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"Ajami" redirects here. For other uses, see Ajami (disambiguation).
For other uses, see Ajam (disambiguation).
Keshvar ajam used to mean "Persian" in a 1255 Hijra letter from the Ottoman Empire to Persian emperor Mohammad Shah

Ajam is a word used in Persian and Arabic literature, but with different meanings.

In Arabic, Ajam (عجم) has two meanings: "non-Arab", and "Persian". Literally it has the meaning "one who is illiterate in language", "silent", or "mute", and refers to non-Arabs in general. In the former sense it is a neutral term meaning "stranger" or "foreign".



Ajam has one primary meaning in Arabic: "non-Arab".[1]

  • according to a traditional etymology The word `ajam comes from the Semitic root `-j-m. Related forms of the same root include, but are not limited to:[2]
  • `ajama / 'a'jama / `ajjama: to dot - in particular, to add the dots that distinguish between various Arabic letters to a text (and hence make it easier for a non-native Arabic speaker to read). Now an obsolete term, since all modern Arabic texts are dotted. This may also be linked to `ajaam / `ajam: pit/seed (e.g. of a date or grape).
Persian painting, depicting Jamshid halved before Zahhak
  • in'ajama: (of speech) to be incomprehensible
  • ista'jama: to fall silent; to be unable to speak
  • 'a'jam: non-fluent
  • musta'jim: mute, incapable of speech

Homophonous words, which may or may not be derived from the same root, include:

  • `ajama: to test (a person); to try (a food).


According to The Political Language of Islam, during the Islamic period, Ajam was originally used as a reference to denote those whom Arabs in the Arabian peninsula viewed as "alien" or outsiders.[3] The early application of the term included all of the non-Arab peoples with whom the Arabs had contact including Persians, Byzantine Greeks, Ethiopians, Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs, Mandeans, Arameans, Jews, Georgians, Sabians, Samaritans, Egyptians, Berbers and the somewhat related Nabataeans.

The term has a derogatory meaning as the word is used to refer to non-Arab speakers (primarily Persians) as illiterate and uneducated. Arab conquerors tried to impose Arabic as the primary language of the subject peoples throughout their empire. Angry with the prevalence of the Persian language in the Divan and Persian society, Hajjāj ibn Yusuf ordered the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced with Arabic, sometimes by force (including cutting out the tongues of Persian speakers, further popularising the term "mute").[4] Persian resistance to this mentality was popularised in the final verse of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh; this verse is widely regarded by Iranians as the primary reason that they speak Persian and not Arabic to this day.[5] Official association with the Arab dominion was only given to those with the ethnic identity of the Arab and required formal association with an Arab tribe and the adoption of the client status of mawali (another derogatory term translated to mean "slave" or "lesser" in this context).[6]

During the early age of the Caliphates, Ajam was often synonymous for "barbarian" or stranger. In the eastern parts of the Middle East, it was generally applied to the Persians, while in al-Andalus it referred to speakers of Romance languages - becoming "Aljamiado" in Spanish in reference to Arabic-script writing of those languages - and in West Africa, Ajami similarly refers to Ajami script, or the writing of local languages such as Hausa and Fulani in the Arabic alphabet. In Zanzibar ajami and ajamo means Persian which came from the Persian Gulf and the cities of Shiraz and Siraf. In Turkish, there are many documents and letters that used ajam to refer to Persian.

The verb ʿaǰama originally meant "to mumble, and speak indistinctly", which is the opposite of ʿaraba, “to speak clearly”. Accordingly, the noun ʿoǰma, of the same root, is the opposite of foṣḥa, which means "chaste, correct, Arabic language".[7] In general, Ajam was a pejorative term used by Arabs conscious of their social and political superiority, in early Islam. However, the distinction between Arab and Ajam is discernible in pre-Islamic poetry.[7]

According to Clifford Edmund Bosworth, "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. 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, "ʿAjam" became a simple ethnic and geographical designation.".[8] Thus by the 9th century, the term was being used by Persians themselves as an ethnic term, and examples can be given by Asadi Tusi in his poem comparing the superiority of Persians and Arabs.[9] Accordingly: "territorial notions of “Iran,” are reflected in such terms as irānšahr, irānzamin, or Faris, the Arabicized form of Pārs/Fārs (Persia). The ethnic notion of “Iranian” is denoted by the Persian words Pārsi or Irāni, and the Arabic term Ahl Faris (inhabitants of Persia) or ʿAjam, referring to non-Arabs, but primarily to Persians as in molk-e ʿAjam (Persian kingdom) or moluk-e ʿAjam (Persian kings).".[10]

In the Persian Gulf region today, people usually refer to Persian as Ajami as they refer to Persian carpet (Ajami carpet or sajjad al Ajami), Persian cat (Ajami cat), and Persian emperors (Ajami kings).[11] The Persian community in Bahrain calls itself Ajami.

Belad Ajam meaning Persian Lands and Khaleej Ajam meaning Persian Gulf, Ottoman map
  • 'Ajam was used by the Ottomans to refer to the Safavids[12]
  • The Kurdish historian, Sharaf-al-Din Bitlisi, uses the term Ajam( عجم) in his book Sharafnama (1597 CE) to refer to the Shia Persians.[13]
  • In the Eastern Anatolia Region, Azerbaijanis are sometimes referred to as acem (which is the Turkish translation of Ajam).[14]
  • Modern Sunni Kurds of Iran use this term to denote Persians, Azeris and Southern Kurds.[15]
  • Adjam, Hajjam, Ajaim, Ajami, Akham (as Axam in Spain for ajam), Ayam in Europe.
  • In Turkish, the usage of the term is not applied to any ethnic group, but instead appears to have evolved from the original Arabic usage for outsiders in-general and shifted into a different meaning as the term ajemi (in modern Turkish acemi) literally means rookie, clumsy, inept or novice.[16] The word, with this meaning, has been borrowed into languages of the former Ottoman Empire such as Bulgarian and Macedonian (аджамия), Serbo-Croatian (adžamija), and Greek (ατζαμής) .
  • It is also used as a surname.[17]
  • It is also the old name of Iran used mostly by Arabs and Turks (keshvar-e Ajam) as a synonym to Persia, also a medieval name for the Persian Gulf (Bahr-e Ajam), or to refer to the follower of Shia religion.[18]
  • In Oriental music there is a maqam (musical mode) called Ajam, meaning "the Persian mode", corresponding to the major scale in European music.[19]
  • In Northern Indian music there is a muqam called Navroz-e-Ajam.[20]
  • The term is commonly used to refer to Persians in Bahrain.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Sakhr: Multilingual Dictionary
  2. Sakhr: Lisan al-Arab
  3. Amazon: The Political Language of Islam (Emergent Literatures)
  4. Frye, Richard Nelson; Zarrinkoub, Abdolhosein (1975). "Section on The Arab Conquest of Iran". Cambridge History of Iran. London. 4: p.46. 
  5. Firdawsī; Davis, Dick (2006). Shahnameh: the Persian Book of Kings. New York: Viking. 
  6. Astren, Fred (February 1, 2004). Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 33–35. ISBN 1-57003-518-0. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Encyclopædia Iranica, "Ajam, p.700"
  8. (Encyclopædia Iranica, "Ajam", Bosworth)
  9. گفتمش چو دیوانه بسی گفتی و اکنون پاسخ شنو ای بوده چون دیوان بیابان عیب ار چه کنی اهل گرانمایه عجم را چه بوید شما خود گلهء غر شتربان Jalal Khaleqi Motlaq, "Asadi Tusi", Majaleyeh Daneshkadeyeh Adabiyaat o Olum-e Insani(Literature and Humanities Magazine), Ferdowsi University, 1357(1978). page 71.
  10. Encyclopedia Iranica, "IRANIAN IDENTITY iii. MEDIEVAL ISLAMIC PERIOD" by Ahmad Ashraf
  11. The Book.documents on the Persian gulf's name.names of Iran pp.23-60 Molk e Ajam= Persi . Molk-e-Jam and Molouk -e-Ajam(Persian Kings). عجم - تهران 2010 ISBN 978-600-90231-4-1
  12. Martin van Bruinessen. "Nationalisme kurde et ethnicités intra-kurdes", Peuples Méditerranéens no. 68-69 (1994), 11-37.
  13. Philip G. Kreyenbroek, Stefan Sperl, The Kurds, 250 pp., Routledge, 1992, ISBN 978-0-415-07265-6 (see p.38)
  14. (Turkish) Qarslı bir azərbaycanlının ürək sözləri. Erol Özaydın
  15. Mahmood Reza Ghods, A comparative historical study of the causes, development and effects of the revolutionary movements in northern Iran in 1920-21 and 1945-46. University of Denver, 1988. v.1, p.75.
  16. [1]
  17. Behind The Name: Ajam Surname
  18. The Book.documents on the Persian gulf's name.names of Iran pp. 23-60 Molk e Ajam Persi . Molk-e-Jam and Molouk -e-Ajam (Persian Kings). عجم - تهران 2010 ISBN 978-600-90231-4-1
  19. A. J. Racy, "Making Music in the Arab World", Published by Cambridge University Press, 2004. pg 110.
  20. Manorma Sharma, "Musical Heritage of India", APH Publishing Corporation, 2007.