ʿAJAM, the name given in medieval Arabic literature to the non-Arabs of the Islamic empire, but applied especially to the Persians. In origin, the verb ʿaǰama simply means “to speak indistinctly, to mumble;” hence ʿAǰam or ʿOǰm are “the indistinct speakers,” sc. the non-Arabs. The Arabic lexica state at the outset that ʿaǰama is the antonym of ʿaraba “to speak clearly,” so that ʿoǰma becomes the opposite of foṣḥa, “chaste, correct, Arabic language” (cf. Lesān al-ʿarab, Būlāq, 1300-07, XV, pp. 278ff.; and Tāǰ al-ʿarūs, Cairo, 1889-90, VIII, pp. 389ff.). The term could accordingly be applied to any of the speakers of non-Arabic languages with whom the conquering Arabs came into contact, just as the ancient Greeks had applied the term barbaroi “indistinct, i.e. non-speakers of Greek,” to their less civilized neighbors. In Muslim Spain, the term ʿAǰam was applied to speakers of the indigenous Hispanic languages of the Iberian peninsula; and, in the later Middle Ages, the linguistic term aljamía denoted the Hispanic languages written in Arabic script and used by Muslims and crypto-Muslims then living under Christian rule.
But, just as the Greeks applied the term barbaroi especially to their great enemies the Persians, so also the Arabs in the early Islamic period applied “ʿAǰam” particularly to the Persians. This distinction of ʿArab and ʿAǰam is already discernible in pre- and early Islamic poetry. Cf. the aʿǰam temtemī “stuttering barbarians” of ʿAntara (cited by Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien I, p. 103; tr., I, p. 99) and the tanāwom al-ʿoǰm, “lulling to sleep of the Persian kings” in a poem of the Mesopotamian poet ʿAbd-al-Masīḥ b. ʿAsala Morrī (al-Mofażżalīyāt, ed. C. J. Lyall, Oxford, 1918-24, I, Arabic text, p. 556; II, Eng. tr., p. 220).
In general, ʿAǰam was a pejorative term, used by Arabs conscious of their political and social superiority in early Islam. But by the 3rd/9th century, the non-Arabs, and above all the Persians, were asserting their social and cultural equality (taswīa) with the Arabs, if not their superiority (tafżīl) over them (a process seen in the literary movement of the Šoʿūbīya). In any case, there was always in some minds a current of admiration for the ʿAǰam as heirs of an ancient, cultured tradition of life. Even the great proponent of the Arab cause, Jāḥeẓ, wrote a Ketāb al-taswīa bayn al-ʿArab wa’l-ʿAǰam (C. Pellat, “Essai d’inventaire de l’oeuvre ğāḥiẓienne,” Arabica 3, 1956, p. 152, no. 22). After these controversies had died down, and the Persians had achieved a position of power in the Islamic world comparable to their numbers and capabilities, “ʿAǰam” became a simple ethnic and geographical designation; hence in geographical literature of the Saljuq period and after we find Mesopotamia referred to as ʿErāq ʿArabī, in contrast to northwest Persia or Jebāl, the ancient Media, called ʿErāq ʿAǰamī.
See also the general discussion of the initial rivalry and then the symbiosis between the Arabs and non-Arabs in I. Goldziher, “ʿArab und ʿAǵam,” Muhammedanische Studien, Halle, 1889-90, I, pp. 101ff.; tr. London, 1967-71, I, pp. 98ff.
(C. E. Bosworth)
Originally Published: December 15, 1984
Last Updated: July 29, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 7, pp. 700-701
C. E. Bosworth, “ʿAJAM,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/7, pp. 700-701; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ajam (accessed on 25 April 2014).