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.




a little comment

hey there! I'm another maltese saliba (although I'm born in egypt, my father was maltese and that's why i have the maltese nationality)I live now in france. I'm also very interested in knowing more about my family's geanalogy... you can find very little information on wikipedia

the family name saliba is

the family name saliba is very common between lebanese christians

The Maltese are not Arabs

Relatively recently Maltese geneticist prof. Felice together with other scientists from around the Mediterranean has attested some important statements that should be mentioned here. First, that basically the Maltese are predominantly of Southern Italian heritage and secondly that there is no significant genetic input from North Africa. Unfortunately The Times of Malta does not keep a public and free version of older past editions online, if anyone is interested they're invited to do their own research.

What should be said is that it shouldn't be excluded that when the Saracens ruled Malta, they effectively brought about changes in names and surnames on the local population (particularly, surnames weren't in use in those days, but nicknames probably were). This is my hypothesis, yet most modern historians attest that Saracen Malta was in fact barely inhabited and the contemporary Maltese population is a result of post-Saracen migration to Malta from Europe.

What is not thought nowadays, speaking of the Maltese psyche, is British cultural manipulation which sought the further arabisation of the Maltese language in their official process termed "deitalianisation of the Maltese" which was kickstarted in the 19th century and proceeded way into the 20th century as part of British geopolitical and imperialist plans. This is all black on white in official British reports such as the 19th century Keenan Report, which in order to aid the deitalianisation and anglicisation of the Maltese the removal of any non-Arabic element in the Maltese language was sought as part of the plans. Prior to such self-serving British plans, no Maltese would have ventured to say that the Maltese are in any way Arabs as he would have been taken for a fool (as should anyone doing the same nowadays).

Historically, it is attested that Saracen Malta was not heavily populated and that most modern Maltese actually found their way on the islands after Saracen rule. Moreover, under Spaniard rule the remaining Muslims were expelled. This was around the 15th. century, a century which saw what Maltese historians occasionally term the "forgotten siege", where around 18,000 Saracens under the leadership of Kaid Ridavan invaded Malta to be resisted and defeated by the Maltese themselves. A similar fate happened to the Ottomans and their Saracen allies in the 1565 Great Siege of Malta. Our forefathers proved by shedding blood they did not want to be Arabic. Today we're passed that, but we shall not accept being considered Arabic and that should be because we aren't, and not because of any disrespect towards Arabs (though I won't attempt to fool anyone, Arabs unfortunately are looked down by much of the common folk in Malta even though this is controlled).

This Arab association is exclusively the product either of people who mistake a minor influence from a major one (the Arabic) or the political manipulations of the British Empire which in the process of "deitalianisation" sought to "anglicise" and further "arabise" the Maltese (always in order to deitalianise a people having an essentially Italic culture as attested by official British documents and an early Encyclopedia Britannica itself) or even worse the pro-Arab babble of a certain Dom Mintoff and his fellow supporters who rarely know much about history and culture and whom have been easily hoodwinked repeatedly as long as social services kept flowing in.

No one denies an Arabic influence, Maltese nationalists of old used to say bluntly that the "Maltese language" was essentially an "Arabic dialect" but they, rightly, never accepted the notion that the Maltese were Arabic. Before anyone, Arab or "Maltese", speaks about our history they should know that most Maltese barely know their history as a primary result of British imperialism and general popular carelessness in the fields is corrupted and was never mended. Sacaren rule persisted in other parts of Europe moreso than in Malta, they have little problems with identity yet the Maltese have it due to British manipulations of it. The history of Malta, as always stated by Maltese nationalists, went hand in hand with that of Sicily, excluding when the British came about and legally usurped the islands through power politics from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The history of Malta also includes rejection of any affiliation with the Arabs as far as identity goes and not to mention military resistance to repeated invasion and piracy in days that, God be praised, are gone by. Some must face it, the Arabic association is at most an "exotic" association, the true strong ethnic links of the Maltese are with nearby Sicily and Italy, this being something the British openly and officially sought (with relevant success) to eliminate in the Maltese psyche.

Stop trying to make Arabs out of us, we're Maltese. Stop trying to do so, especially if you're Arabs. You'd discover two things if you continue, that the general historically ignorant Maltese populace would dislike you even more, and secondly you'd lose the respect that historically knowledgable Maltese try to accord you but will fail to do so if you keep on muddling our history. The Maltese are so not Arabs that when my grandparents used to live in Alexandria in the early decades of the 20th century they ended up expelled with other Europeans during the Suez Canal affair.

Refer to the above genetic, professional and academic article by geneticist prof. Alexander Felice and to the history and consistent attitude of the Maltese throughout the ages. Most Maltese surnames are in fact of Romance origin, and if one delved into Maltese surnames though the ages one would further find that many more Italian sounding surnames disappeared in Malta probably due to mixture into other families through marriage. What was attempted in the past is not was rather an arabisation, so much so that even during the rule of the Knights of Malta a particular individual tried to give a semitic origin to every Maltese native surname in a work that is the laughing stock of any serious researcher in the field, British imperial cultural policy and Mintoffian yearn for good relation with Libya (mostly to get some economic benefit out of it, such as oil) also sought to push forward the idea of the Maltese as Arabs. That is either ignorance or deception.

I write this with no ill feeling towards Arabic heritage, culture or civilisation, I just find it absolutely incorrect if not low to try to associate the Maltese with the Arabs because we are not the latter, and we have been in this identitarian trouble mostly thanks to the British empire which muddled our identity with such notions as "Maltese = Arabs" and other even more ridiculous notions as the "Punic Thesis". The latter thesis in fact used in the deitalianisation process as a sort of glorious and non-Arabic, albeit semitic, strategem which was rejected by Maltese nationalists opposed to such process whom particularly stated that Maltese was an Arabic dialect and condemned its anti-Arabic usage to fool the ignorant sections of the Maltese population, obviously the same Nationalists would never have accepted the equation "Maltese = Arabs" and neither would any Maltese with a decent grip of the questions involved.

And to Norman Saliba, remember that Saliba denotes a Christian heritage, moreover in a book on Maltese surnames that you can find in Malta it is also held that that surname was associated with European Christian slaves under the Muslim yoke, I stress the fact that surnames were not so common and were definitely not so during the Saracen rule over Malta (which by the way, came about after repeated sieges against Byzantine Malta, Byzantine Malta was there for 500 years, yet Saracen Malta was for far less). To Norman Saliba again, remember that the Normans liberated Malta from Arabic domination and returned it to where it belonged, Southern Europe. Your name doesn't really speak so much of an Arabic connection, but rather the opposite!

maltese are berber

the maltese are berber and speak a berber/ arabian language with english words. however they are ashamed to associate themselves with anything berber, arabic or islamic or eastern because they rely heavily on britain and their awarded special position.
you can compare them to the druze of israel, who stopped calling themselves arab or muslim in order to get a special status by israel. however whenever you have to talk to a druze you have to use arabic. druze also use the koran and their brothers in syria and lebanon do call themselves arab and muslim.

look dude, we Maltese are NOT

look dude, we Maltese are NOT berber! we were Maltese and will be Maltese till the END!! How can you critiseze when you are not even Maltese! critiseze YOURSELF!! yes we Maltese have a language that is similar to arabic, but it doesn't mean we are berber or arabic!! our language is similar to aranic, but that is because of history, arabics spent about 400 years in Malta! soo like duhh! how can they not effect our language! we take pride in our European relations,and we don't pretend to be something we are not! how dare you compare us with the druze! get off your high horse idiot! we are NOT arabs! We are MALTESE! BIG differance between arabs an MALTESE! and our language does not contain only traces of english and arabic , but also italian, french and spanish! get your facts right befor you post any stupidities!!

Mind your language

Stop the name calling and respond in a respectful manner, or your comments will be deleted from the site.

Look DUDE!!!!!!!!!!!

Look DUDE!!!!!!!!!!! Evidently you hate yourself, Maltese are only considered European cause of poilitical events, but we're not European really, more Middle Eastern, if that bothers you then you have a problem!!!!!!! Maltese comes from Siluco-Arabic which is spoken in Sicily as well, we're christians yes, there are Christians in the Middle East, that's where Christianity came from, we all have most arabic last names, our cities have some arabic names, and pur features!!!! HELLO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks for the clarification

Thank You for the clarification, i figured you are all from the Mediterranean region.
Yes, there are christians in the middle east in several countries on the mediterranean.
Thanks Carlos for your kind input and generosity. It appears to me he may very well be a racist and pride himself on European race. It's sort of funny, especially his gramar.


Hi I find the argument interesting but some of it I don't agree with...there are many close/similar words in maltese and arab more than you are mentioning in fact in a maltese can probably converse with an arab..the arabs talks faster..the maltese slower so I tell them to talk slowly but many words are similar not just the words zebbug bir..zejtun (zejt(zejtun) means oil in maltese by the way) kelb dog..let me just name a few words and maybe theyre the same..colors (ahmar red isfar yellow roza pink (this is probably romantic italian word) iswed black..imxi..walk ejja come isma listen etc etc
Much of our language is semantic..another point ..yes you are right we were brainwashed when we were young there was a stigma against arabs in malta..consider malta is small 400,000 people now..there were many arab nationals bringing in drugs in malta ...all the time libyans ..moroccons the people started hating them and whenever you mentioned arab it was like something bad our parents thought us this yes..not out of hate for arabs as you think ..but out of hate becuase they were all the time bringing in drugs kilos of heroine which were killing that generation of youths. Nowadays you still see on newspaper in malta. Libyan with drugs in his shoe sole etc. The maltese not knowing that there is a difference and that not all arabs are libyans did not distinguish...when the drugs stopped the stigma against arabs stopped also..but lately it is rising again becuase of terrorism seems when people are afraid xenophobia follows after. Me myself I can't say that I hate arabs they are ok I guess as long as I know they don't mean me or malta harm. An arab I don't like is Gadafi who was saying islam will take over europe..I hope moderate arabs understand that europeans and maltese want friendly dialogue with arabs but want to remain christian..we want to drink alcohol ;p haha and have sex basically hehe it's a different culture.
Anywayz take care and peace from Malta.

dude You all Maltese are arabs

hey malti,
The maltese language is pour arabic & its not mixed language as you said i tell you why
For Example
Ha nahxik f-sormok thats an arabic & U Maltese Converted to Ha nifakjak f-sormok Thats Not english Not Arabic but its Very Stupid Maltese language.
Read Your History well DUDE.