5 Arabic Words in the News

By Daniel Scocco

An article in this morning’s newspaper contained the following Arabic words:

bidoon
djellabah
Salafists
Shiite
Sunni

“He was identified as a member of the country’s large stateless population known as bidoon.”

1. bidoon
The word does not appear in either the OED or M-W. I found this definition in an article at PBS:

Bidoon refers to a diverse group of people [in Kuwait] who at the time of independence were not given Kuwaiti nationality.

The term comes from the Arabic phrase bidoon jinsiya, “without nationality.” A Wikipedia article spells the word Bedoon and defines it as “an ethnic group in Gulf Arab states and Iraq.”

“[He] was wearing jeans, a knee-length djellabah robe [sic] and a loose towel over his head…”

2. djellabah
I didn’t find this word in either the OED or M-W, but I did find it at Dictionary.com:

djellabah: a loose hooded cloak, typically woolen, of a kind traditionally worn by men in North Africa.

“French authorities say Salhi had links to radical Salafists—who preach an ultraconservative form of Islam…”

3. Salafists
A Salafist is an adherent of Salafism. I found this definition of Salafism in an article at PBS:

Salafism is an ideology that posits that Islam has strayed from its origins. The word salaf is Arabic for “ancient one” and refers to the companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Arguing that the faith has become decadent over the centuries, Salafists call for the restoration of authentic Islam as expressed by an adherence to its original teachings and texts.

“The Sunni extremists of Islamic State consider Shiites to be heretics…”

4. Sunni
The OED defines Sunni this way:

The orthodox Muslims who accept the Sunna as of equal authority with the Qur’an, considered collectively.

Note: The OED defines Sunna as “the body of traditional sayings and customs attributed to Muhammad and supplementing the Qur’an.”

“Authorities said he flew into Kuwait’s international airport at dawn on the day of the noontime attack at one of the emirate’s oldest Shiite mosques.”

5. Shiite
In this sentence, Shiite is the adjective form of Shia, a Muslim sect whose name derives from Shiat Ali, “the party of Ali.” When Muhammad died in 632 CE without naming a political successor, some of his followers thought his son-in-law Ali should be their leader; others declared for his father-in-law, Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr served as the first caliph (632-634); Ali served as the fourth caliph (656—661). Today, the majority of Muslims are Sunnis—somewhere between 85% and 90%. Shiites represent only about 10% of Muslims, but in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, they are in the majority. 

Note: Caliph is from an Arabic word meaning successor. After the death of Muhammad, it became the title given in Muslim countries to the chief civil and religious ruler. The last caliph in Istanbul was killed by Mongol conquerors in 1258. The Ottoman caliphate was abolished by Kemal Ataturk in 1924.

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7 Responses to “5 Arabic Words in the News”

  • Roberta B.

    So, is “bidoon” or “bedoon” what most of us in the west already would recognize as Bedouin? Why the difference? Dialect? Is one or the other terms not politically correct – like we can’t refer to something as “oriental” any more, except rugs? One explanation for the banishment of “oriental” is that it’s one group’s name for another, rather than what they call themselves? So, is bidoon, or Bedouin, (e.g., a stateless population), an “un-PC” term rather than an “ethnic group” as in one of the definitions above?

  • Maeve

    A reader who prefers to comment via email has provided a useful addendum for this post:

    In Arabic, bidoon means without. It could be used in any concept that we need to use without as in bidoon jinsiya (without nationality), bidoon jazma (without shoes, barefoot), bidoon kitaab (without book), or bidoon nour (without light) and so on. When the Wikipedia article defined the “ethnic group in Gulf Arab states and Iraq” as bidoon, it probably meant Bedouin as both words sound very similar.

  • Maeve

    Roberta B.,
    Several readers have commented on the similarity of “bidoon” to the familiar English word “Bedouin.” Here’s what I found on two sites, one personal and one official:

    This word does not derive, as you might think, from “Bedouin,” but from the Arabic word bidun, or “without,” as in bidun al-jinsiyah, “without nationality,” or “stateless.”—An American who has lived in Qatar for a year and a half and has done graduate work in Middle Eastern studies.

    The Arabic word bidoon means “without”, from the Arabic phrase bidoon jinsiyya, literally meaning without nationality or without citizenship. It should not be confused with the English word Bedouin, from the Arabic word badawi, meaning “nomad”
    In Kuwaiti usage, bidoon isused as a singular or plural noun; however, many English language texts use “Bidoon” for the singular and “Bidoons” for the plural.—An Australian government publication regarding refugees.

  • Alia

    As a speaker of Arabic who lives in the Arab world, please allow me to clarify. “Bidoon” is an old Orientalist transliteration of the word “Bedouin”, no more and no less, and is never used today. It is akin to writing ‘Muselman’ instead of ‘Muslim’, as many of the early travellers from the West to Arabia used to. Importantly, it is further from the correct pronunciation of ‘Bedouin’ (in Arabic, it is ‘Bedu’ [plural]). Thus, no one would use the word “Bidoon” in any context, unless they were in error. On the term ‘Oriental’, this is a catch-all term – also from the early 20th century – to refer to all the people of the Near and Far East collectively. They were considered a group of ‘other’ (Edward Said’s seminal work “Orientalism” addressed this misused moniker and false misunderstanding). It was used to describe ‘Asian’ and ‘Middle Eastern’ and ‘North African’ alike, which is clearly wrong. The term has been dropped in the 21st century, as we are fully aware of the differences between ‘Orientals’ from the aforementioned regions. (The term ‘Arab’ is used to define ‘those people who speak Arabic’, which is again an insufficient designation in my opinion; there are significant ethnological differences between someone who speaks Arabic in N. Africa, to one doing so in Saudi Arabia, to another doing so in Malaysia or Afghanistan.) Anthropologically, ‘Arab’ refers originally to the people who inhabited the land of Arabia – today the Gulf States’ region up to Syria and Iraq, but not Africa or Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, etc.). In anthropology, we refer to Bedouins still as Bedouins – it is not un-PC at all – it is the proper term to describe the nomads of the desert. However, it should be known that less than 2% of the Arab/Middle Eastern world is today Bedouin; therefore its application is mostly used to mean the Bedouin of yesteryear. They are now almost all ‘hadari’, or settled, and have been for two generations. Lastly, to the writer of the original posting here: there is no such thing as “Salafism”. This is a term employed in current discourse, again incorrectly, to distinguish Sunni Muslims who are the adherents of the original Companions of the Prophet. They describe themselves only ever as ‘Muslims’, never ‘Salafists’; a made-up Western term that displays a lack of understanding of the words. I am surprised this post was circulated, as with the multitude of Arabic words in the popular press and used by non-Arabs on a daily basis, there are literally hundreds of words that could have been used as appropriate examples of terms. Finding two false attributions (Salafists [sic] and Bidoon [sic]) do not enhance the credibility of the author to judge.

  • Alia

    On “Bidoon” meaning ‘without’, the roots are the same as Bedouin. Bedouin refers to those without a permanent home. The root is b-w-d, and used for scores of words relating to ‘without’.

  • Roberta B.

    Interesting! Thank you.

  • venqax

    The term Bedouin derives from the Arabic word for desert, and from that meaning to “desert dwellere” or nomads, which is how the term is still used today. Calling them an ethnic group is problematical. They are Arabs, for the most part, who choose to live a certain lifestyle which does have some different qualities from sedentary Arab culture. But they are still Arabs. Similar maybe are the Travellers in Britain and Ireland. Do the Beodouins (or Travellers) qualify as an ethnic group, sufficiently distinct from the main population in more than just lifestyle? Depends on who you ask. Are Hippies and ethnic group?

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