Hagar the Egyptian…Not the Arab
by Gerald A. Honigman
My wife, Elisabeth, amazes me for many reasons.
Not long ago, however, she raised a question that I had thought about before, but this time she truly shoved it onto the front burner of my brain…
We’ll return to this shortly.
During the 19th century, European scholars of the Middle East–German Jews in particular–were prone to paint a picture of a tolerant Muslim world which treated non-Muslims admirably.
While it is true that live Christians and Jews could be a better source of revenue for Muslims via special taxes than dead ones (and forget about non-“Peoples of the Book”–they converted or were killed), and there was no Holocaust per se of Jews under Muslim domination, it is also true that dhimmi populations never knew what the morrow would bring. Massacres, forced conversions, subjugation, and so forth were no strangers in the realm of Islam; a reading of Middle Eastern Jewish scholars such as Albert Memmi and Bat Ye’or is a must on this subject, as is newer work edited and/or authored by Andrew Bostom.
It seems that the whitewash–which still continues–was largely done to contrast an allegedly tolerant Arab/Muslim East–where Jews are commonly known as kilab yahud,“ Jew dogs,” and killers of prophets–to a historically intolerant Christian West, complete with its inquisitions, crusades, blood libels, forced ghettoization, forced conversions, massacres, Holocaust, and branding of the Jew as the deicide/G_d-killing, people.
So, what does this all have to do with Abraham’s wife, Sarah’s servant, Hagar?
Firstly, keep in mind that we know of Abraham, in general, and of this story, in particular, comes via the Hebrew Bible. That is our one and only original source.
We have good corroborative evidence from contemporary, non-Hebraic sources that Asiatic Semitic Habiru /‘Apiru were on the move, causing headaches for Canaanites, Egyptian Pharaohs, and so forth about three and a half to four millennia ago.
We also know that around that time Semitic “Shepherd Kings” (the 15th Dynasty) conquered Egypt…probably kin to the Hebrews. One of the names mentioned in Hyksos records was Yacub…Jacob.
The Biblical story of the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob (later Israel), gaining permission to enter the Nile Valley most likely occurred during this time. And he was the grandson of the original Hebrew patriarch, Abraham.
Yes, you say, but others will claim that Muslims have their own version as well.
True, but, keep the following in mind…
When Muhammad, the Arabian Prophet of Islam, fled Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. (the Hijrah), the mixed population of Jews and pagans welcomed him. Medina had been developed centuries earlier as a thriving date palm oasis by Jews fleeing the Roman assault in Judaea (the banu-Qurayzah and banu-al-Nadir tribes, etc).
Muhammad learned much from the Jews. He listened to their prayers, their Biblical stories, and so forth. And while the actual timing of his decision on the direction of prayer may never be known, during his long sojourn with the Jews of Medina, his followers were instructed to pray towards Jerusalem. Early prominent Arab historians such as Jalaluddin came right out and stated that this was done primarily as an attempt to win support among the influential Jewish tribes (the “People of the Book”) for Muhammad’s religio-politcal claims.
It is from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven on his winged horse. A shrine, the Dome of the Rock, would later be erected on this Jewish holy site after the Arab imperial conquest of the land in the 7th century C.E.
There is no doubt among objective scholars that Jews had an enormous impact on both Muhammad and the religion that he founded.
Hebraic Biblical stories are prominent in the Koran, and the holy sites for Muslims in Jerusalem (i.e. the mosques erected on the Temple Mount of the Jews) are now deemed “holy” precisely because of the critical years Muhammad spent after the Hijrah with the Jews.
The Temple Mount, Biblical stories of Abraham, and such had no prior meaning to pagan Arabs.
While there was some early Christian influence as well, intense scholarship has shown that the Holy Law (Halakha) and Holy Scriptures of the Jews had a tremendous influence on the Koran, Islamic Holy Law (Shari’a), and so forth.
Muhammad’s “Jerusalem connection” was most likely not established until after his extended stay with his Jewish hosts. This was no mere coincidence…Muslim religious beliefs regarding Muhammad’s alleged conversations with the Angel Gabriel, etc,. notwithstanding. And, as with Jerusalem, so with Islam’s subsequent supplanting of the Hebraic son of Abraham, Isaac, with the allegedly “Arab” son of Hagar, Ishmael.
When the Jews refused to recognize Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets, he turned on them with a vengeance. Before long, with the exception of Yemen, there were virtually no Jews left on the Arabian Peninsula. And the direction of prayer was changed away from Jerusalem and towards the Kaaba in Mecca instead.
Okay…Now we’re ready to deal with the notion that Arabs are the Jews’ cousins since they’re allegedly descendants of Abraham’s son with Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Sarah.
Ramses II ruled Egypt in the 13th century B.C.E., after the native Egyptian reconquest of the land from the Semitic Hyksos. No doubt the latters’ allies fell into disfavor at this time as well–as seen in the story in the Biblical Book of Exodus (“a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph,” etc.). In one Egyptian relief, Ramses is depicted holding up the heads of three conquered peoples…a black African (probably Nubian), Asiatic Semite, and another probably East Asiatic type. Ramses looks quite different from all of the conquered types, as do other depicted Egyptians as well.
Now, the Bible states that Ishmael is the son of an Egyptian woman.
While it is true that Semitic culture entered into Egypt (some documents were written in Hieroglyphics in both Egyptian and presumably a Hyksos Semitic language), it’s an extremely far stretch to say that Hagar and Ishmael were thus Arabs.
It seems that just like some Jews wanted to contrast Western Christian and Eastern Muslim treatment of their brethren to make a point a bit earlier, that later–to try to ease the strife between Jewish and Arab nationalisms–others quite possibly (if not probably) stretched the identity of Hagar from Egyptian to Arab as well.
While Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula traveled to Egypt and elsewhere, the bulk of Semites coming into Egypt were not of that origin–regardless of wishful thinking by the espousers of the Winckler-Caetani Theory…which, among others, makes Babylonians, Canaanites, Assyrians, and Hebrews all Arabs as well.
Given that Abraham (son of a Babylonian Chaldean Semite), surfaced in history when he did, coincidental with the Semitic Hyksos conquest of Egypt, Hagar was most likely a native non-Semitic or Semitic Hyksos Egyptian. She was not likely Arab–so neither was Ishmael.
When the Jews made reference to Arabs–in the few places where they did–they were not shy to call them that.
So, for example, Geshem the Arab appears in Nehemiah 2:19 and 6:1-6 as one of the three leaders opposing the Jews rebuilding the Temple after their return from Babylonian exile. If Hagar was an Arab, the Jews would have no reason not to say so.
After the Arab imperial conquest of Egypt and much of the region some twenty -four centuries later, with the spread of Islam via its Arab Prophet, it was beyond convenient for Arabs to write themselves into the original Hebraic story–claiming that Jews and Christians corrupted the original version.
My point is not to argue particular religious beliefs. That’s between people and G_d.
But when important claims are made to usurp those of others, the facts indeed need to be revealed.