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.




Genetics of Malta

There is often a quoted study by Zalloua that attempts to link Lebanon and Malta to a common Phoenician origin (G haplogroup).

What this study fails to account for is the Arab components in Lebanese genes. See details here.

Look at the Haplogroup J. It is present in Malta in the form J2. I can't find a source for its frequency there though. For Haplogroup R1b, which is Western European concentrated, it is present in the Maltese (24.9% only). What is the rest?

thanks khalid

Y-Dna haplogroups are found at the following frequencies in Malta : R1 (35.55% including 32.2% R1b), J (28.90% including 7.80% J1), I (12.20%), E (11.10% including 8.9% E1b1b), F (6.70%), K (4.40%), P (1.10%)[20]. J, K, F and E1b1b haplogroups consist of lineages with differential distribution within Middle East, North Africa and Europe while R1 and I are typical in West European populations.

This was a very interesting discussion though thanks khalid and sorry if we sound racist, we've been bred like that. I am not ashamed of arab lineage when we were young we were always thought how much they thought us such as the things mention like irrigation etc. The part about Hannibal being born in Malta was veery interesting but then I wonder why we rebelled against chartage and invited the romans to take over.

thx khalid it was an interesting debate

Well anyway. Maltese people are said to be of italian stock, then there is that study by the lebanese. these are the genetics information I found
Y-Dna haplogroups are found at the following frequencies in Malta : R1 (35.55% including 32.2% R1b), J (28.90% including 7.80% J1), I (12.20%), E (11.10% including 8.9% E1b1b), F (6.70%), K (4.40%), P (1.10%)[20]. J, K, F and E1b1b haplogroups consist of lineages with differential distribution within Middle East, North Africa and Europe while R1 and I are typical in West European populations.
go to the section genetics.
Anyway sorry if we sounded a bit racist we were bred like that , very anti arabic/anti islamic.

The part about Hannibal being born in Malta and called al barca (il berqa) lightning was very interesting and I can associate with that, in maltese culture we always call someone who is very fast as berqa (lightning). hannibal was a great leader and almost wrecked the roman empire. But I'm still confused as to that past of history since then I know Malta rebelled against chartage and invited the Romans over.
Again sorry if we sounded racist khalid

You cant deny...

.... that many people in Malta, especially the south have similar looks to Middle East/Arabic people.
Having lived and worked all over the middle east, then arriving in Malta, I noticed not just the language similarities but also the way many people look. Language can be manipulated, genetics cant. I think they should do a mass DNA screening for the whole island so everyone can see where their blood comes from. I think allot of people will be shocked!

Saliba Name

Just would like to tell that I'm Arab from palestine and we have in palestine a well known family called "Saliba". to be fare Arab have never had a dominating culture, it was islamic culture, for the record Tareq Bin Ziyad who has made spain part of the islamic empire and was not arab!! and most of his army were not too. they were amazegh (barbarian)...this is fact, Arab culture was just a small part of the islamic culture and was the language of islam and can see now that in turkish language 30% of it has Arabic roots, the same you will find in Iran, India and so many other countries. this was the effect of the local people in those vountries converting to islam then speaking the language of islam then the new muslim language (Arabic) became part of their identity and origional language. everybody have a great day.

maltese is almost an italian dialect

The maltese are mostly descendants of Italy. Most of the population are descendants of exiled Italians. They had to assimilate with the existing population of Malta by learning the existing language so ofcourse a lot of the language remained. But most of the culture is almost identical to Sicilian. All you have to look at is the cuisine, the religion and so many words and family names to know that this place doesn't have much arab influence left. The people look italian too. Remember just like Sicily the Arabs all got kicked out which is why their population numbers dwindled back then, and it was very much Italianised. The only arab influence left is abuot 40% of the words. Thats it! Im sick of hearing ppl calling this place arab by siteing a few rough translations of arabic. Not mention they have a latin alphabet. In essence an arab would find Maltese totally illegible. I can give u some italian/sicilian ones if that will make u happy.


anyone would think this is just another dialect of italian/sicilian.


This is evidence of borrowing which is not surprising given that so many centuries has passed.

English today has a lot of words from French in it. This does not mean that English is a Romance language descended from Latin. It is more associated with Germanic than with Romance, but still has a lot of Romance in it.

Same for Maltese. It is Arabic in substrate, with Italian borrowing coming later.

yes u are right its language

yes u are right its language does borrow a lot from arabic. But Engligh is called English, not German or French, and same with Maltese - its a totally developed separate language like English. To add to this, Maltese is written in a latin form which really dismisses a lot of this argument that it is arabic. It's Not!

Being Italian i can read a lot of the languauge and understand it. I dare say that soemone from an arabic background who reads from a totally different alphabet wouldn't!

And this thread is about heritage. If we were to take language out of the picture, there really isn't much that arabs can claim of Malta in this current age.

The name of the language is

The name of the language is not as important as its vocabulary and grammar.

The script is irrelevant: Urdu, Farsi and Ottoman Turkish were all written in Arabic letters, but none of them is even in the same language family as Arabic. In fact, Hebrew is closer to Arabic than any of the above examples, yet it has a totally different script. Do not confuse the script (written form) with the language (spoken form). They are different things. So Maltese being written in Latin does not making it Arabic.



interesting thing I noticed the use of the word Shayla to be specific to the Gulf region. Can anyone please confirm it?

Interesting ... in Maltese Xalla means a veil as well ...

The Italian version has nothing to do with head or body scarves even though there is a southern derivative, it means more like "relax":

So che Scialo nei dialetti del sud Italia indica il divertimento, la tranquillità "Ahieri ma SCIALAI" Ieri me la sono spassata.... Secondo me è deriva da quello. L'etimologia la devi quindi cercare tra parole analoghe spagnole o arabe... a occhio e croce