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16. Who Started Islam: Abraham or the Arabs?
Chapter 4. Who were the Arabs that started Islam?

4.5. Were Abraham and Ishmael Arabs?

4.5a) Introduction: Many Muslims believe that Muhammad, the Arab Man who started Islam, was a descendant of Ishmael. On the background of this belief of present-day Muslims it is important to inquire, if Ishmael and his father Abraham were Arabs or at least find out how Abraham and Ishmael are believed to be related to the Arabs that started Islam.

The Koran as the foundational book of Arab Islam does not give any information as to whether Abraham and his son Ishmael were Arab or not. Also, we find no genealogical information about Ishmael being an ancestor of Muhammad in the Koran. To get answers to our questions about the possible Arab nature of Abraham and Ishmael we therefore again have to consult other sources outside the Koran. We begin by listening to what the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim (scripture pages of Abraham) in the Tawrat Musa (Torah of Moses) says about this. And later we will consult some of the Arabic Muslim Narrations (Hadith) in view of these questions.

4.5b) What do we find in the Suhuf Ibrahim about the question if Abraham and Ishmael were Arabs? The Suhuf Ibrahim (scripture pages of Abraham) like many other parts of the Hebrew Tawrat Musa (Torah of Moses) contain important genealogical lists, which have been used by later Arabic Muslim Narrations (Hadith) as a basis for relating the Arabs that started Islam to the two patriarchs Abraham and Ishmael. We will look at three of these passages from the Suhuf Ibrahim. The first is at the beginning of the Suhuf Ibrahim in Genesis 11:10-26, showing how Abraham descended from Noah's son Shem. The second is towards the end of the Suhuf Ibrahim in Genesis 25:1-6 and contains the names and offspring of six sons of Abraham whom he fathered in addition to Ishmael and Isaac. (These were omitted in the Koran, however they have been taken up by Muslim Narrations.) And the third closes the Suhuf Ibrahim in Genesis 25:12-18 giving us details about the offspring of Ishmael. We will look at each one of these three passages separately to find out if in any way Abraham and Ishmael can be related to the Arabs of Arabia or not, based on these very ancient Hebrew texts.

4.5c) The ancestors of Abraham in the Suhuf Ibrahim: The ancestors of Abraham are listed in the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim (scripture pages of Abraham) in detail from the time of Noah's son Shem until the time of Abraham's father Terah and his son Abraham:

"10 These are the generations of Shem. When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he fathered Arpachshad 500 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 12 When Arpachshad had lived 35 years, he fathered Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he fathered Shelah 403 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he fathered ‘Eber. 15 And Shelah lived after he fathered ‘Eber 403 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 16 When ‘Eber had lived 34 years, he fathered Peleg. 17 And ‘Eber lived after he fathered Peleg 430 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he fathered Re‘u. 19 And Peleg lived after he fathered Re‘u 209 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he fathered Serug. 21 And Re‘u lived after he fathered Serug 207 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he fathered Nahor. 23 And Serug lived after he fathered Nahor 200 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he fathered Terah. 25 And Nahor lived after he fathered Terah 119 years and had other sons and daughters. -- 26 When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran." (Genesis 11:10-26)

According to this genealogy there were 10 generations that separated Abraham from Shem: 1 Shem > 2 Arpachshad > 3 Shelah > 4 ‘Eber > 5 Peleg > 6 Re‘u > 7 Serug > 8 Nahor > 9 Terah > 10 Abram. The first four of these are also found in Muslim Narrations (Hadith) as part of the ancestors of the earliest Arabs (see last section above). The difference is that Abram descended not like the earliest Arabs from Joqtaan (identified with Yaqdhaan by Arab Muslims in the genealogies of the Muslim Narrations), but from Joqtaan's brother Peleg. There is absolutely no indication in this genealogy at the beginning of the Suhuf Ibrahim that Abraham was in anyway Arab or the ancestor of Arabs. On the contrary, the Muslim Narrations view the original Arabs as descendants of Shem through two other lines: from Shem's son Arpachshad through Joqtaan (Peleg's brother), and from Shem's son Lud through the descendants of Lud. So, this genealogy at the beginning of the Suhuf Ibrahim does not in any way support the idea that Abraham was an Arab.

4.5d) Other sons of Abraham and their descendants in the Suhuf Ibrahim: After Abraham had banished his wife's maid Hagar with Ishmael, his son from her, whom Abraham had fathered to secure an heir, and after his wife Sarah had given birth to his promised son Isaac and had later died at the age of 127 years, the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim testify that Abraham had another wife from whom he had six further sons. Here are the details: "1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Qeturah. 2 She bore him Zimran and Joqshaan and Medan and Midian and Yishbaq and Shuah. 3 Joqshaan fathered Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Ashshurim and Letushim and Leummim. 4 And the sons of Midian were ‘Ephah and ‘Epher and Hanoch and Abidaa‘ and Elda‘ah. All these were the children of Qeturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living, he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country." (Genesis 25:1-6)

The text of this list of descendants states that these sons of Abraham from his other wives (here referred to as concubines, i.e. not official wives) did not stay where Abraham and his son Isaac lived, namely in Beersheba in the southern part of what today is called Palestine or Israel. Rather he sent them towards the east, i.e. into the region which today is in the southern part of the Kingdom of Jordan. From there they spread into the surrounding areas, which are mostly arid and wild lands in our age. The descendants of Midian, the Midianites, are often mentioned in the later history of the Sons of Jacob as having attacked them from the East and from the South of their land. Also the grandsons of Abraham from his son Joqshaan (who should not be confused with Joqtaan, the descendent of Noah in the fourth generation after Shem) have names which have played an important role in the history of the Arabians: Sheba is the name of a people group in the south-west of Arabia (in present-day Yemen), who had a kingdom with the famous queen of Sheba. And Dedan is the name of an oasis and from there also the name of a region in the north-west of Arabia (north of the Hijaz). The later kingdom of the Lihyanites had this oasis as their capital. This Oasis today is called al-'Ula. So, with these last two names we have the first hint in the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim, that two of Abraham's grandsons inhabited parts of Arabia. But no explicit reference to an Arab language or culture is given here.

4.5e) The descendants of Ishmael, son of Abraham, in the Suhuf Ibrahim: We now come to the very end of the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim. There we find a list of the descendants of Ishmael, the first-born Son of Abraham from his wife's maid Hagar. Here are the details: "12 These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham's son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's servant, bore to Abraham. 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth; Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael, and Qedar and Adbeel and Mibsam 14 and Mishma‘ and Dumah and Massa 15 and Hadad and Teyma and Jetur and Naphis and Qedemah. 16 These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. 17 (These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Hawilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen." (Genesis 25:12-18)

Just like Isaac had twelve sons, Ishmael also had twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of the Ishmaelites. Here we highlight two names from Ishmael's descendants, who today are associated with place names in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Dumah is the name of an oasis in the north of the Arabian Peninsula, which has survived until today as Dumat al-Jandal. And Teyma is the name of another oasis situated more to the north-west of the Arabian Peninsula (between Dumah and Dedan). Also, this town has survived until today as the oasis of Tayma' in Arabia. Both these place names, which carry names of sons of Ishmael, seem to indicate that the descendants of these two grand-sons of Abraham settled in arid regions in the northern parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In addition, the area in which the twelve sons of Ishmael settled is here described as "from Hawilah to Shur". The Hebrew word "Hawilah" possibly means "Sand-land". If this is the case, then it would be the name of regions with much sand, which is the case in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, and also in the Nafud Desert to the east of the Sinai Peninsula (in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula near Dumah), and finally in the district of Ninive between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq. The Hebrew word "Shur" possibly means "fortified wall". This is why Shur is usually associated with the north-western part of the Sinai Peninsula, which at the time of the Pharaohs was fortified with a wall to ward off marauding desert people. The expression "in the direction of Assyria" is from the point of view of the Egypt, i.e. beyond the Sinai Peninsula towards the East and North-East in the direction of Mesopotamia (today Iraq). This geographical information therefore probably designates the region from the western part of the Sinai Peninsula (near Egypt) up to the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula (bordering on Iraq, the place of the former Assyrian empire). From this arid region they are described as having "settled against all his kinsman", i.e. they inhabited a region, which could not be subdued by the other people groups, living adjacent to these desert lands in Egypt, Israel, Syria and Iraq. Here again we have no explicit mention of Arabic or Arabs as constituting the descendants of Ishmael.

So, were Abraham and Ishmael Arabs according to the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim? Definitely not for Abraham, because he never visited or lived in Arabia. Also, not for Ishmael, because he lived in the eastern part of the Sinai Peninsula (in the wilderness of Paran near Egypt). However, some of the descendants of Abraham from Ketura and some descendants of Ishmael from his Egyptian wife did live in the northern part of Arabia and could therefore legitimately be called Arabians, but not really Arabs. Therefore, some of the oases in northern Arabia carry names of some of these descendants: Dedan, Duma and Teyma. One of Abraham's sons, Sheba, may have migrated to the south of Arabia, giving his name to the later kingdom of Sheba in Yemen.

By birth Abraham was from southern Mesopotamia, and therefore possibly was raised speaking the ancient Semitic language Akkadian. However, the Suhuf Ibrahim explicitly refer to Abraham as being Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). Therefore, he was not an Arab, but a Hebrew man. Since Ishmael stayed with his father for more than 10 years of his life until his half-brother Isaac was born, he probably learned Hebrew from Abraham. And from his mother, Ishmael may have learned Egyptian, the language of his mother (being an Egyptian maid, Genesis 16:1) and later on he may have used the language of his Egyptian wife, which Hagar gave him (Genesis 21:21). So, Ishmael was half Hebrew from his father Abraham and half Egyptian from his mother Hagar according to the Suhuf Ibrahim.

4.5f) Why do we find genealogies in the Suhuf Ibrahim? To be able to answer this question, we have to go to the very beginning of the Tawrat Musa (Torah of Moses), of which the Suhuf Ibrahim are the fourth part. In the first verses of the Hebrew Tawrat Musa we find a concentrated teaching on creation, which can be called the Suhuf al-Khalq (scripture pages of creation, Genesis 1:1 to 2:4). The creation of the heavens and the earth is unfolded in seven days of creation: Day 1 - God created light and separated it from darkness; Day 2 - God created an expanse, which is the heavens, to separate the waters below, covering the earth, from the waters above; Day 3 - God caused the waters on earth to gather in the sea and the dry-land to appear and plants to be brought forth by the earth; Day 4 - God created the sun, moon and stars in the expanse of heaven; Day 5 - God created the fish to swarm in the sea and the birds to fly above the earth; Day 6 - God created the animals on the earth and human beings, in the image of God, as man and woman, to rule over fish, birds, and animals; Day 7 - God stopped his acts of creation, because all creation had been perfectly completed by Him, and He sanctified this final day of creation, which is why God in the Tawrat Musa commanded the Sons of Jacob to follow His example and also stop doing any work and rest on the seventh day of each week (the Sabbath, Exodus 20:15). Now it is at the end of God's Day 6 of creation that we discover clues as to why we find genealogies in the Tawrat Musa, including the genealogies in the Suhuf Ibrahim. Here are the verses, which constitute the scriptural basis for genealogies in the Tawrat Musa:

"27 And God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created him. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them: 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.' " (Genesis 1:27-28)

This foundational text reveals that man, both male and female, were created in the image of God. This is what distinguishes them from all other living beings, which God created, be it fish swarming in the sea or birds flying above earth or animals living on earth. It is part of being created in the image of God that humans can understand what God tells them and that they can answer God in prayer. And what was the first thing that God told humans to do after creating them in His image? He commanded them to be fruitful and to multiply. Their aim should be to fill the earth with their offspring and subdue the earth, i.e. use it for their purposes. This first commandment of God to humans is important. It implies that both man and woman were created in such a way that they are able to produce offspring on their own, without the intervention of God. This in turn means that a man can become a real father and a woman can become a real mother without God having to intervene to create their offspring. Their common children, both real sons and real daughters, are the result of the way in which God created the first human couple, Adam and Eve. And their offspring inherited this capacity of Adam and Eve to be able to procreate and generate offspring on their own.

The genealogies in the Tawrat Musa are a consequence of this characteristic of humans as created by God and also a proof of the obedience of humans to the very first commandment of God to them. The genealogies document that the first couple did produce offspring on their own, and their offspring did the same, thus working towards filling the earth to subdue it. In other words, the genealogies demonstrate both the fulfillment of the first commandment of God to Adam and Eve as well as the fact that God created humans such that they can produce offspring on their own.

4.5g) Why were these genealogies of the Suhuf Ibrahim omitted in the Koran? The Koran has included many details from the Hebrew Tawrat Musa (the Torah of Moses) including some of what we find in the Suhuf Ibrahim. However, virtually all genealogical information from the Tawrat Musa was omitted in the Koran. Why? One answer to this question can be found by looking at what the Koran teaches about creation, specifically the creation of humans.

There is no passage in the Koran, which summarizes its teaching on creation by Allah in the way in which the Tawrat Musa did in its Suhuf al-Kahlq (scripture pages of creation). This is why, even though the Koran repeatedly speaks of six days of creation by Allah (see e.g. Sura Yunus 10:3, and in one passage even speaks of two days plus four days plus two days, that is a total of eight days of creation, see Sura Fussilat 41:9-12), Muslims cannot find out from the Koran what was created on which day of creation. In the Koran you can find around 925 verses about Allah's acts of creation, much more than in the Tawrat Musa. And the Koran has included many of the teachings of the Tawrat Musa on creation. However, if you compare in detail these teachings of the Koran about creation with the teachings in the Suhuf al-Khalq (scripture pages of creation), you find important omissions too. Here are some examples: a) Light was not created by Allah, because Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth (see Sura al-Nur 24:35); b) Birds were not created in the Koran; c) Humans were not created in the image of Allah; d) the first humans were not commanded by Allah to be fruitful and multiply, because they were not created in a way as to be able to procreate on their own; and most importantly e) Allah never completed his creation according to the Koran, rather he continually goes on with his acts of creation for all time, which is why Muslims have no day of rest (Sabbath), because Allah never rested from his acts of creation. This last point can be accurately demonstrated in the teaching of the Koran about the procreation of humans. Allah directly and explicitly intervenes in each step of the generation of a new human being, including the acts of fathering, pregnancy and birth. This can be seen in the following verses of the Koran:

"58 Have you seen, what you ejaculate? 59 Have you created it (i.e. your sperm), or are we (i.e. Allah rather) the creators (of your sperm)?" (Sura al-Waqi'a 56:58-59) -- "13 Then we have placed him (man) as a drop (of sperm) in a firm resting place (i.e. in the womb). 14 Then we created the (sperm) drop to (become) an (embryonic) appendage, then we have created the (embryonic) appendage into an embryo (literally something chewed up), then we created the embryo into bones, then we clothed the bones with flesh. Then we caused (the baby) to be generated in a further creation (at its birth). So, blessed be Allah, the best of creators." (Sura al-Mu'minun 23:14) -- "It is he (i.e. Allah), who has created you from a (sperm) drop, then from an (embryonic) appendage, then he causes you to come out (from the womb) as a baby …" (Sura Ghafir 40:67) -- "It is Allah, who has created you, then he has provided sustenance for you, then he causes you to die (i.e. Allah kills you at the moment of your death) …" (Sura al-Rum 30:40)

These verses demonstrate that Allah in the Koran never completed his creation. Rather he continually goes on creating forever, permanently demonstrating his power as sole creator. The more people are born every day, the more Allah acts as creator according to this teaching in the Koran.

For our immediate concern here it is important to note that the first humans were not created in such a way as to be able to procreate offspring on their own, for every new human being is a direct creation of Allah. Consequently, it would not make sense in the Koran to command Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, which is why the Koran has omitted this first commandment of God to Adam and Eve, from the Suhuf al-Khalq quoted above, to procreate and thus fill the earth.

The other consequence of this teaching in the Koran is that no man can be a real father and no woman can be a real mother, rather they are only vehicles of Allah's acts of creation, Allah creating the sperm from the father and Allah creating the baby in stages in the womb of its mother. In fact, the very concept of fatherhood is obscure, if not virtually impossible, in the Koran, because of this teaching. A fundamental reason, why Muslims never call God "Father", is not only that they are forbidden to do so by the Koran, but also the fact that fatherhood is not really possible in the Koran, as the acts of procreation of a man with his wife are divine acts of creation.

Thus, in the Koran no human being is a real offspring of his parents, rather he or she is always a direct creature of Allah. This may be the chief reason, why the Koran has omitted the genealogies, which play such an important role in the Tawrat Musa, including the Suhuf Ibrahim, on which we are focusing here. Also, this is why many Arab Muslims, when they ask you, "When were you born?" actually ask you in Arabic, "Mata khuliqta?" (meaning "When were you created?"), because the moment of your birth is believed by them to be the moment of your final creation.

4.5h) What do we find in Muslim Narrations about the question if Abraham and Ishmael were Arabs? The Koran does not directly mention what language or people group Abraham and Ishmael belonged to. And since the Koran also omitted all genealogies so prominent in the Hebrew Tawrat Musa, including the genealogies of the ancestors of Abraham and of the descendants of Ishmael, it is not even indirectly possible to find out from the Koran, where the descendants of Abraham and of Ishmael lived and what language they spoke.

Muslims, however, were curious about these matters and therefore we find Arabic Narrations by those who started Arab Islam, which provide the information omitted by the Koran. If you study these Narrations, you will find that they have included most of the genealogical information from the Hebrew Suhuf Ibrahim, as usual without mentioning their sources, and again they have added to these genealogies the elements necessary to link them to their doctrines that Abraham and Ishmael visited Mecca and the popular belief that Muhammad was a descendant of Abraham through Ishmael. In addition, these Arabic Narrations by early Muslims explicitly mention the languages and people groups to which Abraham and Ishmael belonged. Here are examples from the Kitab al-Tabaqat by Ibn Sa'd:

"He (Ibn Sa'd) said: Hisham Ibn Muhammad informed us on the authority of his father, on the authority of Abu Salih, he on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas, he said: When Ibrahim fled from Kutha (a place situated in Babylon) he spoke Syriac; but when he crossed the Euphrates from Harran, Allah changed his language and as he crossed the Euphrates he was called 'Ibrani (Hebrew)." (Ibn Sa'd's Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir. English translation by S. Moinul Haq. Volume 1, page 37.)

"Isma'il Ibn 'Abd Allah Ibn Abu Uways al-Madani informed us: My father narrated to me on the authority of Abu al-Jarud al-rabi' Ibn Quray', he on the authority of 'Uqbah Ibn Bashir that he asked Muhammad Ibn 'Ali: Who was the first person to talk in Arabic? He said: Isma'il Ibn Ibrahim, may Allah bless them; when he was thirteen years old. He ('Uqbah) said: O Abu Ja'far, what was the language of the people before that? He said: Hebrew. He ('Uqbah) said: In what language did Allah reveal his message to his apostles in those days? He said: In Hebrew. He (Ibn Sa'd) said: Muhammad Ibn 'Umar al-Aslami informed us on the authority of more than one scholar, that Isma'il had received an inspiration to speak Arabic from the day he was born and all other sons of Ibrahim were speaking the language of their father. He (Ibn Sa'd) said Hisham Ibn Muhammad Ibn al-Sa'ib informed us on the authority of his father; he said: Isma'il did not speak Arabic and did not like to be against his father. The first persons of his family to speak Arabic were Banu Ri'lah (wife of Isma'il) bint Yashub Ibn Ya'rub Ibn Ludhan Ibn Jurhum Ibn 'Amir Ibn Saba Ibn Yaqtan Ibn 'Arbir Ibn Shalikh Ibn Arfakhshad Ibn Sam (Shem) Ibn Nuh (Noah)." (Ibn Sa'd's Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir. English translation by S. Moinul Haq. Volume 1, page 43.)

"He (Ibn Sa'd) said: Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn Ishaq al-Bajali al-Saylahini and Muhammad Ibn Mu'awiyah al-Naysaburi said: Ibn Lahi'ah informed us on the authority of An'am; he said: Bakr Ibn Suwayd informed me that he heard 'Ulayyi Ibn Rabah al-Lakhmi saying that the Prophet (my Allah bless him) said: All the Arabs are the descendants of Isma'il Ibn Ibrahim, may Allah's peace be on them." (Ibn Sa'd's Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir. English translation by S. Moinul Haq. Volume 1, page 44.)

These quotations from one single collection of Arabic Narrations shows us that there was agreement and disagreement in view of the languages of Abraham and Ishmael. All agree that Abraham was not an Arab and did not speak Arabic. Rather he is said to have originally spoken Syriac (which is clearly wrong, because Syriac did not exist as a language until 900 years after Abraham had died) and that by divine intervention his language was then changed to Hebrew. But early Muslims disagreed about whether Ishmael spoke Arabic. Some say Ishmael spoke Arabic from his birth by divine inspiration, others say that Ishmael started out speaking Hebrew but later began speaking Arabic (possibly after marrying a woman from Arabic tribe Jurhum), and still others claim that Ishmael never spoke Arabic and that only the sons of his Arabic wife Ri'lah from the Arab tribe Jurhum were the first to speak Arabic. The latter two views make Ishmael and his descendants Arabicized Arabs (al-'arab al-musta'ribah) as opposed to the true and pure Arabs (al-'arab al-'aribah) like the Jurhumites.

In all these Narrations it is again important to note that it is part of the Islam, which the Arabs started after 610 AD, that Ishmael was claimed to be Arab in any sense of the term. No sources from the time of Abraham, Ishmael or Moses support the idea that the Arabs existed or had anything to do with Abraham or Ishmael. Only the Islam started by the Arabs after Muhammad began linking Ishmael to the Arabs.

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