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.




Maltese are not arab

For those Arabs that try to find commonality with Maltese is just as pathetic as those Maltese that try to find commonality with Europeans.

The reality is each isnow so far removed that the identity is clear albeit very common with the mediterranean. How the language survived and its real roots is very interesting. I would appreciate an arabic perspective of the oldest known Maltese verses of il Cantelina. Please do read it before lloking at the actual english translation and see how much of it you can actually understand. The funny thing is I as a Maltese can barely understand it:

Original orthography
This is the text of the Cantilena in the original orthography:

Xideu il cada ye gireni tale nichadithicum
Mensab fil gueri uele nisab fo homorcom
Calb mehandihe chakim soltan ui le mule
Bir imgamic rimitne betiragin mucsule
Fen hayran al garca nenzel fi tirag minzeli
Nitla vu nargia ninzil deyem fil bachar il hali.

Huakit hi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Mectatilix mihallimin me chitali tafal morchi
fen timayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
vackit hi mirammiti.

Huakit by mirammiti Nizlit hi li sisen
Mectatilix li mihallimin ma kitatili li gebel
fen tumayt insib il gebel sib tafal morchi
Huakit thi mirammiti lili zimen nibni
Huec ucakit hi mirammiti vargia ibnie
biddilihe inte il miken illi yeutihe
Min ibidill il miken ibidil i vintura
haliex liradi ’al col xibir sura
hemme ard bayad v hemme ard seude et hamyra
Hactar min hedann heme tred mine tamara.

Modern orthography
Maltese orthography was not standardised until the 20th century; there were many variant spelling conventions in texts written before this time.

here's a table with the letter equivalents of modern maltese sounds

għ = ﻉ ʻayn but silent mostly elongates the following vowel
ħ = ﺡ ḥ very brief though as in 'help'
h = silent slightly elongates the following vowel
x = ﺵ sh as in ship
z = ﺯ as in zebra
j = ﺝ as in yellow
ie = a vowel, but a long ij
ż = ﻅ tz or ts
ġ = as in george
g = as get

e.g. a’ = the ’ signifies a dropped għ

In modern orthography, the text would be:

Xidew il-qada, ja ġirieni, talli nħadditkom,
Ma nsab fil-weri u la nsab f’għomorkom
Qalb m’għandha ħakem, sultan u la mula
Bir imgħammiq irmietni, b’turġien muħsula,
Fejn ħajran għall-għarqa, ninżel f’taraġ minżeli
Nitla’ u nerġa’ ninżel dejjem fil-baħar il-għoli.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni,
Ma ħtatlix mgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli tafal merħi;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti.

Waqgħet hi, imrammti, niżżlet hi s-sisien,
Ma ħtatlix l-imgħallmin, ’mma qatagħli l-ġebel;
Fejn tmajt insib il-ġebel, sibt tafal merħi;
Waqgħet hi, imrammti, l’ili żmien nibni.
U hekk waqgħet hi, imrammti! w erġa’ ibniha!
Biddilha inti l-imkien illi jewtiha;
Min ibiddel l-imkien ibiddel il-vintura;
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura:
Hemm art bajda, w hemm art sewda u ħamra.
Aktar minn hedawn hemm trid minnha tmarra.

Enjoy :)

Nearby Sicily's ,Arab speaking christians and their origin

Dear Sir,
Am I correct if I say that semitic maltese is a mixture of levantine and maghrebi dialects?
Some Points
Alex Metcalfe in Muslims and Christians in Norman Sicily(2003);Stephen Perche(Chancellor 1167-8 & archbishop elect of Palermo) attempted to clarify the distincton between Arab Muslims and Arab Christians

Joseph M.Brincat;IL-Malti Elf sena ta storja
1.H.Bresc(La propriete fonciere des Musulmans dans la Sicilie du XII siecle;trois documents inedits 1995);even after the 12th century there were still communities of Arab Christians of the eastern rite in Palermo,Troina,Corleone
2. Religious words in the Garaid(public documents of the Norman era in Sicily published by Salvatore Cusa);kanisjah,qasis,qiddis,qiddisah,Sant Marijah,nasrani
3. Ludolph von Sudheim visited Sicily in 1330 and found that mass was still celebrated in Greek and Arabic.

Alexander Borg;On some Levantine Linguistic Traits in Maltese
The incidence in Maltese of Christian Arabic terms does not in itself yield certain evidence of eastern arabic influences on the language since such words could have been disseminated in the context of missionary activity (A thesis held by Wettinger).What is perhaps more indicative is the occurrence in maltese of a significant number of non-religious eastern arabic terms of ultimately aramaic provenience.


Maltese owe their civilized existance to ARABS..they ararabs

Maltese have hugr ARABIC influnce on Them. Lucky for them, cuz this is how they become developed..ask the spanish/ souther italians and even the french. Early moors had brought with them the irrigation systems, the unique architature and the science...Just taking a look at the maltese language, I can see that i can underdstand it fully...almost all phrases are arabic or a conversion of arabic language. Now relax YOU maltese guys, i think you should be proude of that

Which Arabs influenced the Maltese?

Dear Sir,
I am paricularly interested in two areas the maltese semitic religious terminology and the building sector semitic terminology.I have compiled a list of both although its labour of love rather then scientific.

I have refered to Vernacular Architecture Encyclopedia and its obvious that the arab speaking world is diverse as regards architecture.

For example Gaddafi lives in a tent but the maltese architecture is dominated by stone.My impression is that our architecture is closest to Houran and al Karak regions.


What is interesting here is

What is interesting here is the sort of hatred people have to be coupled with Arabs or Muslims. Arabic language has had great deal of influence throughout many families of languages. In English, words like algorithm, algebra, sugar come from Arabic.

I am just taken back by the share dislike of the Malta people who have commented in this blog of being remotely associated with Arabic language. I don't believe anyone called them Muslims or Arab. This article only pointed to the fact that Malta's language is a derivative of Arabic.

However, on the Day of Judgment they will acquire a different position.

"It may be that those who disbelieve wish ardently that they were Muslims."
Quran (15:02)

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.