Misconception: Arabs are descended from Ishmael. Both Jewish and Arab tradition say this.
Truth: The modern Arab nation has no connection to Ishmael. Neither Jewish nor Arab tradition makes such a claim.
According to Jewish tradition G-d promised that Ishmael would be the ancestor of a great nation (Gen 20:17 ). This was the Ishmaelite nation (Gen 37:25 et al. ), an ancient Hebrew people who lived in the desert regions of Biblical Israel (Gen 25:18) - it was not the modern Arab nation! The modern Arab nation only came into being in late antiquity, it did not exist in Biblical times [2a]. The Ishmaelites lived in twelve encampments named after Ishmael's sons - Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. They had indeed become a great nation during the days of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt (Gen 25:12-18, 1 Ch 1:29-31 ).
What happened to the Ishmaelites? In the book of Judges we start to see evidence that they were assimilating into other peoples - the Midianites against whom Gideon fought are said to be Ishmaelites (Jdg 8:24 ). David's sister Abigail was married to an Ishmaelite (1 Ch 2:17 ). The last time we find mention of a distinct Ishmaelite identity in history is during the reign of David (Psa 83:7, 1 Ch 2:17, 1 Ch 27:30 ). The people of Jetur and Naphish, together with those of the region called Nodab, had by that stage become a separate group to the Ishmaelites, called Hagrites (Psa 83:7, 1 Ch 5:19 ) - a name derived from Hagar, the mother of Ishmael (Gen 25:12-15 ). They had been conquered during the days of Saul by the Israelites of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh in Gilead with many being killed (1 Ch 5:10-22 ). As with the Ishmaelites, a distinct Hagrite identity is last mentioned during the reign of David - the last Ishmaelite (1 Ch 25:30 ) and last Hagrite (1 Ch 25:31 ) to be mentioned being servants of David listed together with Israelite servants (1 Ch 27:25-31 ).(The Agraeans and Gerrhaeans mentioned by classical historians are not the Hagrites , but two distinct peoples living in the An-Nafud desert and the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf respectively, many centuries after the absorption of the Hagrites by the Israelites  .)
During the reign of Solomon we find that the outlying desert regions of Israel where the Ishmaelites had lived, called the 'Arav (2 Ch 9:14, Isa 12:13 et al. ), had become inhabited by a people of mixed origin, an 'erev (1Ki 10:15 ). These people were also called 'Arvim (Neh 4:1 ), a name harking back to both 'erev and 'Arav. The name 'Arav became Arabia in Greek and the word 'Arvim is usually translated as Arabians or Arabs. This is the main cause of the misconception that the modern Arabs are descended from the Ishmaelites. However it must be emphasized that in the same way that that Brittany in France is not Britain and the Bretons are not the British, and in the same way that Dutch is not Deutsch and Romania is not Rome, so too this Arabia of the Tanach was not the modern Arabia i.e. the Arabian peninsula, nor were these Biblical Arabians the modern Arabs. It was the desert region north of the Arabian peninsula (Isa 21:13-17 ). In the classical period the meaning of the name Arabia came to include the Arabian peninsula and the word Arabian came to be used for all the different nations of the region [5a]. The former Ishmaelite regions came to be known as Nabatene [6b] and the 'Arvim came to be known as Nabateans. In more recent times Arabia has come to be used only for the Arabian peninsula - the homeland of the modern Arab people. The modern Arabs are 'Aravim in Hebrew, not 'Arvim.
Another factor contributing to the misconception that the Arabs are Ishmaelites, is the use by Jewish writers of the name Ishmaelites for Muslims (regardless of ethnicity)  . This was partly a pun resulting from the similarity of the names and partly the Jewish practice of using the names of extinct ancient peoples for new peoples they encountered. Similarly the Crusaders were called Edomites  even though the original Edomites had been converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus I and had subsequently disappeared by assimilating into the Jewish people many centuries earlier [2b].
The 'Arvim of the Tanach were only partly descended from the Ishmaelites which is precisely why they are called mixed people and not Ishmaelites. Josephus refers to Ishmael as their founder, not ancestor. Indeed he refers to the descendants of Ishmael as an Arabian people (meaning a people who had lived in the region called Arabia), not the Arabian people [6b]. Further ethnic mixing occurred as a result of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions and their practice of transplanting peoples: The Assyrians captured the people of Adbeel and used them to guard the approaches to Egypt [10a]. Massa and Tema had also been conquered by the Assyrians [10b] [10d]. All the people of the former Hagrite regions were displaced as result of the Assyrian invasion (1 Ch 5:22 ). The Assyrians exiled many people from Kedar [11a] (v. Isa 21:16 ) and later the Babylonians laid waste to the region and the people fled (Jer 49:28-33 ).
Two of the names of former Ishmaelite encampments survived into later times: Kedar  (Eze 27:21 ) and Tema, the latter is still in use today [10d]. The names of certain other regions in Nabatene during the classical period are suspected of being derived from the names of Ishmaelite encampments: Iturea and Domatha are possibly derived from Jetur [13a] and Dumah [14a] respectively and Nabatene itself is possibly derived from Nebaioth [15a]. However, there are other proposed derivations of these names [14a] [16a] . Certain divisions of the Nabateans were named after these regions: The Kedarenes (Kedar), Itureans (Iturea) and Dumathii (Domatha). (No group is associated with Tema despite the survival of the name - under the Babylonian king Nabonidus it had become a Babylonian outpost with a Jewish mercenary army .) None of these peoples are pure descendants of the original Ishmaelites of those regions - in the case of the former Hagrite regions, the previous population had been absorbed into the Jews who were later displaced by the Assyrians (1 Ch 5:10-22) Nor are any of these people the ancestors of the modern Arabs. Most of the Nabateans were absorbed into the Jewish people during the Hasmonean and Herodian periods. The Nabatean group known as the Zabadeans were the first, having already been conquered by Jonathan Maccabeus around 143 BCE (1 Ma 12:31 )  [6e]). The Itureans had been converted to Judaism by the High Priest John Hyrcanus I around 126 BCE [6c]  and by his son King Judah Aristobulus in 104-103 BCE [6d] . During the Herodian period, Iturea became a Jewish tetrarchy [5b]. Many other Nabateans had been conquered by King Jonathan (Alexander Jannaeus), the brother of Aristobulus, and became Jews . The mother of Herod the Great was a Nabatean [23a] as was one of the wives of Herod Antipas [6f]. The Dumathii were merely a geographical division of the Nabateans mentioned only once in history (by Porphyry in the 3rd century CE ) after which they disappear as a distinct group. The last time the Kedarenes appear in history is in 5th century CE where they are mentioned by Theodoret as living near Babylonia and worshipping heavenly bodies [11a]. The last pagans in Arabia were killed by the Muslims  although the Kedarenes might have already been extinct by the time Islam arrived. The remaining Nabateans who did not become Jewish eventually converted to Christianity   and became part of the Byzantine Greek and Syriac cultures    [44a] . The last remnant of the Nabateans at Petra were a small group of Christian monks who were conquered by the Muslims . The last remaining traditionally Nabatean cities were destroyed in an earthquake in 747 CE . The Arabs used the term Nabatean as a name for the Syriac people in general [44a], the last use of the term being in 900 CE .
Jewish sources in fact tell us that the earliest inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula were descended from Raamah the son of Cush the son of Ham [6a] [10c] (Gen 10:6-7 ), not Ishmael. Later the population of Arabia was supplemented by descendants of a man named Joktan who was descended from Shem (Gen 10:22-30 ). (Raamah and Joktan were remembered in Arabia in the names of places bearing their names: Raamah (Eze 27:22) - which lay near Ma'in [10c] - and the Seat of Joktan, the ruins of which are near Mecca.) From the Romans we know that by the 4th century CE Arabia was dominated by Saracens, a people originally of African origin. Thus the population from which the modern Arab nation emerged was a blend of different ethnic groups having no connection to Ishmael.
In addition, the so-called Druze and Shi'ite "Arabs" are mainly of Persian extraction   and many so-called Christian "Arabs" are in fact of European extraction . Many other people viewed by westerners as "Arabs" are really Berbers, Nubians, Copts or Assyrians who claim to be distinct from the Arab nation.
Arab historians divide the peoples of Arabia into three groups :
- 'Arab Ba'ida - lost Arabians
- 'Arab 'Ariba - genuine Arab Arabians
- 'Arab Musta'riba - Arabians who became Arab
The first are the extinct ancient peoples of Arabia, the later Arabians being members of the other two groups . The second are the southern Arabians  who were the first people of the Arabian peninsula to consider themselves part of the modern Arab nation. The term Arab as a name for their nation means "those who speak clearly" in contrast to other nations who were called Ajam meaning "ones who lack distinctive patterns of speech" . The term Arabian, referring to all inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula whether Ba'ida, 'Ariba or Musta'riba, is in fact a different word. The third are the northern Arabians  - the people who assimilated into the original Arabs of the south. Northern here refers to the region of Mecca and Medina , not Nabatene where the Ishmaelites had lived.
Response: The North Arabians trace their lineage back to Kedar, who settled in Arabia see Ezekiel 27:21 and Jeremiah 49:28. After Kedar, Adnan was the ancestor of these Northern Arab tribes.
Arab historians trace the beginning of the Arab nation to a man named Qahtan, the ancestor of the original Arabs of the south  not to Ishmael. The northern Arabians were traced to a man named Adnan . Before the rise of Islam there were no claims linking either of these men to the ancient ancestors of the Arabian peoples mentioned in Jewish traditions.
Islamic interest in Ishmael resulted from Muslim ignorance of the detailed history of Abraham well known to Jews and Christians. The account of the binding of Isaac in the Koran does not mention Isaac by name, merely a "son" . Differences of opinion developed amongst Muslim writers as to who this "son" was. Some favoured Isaac while others argued that it was Ishmael . The latter opinion became the dominant one with Muslims being unaware that it was well known to Jews and Christians that it was in fact Isaac (Gen 22:2 ). Islam thus attaches far more importance to Ishmael than he ever deserved. Muslim writers then attempted to link their holy city, Mecca, and their shrine, the Ka'ba, to Abraham and Ishmael. A story claiming that Hagar and Ishmael had settled in the region of Mecca was invented. This story further claimed that Ishmael married two Arab women of the clan of Jurhum and that he and Abraham rebuilt the Ka'ba which they claim had originally been built by Adam  [36a].This was all false revisionist history. It contradicted the centuries-old established history that Ishmael had settled in the wilderness of Paran in the Sinai and had married an Egyptian woman (Gen 21:21 ). It also contradicted the fact that the Ka'ba had been a pagan temple before Islam [35a] with no known tradition connecting it to Abraham, Adam or anyone else in Jewish history.
Response: This isn't true, the Arabs long before Islam beelived that Abraham had bulit the Kabba. For proof see Yahya Snows blog and the fact that the Hadith do show pictures of Abraham and Ishamel on their walls. Also this is Well first of all, this begs the question that whatever the book of Genesis have said is true. From a purely historical perspective, we would have to conclude: WE DON'T KNOW the final dwelling of Ishameal, Hagar or whether they were in Mecca or not. It's possible they were put there and then they started moving around all over in Arabia and the Fertile Crescent, who knows. JUST BECAUSE A STORY IS NOT FOUND IN THE BOOK OF GENESIS OR THE BIBLE EVEN IT DOES NOT FOLLOW THAT IT IS A LEGEND.
Muslim writers then wanted to determine the genealogy of Mohammed. To this end they tried to establish a link from Mohammed to Abraham via Ishmael. They agreed that Mohammed was descended from Adnan by paternal lineage  . This is an assumption based on Mohammed being a northern Arabian. However, considering that new migrants had entered Arabia (e.g. the Saracens who came from Africa) and had intermingled with previous inhabitants, it is a completely unjustified assumption. Mohammed himself did not have any real knowledge of descent from Adnan. When the people of Banu Fuhayrah told Mohammed that he belonged to their clan he denied it and instead claimed that the angel Gabriel had told him that he was of the house of Mudar (a family descended from Adnan) . Moreover Islamic sources provide at least three contradictory genealogies tracing Mohammed to Adnan . Besides minor differences in the rendition of names, the genealogies contain different numbers of generations. The differences result from the varied inclusion of names - e.g. one genealogy omits Mudar and only one includes Quraysh. One can attempt to reconcile such differences by claiming that each genealogy is incomplete but this merely confirms that they are untrustworthy. Moreover, Muslim writers were unclear as to when Adnan had lived. One tradition makes his son Ma'add a contemporary of Nebuchadnezzar while another makes this son a contemporary of 'Isa ibn Maryam - the Islamic version of Jesus son of Mary. Next, an attempt was made to trace Adnan to Abraham via Ishmael. Numerous contradictory genealogies were produced. Again, besides minor differences in the rendition of names, there are varying numbers of generations. In the traditional Islamic sources one finds genealogies containing four, seven, nine, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty or forty generations . One modern source goes as far as making Adnan the son of Ishmael ignoring the established history that Ishmael had twelve sons, none named Adnan (Gen 25:12-18, 1 Ch 1:29-31 ). The shorter traditional genealogies giving 25 or fewer generations between Mohammed and Abraham are in fact unreasonably short considering the typical lengths of generations and the fact that Abraham lived in the early second millenium BCE [40a] while Mohammed lived c. 570 - 632 CE [2c]. Some of the variations again result from the varied inclusion of names. Again, arguing that they are incomplete merely confirms that they are unreliable. Moreover there are more serious variances: Many genealogies trace Adnan to a certain Nabit or Nabt, whose name is understood to be the Arabic form of Nebaioth  . Some claim that this is the son of Ishmael, but others trace Adnan to Ishmael's son Kedar instead with no mention of Nabit  . One writer attempts to reconcile the difference by equating Nabit with Kedar , ignoring the established history that Ishmael's sons Nebaioth (Nabit) and Kedar are two different people (Gen 25:12-18, 1 Ch 1:29-31 ). Others make Nabit a son or grandson of Kedar. There are also further variances that cannot simply be reconciled as they involve lists of unrelated names  . Several Muslim writers were highly skeptical of these proposed genealogies. Some refused to use them at all. One pointed out that they were pure conjecture and that no one had any true knowledge of Arab genealogy past Adnan and Qahtan. Another went as far as saying outright that the genealogists had lied! Some point out that the link to Ishmael results from identifying a certain alleged ancestor of Adnan named A'raq al-Thara with Ishmael. This is done on the reasoning that Thara means moist earth and since Abraham was not consumed by hell-fire and fire does not consume moist earth, A'raq al-Thara must be Ishmael son of Abraham - logic worthy of a Monty Python comedy sketch!   (One is left wondering if perhaps the stories placing Ishmael at Mecca were not originally about A'raq al-Thara.)
The unreliability of Islamic genealogy is further seen in their genealogy of Abraham. One modern source incorrectly makes him the son of Shem , missing eight generations (1 Ch 1:24-27 ). Traditional sources accept the historical genealogy but they equate Abraham's father Terah with a certain Azar from Arab tradition and they equate Enoch (the great grandfather of Noah) with their prophet Idris, all without any justification  . Muslim writers also wished to establish the genealogy of Qahtan. They simply equated him with Joktan . This is based on the superficial similarities of the names. Yet the names are clearly distinct and have different roots. Indeed Muslim sources are well aware that the Arabic form of Joktan is really Yaqtan , not Qahtan. (Moreover the Hebrew equivalent of Qahtan is well known to be Kachtan not Joktan.) However the misconception that Qahtan is Joktan persists.
In pre-Islamic times, no mention had ever been made of Ishmael being the ancestor of the Arabs  . The Arabs were not even familiar with Ishmael before coming into contact with Christians as is seen from the fact that their name for him, Ismail, is derived from either the Greek or Syriac form .
Response: This isn't true. Pre-Islamic Poetry does mention Ishamel and his son Kedar as the ancestor of the Northern Arabs. Kedar the son of Ishmael setteled in Arabia and Kedar's son Adnan grew up in Mecca and from Adnan the Hijazi Arabs trace their descent. Prophet Muhammad was not a Pure Arab, rather a Arabized Arab. Some famous noble Adnanite families from the Qureshi group are Alnazi, and Banu Hashim-- the family of the Prophet Muhammad. As for the confusion of Ibn Ishaq, one of the descants of Kedar was Nebaioth, so Ibn Ishaq and other Biographers could have confused that. But Historically Kedar was in Arabia, and we have genelogical records from Ibn Sad Volume 1, Pages 50-55 and Al Tabari Volume 4, Pages 38-43 which trace Adnan back to Kedar.
As we have seen, in the post-Islamic period the erroneous idea had now come into being that Adnan, the ancestor of the northern Arabians, was descended from Ishmael. This still falls short of claiming that Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs. Qahtan was still recognized as the ancestor of the original Arabs of the south. Indeed the Islamic stories about Ishmael place the Jurhumite Arabs in the region of Mecca when he arrives . Thus the much heard modern claim that Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs is a further error resulting from oversimplification or ignorance of Arab traditions regarding their descent from Qahtan and of the story of the Jurhumites at Mecca.
Response: The North Adnan Arabs always traced their linegage back to Kedar thru Pre-Islamic Poetry (See Al Tabari Volume 4, pages 38-43). Adnan was always considered the ancestor of the North Arabs. As for the Jurhumities, they did exist before Islam, see the WIKIPEDIA article for more on this.
To sum up, the claim that the Arabs are descended from Ishmael has no sound historical basis and contradicts both Jewish and traditional Arab history. Even the claim that he was the ancestor of the northern Arabians (who assimilated into the Arabs) is based on false genealogy.
Suggested Further Reading
- Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, The Learning Company, Cambridge MA, 1998
- The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, Doubleday Books, June 2002, vol. 3 p.24
- Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, online edition: Bartleby.com, New York, 2002
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, in Flavii Iosephi opera, ed. B. Niese, Weidmann, Berlin, 1892
- Jerusalem Sacred City of Mankind: A History of Forty Centuries, Teddy Kolleck & Moshe Pearlman, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1968, 1975 reprint, p.219-220 (Here we see Rabbi Gedalia in 1720 referring to the Ottoman Turks as Ishmaelites.)
- Maimonides, Letter of Response to Obadiah the Righteous Convert, in Gilyonot of Nechama Leibowitz, Weekly Gilayon for the Study of the Weekly Torah Portion: Parashat Kedoshim (5710-1950) Chapter 19: verses 33-34 Wronging [Ona'at] the Convert, Community Torah Connections, Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora, 2002 (Here we see the Rambam referring to Muslims as Ishmaelites - the Muslim communities of his day were mainly Saracens.)
- Soloman bar Samson, The Crusaders in Mainz, May 27, 1096, in The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, Jacob Marcus, JPS, New York,1938, p. 115-120 (Here we see Soloman bar Samson referring to the Crusaders who murdered Jews in Mainz as Edomites.)
- The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible,.5 volumes including supplement, ed. George A. Buttrick, Abingdon Press, New York. 1962
- entry Adbeel, vol. 1 p. 45
- entry Massa, vol. 3, p. 299
- entry Raamah, vol 4, p. 1
- entry Tema, vol. 4, p. 533
- The Tell el'Maskhuta Bowls and the Kingdom of Qedar in the Persian Period, William J. Dumbrell, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 203, 1971, 33-44 (Here we see an inscription from the Persian Period referring to the king of Kedar.)
- vol 1, chap. 2, footnote 16 (Here Muir suggests that Iturea 'may' be derived from Jetur.)
- Commentary on Isaiah 21, verse 11 (Here the question of the equation of Dumah and Domatha is mentioned as is the possible identification of these with modern Dumah and Dumat Al-Jandal. Modern Dumah and Dumat Al-Jandal are in fact two different localities. Thus while one possibility is that Biblical Dumah is identical to Domatha, another possibility is that they are distinct with Biblical Dumah being identical to modern Dumah and Domatha being identical to Dumat Al-Jandal.)
- entry Nebaioth (Here A. S. Fulton notes that the identification of Nebaioth and the Nabateans is 'widely accepted', while pointing out phonetic difficulties in equating the names.)
- A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, John Lightfoot, 1658, online edition: Philologos Religious Online Books, 1998
- Chorographical Notes, Chapter 1: Of the places mentioned in Luke 3, Iturea (Here John Lightfoot discusses several different possible origins of the name Iturea, none of them having anything to do with Jetur.)
- The Nabateans: A Historical Sketch, Jean Starcky, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, The Biblical Archaeologist, Volume XVIII, December 1955 (Here Jean Starcky assumes that the Nabateans and their name are derived from the southern Arabian people known as the Nabatu and does not even mention a connection with Nebaioth.)
- The Hasmonean Dynasty from (John) Hyrcanus to (Salome) Alexandra (134-67 BCE), in The Intertestamental Period, Barry D. Smith, Atlantic Baptist University, 2002
- A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson, George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited, London, 1987, First Paperback Edition, 1988, p. 108
- Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals, trans. Gillian Clark, Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY, 2000, Book 2, 56
- Petra, Henri-Paul Eydoux, in Vanished Civilizations, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd, Surrey Hills NSW, 1983, p. 187
- Ammianus Marcellinus, The Roman History, Book XIV.iv.1-7, in The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus During the Reigns of The Emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovianus, Valentinian, and Valens, trans. C. D. Yonge, G. Bell & Sons, London, 1911, p. 11-12, online extract in Ancient History Sourcebook: Ancient Accounts of Arabia 430 BCE - 550 CE
- The Druze, Naim Aridi, in The Jewish Virtual Library, The American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2003 (Here it is noted that the Druze are an offshoot of the Ismailis who are a Shi'ite group. The Shi'ites, as we note, are mainly of Persian origin.)
- Holy Wars of Islam, in The Mind Alive Encyclopedia: Early Civilization, ed. Jane Brown, Marshall Cavendish Books Limited, London, 1977 reprint , p.126b (Here it is pointed out that the Shi'ite sects were mainly Persian. In addition most of the original Arab Shi'ites were killed by the Sunnis.)
- Comparitive Dictionary of Islam, in Answering Islam, A Christian Muslim Dialogue and Apologetic, Answering Islam, 1999-2003
- Islam, Alfred Guillaume, Penguin Books Inc., Baltimore, 1956, p. 61-62, online extract in  [36a]
- The Nabateans: History, Prof. Avraham Negev, 2004 (Here it is noted that the remaining Nabateans had adopted the Greek language by the third century CE and had become Christian by the fourth century CE.)
- The Nabateans, Stephen Langfur, Near East Tourist Agency, 2003 (Here it is noted that the last Nabateans assimilated into the (Eastern) Roman world.)
- Nabataean Time Line, Dan Gibson, Nabataea.net, 2004 (Here it is noted that the remaining traditionally Nabatean cities were destroyed by an earthquake in 747 CE and that "Nabateans" are last mentioned in Islamic writings in 900 CE.
- The Online Encyclopedia, Net Industries, 2004 (Based on the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica)
- article Nabataeans (Here it is noted that the Arabs found the remnants of the Nabateans speaking Aramaic and that the term Nabatean came to be used in general for the Aramaean i.e. Syriac population.)