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.





Saliba صليبة is derived from Arabic for : cross صليب.

The name is still used in some Arab countries (mainly in the Levant) among Christians.

Arabs in Malta

The article is somewhat simple, childlike in its understanding of the complexity of the history of Malta, its people and the Maltese language.

Yes Maltese, Malti is semitic derived from the people who spoke a North African version of Arabic. Not many would deny that. North African Arabic is not understandable by speakers of Modern Standard Arabic. It should gain its own status as a language rather than as a dialect. The version of North African Arabic that come to Malta can from Sicily, it was a form of Siculo-Arabic. Malti is twice removed from Arabic by its derivation from North African Arabic base and as used in Sicily. Without the Romance and other non semitic words in Malti, it would not be understood by any Arabic speakers even from North Africa.

The Maltese history goes a lot further back than the brief advent of the Arabs from the 7th century. There are buildings in Malta that are older than the pyramids or Stonehenge in England. The Phoenicians and other ancient peoples were in Malta. The "Arabs" were just one of many foreigners who sojourned in Malta.

Maltese people have taken a foreign tongue, the Siculo-Arabic of Sicily, changed it and made it their own. It owes nothing to Arabic or Sicilian or Italian. It is its own language.

As for religion, the people of Spain, Sicily and Malta were Christians before the muslims came to their countries and have returned to that religion. It is interesting that most of the muslim world in the Middle East and Turkey were once Christian like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Arabic and Islam are not even Middle Eastern but belong to a small part of the Arabian Peninsula.

I'd like to structure this

I'd like to structure this systematically, so sorry if it sounds a bit impersonal
Firstly, 'arab' is not the same as 'arabic-speaking'. Most arabic speaking people of today are not genetically arab. So southern Italy is not different in this; they were not arabs genetically of course - at least not most of them - but they adopted arabic as a language and so came to be known as arabs - like everyone else who did so

Secondly people speaking arabic dialects are almost certain to understand modern standard arabic - even if not fully. The difference is a bit like english now and shakespearean though not even as severe as that. It is not by any means another language - we understand even each others dialects if we speak slowly, and can choose not to say certain local nouns and speak normally to each other. And in fact what I've read of the maltese language's arabic content is closer to standard arabic (افصح لغةً) than normal egyptian arabic.

Nobody is trying to say malta is ONLY arab, same as no-one said that egypt is ONLY arab. What this article is highlighting is that the links with arabic are greater than most people would realise, due to historic reasons.

Maltese is NOT a dialect of arabic of course, but not because its structure has changed. In fact the structure is close to being exactly the same. What makes it its own language is that there are so many loanwords.

Islam and Christianity are not by any means a measure of where someone's from. They are divine religions, and so can be found around the world. There has also been in the mediterranean region a tolerance between the two religions which people overlook due to the occasional intolerance. So let's leave that out.

im sry to dissappoint u but

im sry to dissappoint u but LEBANON is still christian!! not for long maybe but Lebanon is still a christian country with a majority muslim population living in Lebanon.but outside of lebanon christian lebs have a majority of atleast 3:1

Influences on the Maltese language

Whilst neither an academic nor capable of fluent Maltese owing to an upbringing and lifetime spent outside of Malta, simple observation of language, attitudes and often cultural activities increasingly convinces me that although our bloodlines have been broadened over the generations by the inputs of Normans, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and as in my case Bavarian(German)let alone the British and to a much lesser extent British Colonial subject nations, especially Egyptian and Chinese a small colony of whom existed until very recently in the naval dock area, fundamentally in our language and family names traces of arab/aramaic remain. I recall that following a recent popular film 'The Life of Christ' in which much of the script was aramaic, a number of village Maltese said they preferred listening to the soundtrack rather than reading the English sub-titles. Once whilst in Bahrain I got into conversation with a group of Iraqi's from a district in the Upper Euphrates and felt able to understand much of what they said in their dialect. (Incidentally could the 'Dilmun' of Bahrain have any connection with the 'Delmon' of Malta?) I had similar experiences in Khor Fakkan and Fujeirah in the 1970's. Abdulmoisin Al-Mutlaq from Eastern Province Saudi Arabia, whom I knew well and who knew a number of Maltese then living in The Kingdom, strongly believed Maltese was heavily influenced by dialects still current in parts of Lebanon, Syria and Northern Iraq. On an entirely separate but perhaps historically interesting track, in the 1920's my father visited fishing villages in South Wales (UK), probably Pembroke. Using his Maltese he was both understood and able to communicate with the fishermen. He recalled they said he was the first 'outsider' ever to do so. They claimed to be the descendents of 'Mediterranean Traders' so perhaps at least in the confines of language at least there could perhaps be some truth in believing Near and Middle Eastern dialectic influences remain strong in isolated outposts such as Malta where for the vast majority of it's indigenous people travel outside of their homeland was impossible till well into the 20th. century.


i happen to have come to this website for my maltese projetc and its awsome gdjob

Christian Arabic Terminology and Maltese

Dear Sir,
maltese semitic religious terminology resembles has many in common to christian arabic(ex qassis,raheb,qrar,tqarbin,titlit,xbin,dejr,isqof,knisja,Ghid il-Milied etc) although some muslim influence such as the words Randan, Ghasar and possibly Gilwa can also be found.
As you may be aware Arab speaking christians are a diverse group.
It would be interesting if someone makes a profound study of our religious terminology.


Very informative

Thanks for a very informative comment.

Here are the Arabic equivalent for some of them:

qassis = قسيس = priest
raheb = راهب = monk/hermit
titlit = تثليث = trinity
dejr = دير = monastery
isqof = أسقف = bishop
knisja = كنيسة = church
Ghid il-Milied = عيد الميلاد = birthday / Christmas

I can't tell what qrar means. Tqarbin is perhaps derived from qurban (sacrifice), but Iam not sure exactly what it refers to in Maltese.
Khalid Baheyeldin

Christian Arabs are NOT a

Christian Arabs are NOT a diverse group! The possible exception is the Copts of Egypt who claim to be descended from ancient pharaonic peoples but who, themselves were also of Semitic stock.

Very interesting dialogue.

Very interesting dialogue. well done

May I put some comments, I classify myself as an amateur history enthusiast, who in my spare time try to reach for an answer shared by many who are we Maltese?

First to the surname Saliba very recently Prince Charles went to Turkey and on the border with Syria met a local Christian Bishop named Saliba, he was one of the dwindling Christian Armenian residents in that part.

First we must tackle why there were not any cemetries found from the arabic period? these cannot be destroyed as evidence is that Muslims enjoyed freedom under the Normans.

Secondly I agree with certain native historian that for a long period after the defeat of the Byzantines by the Arabs, Malta was depopulated, certain Arab historian of that time said that Malta was a place for vessels to call and rest,before completing their journey home and a hiding place for some escapees. To note in the west part of the island we have a valley called wied ir-Rum. This is in no way in relation with alcoholic Rum, but Arab lords refered to the Greeks by that name as ancient Romans i.e Byzantines.

Arab advances through the North African littoral pushed peoples from eastern mediteranean who accepted the new religion and fought for the common cause as allies to the arabs, thus can that be that people who inhabited Malta were in fact from the Lebanon/Syria area in the late 9th century.

To the question of us Maltese wheter now in 2008 what is our genetic relation, The answer is that after the Great siege Maltese population was increased by huge numbers from Christian Europe see the most common surnames and even the not so common ones. The magority is of Sicilian, Italian,Spanish,Greek, Jewish, Lebanese/Syrian Christian,some portion of French,German,Slav and very recent addition(last colonial rule) British. the latter surnames account to 7-8% of the population, and believe it or not a lot of Italian surnames came in the British period due to the upheavals of the 1800's in the peninsuila.

My answer is that if there was some arabic blood in the beggining it was overwhelmed by intermarriages from the European additions in the centuries that followed, not to forget that the first so called arab invaders were themselves the fruit of intermarriages of overwhelming allies who accepted the new religion.Another observation is that our forefathers were intellegent enough to keep to their tongue and accept or loan some new words and phrases from the incoming settlers, as a detterent from total submission to new rulers,wheter they come from the North or the South.