Arabs or Not Arabs Factual Overview
by Avraham Saacutendor
In general, the term Arab in modern times is applied to a
large group of different peoples that share in common the Arabic
language, which for the overwhelming majority of them is not their
original one but the tongue imposed to their forefathers by the
Such a definition is ethnically unsuitable, in the same way as it would be inappropriate to call "Spaniards" to all Spanish-speaking peoples or "English" to all those non-British folks whose primary language is English.
It is true that the Arab countries have not only language in common but also most cultural features as well, yet, this is the result of the colonization and subsequent annihilation of the original pre-Arabic culture.
Therefore, it is more correct to speak of them as "Arabized" peoples rather than Arabs.
From the ethnic viewpoint, the term Arab is roughly equivalent to "Arabian", namely, in reference to the only people considered to be Arab since the beginning and identified as such by themselves and by their neighbours.
It happens frequently that the word Arab is misused on purpose for
political strategy: 1) by applying this term as an ethnic definition
to the Arabized peoples (mainly North-Africans), in order to increase
the number of the Arab population, and 2) in a quite improper way, by
calling "Arab" to ancient peoples that existed in the Middle East in
order to claim historic rights and legitimate the Arab occupation.
So, it is necessary to reach a clear definition in two directions: which peoples are Arabs and which are not. Concerning the origin, the most widespread myth is that Arabs are Ishmaelites, what in the case of all the Arabized peoples is not true at all, and regarding Arabians is only partially true.
The original Arab culture has been lost and the most reliable information we have about it comes from external sources, because Islamic revisionism has produced a legendary account in replacement of the scientific truth, and so one of the most fascinating cultures of the past is now missing.
The Arabian myths have been created in order to legitimate the
"pre-existence" of Islam by ascribing fanciful tales allegedly
happened in Arabia to Hebrew Patriarchs and Prophets.
Through these legends turned into "history", Arabs claim an Avrahamic origin through Yishmael, who was only the forefather of some tribes that intermarried with many other peoples that were already settled in Arabia much earlier than him and within which the Ishmaelite lineage was largely assimilated.
Therefore, the equation Arab = Ishmaelite is a myth, because Ishmael was not an Arab, nor the forefather of all Arabs; actually, his descent contributed to the formation of the peoples that came to be known as Arabs some centuries later.
Connected with the alleged Ishmaelite identification, the Semitic identity is taken for granted, yet, this is also a half-truth because the Arabian ethnicity and culture arose from an original Kushite stock that was subsequently assimilated by the Semitic tribes that came after them, and even the Ishmaelites were a mixed group with a strong Hamitic component, as we will see in this essay.
Definition of the term Arab in historic sources
The word Arab is of uncertain meaning; when and by whom this people
(or these peoples) began to be called Arabs is unknown. The
earliest sources where the term Arab appeared the first time
are the Hebrew Scriptures of the post-exilic period, namely, during
the rebuilding of the Temple under the Persian Empire (Nehemyah 2:19
-- 5th century b.c.e.), and is applied in a vague manner probably to
some Nabatean tribes.
In the same period, also the Greek historian Herodotus mentions the Arabs, apparently in reference to the Yemenite tribes. There are some earlier records, Akkadian and Assyrian sources that mention the "Aribi", a tribe of the desert that may be connected with the Ishmaelites, but there is not any certainty that such term has even any relationship with the word Arab.
Indeed, the term Arabia is Greek, as well as Egypt, Syria,
Libya, etc. and its probable etymology may be of Semitic origin: 1)
'arabah = steppe, wilderness; 2) 'ereb = mixture of peoples. Both
terms are appropriate to them.
Wherever Arabs have conquered, the lands became deserted; the Arabian peninsula itself was not so dry, and Yemen had an irrigation network that allowed the land to be fruitful before Northern Arabs invaded and subdued the Sabean kingdom. Spain and Sicily were fertile lands in Roman times; they became dry during the Arab occupation.
Only Eretz Yisrael recovered fertility after hard work done by Jews -- the pieces of land still occupied by Arabs remain arid. The second term is also suitable to define Arabs, as they are indeed a mixture of different peoples.
Arabs themselves recognize to come from two unrelated patriarchs: Qahtan (Southern Arabs) and Adnan (Northern Arabs), to be respectively identified with a Sabean and an Ishmaelite ancestor.
It seems that the name "Arabia" was applied to the whole peninsula only around the first century b.c.e., as defined by Diodorus of Sicily in his Bibliotheca Historica and by Strabo in his Geography, yet it is rather a geographic definition, not closely related with the actual ethnicity of the inhabitants, whom they declare to be of several kinds and call them by their own tribal names.
Ancient peoples of the Middle East
Arabs are the most recent of all Semitic peoples according to their appearance in history. In fact, it is not possible to speak about Arabs in ancient times, but only about their ancestors.
Most of the Middle East is now formed by conventionally called
"Arab countries", recently invented by the British and French rulers
after having defeated and dismembered the Ottoman Empire.
They created politic entities without any historic background and assigned some of them to the Arabs instead of the peoples that have legitimate right to those lands. That is the case of Egypt, Iraq and the Israeli territories given to the Arabs.
They have as well divided the country that rightfully belongs to the Arabs into different states without any historical or cultural reason and over which they established the rulers. That is the case of Kuwayt, Qatar, Bahrayn, the United Arab Emirates and "Saudi" Arabia, names that are impossible to find in any historic record.
Since Arab nationalist and other biased movements claim an alleged
historical right over the whole Middle East, they ascribe the Arab
ethnicity to all Semitic and Hamitic peoples that existed in that
region centuries before the first Arab was born.
Consequently, it is helpful to present a brief historic account of the peoples that originally inhabited the Middle East in ancient times, and which of those peoples generated the Arabs.
In order to make this research more comprehensible, we can divide
the Ancient Middle East into three main regions:
1) the "Fertile Crescent" and neighbouring lands, from the Zagros Mounts in the east to the Ararat in the north and the Mediterranean shores in the west (Mesopotamia, Ararat, Syria-Canaan); 2) Egypt; 3) the Arabian peninsula.
Mesopotamia, Ararat, Syria-Canaan:
This region was inhabited by Semitic and non-Semitic peoples.
Sumerians, Subarians and Hurrians: these non-Semitic peoples cannot be identified nowadays with any defined ethnic entity, but evolved into several different peoples. Most of them were displaced by the Assyrians and emigrated, contributing to the formation of other peoples in India, Central Asia and Europe. Nevertheless, the Kurds are partially descendant of the Subarian/Hurrians, mixed with other elements, and therefore having right to claim a national home in the area -- but their land was given to others that arrived many centuries after them: Turks and Arabs.
Hittites and Canaanites: these peoples were originally non-Semitic but Mediterranean. While the Hittites dwelling in Anatolia built an empire and subsequently entered the Indo-European sphere, those that remained in Canaan were absorbed by the Canaanite tribes.
The Canaanites were culturally conquered by the Arameans, adopting their Semitic language and therefore are generally regarded as a Semitic people. They developed in two different areas: the "coastland Canaanites" are best known in history as Phoenicians, the "mountain Canaanites" were assimilated by the Israelites and disappeared as an identifiable people around the 8th century b.c.e. -- when the Assyrians took the Hebrews into exile they did not make any difference because the Canaanites were already Israelites. Canaanites were NOT Arabs.
Today the ancient Canaanites are represented by two nations: the Phoenicians are Lebanese, while the Yevusites, Hivvites, Amorites and other mountain tribes are now Jews. Lebanon is erroneously considered an "Arab" country, since the Lebanese themselves do not agree with such classification.
In the Lebanese constitution the
term Arab is not mentioned, except in the article 11 that
states that Arabic is the official language (as well as the
Argentine constitution establishes that Spanish is the official
language, but this does not mean that the inhabitants are to be
Lebanon's official name is "Lebanese Republic", a western-style denomination, without the word "Arab" that is essential in the official designation of every Arab state.
Philistines: the Philistines were not Semitic peoples, and unlike the Canaanites, they were not autochthonous but a confederation of invaders from the Aegean Sea and the Anatolian areas. They are known in history also as "Sea Peoples".
The Philistines are extinct and claims to alleged links with them are utterly false as they are historically impossible to establish. In any case, claiming a Philistine heritage is idle because it cannot legitimate any land in which they were foreign occupants and not native dwellers.
Philistines were not Arabs, and the only feature in common between both peoples is that in Israel they should be regarded as invaders, Philistines from the sea and Arabs from the wilderness.
Akkadians, Assyrians and Arameans: These are the only peoples in this region that were fully and originally Semitic. The term Akkadians refers to the early historic period of the peoples that later were identified as Hebrews in Canaan and Assyrians in Mesopotamia, while the Arameans constituted the western branch of the same stock.
Assyrians eventually split into two branches, of which the southern is more commonly known as Chaldeans or Babylonians. These peoples were NOT Arabs.
The Assyrians became Christians in the first century c.e. and did never accept Islam, so they have been persecuted and the largest majority of them are still in exile, though there has been a permanent Assyrian presence in the area.
They speak their own ancient language and their homeland is until now usurped by an Arab entity called Iraq. Consequently, since Assyrians still exist and are not Arabs, the Arab nationalists cannot ascribe an Arab identity to the ancient Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia.
The Arameans are the only of these peoples that have in some way been related to the original Arabs, as they have intermarried and mixed with the Nabatean tribes, becoming the present-day Syrians, that are the most Semitic of all Arabs. Therefore, even though the ancient Arameans cannot be regarded as Arabs, they are among the ancestors of the northernmost branch of the Arabs, namely, the Syrians.
The ancient Egyptians were a Hamitic people and even though they
have been in some way involved with the origin of the Ishmaelite
Arabs, they remained a distinguishable people that has not been
assimilated by the Arab invaders. The Egyptians became Christians
in the first centuries c.e., and their genuine descendants are the
Copts, who are not Arabs.
Even though at present they are a minority in their own homeland, the Arab majority is anyway the result of a foreign invasion performed in the Middle Ages, when the Arabs made of Egypt the outpost for the conquest of Africa.
The Arabian peninsula is undoubtedly the Arabs' homeland, and the peoples that inhabited it in ancient times are to be regarded as the ancestors of the modern Arabs.
Now, the query consists in establishing how Semitic these peoples were and up to what amount did the Ishmaelites contribute to the formation of the Arab identity.
In the most ancient records the whole Arabia was commonly designed under the generic name of "Kush", which was extended throughout the entire region comprised between Southern Mesopotamia in the north and the White Nile Basin in the south, that is, including both sides of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Subsequently, there has been a clear distinction between Northern and Southern Arabia since early times, distinction that endured for centuries. The Arabs are the result of the progressive fusion of both entities developed over the original Kushite background.
Southern Arabian peoples:
- Seven Kushite peoples: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Ra'mah, Sabtekha, Sheba and Dedan.
- Twelve Semitic tribes (Yoqtanites): Almodad, Shelef, Hatzarmawt, Yerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diqlah, Obal, Abima'el, Shaba, Hawilah and Yobab.
Northern Arabian peoples:
- Early Kushite population: Kûsh, Mu'uri, Hawilah, Makkan.
- Eight Semitic tribes (Midyanites/Lihyanites): Zimran, Yoqshan, Medan, Midyan, Yishbaq, Shuwah, Sheba and Dedan.
- Twelve Ishmaelite tribes: Nebayot, Qedar, Adbe'el, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Teyma, Yetur, Nafish and Qedmah.
The characteristics of these peoples are exposed under the next title.
The Arabian Kush and the Ishmaelite Myth
Even though the name Kush is usually associated with Ethiopia because of the Greek translation of that name, Kushite peoples were in early times the inhabitants of the whole Arabia, Southern Mesopotamia, Elam and a branch of them reached India as well.
Indeed, in ancient records the term Kush may have different meanings and often it can be understood only by the context, and it is possible to distinguish at least four different lands which in some periods were known as "Kush": Sumer, the Horn of Africa, India and Arabia.
The same happens with the term Havilah, that was a Kushite tribe -- they should not be mistaken for the Semitic Havilah, that is identified with Khawlan in Yemen. This people was originally settled in Northern Arabia, between Egypt and the Euphrates, and their land was later inhabited by Yishmaelites (Bereshyit 25:18) and Amalekites (Shmu'el I, 15:7).
From their original land, different branches of the Kushite Havilah emigrated to Elam, India and Africa because of the Semitic expansion in the Middle East, making it difficult a precise identification of the land which the ancient documents call by such name.
The Assyrian records mention Kûsh and Mu'uri in reference to the Northern Arabian peoples conquered by Asarhaddon, as a different event from his conquest of Egypt, and the same peoples are mentioned as tributaries by earlier Assyrian kings, who have not conquered Egypt.
These names recall the Biblical brothers Kush and Mitzrayim, namely
Ethiopia and Egypt, very closely associated in ancient times but
obviously located in Africa.
Therefore, we find both names also on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, which is attested by several Assyrian documents. For instance, in the black obelisk of Salmaneser III he mentions in detail the tribute received from different lands, and concerning Mu'uri it consists in "camels having double humps" and other animals.
Such kind of camel is Asian and not Egyptian, and what is more, Egyptians usually did not even employ the African kind (dromedary, with one hump).
Later, other Assyrian kings like Tiglath-Pileser III and Ashurachiddin (Assarhaddon) received camels as part of the tributes paid by different kingdoms in Arabia and Persia, but not any camel is mentioned among the booty taken after the conquest of Egypt. Consequently, Salmaneser's "Mu'uri" is different from Egypt, yet having the same name.
Another interesting detail is that Salmaneser does not mention any
king of Mu'uri, unlike he does regarding the other kingdoms, and
it is unthinkable that the Assyrian king would have not been proud of
mentioning the Pharaoh among his tributaries.
Indeed, the Arabian Mu'uri were a confederation of nomadic tribes without any organized state, and this is confirmed by the fact that later Tiglath-Pileser assigned an "Arubu" (Arab?) as governor over Mu'uri, whose name was Idiba'ilu, name that may indicate his belonging to the Ishmaelite tribe of Adbe'el.
The absence of monarchy in Mu'uri by that time is confirmed by
later Assyrian accounts attesting that the royal house of that country
was founded as a vassal kingdom of Assyria during the reign of
Assarhaddon. Sargon II mentions the king of Mu'uri together with
those of Aribi (a queen), Sheva, Khayappa, Tamudi and other kingdoms,
all of them located in Arabia.
It is remarkable that before the Assyrian rule, the sovereigns of these lands were mainly priestess-queens, a typical Ethiopian tradition that seems to have been replaced by the Assyrian-styled male monarchy.
The existence of Kush and Mu'ri in Arabia are essential for the identity of the Ishmaelites and in some way also the Midyanites, as it will be shown afterwards.
Now let us consider the table of peoples and tribes of Arabia given above. This distribution is confirmed by the historic sources and show that the Arabs cannot be classified exclusively as Ishmaelites and not even as fully Semitic. Arabs resulted from a complex of tribes gathered into two groups: Southern and Northern Arabian. The ethnicity of these tribes is as follows:
Southern Arabians were originally Kushitic (Ethiopic). The most
ancient Sabeans were closely related with Nubians and Abyssinians
dwelling on the opposite shores of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Their country roughly coincides with modern Yemen, where the Kushitic Sabeans have left some hints that allow to identify them as tribes that created a sort of organized states or kingdoms, reported in ancient chronicles as Sabatan, whose capital was the city of Shabwah.
They transferred some typical Ethiopic features to their Semitic successors, like the female-ruled monarchy, common to all ancient Arabia. These seven Hamitic tribes were partially displaced to the Horn of Africa and Meroë by the Semitic Sabeans (Yoqtanites) that came after them, but a large number intermarried and were assimilated into the new nationalities that emerged from the mixture of both groups.
The identity of the twelve Yoqtanite tribes faded away with the
formation of different kingdoms: Sheva, Ma'in, Awsan, Qataban,
Hadhramawt and Himayar. The Sabean peoples did not keep history
records for centuries, until they had relationships with Assyria, and
the first mentions of them come from external accounts like the Hebrew
Bible and the Assyrian Chronicles. Since the time when they began to
document their own history, the Semitic influence appears evident
because they are ruled by kings, not queens.
This seems to be the result of a process from the early period in which the Kushitic culture was still dominant and of which the only account we have regards the Queen of Sheva, who is contended by Arabs and Ethiopians as their own queen. The female monarchy seems to have come to an end with the determinant Assyrian hegemony.
Ethnically, the Southern Arabians are roughly two thirds Semitic and one third Hamitic, and not Ishmaelites at all.
Northern Arabians were called mainly after Avrahamic
tribes, which apparently would grant them to be classified
into the Semitic stock.
Nevertheless, the Kushitic character is strongly remarkable since these lands were inhabited by Hamitic peoples (Kush, Havilah and Mu'uri) long before the first Semites arrived in this territory and both groups intermarried. The process of Semitization was completed only under the Assyrian rule, around the 7th century b.c.e.
The origin of these Arabian tribes is connected with Avraham's
concubines, Hagar and Qeturah, from whom respectively originated the
Ishmaelites (or Hagarites) and the Midyanites (actually one of these
tribes, whose name was extended to the others).
Avraham was an Akkadian that moved first into the land of Hurrians and then into Canaan. His wife Sarah was an Akkadian belonging to his own family, and this fully Semitic couple generated the Israelites and not any Arab people.
Avraham traded also in Egypt and acquired for his wife an Egyptian servant, Hagar, with whom he fathered Yishmael. Besides them, Avraham took also another woman, Qeturah, whose origin is unknown and that is the mother of the Midyanite tribes. Consequently, Ishmael was a Semite only on his father's side, but by his mother's lineage he was Egyptian, and the sons of Qeturah were surely Semitic after their father Avraham, but we do not know where did their mother come from. Here we will consider first the ethnic features of the Midyanites before dealing with the origin and culture of the Ishmaelites.
The Midyanites settled in the region of Mount Sinai (by the Gulf of
Eylat, in Arabia, and not in the so-called Sinai peninsula). That land
was already inhabited by non-Semitic peoples, namely, the Kü and
Mu'uri of the Assyrian records, and very likely Avraham's
children and successive generations married women from the local
people, consequently it is correct to assume that the Midyanites were
ethnically less Semitic than Hamitic.
In fact, they followed the Kushite tradition of having many queens among their rulers: three successive Assyrian kings (Tiglat-Pileser III, Sargon II and Sennakherib) mention seven Midyanite queens: Zabibi, Shamsi, Te'elkhinu, Yati'ah, Tabu'wa, Yapa'a and Bashi. Such a characteristic is not found in any Semitic kingdom, in which the queen was just the king's wife but very rarely the main ruler.
In support of the Kushite character of Midyan, there are some
ancient texts that link the land and people of Midyan with Kush, and
also the Hebrew Scriptures suggest this connection:
It is typical in Hebrew poetry to compose verses repeating the same concept twice but with different words, like the statement written in Havaqquq 3:7 "I saw the tents of Kushan under sorrow; the curtains of the land of Midyan trembled" -- here the Prophet uses the names "Midyan" and "Kush" as synonymous.
Such an identification of Northern Arabians with Kushites explains the controversy regarding the Kushite wife of Mosheh mentioned in Bemidbar 12:1; here the question emerges, whether she is to be identified with Tzipporah the Midyanite or not, and some interpreters like Rashi assert that this woman is indeed Tzipporah.
If Midyan would have been so clearly distinguishable from Kush, such a controversy would not have arisen. The conclusion that she was not Tzipporah is understood by other elements and not by this ethnic definition. Furthermore, the Biblical land of Midyan is called Kü in Assyrian records.
The Ishmaelites dwelled near the Midyanites, in the region
described as follows: "from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of
Mitzrayim as you go towards Ashshur.
He settled before the face of all his brothers" (Bereshyit 25:18); in other words, their territory extended from the coastland by the Persian Gulf next to Southern Mesopotamia [Havilah] up to the border of Midyan [Shur], which is east of Egypt, along the way that leads northwards; the Ishmaelites settled at the east (meaning of the statement "before the face") of all their brothers [Midyanites and Hebrews].
This territory roughly coincides with the land called Mu'uri in Assyrian accounts. In Bereshyit 21:21 is written "Yishmael dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Mitzrayim".
We have already said that Ishmael himself was half Semite and half Egyptian, now we read that also his wife was an Egyptian, and that he settled in the desert area next to Midyan, which was inhabited by Hamitic peoples. How Semitic can his twelve sons be, then? Only one fourth, and three fourths Egyptian.
Of course, if these twelve sons would have founded their tribes
within Assyria or Aram, after successive intermarriage they would have
become more Semitic, but they settled in Kushite territory and
assimilated the local peoples, and blended with their Midyanite
brothers, who were like them a mixed breed.
Therefore, Salmaneser's mysterious "Egyptians" (Mu'uri) that had no king and from whom he took some double-humpbacked camels as tribute were no other than the Ishmaelites. Establishing a documentary comparison, we find that the Biblical "Midyan and Yishmael" are equivalent to the "Kü and Mu'uri" of the Assyrian records.
It is natural that from the Hebrew viewpoint they were regarded as Semitic for Avraham's sake, but for the Semitic Assyrians they were just Ethiopic/Egyptian tribes.
The Ishmaelites were associated with Midyanites since early times
in such a way that both terms became interchangeable. Their
territories were not sharply defined and it seems that only the
Midyanites had organized kingdoms and were the leading branch during
the first centuries.
Progressively, the distinction between both groups vanished by mutual assimilation. Conquered by the Assyrians, the Ishmaelites were not relevant until the Persian period, when the tribe of Qedar assumed the hegemony over the Northern Arabian peoples, but the first true kingdom was founded by the Nabateans, that arose as the leading Ishmaelite tribe in Roman times.
The Nabateans extended their dominion up to the present-day Syria under the rule of Queen Zaynab. In that period, they absorbed Semitic cultures like the Arameans and the Idumeans, and the Nabatean language is the oldest one that may be defined as "Arabic", though many scholars disagree.
Taking account of the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient records, it
is possible to establish that the term Arab was originally applied
to the Nabateans, that inhabited the wilderness region to the east of
Israel, from Edom to Syria (not properly in the mainland of Arabia).
Such an identification is confirmed by historians of Roman times like Strabo and Josephus, that used the terms Arab and Nabatean as synonymous. The Nabatean sovereigns were usually called "kings of the Arabs" and their realm was known as Arabia, so that when the Nabatean Kingdom was annexed to the Roman Empire it became the province of Arabia.
The name Nabatean is referred to Ishmael's firstborn son Nebayot, founder of the tribe that prevailed over the northwestern branch of the Ishmaelites and evolved into an organized kingdom, while the southeastern ones kept their Bedouin life-style within the oases of Northern Arabia, of which the tribe of Qedar may be considered the most representative.
The region where the Nabateans settled favoured their development as a
Semitic culture that progressively replaced their natural Kushitic
character. Intermarriage with Arameans was common and determined the
origin of the modern Syrians.
In fact, there were no marriage restrictions neither for men nor for women among Nabateans to take foreign spouses, and it is likely that such a practice was even encouraged.
Mutual assimilation with the local Semitic population was also decisive in the formation of the Arabic language, whose roots are clearly Aramaic. Unlike present-day Arabs, the Nabateans held women in high regard -- a characteristic common to most of the pre-Islamic Arabian peoples. Women had property and heritage rights, and the Nabatean queens were honoured even more than the kings.
The Nabatean culture experienced a sudden transformation from the nomadic life style and camel breeders to city builders, and it is only since this change happened that the Nabateans have left records of their own culture. Before that time, only some samples of pottery were found, and however not older than the first century b.c.e.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Assyrian Chronicles and other ancient
records the first peoples to be identified as Arabs were the
Ishmaelite-Midyanite tribes and the same definition is never applied
to the southern peoples, who are called by their ethnic name (Sabeans,
Mineans, etc.), so how did it happen that the term Arabian was
extended to the whole complex of inhabitants of the peninsula?
Indeed, the relationships between the northern tribes and the Yemenite kingdoms were rather limited to commercial exchange, but never achieved a solid cultural and political unity in pre-Islamic times.
Such a generalization of the term seems to come from Greek sources:
being the Ishmaelites the immediate neighbours of the Persian Empire
along the southern border from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, the
whole land between both seas was called Arabia after them.
In fact it was Herodotus who mentioned Arabians in reference to all the peoples dwelling in the peninsula. It is also well known that the Greeks were not accurate in their geographic and ethnic definitions, as we have many examples of Hellenic names that became widely used even though they are not exact -- like Syria, by which the Greeks intended "Assyria", mistaking both the people and the land.
The different tribes of Arabia did not have any term of their own
which would have been recognized by every tribe to identify themselves
as "Arabian"; therefore, when the Arabic language took a definitive
shape, the geographic names that were widely acknowledged as official
denominations were the Greek ones.
The term Arab was included into the vocabulary of the Southern languages long time after it was commonly used by the Northern Arabian tribes as self-definition, that means that the word was indeed a foreign term for the peoples settled in the Southern half of the peninsula.
Paradoxically, modern Arabian ethnologists consider the Southern
tribes as the original Arabs (but historically they never defined
themselves as Arabs in ancient times, while the first tribes that have
accepted such denomination appear to be the Ishmaelites).
The Arab scholars distinguish Arabians as descending from two different stocks: the "original" Arabs ('aribah), whose forefather was Qahtan -- Yoqtan -- and are the Yemenite group of tribes, and the "arabized" peoples of the north (musta'aribah), whose forefather is said to be Adnan, allegedly an Ishmaelite.
Undoubtedly, there is a glaring contradiction in what the same Arab ethnologists declare: that the Ishmaelites are actually arabized and not the original Arabs; hen they claim that all Arabs are Ishmaelites...
Arab myths concerning the Patriarchs
Historic and archaeologic evidences show that the ancient Arabian
peoples did not leave any written testimony of themselves before they
received the influence of Assyria, around the 8th-7th century b.c.e.,
and all what we know about them until then has been recorded by
external sources and accounts of eyewitnesses.
The peoples of Arabia had no records of their own genealogies, which have been artificially invented in Islamic times as well as the alleged pre-Islamic history without any real knowledge concerning location and period, besides the imaginary character of the events.
There are many examples that show the inaccuracy of Islamic traditional concepts, based on hearsay from unreliable sources. Just to mention a couple of them, one is that the qur'an identifies Miryam the sister of Aharon with Miryam the mother of Yeshua as if she was the same person, when actually there are about 1400 years that separate the two Miryams; another is that in sura "al-qasas" (38), Haman is said to be Pharaoh's vizier, mistaking both time and place, because actually Haman was a minister of the Persian king when there was no longer any Pharaoh in Egypt.
The same sura asserts that Pharaoh intended to build a tower, a story based on Josephus' account about Nimrod (Antiquities, I: 4). There are hundreds of resounding errors like these which are not to be listed here since it is not the intention of this essay to make any process to religious conceptions, but only to present the historic truth.
Concerning the two Arabian forefathers, we can say that Qahtan may be
well identified with the Biblical Yoqtan, but Adnan seems to be rather
legendary, and as allegedly is only one of Ishmaels' descendants -- not
even one of his twelve sons -- he cannot be the ancestor of all the
The geographic distribution of the Ishmaelites indeed leave a vast "empty" space between them and the Yoqtanite peoples, namely, the whole Central Arabia. The southernmost Ishmaelite tribe was Teyma', whose capital was located about 400 kilometres north from Yathrib (Medinah).
Yet, Arab traditions assert that Ishmael was with his father Avraham in Mekka (that is more than 700 kilometres south of Teyma'), a claim that is utterly groundless, without the least hint of possibility to find any historic support.
The only existing written record concerning the person of Ishmael
is found in the Bible, witnessing that he dwelled in the region of
Paran, north of Midyan. This account was written by Mosheh, who spent
half of his life in the very land where Ishmael lived and had
undoubtedly more accurate information than the Arab writers that
invented the tales about Avraham and Ishmael more than 2000 years
The Scriptures as well describe Avraham's movements in a very accurate way, from his departure from Ur haKashdim to Haran, then to Canaan, his journeys to Egypt and Gherar, his expedition to rescue his nephew, and every place where he sojourned -- none of them is in Arabia.
He kept attached to his Akkadian family settled in Northern Mesopotamia and not to any allegedly sacred place in Arabia. Having described all Avraham's movements in detail, would Mosheh not mention a trip involving a distance over 1000 kilometres away from Canaan (and the same length for the way back)?
And supposing, for the sake of argument, that Avraham actually travelled to Mekka, if Mosheh ignored such a journey it undoubtedly means that it was completely irrelevant, without any Divine purpose.
The fact is that the name of Ishmael was unknown in Central Arabia
in pre-Islamic times, and the Arabic form Isma'il, beginning
with an aleph shows that it passed through the Greek and is not
directly derived from the Semitic/Aramaic original name Yishmael, with
an initial yod -- the change of a consonant/semivowel into a
vowel is explained only if a Semitic name has been translated into a
western language and then from the western form into another Semitic
tongue, which is the case of Hebrew into Greek and then into Arabic.
Indeed, there is no mention of Avraham or Ishmael in any ancient Arabian inscription, neither Sabean nor Minean, nor Safaitic, nor Lihyanite, nor Thamudic and not even Nabatean.
The Arabs got acquainted with the existence of Avraham and Ishmael only through the Jewish and Christian sources from which Islam drew its own scriptures. Therefore, according to overwhelming historic, archaeologic, scriptural and scientific evidence, neither Avraham nor Ishmael have ever been in Arabia from Midyan southwards.
Central Arabia was for many centuries left aside from the organized
kingdoms of the South and also from the tribal states of the North,
keeping its original Kushite population. It was regarded by both parts
mainly as a passing-through territory for the caravan routes, which
were not far away from the sea coast.
The Yemenite kingdoms concentrated their population in their own cities and had no real interest in annexing the desert central region. The Sabeans were like the Phoenicians outstanding seafarers and used mainly the maritime routes; they traded with far away countries like India and established commercial settlements along the whole eastern coast of Africa -- even to reach Mesopotamia and Israel they preferred the sea routes. The only important caravan way they employed was the "Incense Road" that connected Yemen with Midyan across the peninsula along the Red Sea coast.
On the other side, the Semitic empires of the Middle East, namely
Assyrian and Babylonian, were not much concerned in conquering the
Arabian tribes and only imposed tribute on them, eventually placed
vassal kings of their choice in order to keep a sort of organized
administration, but did not establish colonies.
After the fall of Babylon, the Nabateans got in touch with the Persian and Greek cultures and sought to expand themselves towards the northwest. In this period, they absorbed some Semitic peoples whose kingdoms were ruined since long time like the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and some Aramean tribes, which contributed to the formation of the Arab identity. These Arabs are those that in Roman times settled in the central region, slowly and merging with the local Kushite inhabitants.
Map showing the distribution of the Northern and Southern Arabian peoples: notice that Central Arabia was primarily a Kushite territory, in which both Northern and Southern Arabians converged in a later period
Unification and transformation
A great amount of historic documents concerning early Arabs have been
destroyed in Islamic times in order to annihilate the memory of the
original background from which Islam emerged and how did it change the
cultural features of the Arabs -- so, it is not a surprising factor
that they did likewise with the peoples that they subdued.
Only strongly established cultures resisted and were not "arabized" (like Jews, Assyrians, Coptic Egyptians, Armenians, that never surrendered to Islam).
Yet, we still have enough elements to reconstruct the facts concerning the pre-Islamic Arabian culture, and it is interesting that it was a female-centred and even a female-ruled society. This characteristic regarded primarily the Central Arabian and also the Northern tribes, not properly the Southern Arabian culture.
Therefore, in order to enable a better comprehensibility, in this chapter we will define with the term Arabian or Arab the peoples of the Northern and Central regions, and "Yemenite" those of the Southern kingdoms (the term Yemenite indeed indicates the right hand, meaning the south).
According to the Chronicles of King Ashurbanipal and preceding
Assyrian records, the Arabians have been ruled mainly by queens since
the dim and distant past, like their Kushite brothers in Africa.
Notable Arabian sovereigns like Zabibi and her daughter/successor Shamsi not only were the queens but also the warrior leaders of their own armies which included a large number of women-fighters; even tough they were submitted by Assyrian kings as vassals, these queens were credited for their aptitude for leadership.
Subsequently, the King Assarhadon appointed an Assyrian princess over the Arabs according to their custom of having female rulers. It is indeed a very strange tradition for an allegedly Semitic people, but a typical feature among Kushites: on the African side of the Red Sea, kingdoms like Meroë and Ethiopia were traditionally ruled by queens.
Also the Amazigh people under their warrior queen Kahena opposed a fierce resistance to the muslim invaders. Undoubtedly, the government system of pre-Islamic Arabians was not Semitic but Hamitic.
There are conclusive evidences that Arabians had a matrilineal
succession, the husband entered the wife's clan and lived in her home,
and it was generally the woman who decided to divorce.
Women were free to choose their partner, and often married younger men. It was also usual that clans had female names, and there are some hints that suggest that even polyandry was practised -- a custom not found among Semites but within some peoples in India and other regions of Asia. Also their religion had the same character, as the worship of the goddesses, the "daughters of Allah" (name of a pre-Islamic moon-god) prevailed over that of the male idols.
It is not the purpose of this essay to show the true origin of Islam, yet it is interesting how did it manage to reverse all the Arabians' culture -- it is not the sole event of this kind in history, just consider how Communism took the power over the deeply religious Russians, overturning many of their traditional values.
The Islamic doctrines altered the genuine Kushitic nature of the Arabs and imposed the male tyranny, that includes women-beating and other aberrant humiliations like clitoridectomy -- characters that do not help to qualify Islam as Semitic either. The Islamic insistence on the rules that women must obey has not any ethnic connotation but is the result of a reaction against the freedom and power that Arabian women enjoyed when this religion was founded (by someone who experimented such a female "domination" in his own family).
In fact, the Kushite cultural heritage lasted much longer in Central Arabia, the cradle of Islam, rather than in the Northern and Southern regions, where the Nabatean and Himyarite civilizations were in contact with the western world and had become quite cosmopolitan.
The Nabateans learnt literature, sciences and arts from their
neighbours and were Hellenized up to a certain degree; most of them
also converted to Judaism and Christianity.
It was in Roman times that they reached their splendour and expanded their influence over Central Arabia; cities like Khaybar, Yathrib and Mekka became important Nabatean centres.
Most of the Jews dwelling in Arabia in those times were indeed converted Nabateans, as well as the Christians that settled as south as Najran, in the Yemenite region. Paradoxically, a large number of true Ishmaelites were murdered by the Islamic hordes in the massacres of Jews at Khaybar and Medina.
The notions about Jewish and Christian traditions were actually the source from which Nabateans rediscovered their Ishmaelite origin, as the name of Ishmael was completely lost in their own tradition. The Arabic form of this name shows internal evidence that it was translated from Greek or perhaps Syriac.
This remote connection with a Biblical figure was enhanced on purpose by the promoters of Islam in order to create themselves a prestigious ancestry, although without having actual proofs of the Ishmaelite descent of Nabateans.
As we have already said, the Arabians were primarily a Kushite
people and that is what they were considered by their Semitic
neighbours as well; Ishmael's offspring developed as a Hamitic people
for many generations.
In fact, the only ancestor they remembered was Adnan, whose origin is unknown and maybe legendary, or perhaps a Kushite to whom in Islamic times was ascribed Ishmaelite lineage. It was mainly in Roman times that the Nabateans absorbed some Semitic tribes (Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites and Aramean clans from Syria), that contributed to add an important Semitic element to their ethnicity, nevertheless, none of these Semites was originated from Ishmael!
Concerning the Yemenites, in early times they had been ruled by queens
according to the Kushitic tradition. The Semitic Yoqtanites
assimilated the original Hamitic tribes and adopted their female
Since they did not leave any written account of their own history previous to the Assyrian period, the only available document regarding the Sabean monarchy before the 8th century b.c.e. is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures, that reports the journey of the Queen of Sheva to Jerusalem.
The description of the Queen illustrates the daring character of a typical Arabian female ruler; she presented herself to test the mighty King Shlomoh with hard questions and spoke to him openly.
The Hebrew expression "she came to Shlomoh" used in the Bible in 1Kings 10:2 and 2Chronicles 9:1 conveys an interesting implication: that she had the explicit purpose of sexual relations with the King, who was not reluctant to accomplish her wishes, as it is written in following verses that "King Shlomoh gave to the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked", implying that he also satisfied her sexually.
This event became the source of many legends suggesting that both sovereigns had a son that founded a Solomonic dynasty that ruled in Yemen (or Ethiopia). There are not reliable proofs that may credit such a possibility, except that about two centuries later the Sabeans had a Semitic-styled male monarchy, and one of the earliest kings mentioned was Yati'amar, which is a Hebrew name (Ithamar).
Since the 3rd century c.e. the Sabean Himyarite Kingdom was enjoying a
cultural revival in which the historical Israelite presence played an
essential role, so much that even the king Dhu Nuwas adopted Judaism
(even though the ancient Sabean religion was still practised by most
This new feature was not appreciated by the nominally Christian Ethiopia and the Eastern Roman Empire, that agreed in joining their efforts to overthrow the Himyarite Kingdom. The Yemenite economy was weakened because of the commercial boycott promoted by the rival states that subsequently moved war against the Himyarite Kingdom.
Yemen fell under the Ethiopians, that occupied the country and settled their own dynasty in 525 c.e. Yet, the Ethiopian Axumite rule did not last long, the ambitions of Byzantium and Persia to take control over the region resulted in a victory for the Persians, that subjected the whole Southern Arabia around 570 c.e. until the Islamic invasion. The end of the independent Yemen paved the way for their unification with the Nabatean Arabs advancing from the north.
At this point we have got a general description of the ethnic composition of Arabia when the whole peninsula was unified and the Arabic language was defined.
After a careful and accurate research about the origin and identity of the Arabs, we can distinguish the myths from the facts:
- Arabs are Ishmaelites: this is not true for the overwhelming majority of them. There are not written records by which not even a single Arab is able prove a direct descent from Ishmael. The alleged genealogies have been invented in Islamic times after some Nabateans converted to Judaism or Christianity discovered the possible link that they had with Ishmael, a name that was completely lost in Arabia and was translated from Greek sources.
- Arabs are Semites: This is a relative truth -- the Arabic language is Semitic, because its sources are ancient Semitic tongues spoken by both Sabeans and Nabateans. Also Ghe'ez and Amharic, languages of the Ethiopians, are Semitic, nevertheless the Ethiopian people are Kushites, not Semites.
- Arabic was spoken in ancient times: false, it is the most recent of all Semitic languages, and evolved from Nabatean, Sabean, Lihyanite, Safaitic, Thamudic and other tongues. There was not a single document written in Arabic until Roman times.
- Arabs are primarily Hamitic, with a relevant Semitic contribution.
- Ancient Nabateans were mainly Kushitic. Although their forefather was Ishmael, he and his offspring married within the Kushite inhabitants of Northern Arabia, and were regarded as Mu'uri (Egyptians) by the Assyrians, who did not recognize Arabs as a Semitic people.
- Ancient Yemenites (Sabeans, Mineans and others) were of mixed Semitic/Hamitic stock.
- The pre-Islamic Arabs had a Kushitic culture; they were mainly ruled by queens like the Nubians, Ethiopians and other Hamitic nations, and had a female-centred society.
- Islam has reversed the original culture into a male-ruled society, yet not adopting a Semitic style but just imposing a system based on applying the opposite patterns to the previous social rules and customs.
Ancient Arabians had a great culture, that might have evolved into a modern civilization and a developed society like other peoples of the Middle East as the Jews or the Armenians, but their original culture was destroyed and their history was replaced by legends.
Imninalu is the internet name of Avraham Sándor, a member of
the Roma (Gypsy) community. He was born in Argentina and currently
lives in Europe.
His areas of interest are history, sociology and linguistics. He writes that he has been educated in the Scriptures since childhood. This article was published on his website and is archived at http://www.imninalu.net/myths-arabs.htm. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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