(عجم) in Arabic
literally means "one who is illiterate in a language"
, and can refer to non-Arabs
in general, or specifically Persians. In the former sense it is a neutral term meaning "stranger" or "foreign." In the latter sense it can be considered a racist, derogatory term by Arabs towards Persians
; it has also been used as a part of a propaganda against Iranians by some Arab countries encouraging conflict with Iran.
has two primary meanings in Arabic: "non-Arab" and "Persian".
The word `ajam comes from the Semitic root `-j-m. Related forms of the same root include, but are not limited to:
- `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 (eg of a date or grape).
- 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).
A Persian folk etymology derives the word from the name of an ancient Persian king, Jamshid, though this is linguistically dubious. The folk etymology would have "Ajam" as an arabized version of the kings name 'Jam' through the addition of the definite article al-. However, as jīm is a lunar and not a solar letter, this explanation cannot account for the anomalous assimilation of the "l" by the jīm or the ayin at the beginning of the word in place of the alif that would be expected from the article al-.
Jam and Ajam first were used during the time of the Achaemenid Empire around 500 BC in the Persian language, but later on evolved from the original and shifted into a different meaning as it entered the Arabic language. There are 25 hadith and many other references that prove Ajam was used first to refer to Iranians, in the book Shahnameh
, Ferdowsi had referred to the Persian language as Ajam .
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. The early application of the term included all of the peoples with whom the Arabs had contact including Persians
, and the somewhat related Nabataeans
. Over time the term because specialized and referred to Persians almost exclusively as an ethnic term, but varied in its usage from place to place as the early Muslim conquests led to a much wider of Arabic-speakers. However, the original meaning still exists, and in much of the non-Arabic speaking Muslim world the term does not have a pejorative meaning as the word is understood to mean anyone who does not speak Arabic.
Muhammad in his last sermon to the Muslims used the word ajami in the same way:
- All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over an Ajami nor an Ajami has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white - except by piety and good action.
During the early age of the Caliphates, Ajam was often synonymous for "barbarian" or stranger. In the eastern portions 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 and Urdu, the usage of the term is not used to any ethnic group, but instead may have evolved from the original Arabic usage for outsiders in general.
"Ajam" as referring to "Persians"
According to Encyclopedia Iranica
, the word "ajam" was "applied especially to Persians" by the Arabs and means "to mumble, and speak indistinctly," which is the opposite of the meaning "chaste," "correct", and "Arabic language." 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
is discernible in pre-Islamic poetry.
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).
The Persian community in Bahrain calls itself Ajami. See: Ajam (Bahrain)
- Among Kurds, the term Ajam (Kurdish, Pronunciation: عجم) is used to refer to Persians and Azeris.
- Adjam, Hajjam, Ajaim, Ajami, Akham (as Axam in Spain for ajam), Ayam in eastern 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 clumsy, inept or novice.
- In Iraq Ajam is primarily used to refer to those of Iranian origin.
- Among Pakistanis and in Urdu the term is used to describe any people who either are not Arab or Arabic speaking.
- It is also used as a surname.
- In Arabic music there is a maqam or musical mode called Ajam, meaning "the Persian mode", corresponding to the major scale in Western music.
- It also is used to describe a community from India, whose males are primarily barbers or hairdressers, a profession which usually runs in the family. 'Ajams' can be found all over England, especially in Bradford, Leicester, Coventry and Nuneaton.