What are the pre-Islam interpretations of Ishmael and his descendants as being Arabs?
As always, let us start with what Genesis has to say on this subject:
And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. - Genesis 16:3
And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.
And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram. - Genesis 16:15-16
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. - Genesis 17:19-21
Chapter 25 lists his sons as:
Now these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham's son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's handmaid, bare unto Abraham:
And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam,
And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa,
Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah:
These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns, and by their castles; twelve princes according to their nations.
And these are the years of the life of Ishmael, an hundred and thirty and seven years: and he gave up the ghost and died; and was gathered unto his people.
And they dwelt from Havilah unto Shur, that is before Egypt, as thou goest toward Assyria: and he died in the presence of all his brethren. - Genesis 25:12-18
The idea that Ishmael is the father of the Arabs comes from the Jewish historian Josephus. It was Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the first century CE, who first advanced the idea that Ishmael was the ancestor of the Arabs. In The Antiquities of the Jews Josephus stated that Ishmael was "the founder" of the Arabian nation, and Abraham was "their father".
Now in a little time Abraham had a son by Sarah, as God had foretold him: whom he named Isaac: which signifies laughter. And indeed they so called him, because Sarah laughed when God (35) said that she should bear a son: she not expecting such a thing; as being past the age of child-bearing: for she was ninety years old, and Abraham an hundred, so that this son was born to them both in the last year of each of those decimal numbers. And they circumcised him upon the eighth day. (36) And from that time the Jews continue the custom of circumcising their sons within that number of days. But as for the Arabians, they circumcise after the thirteenth year: because Ismael, the founder of their nation, who was born to Abraham of the concubine, was circumcised at that age; concerning whom I will presently give a particular account, with great exactness.
When the lad was grown up, he married a wife, by birth an Egyptian: from whence the mother was her self derived originally. Of this wife were born to Ishmael twelve sons: Nabaioth, Kedar, Abdeel, Mabsam, Idumas, Masmaos, Massaos, Chodad, Theman, Jetur, Naphesus, Kadmas. These inhabited all the country from Euphrates, to the Red Sea: and called it Nabatene. They are an Arabian nation, and name their tribes from these: both because of their own virtue, and because of the dignity of Abraham their father. Flavius Josephus of the Antiquities of the Jews — Book I Chapter 12
Eusebius in the 4th century, calls the descendants of Ishmael as the ”Saracens”. But it is not fully understood how he came about this term.
For the Christian historians, however, there was a desire to place the Saracen into a biblical frame of reference. Thus, we find a unique development of the term by Eusebius in the 4th century. Eusebius places these Arab tribes into a biblical category, citing their origins from the narratives of Sarai/h and Hagar in Genesis 16:1-6 and 21:1-9.
In the Biblical narrative, Sarai gives her Egyptian handmaid Hagar to Abram in order to produce offspring. But after Hagar conceives a child, Ishmael, Sarai becomes jealous and begins to treat Hagar “harshly”, so much so that Hagar runs away (Gn 16:6). After Sarai, now Sarah, becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac, she sees Ishmael as a potential threat to her own son. Thus, she asks – really demands – that Abraham “cast out this slave woman with her son” (Gn 21:10). Abraham reluctantly agrees and “sent her away” (Gn 21:14). Ishmael then goes on to live in biblical Paran, producing offspring who live “from Havilah to Shur” – that is from the eastern provinces of Egypt across the Syrian Desert to the Euphrates (Gn 25:13-18).
Eusebius, in his work The Chronicle, states that Abraham and Hagar produced Ishmael who was the ancestor of the “Ishmaelites” and that these “Ishmaelites” are the “Saracens” (Shahid 1984:95). Thus, the Saracens are those who have been “sent away” by Sarah. Because we do not have Eusebius’ original, but only a Latin translation by Jerome and a very late Armenian text, we can’t know for certain which Greek words Eusebius utilized.6 John of Damascus, however, in an 8th century Greek work De Haeresibus [On the Heresies] cites Eusebius’ version of the Chronicle. Here John uses Eusebius’ term Saracen (Sahas 1972:132). What is confusing about John’s, and presumably Eusebius’, use of the term is that it is not reflected in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament). Rather, in the LXX of Genesis 21:10, 14 Hagar and Ishmael are and (“cast out”). However, if we take John’s use as accurate, it seems that Eusebius’ use is in reference to “being emptied out” or being “treated with contempt” (Kittel, Friedrich & Bromiley 1964:659-662). Thus, Eusebius conflates the derogatory cultural reference of the Saracens with the biblical narrative.
Eusebius rests his claims on several earlier historical works that becomes the crux of the issue. Here he is undoubtedly utilizing the reference of Josephus from the 1st century. In The Antiquities of the Jews the Jewish- Roman historian writes: “But as for the Arabians, they circumcise after the thirteenth year, because Ishmael, the founder of their nations who was born to Abraham of the concubine, was circumcised at that age.” - “The Arabs” in the ecclesiastical historians of the 4th/5th centuries: Effects on contemporary Christian- Muslim relations
Mark Durie has many biblical insights as to why the descendants of Ishmael, the Ishmaelites, are not Arabs as we know the term.
Ishmael is Not the Father of the Arabs
What does the Bible say? It speaks both of Ishmaelites, the descendants of Ishmael, and of Arabs, but does not join them together. I. Ephʿal has pointed out that the references to Ishmaelites are earlier in the Bible, and the references to Arabs later. Both refer to non-sedentary, nomadic peoples, but they are separated by centuries. Ephʿal concludes that references to "Ishmaelites" cease by the mid 10th century BCE, and the references to "Arabs" only commence in the mid-8th century BCE, so "there is no historical basis to the tradition of associating Ishmaelites with the Arabs".
The Bible does link the Ishmaelites with the Midianites, using these names as synonyms in two places. Genesis describes Joseph as being sold to a caravan of camel-riding Ishmaelites who are also called Midianites (Genesis 37:25–28, 36; 39:1; see also Judges 8:22-24).
In Genesis, the identity of people groups is often traced back to an ancestor, and the group is then named after this ancestor. How do the Ishmaelites fit into this pattern? Genesis associates various descendants and relatives of Abraham with people groups. These include:
Ishmael, ancestor of the Ishmaelites (language unidentifiable).
Midian, ancestor of the Midianites(language unidentifiable).
Isaac, father of Jacob (Israel), ancestor of the Israelites (language family: Canaanite); & father of Esau, ancestor of the Edomites (language family: Canaanite).
Lot's sons (Lot was the son of Abraham's cousin Haran):
Moab, ancestor of Moabites (language family: Canaanite).
Ben-Amm, ancestor of the Ammonites (language family: Canaanite).
Note that the identifiable languages associated with groups descended from Abraham and his nephew Lot are members of a closely related family known in Semitic linguistics as "Canaanite" languages. These were very similar and could have been mutually comprehensible. The Moabite and Ammonite languages, associated with the descendants of Lot through his two sons, are in the same group as Edomite, associated with Esau, and Hebrew, associated with Jacob or Israel. This suggests that the Ishmaelites would have been speakers of a Canaanite dialect as well, like all the other branches of Abraham's family. Although Arabic is related to Canaanite languages, the connection is more distant. Canaanite languages are grouped together with Aramaic and Amorite to form a higher level Semitic subfamily known as Northwest Semitic. Then, further back in time, this grouping in its turn was connected to Arabic in a subfamily known as Central Semitic.
Historical linguists have dated the separation of Arabic from Northwest Semitic around a thousand years earlier than the period when the Canaanite languages diverged from each other. This is not consistent with Ishmael being the father of the Arabs, for Arabic goes back to a much early branch of the Semitic family than the divisions between the the members of Abraham's family.
Over time, Arabic speakers displaced some of earlier Canaanite nations, including the Moabites and the Edomites, who had dwelled around Arabah rift valley and the Dead Sea. The Edomites were pushed to the north, into the southern edge of Judea, which became known known in Greek as Idumea. It seems that the Ishmaelites had been displaced centuries earlier.
There is a moral in this story for the unwary, who might seek to find keys to the present in Genesis. It is this: the dysfunctional travails of Abraham's family are not the place to seek out the spiritual roots of present-day Middle East conflicts.
To answer the question "Is Ishmael (or Abraham) the father of the Arabs", a Muslim might well turn to and be satisfied with Islamic authorities such as the hadith. But a Christian or a Jew might well ask whether they want Josephus to be their master and guide on this point.
The evidence indicates that Ishmael was not the father of the Arabs, and neither was Abraham. The Ishmaelites were probably Canaanites, speaking, not an early form of Arabic, but a dialect similar to Hebrew. In time they disappeared or were absorbed into other groups, like so many other ancient peoples. Much later Josephus invoked Ishmael's name to conjure up a genealogy for the Arabs. He has a lot to answer for. The rest, as they say, is history.