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Arab culture is an inclusive term that draws together the common themes and overtones found in the Arabic-speaking cultures, especially those of the Middle-Eastern countries. This region's distinct religion, art, and food are some of the fundamental features that define Arab culture.



The Arabic language (Arabic: اللغة العربيةal-lughah al-‘Arabīyyah), or simply Arabic (Arabic: عربي‘Arabī), is the largest member of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family (classification: South Central Semitic) and is closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. It is spoken throughout the Arab world and is widely studied and known throughout the Islamic world. Arabic has been a literary language since at least the 6th century and is the liturgical language of Islam.

The Arabic language also has various dialects from the numerous countries and traditions. The Eastern Orthodox dialect of Arabic is extremely different than the normal every day spoken Arabic. Also, spoken Arabic differs greatly in speech than written Arabic, which is much more colloquial and formal.

Quite a few English words are ultimately derived from Arabic, often through other European languages, especially Spanish, among them every-day vocabulary like "sugar" (sukkar), "cotton" (quṭn) or "magazine" (maḫāzin). More recognizable are words like "algebra", "alcohol" and "zenith" (see list of English words of Arabic origin).


Arabic and Islam

It is sometimes difficult to translate Islamic concepts, and concepts specific to Arab culture, without using the original Arabic terminology. The Qur'an is expressed in Arabic and traditionally Muslims deem it impossible to translate in a way that would adequately reflect its exact meaning—indeed, until recently, some schools of thought maintained that it should not be translated at all. A list of Islamic terms in Arabic covers those terms which are too specific to translate in one phrase. While Arabic is strongly associated with Islam (and is the language of salah), it is also spoken by Arab Christians, Oriental Mizrahi Jews, and smaller sects such as Iraqi Mandaeans.

A majority of the world's Muslims do not speak Arabic, but only know some fixed phrases of the language, such as those used in Islamic prayer. However, learning Arabic is an essential part of the curriculum for anyone attempting to become an Islamic religious scholar.


Before the coming of Islam, most Arabs followed a religion featuring the worship of a number of deities, including Hubal, Wadd, Al-Lat, Manat, and Uzza, while some tribes had converted to Christianity or Judaism, and a few individuals, the hanifs, had apparently rejected polytheism in favor of a vague monotheism. The most prominent Arab Christian kingdoms were the Ghassanid and Lakhmid kingdoms. With the expansion of Islam, the majority of Arabs were rapidly conquered and became Muslims, and the pre-Islamic polytheistic traditions disappeared.

At present, most Arabs are Muslims. Sunni Islam dominates in most areas, overwhelmingly so in North Africa; Shia Islam is prevalent in Bahrain, Iran, southern Iraq and adjacent parts of Saudi Arabia, southern Lebanon, parts of Syria, and northern Yemen. There are some religious minorities like the Druze, Ismaaili Shia and other off shoots of Islam.

Reliable estimates of the number of Arab Christians, which in any case depends on the definition of "Arab" used, vary. According to Fargues 1998, "Today Christians only make up 9.2% of the population of the Near East". In Lebanon they now number about 39% of the population [1], in Syria they make up about 10 to 15%, in the Palestinian territories the figure is 3.8%, and in Israel Arab Christians constitute 2.1% (or roughly 10% of the Israeli Arab population). In Egypt, they constitute 5.9% of the population, and in Iraq they presumably comprise 2.9% of the populace. Most North and South American and Australian Arabs (about two-thirds) are Arab Christians, particularly from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon.

Jews from Arab countries - mainly Mizrahi Jews and Yemenite Jews - are today usually not categorised as Arab. Sociologist Philip Mendes asserts that before the anti-Jewish actions of the 1930s and 1940s, overall Iraqi Jews "viewed themselves as Arabs of the Jewish faith, rather than as a separate race or nationality". [2] Prior to the emergence of the term Mizrahi, the term "Arab Jews" (Yehudim ‘Áravim, יהודים ערבים) was sometimes used to describe Jews of the Arab world. The term is rarely used today. The few remaining Jews in the Arab countries reside mostly in Morocco and Tunisia. Between the late 1940s and early 1960s, following the creation of the state of Israel, most of these Jews left or were expelled from their countries of birth and are now mostly concentrated in Israel. Some also immigrated to France (where they form the largest Jewish community, outnumbering European Jews), but relatively few to the United States. (see Jewish exodus from Arab lands).


Islam (Arabic: الإسلام; al-islām ) is a monotheistic religion based upon the Qur'an, which Muslims believe was sent by God through Muhammad, as well as teachings of Muhammad recorded in the Hadith. Followers of Islam, known as Muslims (Arabic: مسلم), believe Muhammad to have been God's (Arabic: Allāh) final prophet.

With a total of approximately 1.2–1.3 billion adherents,[1][2] Islam is the second-largest religion in the world, and is the planet's fastest growing religion.[3] Like both Judaism and Christianity, Islam is considered to be an Abrahamic religion.[4]

Islam began in Arabia in the 7th century. Under the leadership of Muhammad and his successors, Islam rapidly spread by religious conversion and military conquest.[5] Today followers of Islam may be found throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.


Arabic literature is the writing produced, both prose and poetry, by speakers of the Arabic language. It does not usually include works written using the Arabic alphabet but not in the Arabic language such as Persian literature and Urdu literature. The Arabic word used for literature is adab which is derived from a word meaning "to invite someone for a meal" and implies politeness, culture and enrichment.

Arabic literature emerged in the 6th century with only fragments of the written language appearing before then. It was the Qur'an in the 7th century which would have the greatest lasting effect on Arabic culture and its literature.

The stories of the Thousand and One Nights

The Book of One Thousand and One Nights , Arabic: كتاب ألف ليلة و ليلةKitāb 'Alf Layla wa-Layla; also known as The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, One Thousand and One Nights, 1001 Arabian Nights, Arabian Nights, The Nightly Entertainments or simply The Nights) is a medieval Middle-Eastern literary epic which tells the story of Scheherazade, a Sassanid Queen, who must relate a series of stories to her malevolent husband, King Shahryar, to delay her execution. The stories are told over a period of one thousand and one nights, and every night she ends the story with a suspenseful situation, forcing the King to keep her alive for another day. The individual stories were created over many centuries, by many people and in many styles, and they have become famous in their own right. Notable examples include Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

Qur'an and Islam

[[File:|thumb|right|The Qur'an was the first major work of Arabic literature and the most influential.]] The Qur'an had a significant influence of the Arabic language. The language used in the Qur'an is called classical Arabic and while modern Arabic has diverged slightly, the classical is still the style to be admired. Not only is the Qur'an the first work of any significant length written in the language it also has a far more complicated structure than the earlier literary works with its 114 suras (chapters) which contain 6,236 ayat (verses). It contains injunctions, narratives, homilies, parables, direct addresses from God, instructions and even comments on itself on how it will be received and understood. It is also admired for its layers of metaphor as well as its clarity, a feature it mentions itself in sura 16:103.

Although it contains elements of both prose and poetry, and therefore is closest to saj' or rhymed prose, the Qur'an is regarded as entirely apart from these classifications. The text is believed to be divine revelation and is seen as being eternal or 'uncreated'. This leads to the doctrine of i'jaz or inimitably of the Qur'an which implies that nobody can copy the work's style nor should anybody try.

This doctrine of i'jaz possibly had a slight limiting effect on Arabic literature; proscribing exactly what could be written. The Qur'an itself criticises poets in the 26th sura, actually called Ash-Shu'ara or The Poets:

And as to the poets, those who go astray follow them.

This may have exerted dominance over the pre-Islamic poets of the 6th century whose popularity may have vied with the Qur'an amongst the people. There were a marked lack of significant poets until the 8th century. One notable exception was Hassan ibn Thabit who wrote poems in praise of Muhammad and was known as the "prophet's poet". Just as the Bible has held an important place in the literature of other languages, The Qur'an is important to Arabic. It is the source of many ideas, allusions and quotes and its moral message informs many works.

Aside from the Qur'an the hadith or tradition of what Muhammad is supposed to have said and done are important literature. The entire body of these acts and words are called sunnah or way and the ones regarded as sahih or genuine of them are collected into hadith. Some of the most significant collections of hadith include those by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj and Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari.

The other important genre of work in Qur'anic study is the tafsir or commentaries on the Qur'an. Arab writings relating to religion also includes many sermons and devotional pieces as well as the sayings of Ali which were collected in the 10th century as Nahj al-Balaghah or The Road to Eloquence.


File:Arabischer Maler um 730
Fresco from Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbî,Syria,Ummayad caliphs Palace, built in the early 7th century

Arabic music is the music of Arabic-speaking people or countries, especially those centered around the Arabian Peninsula. The world of Arab music has long been dominated by Cairo, a cultural center, though musical innovation and regional styles abound from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. Beirut has, in recent years, also become a major center of Arabic music. Classical Arab music is extremely popular across the population, especially a small number of superstars known throughout the Arab world. Regional styles of popular music include Algerian raï, Moroccan gnawa, Kuwaiti sawt, Egyptian el gil and Turkish Arabesque-pop music.

"The common style that developed is usually called 'Islamic' or 'Arab', though in fact it transcends religious, ethnic, geographical, and linguistic boundaries" and it is suggested that it be called the Near East (from Morocco to India) style (van der Merwe 1989, p.9).

Habib Hassan Touma (1996, p.xix-xx) lists "five components" which "characterize the music of the Arabs:

  1. The Arab tone system (a musical tuning system) with specific interval structures, invented by al-Farabi in the tenth century (p.170).
  2. Rhythmic-temporal structures that produce a rich variety of rhythmic patterns, awzan, used to accompany the metered vocal and instrumental genres and give them form.
  3. Musical instruments that are found throughout the Arabian world and that represent a standardized tone system, are played with standardized performance techniques, and exhibit similar details in construction and design.
  4. Specific social contexts for the making of music, whereby musical genres can be classified as urban (music of the city inhabitants), rural (music of the country inhabitants), or Bedouin (music of the desert inhabitants)....
  5. A musical mentality that is responsible for the aesthetic homogeneity of the tonal-spatial and rhythmic-temporal structures in Arabian music, whether composed or improvised, instrumental or vocal, secular or sacred. The Arab's musical mentality is defined by:
    1. The maqām phenomenon....
    2. The predominance of vocal music...
    3. The predilection for small instrumental ensembles...
    4. The mosaiclike stringing together of musical form elements, that is, the arrangement in a sequence of small and smallest melodic elements, and their repetition, combination, and permutation within the framework of the tonal-spatial model.
    5. The absence of polyphony, polyrhythm, and motivic development. Arabian music is, however, very familiar with the ostinato, as well as with a more instinctive heterophonic way of making music.
    6. The alternation between a free rhythmic-temporal and fixed tonal-spatial organization on the one hand and a fixed rhythmic-temporal and free tonal-spatial structure on the other. This alternation...results in exciting contrasts."

Much Arab music is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm rather than harmony. Thus much Arabic music is homophonic in nature. Some genres of Arab music are polyphonic—as the instrument Kanoun is based upon the idea of playing two-note chords—but quintessentially, Arabic music is melodic.

It would be incorrect though to call it modal, for the Arabic system is more complex than that of the Greek modes. The basis of the Arabic music is the maqam (pl. maqamat), which looks like the mode, but is not quite the same. The maqam has a "tonal" note on which the piece must end (unless modulation occurs).

The maqam consists of at least two jins, or scale segments. "Jins" in Arabic comes from the ancient Greek word "genus," meaning type. In practice, a jins (pl. ajnas) is either a trichord, a tetrachord, or a pentachord. The trichord is three notes, the tetrachord four, and the pentachord five. The maqam usually covers only one octave (two jins), but sometimes it covers more than one octave. Like the melodic minor scale and Indian ragas, some maqamat have different ajnas, and thus notes, while descending or ascending. Because of the continuous innovation of jins and because most music scholars don't agree on the existing number anyway, it's hard to give an accurate number of the jins. Nonetheless, in practice most musicians would agree on the 8 most frequently used ajnas: Rast, Bayat, Sikah, Hijaz, Saba, Kurd, Nahawand, and Ajam—and a few of the most commonly used variants of those: Nakriz, Athar Kurd, Sikah Beladi, Saba Zamzama. Mukhalif is a rare jins used exclusively in Iraq, and it does not occur in combination with other ajnas.

The main difference between the western chromatic scale and the Arabic scales is the existence of many in-between notes, which are sometimes referred to as quarter tones for the sake of practicality. However, while in some treatments of theory the quarter tone scale or all twenty four tones should exist, according to Yūsuf Shawqī (1969) in practice there are many fewer tones (Touma 1996, p.170).

In fact, the situation is much more complicated than that. In 1932, at International Convention on Arabic music held in Cairo, Egypt (attended by such Western luminaries as Béla Bartók and Henry George Farmer), experiments were done which determined conclusively that the notes in actual use differ substantially from an even-tempered 24-tone scale, and furthermore that the intonation of many of those notes differ slightly from region to region (Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq). The commission's recommendation is as follows: "The tempered scale and the natural scale should be rejected. In Egypt, the Egyptian scale is to be kept with the values, which were measured with all possible precision. The Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi scales should remain what they are..." (translated in Maalouf 2002, p. 220). Both in modern practice, and based on the evidence from recorded music over the course of the last century, there are several differently-tuned "E"s in between the E-flat and E-natural of the Western Chromatic scale, depending on the maqam or jins in use, and depending on the region.

Musicians and teachers refer to these in-between notes as "quarter-tones" ("half-flat" or "half-sharp") for ease of nomenclature, put perform and teach the exact values of intonation in each jins or maqam by ear. It should also be added, in reference to Touma's comment above, that these "quarter-tones" are not used everywhere in the maqamat: in practice, Arabic music does not modulate to 12 different tonic areas like the Well-Tempered Klavier, and so the most commonly used "quarter tones" are on E (between E-flat and E-natural), A, B, D, F (between F-natural and F-sharp) and C.

The prototypical Arab ensemble in Egypt and Syria is known as the takht, which includes, (or included at different time periods) instruments such as the 'oud, qanún, rabab, nay, violin (which was introduced in the 1840s or 50s), riq and dumbek. In Iraq, the traditional ensemble, known as the chalghi, includes only two melodic instruments—the jowza (similar to the rabab but with four strings) and santur--with riq and dumbek.


Originally, the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula relied heavily on a diet of dates, wheat, barley, rice and meat, with little variety, with a heavy emphasis on yogurt products, such as leben (لبن) (yoghurt without butterfat). Arabian cuisine today is the result of a combination of richly diverse cuisines, spanning the Arab world from Iraq to Morocco and incorporating Lebanese, Egyptian and others. It has also been influenced to a degree by the cuisines of India, Turkey, Berber and others. In an average Arab gulf state household, a visitor might expect a dinner consisting of a very large platter, shared commonly, with a vast mountain of rice, incorporating lamb or chicken, or both, as separate dishes, with various stewed vegetables, heavily spiced, sometimes with a tomato sauce. Most likely, there would be several other items on the side, less hearty. Tea would certainly accompany the meal, as it is almost constantly consumed. Coffee would be included as well.

See also


  • Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. INU PRESS, Geneva, 2000, 530 pp. ISBN 2-88155-004-5


  1. About Islam and American Muslims, retrieved on May 2, 2006.
  2. Religions and Ethics adherents retrieved on May 2, 2006.Statistic taken from, October 20, 2005.
  3. ISLAM: FASTEST GROWING RELIGION ON THE PLANET, retrieved on June 22nd, 2006.
  4. Vartan Gregorian (2003). Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p. ix. ISBN 0-8157-3283-X. 
  5. Nelson, Lynn Harry. "Islam and the Prophet Muhammad". Kansas University. Retrieved on 2006-06-17.  - "One must remember that we are talking about the Muslim expansion, not Arab conquests. The expansion of Islam was as much, or perhaps much more, a matter of religious conversion than it was of military conquest."


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