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There's a tradition that the Arabs are descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham. Before Islam, the Arabs did not believe in Yahweh but had their own, polytheistic religions. So why did they have a legend that they were descended from someone from the Hebrew scriptures?

It doesn't make sense to me that they claimed to be part of the Hebrew tradition if they didn't believe in the Hebrew religion. I wonder if someone can explain that.

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    Well, looking around, it looks like Josephus claimed it as well. So there's quite a lot someone could say in a good answer on this, but the short answer looks like it will be "yes". – T.E.D. Feb 23 '17 at 17:36
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    The Talmud refers to Arabs as Children of Yishmael, and it predates Mohammed by centuries. – sds Feb 23 '17 at 18:05
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    Note that pre-Islamic Arabs are not known to leave a lot of writings. Answering such a open question as "why did they do so and so" might have to rely on a lot of guesswork or after-the-fact traditions. – user69715 Feb 23 '17 at 20:48
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    @user69715. There are thousands of inscriptions in ancient North and South Arabian languages. Plus a huge corpus of pre-Islamic poetry. – fdb Feb 23 '17 at 21:46
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    What makes you think that they did? I see plenty of evidence that Jews and Christians thought that Arabs were Ishmaelites, but so far no evidence that Arabs themselves necessarily thought so. Can you edit in a source for your question? – Shimon bM Feb 23 '17 at 22:50
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That is actually a false perception that All Arabs consider themselves to be descendants of Ishmael.

According to Arab traditions, Arabs categorized themselves into two main branches1:

  1. Adnanites عدنانى
  2. Qahtanites - قَحْطَانِي

Among these two, only the Qahtanites, those who are believed to have originated in Southern tips of Arabian peninsula (Mainly Yemen nowadays), were considered to be "original" or "pure" Arabs.

Pictured below, a tree of Qahtanite Arabs and their tribes:

enter image description here

Note the tribal leaders, many of them are founders of important tribes such as Banu-Kalb, Banu Juhainah, Banu Aslam, Banu Tayy, Banu Aus, Banu Khazraj etc.

The Adnanites were called "Arab-e-Mustarba / عرب مستعربة" or "Arabized Arabs". They are the ones who are supposed to have been descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham through Ishmael's descendant Adnan and had adopted the Arab identity and culture. As Abraham was founder of Hebrews and Hagar was Egyptian, that would make the Adnanites to be Hebrew or Hebrew-Egyptian in actual descent as per the legend. But since they adopted Arab identity and culture, they became "Arabized Arabs". Pictured below, a tree of Prophet Muhammad's descent from Adnan:

enter image description here

Again, note the tribal leaders, many of them are founders of important tribes such as Banu-Ghatfan, Banu Sulaim, Banu Thaqif, Banu Assad, Banu Tamim, Banu Hashim, Banu Umayyah etc.

The Adnani and Qahtani rivalry may have caused this legend or the legend may have some truth after all (Assuming that Abraham and Ismael and Isaac existed in the first place of course), who can say now? There can be no definite proof for or against this until there is a proof for or against the very existence of these people in the first place.

As already mentioned, Arabs held that legend long before Islam so it wasn't Islam which created that legend. Not to mention, it wasn't just them who held that legend of Ishmaelite descent. I remember a letter from a Byzantine clergy man too who referred to Arabs as Ishmaelites. Sadly I can't find it right now but when I do, I will link it here.

Moreover, Yahweh is also known as Elohim in Hebrew bible. The Word Allah is the Arabized form of that word. So yes Arabs did believe in Yahweh. The deities they worshiped before Islam were considered to be daughters/sons of Allah, while the Abrahamic deity Allah remained the highest deity of even the polytheist Arabs. Even before Muhammad, as linked by Ted, Many Arab thinkers tried to preach monotheism, claiming it to be the original faith of Ishmael, one which was corrupted by polytheism. Although some Abrahamic traditions were preserved, to quote a few:

  1. Belief that Kaaba was built by Abraham
  2. Belief in Supreme deity Elohem, Yahweh, Allah, choose your word.
  3. Circumcision in infants

Islam is considered by Muslims to be restoration of original faith of Abraham which according to them had been corrupted and changed by the Jews, Christians and Polytheist Arabs. That's precisely the reason why Muslims consider People like Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus etc to be prophets of Islam as they see Islam as restoration of the original Faith, not a new religion in itself.

We do know however that:

  1. Not all Arabs claim to be descended from Ishmael
  2. The claim/legend pre-dates Islam by several centuries

  3. The Adnanites Arabs who claim that are considered to be Arabized or culturally assimilated Arabs, not pure/real ones.

  4. Adnanites and Qahtanites have been traditional rivals. Their in-fighting has been observed many times in Pre-Islamic Era2, Umayyad Era and Andalusian Era.
  5. Arabs and Jews are both Semitic people so some distant kinship can't be completely ruled-out.

  6. Arabs did believe in Yahweh/Elohem/Allah even in their polytheistic days.

  7. Arabs do not consider Judaism to be original faith of Abraham. They consider it to have been altered just like they believe Christianity is also deviated from the original Abrahamic faith. They see Islam as restoration of Abraham's original faith, not a new one.


1. The first documented instance of this division that I could find was in Umayyad Era which is post-Islamic. Ibn Kathir and Ibn Khaldun, noted Arab scholars have also noted this divison however they were both born in post-Umayyad era. Nevertheless Pre-Islamic poetry does contain claims of being descended from Ishmael as a matter of pride. I couldn't find any documented references of this division before Islam which may have been due to the fact that Arab literacy was very low and they were a people who mainly relied on oral tradition. Or it may have been that Umayyads created this division (Note, division, not the legend itself) for some unknown political motives (Divide and rule?), who can say now? It could also be political opponents of Umayyads who may have sowed this division as Umayyads relied completely on Arabs for their power while holding non-Arab subjects out of power, which lead to them flocking to banners of opponents of Umayyads. So it would be imperative for any rebel leader to sow dissent in supporters of the ruling Imperial dynasty.

2. As per legends, not documented history.

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    Great answer. The only objection is about calling polytheistic gods "idols". – Anixx Feb 24 '17 at 12:33
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    @Anixx I see your point, have replaced it with "deities". In my defense, no offense was intended. I just reckoned since there are no polytheist arabs now, no one would take offense. It was however bad judgement on my part – NSNoob Feb 24 '17 at 12:49
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    Very interesting, but I see no info in the answer on who is saying this. – T.E.D. Feb 24 '17 at 14:33
  • @T.E.D. You mean the reference for the categorization? – NSNoob Feb 24 '17 at 14:34
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    @T.E.D. Oh the Categorization is basically based on Arab perception of themselves rather than actual accuracy of their claims which would be of course difficult to prove. Arabs however believed it themselves that they were Adnani or Qahtani. The perception can be seen as an important factor historically in the periods mentioned above where it played a role in actual wars . This is by the way the rivalry and Umayyad role Gianluca refers to in Citizenship in the Arab World: Kin, Religion and Nation-State – NSNoob Feb 24 '17 at 14:48
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I have heard this before but cannot fathom anymore it is better that the claims that adnan and qahtan tribes must be checked wikipedia-arab wikipedia-ishmaelites and wikipedia-himyarite dynasty unfortunately historians are making this false comments and conspiracy in no way shia claims to be adnan although there is a name of adnan in inscription in northern hijaz qahtan is considered as king of arab a group of adnani tribes themselves attacked the kindites in 576 ad for further information one could rely on it bismikaallahumma-refutation to sam shamoun distortion

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Does this answer the question? I am not following, but it may be that I am insufficiently grounded in the basics. – Mark C. Wallace May 7 at 12:07
  • Seems to be a comment on the previous answer. – justCal May 7 at 14:21

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