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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 is there a legend that they were descended from someone from the Hebrew scriptures?

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

Note: this question originally asked whether the Arab-Ishmael tradition existed before Islam. Comments pointed towards the Talmud. Some examples are listed here: https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/134070/earliest-identification-of-ishmael-as-arabs-muslims

The Talmud was written down centuries before Muhammad. The wider answer, which I had not realised, is that the polytheistic predecessor religion to modern Judaism was believed across the middle East, including by Arabs and their ancestors, long before Muhammad came on the scene.

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    The Talmud refers to Arabs as Children of Yishmael, and it predates Mohammed by centuries.
    – sds
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 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
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 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
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 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
    Commented Feb 23, 2017 at 22:50
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    1) The question asserts facts not in evidence. Please cite all references and non-trivial assertions. 2) Please incorporate all the material from the comments in the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 12:24

2 Answers 2

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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
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 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
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 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.
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 14:33
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    @NSNoob - Well, I know this isn't what you will hear out of linguists, historians, or Christians, and I've pretty sure I've heard different from some Muslims as well (could be wrong on that one though). But it seems quite well developed. So whose info is this? Looking at the links, one credits "Arab genealogical tradition" and the other "Islamic tradition".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 14:42
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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
    Commented Feb 24, 2017 at 14:48
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It should be noted that the historical figure of Abraham, is also known as, "Ibrahim". Abraham/Ibrahim was neither Jewish, nor Arabian, but was ethnically, Mesopotamian...more specifically, he was ethnically, Babylonian, though he and his family had originally lived as ethnic-(and even as ethno-religious) minorities in the (Non-Semitic) Southern Mesopotamian town of Ur-(present-day Southern Iraq).

While Babylonians, were Semitic-(that is to say their ethnic lineage is traced to the Biblical figure of Shem and perhaps one can trace such an ethnic lineage even further back to Noah or even Adam), the original residents of Ancient Ur/Southern Iraq, were ethnically Sumerian and were not of Semitic ethnic lineage. The Ancient Sumerians may have been of distant Indo-European or Indo-Persian ethnic lineage-(though the historical and anthropological information is rather limited on this topic...at least to the best of my knowledge).

Abraham/Ibrahim had a wife named Sarah, who was also of a Babylonian Semitic ethnic background and they had son named, Isaac. Both Abraham/Ibrahim and Sarah had an Egyptian Housekeeper named, Hagar-(who was not of a Semitic ethnic background). Abraham/Ibrahim and Hagar had a son named, Ismail/Ismael. Chronologically, Ismail/ Ismael was about 15 years older than Isaac and both were the sons of Abraham/ Ibrahim, essentially, making Ismail/Ismael and Isaac, half brothers.

While it is historically true that the Pre-Islamic Arabs during The Jahilya-(Arabic for "Dark Ages'), were polytheistic for many centuries, interestingly, Abrahamic/ Ibrahimic Monotheism never entirely left the Arabian peninsula during the many centuries of The Jahilya. Abraham/Ibrahim and his son Ismael/Ismail traveled together to Arabia to build the First Monotheistic Temple around the Black Meteorite called, The Kaaba dating back nearly 4000 years-(however, the Meteor was believed to have landed in Arabia around the time of Adam). In fact, the Kaaba was built nearly 1000 years before The First Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It is unknown as to how long the original Kaaba Temple was Monotheistic in Ancient times-(it almost certainly lasted during Ismail/Ismael's lifetime, though may have gradually become polytheistic, perhaps due to several intermarriages among Ismael/Ismail's many children and grandchildren).

Interestingly, while much of Ancient Arabia was transitioning from an original Abrahamic/Ibrahimic based Monotheism to Polytheism, there was one tribe, known as "The Hanifs", who never became polytheistic, but had remained steadfastly Monotheistic during the since the days of Abraham/Ibrahim and Ismail/Ismael, as well as during the entirety of The Jahilya. While the Hanifs were small in number-(comparatively speaking), they did manage to maintain a centuries long Abrahamic/Ibrahimic Monotheism, making Ancient Hanifism, in a way, a type of 2nd Monotheistic religion following Judaism and a 2nd Monotheistic religion which existed many centuries before the arrival of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. I believe the Hanifs were absorbed into Islam during Muhammad's lifetime-(it is very likely that Muhammad may have personally known the Hanifs).

So, as you can see, the History of Arabia and its relationship to an earlier Abrahamic/Ibrahimic based Monotheism, is both ancient and complex. While it is certainly true that Pre Islamic Arabia-(and much of the Pre Islamic Middle East), were polytheistic for many centuries, Abrahamic/Ibrahimic Monotheism never really left the Arabian peninsula....or even much of the (Pre Islamic) Middle East.

(It should also be noted that one of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam, is the Cave of the Patriarchs in the town of Hebron. It is believed that the grave-(or in all likelihood, cenotaph) of Abraham/Ibrahim exists. Both Jews and Muslims-(namely Palestinian Muslims), both pray at The Cave of the Patriarchs-(albeit separately). I don't believe, to the best of my knowledge, there exists a space for Palestinian or Arab/Semitic Christians at The Cave of the Patriarchs, though if my memory is correct, the Cave of the Patriarchs, was once under Byzantine Christian imperial control/jurisdiction and may have also functioned as an additional prayer space for the Christians of the Middle East 1500 years ago).

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  • With regard to "sources"....how about The Old Testament?
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 25, 2023 at 17:45

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