The Difference: Persians vs Arabs; Iranians vs Semites

“Iranian” and “Persian” mean two separate things.

“Iranian” is a geographic term, and also refers to a nationality. “Persians” are an ethnic group inside the country of Iran, in the Iranian Plateau. What is the Iranian Plateau? It sits between a number of mountain ranges – the Himalayas on its east, the Zagros Mountains on its west, and the Caucasus Mountains to its north. As you travel due west from China, and cross the mountains, you suddenly see human beings with different features (Aryan features) residing in this plateau.

The Iranian plateau has been occupied historically by many tribes (Persians being one of them). All these tribes shared “Aryan” features i.e. had round eyes, light skin (compared to Africans, and Southern Asians) and Caucasian skeletons which was substantially different to features among other Asians. The term Iran, is derived from Aryan. As Aryans, Persians along with most other ethnic groups in the Iranian plateau are characterized by their dark hair, dark eyes, and darker skin than European Aryans that can be characterized as having lighter hair, light eye colors and much lighter color skin.

The term Persia is derived from the name of a southern Iranian province (now called Fars, or Pars) that borders the northern Persian Gulf. Persians are Indo-Europeans who migrated from Central Asia to this region in the Southern “Iranian plateau”.

There are now Persians living in many other countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan … in Europe and North American. Immigrants to the U.S. that have come here should correctly be referred to by their ethnicity such as Persian-Americans, in a similar manner as someone can be Mexican-American or Irish-American.

The first empire that emanated from this region, was founded by an ancient northwestern tribe in the Iranian plateau called the “Medes”.The Median Empire fell after a Persian Shâh (King) from the Persian “House of Achaemenid” united all other tribes into a revolt, which ended up bringing forth a new (unified) Persian Empire called the “The Achaemenid Empire” and that is also known as the First Persian Empire (or the second empire that emerged from the Iranian plateau).When Cyrus the Great, the first Persian emperor (Shâhanshâh) came to power, he made the Persian language (together with Median) the official language of this empire.

When the Achaemenid Empire came to end by Alexander the Macedonian, the Median culture and language dissolved into different northwestern languages and cultures (modern Talysh and Kurds rose out of this).

Parthianswho occupied the north-eastern part of the Iranian Plateau threw out the Greeks and established a third Empire or the Parthian Empire (Arsacid Empire).  A civil war broke out between Parthians and Persians, the Persians won and established the fourth Empire that emerged from the Iranian plateau and the second Persian Empire – the Sassanid Empire.

The Sassanidsruled for almost 500 years. Offshoots of the Zoroastrian faith practiced by the Sassanids emerged in Arabia called Judaism and Christianity emerged. And later, in the Southern part of Arabia a third (derivative) faith, Islam took hold.  Arabian Muslims founded a Caliphate (Islamic rule area) and subsequently defeated the Sassanid Empire in the Iranian plateau.

Persians eventually managed to throw out Arab invaders but during the period where they were under Arab domination, Persian generally converted to the Muslim Faith. However, after Arab withdrawal, Persians retained their most of their language, culture (including music, artistic and literary components), and traditions. Key elements of Persian culture include the celebration of the Spring Soltice (March 21st), No Ruz; Persian Cuisine, and a Solar calendar.

It is important to note that in the Northern Iranian plateau, near the Caspian Sea, Persian were never under direct Arab rule. However, later that region was conquered by (Turkish) Ottomans, who were Sunni. Once the Ottomans were defeated, and withdrew, Persians in that region converted to a different form of Islam (the Shia Sect), while Persians in other regions remained Sunni Muslim. The Safavid Kingdom in the 16th century, reunified the tribes in the Iranian plateau and formed the sovereign nation of Iran, and established Shia Islam as the national faith. Thus, Persians also adopted the Shia faith.

Today, the largest ethnic group in Iran today are “Persians”. The second largest is followed by a Turkic people called Azeris (Azerbaijanis). The third is a northwestern ethnic group called “Kurds”. Followed by Caspians i.e. “Mazandaranis” and “Gilakis”. There are also “Lurs”, in southwestern Iran. There is a small minority of ethnic Arabs (mostly on the border to Iraq) living in Iran.


The term Arab also refers to an ethnicity. “Arabs” (unlike the Persians) are a Semitic tribe (like Jews, Assyrians,Mandeans and other tribes). They all originated from the ancient fertile crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The Semitic peoples are members of the Caucasian race, not dissimilar in appearance to the neighboring Indo-European, Northwest Caucasian, Berber and Kartvelian-speaking peoples of the region. Genetic studies indicate that modern Jews (Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi specifically), Levantine Arabs, Assyrians, Samaritans, Syriacs-Arameans, Maronites, Druze, Mandaeans, and Mhallami, all have an ancient indigenous common Near Eastern heritage which can be genetically mapped back to the ancient Fertile Crescent.

“Arabs” are Semitic tribes people who were conquered by Muslims that emerged from the Arabian Peninsula, and who adopted the “Arabic language” and (generally) became Muslims. Most Arabs belong to Sunni Islam and believed in Semitic paganism and Christianity before they converted.

The tern Arab today has expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula to include modern:Iraqis (Mesopotamians), Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians and North Africans. Beyond a common language, these groups share cultural traditions (music, artistic and literary elements) and a common lunar calendar. Other key elements of Arab culture include celebrations linked to Sunni Islamic religion, and common cuisine elements.

To summarize:

LanguageFarsi (Persian)Arabs
ReligionShia (Islam)Sunni (Islam)
Genetic OriginIndo-EuropeanSemitic
Geographic OriginIranian PlateauFertile Crescent (Arabian Peninsula)

If you meet an Iranian and say “Oh, you mean you are you Persian”, it may be offensive to some Iranians who might be Azeris, Qashqai and Turkmens, or they may be Semitic Arabs, Jews, Assyrians or even Mandeans.

And accordingly, Iranians and Semites have two radically different origins, cultures, traditions and languages. Today most Iranians and Semites practice their faiths differently, Iranian are generally Shiites with minority Zoroastrians, while Semites are generally Sunni Muslims along with many others such as Judaism, Assyrian (Christians), Druze (Christians) or other denominations that are not Islamic at all.

To Summarize:

Tribal GroupsPersians, Azeris, Kurds, Lurs, Balochis, Turkmen, etc.Arabs, Jews, Druze, Assyrian …
LanguagePersian, AzeriArabic, Hebrew
CalendarSolarLunar& Hebrew
ReligionShia (Islam), ZoroastrianismSunni (Islam), Judaism, Christianity
Genetic OriginIndo-EuropeanSemitic
Geographic OriginIranian PlateauFertile Crescent (Arabian Peninsula)


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