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.




Arabs in Malta

I have enjoyed reading the article Arab Heritage in Malta as it does make sense, especially the aside as to those who would for their reasons try to hide their rooths, as useless as looking for pomegranates on a vine. The old saying in Egypt about a call for prayers in Malta is now no longer valid. Malta welcomes all religions of peace, and Islam is a religion of peace as much as Judaisim and Christianity. It is only the egoisim of man which warps the word of God, from love to hate. May may hear the Word and repent.

Very good article.Good

Very good article. Good point about Maltese "nationalists" and their attempts to disassociate Malta from Arabic history. A quick look at some posters in the "Talk Page" of the Wikipedia article on the Maltese langauge, confirms this. I believe there are even some who want to change the language and adopt Italian or English instead.

Thank you

Firstly I'd like to thank Charles Said Vassallo (as mentioned in you article) for the link to this article.

As an amateur family genealogist and having the family name of "Saliba" amongst other Arabic family names in my tree, I often wondered why there were so few links to the mainland families who shared the same family names?

When looking at more recent accounts of Maltese history, the changes made by the medieval rulers to erase the previous culture, make perfect sense, as does the changes made by the population to accommodate the new masters?

More often than not people do what they can to get by?

Contemporary enlightened society does not tend to be as extremist as it was in the past (although there are exceptions every where) and I am sure that there would be many Maltese genealogists that would be excited about a new extension to their family?
I certainly would be more than happy to have distant Arab/Muslim cousins.

Old habits (and prejudices) die hard though and in past generations the Muslim (Arab/Turk) phobia is some thing that was taught from a young age, becoming a fundamental of the Maltese psyche, so of course you will find those who resist, even today.

As an example there is an old Maltese poem that I recall, when interpreted says: When it rains while the sun shines another Turk of Mohammed (Muslim) has been converted to Christianity. (There is also a more common proverb that has a Turk just being born.)

There are many more that we inherited, probably since the time of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.

He is a link to an article written by Karl Mifsud and published 2006 about the surprising outrage created in 2000 by folklore expert Dr Gorg Mifsud Chircop (who passed away last month) at a conference when he spoke of the derogatory way that the Prophet Mohammed has been referred to in Maltese folklore (as you may guess the content maybe a little offensive to Muslims).

I still find it absurd that there are so many obvious and comprehensive Arab influences throughout Malta and it’s people and yet there is so little admitted to, it is like to proverbial elephant standing in the corner of the room that no one wants to see?

Very informative

Thank you a very informative and pleasant comment.

Yes, it is amazing that Arabic is still recognizable in Malta after all these centuries. I continue to be amazed by the terms in Malta.

The other day, I came across the Pharaoh hound which is the native breed of dog in Malta. The name is "Kelb tal-Fenek". Kelb is the same in Arabic كلب but it is pronounced Kalb. The plural form is "Klieb", and in standard Arabic it is كلاب "Kilab". The Maltese pronunciation would be identical to bedouin dialects used today in North Africa (e.g. tribes West of Alexandria in Egypt, Libya, ...etc.). Very interesting.

What is more amazing is that the Arab dialect that Maltese derived from, still in use in present day Malta, goes back maybe 10 centuries. It looks very similar to present day North African dialects. This means that Arabic has undergone a quick transformation from its native homeland circa 7th century, to 10th century, then the rate of change of the dialects in that regions that remained Arab (and Muslim) slowed down ...

As for your name, Saliba, it is interesting. The name is still used in Lebanon/Syria/Palestine among native Arab Christians. "Salib صليب" means "Cross". Its use in Malta means that it was introduced after conversion of the population from Islam to Christianity.

Thanks again.
Khalid Baheyeldin

Well how do you explain the

Well how do you explain the surname Saliba among muslim Lebanese?

Few months ago evidence has been shown in a public speech in Valletta that Malta was still Christian throughout arab rule. This is parallel to the evidence that the Maltese [direct decendants of Phoenicians] still lived in Malta during arab occupation. Sure, they may have been heavily taxed by the arabs which were assisted by jews who were the tax collectors. THIS IS OUR HISTORY AND ONE CANNOT DENY THE WRITTEN AND GENETIC EVIDENCE.

When Malta fell under Norman rule [allies of Roman Catholic Church] they embraced the Maltese [who were alligned to the eastern Christians] within the Roman Catholic church.

Regarding language, why should arabic be more important than any other Semitic language? Maltese has decended from the Phoenician language before arabic became the official islamic language.

Maltese has been derived from the common Mediterranean language. It was spoken in all Mediterranean for thousands of years even though the Romans attempted to Latinize the Mediterranean.

Maltese language is still related to the orriginal language which arrived from Lebanon but one can find a relation also with egyptian as much as the later derived arabian language.

One has to understand that people [Phoecians] traded throughout the Mediterranean and for trade to be successful LANGUAGE HAD TO BE COMMON for a common understanding. So where would you find such purity of language except in the orrigins [Lebanon], the hub of trade [Malta], the centre of power [Charthage] and the trading country into the African continent [Egypt] who was the link between Phoenicians and those in Central Africa.

So one can only give credit to who deserves it and for sure we Maltese cannot let our identity be trampled upon by any other nation who is fundemantalistic and forgot what happened before the year 600AD.

Please don't offend my intelligence!

Saliba Muslim?

Is this another example of "let us deny any link to Arabic"?

Are you saying that the name Saliba is Phoenician AND predates Christianity? Wow ...

Saliba among Muslims too? That would be really odd. Among Christians, yes, it derives from Salib, which is the Arabic word for cross. The family name Salib is also present among Christian Copts.

there is no Saliba muslim

there is no Saliba muslim family name in Lebanon !! the Saliba family is totally christian!!!

BRAVO! Oh I loved what you

BRAVO! Oh I loved what you had to say about the phoenicians and that the language goes back way, way, before the arab rule. Also Malta prehistory even out dates the Egyptians once again bravo!

Cheers Perth ....


My Friend

Please read some history.

The Phoenicians come from Arabia, all historians will tell you the same.

Being an Arab is a culture, not a race, it's based on the language, " he who speaks Arabic is an Arab"

Was Hannibal a Phoenician? Yes, his ancestors came from Phoenicia. What was his last name? Barka, otherwise in Arabic derived from Bark, meaning "Lightning"

It is a myth that Phoenicians are somehow different genetically from the Arabs of the Arab Peninsula. They are the same.

Arabs can be Christians, Muslims, Jews, anything. A Lebanese by the name of Saliba is simply an Arab who is a Christian, that's all.


Hi all

Although we Maltese have an ingrained hate of all things Arab we cannot hide from the fact that there is probably not a single Maltese who does not have some Arab in him/her.
I have lived in Libya married to a Libyan now for forty years and have come to realize that the Maltese nature, the way we think and behave, is so similar to the Arab way that we could be one of the counties in an Arab country. I think it is about time that we all accept this and move forward.