How to Understand Arabs

Muslims are found in hundreds of different ethnic groups around the world. Possibly three-quarters of the world’s Muslims are not from an Arabic background; however, Mohammed’s Arab lifestyle and cultural background have profoundly influenced Islam. Knowing that Islam has such deep roots in Arabia, Christians need to understand that God really loves Arabs.


Arabic biblical heritage is often forgotten by or unknown to many Christians. We may be aware that Ishmael became an Arab prince and the founder of several Arab tribes, but often our knowledge of Arab biblical heritage ends there. The fact is, Ishmael’s name is a revelation concerning God’s person and character, meaning “God hears”. God clearly heard the distress of Hagar when she called out for help in the desert (Gen 16:1-16). He responded by sending His angel to Hagar with a significant message. Also, Ishmael’s name has a divine origin: it was God who designated it, giving the name to the boy as an everlasting testimony to the fact that God pays attention to the weak, the afflicted and those who are unjustly treated.

God made promises to Abraham concerning Ishmael that he would bless him exceedingly (Gen 17:18-27). God’s covenant to bless all the nations did not come through Ishmael but rather through Isaac. However, God did not forget Ishmael. Ishmael’s descendants are participants in God’s promise to bless all the nations (all ethnic groups around the world) through the seed of Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 18:18; 22:18; 24:4; 28:14). This promised blessing was eventually fulfilled in Jesus.

The Bible is a major source of information concerning Arabic genealogies. Arabs are Semites (descendants of Shem) just as much as Jews (Gen 10.21-32). There are at least three types of Middle-Eastern Arabs: the Joktanites, the Ishmaelites and the Keturahites.

The descendants of Joktan

Many Arabs see themselves as descendants of Joktan (Arabs call him Kahtan). One of the famous tribes descending from Joktan was Sheba, whose descendants founded the kingdom of the Sabeans in Yemen – and included the renowned Queen of Sheba (called Bilquis by the Arabs). Her visit to Jerusalem during King Solomon’s reign is an example of how God’s people had an influence on Arabia even in Old Testament times. Solomon writes one of the so-called Messianic Psalms (Ps 72) partly with Sheba in mind (see verses 10 and 15). Jesus speaks positively about the Queen of Sheba (Matt 12:42). Apparently, at least some of the Semitic tribes worshipped the God of Shem even if they did not know Him fully.

The descendants of Ishmael

The descendants of Ishmael seem to have settled predominantly in northern Arabia. Nabajoth (Nebaioth), one of Ishmael’s 12 sons, fathered the tribe which eventually became the head of the Nabatean kingdom, with its famous capital, Petra (in present-day Jordan). Muslims believe that Mohammed was descended from Nabajoth. ( has excellent information about the other sons of Ishmael).

The descendants of Abraham through Keturah

After Sarah’s death Abraham took another wife (or concubine) named Keturah (Gen 25:1-3). Abraham had six other sons through Keturah after the birth of Isaac (Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah). The text does not suggest that Abraham despised his other sons. If we learn anything about Abraham we should know that he loved his sons and greatly desired good things for them. Abraham’s fatherly love for his son Ishmael is clearly expressed in Genesis 17:18. Abraham gave gifts to Keturah’s sons and sent them to live in the East, just as he had done with Ishmael.

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All of Keturah’s sons eventually became the heads of Arab tribes. One of these tribes was Midian. While the Midianites did oppose Israel through the false prophet Balaam, not all Midianites were against the Hebrews. Moses married Zipporah the daughter of Jethro (Exod 2:16-22). Jethro is called the priest of Midian: he recognized the true God and even gave Moses good advice which apparently pleased the Lord (Exod 18). Certainly, the Midianites had some revelation of God through their father Abraham.

The Arabs were involved in gross idolatry for many centuries, but then so too were the Jews – and God gave them scriptures and prophets to bring them back to repentance. Mohammed (570-632 AD) sought to turn the Arabs from their idolatry to worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but he did not have a full revelation of God. His distorted understanding led his people into error, resulting in present-day Islam.

Hope of salvation for Arabs

There are already hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians scattered around the world (for instance, in Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt). Besides the texts already cited, other scriptures give great hope that many more Arabs will eventually be saved. Isaiah 60:1-7 speaks of a time when the glory of the Lord will be manifested:

1 “Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness will cover the earth And deep darkness the peoples; But the Lord will rise upon you And His glory will appear upon you.
3 Nations will come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising.
4 Lift up your eyes round about and see; They all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, And your daughters will be carried in the arms.
5 Then you will see and be radiant, And your heart will thrill and rejoice; Because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, The wealth of the nations will come to you.
6 A multitude of camels will cover you, The young camels of Midian and Ephah [descendants of Abraham through Keturah]; All those from Sheba [descendant of Joktan] will come; They will bring gold and frankincense, And will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.
7 All the flocks of Kedar [descendant of Ishmael] will be gathered together to you, The rams of Nebaioth [descendant of Ishmael] will minister to you; They will go up with acceptance on My altar, And I shall glorify My glorious house.

From Pentecost till Today

We also find encouragement to believe God for the salvation of a multitude of Arabs from the story of Pentecost. God makes a strong statement in the Pentecost account about the Gospel being proclaimed to all ethnic groups. Jesus says that Christians will receive the Holy Spirit and be His witnesses even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8). Later we read that on the day of Pentecost some of those who were filled with the Spirit spoke in Arabic of the mighty deeds of God (see Acts 2:11).

This text makes it obvious that God wants His message to go out to the Arabs. The Gospel was proclaimed in Arabic before it was ever proclaimed in English, French, or Spanish! Arabs can also be blessed with Abraham through Christ.

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