MYTH vs. FACT: Persians and Arabs

The Middle East is regularly portrayed as a monolithic region, with a largely homogeneous population and little demographic or cultural diversity. This false impression has enabled the proliferation of numerous intercultural misunderstandings. One of the most common is the conflation of Middle Eastern ethnic groups. Many people continue to believe that “Persian” and “Arab” are interchangeable terms, when, in reality, they are labels for two distinct ethnicities. That is to say, Persians are not Arabs. (There is, somewhat amusingly, an entire website dedicated to the promulgation of this fact.[1]) They each occupy different geographic spaces, speak different languages, and experience different cultures.

Where They Live

For starters, Persians primarily live in Iran, and constitute roughly 60% of the population there.[2] Persians arrived in southern Iran around 1000 B.C.E., and experienced an extraordinary ascendance in political strength and intellectual vibrancy under the Achaemenian dynasty five centuries later.[3]

Arabs live in many countries across the Middle East. (The “Arab world,” which refers to Arab-majority states in western Asia and various parts of Africa, consists of 22 countries.) In fact, some Arabs live in Iran, where they make up 3-7% of the population.[4] There are close to 400 million people in the Arab world.[5]

What Language They Speak

Persians speak Persian, an Indo-European language distantly related to Greek and Latin. Roughly 120 million people speak Persian in the world; half of them live in Iran. Variants of Persian are also spoken in Afghanistan, where many people speak Dari Persian, in Uzbekistan; and in Tajikistan, where Tajik, a variety of Persian, is the official language.[6]

The ancient influence of Persian on these countries is conspicuous, even in twenty-first century life. Some Afghans embrace Dari so passionately that adherents of the Persian and Pastho languages often compete for cultural dominance.[7] And, some protestors in Tajikistan are using Persian poetry, a defining cultural product of the Iranian people, to comment on central Asian political affairs.[8]

In contrast, Arabic is an Afroasiatic language, influenced by ancient Semitic tongues like Aramaic, and took root in the second-century B.C.E.[9] The Qur’an, the central text of the Islamic religion, was written in classical Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic has emerged as an alternative in modern times; it is used by television presenters, politicians, newspapers, and those learning Arabic as a foreign language. The 22 countries that speak Arabic are united in a multilateral geopolitical organization called the Arab League. In this part of the world, 200 million people speak Arabic.[10]

But the two languages are not completely disparate: Arabic has played a substantial role in shaping the Persian language. In the seventh and ninth centuries, Muslims invaders conquered Persia and brought their preferred tongue with them. Slowly, Arabic became the preeminent language in the realms of government administration, literature, and science. Today, written Persian uses the Arabic script, and the Persian language has borrowed a considerable portion of its vocabulary from Arabic.[11]

What Religions They Follow

Most Persians, including most Iranians, practice Shiite Islam.[12] Shiites make up a small minority, about 10%, of Muslims worldwide. When Prophet Mohammad, the original leader of Islam, died in 632, Shiites believed the true descendant to his spiritual authority should be his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. But Ali was killed in 661 after internal turmoil consumed his short-lived caliphate.[13] Most Shiites today live in Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq,[14] and they adhere to Twelver Shiism – the belief that twelve imams, appointed divinely, descended from Ali.[15] Nine-in-ten Iranian Muslims are Shiite; 10% are Sunni.[16]

Most Arabs are also Muslim. But they generally follow a different branch of Islam – they are Sunni Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni. Unlike Shiites, who believe the Prophet's successor should be connected to him directly via bloodline, Sunnis believe any pious individual could be elected to that role by community consensus.[17] Most of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia and Syria, for example, along with non-Arab countries, like Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan – is Sunni.[18]