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The Difference Between Iranians And Arabs

By Thomas Keyes
Feb. 7, 2005

Many Americans seem to entertain the illusion that Iranians are Arabs. This may be due to the fact that many people in both communities practise Islam, which I'll mention below. Another coincidence that may have contributed to this confusion is the apparent similarity of the names Iran and Iraq. It is true that the Persian language and the Arabic share the same alphabet, namely the Arabic alphabet, which was imposed upon the Iranians centuries ago. But originally Persian had its own alphabet. Anyway, in Arabic script the names of the countries are entirely different, 'Iraq' beginning with the letter 'ain' and 'Iran' beginning with the letter 'alif'. The words 'Iranian' and 'Persian' are virtually synonymous, the former being the preferred term nowadays.

The Arabic word 'Iraq' means 'Veins' and, apparently, refers to the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers.

But the clincher is that the word 'Iran' is cognate with the English word 'Aryan', as the Iranians are Aryan, that is, Indo-European, while the Arabs, as is well known, are Semitic, so ethnologically there's a definite disjunction. The Indo-European languages, which probably coincide in fair measure with ethnicity, are divided into Centum and Satem groups. Centum languages further divide into Germanic, Italic, Celtic and Greek, while Satem languages divide into Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Albanian and Armenian. Thus we find among Indo-European languages such widely divergent specimens as English, German, Spanish, French, Greek, Russian, Persian (Farsi), Hindi and many others. There are a great number of Arabic loan words in Persian, just as there are a great number of Latin loan words in English, but no one classifies English as an Italic language, nor should anyone classify Persian as a Semitic language. There are Persian loan words in Arabic too, but etymological dictionaries of the Arabic language are scarce, if they exist at all, and one is often left guessing which words might be from Persian.

Semitic languages are a subgroup of Afro-Asiatic languages. Only two strictly Semitic languages survive--Arabic and Hebrew. Extinct Semitic languages include Assyrian, Phoenician, Aramaic and others. Among languages in other subgroups of the Afro-Asiatic languages are Amharic, Tigrinya and Hausa of Ethiopia, Chad and Nigeria.

This ethno-linguistic disjunction is not merely an academic hypothesis. I have met many, many Arabs and Iranians, and there is a definite Arab look and a definite Iranian look. It's not infallible, of course, but I think I could probably tell them apart 75% of the time.

But even more conclusive is the historical aspect. Now we know that all ethnic groups must have sprung from primitive human beings, so likely they're all of great antiquity. But when we speak of 'history', we generally mean written records. And here we see that Persians appear on the scene much in advance of Arabs.

Generally, Persian history is said to have begun with King Cyrus the Great, who unified Persia and conquered vast tracts of land. He is also famous for liberating the Jews from captivity in Babylon around 538 BC, as is amply recorded in the Bible, in the Books of Isaiah, Daniel and Ezra. The next four Persian kings were Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes, all in the Bible. These names are all in the Greco-English spellings. Xerxes, whose name is Khashayarsha in Persian, Achashverosh in Hebrew and Ahasuerus in the English Bible, is vividly portrayed in the Book of Esther as the rescuer of the Jews from the persecutions of Haman, which is celebrated to this day by Jews as Purim, the Feast of Lots. All of these kings are also famous for their exploits in the Middle East, Anatolia, Greece and Egypt. Much later, another Persian king, Shapur I, defeated the Roman emperor, Valerian. And their have been many, many others.

In antiquity, Persia had various religious, such as Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Mazdaism and Manichaeism, all to be largely supplanted by Islam. A more recent Iranian religion is the Baha'i faith.

As far as I know, the Arabs enter history around 305 AD, with the Nabataean Inscriptions, but these are scant. Their real entrance into history was the appearance of Mohammed (570-632 AD) Arabs conquered Persia in the seventh century, spreading Islam. Subsequently, in the 10th and 11th century, Turks took over the leadership of Islam, so Islamic history is not strictly the same thing as Arabic history. In the coming centuries Islam would extend its sway all the way from China and Indonesia to Spain. But the Ottoman Empire, once the world's greatest power, was a Turkish, rather than Arabic or Persian, Islamic Sultanate.

So Iranians are definitely not Arabs.

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About the author Thomas Keyes: I have written two books: A SOJOURN IN ASIA (non-fiction) and A TALE OF UNG (fiction), neither published so far.

I have studied languages for years and traveled extensively on five continents.

Email: udikeyes@yahoo.com


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