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Arab? Muslim? What's the Difference?

by Dr. Safiyyah Ally

Arab. Muslim. Arab. Muslim. What’s the difference?

It can be confusing to distinguish between the two.

While there’s significant overlap between Arabs and Muslims, they’re not the same thing.

Not all Muslims are Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims.

What’s an Arab? "Arab" refers to people whose native language is Arabic and who identify themselves as Arabs. Due to migration, Arabs can be found in almost every part of the world, but the largest concentration of Arabs is in the Middle East and North Africa.

Not all Arabs are Muslim, though the vast majority are. Ninety-three percent of Arabs identify as Muslims. The rest are Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Druze, etc. Did you know, for example, that in Egypt there are over ten million Coptic Christians? That’s a lot of Arabs who aren’t Muslims.

So what’s a Muslim then? A Muslim is someone who practices Islam. You can choose to be a Muslim or not, so it’s not an ethnicity. It’s a religious category. For some people, it can also be seen as a cultural identity, as they may not practice Islam but they still identify as Muslim because they grew up in a Muslim household or environment.

The important thing to note is that Muslims are diverse. They live in all parts of the world. And they speak a variety of languages.

It might come as a surprise to you that less than fifteen percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs. A whopping sixty-two percent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region.

The five countries with the largest number of Muslims aren’t Arab countries: Indonesia has the highest population of Muslims, at two hundred and nine million. About eighty-seven percent of the population identify as Muslim. Pakistan comes next, then India, Bangladesh and Nigeria.

So why do people think Arabs and Muslims are synonymous?

Well, the two are closely intertwined.

The Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him began preaching Islam in the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Mecca, the blessed site for Muslims, is situated in Saudi Arabia. This is where contemporary understandings of what it means to be a Muslim is grounded. The first community of believers developed and flourished in Arabia. We have records of what people wore at the time, what they ate, what sports they played…in short, the earliest cultural manifestations of Islam were Arab.

Yet, even in that time, there was a recognition of diversity. The Quran itself points it out as a sign from God. It further says that the only thing that distinguishes a person is faith. The prophet Muhammad peace be upon him is reported to have said that Arabs are not superior to non-Arabs. So from the beginning, Islam did not consider Arab and Muslim the same thing. As testament to that, Islam spread rapidly after the Prophet’s death, from France all the way to China. Anyone could become a Muslim, and many people did.

But here’s an interesting twist: non-Arab Muslims embraced the Arabic language. After all, the Quran was revealed in Arabic. Since the time of the Prophet, Muslims everywhere have continued to recite the Quran in its original language and perform their prayers in Arabic, whether they understood the meaning or not. They use Arabic terminology found in the Quran, like "Assalamu Alaykum", which means peace be upon you, and "Insha Allah", which means god willing. But that doesn’t mean they speak Arabic or consider themselves Arab.

In conclusion, not all Muslims are Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims. So the next time that you meet a Muslim don’t automatically assume that they are Arab. Likewise, if you meet an Arab, don't assume they are Muslim. They’ll appreciate the nuance, believe me.

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