5 Medieval Facts of the Middle East

Yet the fact remains that no one knows where the Middle East is, although many claim to know. Scholars and governments have produced reasoned definitions that are in hopeless disagreement. There is no accepted formula, and serious efforts to define the area vary by as much as three to four thousand miles east and west. There is not even an accepted core for the Middle East.

The Council on Foreign Relations


1. There is no ‘Middle East.’

The ‘Middle East’ is actually a term imposed by British colonialists who defined the area from their European perspective, viewing the geographical area as being ‘East‘ of London, and in the ‘Middle‘ of the United Kingdom and India.

Today, the American perspective lumps the region into a generic geographical and cultural monolith, giving further weight to the historically erroneous term ‘Middle East.’

Those living in the ‘Middle East‘ do not define their area of the world by this term. Upon hearing the term, they’ll ask: “East of where?” or “Middle of what?”



2. There is no “Arab World.”

Throughout history, earlier versions of today’s terms ‘Arab world,’ and ‘Middle East‘ have been used interchangeably by colonizing Western powers, the belief being that those living in the ‘Middle East‘ are naturally Arab.

In fact, millions within the so-called ‘Arab world‘ do not consider themselves Arab.

For example, Tunisians and Moroccans of North Africa consider themselves Berber, not Arab. And millions of Egyptians define themselves, not as Arab, but instead as African, Nilotic, or Mediterranean.



3. There is no “Islamic World.”

Historically, Western conquerors used the term ‘Moors‘ to describe Muslims, and ‘Moorish” to identify Ottoman-controlled lands (i.e. “Moorish Spain“). Today, we use variations on the word ‘Islam‘ (i.e. “the Islamic Middle East“).

As well, we use the terms ‘Islamic world,’ and ‘Middle East‘ interchangeably, the Western belief being that those living in the ‘Middle East‘ are naturally Muslims practicing Islam.

In fact, there are millions of Arab and other nationalities of Christians, and followers of religious denominations outside of Islam living in the so-called ‘Islamic world‘ throughout the ‘Middle East.’

For example, Indonesia – not considered part of the Western definition of the ‘Arab‘ or ‘Islamic world‘, nor part of the ‘Middle East‘ – has the world’s largest Muslim population.



4. Medieval Europeans used the term ‘Moors‘ for all Arabs, Berbers, Black Africans, and anyone else of dark skin who did not practice Christianity. This term eventually came to represent all Muslims.

Just as today we use the term “Islamic terrorist” (our Western psyche automatically associating the word “terrorist” with Islam), medieval Westerners used the term “heathen Moors” (their medieval Western psyche automatically associating the word “heathen” with  Islam).

medieval-moor To medieval Westerners, ‘heathens,’ were pagans – those without true religion. Heathens were seen as unenlightened, uncultured, uncivilized, and barbaric.


5.  Persians are not Arabs.

Persian history dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, the land demarcated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. We learn about this history as “the cradle of civilization” in grade school. But in the 6th century B.C., Persia ruled its own nation until the Sassanid Empire was conquered by an Arab invasion in 651 B.C. The Persian Zoroastrian religion was replaced by Islam, and Persia never again regained rule.

While both ethnic groups reside in what we call the ‘Middle East,’ Arabs speak Arabic, but Persians speak Persian (a.k.a. Farsi). Though the two languages share the same alphabet (with a few more characters/letters in Farsi), they are very different.


 I first learned to speak, read, and write Farsi in Afghanistan, and thought I was proficient. Then I traveled to Iran where I learned very quickly that I was far from fluent in the language!


What do you think about the commonalities between perceptions of the medieval ‘Middle East‘ & today’s ‘Middle East?’


  Medieval Monday

See all 5 Medieval Facts of Life posts!

5 thoughts on “5 Medieval Facts of the Middle East

  1. I am currently teaching geography to 6th graders. I separate Asia in half because it is too much for them to learn for a test. I want to do this right. I do not want to offend anyone. Is it offensive to say “The Middle East”? Should I label the maps West Asia and East Asia to be on the safe side? I would like to discuss this with my class and teach them what is right!

    • Now that is a good question! With, apparently, no answer to date. 😐 And they’ve won 3 times! Go figure. Perhaps someone, somewhere will share the answer to this perplexing state of affairs…

  2. I agree that European designations are inappropriate. I recoil when I here the people of Iraq referred to as the Iraqi people. There is no such thing as the British and French post WW 1 chopped up the Ottoman Empire into geographic shapes without considering ethnic and other cultural differences. There may be some validity for the classification “Arab World” , however, despite the example of Indonesia. Arabic is a cross cultural and cross border language and the Koran and religious requirement give the people of Islam a common denominator such as the Jews have. So there is a cross border corporate mentality for the people.

    • I get what you’re saying. But I can tell you that any time foreigners use the term “the Arab world,” many Arabs & Persians become upset by this generic phrase – especially Persians who reside in what Westerners define as part of “the Arab world.” I’m assuming it might be like calling North America “the Anglo-Saxon world” or something like that.

      You’re right about Arabic being the required language in which to pray. And you know, it’s interesting – most Persians I meet overseas do not speak Arabic, but do pray in Arabic. My first time in Persian countries, I made the mistake of thinking I could communicate in Arabic until I learned Farsi, but no way. Not only were Persians insulted by this assumption, they went out of their way to ensure that I learn their language and culture so that I never make such an ignorant assumption again!

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