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Op-Ed: Who are the ancestors of the Arabs and what does the Torah state about them?

The Torah teaches important lessons for understanding the modern Middle East. Who are the ancestors of the Arabs and what does the Torah have to say about them?
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Who is an Arab?   Usually, people will say that an Arab is one who speaks Arabic.  However, that is what we say in modern times after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century assimilated many nations into the Arabic speaking world and after Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon mixed together many ancient nations that were living under his empire into one people.  This is why in Hebrew, the word Arab has the same root letters as the word laarov, which means “to mix.” So which ancient nations are mixed into the Arab world and what does the Torah state about them in relation to the Jewish people?

According to Ibn Hisham, who edited the Prophet Muhammed’s biography, “All of the Arabs are descendants from Ishmael and Qahtan.”  Ibn Hisham then contradicts himself by first claiming that Qahtan was a son of Ishmael and thus “Ishmael is the father of all Arabs.” Then, in another place, he says that Qahtan is the son of “Abir b. Shalikh b. Arfakhshadh b. Sam b. Nuh.” The Jewish Bible confirms the later view that Qahtan is not a son of Ishmael for Qahtan is not listed in the Torah as one of Ishmael’s sons and Genesis 10:25 specifically states that Qahtan or Joktan is a son of Ever, who was a descendant of Shem. The Torah perspective is furthermore confirmed by Salih Hadith, who stated that not all Arabs are descendants of Ishmael.  Ibn Ishaq, the earliest biographer of Muhammed, referred to people who are not descendants of Avraham as Arabs. He claims that the descendants of Ishmael were a minority that spread out among the Arabs.

While Islam contends that the southern Arabians are descendants of Joktan and the northern Arabians are descendants of Ishmael, according to Jewish sources, the northern Arabians are descendants of Ishmael that consisted of 12 nomadic tribes that traded with Egypt and the descendants of Joktan consisted of 13 Arabian tribes.  As descendants of Shem, Joktan was blessed for their “primary goal in life is to serve G-d and increase his glory in the world.”  As for Ishmael, the Torah describes him as follows: “He is destined for power and material greatness. He would be an untamed brigand, a hated plunderer and a warrior.  Onkelos translates the description of Ishmael in the economic sense: He would be dependent on other nations and they in turn would be dependent on him.”  

What the Torah states about the Ishmaelite’s and Joktan has relevance for our times.  The Arabs, as descendants of Joktan, are very religious in nature and consider serving G-d to be at the top of their agenda.  Nevertheless, as descendants of Ishmael, the Arabs who lived under numerous Muslim empires from the Rashidun Caliphate to the Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid and Mamluk Caliphate to the Ottoman Empire held great power and achieved material greatness throughout the history.  Numerous Muslim empires achieved power by the sword and were known to have great warriors.  Then, later on, after the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Arab world endured a period of colonialism and was forced to be dependent on other nations.  However, in our times, due to the existence of oil in this region of the world, the world is also dependent on the Arabs.   Furthermore, numerous radical Islamist groups such as ISIS can be described as “untamed brigands” and “hated plunderers,” as they cause destruction wherever they take control.  

But what other ancient nations are incorporated in the modern Arab world aside from the Ishmaelite’s and the Jokhtanites?  The Moabites and Ammonites are descendants of Lot who were later on incorporated into the Arab world.  The Ammonites were a nomadic people that lived in present day Jordan and the name of Jordan’s capital city of Ammon derives from the lands ancient inhabitants. After Nebuchadnezzar conquered the region, the Ammonite population was incorporated into his empire via intermarriage and disappeared as a separate nation.   According to Josephus, the Moabites were overrun by the Nabathean Arabs who ruled in Petra and extended their domain as far as Damascus. Like the Ammonites, they were incorporated into the Arab world and lost their identity as a separate nation. 

While many people might not be aware of it, the Torah clearly demonstrates that it is impossible for the Jewish people to make peace with the descendants of Lot. According to the commentaries for Genesis 13:8, “G-d in his wisdom decreed that Israel was not to be friendly with Lot’s descendants for anyone who tried to show them mercy would suffer humiliation and war.   The Torah loves peace and Avraham exemplified peace but any person who seeks peace in opposition to the wisdom of the Torah courts disaster.   Avraham bowed to G-d’s wisdom when he said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife. Separate from me.’”  This passage demonstrates why it has been very difficult for Israel to make peace with the Arab world for the descendants of Lot have also been incorporated and mixed into the Arab nation.

The Druze, an Arabic speaking non-Muslim Middle Eastern ethnic group, claim that they are the descendants of Jethro the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses who settled in Israel together with Joshua.  According to the Talmud and numerous other Jewish sources, Jethro was an advisor to Pharaoh who objected to throwing Jewish babies in the Nile River and as a result, he had to flee to Midian. He took with him the unique staff that existed since creation that was in Joseph’s possession in Egypt and after it got stuck in the ground in Midian, he gave it to Moses since he was the only one able to remove it from the ground.  With this staff, Moses performed the miracles of the Exodus story. In Midian, Jethro became a high priest and prince but in the end, he rejected idolatry. Jews believe that he left Moses in order to convert his nation to Judaism but the Druze have a different belief on the subject. In the Druze religion, Jethro is revered as the father of all Druze and a prophet who founded their faith.   Today, the Druze descendants of Jethro can be found in Israel, Syria and Lebanon.  Like Jethro, the Jewish people continue to have a positive relationship with the Druze.

However, other ancestors of the Arabs have no connection with Avraham, Shem and Jethro the Midianite.  Indeed, the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Libyans, Hittites and the descendants of Nimrod in Babylon, all descendants of Ham, were incorporated into the Arab world.  What does Judaism have to say about each of these nations and how does it influence us today? According to the Torah, the descendants of Ham were to be led away from the land naked and barefoot by the Assyrians for “Ham sinned and Canaan is cursed.  Rabbi Yehuda explains that G-d had already blessed Noah and his sons and there cannot be a curse where a blessing had been given.  Therefore, Noah cursed his grandson who was deeply involved in the humiliating incident” of violating Noah.

For this reason, Canaan is described as “unfit and despicable. Noah foresaw that Canaan’s descendants would always be wicked and morally degraded.  Thus, we find the Patriarchs scrupulously avoided marriage with the accursed Canaanites.” However, the Jewish interpretation of the Torah cannot be used to justify the African slave trade like it did in Islam and Christianity. According to the Torah, the sexually aggressive descendants of Ham populated Egypt and Canaan was his son; it says nothing about the need to enslave Black Africans for only Canaan was to be “enslaved by a people who are themselves subjugated.” In the end, this would come true for the Canaanites were kicked out of ancient Israel and cease to exist as a separate nation.  But the commentaries add that “many descendants of Shem and Japheth too have been sold into slavery while not every Canaanite is or was a slave.  The curse is that from birth the Canaanites would be steeped in the culture of slavery and not seriously desire freedom.   The descendants of Shem and Japheth however will have a nobler spirit; they will always crave freedom even if they are enslaved.” Since the Canaanites were wiped out, they play no role in the modern Middle East.  However, the descendants of Ham do and even though the curse of slavery only applied to Canaan and not Ham in general, with the dictatorships that have dominated the Arab world throughout history and the lack of a resistance to them until recent times in the wake of the Arab Spring, one can see how this curse for Canaan also affected other descendants of Ham to a lesser degree and thus has affected the Arab world to date.  

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JOL Blogger | Rachel Avraham

Rachel holds a masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University and a BA in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. She is the author of Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media.


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