The foundations for what would become the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies were laid by the Society of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) in Tunis in 1926 in their training centre for priests and religious appointed to work in close contact with Muslims in different parts of the world. In 1931, the centre adopted the name Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA).
The project developed and in 1949 the teaching work of the centre was separated from its other activities and a house for the study of Arabic and Islamic Studies was set up at La Manouba on the northern outskirts of Tunis. By a Decree of the Congregation for Seminaries and Universities, this study centre became the Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies (IPEO). In 1964, the Institute was transferred to Rome where it occupied a small building in Viale XXX Aprile and changed its name to the Pontifical Institute for Arabic Studies (IPEA) so as not to be confused with the Pontifical Oriental Institute. At the same time, the core of the library which had been established in Tunis in 1950 was also transferred and, from then on, underwent a sizeable increase. Since 1979, thanks to the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana, the Institute was given its current name Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (PISAI).