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Exploring Prophet Muhammad’s Hebraic descent

In the West, the discussion on the origins of Prophet Muhammad has been the subject of limited studies.Traditional and contemporary popular beliefs regarding the Arabs and Arabia form the popular perception of Muhammad.

Historical records signify Muhammad’s Hebraic lineal descent tracing back to Ishmael, the son of Patriarch Abraham and his second wife Hagar, as unique and distinct. Examining Qur’anic verses, an intricate and an intimate connection between the Israelites as a chosen people and Muhammad as an exceptionally direct descendent of Ishmael emerges. According to the Biblical account while the Israelites were chosen as a tribe, the Arabs were not, only the lineal descent of Muhammad to Ishmael.

Muhammad is often defined and perceived as an Arab in the most simplistic traditional-contemporary sense. This perception is exemplified by Reuven Firestone’s analysis, in his work An Introduction to Islam for Jews, where he explained that “Arabs existed long before Muslims, but Islam emerged as an Arabian as opposed to Israelite or Greco-Roman-monotheism” and in Islamic Beliefs and Practices, in which Muhammad’s upbringing is described in context of “Arab traditions” and learning “the purest Arabic”.

Yet, from a historical standpoint, the emergence of the Arab as a distinctive and a cohesive identity only took shape after the introduction of Islam. As Peter Webb explained, “the familiar impressions of their origin as pre-Islamic Bedouin astride camels in the desert is one such myth which Muslims created to forget the fact that consciousness of Arab identity only coalesced in the Islamic-era.”

Who is Muhammad?

Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Abdul Muttalib lived in Late Antiquity. He is the prophet and founder of Islam. According to the Islamic faith, the Qur’an as revealed to Muhammad represents the final divine scripture of the Abrahamic Monotheistic religions, following the Gospels of Jesus.

Muhammad was born in, approximately 570 C.E. in the small city of Mecca in the western region of Arabia known as Hejaz. Muhammad had a tough childhood as he was orphaned at age 6. Although he was born into a relatively poor clan, his genealogical lineage as a member of the Quraysh tribe was respected in the Meccan society.

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Mecca

As a young boy, Muhammad was distinctive as he was drawn to explore the divine aspect of existence. He isolated himself and prayed in a mountain cave called Hira. Starting from age 40, he reported encounters with a supernatural entity, the angel Gabriel. His encounter caused him to question his own sanity, at first, but his wife helped him to recognize the encounters as real.

According to religious texts, through Gabriel he received his revelations from God, culminating in what became the Qur’an. While preaching, Muhammad gained followers in Mecca only to be opposed by the city’s polytheist aristocracy. After not much longer than a decade, a new and growing Muslim community fought and defeated their polytheist opponents. Within years, the Islamic faith expanded, sweeping southern regions of the Byzantine empire and all of the Persian Empire with extraordinary speed, ultimately leading to Islam becoming the religion with the second largest following in the world.

Muhammad died in 632 C.E. when Islam still was barely known outside of the Arabian Peninsula, and his biography was written through a range of works known as Seerah and collections of sayings called Hadith.

Self-identity

One of the few sayings of prophet Muhammad regarding his ancestral identity states, according to Sahih Muslim (translated by Ibrahim Omer): “God has chosen Kinanah [an Adnanite tribe] from the seed of Ishmael, and He has chosen Quraysh [Meccan tribe] from Kinanah, and He has chosen the Children of Hashim [one of the clans of Quraysh], and He has chosen me from the Children Hashim.”

Here, Muhammad broadly approached the issue of ancestry, yet he delivers an important message, according to texts; that is, God has chosen him as a prophet through a selective lineal descent. In other words, Kinanah was chosen among his brothers, Asad and al-Hun, to be his ancestor. Al-Nadr was chosen among his brothers Malik, Abd Manat, Milkan, and others. Hence, the lineal descent of Muhammad was precisely chosen from other Ishmaelite lineages in Arabia.

Arabized and native Arabs

Because Muhammad was a descendent of Ishmael, he was considered as part of Arabia’s Arabized non-Arab population. Historical Arab sources classify the inhabitants of the Peninsula into two main categories: the “impure” Arabized descendants of Ishmael (al-‘arab al-musta’ribah), and the “pure” native Arabs (al-‘arab al-‘aribah) who are said to descend from an ancestor named Qahtan. The Arabized population are also commonly identified as Adnanites, from Adnan, one of the descendants of Ishmael. While the Arabized groups occupied primarily northern, western and central regions of the Peninsula, the natives inhabited southern regions. Being the descendants of Ishmael who came from the Levant, the natives considered these people as essentially non-Arab. The 10th century linguist al-Azhari—as quoted by Richard Hitchcock in his book Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain—described the Arabized population as “people not of pure Arabian descent, who have introduced themselves among the Arabs, and speak their language, and imitate their manner of appearance”.

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Arabia

The background and cultural framework in which Muhammad is commonly identified in contemporary accounts is swamped by mythical perceptions about Arabia and the Arabs. Mecca, the origins and birthplace of Muhammad is traditionally depicted as a prosperous pre-Islamic trade center on the crossroad of trade routes between South Arabia and Levant. Of such mythical perceptions of Mecca is Wijdan Ali’s description of the city, in her book The Arab Contribution To Islamic Art, as a “major trading center” and Cyril Glasse who talked about “the prestige of Mecca”, in his popular work The New Encyclopedia of Islam. However, recent research suggests that the city wasn’t as important (e.g. Crone, 2015). Tom Holland, author and historian comments in the PBS documentary The Life of Muhammad:

The Muslim tradition gives us a portrait of Mecca as this great trading city, this great pagan cult center and the problem is that the archeology and the records of the time do not back this up. Mecca, if it existed, was way off any trading routes and we have no mention of it, at all, before the Islamic era.

Furthermore, as Robert Hoyland noted in his book In God’s Path, the popular portrayal of the entire pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula as a cultural block of desert nomads, reinforced by stereotypes such as that portrayed in films such as Lawrence of Arabia, is more myth than reality. Research suggests that the Peninsula was not initially settled by a single group, but by diverse populations, or as Hoyland called them “many other peoples”. Hoyland elaborated: “Because of the varied topography and climate of Arabia these other peoples were often quite distinctive and had distinctive histories.”

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The formation of the “Arab” was a gradual centuries-long historical process. By the first millennium BC, a broad range of cultural and ethnic common grounds may have emerged across expanded regions of the Peninsula. Studies suggest that the development of the Arab in the mainland of the Peninsula evolved partly as the result of contacts with two regional centers of civilization: the Levant to the north-west and South Arabia. This, of course, accords with the traditional genealogic categorization of Arabs as Arabized populations with Levantine ancestry and native-Arabs originating from southern areas.

Unsurprisingly, as C.H.M. Versteegh outlined in his classic work The Arabic Language, the development of the Arabic language can be described as the evolution of older languages from both regions, Northwest Semitic from the Levant and South Semitic from South Arabia. Only after the expansion of Islam did the two regional centers of civilization adopt Arabic as their official language. It was only then that the inhabitants of the Peninsula have come to share common cultural features, ethnic identity, language, and political and economic interests under the umbrella of a religious identity.

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An ancient hand scripted Quran

The Qur’an

Reading the Qur’an, a certain theological concept emerges; that is, the Israelites are chosen and the Arabs are not. Arguably, the Qur’an is as favorable towards the Israelites as the Old Testament of the Bible, firmly identifying them as a chosen people. Some examples from the Qur’an (in Malik’s translation) include:

O’ Children of Israel! Remember the special favor which I bestowed upon You; that I exalted you above all other nations. [2:47]

We gave the Book to the Children of Israel and bestowed on them rulership and Prophethood. We provided them with good thing of life, exalted them above the nations [45:16]

We did deliver the children of Israel from a humiliating chastisement inflicted by Fir’on [Pharaoh] who was the most arrogant among such inordinate transgressors, and We chose them, inspite of knowing their weaknesses above the nations of the world.  [44:30-32]

While the Qur’an firmly identifies the Israelites as chosen “above the nations of the world,” there is no Qur’anic verse identifying the Arabs as chosen. Furthermore, one of the very few Qur’an verses that refers to Arabs is disparaging:

The Arabs of the desert are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy, and are least inclined to acknowledge the limits that Allah has revealed to his Rasool [Messenger]. Allah is All-knowledgeable, All-Wise. [9:97]

In this context, Muhammad is distinguishable from the Arabs through a unique Ishmaelite descent sharing a Hebraic heritage with the Israelites.

Journey to the Temple Mount

One of the most sacred events in the life of Muhammad is the night of the Isra and Miraj, which represents a firm link between Muhammad and the Hebraic-Israelite heritage. The significance of Jerusalem, and particularly the Jerusalem Temple site, where Muhammad ascended to the heavens, is highlighted on this night. Observed in chapter 17 of the Qur’an called al-Isra’, and detailed in other sources, a winged creature called Buraq carried Muhammad from Mecca to “the Farthest Masjid” in what is thought to be Jerusalem. There, Muhammad ascended to different levels of heaven where he ultimately witnessed God. In the course of his journey, he also met prophets, including Jesus, Moses and Abraham.

Although the modern translation of the word “Masjid” is mosque, it simply referred to a sacred place of worship at the time of Muhammad. The location of this “Masjid” is defined in traditions as being in Jerusalem, in the Temple Mount area, in honor of which al-Aqsa mosque was later built. As known, al-Aqsa mosque is built in the area of the Jerusalem Temple, also known as Herod’s Temple, on Temple Mount, the most sacred and historic center for the Israelites and later Jews. As known in Islamic history, Jerusalem has occupied a central importance during the early days of Islam; that is Muslims used to pray towards Jerusalem, before the migration of Muhammad to Medina and the re-orientation of the Muslim prayers towards Mecca.

Genetic studies

Genetic studies on the DNA of Muhammad’s lineage are limited. A recent attempt was carried by Family Tree DNA, a genealogy and genetics testing company that claimed to have isolated genetic markers that could help Muslims determine whether their family tree extends back to the Prophet. FTDNA tested clients who traditionally identified in their native cultures as descendants of Muhammad. Many families across the Arab world, commonly referred to by the title Sharif (Arabic for honorable/noble), claim descent from Muhammad. The company claimed that shared ancestry among these clients may point to the DNA of Muhammad, much like a set of genetic markers have linked Jews from around the world who claim by oral tradition to be Kohanim—descendants of the ancient priestly clan that allegedly originated with Moses’ brother Aaron.

“With these various samples, we were able to identify an overlapping signature in their DNA, a common thread for all of them, which is their genetic lineage from the Prophet, if their oral tradition is accurate,” said Bennett Greenspan, chief executive of FTDNA, which is said to have amassed one of the largest DNA databases in the world.

What the company might find depends on how exact a genetic signature FTDNA has identified.  Shared descent may simply indicate that the clients share an ancestor who claimed descent from Muhammad. Large numbers of people from across the Arab world have historically claimed family ties to the prophet. Sources, such as the writings of Malik ibn Anas who lived in the 8th century, suggest that the tradition —of claiming descent from the family of Muhammad—has started shortly after Muhammad’s death.

Genetic studies are far from reaching any definitive conclusions on this matter at this time. Underlying such an undertaking is the more pointed question: “What of this story is true?” In his book Abraham’s Children, Jon Entine (GLP executive director) questioned long held cultural beliefs about the ancestry of Patriarch Abraham. It is essential that future researches on this subject adopt an objective approach and drop the stereotypes of Arabia and the Arab. Historical-genealogical sources portray Muhammad’s lineal descent as exceptional and divine, selectively chosen from other Ishmaelite lineages of the Peninsula’s Arabized inhabitants. Defined in historical sources as an Ishmaelite of non-Arab origins, the contemporary perception of Muhammed as an Arab is evidently more imaginary than real. In context of theology, Muhammad’s Ishmaelite genealogy positions him within a Hebrew identity context, as opposed to an Arab, and firmly bonds him with the Israelites as a “chosen nation”.

Ibrahim M. Omer is a writer and has worked as an academic in various research projects of the social sciences, spanning culture, history, and linguistics. He has a Master’s degree in 3D Animation with interest in the reconstruction of ancient historical settings. He is also the author of the academic website AncientSudan.org

4 thoughts on “Exploring Prophet Muhammad’s Hebraic descent”

  1. How historically reliable are these early religious texts of Islam (or for that matter other religions)? See e.g. Robert Spencer, “Did Muhammad Exist?” (2014). Personally I don’t think an “angel” actually spoke to the founder of Islam or to the founder of Mormonism, two faiths which have a certain similarity in some respects.

  2. The god of Islam is NOT the One True God of Jews and Christians.

    Islam is wrongly labelled an Abrahamic religion.

    The teachings have nothing to do with the true Abrahamic religions of Jews and Christianity.

    Following is the accurately researched history of Muhammad
    and the false religion he created:

    The boy Muhammad entered into frequent trances, which one
    of his nurses attributed to demon possession. (We should note that
    Muhammad’s mother gave him away to a nurse to raise for the
    first three to four years after he was born.) He suffered repeated
    tragedies as his mother, father, and grandfather died, leaving him
    to be raised by his uncle.

    Muslims believe Muhammad received no formal education
    and that he was illiterate, unable to read or write.
    A wealthy widow named Khadija, who was 15 years his
    senior, arranged for Muhammad to marry her. He worked as his
    wife’s employee traveling throughout the Arabian region. In his
    position as the business manager, he encountered many Jews and
    Christians and learned of their religions and culture.
    Even by the age of 40, Muhammad was still experiencing
    trances. It was during this time he claimed his most powerful
    revelation. In it, he asserted that a being grasped him so tightly
    that he thought he would die. Then the being gave him a forceful
    message, which experience Muhammad attributed to a jinn.

    Subsequently, Muhammad shared the experience he had with his
    wife, and later her cousin, Waraqa. When Waraqa, who belonged
    to a sect of Christianity, grasped some meaning of what he’d been
    told, he said perhaps Muhammad had been visited by a messenger
    of God because this is what happened to Moses who received the
    great law. Therefore, according to Waraqa, Muhammad was to be
    considered the new prophet for this people.

    How was this spiritual experience validated? His middle-aged
    wife gave him a four-part test. She asked him if he saw a being in the room
    and Muhammad answered in the affirmative. His wife then said,
    “Sit on my left thigh. Do you see the being now?” “Yes,” he answered.
    “Sit on my right thigh,” she said. “Do you see the being now?”
    “Yes,” he answered. Then she said, “Sit on my lap. Do you see the figure now.”
    “Yes,” Muhammad answered. At this point, Khadija uncovered herself and said,

    “Do you see the being now?” “No,” answered Muhammad, “it has vanished.” At
    this point, Khadija says, “This must be an angel, because he would
    not look on an uncovered female.”

    On the strength of this “extraordinary” test, Muhammad’s
    revelation was validated. It is astounding to believe that an
    entire worldwide religious movement was founded on this, and
    only this, so-called “evidence.” This “validation” can be considered doubly remarkable
    because, according to Islam, the testimony of a woman is only half
    as valid as that of a man. Therefore, Islam is only validated by the
    testimony of a woman.

    Encouraged by his wife, Muhammad began to share his
    revelation with the inhabitants of Mecca in A.D. 610. He told
    them Allah alone was god and Muhammad was his prophet.
    He met with nothing but disbelief. In addition, the mystery
    surrounding his parentage led to humiliation at the hands of
    his peers. They asked him to perform miracles so they could
    believe in him. However, he was unable to perform the requested
    miracles. They tried to kill him. Muhammad ran for his life toward
    the town of Yathrib (270 miles from Mecca), which name
    he later changed to Medina. This journey has become known as
    The Higira (Hijrah), the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
    When he arrived in Medina, his followers grew in number.
    They were joined by a band of mercenaries. Together, they
    began to raid caravans to finance his operations. He took
    plunder and captives to be used as slaves or for ransom.

    The reign of terror by Muhammad’s troops was not limited
    just to Mecca and Medina, but soon targeted all of the inhabitants
    of Arabia, including Jews and Christians. During one attack on a
    Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayza, Muhammad ordered all the teenage
    boys and men of the tribe killed, simply because Muhammad
    claimed that they broke a treaty between them. His men dug a
    ditch and they chopped off the heads of over 700 males and threw
    their bodies into it. His forces raped the women, and then enslaved
    them along with their children.

    A careful reading of the Quran, when placed against the
    events of Muhammad’s life, indicate that the “revelation” changed
    according to the circumstances of his life. In fact, as has been
    pointed out above, an entire doctrine grew up around the radical
    changes in his teachings—the “Doctrine of Abrogation,” which
    means “annulment.”

    The idea is simply that a newer revelation from Allah can
    cancel and replace an old one. The Quran itself claims that newer
    verses replace the older ones, because the newer ones are better.
    Quran Surah 2:106 says:

    “We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten
    except that we bring forth one better than it or similar to it.
    Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?”

    Source: Arabic Hadith and Sunna and Arabic version of the Quran
    currently used in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

    • ” “it has vanished.” At this point, Khadija says, “This must be an angel, because he would
      not look on an uncovered female.” “, either that or Mo wasn’t looking there any longer, perhaps because she was standing right in front of him.

  3. “the son of Patriarch Abraham and his second wife Hagar”. According to everything I’ve ever read Hagar was the family servant, there was no mention of marriage. This is why the Hebrew lineage follows the second (“miracle”), legitimate son, born within marriage, and not Ishmael.

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