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Trade Paperback
368 pages
Dec 2003
Kregel Publications

Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God's Prophetic Plan for Ishmael's Line

by Tony Maalouf

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


I n t r o d u c t i o n

Arabs  Yesterday and Today

One of the blessings sometimes taken for granted in the United States is the availability of good Christian radio stations, which broadcast challenging messages of life and death, giving people something to think about while pursuing their daily routine. Several years ago I used to turn to one of these stations every morning on my commute to the seminary. I was constantly blessed and challenged with the Word that many times impacted me for the rest of the day. Yet, one morning, a famous preacher from the West Coast preached a message that deeply disturbed me, causing me to turn the radio off and start thinking.

I do not remember the various details of the message, but I still recall that somehow the subject turned to Abraham and Hagar. “If Abraham was not so impatient,” said the speaker, “we would have been spared much headache in the Middle East today.” Implied was that Abraham’s impatience before God—compared to our great patience, obviously—led to Ishmael’s birth and sustained enmity and struggle between the line of Ishmael and the line of Isaac until today. Though it was not the first time I had heard similar claims about Abraham’s role in the birth of Ishmael, it was the first time I stopped to ponder the reasons behind and the consequences of such criticism. What increased my interest in the subject was an earlier discovery of a veiled truth regarding Ishmael.

Over the past few years, I have come to conclude that negative comments like that of the West Coast preacher betray three crucial facts related to the line of the slave woman. First, they show how narrow our view of God’s sovereignty is. The same God who planned a redemptive role for the line of Isaac (Gen. 17:19) designed a major historical role for the line of Ishmael as well (16:10; 17:20). God planned to save thousands of those guilty of crucifying Christ through the same death they were culpable for (Acts 2–3). Second, they reveal how much current events in the Middle East influence our interpretation of the biblical text. Finally, they disclose our ignorance of many details in biblical and secular history, for we assume that history supports our theology in the matter of Ishmael’s enmity to Isaac, when it does not.

Had Abraham not been so impatient, we might have been spared the headache of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East today. Yet replacing Arabs with another ethnic group might have only changed the name of the conflict and unfortunately kept the headache. On the other hand, removing Hagar’s descendants from the picture would affect many details we tend to ignore in God’s design of world history and human redemption. First, it removes large sections of secular history important to the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Most important, it removes a multitude of names written in the book of life throughout salvation history. Finally, it removes several inspired portions of the biblical text related to this specific ethnic line.

The West Coast preacher may not have intended his casual comment to cause such damage. It was most likely a passing remark, and not premeditated. It may also have been said as an irony in order to magnify human guilt and vindicate God in his ways. Yet, this passing statement is only one among many signals that betray a negative stereotype concerning the slave woman and her line, common in many Christian circles today. The confusion can only be overcome by an in-depth study of the Word of God and an objective pursuit of the truth. However, the negative image of Ishmael in Christian circles in the West may be related, among other things, to deeply rooted biases against Arabs in general in broader Western societies.

The Status Quo

In a forum held in Oxford on June 7, 1998, “The Arab Image in the West,” participants summarized the current feelings toward Arabs common in the West.

These negative perceptions are seen daily in the Western media, in books, in statements by politicians, in Hollywood films, and in the behaviour and views of members of the public. The results of opinion polls and other surveys, particularly in the U.S.A., confirm these negative images.1

The report on the forum goes on to say,

An analysis of six opinion polls and surveys carried out in the U.S.A. between 1981 and 1996 indicates how perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.A. evolved during that period. . . . The analysis shows that security concerns other than historical or cultural factors are the dominant variables influencing the perception and images of Arabs. . . . The Arab image in the U.S.A. can be drastically affected by the latest headlines on violence and terrorism.2

After any likelihood of Arab involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing had been disproved, the polls showed a slight improvement in people’s disposition toward Arabs.3 However, since that forum, additional events took place that only caused the picture to go downhill. The worst that could happen to the Arab image came about with the hideous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington. As a reaction against these events, a global war against terrorism was started under the leadership of the United States. As this book goes to press, we are still watching the different phases of this war unfolding. Amid this disorder, attempts to adjust the picture of the Arabian descendants of Abraham became more needed, though all the more difficult to achieve.

The problem of ethnic partiality has deeper roots than casual preferences. It is caused by several of the sociopolitical factors already mentioned above. But most important for the present study is that it signals a chronic misunderstanding of portions of Scripture that will occupy us in the remainder of this book. However, before this is attempted, it is necessary to sketch the background needed for the upcoming discussion, which will clarify our path and help answer a few subconscious questions.

Arabs Yesterday and Today

Who are the Arabs, and where did they come from? A brief survey of the postbiblical history of Arabs follows, bypassing their legacy in biblical times since this will be developed more fully in the upcoming chapters.

Arab peoples today are native citizens of twenty-two countries belonging to the League of Arab States, where classical Arabic is the mother tongue and the official language of the people. These nations number in total no less than 250 million individuals. Although Islam is the religion of the majority of them, Arab countries include religious minorities of variable sizes, encompassing several Christian denominations, as well as a handful of Jewish groups. These nations today extend over the whole of the Middle East and North Africa in addition to the Arabian Peninsula.

However, in biblical times, Arabs were geographically restricted to the Arabian Peninsula and some of its outskirts. The term Arab originated from a mostly nomadic lifestyle. Genealogically, scholars generally agree that Arabs show up in three biblical lists. These are the descendants of Joktan (Gen. 10:25–30), accounting for the south Arabian stock; the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn (25:12–18), accounting for the north Arabian tribes; and the descendants of Abraham through Keturah (25:1–6), which mostly populated central Arabia.4 A fourth line of genealogy through Cush, son of Ham, is sometimes suggested (10:7).5 The obvious thing, however, is that by the end of the first millennium b.c., Ishmael and his line had become the dominant representatives of north and central Arabia.6 Having started in the north, they managed over time to have most parts of the peninsula gradually identify with them, regardless of various ethnic bloodlines. What concerns us more in this introduction is how these Arabs—a population of nomads living in Arabia—spread geographically and became what they are now.

Pre-Islamic Arabs

Islam as a religion did not appear in Arabia until the seventh century a.d. Until then, Arabs were under the influence of various political, economic, and religious trends.7 Though the period is conventionally referred to by Arab Muslim historians as the “period of ignorance” (Jahiliyyah), this could not at all have meant that Arabs before Islam were ignorant.8 Outstanding poets existed among Arabs during the period; many of them belonged to the Christian tradition. Analysis of their poetry yields evidence of tremendous wisdom literature and sophisticated metering as well as mature art and literary styles.9

Politically speaking, north and south in the peninsula, there were impressive monarchies in pre-Islamic times. The Sabaean kingdom of south Arabia displayed an elaborate civilization in the vicinity of today’s Yemen. These people monopolized the production and distribution of frankincense and myrrh along with trading in other exotic goods for centuries before the rise of Islam. Living in secluded areas, they enjoyed long periods of peace, which helped them concentrate on trading and civic life. According to the historian Diodorus of Sicily (first century b.c.), the kingdom of Sheba in south Arabia surpassed “not only the neighboring Arabs but all other men in wealth and in their several extravagancies besides.”10 The Sabaean rule in the south was replaced by the Himyarite dynasty (115 b.c.) and continued until the early sixth century a.d., when the Ethiopians succeeded in taking control of their land.11 However, the Ethiopian presence in south Arabia did not last long before the Sassanid Persians led a successful conquest aimed at controlling the crucial seaports of the southern part of the peninsula in a.d. 575.12 Jewish presence, whether by conversion or from the diaspora, was significant in central and south Arabia by the sixth century a.d.

With the dawn of the Christian era, the remarkable Nabataean kingdom with its renowned capital of Petra established itself as the primary Arab power in the northern Arabian Desert. The Nabataeans’ rise to political and economic glory started in the fourth century b.c., when they successfully defended themselves against the Greek leader Antigonus the One-Eyed, one of the commanders of Alexander the Great. Diodorus reports how Antigonus launched two attacks against the Nabataeans in 312 b.c.; both campaigns failed to subdue these nomads.13 Having begun as a nomadic power, which replaced the Edomites over Mount Seir (Jer. 49:7–22; Ezek. 25:8–14; Mal. 1:2–5), they managed quickly to dominate major sections of the Arabian Peninsula for over four centuries. The Nabataeans reached the apex of their glory during the days of King Aretas IV (9 b.c.–a.d. 40), when New Testament events took place. The Romans had always had their eyes on the Arabian Peninsula, mostly to control the seaports that linked the south to India, until then monopolized by the Sabaeans.14 The famous Roman expedition against Arabia under the leader Aelius Gallus (24–25 b.c.), which was somehow assisted by the Nabataeans, proved to be a total failure. Consequently, Rome changed its strategy to overcome the commercial monopoly of Arabia. Having replaced the Ptolemies over Egypt, the Romans revived the access to the Red Sea, and hence to Indian resources via the Nile.15 Thus the trade monopoly of south Arabia was broken. This weakened the internal south-north trade system and affected all the states benefiting from south Arabian trade. The Nabataean economy gradually was destabilized as a result of that Roman breach.16 The weakened Nabataean rule ended and their capital fell before the Syrian governor Cornelius Palma and was annexed to Rome in a.d. 106.17 The magnificent city of Petra, lying in today’s country of Jordan, became hidden for many centuries until its discovery by the Swiss explorer John L. Burckhardt on August 22, 1812.18

Other small kingdoms flourished in north Arabia in pre-Islamic Christian times. First among these were the Palmyrenes with their famous caravan city Palmyra to the northeast of Damascus. These Arabs were famous for their beautiful queen Zenobia, who dared to defy the Roman emperor by claiming to be “Queen of the East” and declaring her son Caesar Augustus.19 Eventually, Zenobia’s claim was seriously challenged by Rome, when Emperor Aurelian sacked Palmyra, destroyed the city, and led its queen captive in golden chains to Rome in a.d. 272.20 That the Palmyrenes were Arabs is evident from their Arab names, though, like the Nabataeans, they used Aramaic in their official communications.21 During the Palmyrene period an Arabian leader by the name of Philip, from the city of Shahba south of Damascus, rose to power and became emperor of Rome. “Philip the Arab,” as he was conventionally called, ruled the Roman world from a.d. 244 to 249. There is impressive evidence that this Philip became the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity, preceeding even Constantine, who is widely thought to bear that distinction.22

Finally, two later kingdoms are worth mentioning here: the kingdom of the Ghassånids, which was centered in the neighborhood of Damascus, and the Lakhmid kingdom, which was centered in Hira, southwest of the Euphrates. Both of these were vassal states, the first to Byzantium in the West, and the second to Persia in the East. Both peoples adopted Christianity as a state religion, though the first followed Monophysitism23 and the second adopted Nestorianism.24 The Ghassånids claim to have descended from a south Arabian tribe that converted to Christianity in pre-Islamic times. According to tradition, their ancestral tribe migrated to the north and populated Hauran south of Damascus in the early centuries a.d. Though these kingdoms yielded powerful kings, which were often rivals, both the Ghassånid and the Lakhmid kingdoms were weakened by mistreatments from suzerains Byzantium and Persia. At the eve of Islam, these kingdoms were ready for a shift of loyalty, especially if it came from Arabia.25

Arabia Under Islam

By the end of the sixth century a.d. the conditions in the Arabian Peninsula were discouraging on many levels. Hitti’s summary of the situation is helpful to quote here.

The national life developed in early South Arabia had become utterly disrupted; anarchy prevailed. . . . Vague monotheistic ideas had already appeared and developed into a cult. Christian and Jewish communities were established in Najran, South Arabia. Jewish tribes flourished in Yathrib (later Medina), Hijaz. From Syria and Abyssinia [Ethiopia] came Christian traders to the markets of Mecca. Christian influences had been increasingly felt, although the Christian idea had never caught hold of the Arab imagination. But the stage was set and the time had come for the rise of a great religious and national leader.26

In that atmosphere of social and religious disorder the prophet of Islam appeared. Arab traditions do not present a consensus on the details of his early life. However, it is widely held that about 570, a child was born in the tribe of Quraysh to a family living in Mecca. His father, >Abdullah, passed away before he was born. He became quickly known by the name of Muhammad, meaning “highly praised.” Six years after his birth, his mother died and the child was raised by his grandfather Abd-el-Muttalib, and then by his uncle Abu-Talib.27

During his youth, the boy became involved in the trade business and built a reputation of integrity. Consequently, he was hired by a wealthy widow from Mecca by the name of Khadijah, to accompany her trading caravans. At the age of twenty-five, Muhammad married Khadijah, who was fifteen years his senior. “Her money provided him with the ease and independence needed to investigate and appraise the religious situation in Arabia.”28 Oftentimes, the young man Muhammad retreated to a cave in Mount Hira near Mecca for seclusion, meditation, and prayers. He frequently thought of the lawless and pagan condition of Arabs and compared it to the ordered life of Christians and Jews who each possessed a holy and inspired book.29

It was during one of these secluded times at the hill of Hira, when he was forty years old, that Muhammad encountered, according to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel, who called him to preach.30 This was the beginning of his career as a religious reformer and prophet of Islam (611). Muhammad’s early message was one of calling his people back to the one God (Allah), the God of Abraham, of the Israelites, and of the Christians.31 He preached a message of monotheism, of coming judgment for unbelievers and of reward in paradise for the believers.32 However, his preaching found staunch opposition and very few listening ears in the trade city of Mecca. Converts to Islam were not many there.33

This indifference and rejection of the extravagant people of Mecca prompted Muhammad’s family and a handful of families who converted to Islam to travel to the city of Yathrib (Medina). This event is called in Islam “the migration” (Ar. Hijra) and the year when it happened (622) became the first year of the Muslim calendar (Ar. Hijri). Medina was another caravan city located some 280 miles north of Mecca.34 The city was mentioned in various ancient manuscripts, and at a certain stage of history became predominantly populated by Jews, both native and proselytes. There are reasons to think that the Jewish presence there may go back to the sixth century b.c.35 Medina later attracted many Arabs, who eventually became the dominant power. Of primary importance among these were the rival tribes of al-Aus and al-Khazraj. The influential Jewish presence in the city played a decisive role in the power struggle there.36 According to tradition, it was the Arab people of Medina who invited Muhammad to make their city his headquarters and to mediate among them.37

Muhammad gained many new converts to Islam among the people of Medina. Having started in Mecca as a religious leader and a prophet of Islam, Muhammad rose in Medina to political leadership. He quickly started consolidating the ranks of Muslims and getting rid of his enemies, whether Jews or pagan Arabs. It is in Medina that Islam became both religion and state.38

The year 624 was a decisive one for the followers of Islam. While a trade caravan belonging to the Meccan tribe of Quraysh was returning to Mecca from Syria, Muhammad and his followers attacked it and engaged it in battle at Badr. For the Meccan merchants this was a matter of life and death. They had a primary interest in keeping the trade routes safe, if income was to continue to flow from the northern regions. News of Muhammad’s intent had already reached the Quraysh tribe, which dispatched around 1,000 men to fight the Muslims, who numbered about 300. The victory of Muhammad’s followers in that battle was so overwhelming that it was believed to be a direct vindication from heaven of the new monotheistic religion.39 This battle started a series of other campaigns in which Islam expanded its territories geographically and demographically. In 628 Muhammad signed a peace agreement with the Meccan people, but he soon terminated the agreement and took over the city in 630. At that time Mecca was purified from idols and paganism, thus becoming the spiritual center of Islam.40

On June 8, 632, Muhammad died in Medina as a result of a sudden grave illness.41 By that time, the Muslim state had taken hold of many Arabian tribes, who converted to the new religion whether by conviction or from self-interest. Contracts with Christians and Jews in Arabia were made to protect them under Islam as “people of the book,” belonging to the dhimmi category. The Qur<an with its Meccan and Medinese verses became the holy book of Muslim converts. In summary, Muhammad, at the head of the newly formed Muslim state, managed in a short period of time to make most of the Arabian Peninsula pledge allegiance to him. Muhammad’s influence is summarized by Lewis in this way:

To the pagan peoples of Western Arabia he had brought a new religion which, with its monotheism and its ethical doctrines, stood on an incomparably higher level than the paganism it replaced. . . . But he had done more than that; he had established a community and a well organized and armed state, the power and prestige of which made it a dominant factor in Arabia.42

Muhammad’s death led to the period of the “caliphs,” literally meaning “successors.” However, the prophet of Islam left the scene of history without officially appointing anyone to take over his position as a Muslim leader. Abu Bakr, the prophet’s father-in-law, was proclaimed as the next leader. With Abu Bakr started the institution of the caliphate.43 The first five caliphs were among the closest circle of the prophet Muhammad, the first Meccan converts to Islam. These were Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law), and Mu’awiyah. These caliphs ruled from 632 to 680. The period was characterized by conquest and expansion of the territories of Islam.44 The first regions to fall under Arab Muslims were Syria and Iraq (633–637). Next came Egypt and Persia (639–643). Gradually North Africa fell under Arabian domination too. Thus both Byzantine and Persian realms yielded quickly to the newly rising Arab Muslim power.45

Whereas Ali left Medina and made Kufa in Iraq his capital, the Umayyad, Mu’awiyah, made Damascus the capital of the Muslim caliphate.46 The years 710–714 witnessed an important development, as the Umayyad Arabs invaded Spain in the West and extended their control to the Indus valley in the East.47 Arabs kept a foothold in Spain until the fall of Granada at the hands of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. With the defeat of the caliph Marwan II at the hand of Abbas in 750, the Umayyad caliphate ended and the Abbasid line started ruling over the Arab Empire from Iraq.48

In 762–763 the caliph al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad and established it as the new capital of the caliphate.49 The Abbasid rule stretched from 750 until 1258, when it fell to the deadly blows of the Mongols. During this long and golden period, the Fatimid dynasty (named after Fatima Ali’s wife and Muhammad’s daughter) rose in North Africa and Egypt. Their rule started first in Tunisia and moved later to Egypt, lasting from 909 until 1171. It was the Fatimids who built Cairo and established it as their capital in 969.50

By 1099 the crusaders, who started their march from western Europe, succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. The first Muslim reactions against these crusaders started being felt by the year 1127.51 In 1171, Saladin ended the Fatimid caliphate, conquering Egypt and founding the Ayyubid dynasty in Syria and Egypt. Having succeeded noticeably in his military conquests, Saladin challenged the crusaders and defeated them at Hittin and captured Jerusalem in 1187.52

By the thirteenth century, Muslim Arabs in Spain began to give up territories as Christians succeeded in taking Cordoba back in 1236. Eventually European domination of Spain was restored as Ferdinand captured Granada in 1492. The Mamluk sultanate rose to power in Egypt and Syria between 1250 and 1260. Two centuries later (1453), the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople, defeating the Byzantines, and eventually destroyed the Mamluks in 1517, conquering both Syria and Egypt. After the fall of Iraq to Ottoman power in 1639, the Arab Empire faded away and gradually went into the shadows. Arabs were in some form subject to Ottoman domination until the Turkish Empire terminated at the end of World War I (1918). As a result of this global war, several Arab countries in the Middle East became controlled by the Allied nations under the French and the British mandates. Henceforth, many individual Arab states started struggling for their independence. By the middle of the twentieth century, most Arab states achieved independence, formed the Arab League of States, and eventually joined the United Nations as sovereign countries.53

Jews in the Arab World

To the Twentieth Century

The Arab-Israeli conflict continues to make the news headlines and attract major attention amid the events of the world today. A significant number of people have the impression that the enmity between Arabs and Jews is a pattern deeply rooted in history. However, a closer examination of times past reveals quite a different truth.

As far as biblical history is concerned, the testimony of the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna is very significant. In his commentary on Genesis, he admits clearly what many Christians today are not predisposed to think.

It is noteworthy that the image of Ishmael in the Bible, as distinct from later Jewish literature, is by and large not a negative one. He is not an inveterate enemy of Israel. In fact there seems to have been some intermingling between the tribe of Simeon and the Ishmaelites, for the clans of Mibsam and of Mishma are associated with both, as proved by Genesis 25:13 and 1 Chronicles 4:25. The Ishmaelites do not appear among the victims of David’s raids into the south lands, even though these incursions encroach upon their habitat, as it is clear from 1 Samuel 27:8 and Genesis 25:18. David’s sister married “Jether the Ishmaelite,” according to 1 Chronicles 2:17, and among the administrators of crown property under David were “Obil the Ishmaelite” and “Jaziz the Hagarite,” according to 1 Chronicles 27:30f. (emphasis added)54

This positive view of Ishmael will be explored further and evaluated in the following chapters. Interestingly enough, postbiblical history yields similar conclusions. Unlike the anti-Semitic waves that characterized Europe in the Middle Ages and in recent centuries as well, Arabs were not typically known for their anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jewish race. Conflicting interests may have triggered at some point a few hostilities between Arabs and Jews. However, under Arabs, “Judaism and its adherents,” as Rosenthal expresses it, “had not to endure anything like the sustained, officially sponsored and relentlessly conducted attack of the Christian Church on Jews in Christian lands [i.e., Europe].”55

Under Islam, monotheistic groups like Christians and Jews were not forced to convert to the new religion, but could enjoy protection and religious freedom as dhimmis, that is, people of a covenant or contract.56 In order to secure these rights, people belonging to the dhimmi category were supposed to pay poll taxes (jizya) and land taxes (kharaj). In many instances these taxes were more manageable than the heavier taxation that was previously imposed by the Byzantine and Persian rulers. This, according to Lewis, led a Jewish apocalyptic writer of the early Islamic period to communicate an angelic message of gratitude to God for raising Arab Muslims: “Do not fear, Ben Yõhåi,” the angel said to a rabbinic seer, “the Creator, blessed be He, has only brought the Kingdom of Ishmael in order to save you from this wickedness [i.e., Byzantium] . . . the Holy One, blessed be He, will raise up for them a Prophet according to His will, and conquer the land for them, and they will come and restore it.”57

However, those belonging to the category of dhimmi were considered to be second-class citizens, and as such, had several social restrictions put on them, and they were “forbidden from exercising control over Muslims, although these restrictions were sometimes ignored.”58 Power abuse and religious fanaticism led occasionally to conflicts, massacres, and attacks against the Jews, as well as against other groups of conflicting interests. Yet, despite these incidences, “no [Arab] Islamic ruler,” as Bickerton and Klausner put it, “ever instituted a policy of wholesale expulsion or extermination of the Jews.”59

For long centuries during the Middle Ages, the bulk of the Jews lived and prospered among Arab Muslims, whether in Spain, North Africa, or the Middle East.60 P. Johnson summarizes the reasons for Islamic tolerance of the Jews.

Jewish monotheism was as pure as Islam’s. The Jews had no offensive dogmas. Their laws on diet and cleanliness were in many ways similar. There is, then, very little anti-Jewish polemic in Islamic religious writing. Nor had the Arabs inherited the vast pagan-Greek corpus of anti-Semitism, on which to superimpose their own variety. Finally, Judaism, unlike Christianity, never constituted a political and military threat to Islam, as did the Byzantine East and later the Latin West. For all these reasons the Jews found it easier to live and prosper in Islamic territories.61

They did significantly well in Iraq, where they had a substantial and successful presence in the newly founded city of Baghdad in Abbasid times. They also had a great social and academic life in Kairouan (Tunisia) between the eighth and the eleventh centuries.62 But the most flourishing Jewish settlement during that period was to be found in Spain.63

In Umayyad Spain, the Jews established a substantial presence and well-to-do communities in very many cities. The Jews provided the caliphs with court doctors, astronomers, and great scholars; they had many successful merchants and enjoyed a “gracious, productive and satisfying way of life” that they were not, “perhaps, to find anywhere else until the nineteenth century.”64 Only when Granada fell in 1492 at the hand of Ferdinand and Isabella did the Jews, among other groups, become subject to harsh persecution and ejection, and “many of them sought refuge in North Africa and in Arab Palestine.”65 The bonding that the Jews had with the Arab culture pushed Goietin to conclude, “Never has Judaism encountered such a close and fructuous symbiosis as that with the medieval civilization of Arab Islam.”66

In the Twentieth Century

It was only with the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth that the relationships between Arabs and Jews started to become consistently characterized by tension and conflict. Historically speaking, the mutual relationships between the two groups in the past century have been shaped to a large extent by the rise of Arab nationalism and that of Jewish Zionism.

The Rise of Zionism

The word Zionism was “probably first used by Nathan Birnbaum in an article published in 1886; it has come to be understood to refer to a movement for the reestablishment of a Jewish nation in Palestine.”67 The rise of modern Zionism is often traced back to a specific event commonly known as the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was “a Jewish officer of the French General Staff who in 1894 was convicted of treason and sentenced to a life term on Devil’s Island.”68 A Hungarian-born Jew by the name of Theodore Herzl happened to cover the trial. Herzl believed with many others that Dreyfus was wrongly accused and racially abused. As a matter of fact, after a second trial in 1906, Dreyfus was acquitted and released from prison.69 However, the anti-Jewish wave that the trial generated in France “confirmed in Herzl’s mind the belief that anti-Semitism was an incurable Gentile pathology.”70 The only suggested solution for this chronic discrimination was that the Jews establish their own state. This proposal was outlined by Herzl in his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish state) in 1896.71 Though several thinkers before that date spoke of the Zionist dream, Herzl is still considered the father of political Zionism since only with him did this movement become popular.72

In August 1897, and under the leadership of Herzl, the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, defined the steps toward building the nation of Israel in the land of Palestine. These included a regular sponsorship of settlements there, organizing all of the Jews, and strengthening their national feelings. The congress decided also to seek the consent of all governments able to make the goals of Zionism possible.73

Many Zionists at the beginning advocated Palestine as “a land without people for a people without land.”74 However, there were more realistic voices among them that recognized the intricacies of the situation. Asher Ginsberg, followed by Chaim Weizmann, acknowledged the Arab obstacle in Palestine. Thus Ginsberg in 1891 wrote an essay “attacking the ‘mere’ political Zionism of Herzl,” warning against the neglect of Arab presence.75 According to Ovendale, “in the late 1890s, Arabs warned the Zionist movement that its programme was not feasible. By 1914 there were 650,000 Arabs in Palestine who were already clashing with the Jewish colonists.”76 At the time, the Jewish population did not constitute more than 10 percent of the inhabitants of Palestine, according to the best estimate possible.77 Thus facts on the ground were not as easy as theories pictured them to be.

Arab Nationalism and the Zionist Program

On the verge of the twentieth century, the Middle East was already a center of tension among world powers. Arabs were groaning under the Ottomans and longing for a release from Turkish suzerainty. Engulfed in long-standing insignificance as subjects to the Turks, Arabs were about ready to be resurrected. This resurrection largely owes its beginning to the educational efforts of Christian missionaries. French Catholic and mainly American Protestant missionaries helped a great deal in spreading literacy and reviving the Arabic printed word, which contributed to the increase of knowledge and enlightenment among Arabs.78 The Syrian Protestant College—now the American University of Beirut—founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1866, influenced the Arab revival more “than any other institution.”79 Subsequently, in various places of the Ottoman Empire, secret societies were started that spread the concepts of Arab liberation and called for independence. The nascent Arab national movement had begun, and nationalistic leaders appeared on the scene. The seeds of Arab unity and revolt against the Turks were planted.80

On the other hand, Zionism benefited from the atmosphere of tension over the control of the Middle East to promote its own dream. After failing with the Ottomans, Herzl turned to England, which was eager to see the end of the Turkish domination over the Middle East. The Jewish leader was able to convince the British government that the Zionist aspirations in the land of Palestine would benefit Britain on two terms. First, it would serve well the English imperialist interests in the Middle East; second, it would ease the socioeconomic pressure caused by the growing Jewish migration to Britain.81

By 1914, World War I had started, and with it began the struggle between the Allied countries and their opponents. The Middle East was a crucial part of that struggle. In November 1917, the Zionist efforts in Britain led by Chaim Wizemann were crowned with the famous Balfour Declaration. Accordingly, the British prime minister, Arthur Balfour, promised the Zionists the establishing of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Britain obtained in return the pledge of financial and political support of the Jews, support needed by the British in their war alongside the Allied countries.82

Prior to the Balfour Declaration, the British paved the political ground on two levels. First, they negotiated in 1915–16 the support of the Allies for the Arab revolt against Turkish domination in the famous Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Arabs would agree in return to side with the Allies and give Britain and France temporary control privileges over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Transjordan.83 On a second level, and in May 1916, the French and the British negotiated the partition of Middle East countries between them in what was conventionally called the Sykes-Picot agreement. Accordingly, the British controlled Palestine, the Transjordan, and Iraq.84 In 1922, the League of Nations officially delegated Britain in their mandate over Palestine. The implementing of the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the British mandate. Thus Western imperialism, according to Lesch and Tschirgi, “used the League of Nations to establish a new international order that they designed to fulfill their ambitions.”85

Implementing the Zionist Vision

Over the next twenty years, the nationalistic feelings among Arabs and Jews increased significantly, each of them looking to establish their own nation on the same land.86 Increasing immigration of the Jews into Palestine was faced with growing hostilities from Arab Palestinians in the land. The British mandate over Palestine became gradually objectionable to Arabs. An “Arab Revolt” against the mandate, lasting from April to October 1936, led to a British military deployment in Palestine to appease the situation.87 England’s yielding to Arab pressure angered the Jews as well.88 It was not long before Jewish anger led extremist Zionist groups to wage “a campaign of terrorism against the mandatory administration” in Palestine.89

With the Nazis assuming power in Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler in 1933, Jewish resettlements in Palestine became more urgent. The dreadful Holocaust that the Jews endured at the hand of Hitler sealed the need to find a permanent solution to the Jewish Question.90 However, the Holocaust created in the Jews a complex of powerlessness and engendered among them a “reprisal generation.”91 This generation determined to prove to the rest of the world its ability to defend itself and to protect the Jewish people and their interests. Ironically, the Jews expressed their revenge in an Arab context rather than in a European one.92

In November 1947, a plan for the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews was endorsed by the United Nations. The Arabs rejected the partition plan, insisting on having the whole of Palestine as an independent Arab state. The Jews reluctantly accepted the plan as “the indispensable minimum.”93 The Arab rejection of the proposed partition did not prevent the Jewish leadership six months later from proclaiming the State of Israel (May 1948).94 International recognition of the Israeli state followed quickly. It seemed that the Zionist dream was finally fulfilled and that the Jewish Question was resolved once and forever. Yet that was far from being true. As a matter of fact, bloody clashes in the area have not stopped ever since.

The chronic anti-Semitic problem that the Jews endured over centuries in Europe was being solved but was creating a Palestinian crisis. Geddes informs us that by the beginning of 1949, the number of Christian and Muslim Arab refugees approached 950,000 as reported by the UN Palestine Conciliation Commission.95 These “fled from the battle areas or had been expelled from the newly conquered Israeli territories.”96 Today, hundreds of thousands of them are still living in refugee camps in shocking conditions. Resolving the question of the Jewish diaspora created a Palestinian diaspora alongside. Foreign interests of major Western powers and political mistakes committed by local Arab leaders only complicated the dilemma in the area and contributed toward worsening Arab-Jewish relationships. Practically speaking, Herzl’s political Zionism was wrong in ignoring the Palestinians in the land. Four major wars and endless skirmishes over the past fifty years confirmed Ginsberg’s pragmatic concerns over the neglect of the Arab question. Shipler’s words still ring true. “To draw the boldest outline of the past is to make Israel’s basic case. To sketch the present is to see the Arab’s plight.”97 While the past belongs to former generations, it is the present that our generation is shaping and thus accountable for.

Christians and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Regrettably, today’s world politics may be creating among Arab Palestinians another “reprisal generation.” The rise of suicide bombers is a sign of chronic lack of communication in a world saturated with media. Moreover, Islamic fundamentalism and extremist fanatic groups are unfortunately becoming all the more appealing to oppressed people in the land. Voices of moderation are being silenced on both sides and violence is gaining more ground out of an atmosphere of despair. Anti-Semitism was an ugly phenomenon that engendered many atrocities against the Jews over many centuries in Europe. It desperately needed to be addressed. Today the world may be unconsciously replacing anti-Semitism with a different kind of racial favoritism—anti-Arabism. This only magnifies the problem and establishes a situation that will merely pass on the problems to the next generation. In a New York Times editorial on March 30, 2002, Yossi Beilin, a former member in Barak’s cabinet in Israel, wrote,

The Israeli war against the terrorist infrastructure will give birth to more terrorists because the terrorist infrastructure lies within people’s hearts. It can be uprooted only if there is hope for a different kind of life in the Middle East. (emphasis added)98

Whatever Beilin’s view on terrorism and its origin, he pointed out a crucial fact that recent history supports. The display of force cannot solve the Israeli problem, nor can violence vindicate the Arab cause. Jews as well as Arabs have the right to live in peace wherever they belong. Yet peace cannot coexist with oppression. Christ calls his followers in this world to uphold mercy and justice and be peace-makers (Matt. 5:7–9) rather than endorse controversial politics. It is a primary Christian task to offer hope to various people in the area. Only hope for a different kind of life would make peace possible.

Almost always, a different kind of life starts with a different way of thinking. This book is an attempt to stimulate this change of thinking, starting at a foundational level, that of the biblical text, and extending it to biblical history. Accordingly, it strives to achieve among Bible believers a more accurate understanding of sacred Scriptures related to Arabs. Moreover, it aims at resurfacing the Abrahamic heritage of the Arab people in order to bring them back to their biblical legacy and cause others to view them more fairly. Finally, it focuses on the positive Arab-Israeli relationships in biblical history, which will give us a framework to bring hope for the future of the Middle East.

The Philosophy of Biblical History

Having sketched the Arab-Jewish relationships over the past two millennia, we now need to highlight the framework and philosophy of the discussion ahead. The present work explores in detail the Arab line of Ishmael in biblical history for the sake of drawing principles and establishing facts that will help ease contemporary tensions. Biblical history is the time frame assumed to stand behind the books of the Bible. Old Testament Scriptures will be divided into two main sections. The period starting with the call of Abraham and ending with Solomon’s reign will be considered first. Since biblical history sketches basically the history of ancient Israel, this first period will be labeled, “The Light of Israel.” The period beginning with the division of Israel’s kingdom and ending at the eve of the first coming of Christ will be considered next, and will be referred to as “The Darkness of Israel.” Ancient Arabs will be explored finally during the period of the New Testament, which will be called, “The Light of Christ.”

The “Light” period was characterized by the nation’s ascendancy to glory, which reached its apex in the Solomonic reign. Though there was a moral lapse during the period of the judges, it led to the consolidation of the different tribes and ended in the establishing of the united monarchy under King Saul. The period of “Darkness” started with the divided monarchy and was characterized by Israel’s idolatry. The nation declined until the deportation of the northern kingdom in 722 b.c., followed by the exile of the southern kingdom in 586 b.c. to Babylon. Though a remnant of Israel returned to the land at the decree of the Persian emperor Cyrus (539 b.c.), the Davidic dynasty was never restored until the coming of Christ.

The suggested partition of history is not an arbitrary one, but rather based on the fact that Israel in biblical times was a nation elected for a missionary purpose. It was supposed to bear the light of the Lord to the nations around it and to act as a kingdom mediating between God and the kingdoms of the world (e.g., Exod. 19:6; Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Jonah 1–4; etc.). When this mission was successful, the nation was expected to become a blessing to its neighbors, causing conversions to the Lord among them. On the contrary, when ancient Israel failed to live up to the purpose behind its election it caused further alienation from God among the nations around it. In both cases Ishmaelite Arabs are considered as a study case to prove this cause-effect principle. This partition of Israel’s history allows the scrutiny of the missionary role of the elect nation as it is applicable to the Israelites’ closest theological kin, the Ishmaelites.

In covering the “Light of Christ” period, this book explores the Arabian line of Ishmael within the framework of New Testament Scriptures. Part 4 examines the Arabian origin of the magi involved in the worship of the Messiah-King of the Jews (Matt. 2:1–12). The period of “Light” yields evidence of conversions to the Lord among ancient Arabs. The period of “Darkness,” marked by Israel’s spiritual apostasy, results in spiritual darkness among the line of Ishmael, further alienating them from their Abrahamic heritage.

Establishing a foundation to build upon is necessary for our historical investigation of the line of Ishmael. Part 1 presents an in-depth study of Ishmael in Genesis 16, 17, 21, and Galatians 4:21–31. For centuries, interpretive difficulties involving these biblical passages have indirectly distorted the picture of Ishmael and have adversely affected the image of Arabs among Christians. Dealing with these portions of Scripture upfront clarifies the way to our exploration of biblical history.

By rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), this book attempts to revive the biblical profile of Ishmael. For long centuries, Ishmael has been appropriated and held in esteem by Muslims in general, and Arab Muslims in particular, regardless of their various bloodlines. In response, the Christian church has distanced itself from this biblical figure and espoused to a certain extent a negative attitude toward him. It is time to present Ishmael from a Christian perspective, and to reclaim him as part of biblical legacy. This will help build a bridge for dialogue with those who claim Ishmael as their ancestor. The biblical legacy of Arabs and Jews has the potential to reconcile both antagonistic parties under the Abrahamic umbrella and to offer the hope of the gospel of peace in an area tyrannized by war.


Introduction: Arabs Yesterday and Today

        1.      Susannah Tarbush, ed., The Arab Image in the West: Conversazione [Forum] Held at Oxford 7–9 June 1998 (Amman, Jordan: Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies and Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1998), 8.

        2.      Ibid., 17.

        3.      Ibid.

        4.      See, for example, Alois Musil, Arabia Deserta: A Topographical Itinerary, Oriental Explorations and Studies, no. 2 (New York: American Geographical Society, 1927); James Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934), 37; Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present (London: Macmillan, 1970), 41; Robert Houston Smith, “Arabia,” in ABD, 1:327.

        5.      Fred V. Winnett, “The Arabian Genealogies in the Book of Genesis,” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament: Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May, ed. Harry Thomas Frank and William L. Reed (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 171–96.

        6.      Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.12.4; see also the pseudepigraphal book of Jubilees, in J. H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 2:94.

        7.      Unless otherwise specified, the information on Arab postbiblical history is gleaned from the following sources: P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present (London: MacMillan Education, 1970); idem, The Arabs: A Short History, rev. ed. (South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1970); Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); idem, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (New York: Touchstone, 1997); al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk [History of Nations and Kings] (Beirut: Dår al-Fikr, 1987); John A. Garraty and Peter Gay, eds., The Columbia History of the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1972); J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 1976).

        8.      Hitti, History of the Arabs, 87–108.

        9.      Ibid.

        10.     Diodorus 3.47.5–8.

        11.     Hitti, History of the Arabs, 49–66.

        12.     Lewis, The Arabs in History, 19.

        13.     Diodorus 19.94–100.

        14.     Cf. Lewis, The Middle East, 39–41.

        15.     Cf. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 59–60.

        16.     Ibid.; Lewis, The Arabs in History, 15–31.

        17.     J. Starcky, “Pétra et la Nabatène,” in Dictionnaire de la Bible, supplement VII (Paris: Letouzey & Ané, Éditeurs, 1966), cols. 919–20.

        18.     John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (London: J. Murray, 1822), 418–34.

        19.     Hitti, History of the Arabs, 74–78; Lewis, The Arabs in History, 21–22.

        20.     Hitti, History of the Arabs, 74–78.

        21.     Ibid.; Lewis, The Arabs in History, 21–22.

        22.     For an elaborate defense of the Christianity of “Philip the Arab,” see Irfan Shahîd, Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1984), 65–93.

        23.     Monophysitism is “a movement that emphasized the divine nature of Christ in the Christological dispute of the fifth century.” Everett Ferguson et al., eds., “Monophysitism,” in The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (New York: Garland, 1990), 620.

        24.     Nestorian belief emphasized the two separate natures of Christ. “For Nestorius himself, salvation required that both the human and divine natures of Christ be complete, to guarantee the integrity of the incarnation and to protect the divine Logos from the blasphemous assertion that God could suffer pain or weakness.” Ferguson et al., eds., “Nestorius,” in The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 648.

        25.     Lewis, The Arabs in History, 27–28; also Hitti, History of the Arabs, 78–84.

        26.     Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 25.

        27.     Cf. al-Sayyed Abd el-Aziz Salem, Tårîkh al-Dawlah al->Arabiyyah [History of the Arab Nation] (Beirut: Dar al-Nahdhah al->Arabiyyah, 1986), 309–40.

        28.     Garraty and Gay, The Columbia History of the World, 259.

        29.     Ibid.; Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, 316–20; Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 31.

        30.     al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 2:383–465.

        31.     Allah is the Arabic translation of the term God (Gr. Theos; Heb. Elohim) all throughout the Arabic Bible. The difference is in the nature of God, not his identity among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. For more on this, see Imad Shehadeh, “A Comparison and a Contrast Between the Prologue of John’s Gospel and Qur’ånic Sûrah 5” (Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1990), 77–85. See also the recent book of Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Understanding the Differences Between Christianity and Islam (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).

        32.     Cf. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 32.

        33.     al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 2:383–465.

        34.     See Barbara Ann Kipfer, ed., Encyclopedia of Archaeology (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2000), 342–43.

        35.     C. J. Gadd, “The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus,” Anatolian Studies 8 (1958): 35–92. For more on the different ethnic groups that populated Arabia on the eve of Islam, see F. E. Peters, ed., The Arabs and Arabia on the Eve of Islam, The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, vol. 3, ed. Lawrence I. Conrad (Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1999); also Michael Lecker, Jews and Arabs in Pre- and Early Islamic Arabia, Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS639 (Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1998).

        36.     See also Garraty and Gay, The Columbia History of the World, 260.

        37.     Abd el-Aziz Salem, Tarîkh al-Dawlah al->Arabiyyah, 228–38.

        38.     al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 3:1ff.; Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 35–36.

        39.     Ibid., 3:31–84.

        40.     Ibid., 3:192–336.

        41.     Ibid., 4:3–37.

        42.     Lewis, The Arabs in History, 45.

        43.     al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 4:37–47.

        44.     Ibid., vols. 4–5.

        45.     Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 56–70; see also Lewis, The Middle East, 54–79.

        46.     al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 6:5–76.

        47.     Ibid., 7:334–69.

        48.     For more details on this period, see Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, 80–93; Garraty and Gay, The Columbia History of the World, 265–71.

        49.     al-Tabarî, Tårîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 8:573ff.

        50.     For further details on this period, see Lewis, The Middle East, 75–97.

        51.     Cf. Garratay and Gay, The Columbia History of the World, 269.

        52.     Ibid.

        53.     Events and dates in this paragraph are mostly gleaned from Garraty and Gay, The Columbia History of the World, 269; Lewis, The Middle East, 102–29, 399–405.

        54.     Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis tyvrb (Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 122.

        55.     Erwin Rosenthal, Judaism and Islam (London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961), 130.

        56.     Ian J. Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner, A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991), 18.

        57.     Translated in Bernard Lewis, “An Apocalyptic Vision of Islamic History,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 13, no. 2 (1950): 321; cited in Lewis, The Arabs in History, 57–58.

        58.     Bickerton and Klausner, A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 18.

        59.     Ibid.

        60.     A. Wessels, Arab and Christian? Christians in the Middle East (Kampen: Kok, 1995), 22.

        61.     Paul Johnson, History of the Jews (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 176.

        62.     Ibid.

        63.     Ibid.

        64.     Ibid., 177–78.

        65.     Wessels, Arab and Christian? 22.

        66.     S. D. Goitein, Arabs and Jews: Their Contact Through the Ages (New York: Schocken, 1974), 130.

        67.     Cf. Ritchie Ovendale, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars (London: Longman, 1992), 3. See also, David Vital, The Origins of Zionism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 222–23.

        68.     Bickerton and Klausner, A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 22–23.

        69.     Ibid.

        70.     Ibid.

        71.     Walter Laqueur, ed., The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, updated and expanded ed. (New York: Bantam, 1970), 6–11.

        72.     Ovendale, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars, 8.

        73.     Laqueur, The Israel-Arab Reader, 11–12.

        74.     Bickerton and Klausner, A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 25.

        75.     Ibid. See also Vital, The Origins of Zionism, 187–200.

        76.     Ovendale, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars, 12.

        77.     Ibid., 9.

        78.     Cf. George Antonius, The Arab Awakening (New York, Capricorn, 1965), 35–60.

        79.     Ibid., 43.

        80.     Ibid., 79–125. See also Ovendale, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars, 9–12.

        81.     Ovendale, The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Wars, 6.

        82.     T. G. Fraser, “The Arab-Israeli Conflict,” in Studies in Contemporary History, ed. T. G. Fraser and J. O. Springhall (New York: St. Martin’s, 1995), 8; see also Charles L. Geddes, ed., A Documentary History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Praeger, 1991), 35–38.

        83.     Laqueur, “The Israel-Arab Reader,” 15–17.

        84.     Ibid., 12–15.

        85.     Ann M. Lesch and Dan Tschirgi, Origins and Development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998), 8.

        86.     Ibid.

        87.     Fraser, “The Arab-Israeli Conflict,” 9–14.

        88.     Cf. Geddes, A Documentary History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, xiv.

        89.     Lesch and Tschirgi, Origins and Development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 9.

        90.     Fraser, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, 14–18. For a discussion of the exploitation of