Ishmael is not the Father of the Arabs

Ishmael is not the Father of the Arabs

The commonly held view that Ishmael was the father of the Arab nations is not supported by the Bible, nor by other historical evidence.

A Common Assumption

For centuries, many Muslims, Christians and Jews have taken it for granted that the Arabs descended from Abraham through Ishmael. As Gerald Hawting put it:

“The idea that the Arabs are the physical descendants of Abraham through Ishmael is indeed taken by many, non-Muslims as well as Muslims, as a genealogical and historical fact.”

Authors and teachers often treat the word Ishmael as a kind of code for Islam or Muslims. Examples of book titles which reflect this are Faisal Malick’s Here Comes Ishmael, a call to Christians to reach out to Muslims, Martin Gilbert’s In Ishmael’s House, a history of the Jews under Islam, and Israel and Ishmael: Studies in Muslim-Jewish Relations, edited by Tudor Parfitt. In the same vein, and over a thousand years ago, John of Damascus, writing after the conquest of Syria by Muslim armies, wrote a treatise on Islam called The Heresy of the Ishmaelites.

Grist for the Preacher’s Mill

Many Christian teachers have looked to Genesis for prophetic anticipations of the trajectory of the Arabs and of Islam. On the one hand there is the blessing for Ishmael in Genesis 17:20: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” This is in line with God’s promise to Hagar that her son’s descendants will be too numerous to count (Genesis 16:10).

On the other hand, they have also looked to Genesis 16:12, in which an angel prophesies to Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, that her son will be “a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him”. Then later, Genesis 25:18 reports that the Ishmael’s descendants “lived in hostility towards all their brothers.” Preachers have also traced the spiritual roots of the conflict between Muslims and Jews back to the rejection of Hagar and her son by Abraham and Sarah. Some even trace the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the rivalry between Isaac and Ishmael and their competing blessings. Fact or fantasy?

How Did This All Begin?

According to Sir Fergus Millar, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Oxford University, it was Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the first century CE, who first advanced the idea that Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs. In The Antiquities of the Jews Josephus stated that Ishmael was ‘the founder’ of the Arabian nation, and Abraham was ‘their father’. From Josephus, this assumed connection between the Arabs and Abraham, through Ishmael, passed into the historical consciousness of Christians, and then made its way into early Islam.

The Qur’an does not speak of Ishmael or Abraham as ancestors of the Arabs – although it does have Abraham and Ishmael praying for Allah to make their descendants a Muslim people – but a link is established in the hadith literature. Muhammad sometimes called Arabs ‘offspring of Ishmael’, and a hadith in the Sahih Bukhari reports that Ishmael lived with his mother at Mecca for a time, where he learnt Arabic from a pre-existing Arab tribe, the Jurhum.  This account implies that Arabs already existed before Ishmael. Later Islamic traditions traced the descent of some but not all Arabs, including Muhammad himself, back to Ishmael.  Thus Abraham and Ishmael came to be considered, in Islamic tradition, not only a spiritual antecedent of Muhammad as an Islamic prophet, but also the physical ancestor of some but not all Arabs.

What does the Bible say?

The Bible speaks both of Ishmaelites, the descendants of Ishmael, and of Arabs, but does not join them together.  I. Ephʿal has pointed out that the references to Ishmaelites are earlier in the Bible, and the references to Arabs later. Both refer to non-sedentary, nomadic peoples, but they are separated by centuries. Ephʿal concludes that references to ‘Ishmaelites’ cease by the mid 10th century BCE, and the references to ‘Arabs’ only commence in the mid-8th century BCE, so “there is no historical basis to the tradition of associating Ishmaelites with the Arabs”.†

The Bible does link the Ishmaelites with the Midianites, using these names as synonyms in two places. Genesis describes Joseph as being sold to a caravan of camel-riding Ishmaelites who are also called Midianites (Genesis 37:25–28, 36; 39:1; see also Judges 8:22-24).

Related Tribes – Abraham’s Kin

In Genesis, the identity of people groups is often traced back to an ancestor, and the group is then named after this ancestor. How do the Ishmaelites fit into this pattern? Genesis associates various descendants and relatives of Abraham with people groups. These include:

Abraham’s sons:

– Ishmael, ancestor of the Ishmaelites (language unidentifiable).
– Midian, ancestor of the Midianites (language unidentifiable).
Isaac, father of Jacob (Israel), ancestor of the Israelites (language family: Canaanite); & father of Esau, ancestor of the Edomites (language family: Canaanite).

Lot’s sons (Lot was the son of Abraham’s cousin Haran):

– Moab, ancestor of the Moabites (language family: Canaanite).
– Ben-Amm, ancestor of the Ammonites (language family: Canaanite).

Note that the identifiable languages associated with groups descended from Abraham and his nephew Lot are members of a closely related family known in Semitic linguistics as ‘Canaanite’* languages. These were very similar and could have been mutually comprehensible. The Moabite and Ammonite languages, associated with the descendants of Lot through his two sons, are in the same group as Edomite, associated with Esau, and Hebrew, associated with Jacob or Israel. This suggests that the Ishmaelites would have been speakers of a Canaanite dialect as well, like all the other branches of Abraham’s family.

Furthermore, there is evidence in Genesis 31:47 that Abraham spoke a Canaanite dialect,  in contrast to his kinsman Laban, who spoke Aramaic, because the heap of stones they erect is given a Hebrew name, Galeed, by Abraham, and an Aramaic name, Jegarsahadutha, by Laban.

Although Arabic is related to Canaanite languages, the connection is more distant. Canaanite languages are grouped together with Aramaic and Amorite to form a  Semitic subfamily known as Northwest Semitic. Then, further back in time, this grouping in its turn was connected to Arabic in a subfamily known as Central Semitic.

Historical linguists have dated the separation of Arabic from Northwest Semitic around a thousand years earlier than the period when the Canaanite languages diverged from each other. This means at the time of Abraham, Arabic already existed as a separate linguistic group.  This is not consistent with Ishmael being the father of the Arabs, because it means that Arabic goes back to a much early branching of the Semitic family than the divisions between the members of Abraham’s family.

Even if one discounts the historicity of origin stories of these tribes, which the Bible uses to connect them to the family of Abraham, what is still clear is that the author(s) of the Torah had an understanding that certain tribes were related to each other, and this sense of relatedness needs to be taken into account. For example Deuteronomy 23:7 warns “Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you.” The same word ’aḥ ‘brother, kin, related, of the same tribe’ is used in connection with Ishmael’s descendants in Genesis 25:18, who were said to be in hostility to their kin. The implication is that the Ishmaelites were considered to be related to the tribes associated with them in Genesis, i.e. the Israelites, the Edomites, Moabites, Midianites and Ammonites.  The simplest and most obvious explanation is that these groups, together with the Ishmaelites, spoke manifestly similar dialects.  It seems significant that the Amorites, whose language sits closer  to Hebrew than Arabic in the Semitic family, was nevertheless not considered to be one of the Abrahamic peoples, but this group’s descent is traced through Ham (Genesis 10:16).  The origin stories of Genesis are evidence, admittedly circumstantial, that the Ishmaelites spoke a dialect recognisably similar to those spoken by the other tribes which Genesis links to Abraham’s family.

What happened to the Ishmaelites?

Over time, Arabic speakers displaced some of earlier Canaanite nations, including the Moabites and the Edomites, who had dwelled around Arabah rift valley and the Dead Sea. The Edomites were pushed to the north, into the southern edge of Judea, which became known known in Greek as Idumea. It seems that the Ishmaelites had been displaced centuries earlier.

Conclusion

There is a moral in this story for the unwary, who might seek to find keys to the present in Genesis. It is this: the dysfunctional travails of Abraham’s family are not the place to seek out the spiritual roots of present-day Middle East conflicts.

To answer the question “Is Ishmael (or Abraham) the father of the Arabs”, a Muslim might well turn to and be satisfied with Islamic authorities such as the hadith. But a Christian or a Jew might well ask whether they want Josephus to be their master and guide on this point.

The evidence indicates that Ishmael was not the father of the Arabs, and neither was Abraham. The Ishmaelites were probably Canaanites,* speaking, not an early form of Arabic, but a dialect similar to Hebrew. In time they disappeared or were absorbed into other groups, like so many other ancient peoples. Much later Josephus invoked Ishmael’s name to conjure up a genealogy for the Arabs. He has a lot to answer for. The rest, as they say, is history.

—–

* The term Canaanite is used here in the linguistic sense, for a group of closely related languages, not in the sense of Genesis, where it refers to the pre-existing peoples of Canaan at the time of the Exodus.  In the sense used here, Hebrew was a Canaanite language. Only some of the peoples in Canaan spoke Canaanite languages in the sense used here. For example the Hittites were not linguistic Canaanites, because their language was unrelated (Hittite was related to Greek and Latin). However Genesis considers the Hittites to be Canaanites, in the Biblical sense of a people living in Canaan.

†Ephʿal points out that the names of the sons of Ishmael listed in Genesis 25 bear some similarities to names of certain tribes identified by as Arabs by Assyrian sources, but concludes that the introduction of the sons’ names into Genesis was a later insertion, ‘more in the nature of an ethnological “midrash” on  Ishmael.’ Ephʿal cites inconsistencies between the region and places associated with the sons of Ishmael in Genesis 25:13–16, and the region and places associated with the Ishmaelites elsewhere in the Bible.

Want to learn more?  Here are some sources used in this article.

Blažec, Václav. 2012. ‘Afroasiatic migrations: Linguistic evidence.’ Conference paper presented at Rethinking Africa’s Transcontinental Continuities in Pre- and Protohistory, University of Leiden.

Ephʿal, I., 1976. ‘“Ishmael” and the “Arab(s)”: A transformation of ethnological terms’. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 35(4): 225-235.

Hawting, Gerald. 2010.‘The Religion of Abraham and Islam.’ In Martin Goodman, George H. van Kooten, and Jacques T. A. G. M. van Ruiten (eds.), Abraham, the Nations, and the Hagarites: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Perspectives on Kinship with Abraham, 477-501.  Leiden: Brill.

Kitchen, Andrew, Christoper Ehret, Shiferaw Assefa and Connie J. Mulligan. 2009. ‘Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East.’ Proceedings of the Royal Society 276: 2703-2710.

Millar, Fergus, 2006. ‘Hagar, Ishmael, Josephus, and the origins of Islam’. In Fergus Millar, Hannah H. Cotton, and Guy MacLean Rogers, Rome, the Greek World and the East. Vol. 3. The Greek World, the Jews and the East, 351-377. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

 

Dr. Mark Durie is an academic, human rights activist, Anglican pastor, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Adjunct Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

13 Comments
  • Deborah Hurn
    Posted at 12:49h, 07 March Reply

    ‘Arab’ from Hbw verb עָרַב ‘to intermix’ (Dan 2:43) is basically any combination of the lines of Shem and Ham, two of the three sons of Noah. Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, was Egyptian, Mizraim (‘Egypt’) being one of the sons of Ham. Ishmael’s father, Abraham, was from Shem, i.e. a Semite, so Ishmael was an Arab… a Shem-Ham mix. Nebaioth, the son of Ishmael, is the likely progenitor of the Arabian tribe of Nabataeans. Ishmael was the first ‘Arab’ whose story is told in the Bible, but there were other branches, other blends of Shem and Ham, known from biblical genealogies, e.g. the table of nations in Genesis 10.
    Abraham had six sons to his other slave-wife Keturah, probably a Cushite (Cush was a son of Ham), so those sons of Abraham were Arabs too. Midian was one of these sons. Some 6-7 generations later, Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah, was pejoratively called a ‘Cushite’ by Moses’ sister Miriam, thus indicating Midian’s and hence Keturah’s likely ancestry from Cush.
    Esau, a Semite like his twin brother Jacob, married into Ishmael’s line (Gen 28:8-9), and his descendants were therefore also considered to be Arabs, e.g. Amalek. Jacob, however, went back to Mesopotamia for wives, who were probably all Semites. Esau also had Canaanite wives (Gen 26:34). The Canaanites were also Hamites (Canaan was another son of Ham). The migration path of the descendants of Ham seems to have been across the Arabian peninsula to Canaan and down into Africa.
    Summary: Any blend of Ham and Shem were considered Arabs. Ishmael was an Arab, the first of interest to the biblical authors and therefore came to stand for all Arabs. Hence the interchangeable terms “Ishmaelite” and “Midianite” even though these were Arab nations through different mothers (Gen 37:25–28, 36; 39:1; Jdg 8:22-24). What did they all have in common? Abraham, their Semitic ancestor, and Hamite ancestry. Josephus was drawing on the common understanding of the times, largely derived from biblical records.

    • Mark Durie
      Posted at 13:38h, 07 March Reply

      It’s an interesting but highly speculative theory. However there is no evidence that Ishmaelite was considered to be an ‘Arab’.
      BTW there are quite a few errors in the table of nations in Genesis 9-10, putting groups together that we know were completely unrelated linguistically (e.g. putting the Hittites in with the Canaanites), and separating groups that were closely related (e.g. the Amorites and the Hebrews are separated but they were very close linguistically).
      Nebaioth is a different set of sounds from nabaṭī ‘Nabataean’, and most scholars agree that these two terms are unrelated. This was Josephus’ error, and example of folk etymology, where someone sees a connection between words that is not real. E.g. calling asparagus ‘sparrow grass’.
      I suspect ‘Arab could perhaps be derived from a region, the ‘Arabah.The word is the same, with the feminine ending -ah, commonly used for places. The ‘Arabah is the rift valley which contains the Dead Sea. It is very close to the original homeland of Arabic, based on historical evidence.

  • Apocrypha
    Posted at 00:16h, 09 March Reply

    Language does not determine ancestry. I’m not particularly concerned with whether Arabs descend from Ishmael or not. But this argument is weak. Modern Arabic is a heavy mutation of Nabatean which is itself a heavily mutated Aramaic. The history of “Arabic” is problematic because antecedents don’t exist until the last centuries of the BC era. At the very least, it’s not attested well. There’s no reason to assume that language cannot take over a foreign ethnic group,

    • Mark Durie
      Posted at 06:56h, 09 March Reply

      It is certainly not true that Arabic is a mutated form of Nabataean Aramaic. That is true of the script – the written letters – only. The Nabataeans spoke Arabic as their mother tongue and wrote in Aramaic for centuries: they were bilingual. Today all scholars who work in this field agree on this. Just because a language does not have a written history doesn’t mean its spoken pre-history cannot be reconstructed. It can, using the methods of historical linguistics. Your point about language and ethnicity is a valid one, however the concept of ‘Arab’ identity is connected to the use of the Arabic language. (Of course the ancestors of a great many Arabic speakers today were not Arabic speakers 1400 years ago, so they would not have been considered Arabs at the time.) My argument is that it is extremely unlikely that the Ishmaelites spoke some kind of early Arabic, for the reasons given in this article. Since the concept of ‘Arab’ identity is indeed tied to the use of Arabic, it would be wrong to call Ishmaelites Arabs.

  • Souzan Abdelmassih
    Posted at 14:59h, 10 March Reply

    Excellent research as always.
    Thank you Rev mark Durie

  • Andrew Reid
    Posted at 15:08h, 11 March Reply

    Hi Mark,
    This is Andrew Reid, who used to serve in the Middle East with CMS. I had an email conversation with our vicar (very confusingly named the Rev. Andrew Reid!) about this same topic. I include his support for the theory of Arabs descent from Ismail below. I haven’t studied the topic enough to be form a conclusive opinion myself.
    If you want me to send you the article from Anchor Bible Dictionary he refers to, let me know.
    Best wishes,
    Andrew

    >>>
    The evidence for Arabs coming from Ishmael largely comes from the association of various known Arab tribes known from later times bearing the same names as the list of descendants of Ismael listed in Genesis. A very interesting article on this occurs in the Anchor Bible Dictionary and I’ve attached it for you (even more fascinating because it builds on the research of Bill Dumbrell’s PhD thesis). Of course it is not conclusive but it shows the way in which scholars have come to the conclusions that they have.

    • Mark Durie
      Posted at 17:23h, 11 March Reply

      Hi Andrew – Not all scholars. The article by Eph’al, referenced in my post, discusses and rejects apparent similarities between names of some people groups in Assyrian inscriptions sometimes identified as Arabs, known from later times, as your vicar explains, and the sons of Ishmael. Some do compare Nebaioth, the first of Ishmael’s sons, with the (Arabic speaking) Nabataeans, but the phonological correspondences are all wrong. The Arabic is NBṬW, and the Hebrew is NBYT-H. The ‘t’ vs ‘ṭ’ is a mismatch and the ‘y’ is missing in the Arabic. Mark

  • Deborah Hurn
    Posted at 17:41h, 11 March Reply

    Mark, there are other biblical names that have the wrong letter but a similar sound. The dual phonetic versions of the Edomite toponyms Avith [עֲוִית] / Oboth [אֹבֹת] and Tophel [תֹּפֶל] / Tafileh [Arabic] suggest dialectical uncertainty in the oral transmission of one or both records. If Tophel (Deut 1:1) is generally accepted as Tafileh in the Transjordan despite different ‘t’ sounds ( Simons, 1959, p. 255 n. 223) and Oboth (Num 21:10-11; 33:43-45) is likewise probably Avith (Gen 36:31, 35; 1 Chr 1:46) despite different gutturals, then Nebaioth can be the father of the Nabataeans. That these are all Edomite names indicates uncertainty on the part of the Hebrew scribes on how best to represent the sounds of the proto-Arabic speakers.

    • Mark Durie
      Posted at 18:57h, 11 March Reply

      Hi Deborah. We do have some Edomite inscriptions, and the language is considered to have been a Canaanite dialect, close to Hebrew. See e.g. http://multitree.org/codes/xdm. So Hebrew speakers would have had no problem rendering Edomite words accurately. It seems very implausible and עֲוִית and אֹבֹת would be the same name: the equation seems highly speculative as two out of three consonants don’t correlate. As for the identification of Tophel and Ṭafilah — I don’t know enough to comment, but it seems less speculative. It is also a guess, not a certainty. The argument that Arabic /ṭ/ could spontaneously change to /t/ in Hebrew by borrowing, when Hebrew distinguishes these two sounds, and for which the correspondences between Hebrew and Arabic are straightforward (see e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semitic_languages#Consonants) – this requires more evidence to be convincing.

  • Deborah Hurn
    Posted at 19:12h, 11 March Reply

    Much depends on chronological assumptions, Mark. So many fields in biblical studies, including linguistics, assume a Late Bronze Age (LBA) Canaan and an Iron Age (IA) Israel. This will be increasingly challenged in coming years. The archaeological fit between the biblical accounts and the pattern of remains for these eras is appalling, about as bad as it can be. Where the Bible says civilisation is on the rise (e.g. Solomon), archaeology says it is in collapse. Where the Bible describes heavily fortified city-states in Canaan, archaeology documents poor or absent remains. This disconnect is driving much of the skepticism and revisionism we see in biblical studies.

  • Julie
    Posted at 23:59h, 14 March Reply

    Why not mentioning Saba and Dedan? They seem relevant for the discussion, no? If the Achemenids and Romans called Northrn Arabia and for the seconds, the full Peninsula “Arabia”, they had their reasons. If the descendants of Madian etc were called at some point “Arabs” by Josephus and others, it reflects a reality that is slightly more tangible than legends about Abraham and his genealogy.

  • Free Man
    Posted at 21:47h, 23 September Reply

    The angel of the Lord told Hagar that she would bear Ishmael and he would be a wild man and he would always be in conflict with his fellowman. As Jews, Arabs and Christians attest, as does revelation from God, Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations and further confirmation is in the fact that the Arab nations cannot live in peace with themselves, nor with any other nation. Just like in Abraham’s home millenia ago, their hand is at the throat of the Jewish people today, causing incalculable suffering and heartache.. The two Arabic tribes, the Berbers and the Moors, invaded Spain and by the time of Columbus they were deported from Spain to the New World, which was utilized as a penal colony. Today, many Hispanics in the United States, whose ancestors often came to America illegally from Mexico and other Latin America countries, are literal descendants of Ishmael.

    And by the way, my son went to Israel to volunteer at an archaeological site and one day there was a deafening boom nearby and a cloud of dust shot up into the sky… a Muslim terrorist detonated a bomb strapped to his body and obliterated four innocent people and wounded many others.

    So yes, the trouble in the Middle East can be understood in the context of what took place in the Book of Genesis.

  • Daniel
    Posted at 07:01h, 18 August Reply

    Well actually, Arabs did not even come into existence until over 2,000 years after Abraham purportedly existed. The Arabic .language did not evolve until around the 5th century C.E. A language is a necessary identifier for a people, so no language, not the same people.

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