Ask Ali: Arabs and Muslims aren’t always the same thing

In this week's Ask Ali we learn that Arabs and Muslims aren't the same thing and how to learn Gulf Arabic.

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Dear Ali: I understand that people in both the East and the West have a number of misperceptions about each other. In your opinion, what’s the most common stereotype? JY, California, United States

Dear JY: The list is indeed long, but if I had to choose the number one misperception, which requires a lot of focus to clear from people’s minds in the West, it is that “Arabs” and “Muslims” refer to the same people. This is a common Western perception about Islam and the Middle East, or as I prefer calling it, the Arab world.

It’s very important to understand that not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs.

Arabs are people who speak Arabic as their native language and identify themselves as Arabs. Muslims are those who practise the religion of Islam.

And, yes, you can be both an Arab and Muslim, like myself and many in the region.

There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, but Arabs make up only about 15 per cent of the world’s total Muslim population.

So you’ve probably guessed by now that the majority of Muslims live outside the Arab world. The biggest population is in Asia – especially in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Malaysia.

If you’re wondering where this confusion came from, it’s mainly because the Arabic language is the primary language of the Islamic religion, similar to how Latin historically was for Catholicism. It’s very normal that Muslims are expected to know at least a few key Arabic words and phrases.

Dear Ali: I’m interested in learning Gulf Arabic. I’m not that advanced, so some words confuse me a little because I don’t understand their meaning, such as “ma qassart”. Please can you explain to me what it means and when to use it? AB, Dubai

Dear AB: It’s always great to see more and more people wanting to learn how to speak Arabic.

I hope more people will learn Arabic so there will be better understanding and appreciation between us, since learning a language always adds an amazing value to the culture you’re embracing.

First of all, the word qassart (pronounced “gassart” in the Emirati dialect) is an Arabic word and is widely used, not only in the Gulf. So when somebody says “ma qassart”, ma is equal to “not” and qassart means “reduction” or “to shorten”.

Basically it says: “Not shorten.” So what do we mean when saying it to someone? To shorten what, exactly?

Allow me to explain. In Arabic culture when we speak to anyone, we love to hear some extended words of appreciation and wishes of goodness, even in regular speech. So ma qassart will be used as appreciation for something done for someone, especially if the task was done well or much better than could have been expected.

For example, if someone helped you complete a task, you may say “Shukran ma qassart”, which literally means “Thank you for not shortening your efforts and doing your best”. That is our classic way of using this phrase – however, it may sometimes be used in a more negative context.

If someone did something bad to you and you want to show that you’re upset, you may say the same with more of a disappointing voice tone – “Shukran ma qassart” – but this time it gets a sarcastic meaning, becoming: “Thank you for not shortening your efforts in doing something bad.”

So it’s a beautiful phrase, but can be used to give a negative message. Shukran, ma qassart for your good question – and this is a positive one.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow @AskAli on Twitter, and visit to ask him a question.