Who Is an Arab?
April 1974

“Who Is an Arab?” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 27–29

Who Is an Arab?

Who is an Arab? The answer varies according to the person giving the reply. One who considers himself an Arab would say that an Arab is someone who speaks Arabic, but he probably would not mention his historical background. Most Westerners would think of a Muslim as an Arab. Yet the Iranians, Turks, Pakistanis, Indonesians, and many others are Muslims—but don’t speak Arabic. Moreover, some Arabic-speaking peoples are Christian, while others are Druze (an offshoot of Islam).

Perhaps the most historically accurate answer is that most often given by Christians and Jews: the Arabs are descendants of Ishmael, the firstborn son of Abraham. This highly oversimplified definition no doubt stems from the fact that Muhammed was of the Ishmaelite tribe of Quraish. But not all Arabs are Ishmaelites.

The earliest Arabians, according to the Bible, were the descendants of Joktan, who lived five generations after the flood.1 The Joktanites lived in the fertile regions of southern Arabia, and were the “Arabians that were near the Ethiopians.”2 They were traders, some of whom in later years actually crossed the Red Sea to settle in Ethiopia. One of the sons of Joktan was Sheba, ancestor of the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon.3

The northern Arabian tribes were, for the most part, descended from Abraham through Ishmael, son of his Egyptian wife, Hagar. His descendants inhabited the coastal area of western Arabia.4

By his third wife, Keturah, Abraham had six sons, whom he sent to dwell in the east so that Isaac could inherit Canaan.5 Because they lived in an essentially desert land, they were nomads, and hence we read of the “travelling companies of Dedanim,”6 and of “the Arabian in the wilderness.”7 Some of them pitched their tents as far away as Babylon, it would seem.8

Perhaps the best-known tribe was the Midianite tribe. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was a Midianite, and his descendants, the Kenites, settled in Palestine with the Israelites under Joshua.9

The Edomites, located in the mountainous region southeast of the Dead Sea, were descendants of Abraham and Isaac through Esau or Edom.10 They mingled with the Horites or children of Seir,11 but acknowledged their close relationship to Israel as descendants of Jacob’s brother.12 They often warred with Israel,13 and were never included within the Israelite borders.14 In Maccabean times, their land was called Idumea, and hence, King Herod the Great, an Idumean convert to Judaism, was a descendant of Esau.

The trans-Jordanian Arabs of today are all related to Abraham as well. The Aramaeans, or Syrians, are perhaps descendants of Aram, the great-nephew of Abraham.15 Or they may be descended from Aram, son of Shem.16 It was to Syria that the patriarchs traveled to find wives in their own families.17 Though the early seat of the Aramaeans was beyond the Euphrates, by the time of David they had moved south to Damascus and Beth-Rehob.18 They became subject to David, but gained independence in Solomon’s time.

The Moabites and Ammonites are descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot’s two daughters, believing that the world had come to an end, intoxicated their father and deceived him into fathering children by them.19 The Ammonites lived east of Mount Gilead, from the Jabbok southwards.20 They were subject to King David21 and although they later became independent, they nevertheless presented gifts to King Uzziah.22 Their brethren, the Moabites, lived along the eastern bank of the Jordan River and east of the Dead Sea. They warred constantly with Israel.23 Their language, known from the Moabite Stela, erected by King Mesha in honor of his victories over Israel,24 was almost identical to Hebrew.

Except for those living in the Arabian peninsula, however, none of these peoples spoke Arabic prior to the seventh century A.D., and only those living in Arabia would have termed themselves Arabs. When Muhammed made his famous journey to Medina in 621 as the first step in the establishment of a Muslim Arab state, even the Arabs were far from united. Broken into many factions throughout the peninsula, most were idolators, while those in the north tended to be Christians; there were even numerous Arabic-speaking Jewish tribes.

From Arabia, the Arabs moved outward to conquer most of the Middle East (Asia Minor remained Greek until the Turkish invasion some 850 years later), all of North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. Arabic became the new language for all of the conquered lands; and over the years, the natives came to consider themselves Arabs. Thus, the Egyptians, Libyans, and Phoenicians, all descendants of Ham,25 were assimilated with the invading Arabs. So were the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Berbers of North Africa. We can also say that the Arabs of the Gaza Strip are, to a great extent, descendants of the Philistines, after whom the land of Palestine was named. Palestine has perhaps seen more mixing of peoples than most areas of the world, due to its strategic position on trade and military routes. The Israelites took control of the land under Joshua, but were unable to completely destroy the Canaanites.26 Then, subsequent invasions brought the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, some of whom, in each case, remained and intermarried with the local population. Byzantium inherited the scepter from Rome, and it was against Byzantine Palestine that the Arabs moved in 638. Later invasions by the Crusaders, Mongols, Turks, etc., brought about further mixtures.

Incongruous as it may seem in the light of the modern conflict in the Holy Land, many of the Palestinian Arabs of today are descendants of the Jews who inhabited the land some 2,000 years ago. Many important Palestinian families can trace their genealogy back to Judah or another of the tribes of Israel. Christian communities of Palestinian Arabs are mostly descended from the original Jewish inhabitants who were converted to Christianity soon after Christ. Those who are still Christian are not usually converts of the Crusaders, but rather descendants of Christians who resisted conversion to Islam in the seventh century. An example is the Maronite Christian community. They speak Arabic but use Aramaic—the language spoken by the Jews of Jesus’ time—in their liturgy.27

The historical answer to the question, “Who is an Arab?” is therefore very complex. It is easy to see why the Arab himself generally takes a linguistic sidestep to: “An Arab is someone who speaks Arabic.”

Descendents of Noah
  • John Tvedtnes is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He serves as counselor in the Jerusalem Branch presidency.