Arab Heritage in Malta

The history of Malta includes several centuries of Arab presence that were very influential in what its heritage today is, including language, and place names.

History of Arabs in Malta

From 870 CE to 1091 CE, the islands were almost exclusively Muslim by religion and Arab by language. Even after the Norman conquest, a significant Muslim segment in the society remained till the 13th century, since the initial Norman did not converted the population. This is similar to Sicily, where the Normans allowed the Muslims to remain Muslims for some time, and not forced to convert. For example, Al-Idrisi was a Muslim Arab nobleman who worked in the court of Roger, and wrote his geography book and named it The Book of Roger (Al-Kitab Al Rujari الكتاب  الروجري).

Eventually the Muslim presence in Malta ceased to exist, perhaps after it came under the Spanish Empire.  

Language of Malta

Their language remained Arabic though, and their family names remained Arabic, as well as most place names. Being non-Muslims the language slowly drifted to what it is today with heavy influence from Italian and Sicilian.

Why does the Maltese language remain spoken today and not vanish like Arabic in Iberia? I think that the more active suppression of Arabic by the Spanish authorities and the church is to blame here.

Nobility of Malta 

Much of the Maltese nobility have Arabic names referring to place names (Djar = Dar = house, Bneit = Bent = daughter/girl, Benwarrad = Sons/Descendants of Warrad, Gnien = Ganayen = Gardens, Tuffieha = Apple(?), Qajjed = Qa'ed = commander).

Place Names

Also, monuments and place names such as Hagar Qim are Arabic,  in this case a "Stone" in Arabic. Other place names include Mdina (The City), Flifla (pepper), Rabat (camp), Birzebbuga (Bir = well), Gzira (Island or peninsula), Marsa (port), Ghar (cave),  Qala (Fort), Gharb (west), il-Balluta (The oak), Triq (Way/Road), Isqaq (Lane), ...etc. A list of local councils of Malta reveal more.

It is interesting that the Maltese say that Zebbug and Birzebugga are derived from the name for olives,  while there is a town called Zejtun زيتون, which is the Arabic name for olives.

If one looks at the Attard anthem, one can see the extent of Arabic in it which sounds like a north African dialect.

Dissociation from anything Arab

Although the facts are there, some Maltese genealogists go out of their way to affirm that the Maltese are European and Christian, and have nothing to do with Arabs. The author,  Charles Said Vassallo claims descent from Cem, the younger brother of the Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II, who after a period of failed civil war, seeked refuge in Cairo, then Rhodes, then in Europe with the Pope.

This attempt to dissociate the Maltese from Arab influence is similar to the phobia in Iberia in the 1500s and afterwards, from anything to do with Moors and Islam, be it dress, language, customs, taking a bath, circumcision, ...etc.

This is an all too common phenomenon where people would like to stop history at a certain point for their own bias and ignore all other eras in history, religion, language  and culture. 

Closing Anecdote

A common saying in Egypt today is : "Like a call for [Muslim] prayer in Malta زي اللي بيأذن في مالطة", which alludes to the fact that no Muslims are left there, and hence no one will answer the call. This  must be an old saying indeed, given that  this happened many centuries ago.




Stigma and dissociation

Well, for those "some", it is a stigma to be attached to anything Arab. Therefore, they try to dissociate from it by any means. So, they go for it being Phoenecian or something else.

The scholars have agreed that there is no viable hypothesis other than Maltese being derived from Arabic, whether that means a stigma or not.

Another point is confusing linguistics with ethnicity and genetics. They are two separate things, and some people have to mistakenly jump from one to the other automatically. We are talking here about language and culture and nothing else.

On the other hand, you cannot convince a non-believer by quoting verses from something they don't believe in. You have to work on your skills here.

well said. I am maltese and

well said. I am maltese and I have always been taught that maltese is a derivative from arabic. I have never doubted this. Unfortunately many Maltese people hate arabs and in particular muslims. So now that I have become muslim, I am immediately being told that I'm an arab and people act surprised when I speak Maltese! They actually praise me on the intelligence of speaking Maltese! Being a woman, I wear hijab so I'm immediately seen as an arab and people try to convert me to Christianity.

I thank God every day for having given me a soft heart where I always loved the arabic language, ultimately loving the arabic people and finally bringing me to Islam.

Finally we have a beautiful language, I love it with all my heart and whether it has arabic, english, italian or french words in it, I think that all of us should be proud of it and stop trying to eliminate it out of our lives. It is a shame to see so much of our young children being spoken to in English and some of them can hardly write it.


As a Maltese I can say the following:

There may be a reason for Europeans to want to dis-associate themselves from Arabs and that is because of what being an Arab represents to them. Has it occurred to you that this may be equivalent to the reason for Europeans wanting to dis-associate themselves from Slavs/Russians for example?

Dis-association is the automatic corollary of definition. One cannot define ones culture without also defining what is its anti-culture. I do not think there is anything wrong in that. after all do Arabs really want to declare that they are European with all that frivolous and their insatiable taste for unbridled excesses and consumerism? ;)

I somewhat agree

You raise a very good point, and I mostly agree with you.

But dissociation does not have to result from defintion. What you define yourself as may be additive and not exclusive.

For example, most Egyptians today are additively Egyptian, Arab and Muslim. Trying to say that they are Muslims only takes away an important compenent in their identity and culture. Similarly, when some Copts today try to define themselves as non-Arabs is unrealistic, since they are Arab by language and cutlure.

This trap that people fall into is that they see something as mutually exclusive, (if you are A, you cannot be B)by creating a false dichotomy.The fact of the matter is that in history, cutlure and langauge are more complex and one is an intersection of several spheres resulting from the overlap of those.

On the other hand, people tend to reduce complex issues into a simplistic yes/no formula, and shy away from any arguments that requuire in depth analysis. So it is easier to take an either/or approach for most people, contrary to the available evidence.

I somewhat disagree ... to a point

You raise a valid point however your point is applied on general terms and in that sense it is correct. In Malta's case we find ourselves on the border of these two worlds and therefore need to make this distinction more clear than we would otherwise have to. We must say who we are for and who we are not otherwise the border is blurred and we canot afford that.

You may argue that the same should apply therefore for the Kosovars, the Croatians and all those on the eastern border once held by the Ottoman empire. Quite right and look at the result. Can you deny that our solution is more peacefull than all the others that have practiced segregation? Malta like them battled these forces and decided then which side they wanted to be on. This has nothing to do with being Arabic or not in fact a national decision was made not long ago not to side with fascist Italy nothwithstanding that there were quite a substantial number of Italian symphatisers and the national language was then still Italian!

If there is one country that has practiced and understads assimilation it is the Maltese ... it would be a pity if this is not understood and studdied more deeply.

Unfortunatly we are limited by our geography and do not have the luxury that other countries did whereby we can seperate sides ... and maybe that was for the best. The result is a unique identity that accepts a little from everybody :)

Kburi,ghax Malti jien!!.....and why do you care anyway???

To all comments,

Sincerely,As I was reading some of these comments,I could not understand why would a non-maltese person be interested at all to call a Maltese person an Arabic,in this case.Why wouldn't the same people call American people Irish or British since there culture has been build mainly by these people along with others. My job takes me to many different countries around the world,and being a Maltese I get different reactions from people when I introduce myself as being Maltese,some of the questions I am asked are,(Is that part of Italy?are you Arabic? Are you independent?) and so on.Throughout the years I have learned to deal with these questions even before they have been asked.I have no problem with being called Arab,Italian or anything,I have even been mistaken for british many times,since I adopted quite a unique accent through the years,what I know for sure is that I am Maltese and proud of my heritage.My question to anybody calling a national to be another is ,why do you care?...really!

And yeah I surname means flower or blossom in Arabic.

Language, History and culture, not ethnicity

I am not saying the Maltese are Arabs. I am saying that they have Arabic heritage and culture, as evident in the language and history. This is not an ethnic question, which has to be settled by DNA analysis. Other commenters in this thread have expressed other opinions, which I don't support, but they are not mine.

As to why I am curious about this, the short answer is : intellectual curiosity. I am fascinated by the linguistic and historical aspects of it. The sociological aspects of how people define themselves, as X or not-X is also fascinating.

This is the same intellectual curiosity that led Europeans to be interested in the history and languages of other areas (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Meso-America, ...etc.), and to decipher languages that are not their own (Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Egyptian, ...etc.)

One can easily dismiss these efforts, but without them, there will be no science.

PROOF! read on...

Hello everyone. First of all I would like those who have lost there cool.. to cool down & relax.

Secondly it doesnt really matter if the Maltese are ethnically Arabs or not and no matter how long one screams or curses one can not FORCE another to accept a Title or a Race if they (as a people) do not want to.

This is a good discussion, keep it that way.

The Maltese will be Maltese!

What CAN we prove???

1) Geographic Location. Look at Malta, Look north, south, east and west of it.

2) History. We can read it and chronolize it with years, like when the Arabo-Berbers ruled. From that we learn YES Arabs were in Malta, but so were so many others through-out history.

3) Linguistic. We can study the language which it is an Arabic dialect that came from Arabia, modified in North Africa & developed in Sicily, Southern Italy & in Malta itself. It has a large percentage of borrowed vocabulary from Italian (particularly Sicilian) and English. It is the only Semitic language in the world written in the Latin alphabet.

4) DNA. For example geneticist Dr Pierre Zalloua recently found at least 1/3rd of the Maltese have the Semitic Haplogroup "J2" particular to the Phonecians that came out of modern day Lebanon. One third is concidered a extremely high % in any genetic data reading. J2 is highest in the Lebanese, Syrians & Palestinians. Imagine if we test also for Arab haplogroups + Berber haplogroups & added it to Phonecian Semitic Dna it would increase the Middle-eastern/North African Link.

5) Identity. Identity is stronger then all the other points I made. The Maltese do not see themselves as Arabs, nor call themselves Arabs and have a strong identity of being only Maltese. Science of language & genetics would not change identity. If we went around forcing people to accept identities we would need to re-assimilate nearly every individual in the world to a different culture and as soon as we do that and changes occur like inter-marriage we would have to re-assimilate the children based on the stronger dna or language they speak. Which is all quite silly.

So learn from each other, read, accept scientific evidence but do not force identites or titles upon people.

freedom of religion

Sorry for all those muslims here saying that the maltese will be islamic, but that is so not going to happen.

Yes, we the malthese are arabic, but NO we are not muslim (most of us at least).

I take pride that my ancestors stood with the french the english and the spanish and repelled the turkish invasion force! If not, every man, woman and child would have been killed just to make an example. They protected christian faith there, a faith many of the malthese took to heart and just because their arab does NOT mean they have to be islamic because of that!

Im arabic but i am proud to call myself a christian and i look up to the knights of malta and their sacrifice, so please, keep smuck like saying; your arabic so you have to be muslim (or else we kill you!)

I know you want to spread your religion, however the way you do it, even today, is just not right. If you really are a muslim then protest against the beheadings and other attrocities done by muslims nowadays, instead of screaming death and murder because of a few cartoons!

Both christian and muslim are brothers, yet christians have stopped some dark practices of them a long time ago: why can't you guys?

Think about what i said instead of living believing: "everything that allah (the imam in practice) says is the truth so we don't have to think about our own past sins and the suffering some of our believers do and don't speak out against it!"

u r an idiot

we maltese are not arabic!we were and will ALWAYS be maltese (and roman christian). i am offended of u calling me arabic! i am proud to be Maltese!