the main Arab influence remaining on the islands. It is considered by linguists to be an offshoot of Maghrebine (North African) Arabic. Today’s Maltese travelling in North Africa, especially Tunisia, are able to make themselves fairly well understood.

Maltese has its roots in the Punic dialect of Phoenician, an allied Semitic tongue to Arabic. Hence, after the Arabs occupied the islands their language took over and it quickly became the vernacular of the land. In later centuries, some French, English and noticeably Italian words were added to the vocabulary, but it has remained essentially an Arabic tongue. Its grammatical inflexions and verbal forms remain no different than those of the Arabic Semitic language.

This sample of the language gives one an idea of how Maltese is only an Arabic dialect, not much different than the colloquial of Tunisia. Aghlaq (shut is from the Arabic ghalq); angas ( fewer – naqaṣa); bajd (eggs – baiḍ); barra (outside – barran); dħul (entry – dukhul); fetah (to open – fataḥa); gara (to read –qara’a); gilda (skin – jilda); hobz (bread – khubz); huma (them – huma); ktieb (book – kitab); lbies ( clothes – libs); imar’a (woman – mar’a); moħħ (brain – mukhkh); ragel (man – rajul); sid (master – sayyid); triq (road – ṭariq); weraq (leaves – waraq); and zokkra (sugar – sukkar).

The days of the week and the numbers are Arabic and physically the Maltese are close to Arab types. In parts of the Islands, the country people still refer to themselves as Gharab (‘arab -Arabs). One cannot quarrel with Charles S. Muscat’s words when he writes in his booklet Arab Influence on Malta:

“Even though the Islamic notion of jihad, or `a great effort in behalf of Allah’, especially to spread the culture and religion of Islam, was originally seen by the Maltese as a negative thing, the culture of Malta would not be as rich and unique as it is today without that same Arabic influence. In the words of the Koran, may Allah be praised or in Maltese ‘grazza Allah’ for the Arabic influence.”


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