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.
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.
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”.
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.”
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.
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 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