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According to the Book of Genesis, Ishmaelites (Hebrew: Bnei Yishma'el Arabic: Bani Isma'il, ) are the descendants of Ishmael, the elder son of Abraham and the descendants of the twelve sons and princes of Ishmael.

Throughout history, the Ishmaelites have been associated with Arabs (more specifically, North Arabians). Indeed, two prominent North Arabian tribes, the Qedarites and Nabateans, have names corresponding to two of Ishmael's sons. The original sequence of events, who called whom which name first and how this relates to the tradition of Abraham as a patriarch and forefather is unclear.

Even today, many call upon Ishmael as their people's ancestor, notably Muslim Arabs.

Traditional origins[edit]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

According to the Book of Genesis, Abraham's first wife was named Sarah and her Egyptian slave was named Hagar. However Sarah could not conceive. In chapter 16 Sarah (then Sarai) gave her slave Hagar in marriage to Abraham, in order that Abraham might have an heir.

And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian...and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.[1]

Hagar conceived Ishmael from Abraham, and the Ishmaelites descend from him. After Abraham pleaded with God for Ishmael to live under his blessing, chapter 17 states:

But as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: behold I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. [2]

Chapter 25 lists his sons as:

And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael
Nebaioth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam,
And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa,
Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah[3]

Family of Ishmaelites
1. Nebajoth
2. Kedar
3. Adbeel
4. Mibsam
5. Mishma
6. Dumah
7. Massa
8. Hadar
9. Tema
10. Jetur
11. Naphish
12. Kedemah

Samaritan Asaṭīr[edit]

The Samaritan book Asaṭīr adds:[4]:262

And after the death of Abraham, Ishmael reigned twenty-seven years;
And all the children of Nebaot ruled for one year in the lifetime of Ishmael;
And for thirty years after his death from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates; and they built Mecca.[a]

Josephus' Antiquities[edit]

Josephus also lists the sons and states that they "...inhabit the lands which are between Euphrates and the Red Sea, the name of which country is Nabathæa.)" [6]

Targum Onkelos[edit]

The Targum Onkelos annotates Genesis 25:16, describing the extent of their settlements: "And they dwelt from Hindekaia unto Chalutsa, which is by the side of Mizraim, from thy going up towards Arthur." [7]


"Allah has gifted all of Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah and Lot a favour above the nations.
With some of their forefathers and their offspring and their brethren; and We chose them and guided them unto a straight path".[8]

Kebra Nagast[edit]

The 14th century Kebra Nagast says "And therefore the children of Ishmael became kings over Tereb, and over Kebet, and over Nôbâ, and Sôba, and Kuergue, and Kîfî, and Mâkâ, and Môrnâ, and Fînḳânâ, and ’Arsîbânâ, and Lîbâ, and Mase'a, for they were the seed of Shem." [9]

Historical records of the Ishmaelites[edit]

Assyrian and Babylonian royal inscriptions and North Arabian inscriptions from 9th to 6th century BC, mention the king of Qedar.[10][11][12][13] Of the names of the sons of Ishmael the names "Nabat, Kedar, Abdeel, Dumah, Massa, and Teman" were mentioned in the Assyrian royal inscriptions as Arabian tribes. Jesur was mentioned in Greek inscriptions in the First Century BC.[14]

The Qedarite Kingdom continued long after the demise of the last native Babylonian king Nabonidus, but the Nabataean Kingdom emerged from the Qedarite kingdom because of the continuity in geography and language between the two tribes some two hundred and fifty years later.[15][16][17] Many Arabic tribes names of the time of Muhammad (and now) such as Asad, Madhhij, and the ancestor tribes of Muhammad: Ma'ad and Nizar[18] were found in the Namara inscription dated 325 AD in the Nabatean script.[19][20]

Genealogical trace of the ancestry of Arabs[edit]

Medieval Arab genealogists divided Arabs into three groups:

  • "Ancient Arabs", tribes that had vanished or been destroyed, such as ʿĀd and Thamud, often mentioned in the Qur'an as examples of God's power to destroy those who did not believe and follow their prophets and messengers.
  • "Pure Arabs" of South Arabia, descending from Qahtan son of Abir.[21] Some of the Qahtanites (Qahtanis) are said to have migrated from the land of Yemen following the destruction of the Ma'rib Dam (sadd Ma'rib).[22]
  • The "Arabized Arabs" (musta`ribah) of center and North Arabia, descending from Ishmael the elder son of Abraham through his descendant Adnan. Such as the ancient tribe of Hawazin, or the modern-day tribes of Otaibah and Anazzah.

Abu Ja'far al-Baqir (676–743 AD) wrote that his father Ali ibn Husayn informed him that prophet Muhammad had said: "The first whose tongue spoke in clear Arabic was Ishmael, when he was fourteen years old."[23] Hisham Ibn Muhammad al-Kalbi (737–819 AD) established a genealogical link between Ishmael and Muhammad using writings and the ancient oral traditions of the Arabs. His book, Jamharat al-Nasab ("The Abundance of Kinship"), seems to posit that the people known as 'Arabs' (of his time) were all descendants of Ishmael.[24] Ibn Kathir (1301–1373) writes, "All the Arabs of the Hijaz are descendants of Nebaioth and Qedar."[23] Medieval Jewish sources also usually identified Qedar with Arabs and Muslims.[25][26][d] According to author and scholar Irfan Shahîd, while Western scholars viewed this kind of "genealogical Ishmaelism" with suspicion, the concept can be supported,

Genealogical Ishmaelism was viewed with suspicion as a late Islamic fabrication because of the confusion in Islamic times which made it such a capacious term as to include the inhabitants of the south as well as the north of the Arabian Peninsula. But short of this extravagance, the concept is much more modest in its denotation, and in the sober sources it applies only to certain groups among the Arabs of pre-Islamic times. Some important statements to this effect were made by Muhammad when he identified some Arabs as Ishmaelites and others as not.[27]

Ishmaelism in this more limited definition holds that Ishmael was both an important religious figure and eponymous ancestor for some of the Arabs of western Arabia.[27] Prominence is given in Arab genealogical accounts to the first two of Ishmael's twelve sons, Nebaioth (Arabic: نبيت‎, Nabīt) and Qedar (Arabic: قيدار‎, Qaydār), who are also prominently featured in the Genesis account.[27] It is likely that they and their tribes lived in northwestern Arabia and were historically the most important of the twelve Ishmaelite tribes.[27]

It is believed that the first person to speak Arabic clearly was Ishmael from Greek literature sources: "Isma’il grew up among the Jurhum an Arabic speaking tribe, learning the pure Arabic tongue from them. When grown up he successively married two ladies from the Jurhum tribe, the second wife being the daughter of Mudad ibn ‘Amr, leader of the Jurhum tribe."[28]

In accounts tracing the ancestry of Muhammad back to Ma'ad (and from there to Adam), Arab scholars alternate, with some citing the line as through Nebaioth, others Qedar.[29] Many Muslim scholars see Isaiah 42 (21:13-17) as predicting the coming of a servant of God who is associated with Qedar and interpret this as a reference to Muhammad.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This text has been dated by Moses Gaster to the third century BCE,[4]:262 but A.D. Crown writes that its Aramaic resembles more the language used by the scholar Ab Hisda of Tyre in the 11th century.[5]:34


  1. ^ Genesis 16:3, King James Version
  2. ^ Genesis 17:20, King James Version
  3. ^ Genesis 25:13–15, King James Version
  4. ^ a b Gaster, Moses (1927). "VIII". The Asatir: the Samaritan book of Moses. London: Royal Asiatic Society. OCLC 540827714.
  5. ^ Crown, Alan David (1993). A companion to Samaritan studies. Tübingen: Mohr, J.C.B. ISBN 9783161456664. OCLC 611644250.
  6. ^ Josephus, Titus Flavius. "ch. 12: Of Ishmael, Abraham's son; and of the Arabians posterity.". Antiquities of the Jews (in Ancient Greek). Book 1: From creation to the death of Isaac. OCLC 70357552.
  7. ^ Onkelos. "Section V. Chaiyey Sarah". Targum Onkelos. (in Aramaic).
  8. ^ Quran 6:86
  9. ^ "ch. 83: Concerning the King of the Ishmaelites". Kebra Nagast. (in Geez).
  10. ^ Delitzsche (1912). Assyriesche Lesestuche. Leipzig. OCLC 2008786.
  11. ^ Montgomery (1934). Arabia and the Bible. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania. OCLC 639516.
  12. ^ Winnet (1970). Ancient Records from North Arabia. pp. 51, 52. OCLC 79767. king of kedar (Qedarites) is named alternatively as king of Ishmaelites and king of Arabs in Assyrian Inscriptions
  13. ^ Stetkevychc (2000). Muhammad and the Golden Bough. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253332087. Assyrian records document Ishmaelites as Qedarites and as Arabs
  14. ^ Hamilton, Victor P. (1990). The book of Genesis ([Nachdr.] ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans. ISBN 0802823092.
  15. ^ Ibrahim (1989). "Nabatean Origins". In Knauf (ed.). Arabian Studies in honour of Mahmud Gul. Journal of the American Oriental Society. Wiesbaden. ISSN 0003-0279.
  16. ^ Marx, edited by Angelika Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai, Michael (2010). The Qur'an in context historical and literary investigations into the Qur'anic milieu (PDF). Leiden: Brill. p. 211. ISBN 9789047430322. Archived from the original on 2015-10-02.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  17. ^ "routes to Arabia" (PDF). p. 98. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-01-01. Retrieved 2013-06-09.
  18. ^ Ibn Ishaq; Guillaume (1955). The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq's sīrat. London. p. 696. ISBN 0195778286. Nizar ancestor of Muhammad a descendent of Nebet son of Ishmael
  19. ^ Shahid (1989). Byzantium and the Arabs in the 5th century. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks. p. 344. ISBN 0884021521. Ma'ad son of Adnan and Nizar the Ancestors of Muhammad are mentioned in Namara inscriptions of king of the Arabs Imru' al-Qays ibn 'Amr, an Adnanite and Nabataean according to Ibn Ishaq, dated to year 325 AD and written in the Nabataean script
  20. ^ Ibn Ishaq; Guillaume (1955). The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Isḥāq's sīrat. London. p. 4. ISBN 0195778286. al-Nu'man of the kings of al-Hira was a survivor of the tribe of Qunus b. Ma'add. However, the rest of the Arabs assert that he belonged to the Lakhm of the Rabi'a b. NasrIshmael
  21. ^ McClintock, John; Strong, James (1894). Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Harper.
  22. ^ O'Leary, De Lacy Evans (2000) [1927]. Arabia Before Muhammad. London: Routledge. pp. 92–3. ISBN 0-415-24466-8.
  23. ^ a b Wheeler, 2002, p. 110-111.
  24. ^ ""Arabia" in Ancient History". Centre for Sinai. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
  25. ^ Alexander, 1847, p. 67.
  26. ^ Alfonso, 2007, p. 137, note 36.
  27. ^ a b c d Shahîd, 1989, p. 335-336.
  28. ^ Ali, Mohar. "The Ka'abah And The Abrahamic Tradition". Retrieved 15 August 2015.
  29. ^ al-Mousawi in Boudreau et al., 1998, p. 219.
  30. ^ Zepp, Ira G. A Muslim Primer: Beginner's Guide to Islam. Vol. 1. University of Arkansas Press, 2000, 50

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