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What is the Origin of the Word "Arab?"

posted on: Nov 29, 2021

What does the word "Arab" mean?
(Ancient map of the Arabian Peninsula)
Photo: Pinterest

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

The Arab world has a rich and diverse history that spans several centuries and has contributed to many advances in culture, technology, and other facets of our modern world.  However, one of the most interesting and least discussed topics is where their name comes from.  Where and when does the name Arab originate from and does it have any meaning other than that of an ethnic group? There is a lot of debate and controversy regarding the origins of the name Arab as many people from different parts of the world have competing theories. We will attempt to break down the most popular theories from Assyrian, Arab, and Hebrew origins.

Assyrian Origins:

What does the word "Arab" mean?
(Illustration of the Battle of Qarqar)
Photo: Ancient History Encyclopedia

One of the most popular theories of the origin of the word Arab comes from the Assyrians.  According to DBpedia.org, the reason why many people believe this word originates with the Assyrians is that they recorded the oldest inscription of the word that refers to this distinct ethnic group.  They wrote the word on a cuneiform tablet to describe a victory achieved by the Assyrians against king Gindibu. This supposed victory, more of a draw, occurred during the year of 853 B.C.E. at the battle of Qarqar during the reign of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.E.).  The battle of Qarqar was one where Gindibu was part of a defensive alliance with twelve other kings in the region of the Levant to halt Assyrian expansion.  In the commemoration of the Assyrian “victory” against Gindibu, they refer to him as the ruler of “mâtu arbâi” which means the ruler of Arab lands according to enacademic.com.  The word Arab itself may have something to do with the geographical position of these “Arab lands” in relation to Assyria because the term Arab may come from the Assyrian root of gh-r-b which in their language means west.  This theory would make sense given the geographical perspective as the kingdom of Gindibu was towards the west of the Assyrian Empire.  Subsequently, Arab lands would really mean western lands, and Arabs would really mean people who live towards the west or westerners.  This would be of similar origin to the European usage of Saracen, which was a loose and derogatory term used by crusaders to describe the Muslim people of the Middle East. It is possible that Saracen could have derived from the Arabic language to refer to easterners or the people living to the east of them, šarqiyyūn. Additionally, the word Arabia, with the suffix “ia” meaning land, would mean the land of Westerners.  

Hebrew Origins:

The term Arab could also have its origins in the Hebrew language and not the Assyrians.  According to enacademic.com, the word could then come from the words “arav” or “aravi” with the meanings of these words being desert or grassland.  This term would also make sense since the region of the Arabian peninsula and the wider Arab World have environments dominated by these two ecosystems. The term “arav” and eventually Arab could then be extended to mean desert dwellers or people who live in the desert.  The term has been used by Hebrews in the feminine form “Aravah” or “Arabah” to refer to the land ruled by the Nabateans, the people who built their famous capital at Petra in Jordan.  The term, Arav, has also been seen in the Hebrew Bible where they were listed as the kings of Arav who were one of the many rulers who paid tribute to King Solomon.  In conclusion, the term, Arab, could come from the Hebrew meaning of Arav which would make the definition of the word Arabia mean the land of the desert dwellers.  However, despite both of these theories it is still not proven if the word Arab comes from these two sources as it might come from somewhere else or even the Arabic language itself. 

History of the Word/Meaning in the Arabic Language:

 In many Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic, the root of ‘-r-b could have given rise to the word Arab with ‘-r-b having a meaning close to nomadism or moving around, while another Semitic origin for the word could have something to do with the sunset or west, like the Assyrians according to enacademic.com.  In Arabic, the word may also originate from the term i’rab which means a clear or correct mode of speech, in contrast to ajam which means unclear.  Many Bedouins still use this term today where they refer to people that they can understand, people who speak Arabic, as Arabs while those who they cannot understand as Ajam.  There have also been references to the word Arab meaning Bedouins, this can be read in the Quran where a plural form of the word Arab has been used a number of times to refer to the Bedouins.   However, some people have stated that the term Arab refers to the descendants of Ya’rub ibn Qahtan who was considered the first to speak Arabic and that the word Arab refers to his descendants.  With all of these different origins of the word “Arab”, there is still an ongoing debate as to where the word originated.  However, in its current form, some might say that the term “Arab” refers to people who speak the Arabic language or who are from an Arab heritage and culture. Despite popular misconceptions, the term Arab is not synonymous with the term Muslim or Middle Eastern.  Arabs can come from a variety of religions such as Christianity and only 20 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab.  Most of the world’s Muslims are actually from Indonesia and South Asia and not the Arab World as some people would believe.  Today there are millions of people around the world who consider themselves Arab who share a similar history, cultural practices, and a name.  

What does the word "Arab" mean?
(Distribution of the Arab population around the world)
Photo: Wikipedia

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